Islamic Historiography

Chase F. Robinson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 264 pages.

In this introduction to the large, unwieldy, and complex topic of Islamic historiography, the author has limited himself to historical works written in Arabic, primarily in the central Islamic lands, before 1500. This choice can be justified in that the field’s formative works written early on in Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and Syria and all in Arabic, served as models for historians writing later on in peripheral regions and in other languages. Nevertheless, it is a bow to convenience and necessity, given the vast amount of material involved. As a result, the Arabic historiography of North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and other peripheral regions are largely ignored, as are the Turkish histories of the Ottoman Empire and the Persian histories of Iran, Central Asia, and India. Within these admitted and understandable limitations, the book provides an excellent thematic overview, while, at the same time, introducing the reader to some of the Islamic world’s most fascinating histories and historians. This book is divided into three parts, including ten chapters and a conclusion. A glossary, five plates of manuscript folios, three maps, two chronologies of prominent historians, and suggestions for further reading contribute to making this a useful and accessible text.

Empire and Elites after the Muslim Conquest: The Transformation of Northern Mesopotamia

Chase F. Robinson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 221 pages.

Perhaps one would not expect a history of “Islamic rule” in the seventh and eighth centuries in what is now the Middle East to illuminate any contemporary debate on Islam, in particular about whether there is an innate civilizational clash between it and the (Christian) West. And yet this modest study manages to do that, if only tangentially and coincidentally, and if read with some reservations. Cambridge historians are renowned for their preoccupation with elites, generally of provinces far removed from the centers of power, and hence their single-minded focus on the “politics of notables” of relatively minor localities. From such provincial concerns, however, emerge more universal claims about, for instance, the nature of British colonial rule in India or of Islamic rule in the Middle Ages. Chase Robinson, following this tradition, assesses – as “critic and architect” – the changing status of Christian and Muslim elites following the Muslim conquest of northern Mesopotamia.

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