Book Review: “Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam” by Robert Hoyland

I don’t know about you, but I often have a hard time looking at new books and getting excited to buy them. I walk through bookstores or libraries and find my enthusiasm smothered by the wealth of catchy titles and artsy covers. All that packaging doesn’t tell me what I want to know about the books. It has stopped meaning anything to me. And then I realized, the books that I find “sexy” now all tend to look like this:

Okay, publishing world, it’s not you, it’s me.

But what a great title! It immediately tells you its content: probably informative rather than narrational, with a scope of material so big that you can expect a lot of generalizations inside. This books sells not because its packaging piques your interest but because it’s immediately recognizable to someone so interested. And that is my case. I’m wanting to get a grip on who the Arabs were before the rise of Islam, and what kind of world and heritage they lived in. I’d already read two books by Robert Hoyland and was impressed with his work, so this book was an easy sell to me. Did it pay off its dry title?

Review in short: A great introductory resource for anyone who wants to understand this generally overlooked part of the ancient world.

The Introduction

So, as the title announces, this book is about the land of Arabia and the people known as “Arabs” within a defined span of time. That scope is huge and needs further definition, which is what Hoyland immediately does in his introduction. What counts as Arabia? For his purposes, Arabia includes the full area of the peninsula up into the Syrian desert. The reasons for extending that far are rooted in the fact that the earliest attestations of a people called “Arabs” are in the region of the Syrian desert, and that an ethnically Arab population continued to live there continually after (even if culturally Hellenized and Latinized to various degrees). Why doesn’t Hoyland just title the book “The Arabs:…”? Because the first peoples of Arabia did not identify themselves as such, nor does their material culture or language match that of the Arabs. So defining his scope in geographical as well as ethnic terms is necessary in order to include non-Arab peoples who would still enter and merge their heritage into the Arabic community.

Hoyland’s introduction is explicit with the materials he intends to use and the ways that he prioritizes them. Firstly, he is prioritizing written history, so archeology is only a secondary concern within this book. In which writings to consult, he gives preference to those contemporary to the history he is examining. The difficulty of this approach is that there are very few long-form writings originating from within the Arabian peninsula. There is ample rock-graffiti, but those sources are –like modern graffiti– short and usually commemorative in function. They provide data on the lives of individuals, but only indirectly communicate any social narrative. There are also the old poems that were preserved by Muslims orally, but these date to the centuries immediately preceding Islam and do not topically prioritize societal narratives. (Hoyland described them as communicating their “moral world,” a term which fits what I came away with after reading Suzanne Stetkevych’s analyses.) There are more writings available from external sources, particularly the historians or agents of the surrounding empires. While Hoyland uses them he also warns that their value must also be weighed with the likelihood that they are biased or misinformed. When contemporary information is ambivalent or absent, Hoyland then will supplement with the accounts of later Muslim historiographers. He explains his hesitancy to use these Islamic histories as primary sources for two reasons: firstly they are usually written in the service of religious causes (teaching converts or interpreting law) and are thus shaped by deference to the Quran or traditions of Muhammad, and secondly because the Islamic historians had a conflicted relationship with their history, being simultaneously proud of and hostile to it. When Islamic historians look into the past, there is a tendency to emphasize a contrast in the barbaric then to the civilized now, and so it can be difficult to confirm which pieces of their narratives serve a political purpose (demonizing the old ways) and which pieces are true memories. In the end, the problem with writing this history is a dearth of sources. We have quite a few means of getting information, but it can be difficult to confirm any ideas or statements when there is not a wealth of corroborating evidences. Still, through an eclectic approach, Hoyland is optimistic that we can build a picture of the societal narratives. Moreover, the expanding range of archeology in the area brings promise of adding new evidences.

