F. Alkhateeb, Lost Islamic History. Reclaiming Muslim Civilization from the Past, Hurst & Company, London 2014.
Lost Islamic History is a famous blog, greatly followed by people interested in the history of Islam and of Muslim communities through ages. It is not specialized in one particular topic, and actually it provides information on different subjects, from history to science development in the Muslim world.
Presumably following the success gained by the blog, also through social networks such as Twitter, the author has now published a book, where he wants to “[rescue] from oblivion and neglect” the personalities and institutions that contributed to the formation of Islamic culture, “while offering the reader a new narrative of this lost Islamic history”, as one reads in the synopsis.
I have just finished reading the book, and here I would like to give my personal comment on its contents and its message.
Actually I must admit I have many remarks about the book, maybe too many. I decided to concentrate just on a few of them, which I deem more interesting and useful to provide an overall impression on the contents.
The title, the synopsis, the book and my expectations
Both from the title Lost Islamic History, and the synopsis I expected a book that would have provided a new perspective for the study of Islamic history, and, most importantly, that would have dealt thoroughly with some parts of the Islamic history that have been long neglected and are scarcely known by the public, such as the Emirate of Sicily or the Iranian Intermezzo, just to name two. What I found was a book on the history of the dar al-Islam, that mainly takes into consideration periods already profusely studied and pretty known by the public.
There is only one chapter that actually deals with the periphery of the Islamic lands (not Sicily, by the way). The 8th chapter, “The Edge”, takes into consideration the Islamic communities developed in West and East Africa, in the Americas (more related to the African Slavery, and with nothing but a hint at the Nation of Islam), China, India and Southeast Asia. All these subject, anyway, are not actually developed in the narrative, the whole chapter comprising only 17 pages.
Generally speaking, the short book (217 pages, bibliography included) wants to deal with the whole Islamic history, from jahiliyya (pre-Islamic period) to modern times (there’s also an allusion to the Arab Spring). The bibliography provided, only 3 pages, is way too general, and the text do not have any note, so that in some part I felt the lack of references for some assumptions made by the author. Also, the lack of references makes it more difficult for the reader, to further explore a subject or topic in which he or she would be interested.
Sunni Islamic History
When speaking about history, it is hard to have an uncritical point of view and to provide uncritical information. The limit of the book, personally, clearly is in its pro-Sunni narrative that affects the historical analysis.
The narrative is focused on three main dynasties (I will not take into consideration the period of the Prophet and of the Rashidun – Rightly-Guided Caliphs): the Umayyads, the ‘Abbasids, and the Ottomans. These three Sunni dynasties are described quite uncritically as “good” and successful, at least when they arose, mainly because they strictly followed the Sunna of the Prophet, thus trying to create the Islamic state that Muhammad had in mind. They are good and wealthy as long as they stick to these principles, but as soon as they are corrupted by an external element (shi’a, European system of thoughts, secularism…), they start to quiver and eventually collapse.
The Umayyads were authors of their own collapse: in pages 57-58 we read that for economic reasons the Umayyad decided to impose the jizya (the tax that non-Muslims living under the Muslim state had to pay) also for those who had later converted to Islam. Here the author explains:
In practice, it meant institutionalized discrimination based on race. Since the Arabs had almost entirely converted to Islam before the Umayyad caliphate began, the only people who were converting into the religion were non-Arabs such as Copts, Greeks, Berbers, and especially Persians. […] From a religious perspective, this directly contradicted Prophet Muhammad’s call for unity […] when he famously proclaimed, “No Arab is better than a non-Arab and no non-Arab is better than an Arab”
The Abbasids’ decline is not actually analysed: in the author’s narrative they were just devastated by the historical accidents that caused a stagnation in the Islamic history, namely “the Shi’a, European Crusaders and Mongol hordes” (p. 89). Anyway, even if the ‘Abbasid political power was non-existent at a certain point, in this narrative some pious reign such as the Sultanate of Delhi is described in positive hues also because “Delhi’s sultans did not claim the title of caliphs” and “recognized the ultimate authority of the Abbasids as leaders of the Muslim world […] even after the destruction of Baghdad and the relegation of the Abbasids to nominal figureheads in Cairo” (p. 146).
