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When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty Paperback – 21 Feb 2006


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Product details

  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press Inc; New Ed edition (21 Feb. 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306814803
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306814808
  • Product Dimensions: 22.7 x 16.1 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 614,424 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Baghdad, Virtually nothing remains of the city of the early Abassid caliphs but this nineteenth-century drawing by Lieutenant J. Fitzjames, R.N., captures something of the atmosphere, the domes and palaces by the Tigris and the bridge of boats across the river.

About the Author

Hugh Kennedy has taught in the Department of Mediaeval History at the University of St. Andrews since 1972. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2000. Professor Kennedy lives in St. Andrews, Scotland.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By rob crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 14 May 2011
Format: Paperback
This book is a fun read that is well written and designed for the interested layman. It never gets bogged down in academic controversies and finds the fun in the blood, sex, and civilization of a truly unique empire. Unfortunately, there were many historical details, however academic this might sound, that I was hungry to learn about and felt continually disappointed at their light treatment, i.e. how Islam was instituted in the occupied countries (or why it succeeded in taking such firm root), what the sources of Arab power were (faith, organization, economics or some combination thereof?), and why the Abbasids produced some of the greatest cultural works that humanity has ever known? While Kennedy makes it clear that he intended to tell interesting stories, I really wanted much more than he provided. As such, it is good popular history, but not dense enough for my taste.

The Abbasids took power in a revolution from the Ummayads, who were a group from the prophet Mohammed's tribe but not part of his larger family (the Abbasids were cousins of the Prophet). While we get a lot about the intrigues and military aspects, all anecdotal, there is very little about the religious side of the conflict, particularly in tribal context. The Sunnis and Shiites were not yet quite formed, crucial religious history that I wanted to better understand. Then, the Persians were included as vital allies, at the time of their conversion to Islam, also barely covered in the book. This was thus a badly incomplete picture. It is not even clear why the revolution took hold, beyond bare facts like the Ummayads were unpopular due to their Syrian base.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By J. E. S. Leake on 22 Aug. 2009
Format: Paperback
This title is the US title of the identical UK-titled The Court of the Caliphs.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 27 reviews
42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
The Great Islamic Dynasty 23 May 2005
By Rob Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The Prophet Muhammad died in 632 CE, and a universal caliphate was begun, the greatest political power ever in the Islamic world. The Abbasid Caliphate held sway afterwards for almost two hundred years. It included the reign of Harun al-Rashid, who became famous within the legends of the Arabian Nights. In _When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty_ (Da Capo Press), Hugh Kennedy has described his share of eunuchs, harems, slave girls, viziers (both sycophantic and traitorous), and lavish palaces, so although those knowing the legends will find few djinns or flying carpets, there is plenty of Arabic exoticism. There is also, as Kennedy says, a "fair share of, to put it bluntly, booze and sex." Kennedy, who has superb academic credentials in Arabic Studies, almost apologizes to pious Muslims, who may find this an irreverent account of glorious years of their history, and to his colleagues, who may think the book frivolous. He has deliberately concentrated on "dramatic events, striking personalities, and the trivia of everyday life." He says that he can do so because "... the writers of the ninth and tenth centuries knew that their rulers had their fair share of human frailties and they were quite happy to describe them."

Besides booze and sex, there is plenty of blood here, shed in sometimes imaginative and cruel ways. The account of conflicts largely concerns the transfer of power from one caliph to another. Although some caliphs were more patrons of the arts than others, the period was rich in historic writing (from which Kennedy has directly drawn) and in poetry. Poems might be sung on intimate evenings between the caliph and his musicians, but there was no means of musical notation, so while we have the poems, we can never know what the music sounded like. Similarly, we have lost the architecture of the time. There are no ancient temples like those at Karnak: "The remains of Ur and Babylon are little more than piles of mud, comprehensible only to the specialists." The problem is that the region around Baghdad was terrific for agricultural production (and resultant wealth) but there was no good building stone. Nonetheless, the palaces were gargantuan, sprawling structures, encompassing gardens, courtyards, baths, mosques, and more. The women were not all slaves, and being taken into the harem was a blessing for many, a career choice for girls with few other options. There were moralists at the time that complained about the activities of the harem, and its expense, and they have blamed it for the eventual fall of the caliphate. Kennedy shows, however, that the harem was a politically stabilizing influence, with mistresses helping viziers who had fallen from grace; there was financial stabilizing, too, from the richness of the harem as a source of stock valuables which could be cashed in, useful in a society where borrowing was impossible.

