May 29th, 2008

Books!

Well ...

I was amazed to see that 754 people on LibraryThing have this book ... I can only assume that it has become a "standard textbook" or something, as this is not a light or casual read.

This is another of those books that I really don't know how it came into my "to-be-read" pile ... the edition I have is odd in that it (despite a 1991 publication date) doesn't have an ISBN ... plus, it's published by Harvard, which is not one of the "usual suspects" from whom I would have been ordering a lot of books "back in the day".

Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples is an interesting read, but with certain caveats. The author is a professor at Oxford, and appears of be of Arab descent (there is no autobiographical detail aside from thanking his colleagues). He certainly is writing from an "advocate" position regarding Islam and the Arabs, even though in 1991 this precedes much of the unpleasantries that a book discussing this subject would likely have to deal with if written more recently. Frankly, there is a slight feeling of a "whitewash" here ... as the Arabs (and, more generally, Islam) are never presented as the bad guys, as though all the phases of their expansion was simply a natural filling of power vacuums, and not bloody conquest (except for one passing mention, in a section on philosophies dealing with the Caliphate, that "it was generally accepted that power was acquired by the sword").

Of course, there is a disconnect between "Arab" and "Muslim", and this book is specifically about the Arabs, even though this seems to get "smeared out" to cover an area ranging from Spain through the further reaches of the Ottoman Empire (as far north as Romania, as far east as Iran) and as far south as Sudan. Oddly enough (especially as he was writing just after the expulsion of the USSR), there is only one fleeting mention of Afghanistan in the book, and no mention of countries with large Muslim populations in southeast Asia.

While there is much "soul searching" discussed here, all of it is on the level of practicalities of governance, be it in the Caliphate and subsequent empires, of the influence of "Marxist" thought (can Marxist thought be chained to a religion?) in areas such as Egypt. There is no "Protestant" theme even suggested in the history of the Arabs, no questioning that Islam was ultimately the problem, no indication that there was any other than material development in the fifteen centuries covered here.

Interestingly, Hourani outlines that most of the growth of the "Arab world" has been due to the influence of European colonialism ... that before the British, French, Spanish, Italians, etc. began to stake out chunks of the southern and eastern Mediterranean coasts, the natives were subject to periodic plagues which would devastate the population (especially in the cities). It wasn't until the Europeans arrived with scientifically based medical procedures (quarantines, etc.) that these regions began to have substantial populations.

Needless to say, over the past several years, the subject of the Arabs has been one of great popular curiosity, and there weren't many bits that I didn't have at least a general sense of. One key thing, however, that I found fascinating was the subject of Wahhabism ... the fundamentalist form of Islam that inspires the likes of Osama bin Laden. I had somehow assumed that this movement, like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Taliban, had been a relatively recent development, however, it turns out that this was started in the mid-1700s by a religious fanatic who affiliated with the ruler of a small market town in Arabia, and created the House of Sa'ud.

Ultimately, A History of the Arab Peoples is a rather depressing book, as there is very little here to give one hope that the Arabs, or, by extension, Islam, is likely to budge from a xenophobic violent medieval mind-set any time soon.

Again, I assume that this is as widely-held as it is due to being a text book. If it's a subject that interests you, copies can be had used for as little as four bucks ... but I suspect the second edition (published in 2003) would have more revealing things to say (if the author deigns to admit that there could be some "issues" the rest of the world might have with "the Arab Peoples").


Visit the BTRIPP home page!