Monday, December 15, 2008

Two news books on the Arab Conquests

1) The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, by Hugh Kennedy
2) God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215, by David Levering Lewis.

John Derbyshire writes this book review: good reading! For the complete review see here.
Here are two very different history books covering some of the same territory: the early conquests of Islam. Hugh Kennedy's book is the more comprehensive and scholarly, with detailed accounts of all the Arab advances into Africa, Asia, and Europe up to the fall of the Umayyad dynasty in A.D. 750. David Levering Lewis writes mainly of Europe, though the Arab conquest of the Roman possessions in Africa and the Middle East is adequately covered. His subtitle notwithstanding, Lewis spends little time—only the last three of his 16 chapters—on events later than the 8th century, so that the chronological overlap between the two books is greater than their titles indicate.

It is a sad reflection on the current state of popular historical writing that one approaches any book about Islamic history with the question: what's the angle? Historians with a bill of goods to sell are of course nothing new. Gibbon's pro-classical, anti-Christian bias; Macaulay's Whiggism; Carlyle's heroes; the Marxists' modes of production; Spengler's declinism; Churchill's Anglo-Saxon triumphalism; it sometimes seems to the general reader that "dispassionate historian" is an oxymoron.

In the matter of Islam, though, matters have become more serious lately. Some part of this has been a reaction to the anti-Western tone of "post-colonial" propagandists like Edward Said. Much more has been driven by the notion, widely held since September 2001, that the West is engaged in a critical civilizational conflict with the Muslim world. Whether or not we truly are in such a conflict is a large question all by itself. (My opinion: no.) If you believe we are, though, you ought to take sides, and many scholars have done so.

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