The number of major and minor players within these pages is daunting, and battle scenes are often confusing. Kennedy relates that in the heat of one battle, a defender "... became confused about which caliph he was supposed to be supporting, and called out for Muctazz rather than Mustacin by mistake." He lost his head figuratively, and then lost it literally because of his mistake, killed on the spot with his head turned into a trophy. Kennedy jokes that this poor man's confusion is something with which readers of this book may well sympathize. However, as confusing as the battles may be, there is a richness to the descriptions of the culture and atmosphere that is quite valuable. After all, readers will find here lively and even aggressive disputants about such things that seemed vital to them as whether the Koran was created or had existed since the beginning of time; heresies involving both positions were passionately denounced. Here, too, are the beginnings of the fight between the Sunnis and the Shiites, a conflict which still affects the world. The legacy of the Abbasid court, Kennedy maintains, remains enormously powerful, even so many centuries ago. Its celebrated power and unity provide not only nostalgia, but inspiration, and it deserves to be understood. After all, it inspires Osama bin Laden, who aims to re-establish the caliphate.
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Fabulous history 14 Feb. 2006
By Sarah - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I studied the medieval Islamic world a little in college, and fell in love. It's a fascinating age in which Central Asian Buddhists, North African nomads, Ethiopian slaves, Greek cave-dwellers, Persian aristocrats, Arab bureaucrats and a host of different cultures came together, mixed, wrote wonderful literature, and lived the kind of drama that makes history fun. But it's hard to find anything written about the time that isn't arcane professor babble or Islam 101. (You know, "There are five pillars of Islam..." Snore.)

Here Hugh Kennedy has written the book I always wanted. He wisely concentrates on medieval Islam's golden age, the early Abbasid dynasty, when Baghdad ruled a large portion of the world-and, even more astutely, on the dramatic stories and personalities of the court. Let's face it, you read about the Abbasids because you want to know how the slave girl Khayzuran not only managed to marry the caliph but to quell a military revolt, why her son Harun al-Rashid was immortalized in The Arabian Nights, and why the all-powerful Barmakid family suddenly fell from grace to prison and execution. Kennedy brings the caliphs and their families to life. He's up front about the fact that the book is about aristocrats, but the common people of Baghdad, the "pickpockets and sellers of cheap sweets" who fought back when their city was besieged, and the middle class who developed Islamic tradition dance around the edge of the narrative.

Kennedy doesn't believe everything he reads, and doesn't think you will either. He repeats stories-like the "harem intrigue" tales, in which devious women are blamed for various deaths-that are almost certainly not true, but tell us something about the people who believed them, and are still enormously entertaining. He also is frank about the same-sex relationships, male and female, that were a part of the era's culture, without the awkwardness of many modern historians. And he's smart enough to explain the geography-why southern Iraq could support such a fabulously wealthy monarchy, and why the Afghanistan/NE Iran region was so critical to the faraway Middle East-in a way an American can understand. Very rare for books on Islamic history, the book boasts an excellent map, naming both cities and regions-invaluable for a hapless Westerner who doesn't know where the major cities of Iran are today, never mind where long-gone kingdoms like Yamama and Ushrusana used to be. There's also a surprisingly good index (another rarity).

The book isn't flawless. Kennedy twice awkwardly interrupts his straightforward account of political events with fascinating chapters on aspects of court culture-palaces, poetry, science, and (my favorite) women's lives. Unfortunately, this structure means the reader learns about the palace Mutawakkil built before she knows enough about him to care, and doesn't hear anything about Ma'mun patronage of scientific research until long after he's dead in the main narrative. The last chapter goes into far too much detail about the depressing downfall of the dynasty, short-changing a more interesting discussion about its legacy. But all in all Kennedy does a great job, and I for one plan down to hunt down his earlier books.

If you know nothing about Islamic history and want an accessible introduction to an fascinating period, or like me know a little and want to learn more, I highly recommend this book.
45 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Misleading Title and Back Cover Description 8 Nov. 2008
By Naeem Ali - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The title and back cover mislead you into believing this book is about the conditions that led Baghdad to becoming the intellectual, economic and military power of the world at the time. But reading this book it's only about gossip, court intrigue, the harem, singers & poets of the court. This book is no different than reading about the life style of the rich and famous of the Abbasid Dynasty.

The back cover states "Professor Hugh Kennedy's lively and compelling study shatters many of the preconceptions held by both sides and gives some indication of the roots of our current impasse". I have no idea what preconceptions this book is trying to shatter because it only details the life of the Caliphs Court. Understanding today's problems in the Muslim world has nothing to do with the singers, poets and harem of an eighth and ninth century court.

I was hoping (expecting) to find in this book the conditions that led to the rise of the Muslim Golden age during the reign of the Abbasid dynasty. There were giants in the field of astronomy and mathematics who walked the streets of Baghdad conjuring up theories and ideas that never existed before. What established this environment and spirit of free thought? What created this dynasty's enormous wealth? What were the foundations of the Caliphs power? Unfortunately, this book does not answer these questions.

