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on October 29, 2001
The back cover claims this to be an "[a]uthorative and comprehensive history of Islamic societies written for the general reader and student that will no doubt prove to be a classic work in its field." I am happy to report that claim to be justified.
In clear and accessible style for college-level reading, Lapidus covers the Arab-Turkish-Iranian core as well as the African, Indian, and Indonesian periphery of the Muslim world. He also touches on the ex-Soviet and Chinese Muslims. The differences in political and economic organization are highlighted and contrasted, the variations of Islamic belief are explored, and the challenges of modernity are addressed.
If you're looking for a chronicling of dynastic politics, military vicissitudes, and 'great man' theories of history, look elsewhere. If you want a comprehensive, balanced synthesis comparing Islamic societies for the last 1400 years, read this book.
After reading "A History of Islamic Societies", consider moving on to Marshall Hodgson's three-volume set "The Venture of Islam".
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on June 7, 2000
This is no ordinary history facts-and-dates book for beginners. The rule is that you must have some general idea of the whole Islamic history, preferrably have read J.J. Saunder's 'The History of Medieval Islam.'
For those of you who have done your reading this is the perfect companion to test your arguments to the very limits. Some of Lapidus' arguments inconveniently disturb sacred faith of the pious, others might open up new horizon to the seculars, but mostly the arguments offer relevant issues never before thought correlated.
Buy it, read it, and love it. But don't hesitate to throw it out of the window when it gets too obstructing. Just pick it up the next day and read it some more, only then you'll appreciate what Prof. Lapidus has done for us. It easily become a classic in a short while.
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on February 28, 2005
This is a classic work on the history of Islamic societies. I'm not a historian, but found the book very readable. Its 900+ pages present an in-depth analysis of the history of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, leading up to the rise of Islam. Interestingly, Lapidus reveals the rise of Islam did not happen in a sudden, broad sweep, as I had been led to believe. Rather, Islam was adopted by Bedouins, merchants, etc. one tribe and village at a time. According to Lapidus, Islam has been marked with internal strife from the beginning when numerous civil wars over doctrine, leadership, and interpretation of the Prophet's message, led to the division of the faith into its Sunni and Shi'a sects. It is an incredible story that every westerner should read. The book covers the periods prior to Mohammed's revelations through the 20th century, and is divided into three parts:

The Origins of Islamic Civilization: 600 to 1200

The Worldwide diffusion of Islamic Societies

The Modern Transformation

As a Christian, I found the depiction of Christianity's role in the Middle East, especially in the early days of Islam, interesting. Lapidus is a noted scholar and has done us all a service by writing this book. I highly recommend it.
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on November 6, 2004
Lapidus' writing style is magnificent for a book of this depth (and length). Rather than writing dates and facts, he ties together the story of Islam with a scholar's perspective. He writes clearly, breaking up specific themes that require special consideration, and never hesitates to acknowledge when a specific topic is a subject of speculation or debate.
Lapidus does the religion justice in portraying it objectively; not as an evil or superior religion, but as a historical religion (with moments of beauty and depravity experienced by every faith) which served as scaffolding to a Middle Eastern empire, and continues to unite over a billion people throughout the world.
I remember learning "World History" in regards to the history of the Roman/European/North American events, but not once was the history of Africa (asides from light discussions on European colonialism), the Middle East and Asia discussed in highschool. It's unfortunate that most of us North Americans continue to learn absolutely nothing about the history of over half the world...
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on September 24, 2000
This work is an excellent overview of Islamic societies. Also, it is highly readable for a history book. Of course, it can get dull at times just as all really detailed history books must, but this work remains highly lucid throughout. The strongest breakthrough of this book concerns its treatment of the Arabization of Middle East and the developement of what we know as the modern Arab identity. However, to typify in a few sentence as book of this scope is impossible. Once you read it, you will find yourself going it back to it again and again for reference and for understanding modern events.
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on November 27, 2005
This is an excellent book of history. It was not intended, I am sure, to be an explanation of "true Islam" as called for by another reviewer. I have a reservation or two about Lapidus's conclusions, but his presentation of the material stands as the best overview of the course of history from Arabia to the entire globe you can buy today. For a more general introduction to the religion of Islam, try Carl Ernst *Following Muhammad* or Frederick Denny *An Introduction to Islam* and THEN dig into history with this book.
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on November 26, 2006
This book is absolutely essential for any historian interested or concerned with Islamicate societies. It is certainly more readable than Hodgeson's 3 volume Venture of Islam and on the same level of scholarly mastery. Consider this the product of a top historian reflecting upon a career of work within this field. Each paragraph is like a synthesis of ideas from across the field.

