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.