Arabs : a 3,000-year history of peoples, tribes and empires

by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

Hardcover, 2019




New Haven : Yale University Press, [2019]


This kaleidoscopic book covers almost 3,000 years of Arab history and shines a light on the footloose Arab peoples and tribes who conquered lands and disseminated their language and culture over vast distances. Tracing this process to the origins of the Arabic language, rather than the advent of Islam, Tim Mackintosh-Smith begins his narrative more than a thousand years before Muhammad and focuses on how Arabic, both spoken and written, has functioned as a vital source of shared cultural identity over the millennia. Mackintosh-Smith reveals how linguistic developments-from pre-Islamic poetry to the growth of script, Muhammad's use of writing, and the later problems of printing Arabic-have helped and hindered the progress of Arab history, and investigates how, even in today's politically fractured post-Arab Spring environment, Arabic itself is still a source of unity and disunity.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member willszal
I picked up this book for a few reasons: a) I know very little about the history of the Middle East, b) I'm interested in the evolution of languages, both written and oral, and their affect on culture.

In a way, it is a topic too broad for one book. Arabs are a people defined by a common language.
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And yet it is like saying "English-speakers;" the category is so expansive. And yet there are commonalities. Not all Arabs are Muslim, although understanding Islam is an important part of understanding Arabs. As a result of this, at times, the book felt too long. On the other hand, in having finished it, I just have a cursory understanding of Arabs, so maybe it couldn't have been any shorter.

Arabs have always had settled and nomadic elements. Raiding (a socially-acceptable form of piracy) has been a crucial instrument of interaction between these different groups.

It wasn't until Muhammad and the creation of Islam, half way through this three-thousand year history, that Arabic became a written language. Before this time, Arab empires kept records in Latin. And it is only now, in the age of social media, that written Arabic is found in a form other than the traditional High Arabic. In other words, there has been a gap between the many oral dialects and the written language. Much of the book is spent on Muhammad.

Muhammad, unlike Moses or Jesus, was a warlord. As a role model, Jesus rejected wealth and power. In Islam, there are no such prohibitions.

Another element of note: in pre-history, the Arabian Peninsula was a rainforest. Their decertified state today has only been present for the past few thousand years.

The book is sprinkled with countless anecdotes, which give flavor and character to what otherwise might be a sprawling history.

One other piece of note: the Middle East is generally very anti-Semitic, as the creation of Israel essentially placed Arabs on the receiving end of a colonial push.

Poetry is of utmost importance in Arabic. Poets have been the biggest celebrities of Arab history, and just as politicians in other traditions must have skills in public speaking, Arab politicians must be skilled in poetry.

If you too have curiosities about the Middle East and don't know where to start, this could be an option.
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