A History of the Arab People by Albert Hourani

516g5ljckpl-_sx316_bo1204203200_One thing I did learn from Edward Said’s Orientalism is to be suspicious of any writer who is an expert in a particular subsection of a field and writes a general overview of that topic – particularly when it ends up in modern day politics (the expert on a niche field may not be such an expert when it comes to other topics).  Hourani was a self-labelled Orientalist who mostly wrote on the Middle East in the 19th century, but here offers a general history of the Arabic world from its origins to the modern day (or 1991, when he wrote it, although my version comes with an epilogue by Malise Ruthven taking it to 2012).  From both Chris Wickham and Karl Popper I had it drummed into me recently to distrust histories that follow a particular theory of progression or teleology.  Hourani presents the world through the lens of Ibn Khaldun’s theory of Asabiyyah, a certain sort of solidarity that can explain the rise (and fall) of empires and dynasties.  So this book could ring alarm bells.

Both these criticisms do apply, but thankfully neither are as bad as might be feared.  Despite some non-specific referencing, Hourani avoids grand sweeping statements and tackles some very dry topics in a readable way.  Between social, political, legal, literary, and philosophical sections, it’s a very wide ranging book.  Hourani clearly enjoyed the literary and intellectual side of Islamic culture, and he neglects some of the more military and biographical directions that might have dominated in other books.  He gives a sense of the changes for normal people in urban and rural societies, but only really gives a broad overview of the political and military narrative.

The definition of Arab Peoples is happily flexible – essentially working with groups that speak Arabic, so that Turkey and Persia are largely outside the scope while Sudan, for example, edges in.  Within the empires – the Ottomans and the Caliphate – we focus on the areas settled and dominated by Arab culture along with a general history of the leadership (as far as necessary).  Hourani does still look at the experience of minorities (Jews, Christians etc.) in these regions.

As the book goes on the thesis of Asabiyyah seems to fall by the way side, especially as we come to the modern Arab states, but he brings it back by the end by bringing to mind the interest groups, sectarianism and dynasties that dominate these states.  In this sense the suggestion that these states would eventually fall too seems prescient, but I’m not sure it’s a particularly daring prediction.  However, the book does seem to be an unbiased, (very) knowledgeable and sympathetic history of how the Middle East and Islam got to where it is today; and if you have the time to wade through it, it is worthwhile.


The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham

61blm-ko2bzl-_sx325_bo1204203200_There’s sometimes a bit of a paradox as you look closer and closer into an event or period in history.  The end of the Roman empire can a great example of this – classically it was thought that the empire (and indeed civilization) came to a crashing halt under waves of barbarian invasions, but as historians have looked more closely at the years, decades and even centuries after they see all sorts of continuity.  Often the same type of people were running things, often using the same methods.  People living through these world changing events may not have realized they were quite so defining.  Yet living standards did fall, economically things declined, the quality of items found by archaeologists drops.  How do you trace a middle path that can account for both sides of the argument?

For Chris Wickham, you do it very carefully.  In this book Wickham tries to summarize european history between 400 and 1000 A.D. (including the Byzantines and Islam) while constantly stressing that there is no overarching story or end point.  At times this begs the question, why put it all together in one book?  But Wickham does piece together certain themes throughout the book – the influence of Rome on these successor states and how they continued or broke away from the old ways of doing things.

Despite all the ambiguity, Wickham seems authoritative (on Latin Christendom at least).  The range of anecdotes, analysis and information is breathtaking; and where there is nothing to go on, Wickham is explaining that as well.  The painstakingly precise style means that it isn’t always an easy read, but it does feel worthwhile.  It may help that my podcast listening had recently taken me to Patrick Wyman‘s podcasts, and he stresses very similar continuities.

Perversely, the sheer scale and depth of the book actually helps.  A look into the political procedures of one kingdom might be dry and difficult to follow; but repeated over multiple kingdoms, regions and cultures it starts to become understandable.  This comparison seems to justify Wickham’s scope for the book:  Why include Islamic empires?  Why even include outlying regions of Europe like Ireland or Scandinavia?  Because these shine light on the successor kingdoms to Rome that could otherwise be the focus of a more conventional book.

