A History of the Arab Peoples

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples is an ambitious and successful attempt to summarize fourteen centuries of political, cultural, and religious history of people who inhabited an area that encompassed Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. The book, which also contains a thirty-page bibliography, several maps, and tables and lists of the Prophet’s descendants, caliphs, dynasties, and prominent families, represents an important scholar’s lifetime of research and is the fitting culmination of his earlier works: Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (1983), Europe and the Middle East (1980), and The Emergence of the Modern Middle East (1981).

Although he asserts that his book is intended for beginning students and general readers, Hourani includes such a wealth of information that most of his intended audience may be overwhelmed. When he discusses general subjects, such as Arab poetry and its relation to society, or when he includes short vignettes about representative Arab figures, the book is fascinating and most readable, but his accounts of political and religious dynasties read more like a densely packed textbook. For the benefit of his readers, there are helpful summaries introducing each of the five parts of the narrative, and the indexing is comprehensive enough to aid browsers and researchers looking for specific information.

Hourani divides his twenty-six-chapter book into five parts, each with a distinct focus or theme, though there are some recurrent themes that pervade the entire book: the essential unity of an Arab world tied to its religion, Islam; the failure to achieve the model “just” Islamic society; and a view of history influenced by the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, the first figure mentioned in the book and a theoretician whose political ideas resonate throughout the book. In fact, Ibn Khaldun serves as a symbol of the continuity Hourani sees as characteristic of Arab culture.

Part 1, which spans the seventh to tenth centuries, concerns the emergence, development, and “articulation” of Islam, but Hourani devotes much attention to Arab poetry another recurrent topic, and to the importance of the tribe. The focus is on the unity of faith and language and on how Islam is “articulated” through not only the Koran but also the “Pillars of Islam” and the hadiths (recorded traditions associated with Muhammad). The first part is particularly important, since it explains how the current Islamic sects originated and how schisms are themselves a tradition in Islam. Because of the scope of the book, Hourani does necessarily generalize, but some of the generalizations conceal fairly significant points. When he discusses the growth of Islam, Hourani states that “the momentum of action carried it into the frontier regions of the great empires and then, as resistance proved weak, into their hearts.” “Momentum of action” implies that conquest was not sought, but only occurred, and “resistance proved weak” ignores the coercion employed by Islam. Such coercion involved several severe discriminatory laws against non-Muslims; Hourani makes the understatement that “the inducement to convert existed.”

Part 2, which covers the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, delineates the way the Arab Muslim societies functioned as a unified order. Hourani focuses on the countryside, the cities, and the courts, as well as the continuing “articulation” of Islam, which is shown in its “divergent paths of thought,” among them the development of Shiism. Hourani maintains his theme of unity by providing an interesting and illuminating account of the structure of the cities and the architecture of the buildings—cities and houses reflect the Islamic religion and culture. Another fascinating discussion concerns the position of women in Islam. Hourani states that the Koran asserts the “essential equality of men and women: ‘Whoso doeth right, whether male or female, and is a believer, all such will enter the Garden.’” That quotation hardly asserts “essential equality,” and Hourani does go on to list the many ways women’s limits were defined by the shari’a (Muslim law derived from the Koran). While early Muslim women did, in fact, have more rights than many of their non-Muslim contemporaries, relatively little has changed for Muslim women, despite Hourani’s repeated mention of attempts at improving their situation.

Part 3 discusses the Ottoman Age, the period from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries when the Arab people were under Turkish control. The best that can be said for the Ottoman Empire is that it was, for Hourani, “the last great expression of the universality of the world of Islam”; the least is that under Ottoman rule “there had been no advance in technology and a decline in the level of scientific knowledge and understanding.” As the Ottoman Empire declined in the face of growing European power, Arab fortunes also declined. Thus, Hourani seems to imply that Arab scientific knowledge suffered under imperialism, first exercised by the Turks and then by the European powers. Another...

(The entire section is 2112 words.)