Book Review: “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani

Every time I go to the second-hand book store, I always go to the history section and look to see what books on Arab history they have available. As I’ve said before, good histories of the Arab world and Islam tend to fall into an academic niche with academic price tags, so I always hope to find a discounted copy. That’s been very rare…actually basically null. What I usually find are modern East-vs-West think pieces, in which I’m not interested. The one book that is always available, however, is Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, and it was one of the first books that I bought when I started learning Arabic.

My review in short: A great book for newcomers to this culture and history, but only if they plan to continue on.

The Author

This is a book wherein I think it is interesting to know the author first. After all, this is not a book with a tight thesis or narrow scope, this is A History of the Arab Peoples. It’s title is general and sweeping, and that also reflects the character of its content. This is going to lead to lots of generalizations, since the data involved is too great for one book to contain, and it is in such data-deficient generalizations that biases get to present themselves uncritically. Since “The West” has such fraught history and relations with “The Middle East,” there are lots of biases to beware of. The big evil is “Orientalism,” in which the Middle East gets portrayed as vulgar, superstitious, lascivious, brutal, and corrupt –thus justifying the need for The West to intercede and spread civilization through colonization. This isn’t just some bigotism of the masses, but actually a chronic ill in Western intellectual schools too, calcified and communicated in our popular and fine arts. And of course, there is a counter-response that seeks to pose the opposite and assert an idealized view of a civilized Islamic world that was disrupted by Western barbarity. BUT, you’re reading this in English, which means you’re likely from a culture that’s either Western or influenced by colonialism, so likely the perspective with the most platform in your culture is the Orientalist one. And this book is written in English, so what perspective might you suspect it to embody? When you read the author’s name, with it’s British “Albert” and Arab “Hourani,” which tendencies do you expect him to trend towards?

Take a read of Albert Hourani‘s profile on Wikipedia and his obituary in The Independent, and you can see he has an interesting intersection of identities and experiences to bring to the table. He was a mix of Brit and “foreigner,” putting him in the way of both opportunity and discrimination throughout his life. His family was proudly Arab, but also from a non-Muslim minority group, but also from a privileged minority group (Lebanese Christians had many benefits under French colonial rule, as Hourani explains in his book). He specialized in intellectual fields and served in political discourse, and between himself and his brother had direct witness to important political events in the Arab world in the 20th century. By no means does having the perspective of a minority and an eclectic background guarantee that an author will have a fair and impartial view of his subject. A danger of the “minority view” is that it can be designed to win the favor of a majority, and thus be guilty of pandering to tropes even if they are somewhat self-undermining. However, Hourani’s blend of being a simultaneous insider and outsider to both worlds, along with his privileged education and intellectualism, make him perhaps as good a “third party” as we could hope for on the topic.


Consider the challenge of writing a history book of this scope. At what point do you start your history? Which peoples do you include in it? What topics would you give priority? The Arab ethnicity is extremely ancient, after all, and in all eras it has been surprisingly hard to define. Is being Arab defined by race, language, or religion? To contain the scope of this book, Hourani sets limits within two distinct boundaries:

First, besides a little survey of the Late Antique world and pre-Islam Arabs, he starts his history from the inception of Islam. Though he doesn’t formally explain his choice in this way, I gather that he does so because he’s selecting elements of the culture that communicate into and are relevant to the future. Perhaps we could say that Hourani was biased towards history that helps explain modernity, and not the history that had less direct effect. Pre-Islamic religion did not communicate into the future. Ancient pre-Islamic Arab kingdoms did not build the identity later Arabs would link themselves to. Pre-Islamic poetry, however, did communicate into the later culture and thus Hourani does spend time explaining the basics of that tradition. The coming of Islam, whether you were Muslim or not, did greatly determine the shape and culture of the future civilization and indeed catalyzed it, so it does make sense as a starting place. It is also the point from which we have more historical material to work with, even though the very earliest stages have little to no direct documentation. (Hourani presents that portion of history with the caution that we cannot tell the extent of its fact and fabrication, and he insists the information is important to understanding the culture regardless of factuality.)

Second, Hourani defines “Arab Peoples” in favor of populations wherein Arabic was the pervading language of culture, even if they weren’t racially Arab. If you wanted to know more about broader Islamic civilization including Iran, the Mughals, or Indonesia, this book will contain nothing for you, since those cultures only adopted the Arabic language for religious purposes but reserved their own languages for political and artistic culture. Same with the sub-Saharan civilizations that adopted Islam such as the Mali Empire (which is absent of mention), Sudan (which mostly appears as an appendage to Egypt), or the European regions that began Islamicizing after Ottoman conquest. The Arabs that Hourani examines are those various ethnicities and polities who adopted Arabic at least for political and artistic purposes, even if they retained their own languages to some degree for religious or minority use. The almost exception to this is that he does continue into the Ottoman Empire, which asserted its own form of Turkish as the political language. Yet since the conquered peoples of the Ottoman Empire did not adopt Turkish for their cultural materials, you can still see a linguistically defined Arab peoples to follow in that era.