For me, this was an invaluable book for preparing for my minor field exam in medieval Islamic history (a graduate level exam). While it is never a replacement for more detailed studies, it serves as an "all you need to know" for many topics/ or a great launch pad for further research depending on what your purpose for reading is. There are more accessible books available for somebody only casually interested in the field, and I would be hard pressed to recommend it for in that case. Berkey's 'Formation of Islam' is a slimmer and easier to handle introduction, though his writing style is a tad dense even for somebody already introduced to the field.

Overall, I highly recommend it for any historian as a go to book. As my focus is Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it is perfect since enables me to have a huge field on hand without consulting numerous individual studies. As one reviewer remarked, though, this is most definitely a history book and so do not come looking for a poetic and emotional read.
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on April 21, 2015
Lapidus’s work on Islam presents comprehensive historical, evolutionary, social, and political issues and events leading up to the emergence of Islam and continuing through to current trends within Islamic communities. An all-encompassing, yet compelling history about the region leading up to and through the Prophet Mohammed’s life provide a firm understanding about the roots and origins of this hugely popular religion. Fascinating accounts of famous battles—including the one that split the religion into Shia’ and Sunni branches—bring to life a world and society that many religious Muslims continue to commemorate in religious practice. The brisk proliferation of new Islamic empires conquered most of the Islamic world as we know it today within a mere one hundred years after the Prophet’s death. Dynasties surged and sculpted societies rich in knowledge, complexity and sophistication. The Silk Road brought trade and information, but also death and destruction. As the Ottoman Empire reigned over the Muslim world, the European powers rushed in. With the confrontation between Europeans and the Ottoman Empire came friction and disorientation, and the Islamic world struggled to find itself. Lapidus concludes by exploring many issues that Muslims and Islam contend with in the present.
Knowledge of the history of the Islamic world is invaluable to the student of the Middle East because it plays such a formidable role in the lives of so many of the countries. Even secular Muslims and non-Muslims in the region are knowledgeable of the past and the basic foundations of Islam. Next to Q’uarnic study in theological schools this book provides an essential understanding of a predominant characteristic of the Middle East.
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on June 22, 2014
Lapidus' book is a great, broad overview of the history of Islamic societies. I've yet to read it in its entirety, due to the fact it's massive, but I've used quite a few sections for papers and for lecturing. I only have two complaints: 1) Lapidus focuses primarily on the modern era, though he certainly gives an overview of early Islamic history & 2) Lapidus does not talk very much about Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. He focuses primarily on the Middle East and Asia, while talking a decent amount about North Africa and the Islamic diaspora. However, sub-Saharan African nations that are overwhelmingly Muslim, such as Senegal, are only briefly talked about. The primary reason I purchased this book was to use for an Independent Study Project on German-Turkish relations, and found it useful to an extent for that purpose. However, for anything relating to sub-Saharan African Islamic history, one should look elsewhere.
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on August 11, 2012
I found this book quite disappointing. While nicely written and comprehensive in geographical and temporal scope, it has in my view several major defects. First, it is too slanted toward the modern period. The first 1300 years of history are covered too quickly, whereas events from about 1900 on receive too much detail and far too much of the book's space. Second, it isn't adequate as a summary of recent scholarship (or even of scholarship at the time it was first published); for example, the period of Islam's beginnings, which has undergone and is still undergoing a kind of revolution in scholarly circles, is presented by Lapidus as though none of the revisionist work since the 1970s ever happened--it reads as though it could have been written in 1960. Third, the book attempts to describe various historical developments in terms of broad social, economic, and political trends; but the result is not infrequently a kind of verbal mush of generic statements that, if one were to strip out the two or three place-names and names of persons in a given paragraph, one could apply as well to 15th century France, say, as to 14th century Khurasan. In view of this, a better title for the book might have been "A Sociology of Islamic History" because one often does not sense the historical progression of events; rather, one feels events being shaped mainly by generalized social forces.
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