Our known history of Arabia is very incomplete, but growing. Hoyland’s aim in this book, as stated on page 2, is to attract newcomers to the field in order to help. The way he intends to invite newcomers is by making an “intelligible” narrative out of his current resources and by including large chunks of primary sources so that readers can participate in the process of evaluation and get a taste of the work. Given the scope of this book, a lot of material does have to be given in summary, but it is gratifying to have some limited access to primary sources. You can get a more human image of past peoples when reading their rage-letter to some merchant who did them wrong. The prose is very lay-friendly, though as is often the case when an expert is talking at a lay level, Hoyland does sometimes lose track of what needs explanation. For example, though the Ummayads are mentioned in a source quote on page 111, it’s only at their next mention on page 168 that a footnote defining the Umayyads is given. And unless you’re already an expert on the kings and historians of the various empires, you will need to keep an encyclopedia on hand. I would recommend reading this book on a Kindle, because it is very convenient to have the built in Wikipedia search option available. I find that even if I recognize a name, I usually have forgotten their date range, so Wikipedia helped me keep that straight.


Western imaginings of “Arabia” are usually homogenous impressions of camels, dunes, and scarf-wrapped people. Thus the first thing that Hoyland impresses upon readers is the diversity of this region. Arabia is a large and diverse land, and thus how people adapted to live in it was likewise diverse. Some regions had stable enough water supply to accommodate settled living, others were only usable for the short term occupation of nomads. Some deserts are sandy, but other are rocky or even lava fields. Besides deserts there were also mountains, coastlines and islands, and flatlands and marshes. Moreover, we know that in the very pre-history times (pre-4000B.C.) the region was in fact wet and fertile, allowing people and animal species to move in before the deserts would grow and divide regions off.

Three generalized regions would be divided off by the desert. The people who settled in those regions were effectively isolated from each other and would only grow more connected in the later centuries as technology (particularly as regards sea travel) and trade (particularly in connection to the expansion of ever larger empires) bridged the geographical gaps. To impress the distinctiveness of these civilizations, the book starts with each region –generalized as the east, south, and north-northwest– and traces the broad strokes of their development chronologically. So to give you my takeaway identity of these regions: the world and culture of the eastern region (areas bordering the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman) was shaped by access to underground freshwater, mining, and trade with the Euphrates civilizations; the southern region (Yemen) was shaped by its geographic isolation from the most expansionist empires, its mountains and predictable monsoon seasons, and also its distinctive ability to grow luxury aromatics that were greatly in demand by other civilizations; the northwestern/northern regions were shaped by their scarcity of reliable water, the general need of the population to adapt to migrant forms of agriculture and livelihood (thus, their capacity to carry trade across the deserts), and their direct proximity to the great expansionist empires.

After outlining the histories and cultural trends of the three regions in individual chapters, Hoyland switches to grouping information into chapters topically. So for example, chapter 4 is on economy, and its subtopics are agriculture and water management, pastoralism, hunting, economic relations between nomadic and settled peoples, and trade. The other chapters cover society, religion, material culture, language and literature. All the topics are punctuated with quotes and pictures from the primary sources, but some of them are more dependent upon academic speculation than others. The section on “economic relations between nomadic and settled peoples,” for example, has to speculate on what conditions would drive people to change from nomadic to settled life and vice versa, with few explicit resources in the historical record to confirm exact instances. “Hunting,” meanwhile, has a plethora of visual and literary depictions with which to understand cultural priorities and motivations. Either way, the narration is fluid and plainspoken, and Hoyland always conveys the optimism that when we don’t know much about a thing, we’ll probably be learning more soon. It makes for what feels like “light” reading despite the large volume of information.

With the general tendency to explore the diversity and unknowns, there probably were some over-representations of oddities. I don’t know enough to say when and to what extent, but I can spot this problem in the usual place: marriages and sex. Potential evidences of practiced polyandry, matri-lineage, or temporary marriages are considered in turn. Hoyland doesn’t play up these things or make moral commentary on them, but the sources that he quotes from (a mixture of Greek, Latin, and Muslim) do. Hoyland lets patrilineal lineages and polygynous marriages exist as the merely mentioned “norms,” so they don’t get the same weight in one’s memory after reading. Because Hoyland does give so much voice to his sources –and because so many of those resources are outside the people and/or time being described– they do carry a lot of bias in them. He explicitly did mention these biases in the introduction, and quoting sources in long-form never lets this slip from view. He includes the pearl-clutching “It is unbelievable with what ardour both sexes give themselves up to passion” in Ammianus‘s quote on temporary marriage, and I don’t think it is to serve Ammanius’s credibility. Hoyland does include instances where the writers really were just exoticizing the unknown and making things up, in part to demonstrate the tendency of external sources to overstate themselves. My favorite instance of this was Herodotus‘s whimsical imaginings of the process for harvesting frankincense, which he thought first required fumigation of the orchards to drive off the small, colorful, winged snakes that lived in the trees. The exploratory reports of expansionist empires did get more accurate information in later centuries, but we can see that there has been a history of imaginative speculation about the unknowns of Arabia from the “civilized” empires.