Blood and Faith by Matthew Carr

610iwml7ual-_sx323_bo1204203200_Subtitled The Purging of Muslim Spain, journalist Matthew Carr tackles a grim subject with sympathy and subtlety.  Spain under Muslim rule is legendary for its toleration of Jews and Christians – La Convivencia.  Toleration may not be the whole story (particularly in later centuries under the Almohads and Almoravids), but after the fall of Granada in 1492 things would get a whole lot worse.  While after previous reconquests an uneasy continuation had occurred, this time the Most Catholic monarchs of Spain had something to prove.  How could Spain be a leading Christian country if so much of its population wasn’t?

First the Jews were expelled or converted, then province by province it was the turn of the moors.  Over a few decades, first Granada, then Castile, Navarre, and finally Aragon ordered the forced conversion of the population.  What then?  Can you trust a forced conversion?  The Spanish aristocracy did not, and the Moriscos (as they were known) were constantly under suspicion of being fake Christians.  Some argued for education, for integration (and Carr describes successful cases), and patience; some even argued for allowing religion tolerance; but ultimately the hard line approach won out, fuelled by revolt and a fear of collusion with Barbary pirates.

In the early 17th century the moriscos, rich or poor, fake or real Christian, were ordered out of the country.  Three hundred thousand of them, 4% of the Spanish population, were expelled.  Some found their way back eventually (having no real connection to Islamic North Africa).  Others did settle in Africa, but it was not an easy journey – with food and money quickly running out and bandits waiting at both ends to take what they could get.  The book is often quite dry, I find Spanish history to sometimes be written in a very top heavy way – with only great aristocrats, generals and priests making it – but the descriptions of Morisco life are vibrant enough to make the reaction against it seem as extreme as it was.

As Carr tells it, at one extreme it brings to mind more recent atrocities – the treatment of the Jews in the 30’s, the Armenians.  But in some ways it’s hard to see how our treatment of so called “stateless” people improved over the coming centuries.  In a chapter called “A Warning From History” Carr ends by describing how many people (even in the mainstream – Melanie Philips is picked up on) argue that Muslims cannot integrate into western society, will never belong to the countries they live in, and even describe such an “agreeable” deportation.  The book is from 2010, but it’s difficult to see how it has become less relevant in that time.

Post 64: Science & Islam: Medicine

There has been a bit of a gap in posts, but I had been doing a series of post inspired by Ethan Masood‘s book Science & Islam. I’m coming towards the final topics now, but certainly not to the least of them. Medicine could perhaps be picked out as one of the greatest achievements of Islamic science. While some parts of science could come into conflict with religion, the treatment of the sick had a pretty easy start in the Islamic world – Muhammad himself said to make use of the best methods out there. This was seized on with some enthusiasm and, while it was far from the first culture to have hospitals and charitable institutions, advanced hospitals were common.

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Post 56: Science & Islam: Chemistry

As with most Islamic scholarship, the roots of the subject came from ancient Greece. Even the terms Chemisty and Alchemy are derived from ancient greek terms. At this early stage of Chemistry, there is still a huge mixture between what would correspond to real science (Chemistry) and what would correspond to utter nonsense (Alchemy) – similar to Astronomy and Astrology but possibly harder to discern. Despite the subject not yet being fully refined, there was still the beginnings of skepticism and a more structured scientific method. In practical terms there were great developments in equipment and results – particularly in the field of medicine.  To include the huge amount of discoveries, I would basically have to write a list of names and dates.  Therefore for the sake of readability I’m going to focus on just a few of the big names.

Geber and Pseudo-Geber

The source of much of this is Jabir Ibn Hayyan, otherwise known as Geber, a scholar from Persia in the 8th century. His name was so bound up with the subject of chemistry that there is even a so-called “Pseudo-Geber” who put out his own work under the name of the earlier scholar as “translations”. This, and the usual mysteriousness associated with the profession of Alchemy, can make it difficult to pin down the genuine works of Geber. Regardless of this, both Geber and Psuedo-Geber did much for the science.

