Paperback review: A History of the Arab Peoples, By Albert Hourani


Hourani's magisterial 1991 study, with an introduction and afterword by Malise Ruthven, starts with the pre-Islamic history of the Arabs (to which only seven pages are devoted), and explains the spread of Islam, the sectarian split between Sunni and Shia, and the mediaeval flowering of Arab learning.

It's perhaps a pity that Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes), who argued that where the Koran contradicts reason, it shouldn't be interpreted literally, did not have more influence in the Arab world, though he had an impact on Christian thought. There are sections on the role of women (less favourable now than 50 years ago) and a clear, unbiased account of the creation of Israel. One can't devour this in a single sitting but, read slowly, chapter by chapter, it's a fascinating insight into a civilisation spanning 14 centuries.