After having spent a whole book exploring and emphasizing the diversity of the peoples of Arabia, the last chapter focuses specifically on the Arabs. Hoyland, like many other sources that I have read, defines the people-group “Arabs” linguistically. This group was widely varied in region, religion, livelihood, and political affiliation, yet they all spoke a mutually intelligible form of Arabic. The key that I learned in this book is this: Arabic is the only Semitic language to use al- as its definite article. So although Arabic wasn’t a formal written language and had some dialectal variety, it still is very distinct and easy to identify even in the terse inscriptions of rock-graffiti or the mentions of someone’s name. Thus it is also easy to spot in regions where the natives spoke other Semitic languages despite the frequency of cognates or the different spellings of different alphabets. That being said, I never really learned when and to what extent the rest of the peninsula was Arab or came to be “Arabized.” The chapter focuses more on the growing of the Arabic identity through the process of migrations and political interactions with the empires, and then the refinement of the Arab identity with the coming of Islam. (That is, that despite Islam not being racially defined, its origins in the Arab world elevated that ethnicity and made Arabs the topic of much academic scrutiny, appreciation, and appropriation by all Muslims.) I do think that some of Hoyland’s statements here specifically will offend Muslims, since he does talk of them as having constructed their religious heritage (i.e. descent from Ishmael and an Abrahamic Mecca) in order to compete with the older ones of the lands that they conquered.


This book has a very abrupt ending, all the more surprising because you’re only three-quarters of the way through the pages when it happens. He ends the chapter, I would say, but not the book. So you flip that page and then…done?

No, not done. You’ve merely crossed into the realm of citations!

First (at least as placed in the ebook) there is the collected mass of footnotes for each chapter, which hopefully you’ve been jumping to as you were reading. Most of the footnotes are more in the nature of a parenthetical statement, elaborating or defining something in the text. They include source citations or recommendations for further reading too (the abbreviation “cf.” appears a lot). For this section, the Kindle edition justifies its own existence. This book was impeccably digitized and all the hyperlink functions worked whether accessed from the body text or from the footnote text.

This book is a tertiary source in that, while it provides samples of the primary sources, it is mostly summarizing the work and analyses of sources indirectly. Summaries will always reflect the priorities of their authors, for good or ill, and need to held accountable with their sources. As such, Hoyland introduces his bibliography with the statement, “Since the source material for pre-Islamic Arabia is so little known and because almost every hypothesis I have advanced is contested or contestable, it is necessary for me to give in full the primary and secondary literature upon which I have directly relied,” (p. 256). I wish that this statement had been expanded into a proper conclusion, as I think it’s an important ingredient in a work like this and especially in a work aimed at attracting new people. I think one of the hardest things to find as a newcomer to the field is a sequential path deeper into the material. Especially in this age of the internet there are a lot of opportunities to be a beginner, but guidance beyond that point is very scarce and it’s hard to find a sturdy bridge from “beginner” to “advanced.” So if Hoyland had introduced some ways to get involved in this field (which careers make headway in what areas, what lay work can be done in the periphery, what schools of thought compete in the dialogue), and then connected any statements about such to which works he read in preparation for writing this book, that could have been useful for anyone who wanted help envisioning their potential role. However, Hoyland does not leave the newbie totally adrift because he provides a thorough bibliography –and what an awesome one it is! The person who wants to investigate Hoyland’s summaries or get deeper into a subject can turn to this well organized and partially annotated bibliography for further reading and exploration.

