Thursday, May 05, 2011

Abbasid Civilization

Several years ago, Hugh Kennedy published a history of the Abbasid dynasty written for a popular audience, a book which today you can delightfully find new hardback copies of for one cent. That work, published in the U.K. as The Court of the Caliphs and in the U.S. as When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, focused mainly on court history, with generous anecdotes about the personal lives and relationships of rulers and courtiers as they are portrayed in the chronicles of the period. In 2009, Amira Bennison expanded that focus for a general audience with her The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the Abbasid Empire, which goes beyond the courts to survey several areas of life throughout the lands of Islam from the 8th through the 13th centuries.

I admit the title of this work led me to believe it was much the same as Kennedy's, and so I only put it in mind as something to read when I saw a copy on the shelf of a nearby college library and noted its broader focus. Although the first of its six chapters does cover political history, it is about far more than caliphs and ranges far beyond the century or two that is more usually considered the Abbasid high point. Beyond those lands which acknowledged Abbasid suzerainty, Bennison deals extensively with both the Fatimids in North Africa and the Umayyads of Spain, meaning that the book's title probably obscures more than it reveals.

After that political history, Bennison devotes a chapter to cities and urban life, noting the different kinds of cities and towns in the medieval Middle East and their different geneses, including not only their physical features but institution-related snippets of life of those who lived there. Chapter three is dedicated to those outside the orbits of power in medieval society, such as peasants, women and children, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, and even beggars and criminals. Thereafter she moves to the economic integration of the central Islamic lands through trade and pilgrimage before finishing up with a chapter on intellectual life of the region before a conclusion about the "Abbasid legacy." That chapter on intellectual life includes both religious and scientific learning, and explains the social context of knowledge from elementary education onward, a clear example of the author's interest in portraying society as broadly and thoroughly as she can.

This structure to the book, dispensing quickly with political history before moving to elements of civilization, has a track record in medieval Islamic history that includes Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples and before him Marshall Hodgson's The Venture of Islam. In this case, with Bennison's up-to-date historiography, I'd love to use it in my survey of the period next year, though I still need to determine whether it will fit into the overall puzzle of the readings. A strength some will have noted is that, while noting the importance of Islam as a religion to society, it examines the physical and material basis of society before its account of the development of Islamic law and the Sufi orders. This is definitely a book from which many will benefit.

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