Most helpful positive review
58 of 61 people found the following review helpful
a history of the people
on September 1, 2004
When Hourani titled his book, "History of the Arab Peoples," he was being honest and literal--- the book is literally a history of the peoples, including the development of their interpretations of Islam, the formation of various schools of thought on the Islamic law and how literally it was to be interpreted, the conflict between secularism and fundamentalism and nationalism in the post-imperial period.
This is not a book about wars, nations, or heroes: the Crusades are barely mentioned, Salah-al-Din gets scant mention, as do Timur, the Mongols, or other great conquerors mythologized in Western poetry and children's stories. Rather, this is a book about society, about urbanization, about economic migration, about the development of political and national consciousness, about the development of literatures, about the use of colloquial versus classical Arabic in poetry, about the rise of Ottoman bureaucracies, and the basis of their legitimacy and power.
In short, this book is a history of the peoples: what shaped their intellectual development, the history of their cultures, etc. I think this is the right emphasis, because the political history (at least for the past 100 years) was mostly imposed by outsiders and is therefore (in my opinion) superficial, and is still in a state of fast flux and definition (e.g. what will be the political outcome in Iraq?), whereas a study of the core Arab / Islamic identity seems to be a more solid foundation from which one can attempt to understand the political structures that have been built. Put another way, Hourani's book will never go out of date, whereas a book that attempted more to explain the current politics of the Middle East would only survive as long as the next treaty or revolution. Yes terrorism is completely unemphasized, but that is appropriate to the purpose of this history, and does not diminish from its importance or usefulness at all: you will not achieve any understanding of the Arab peoples by studying terrorism, but you will go a long way toward understanding terrorism by studying the history of the Arab peoples.
I agree with previous reviewers that more exposition of the differences in the Islamic schools of thought would have been helpful, as would have been a glossary (versus having to flip to the first reference to that word in the text). I would have also liked more emphasis on scientific, technological, financial and economic innovation, as opposed to the emphasis mostly on philosophical innovation. The treatment of debate on the proper role of logic and argument in the study of Islam is quite good. Finally, the author adopts a secular, non-Western viewpoint that is quite refreshing and appropriate.