A History of the Arab Peoples Essay - Critical Essays

A History of the Arab Peoples

Hourani’s A HISTORY OF THE ARAB PEOPLES spans centuries and continents as he describes the history of Arabic-speaking people of northern Africa, Spain, and the Middle East. His history is divided into five parts: the making of a world (7th-10th centuries), which focuses on Islam itself; Arab-Muslim societies (11th-15th centuries), which emphasizes how Islam affected cities, countryside, and courts; the Ottoman age (16th-18th centuries); the age of European empires (1800-1860); and the age of nation-states (since 1939).

Given its scope, the book is necessarily general, and individual political events are given short shrift; instead, Hourani describes major cultural and social movements. There are vignettes about individual figures—a singer, a historian, a poet—but Arab political leaders receive only passing mention. Hourani repeatedly describes a “just” Islamic society, one rarely achieved, but the establishment of such a society (as in Iran) entails the power of religious men whose very influence violates Islamic tenets about separation of church and state.

Hourani’s text is supplemented by several maps, a thirty-page bibliography, an index, and tables listing the family of the prophet, the caliphs, dynasties, and ruling families. There is a wealth of information, summarized at the beginning of each of the five parts in the book; but readers may have reservations about some of his observations. To attribute the existence of Jewish ghettos to a ruler’s desire to “protect Jews from popular disturbances” is naive at best; to follow a discussion of “equal” men and women with one on rulers and subjects belies the so-called equality; and to associate the political Moslem Brotherhood with “an alternate model of a just society” is disingenuous. However, Hourani’s book is an invaluable contribution to any reader’s study of the Middle East.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. March 31, 1991, XIV, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. April 19, 1991, p. 13.

Commentary. XCII, September, 1991, p. 56.

Foreign Affairs. LXX, Summer, 1991, p. 181.

Los Angeles Times Book Review February 17, 1991, p. 1.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, September 26, 1991, p. 50.

The New York Times Book Review XCVI, March 31, 1991, p. 3.

The New Yorker LXVII, May 13, 1991, p. 111.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 22, 1991, p. 5.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, March 31, 1991, p. 1.