There is another boundary that Hourani observes which is less distinct. His personal fields of scholarship were specifically interested in intellectual pursuits. As such, he prioritizes information on cultural, academic, artistic, economic, or theological trends. He talks of political theory, but with barely any tales of political drama. He talks of the rise and fall of powers, but not of warfare and battlefields. He talks of zeitgeists and movements, but little on the biographical details of their founders. I didn’t notice this boundary all too much until when Hourani wrote of a disturbance to the empire “by the irruption into the Muslim world of a non-Muslim Mongol dynasty from eastern Asia, with an army formed of Mongolian and Turkish tribesmen from the steppes of inner Asia.” Then I realized, “oh, you mean Genghis Khan?” But Hourani never names Genghis or any of the other Khans. It was much more important to him that this “irruption” disrupted and shifted the bases of Arabic power, triggered migrations, and spun off to expand an Islamic (though not Arabic) influence deeper into Asia. His viewpoint of history, as expressed in this book, is largely one driven by ideas and social movements, not the power of individual personalities.

That’s Still a Lot

It amused me to read Wikipedia’s description of History of the Arab Peoples as a “readable” introduction. That’s such a borderline put-down description, even though I know it’s intended to mean that Hourani writes in a non-technical language. It’s true that the book is lay-friendly, particularly in that its information is self-contained and doesn’t cast out mentions of works that non-academics won’t recognize or have access too. However the book is… a lot. Even within Hourani’s parameters, A History covers fourteen centuries of civilization spanning from Morocco to Iraq. Though linked in self-concept and language, every level of Arab society –imperial, regional, local, generational, hierarchical– had its own interests and trends that in some way affected the unfolding of history. Studying this region is like studying an ecosystem, with a need to recognize the diversity, reciprocity, and constant conflicts in seeking advantage and seeking balance amongst the tiers of society. Nothing is truly simple or general.

Sequence is perhaps the main difficulty of this book, since chronological order is blended with topical arrangement. Though Hourani divides the history into several general eras, within those eras he moves freely in order to trace the development of civil life, or the law, or high court culture. The chapters are tidily delineated and captioned, so you aren’t adrift in a stream of free association, but you will be jumping back and fourth between centuries as you move through the different topics. Sometimes the lack of chronological sequence does put a hiccup in the text, such as when Hourani first drops an isolated mention of “Mu’tazili philosophers” in his description of the development of the Sunnism, even though the Mu’tazilites aren’t explained for another thirty pages. When you consider that the obverse would be losing continuity of each stream of culture as you jump between all the topics and regions chronologically, I agree that a topical arrangement is more useful.

As you might expect, the history does get more detailed the closer it comes to modern times. Hourani takes care to delineate the effects of colonialism on the Arab economies and cultures. Returning to the tendencies of Orientalism or counter-Orientalism, which both are based in a desire to see one group or the other rated as “superior,” Hourani avoids making moral comparisons between civilizations. He is unconcerned with European society in the pre-colonial portions of the history and only deigns to mention such to the extent that it impacted Arab economics and warfare: medieval Europe was dependent upon the East for developed goods, and thus a factor in the trade economy; medieval Europe had no polities large enough to threaten the Arabs, and thus wasn’t a factor for the military. These passing comments make no reference to the status quo being indicative of moral qualities, and likewise when fortunes reverse later they are presented without similar moral comment. Hourani describes the motivations of movements or polities in terms of incentives, sometimes religious but more often economic. Thus, the most common kind of good/bad evaluation present was the more objective data that such a thing was economically or politically good for one party and bad for the other, and how that affected the respective qualities of life in terms of income, education, and health. Since the disadvantages unilaterally affected the Arabs, the problems and fallout created by colonialism are apparent. Perhaps this method of telling history will lack the cathartic bewailing of injustice that many people would hope for, but even such bewailing is to Hourani a social trend on par with those zeitgeists of the past –very relevant but also a thing to be examined externally.

