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A History of the Arab Peoples

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A History of the Arab Peoples
By Albert Hourain. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991. Pg. xx, 551. Illustrations, Maps ) ISBN: 0-674-39565-4

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - February 3, 2002

A History of the Arab Peoples is an incomparable masterpiece of historical research and writing. It is written more as an anthropological overview, rather than as a strict history. This book offers a sweeping glimpse of Arab culture and society, presented within an historical framework that spans almost thirteen centuries. In this detailed history, Albert Hourain, a respected Arabist and historian, draws back the curtain of myth and misunderstandings that often surround Arab civilizations, and he presents a clear and authoritative overview of Arab History - from an Arab centric perspective. Throughout, his narrative concentrates primarily on the Arab culture, and its social, religious, and political history. He also touches upon such topics as the role of women within Islam, the endemic poverty found in many Arab countries, and Arab involvement in slavery, both as traffickers and as slave owners.

This sweeping saga begins in pre-Islamic Arabia and details the rise of Islam, and it explains the basic tenets of Islamic belief. Hourain explores the how Islam helped to unify the various Arab peoples, and the important role that economics had in both the spread of Islam and the development of Arab nationalism over time. Hourain also explores the breath and role of the Ottoman Empire, both within the Arab culture and with the Arab's dealings with the West. Also discussed in detail are the Imperialist and colonial influences that buffeted the Arab lands from the 1800's onward, and the rise of Arab nationalism and the division of Arab lands into independent countries.

Throughout this book, Hourain takes great care to detail the various cultural and societal shifts that occurred and what life was like in each period discussed. Hourain looks at life from both the perspectives of the elite as well as from those of the peasant classes. He also illustrates what life was like for slaves and woman of all classes, and how their status changed from place to place, and over time. He explores what city life was like, and what it was like to live in the various courts, and well as on the farm. He describes what the cities and countryside looked like, and how these areas changed over time. Also explored is the foundations and development of Arab art, literature, and educational traditions, both secular and religious.

This book provides a wealth of cultural insights, such has various modes of dress, in addition to conventional historical data. It is also sprinkled with the names of influential, for better or worse, Arab political and religious leaders, artisans, and scientist, such as Muhammad, Saladin, Umar ibn al-Farid, Mahmud II, Abd al-Nasir, Mu'ammar Qadhafi, and Sadddam Husayn.

Overall, I found this book to be fascinating, although some readers may find it a bit on the academic side, which is to be expected as it is geared toward a scholarly audience. It includes copious notes, a detailed bibliography, lists of genealogies, and dynasty charts. Not only does it offer a compelling overview of Arab culture, but it also touches on traditional historical points such as internal and external conflicts, politics, economics, as well as the contentious Palestinian question. It also provides a vivid geographical overview of the region. In addition, Hourain has a graceful style of prose that is a clear and succinct.

A History of the Arab Peoples is a delightful, and informative book that will be of interest to anyone seeking to gain a greater understand of the Middle East, and the Arab mind. It would also serve as an excellent book to use, in conjunction with a more traditional history of the Middle East, in teaching an undergraduate course on Arab or Middle Eastern history. It will as be of interest to scholars seeking to expand the breath of their understanding of the Arab peoples. In short, this is a fascinating book that offers a grand perceptive of Arab life over the centuries that will increase your appreciation for Arab culture and your understanding of the numerous problems that currently face Arab society.

Related Reviews:

Understanding Islam: An Introduction to the Muslim World, By Thomas W. Lippman.
This book not only offers the reader a detailed introduction to the tenets of Islamic faith, but it also covers its founding, the various factions that exist within Islam, and the role that Islam plays in the internal and external affairs of Islamic countries.

A History of The Middle East,By Peter Mansfield.
This work provides a sweeping survey of Middle Eastern history from the time of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, in 1798, until the start of the Gulf War in the 1990's.

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