Saturday, April 18, 2015

History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Book Review #31 of 2015)

A History of the Arab Peoples
Albert Hourani - A History of the Arab Peoples, 1992 edition

This book is a mile-high overview of the history of Arab peoples from Mohammed to 1991. I imagine it is standard textbook in an Arab Culture or Middle Eastern studies curriculum. In certain eras, Hourani has little historic and archaeological information to go on but does his best to present what we know. He does not have the space to delve into the details of any particular events, personalities, or tribal distinctions. I would have liked for him to elaborate on the linguistic differences across Arab lands, but instead he closes the book with a look at the modern political languages of Arabs: nationalism, social justice, and Islam. He also is able to give little detail when he reports particular events, such as when a leader was assassinated, and why that event was important and what exactly the context was. If you're interested in a particular region or country, check out more specific books. Histories written with narratives and anecdotes of the time are easier to read, but may contain less information. This book contains nothing of the sort and is all information.

I learned much about Arab peoples and their history, the interaction with Turkish history via the Ottoman age, and a little about how modern borders were formed, although much of explanation of development of modern states is too detailed for this book.

Part I: (Seventh-Tenth Century)
pre-800 A.D. Muslims had copied/studied almost the entirety of know Greek texts, preserving them to be translated back into Latin in the Middle Ages. Arabs also developed on the science and mathematics found in the texts, publishing their own works.

Hourani explains how tradition on Mohammed differs, his sayings were compiled first during the reign of his third successor. There is much debate about his life and the authenticity of what is recorded. Hourani returns to Koranic interpretation throughout the book, explaining how the various schools of religious and philosophical thought developed. He looks at Persian Shiite beliefs as well, the Mahdi belief arose very early. Abbasids vs Shiites, etc. Mystical experiences and writings versus more strict traditions, etc.

Despite Mohammed's wishes, it appears monasticism in Christianity was influential on Muslim scholars, and some issues of Islamic doctrine mirror debates in the monophysite Christian churches as well. Paternalism was present well before Islam (and Judaism) in the Middle Eastern native cultures.

Part II: Arab Muslim Societies (11th-15th centuries)
Hourani looks at the spread of Islam and the interaction of Arabs, Persians, and Turks. There is a look at cities, Hourani notes that Cairo and Baghdad were likely metropolises of 250,000 before the plague. The Mamluk's controlled the land from Mecca to Cairo and ruled via vassals. Mamluk government differed from that of the Seljuk's in Anatolia. He describes the common architecture found in cities, houses, palaces, as well as the importance of Arabic writing in artwork. Wine seems to have been widely consumed despite prohibition. The Arabian Nights and other tales probably originated from other cultures and were translated into Arabic, the earliest roots seem to come from the 10th century.Schools of theology and laws became important. Islamic scholars were expected to travel around learning from various teachers to get a wide range of views. I found his discussion of "ishtihad," or "independent reasoning" in Sunni law as interesting. Only a "mujtahid" is qualified to exercise "ijtihad" in evaluating Islamic law. The Koran and Hadith were not sufficient, knowledge of history and reason were also required. (This is something ISIS apparently rejects, it is a pre-11th century version of Islam).


Part III: Ottoman Age (16th-18th centuries)
While the Ottomans are Turks, they ruled over the Arab people and set the stage for the modern struggles of Arab independence movements. I enjoyed the lengthy look at Ottoman government and culture. The Ottomans were innovative in that they codified their laws, including the Sharia aspects (just as Justinian had done with Roman law during the Byzantine Age, not mentioned by the author). We forget that besides the Crimean War of 1853-1856, there was the previous Russian-Ottoman conflict of 1768-1774 in which the Russians annexed Crimea. This has implications for events of today.

Hourani does a good job looking at reform attempts within the aging Ottoman empire and how that later affected Arab independence movements. Turkey also dominates much of Part IV. Hourani does look at Jewish relations with Arab Muslims over the centuries as well.

Part IV: The Age of European Empires (1800-1939)
As Europe grew stronger and the Ottomans grew weaker, Europe made its presence felt in North Africa and the Middle East. French colonization of Algeria is examined. U.S. aid money for Lebanese survivors of a civil war in 1860 was one of the first examples of a coordinated international aid effort. The U.S. later set up schools in the area, as well as France and other powers. Germany was of large assistance to Turkey and the British took more interest in Middle Eastern oil.
The first Western interest in Middle Eastern philosophy and history came in the early 1900s. Hourani mentions the 1908 Arab revolts and widespread killings of Armenians without the dreaded "g-word." 

I learned a bit about the development of Salafism in the 20th century and the roots of Arab nationalism in Syria. He of course looks at T.E. Lawrence and WWI but remarks that the fabled Arab Revolt is of debatable value in the war. The division to modern borders is really only glossed over in Part IV and Part V.

Part V: The Age of Nation-States (since 1939)
As linguistic study and literacy increased in the 20th century, so did Arab/Islamic philosophy and poetry. Hourani makes remarks on several poets who choose to publish works in the colloquial Arabic. Economic growth happened post WWII, but stagnated as countries like Egypt tilted toward Socialism and became reliant on either the West or the USSR for aid and military support. Arabic socialism as promoted by Nasser had little appeal to Islam but rather to nationalism and anti-colonialism.

Hourani describes some of the political intrigue of the 1950s-1970s, with coups and assisinations. Rivalries and wars with Israel, etc. He gives an overview of how Arabs favor strong central governments, partly as a reaction to western colonialism, and partly in order to unite and subdue several competing factions within arbitrary borders (think Iraq). He also describes the evolution of the role of women both in economics and in politics. The rise of the Muslim brotherhood is described as one of several attempts to interpret Islam and its idea of social justice into modern contexts. The competition with Wahabist and Sufi schools of thought, critical today as Sunni Arabs are now at war with one another in Syria. Hourani makes no predictions about the future but clearly does not forsee current developments. The book was written before the Gulf War of 1991, so it is dated (while a later version adds an afterword with updates). 

I learned a lot about the Arab peoples and have a greater appreciation for the cultural history. I'm giving it 4.5 stars out of 5. I partly wish the author had broken it down into five larger volumes with more detail, but am glad for this large overview. 

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