Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

November Books 23) A History of the Middle East, 24) Islam: A Short History

Occasionally my reading programme drags two related books separately to the top of the "to read" pile, and this was one of those occasions. Both of these are excellent and short guides to their respective subjects.

November Books 23) A History of the Middle East, by Peter Mansfield (second edition, revised and updated by Nicholas Pelham)

This really covers only the last two centuries - the period to 1800 is covered in a breathless 35-page first chapter - but I learnt a lot from it. Although I knew the general outline of the fall of the Ottoman Empire (including the Arab revolt) and was also fairly familiar with the highlights of post-1948 history, there was a lot from the three decades between that was new to me, specifically the various imperialist engagements with Arab governments and governance. Really the notion that the US and/or the Europeans could be credible advocates of democracy in the Middle East was always nonsense.

(And on reflection, a further cause for disappointment with Kissinger's Diplomacy is that it has almost nothing to say on this subject.)

November Books 24) Islam: A Short History, by Karen Armstrong

This obviously overlaps a bit with Mansfield, and also with the books about Muhammad and his successors which I had read a couple of years back. I was expecting a largely political history of the Islamic world, but in fact Armstrong gives a fascinating account of the development of Islamic religious thought in its political context. My own political contacts have tended to the more secularised and secularist end of the spectrum (my professional interests in the Balkans, Turkey/Cyprus, Polisario, Somaliland, my relatives from Bangladesh - only one of those areas being Arabic-speaking) and my contacts on the religious side have been rather eclectic (the Bektashi tekke in Tetovo and the followers of Said Nursî in Nicosia) so it was useful to be reminded that these are only a part of the story.

Armstrong makes the point that Islam was always engaged with government and with politics in a way that few other major faiths have been. This has made the encounter between Islam and the modern particularly painful; not helped by the fact that the advocates of secularism and modernity in the Muslim world have tended to be repressive and dictatorial in their actions, and the international community's havit of excoriating, ignoring or conniving in the corruption or cancellation of the results of democratic elections does not really help.
Tags: bookblog 2009, islam, religion

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