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.
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.
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.