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.

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Book Review: “Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources” by Martin Lings

Books on Islam are expensive. In learning any biographical material about Muhammad, one will invariably hear mention of the first-known biography of Muhammad, The Life of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq. Of course, that resource no longer exists in its original form, and what we have comes to us through Ibn Ishaq’s student, Ibn Hisham. If you want an English translation of Ibn Hisham’s The Life of the Prophet, you’ll have to open your wallets and pay… $76! Or pay the expense and time to become fluent in classical Arabic and get the Arabic edition for upwards of $25. And while I would like to do both of those things, I’m also starting from a beginner’s place and partly just need an orientation into the early sources. After all, there’s more than Ibn Ishaq out there.

Any search for information around Muhammad’s biography will bring up results including Muhammad: His Life Based on the Early Sources, by Martin Lings. And hey, it’s affordable! So I bought the ebook early on to orient myself in an Islamic view of Muhammad and…

My bad. Metaphorically, I walked into a restaurant for a culinary lesson. Instead, they served me a sausage and now I’m demanding to know “But how was this sausage made?!”

Review in short: This books is a reassuring resource for the pious, but has no other value.

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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.

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Book Review: “Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts” by Keith E. Small

A popular talking point between Muslims and Christians is the very different nature of the history of their sacred text verses ours (which from my vantage means Quranic textual history vs. New Testament textual history). The Christian canon weathers rigorous academic criticism that batters and breaks the faith of many Christians who want to feel certain of a scripture untouched by human hands. And because The West is broadly post-Christian, there is a lot of interest, history, and groundwork in textual criticism with which to challenge and test Christian self-narratives that might’ve otherwise gone untested. Many Muslims on the internet are delighted to walk into this post-Christian territory and find that the work of challenging Christian scripture is already well-worked and popularized in our culture.

But what happens when those tools so well sharpened on Christian manuscripts get turned to the Quran? Enter Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts by Keith E. Small. My review in short: a very interesting exercise in manuscript academia, but too reliant on other resources to be useful to non-academics.

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Book Review: Seeing Islam as Others Saw It, by Robert Hoyland

Something I noticed very quickly when looking into Islamic history is that its written record didn’t start until about a century AH, over a generation after Muhammad’s death. When you think of it, this is not entirely surprising due to a number of factors. The Arabs were culturally fond of oral storytelling, their first generation of Muslims were not reputed to be widely literate or educated, and their first century in power was consumed with conquest and civil war. One could hypothesize that the civilization needed a growth period to both develop and assimilate the kinds of people and culture that took the time to put things down in writing. One could also hypothesize that, like Christianity, it wasn’t until those early generations started dying off that the leadership realized they needed to pin down and codify their beliefs and identity in writing. And write they did. There is a lot of Islamic literature about the rise of Islam and the expansion of its caliphate from the Arabian peninsula, but there is the quandary that it is a history told by the victors, moreover the victors whose perspective had already been shaped after a century of political drama.

So are there resources more contemporary to the rise of Islam and its State? Well, yes, but they’re complicated. Enter Robert Hoyland’s Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. My review in short: a marvelous book but not for newcomers to the history of this era and area.

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