Book Review

A History of the Arab Peoples

Albert Hourani
Belknap Press, 1991, 551 pp.


History consists of facts, names, dates, places, events, inventions, language, and culture, woven into a fabric of cause and effect. Ideally, if a historian is to maintain credibility as an objective source of knowledge, history should merge with anthropology (that is, the old style of scientific anthropology), with each fact documented with evidence, and personal opinions, biases, and value judgments rigorously excluded.

Unfortunately, historians often instead find themselves arguing about the relative importance of one region vs. another, whether certain individuals should be glorified or reviled, or whether some particular cause was justified, to such an extent that their conclusions and selection of facts are influenced by the need to promote their point of view. A typical example is the continuing dispute, some 140 years after the fact, about the causes of the American Civil War. This issue has become so embroiled in disputes inspired by members of the political correctness movement, inaccurate textbooks and critics thereof, proponents of regional pride, as well as pro- and anti-American advocates from abroad, that the credibility and objectivity of Civil War historians and commentators has been damaged and the actual role of slavery and abolitionist opinion in starting the Civil War may never be known with any certainty.

This situation is not confined to American history. In the dreadful book Rethinking World History, Marshall Hodgson tried to argue that history told by European historians is Eurocentric, and that it should include more Islamic and Asian history. Whether or not this is true, such a change would not be easy. Unlike the wide selection of adequate history books on European, American, and Asian history, there are relatively few authoritative books on Arabic history. Many of these tend to concentrate on social history rather than political, military, and technological changes, and contribute little to the readers' understanding of Middle Eastern history. A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani is a typical example of this genre.

The book starts with a description of Muhammad, undoubtedly the most important historical figure in Islamic history, who was born around AD 570 in Mecca. However, there is almost no description of his life or philosophical background, and only the sketchiest of descriptions of the principles and beliefs espoused in the Quran and by Muhammad's followers. Even his reason for traveling to Medina (known as the hijra) is not made entirely clear.

Instead, the book presents a mass of vague generalizations, concentrating mostly on the life-style and culture of ordinary people, presented without evidence or historical facts, dates, or actual events that might convince the reader that the generalizations are accurate or important. For example, we are told that

By the end of the seventeenth century janissaries were pursuing crafts and trades, and membership of the corps became a kind of property, conferring a right to privileges and pensions, which could be handed on to sons, or be bought by members of the civil population. The alliance of interests could at times express itself in violent movements, with the coffee houses serving as the point where talk exploded in action.
Here is another example:
Beyond the frontiers of the empire, in the Arabian peninsula, the impact of European power was scarcely felt. In central Arabia, the Wahhabi state was destroyed for a time by the expansion of Egyptian power, but soon revived, on a smaller scale; in Oman the ruling family which had established itself in Masqat was able to extend its rule to Zanzibar and the east African coast.
This would make a great introductory paragraph, but unfortunately, no specific details follow. This style of vague generalizations is followed throughout this book.

Contrast this with the following passage from Asia: A History, edited by Guy Wint (Praeger Press, 1966), which contains dates, names, and specific events:

The Resolutions of August 1948 and January 1949 still remain the basic terms of reference for the Security Council's attempts to settle the Kashmir problem; but its deliberations have been increasingly divorced from the rapidly changing situation in the area. Garham's fifth report, submitted in March 1953, was not considered by the council until 1957, when it requested Gunnar Jarring, the Swedish delegate, to settle Indo-Pakistan differences. Like his predecessors, he too failed in his mission.

Although Hourani is clearly extremely knowledgeable on the subject, his book A History of the Arab Peoples consists mostly of generalizations and broad, often vague, summarizing statements. There is almost no mention of the Arabs' significant contributions to early chemistry and astronomy, and no analysis of the reasons for the enthusiastic adoption of Islam by the Arabs. The author also fails to convince the reader that he has a sufficiently detached and objective viewpoint toward his subject matter. This, along with the lack of detail and analysis, hampers the book's credibility as an accurate historical work, and makes reading the book frustrating to anyone interested in understanding Arabic history and the roots of their current-day situation.

A much better book is A History of Islamic Societies by Ira M. Lapidus (Cambridge University Press, 1988). This 1002-page tome can give the reader a feeling of information overload but is (for the most part) highly readable and interesting.

Here is a sample paragraph from A History of Islamic Societies:

The internal decline of the Fatimid Caliphate accentuated the contradiction between its revolutionary pretensions and the actualities of its Egyptian political base. The decline of Caliphal authority led to schisms as the missionary, messianic, eschatological, and politically radical branches of the Isma`ili movement split off. Isma`ilis again divided over the historic identity of the true imam. In the Lebanon was founded the Druze sect which believed that the Caliph al-Hakim (d.1021) was the last imam and was indeed God himself. At the death of the Caliph al-Mustansir in 1036, his son al-Musta`li succeeded him, but the missionary movement in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran, cut off from the Fatimids in Egypt, broke with the parent regime, recognized al-Mustansir's son Nizar as the true imam, and founded a new branch of Isma`ilism. The Nizari Isma`ilis later came to be known as the Assassins. They would carry on the Isma`ili challenge to Sunni Islam.

(July 22, 2001) Back