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When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty Paperback – March 14, 2006

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; 2.12.2006 edition (March 14, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306814803
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306814808
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #339,287 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. These days Baghdad is associated with violence and insurgency. But more than a thousand years ago, during the Abbasid caliphate, Baghdad was a center of the arts and sciences, a city of dreams and limitless opportunities. This eminently entertaining book by respected British historian Kennedy focuses on these glory days of Baghdad in the eighth and ninth centuries, and the city's eventual downfall. Firmly grounded in the original Arabic literary sources of the era, Kennedy (Mongols, Huns and Vikings) emphasizes the amazing personalities of the period, such as Caliph Harun al-Rashid (mythologized in TheArabian Nights) and his powerful queen Zubayda. Kennedy's account is not a dry political chronicle but rather full of stories of love, sex, power, corruption, sibling rivalry and political intrigue—for which he makes no apology. Kennedy does a superb job resurrecting the human dimension of the period, as in apt descriptions of life in Harun al-Rashid's harem or the various caliphs' decisions whether or not to wage war. He also provides a sophisticated account of the general cultural and political climate based on recent scholarship. Combining academic rigor and accessibility, this is compelling reading for anyone concerned with the perils of power, the medieval Islamic legacy and the images that Baghdad continues to conjure in the modern imagination. 24 pages of illus., 3 maps. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Baghdad was founded in 762 by the Abbasid caliphate, which, claiming its legitimacy from lineage to the family of the prophet Muhammad, had overthrown the Umayyad caliphate. Chronicling the first two of the Abbasids' five centuries of rule, historian Kennedy acquaints nonspecialists with an important segment of Islamic history, perhaps best known to Westerners as the period setting for Arabian Nights. Sensitive to the biases of available sources, Kennedy picks through their panegyrics to political winners or condemnations of losers to present a narrative that realistically outlines the motivations and characters of caliphs, viziers, and even court attendants. He recounts contested successions to the caliphate, with detail on the immediate political tensions and their usually gruesome release. Weakened by these struggles for the throne and essentially a powerless pawn of generals by the time Kennedy leaves off in 935, the Abbasid caliphate nevertheless produced a munificent court culture. Reveling in its richness of ritual, poetry, song, and architecture, Kennedy accessibly presents his expertise on the Abbasids in this insightful history of the dynasty. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

Very informative and interesting book.
As a professor of History I found this a good overview of the court life of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, while holding the readers interest.
Unfortunately, this book does not answer these questions.
Naeem Ali

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 42 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on May 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The Prophet Muhammad died in 632 CE, and a universal caliphate was begun, the greatest political power ever in the Islamic world. The Abbasid Caliphate held sway afterwards for almost two hundred years. It included the reign of Harun al-Rashid, who became famous within the legends of the Arabian Nights. In _When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty_ (Da Capo Press), Hugh Kennedy has described his share of eunuchs, harems, slave girls, viziers (both sycophantic and traitorous), and lavish palaces, so although those knowing the legends will find few djinns or flying carpets, there is plenty of Arabic exoticism. There is also, as Kennedy says, a "fair share of, to put it bluntly, booze and sex." Kennedy, who has superb academic credentials in Arabic Studies, almost apologizes to pious Muslims, who may find this an irreverent account of glorious years of their history, and to his colleagues, who may think the book frivolous. He has deliberately concentrated on "dramatic events, striking personalities, and the trivia of everyday life." He says that he can do so because "... the writers of the ninth and tenth centuries knew that their rulers had their fair share of human frailties and they were quite happy to describe them."

Besides booze and sex, there is plenty of blood here, shed in sometimes imaginative and cruel ways. The account of conflicts largely concerns the transfer of power from one caliph to another. Although some caliphs were more patrons of the arts than others, the period was rich in historic writing (from which Kennedy has directly drawn) and in poetry.
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43 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Naeem Ali on November 8, 2008
Format: Paperback
The title and back cover mislead you into believing this book is about the conditions that led Baghdad to becoming the intellectual, economic and military power of the world at the time. But reading this book it's only about gossip, court intrigue, the harem, singers & poets of the court. This book is no different than reading about the life style of the rich and famous of the Abbasid Dynasty.

The back cover states "Professor Hugh Kennedy's lively and compelling study shatters many of the preconceptions held by both sides and gives some indication of the roots of our current impasse". I have no idea what preconceptions this book is trying to shatter because it only details the life of the Caliphs Court. Understanding today's problems in the Muslim world has nothing to do with the singers, poets and harem of an eighth and ninth century court.

I was hoping (expecting) to find in this book the conditions that led to the rise of the Muslim Golden age during the reign of the Abbasid dynasty. There were giants in the field of astronomy and mathematics who walked the streets of Baghdad conjuring up theories and ideas that never existed before. What established this environment and spirit of free thought? What created this dynasty's enormous wealth? What were the foundations of the Caliphs power? Unfortunately, this book does not answer these questions.

Also, the Abbasid dynasty is considered the golden age of the Islamic civilization but this book gives a skewed impression of a morally bankrupt society. When an era is considered the Golden age, there are reasons for that label. Those reasons are not explored here; instead the opposite impression is given.

For those who enjoy reading about the life style of the rich and famous, they will find this book a very interesting read. But for myself, from what I was expecting compared to what I got, I was disappointed.


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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Sarah on February 14, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I studied the medieval Islamic world a little in college, and fell in love. It's a fascinating age in which Central Asian Buddhists, North African nomads, Ethiopian slaves, Greek cave-dwellers, Persian aristocrats, Arab bureaucrats and a host of different cultures came together, mixed, wrote wonderful literature, and lived the kind of drama that makes history fun. But it's hard to find anything written about the time that isn't arcane professor babble or Islam 101. (You know, "There are five pillars of Islam..." Snore.)

Here Hugh Kennedy has written the book I always wanted. He wisely concentrates on medieval Islam's golden age, the early Abbasid dynasty, when Baghdad ruled a large portion of the world-and, even more astutely, on the dramatic stories and personalities of the court. Let's face it, you read about the Abbasids because you want to know how the slave girl Khayzuran not only managed to marry the caliph but to quell a military revolt, why her son Harun al-Rashid was immortalized in The Arabian Nights, and why the all-powerful Barmakid family suddenly fell from grace to prison and execution. Kennedy brings the caliphs and their families to life. He's up front about the fact that the book is about aristocrats, but the common people of Baghdad, the "pickpockets and sellers of cheap sweets" who fought back when their city was besieged, and the middle class who developed Islamic tradition dance around the edge of the narrative.

Kennedy doesn't believe everything he reads, and doesn't think you will either. He repeats stories-like the "harem intrigue" tales, in which devious women are blamed for various deaths-that are almost certainly not true, but tell us something about the people who believed them, and are still enormously entertaining.
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