Also, the Abbasid dynasty is considered the golden age of the Islamic civilization but this book gives a skewed impression of a morally bankrupt society. When an era is considered the Golden age, there are reasons for that label. Those reasons are not explored here; instead the opposite impression is given.

For those who enjoy reading about the life style of the rich and famous, they will find this book a very interesting read. But for myself, from what I was expecting compared to what I got, I was disappointed.

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Visit my blog on Islamic History: [...]
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
splendid stories, but big gaps in historical analysis 14 Oct. 2009
By Robert J. Crawford - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is a fun read that is well written and designed for the interested layman. It never gets bogged down in academic controversies and finds the fun in the blood, sex, and civilization of a truly unique empire. Unfortunately, there were many historical details, however academic this might sound, that I was hungry to learn about and felt continually disappointed at their light treatment, i.e. how Islam was instituted in the occupied countries (or why it succeeded in taking such firm root), what the sources of Arab power were (faith, organization, economics or some combination thereof?), and why the Abbasids produced some of the greatest cultural works that humanity has ever known? While Kennedy makes it clear that he intended to tell interesting stories, I really wanted much more than he provided. As such, it is good popular history, but not dense enough for my taste.

The Abbasids took power in a revolution from the Ummayads, who were a group from the prophet Mohammed's tribe but not part of his larger family (the Abbasids were cousins of the Prophet). While we get a lot about the intrigues and military aspects, all anecdotal, there is very little about the religious side of the conflict, particularly in tribal context. The Sunnis and Shiites were not yet quite formed, crucial religious history that I wanted to better understand. Then, the Persians were included as vital allies, at the time of their conversion to Islam, also barely covered in the book. This was thus a badly incomplete picture. It is not even clear why the revolution took hold, beyond bare facts like the Ummayads were unpopular due to their Syrian base.

Once power was consolidated, there were some very interesting personalities, such as the shrewd and ruthless Mansur, who established the state's ruling structure with persian viziers and professional army. He is an austere and fascinating figure. Then there is Herun, the ruler in 1000 Arabian Nights, who exemplifies the golden age, though sowed the seeds of civil war that was to lead to the dynasty's downfall 100 years later. They created the Harem and countless other forms that set the standard for all later Islamic regimes, which never equalled their splendor or cultural sophistication and openness. There was even a period of inquiry into the Koran as an historical document, as Greek philosophical influence grew for a brief period. Once again, fun stories, but little hard fact about how the empire was run, why it reached a certain size, why it suddenly became religiously conservative and choked off the development of practical scientific enquiry, and what the foundations of power were. In other words, I wanted more geo-political and social analyses.

The fall of the Abbasids came with their inability to provide orderly successions as well as their dependence on Turkish mercenaries. As chaos rose, the provinces rebelled and even the maintenance of the waterways that had made mesopotamia a breadbasket to unique civilizations for 3000 years were allowed to fall into ruin, never again to be revived. Not only was this the passing of Arabs as a global power, but the end of a united Islam, as the Sunni-Shiite split hardened into separate sects and innumerable regional principates arose. Alas, these details are neglected in favor of personal tales of decapitations, torture, and corruption and betrayal - fun stories, but just a surface gloss.

Recommended. It is a good starting point, but less than half the history.
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Written in a Hurry 20 Aug. 2005
By Sanjay Agarwal - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Hugh Kennedy has chosen a very interesting topic, particularly since Baghdad is in news every day. It is strange to think of today's Baghdad, comparing it with what it was a thousand years ago, when the West was in darkness. However, dynasties and civilisations rise and they fall. Today's rulers are trampled underfoot tomorrow. That is perhaps the message of the book.

Kennedy has described the rise and fall of the Abbasid dynasty, during an early part of Islamic history. The patterns which this dynasty set a thousand years ago were followed in many other regions, such as the Mongol / Mughal dynasty in far-away India. Perhaps they coninue to be followed in some ways even today. His treatment of the topic is designed to bring the priod to life, rather than provide a military or political history.

Kennedy's approach is sympathetic, and he does not display any obvious grudge against his subject. He has also relied almost entirely upon Islamic sources, and therefore can not be accused of cooking up the stories.

The stories he tells are also very interesting. Unfortunately, there is a strong element of analysis in his approach, which makes his story-telling somewhat analytical. The result is a mixture of analysis and anecdotes, which is somewhat disorienting. You never know whether you should just enjoy the story or try to analyse the events. There is also an endless list of names and players, which can be very confusing, particularly as most readers would not be familiar with the Arab names.

It also appears that due to pressures of publishing deadlines, the author has not had enough time to soak into the material. This gives the book a strange feel, which offers few insights. There is frequently a feeling that one is going through a newspaper-clippings collection or a compilation of news stories.

However, overall this is a commendable effort, on a topical subject. The book will probably whet the reader's appetite for more on Abbasid history.
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