World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format          

Book Review


Hitti, Philip K. History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present, Revised Tenth ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002 [originally published 1937]). 822 pp, $32.95.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan, and later Iraq, maps were referenced and great detail was given by news anchors attempting to habituate the minds of their American audience to a region whose culture and politics seemed so wholly foreign to their own. Yet the Middle East has long maintained a presence in the minds and imaginations of Americans, whether in popular culture or through religious and archaeological fascination. Throughout the years Americans have frequently turned to the work of historians in an attempt to supplement the more generalized ´pop culture' history lesson they receive in novels and film. It is, in fact, to such works as Philip Hitti's 1937, History of the Arabs, that both academics and non-academics alike have turned to add depth to their own educational foundations. Altered, revised, and edited over ten times since its first release, History of the Arabs offers scholars and interested laymen alike a chance to understand one of the most influential ethnic groups of the world in a straightforward and detailed manner. 1
     Monumental in scope, History of the Arabs is well laid out and is ideal as a reference work for anyone interested in knowing more about Arab, Middle Eastern, or even Islamic history. The structure of the work is one expected from a typical Middle Eastern text. It follows the history of the Arabs by offering a brief account of the Jahilyyah, the Age of Ignorance — the era before Arabs had received the Qu'ran and were typically Pagans or Christian — through the birth of the Prophet Muhammad and the rise and spread of Islam, to the capture of Constantinople and the era of Ottoman rule. Although mentioned at the end of the text, the twentieth century receives little discussion. Indeed, the central focus of the work examines the rise and fall of Arab and Muslim empires across the Middle East and North Africa. 2
     For the purposes of world historians, History of the Arabs is significant in its discussion of non-Arab influences on the changing dynamics of the ethnic group. Perhaps more so than other instruments of cultural change, Hitti points to language as one of the most important forms of non-Arab influence. As Arabs fanned out across the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa they met much less resistance to their new religion and political structures than they did to changes in language. Although Arabic became the language of learning and society, particularly in places like Persia and Spain, native languages were rarely extinguished. Hitti observes that in places like Lebanon, for instance, Syriac was able to survive down to the modern era (361). Language, Hitti leads us to believe, is a channel of adaptation and cultural diffusion that, particularly in the case of the Arabs, allows us to understand the experiences of non-ruling peoples under the rule of vast, foreign, empires. 3
     Hitti also argues that as Muslim Arabs spread out of the Hejaz (part of the Arabian Peninsula), they ran into cultures wholly different from their own. Out of these encounters grew the more dynamic culture that came to dominate much of world trade between the seventh through the end of the fifteenth centuries. Hitti goes to great lengths to describe how Arabs acquired and acculturated new technologies, philosophies, and other advances in the process of expansion. Equally, Hitti does not shy away from explaining how structural decay and degrees of decadence eventually eroded the greatness of the Arab empires. While adaptation and cultural change allowed the empires to grow, stagnation and later refusal to change helped to destabilize the empires and allowed other powers‚such as the Mongolian, Turkic, and European empires‚to take control. 4
     It is clear that Hitti's work is intended for the educated reader. Readers are, for instance, expected to have read The Thousand and One Arabian Nights and to have some sense of Biblical and regional history prior to reading this work. To illustrate the importance and significance of slaves in Arab society, for example, Hitti refers to the story of Tawaddud, giving only a brief explanation of her part in the legendary Arabian Nights (342). However, one should not be deterred by this warning; Hitti's work is primarily an introduction. The detail that one may gain from more specific readings, particularly from those primary sources upon which Hitti relies so heavily, is generalized in this text. Its use varies from that of a supplementary or reference work for undergraduates and perhaps even advanced high school students, to an essential historiographic work for the graduate student in Middle Eastern, Islamic, and indeed world history. 5
Maryanne Rhett
Washington State University

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use