Monday, July 13, 2015

Five Recent Arabian History Books

In linking to Ron Hawker's "5 Great Books on Archaeology in the UAE," the British Foundation for the Study of Arabia asks after other people's favorite books on Arabian history.  In thinking about this, I found myself adding some limits.  I considered books only on periods before the first Saudi state and omitted those dealing specifically with Muhammad and the internal politics of the rightly guided caliphs.  I also considered only English, for while I can think of both Arabic and French titles that have influenced me, I can't say I really keep up with historiography in those languages except when the latter are published by Brill.  (Most recent German works I can think of fall into the excluded categories, and I know nothing about works in Russian except that they exist.)

What I then realized is that the past five years have seen several path-breaking books bringing innovative insights to the Arabian past.  Here, in order of publication, are the five which leaped out at me:

1.) Ibadism: Origins and Early Development in Oman, by J.C. Wilkinson

I keep encountering people who don't realize how this book has material relevant to their own work.  This book is a masterpiece which serves in many ways as a history of Oman for around a thousand years from around 200 until 1200.  As in his earlier work, Wilkinson situates religion and politics in a material context, and skillfully develops the tribal framework which was crucial to the historical actors.  His overview of Omani source material is also the best available.

2.) Imperial Power and Maritime Trade: Mecca and Cairo in the Later Middle Ages, by John Meloy

The Arabia of what Islamicists call the "High Middle Period" is still among the most neglected eras, but Meloy has done an excellent job at bringing local history sources and epigraphy to bear alongside Mamluk sources to portray the political economy of the Hejaz during the 15th century.  A key factor was the wealth from the Indian Ocean trade, which the sherifs of Mecca controlled and distributed to their advantage in maintaining influence with the population while also acting in a dynamic power relationship with the Mamluk sultains in Cairo.  In its focus on the practice of politics in late pre-Ottoman Islamic states and the role of maritime commerce in the Indian Ocean littoral, it is also the rare book published on Arabia that contributes meaningfully to questions important to scholars working on other areas.

3.) Sea of Pearls: Seven Thousand Years of the Industry that Shaped the Gulf, by Robert Carter

I actually reviewed this on my blog last year.  This is an excellent book which sets out to be a comprehensive overview of the Gulf's pearling industry and an argument that this industry is the most significant element in Gulf history.  Although the author does not read the languages of the region, the information it includes is impressive, and both the overarching argument about significance and lesser ones along the way are thought-provoking.  Any historian studying the Gulf in any period, including modern times, should be familiar with it.

4.) The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate: AD 500-1000, by Timothy Power

Also important to broader questions is this book by Timothy Power.  I reviewed it for the Journal of Arabian Studies in 2013, and found it a solid contribution which culminates the developing field of Red Sea Studies up to that point in time and situating it within the broader narratives of regional and even world history.  A strength is that Power capably combines both written and archaeological evidence to shed light on, for example, the development of the Islamic state and the economy of the caliphate.  One thing I don't understand, though, is why the title says "500-1000," since the book actually starts with 315 CE.

5.) The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity: Allah and His People, by Aziz al-Azmeh

This book is not for the faint of heart, as I've been through it twice and don't feel I've fully digested it.  It is on the list because the third and fourth of its long chapters represent the best available synthesis of the current state of knowledge about late pre-Islamic Arabia, which is usefully set in a wider regional context in the rest of the book in tune with the author's aim to explain the rise of Islam as both religion and empire.  It is one of those books where even if you don't agree with everything in it, you will still find much to like and many references you might not otherwise encounter.

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Blogger Ronald Hawker said...

It's great to see that my initial post has encouraged this. Unfortunately, the only one I've read here is Rob's Sea of Pearls, which I love. Got some work to do here to catch up.

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might also like to check out my own recent book ‘Beyond Dubai: Seeking Lost Cities in the Emirates’. Only published last year so understandable if you haven’t come across it yet. You can find it at Unlike most of your list its not an academic book though, it aims to draw popular attention to the charms of the UAE's history and archaeology for the many tourists and expat residents who (frustratingly) think that Dubai is only about beaches and shopping malls!

8:31 PM  
Blogger Brian Ulrich said...

Thanks! I'll definitely look it up!

3:45 PM  

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