Global Context (NAME): The Arabs in History

This series of posts deals with the global context in its many dimensions-historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and religious. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.

Bernard Lewis’ The Arabs in History is was first published in 1958, revised in 1993, and is still fruitful for the beginning student of Arab history. It is a very concise history, weighing in at only 240 pages, and therefore necessarily does history by a “broad-brush” approach.

For those who have read introductory material about Islam and have been exposed to current affairs in the Middle East through the media, but are not able to put such knowledge in historical context, Lewis’ book is perfect. He begins by giving a brief treatment of Arabia before Islam, which helps uninitiated reader to understand the Middle Eastern context into which Muhammad was about to walk. The second chapter introduces Muhammand and describes the early rise of Islam. In the remaining eight chapters, Lewis gives a lucid and concise exposition of the major events, people, and patterns in Arab history, never failing to show the interconnection of Islam and Arabia.

Lewis’ detractors repeatedly berate him for his essentialist view of Islam and his belief that Islam is fundamentally anti-modern, and reviewers of this book have been no exception. I’ll put my cards on the table here and say both “yes” and “no” to his detractors (with an emphasis on the “no.”) As for essentialism, Muhammad intended for Islam to have an unchanging essence, and expressed his intention very clearly in the Qur’an and in the hadith. Islam is a “religion of the books,” firmly standing on the shoulders of the Qur’an and the hadith. The Qur’an and the official collections of hadith will never change and unless Muslims forsake their belief in authorial intent, original Islam will always be accessible to Muslims through those texts. This does not mean that Muslims and Muslim societies will always look the same across the reaches of the globe or the eras of history. Muslim societies and cultures are necessarily affected by the contingencies of historical, geographical, and chronological context, and further some Muslims are willing to tamper with “original Islam.” For this reasons, Muslim beliefs and practices vary (sometimes wildly) depending upon such contingencies.

As for whether or not Islam is fundamentally anti-modern, “original Islam” is fundamentally anti-modern, primarily because of the intersection of two characteristics of the religion: (1) Islam is not only a religion but a socio-cultural and political system. The religious, socio-cultural, and political cannot be separated while remaining faithful to Muhammad’s message. (2) Islam was founded as an early medieval religious, socio-cultural, and political system and must fundamentally alter itself if it is to be at home in the modern world.

This book is highly recommended as a basic introduction to the Arabs in history.

Book: The Arabs in History (1958, 2002)

Author: Bernard Lewis

Region: North Africa & Middle East

Genre: History

Length: 240 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate

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