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Post 54: Tom Holland vs The History of Byzantium

Book CoverAs you may have noticed from this blog, I listen to a decent amount of podcasts. One of my favourites is Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium. I was pleased to find that they recently had on a special guest, one of my favourite history writers, Tom Holland. As the podcast had reached a handy stopping point just after Islam had exploded onto the world stage, it was a perfect chance to begin trying to shed some light on the origins and early stages of the religion and the arab invasion. The author of a recent book on the subject aimed at a popular audience, Holland was an ideal choice to start things off.

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Post 48: Science & Islam: Astronomy

Book CoverA few weeks ago I posted a review of the book Science & Islam by Ethan Masood, a tie in with a BBC series from about five years ago. I felt that the book was a bit of a let down, but loved the topic and wanted to read more on it. As a follow up I then wrote a post giving a bit more detail on the Islamic contributions to Mathematics. I wouldn’t pretend that I’m a better writer than Masood, but I wanted to focus a bit more on some of the techniques and details of the work than he did. I do have a scientific background, but I don’t want to make this into a science blog so I’m attempted to strike a bit of an awkward line between the history and the science. With that introduction/disclaimer out of the way – here’s a short summary of the Islamic world’s contribution to Astronomy.

Looking at it now, Mathematics may be the headline grabbing topic for the Islamic golden age but Astronomy (and its unfortunate and misguided relative Astrology) were at least as important. Not only did they provide the motivation for a lot of the work in mathematics and physics, but they also did a lot of very underrated work in moving the topic forward from its ancient roots towards the early heliocentric model of Copernicus. Islamic scholars invented technologies like the astrolabe, published tables of data that later scientists would draw on, and worked out a lot of the mathematical difficulties for the later models. Unfortunately, the political and educational system in the Islamic world meant that they weren’t fully able to capitalize on this; the wonderful observatories were only ever short term institutions and the whole thing stagnated around the turn of the sixteenth century.

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Post 44: Science & Islam: Mathematics

Most people will probably know that the mathematicians of the Islamic world have played a big part in mathematics as we know it – terms like “algebra” and “algorithm” is a bit of a give away, and the invention of zero is a common bit of trivia. Not as many people may be familiar with the characters and setting behind these inventions or the full extent of their mathematical achievements. These weren’t just abstract creations either, they often had practical uses for both everyday life and for other academic arts. This post is a bit of a deviation from a book (Science & Islam by Ethan Masood) I reviewed in a recent post – I’ve given a bit of a general run through of the general history there if you want to check it out (please do, views are always nice to have), but I’ve tried to keep this post relatively self contained.


Why did they study mathematics? Well, much like anyone else it was a mixture of the practical and the academic. Some of these scientists and philosophers would investigate more and more complicated work for its own sake, but there were also more down to earth reasons. Al-Khwarizmi’s work on algebra was explained as a way to speed up the complicated process of Islamic inheritance, and work on trigonometry was needed for new techniques in navigation and astronomy (okay, maybe that last one is a bit less down to earth). The work was, as with more scientific work, generally funded by a patron or ruler.

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Post 42: Science & Islam

I recently read Science & Islam by Ehsan Masood, designed to accompany a BBC television series, and decided to put out a post on it. To spoil things up front, I found the book disappointing but the topic fascinating so I began writing a huge essay on it. So huge in fact that I’ve decided to split it into a number of posts. This first one will give a general history and my thoughts on the book itself, and it should be followed by a post or two on the science behind all this (something that I think the book struggled to deal with as much as I would have liked).

The Rise of Islam

When the Arab armies came storming out of the desert into the tired Byzantine and Persian Empires, their initially success was astounding. They soon found themselves in control of a vast empire containing a mix of religions and peoples in which arabs and Islam were a minority. This shift from military expansion to administration provided a set of challenges for the Caliphate to deal with – providing food for the population, minting coins, providing a central administration and building new cities and buildings. This began a boom in science and technology that would last for centuries, but it did not start from scratch – those christians, jews and zoroastrians that had populated the land before would lend their talents to this and techniques would be brought in and translated from outside the reaches of the empire. The universal adoption of the arabic language helped this process, providing easy communication between scholars from distant lands.

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