I can already foresee that I am going to forget most of the information that I learned in this book, just due to there being so much of it. It happened before. When I first bought this book I read only through the first era, since that was the history most relevant to my Quran project. Picking up the book again after two years in order to write this review, I had a deep anti-dejavu. Though I did recognize a few specific sentences, I felt almost convicted that I had never picked up the book before. It was startling to me how little of it I’d retained. Perhaps that is a bit more of a testament to how little I knew then (the information had little else to connect to and be held in my mind with), but I do think that it will prove true again that I’ll lose track of much of the information in this book. My brain, and I think the brains of most humans, retains narratives with more clarity than data. There aren’t many narratives in this book, and that makes it hard to hold onto anything more than an impression.

Thankfully, the book has means to help with that. Besides a clear table of contents, there are a lot of resources in the back pages to help you locate information. There are genealogies, maps, and an index of topics with page coordinates. Having read the entire book once, I foresee that I can return to it in times where I want to get a contextual look at some school of Islamic law or regional culture. If I need a refresher on “Mu’tazilites,” I can use the index to locate which pages contain relevant information. I do wish that I’d been directed more to the maps and genealogies as I read through the book. If you do decide to read this, I’d recommend that you familiarize yourself with what’s available in the back pages before you begin reading, so that you know there’s a visual aid if you need help mentally arranging the info.

As a Resource

In my reviews of Seeing Islam as Others Saw It and Textual Criticism and The Qur’an, I commended those books for being very direct and open with their resources. I cannot say the same thing for A History of the Arab Peoples because it is a very different kind of book. While Seeing Islam and Textual Criticism are very focused books with specific thesis statements to put through proofs, A History is far more general and contains no distinct thesis. It’s purpose is to be an introduction, a starting point to invite you into further exploration, or at the very very least to help you contextualize the then-contemporary events in modern north Africa and western Asia. It is not written like a research paper, but more like an encyclopedia. Rather than convincing you through direct contact with evidence, it strengthens its assertions with an even tone, “readable” language, and the pedigree of its authorship. Hourani published this book two years before he died, so in a way it is the summary of his life’s wisdom and knowledge on the subject. That’s nothing to scoff at or disqualify, but it does mean that you need to treat this book as a tertiary resource. Tertiary resources are invalid materials for arguments because they are not transparent with their data or logic. In the end they are opinion pieces, even if those opinions are highly educated and articulate. You can borrow their coherency at times, but it’s always on the basis that you trust the speaker rather than that you can defend the logic behind them.

Tertiary resources are great for discovery, and A History is excellent for that purpose. There is an element of “best of” selection in what Hourani chooses to explore, to the point of making you feel envious of the Arabs. That is one valid way of introducing you to a new culture, since it teaches you maybe a little hunger to share in their best achievements. The book also makes you envious specifically of Arab Muslim culture, which I think is interesting, since Hourani himself was not a Muslim. His culture and the culture that he loved was very much inundated with Islam, and for him that was no reason to demonize or reject it. This is a good perspective to present to the non-Muslim West, and again makes this useful as an introductory text. Another alternate way to excite interest in a culture would be through the roads of intrigue, i.e. complicated or morbid situations that pique human curiosity. Hourani is writing a book in English, so he is presenting this information to people who are likely primed with the impressions of Orientalism and a dread of Islam. The path of exciting interest through intrigue and morbid curiosity unfortunately is likely to feed negative stereotypes of Arabs, and it understandable that Hourani would prefer to avoid them. And again, those parts of history don’t seem to be as relevant to Hourani’s expertise.

The other element that makes A History a good tertiary resource is that Hourani does provide means for further investigation. Though the footnotes are few, each chapter gets an individual bibliography. If you identify a subject that really piques your curiosity, you can turn to the bibliography that Hourani used to write that chapter and follow his trail of resources. I am so grateful that he structured his bibliography in this way. It can be infuriating to find a book wherein a lot of subjects are covered, and then to find the bibliography is arranged purely in alphabetical order so that you have limited means of knowing which resources are relevant to what topic. There is, of course, a limit in the date range of sources consulted, so this book will not lead you to contemporary scholars like Robert Hoyland.

So would I recommend A History of the Arab Peoples? Yes, but on the caveat that it’s only really worth your money if you approach it as a starting point. The density of information and lack of narrative is likely to undermine a casual reader’s retention of information, though the lingering impression of Arab beauty and complexity is still a good outcome. Since the book is old and was so successful in its time, it is affordable and easy to find. My edition did not include the 2010 afterword by Malise Ruthven, so I cannot testify as to whether you should seek that out or not. Next time you’re at a second-hand store, check the Middle East history section and see if there’s a copy. And even if you don’t buy it, glance down its table of contents and appreciate the old pictures to get a sense of the world it contains.

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