Fadlo had studied at what later became the American University of Beirut and settled in Manchester as a cotton merchant. His family had converted from Eastern Orthodoxy to Scottish Presbyterianism and his father became an elder of the local church in Manchester. Hourani himself, in turn, converted to Catholicism in adulthood. He ended his academic career as Fellow of St. Hourani trained more academic historians of the modern Middle East than any other university historian of his generation. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age — is one of the first scientific attempts at a comprehensive analysis of the nahda , the Arab revival of the 19th century, and the opening of the Arab world to modern European culture; it remains one of the major works on this subject.
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From the Byzantines to the Ottomans I just find the history of the region of the people really interesting. I think it may be because there is such a unique mixing of people, cultures, and ideas in the region that more engaging to me than, say, Tudor England or Colonial America. This region has seen some of the greatest world empires, it is the birthplace of the major Monotheistic religions, and has exchanged hands innumerable times, resulting in a unique blending of cultures and peoples not seen anywhere else.
I am not as well read or knowledgeable about the Arab portion of the story so I was eager to dive into this extensive book. And extensive this book is. Hourani aims to provide the reader with a total understanding of how Arab and later non-Arab Muslim society was structured. From the early Arab tribesmen and I kid you not the type of poetry they created to cosmopolitan Damascus to the dry stretches of North Africa Hourani dives into the dynamics of how these societies operated and their relationship with the wider Arab speaking world.
While this does get a bit dry at times insert desert pun here the reader gets an excellent window into how the people of the past lived. For me the most illuminating part was all the interlocking interests that existed in the Arab speaking world.
For instance there is a pretty constant back and forth between the settled peoples of the land and the nomadic herdsman. Depending on political conditions how strong or weak a central government was , the climate, and economic factors the settled folks might be dominant over the herdsman or the other way around.
It was a relationship in constant flux and impacted the local balance of power. Another fascinating relationship was between the religious leaders the ulama and secular authorities. This relationship, like all others across time, changed with the coming of modernity and the need for Arab states to modernize in the face of potential domination by the West.
I had also under appreciated the impact that the spread of Arab as a spoken language would have on societies.
By conquering and holding such a vast stretch of land the initial Arab conquerors brought their language to a wider population and made it the official language of government. This also made it the unofficial language of trade across the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean Sea as well as across the silk road trade routes.
This common language and shared Islamic culture really helped facilitate long term trade and credit and drive the economic engine of the Arab world, which at the time far surpassed contemporary Western Christendom.
For me, though, the most compelling section dealt with how European powers came to dominate and occupy Arab states and how this dominance altered the traditional patterns of life in these states. Being conquered by unbelievers who were clearly organizationally, technologically, and economically more advanced than the Arab societies was a shock to those societies. As Western business interests expanded in these states, primarily driven by resource extraction and agricultural projects, there was a mixing of European migrants and the upper echelon of Arab speaking societies.
This facilitated the further transfer of such Western ideas such as freedom, nationalism, and representative government to these states, but mixed with Islamic beliefs and sensibilities.
While the base ideas were Western the Arab speaking states adapted them to their own history, circumstances, and culture. All in all this was a very extensive and exhaustive examination and exploration of Arab speaking cultures from its beginning in the Arabian Desert through roughly hence the New Afterward.
If you are looking for an introductory book on Arab speaking and Islamic culture I would suggest Destiny Disrupted , it is a lot more accessible to a first time reader and shorter too.
But if you are looking for a more complex and complete view, of Arab speaking societies and already have a pretty solid knowledge base of Islamic history, this is the book for you.
A History of the Arab Peoples