The first section of the bibliography is recommendations for general readers. He calls these materials “selected background reading and reference works.” Monoglots like me will find this section a challenge, as the resources variously come in one of the four usual languages of Arabian studies: English, French, German, and Arabic. Again, this is a reminder that not all human knowledge is available in English, and that other communities have live academic cultures developing knowledge that we don’t have access to by speaking only one language. These books are also generalized examinations of a field, though most have a more specific focus than the entirely of pre-Islamic Arabia and the Arabs. Getting more advanced in the academic way of things also means getting more specialized, so these books might help you discern which specialties are more appealing. Other books are just general-purpose useful materials for research. One of the reference books that he recommends is a searchable database of pre-Islamic names and inscriptions. No, it’s not something that I need, but I’m fascinated by its existence and can imagine how useful it would be for someone needing to locate topically relevant examples from the thousands of possible sources out there. (It’s the same shortcut that I take using Quran Corpus and BibleHub to save myself having to sift all vocabulary in the Quran and Bible to examine a specific word’s usage). Hoyland’s annotations on a few entries clarify the relevance of one work in relation with the others. So for example, Jawad Ali‘s ten volume Al-Mufaṣṣal fî Târîkh al-’Arab Qabl al-Islâm (“Treatise on Arabic History Before Islam”), is noted as “the most famous and comprehensive modern Muslim history of pre-Islamic Arabia.” That cues me that this is something I’d be interested in reading if I want to integrate an educated, rigorous, Muslim viewpoint into my studies. And I do, I do! However, this book only exists in Arabic as far as I can tell, and while bootlegged copies abound online I cannot find a legitimate way to buy it yet. So it will be a while before that’s a resource I can access, and is going to be a real challenge to read once even once I do.

The next section encapsulates all the journals that publish material useful for the field, partly as a recommendation and partly to introduce the title abbreviations that are used in the rest of the bibliography. Journals are the hardest thing for me to take interest in, personally, because they are expensive and must publish material that –while relevant to the field as a whole– are not always relevant to my specific interests. Journals are useful for people who are immersed in the academia and who probably have access through institutional affiliation. I miss those days of access to the college library…

Next comes a bibliography of primary sources; firstly the external witnesses subdivided by eras and originators, and then internal witnesses arranged by medium (e.g. rock inscriptions, written letters, material objects). To be clear, “primary” is a relative status in the hierarchy of sources. Many of these so-called “primary” sources are in fact secondary or even tertiary sources on their own terms — accounts of a thing someone else heard or summaries by some intellectual writing their version of world history. However, to us they are primary because they are in some cases the closest we can get to the history in question and therefore must be the subject of analysis. This section also acts as a reference key to the abbreviated citations that occurred within the body text, allowing you to independently verify what Hoyland was citing. Some of these sources are translations, so I don’t know how deep you can go in the process of verification on all things. (Can you access the original text or just the translation of it?) And honestly, many of these things are written in obscure languages and you will have to depend on the integrity of specialists to benefit from them at all. I know in myself there is the temptation to want to have perfect self-sufficiency and to know things as directly as possible. A list of sources like this teases the possibility that you could look directly at all the information and come to your own conclusions. But the truth is that unless you want to spend your life re-inventing every wheel (and probably only come out with a few wheels and no wagons for the effort) you’ll have to rely upon the work of others.

Lastly comes the bibliography of the secondary sources –that is, papers and books which directly analyze the primary materials– which Hoyland used to write each chapter. The bibliography is organized with the same chapter/subsection structure as the book, allowing you to find the sources relevant to any of the topics that piqued your interest. For the first three chapters, there is also a section of “survey works” which provide general information on the region covered by the chapter (so for example, chapter 1 was about eastern Arabia, and thus this section of the bibliography includes an introduction to archeology in the UAE). This bibliography is… a lot. It’s very exciting to have all these sources listed and organized in such convenient groupings. The titles are often dry and terse, making it easy to understand what you would be reading if you found it. I laughed that for a few click-bait-y titles, Hoyland would add an annotation giving away the author’s conclusion. (Abdel Monem Sayed: “Were there direct relationships between Pharaonic Egypt and Arabia?” Hoyland: “No!”)