The Ottoman Empire, the last stronghold of Sunnism, according to this narrative, appears to be doomed since Muhmud II (r. 1808-1839) and his sons Abdulmecid I (r. 1839-1861) and Abdulaziz (r. 1861-1876) started an era of political and cultural reforms, which brought secularism and liberalism, originally from Europe. This era would eventually lead to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (pp. 180-183). Again, the author stresses the deviance from the Islamic orthodoxy that accompanied the defeat of the Ottoman Empire:
No longer was the Islamic shari’ah the basis for law in Ottoman Empire. […] Since their earliest days, the Ottomans had prided themselves on being representatives and protectors of Islam. […] Now the Empire was shedding away that Islamic tradition in favor of a liberal, secular, Western approach that it borrowed from Europe. […] never before had a Muslim empire nominally recognized secularism as legitimate policy. (pp. 181-182)
Opposition “groups”, such as the Kharijites, the Mutazilites, and the Fatimids are not properly developed and explained in the text. For example the Kharijites are depicted solely as brutal, their actions confined to terrorizing incursions (pp. 45-46). In Endress we learn, for instance, the movement can be seen as highly “democratic”, even if always puritan and somewhat fanatic: the Kharijites were against the hegemony of the Banu Quraysh, saying that any orthodox Muslim could be eligible for becoming a Caliph, even a black slave.
As for the Fatmids, the author only concentrates on their opposition to Sunni Islam, without considering the art and the culture that spread during their period.
A cyclical view of history
At the beginning of chapter 9 (p. 151), the author speaks about Ibn Khaldun’s theory about the cyclic nature of history, in particular of the dynasties, concluding that “the cycle begins all over again as a new dynasty rises to replace the old, decrepit one”.
The book underlines how this view on history is applicable in the whole of Islamic history: the Umayyads rise and fall, the ‘Abbasids rise and fall, the Ottomans rise and fall… this gives the reader also an interpretation of the present. After a period in which the inauspicious secularism widespread in Islamic world, thus preventing strong (Sunni) Islamic power to develop, now the Arab-Islamic world is facing a new phase, a “new era for the Muslim world; one that surely cannot be detached from 1400 years of Islamic history that came before it”.
Generally speaking, the book gives a partial overview of the Islamic history. When I say partial I mean the term in its twofold senses: partial as incomplete, not taking into consideration many aspects of the Islamic history, and lacking of an in-depth research and criticism of the context; partial as biased, prejudiced in favour to an orthodox narrative, presenting the facts without the uncritical attitude that a history book should have.
Is it worth reading? Well, I think that every book deserves to be read and that every idea should be taken into consideration. Thus, I can only say to read the book, but keeping in mind that it is not a History of the Islamic world. It is an interpretation, a narrative based on a perspective that can or cannot be shared. If one wants to have an idea of the many aspects of Islamic history,and its culture, should read books such as Endress’s Islam: an historical introduction (that interestingly enough is not included in the bibliography given in Lost Islamic History).
Islamic history is more complex and multi-faceted that the one presented by Lost Islamic History, and many parts of the history that the book wants to revive, seem to be still lost.
Bibliography – some books on Islamic History I enjoyed
G. Endress, Islam: an historical introduction, Columbia University Press, New York 2003 (second edition).
The Cambridge History series provides a wonderful source, both for the history of Islam, and for the regional history of the Islamic world.
M. Campanini, Islam e politica, Il Mulino, Bologna 2003. (for those who read in Italian… it well explains the political sphere of Islam and Islamic political history)
The Encyclopaedia of Islam, published by Brill, still remains a valuable source for everyone interested in Islamic history and culture…impossible to download or buy (too expensive), you should check your public library.