Middle East bookshelf: history

Last week I invited readers of this blog to help with a project that looks simple but is actually rather difficult: to compile a list of 10 books that would provide a well-rounded parameters and receiving quite a lot of 
recommendations, I think it’s time to choose the first book: a general history. 

Working through the shortlist in order of appearance, we start with Philip Hitti’s History of the Arabs, first published in 1937 after 10 years in the writing. It’s long (more than 800 pages) but elegantly written and very readable. Its strengths are that it delves into pre-Islamic history as well as the birth of Islam and it’s not just a chronicle of caliphs and conflicts: along the way it also discusses Arab society, intellectual life, architecture, science and so on. The main drawbacks are that it stops at the Second World War and reflects some of the attitudes that were prevalent in the first half of the 20th century.

A History of the Arab Peoples, by Albert Hourani (1991), starts later – at the time of the Prophet – and ends later, with the aftermath of the 1967 war. It’s generally considered less readable than Hitti’s work. Hourani’s book was reviewed unfavourably by Daniel Pipes in the Wall Street Journal (though it should be pointed out that Pipes himself is a controversial figure).

A couple of years ago The Moor Next Door blog compared Hitti and Hourani, and came out quite strongly in Hitti’s favour.

Three others worth considering are A History of the Modern Middle East by William Cleveland (2004), The Modern Middle East: a History, by James Gelvin (2005) and The Arabs, by Eugene Rogan, which was published last year.

Rogan’s book, which covers only 500 years or so, was reviewed briefly in Foreign Affairs and in more detail in the Guardian and theTelegraph. The Angry Arab was very uncomplimentary about it.

Among readers of this blog, Gabriel Miland recommends Rogan's book "for its up-to-dateness, its accessible style – but most of all for its insights into Middle Eastern perceptions of the west", and Elias Muhanna describes it as "very readable" and "as good a place as any for a new reader to get their feet wet".

Obviously, no single history book is going to suit all readers for all purposes, so it’s advisable to weigh up the pros and cons of each before buying. On balance, though, my own preference would be for Hitti, bearing in mind that it leaves a gap in the second half of the 20th century which would have to be filled by other means.