Curious to see how easy it would be to follow up these sources, I picked a few that interested me and tried locating them online. Most can be found behind a paywall and a few even accessed for free, but then there are some for which the internet knows nothing. Let that sink in. Sometimes it is the fault of the academic search engines. That Sayed article I linked above wouldn’t appear through a direct search on JSTOR; I had to find the journal first, then follow the year, then find the article manually. So be ready to flex library and citation skills to get what you want. No matter what I tried, however, I could not find any articles that were published within “Studies in the History of Arabia, vols. I&II” (edited by A.T. Ansary; Riyad, University of Riyad, 1979–84). You can find the authors and other articles they’d published in other journals, but nothing that was published in the S.H.A. volumes. There is something in Google Books that might be the source in question (just translated from the Arabic title a little differently), but there are no preview pages of the publishing information or contents with which to confirm. The internet is not omnipotent after all.

Exciting a trove as this bibliography is, I cannot help but find it a little discouraging too. Four languages. A lifetime worth of literature to read. It does tamp one’s enthusiasm to look at a body of reading like this, because it paints a picture of obsessive interest that must crowd out all one’s other interests and hobbies. It’s hard for me to imagine that Hoyland has physically read all of these sources by himself, but then again he is a professional who has been in the field of research for a long time. I wish I could ask him. However, the thing to take heart in is that this book covers a huge scope of history and material. In reality, personal research projects are more focused and won’t need such a wide net. A workload like this seems crushing to an individual –which is precisely why academia isn’t about the heroic individual who does all but rather about the community developing specialties and mining information and sharing and holding each other accountable. At least ideally. Before money gets in. And politics. So the better way to approach a large bibliography like this is to prioritize what topics interest you most, or are most likely to intersect with your interest, and leave the rest to someone else. Trust that the author has done his work by what things you can confirm, but restrain yourself from overstating your confidence in the things you can’t.


Okay, I threw the salesmanship of this book a little under the bus in my intro. To be fair, the paperback cover of this book is much more attractive to behold:

I think that would stand for itself in a bookstore.

I definitely would recommend this book for someone who wants to get started in either the archeology of Arabia or the inception of Islam. Even though the history it covers is very remote and must be handled broadly, it is always fascinating to take something that gets generally assumed to be simple and homogenous and find in it a whole complicated world. Just as it’s easy to let Saudi Arabia represent the entirety of Arabia in our modern consciousness (to the neglect of Jordan, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait) it’s easy to let sand dunes and camel-herders dominate our view of ancient Arabian history. Arabia and the Arabs does a great job introducing the abundance of history and diversity without overwhelming the new reader. I’m coming away from it with a coherent sense of the places and cultural progression, lots of details and topics to read further on, and a list of materials to do so with.

There is the caveat that Hoyland comes from the “Revisionist School of Islamic Studies,” a category of academics that prefer reconstructing history from sources that are contemporary or more direct to the thing being studied, which necessitates de-prioritizing or categorically ignoring Islamic ones. (Again, Islamic sources post-date the rise of Islam by a little over 100 years and come after a lot of religious and political upheaval.) Robert G. Hoyland was a student of Patricia Crone, one of the more controversy-picking historians that I know of in the field (although I’ve not yet read any of her works, I know her general claim to fame is emphasizing the lack of Mecca in ancient records and refuting its historical importance). He doesn’t exclude Islamic sources on principle, but as he explains in his introduction he doesn’t give them priority of preference due to their temporal distance from the events they describe and their service to a moral narrative of religious and political ascendancy. This choice probably will not matter much to a Muslim reader until the final chapter on Arabs, in which Hoyland downgrades the truthfulness of the divine history of Mecca or Arab lineage from Ishmael. Muslims will have to contextualize this with an understanding that Hoyland’s priorities and methods aren’t going to give credence to things he can’t substantiate through secular theories or contemporary sources. However, I don’t think that such would put this book outside of Muslim interests or utility on the whole.

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