This book is one of the all time classics in Arab Studies. It has endured through the ages and still makes for truly remarkable reading - a testimony to the quality of Hitti's writing.
Philip Hitti was a Lebanese-American scholar who was a professor at Princeton University for many years. First published in 1937, 'History of the Arabs' took Hitti ten years to write and was originally based on a series of lectures with his students. At the time, knowledge of the Arab world in the West was minimal and mainly limited to academic or military circles. Hitti's inspiration was therefore to provide a work of reference that would present the history and culture of this area in an easily accessible and appealing format aimed at all comers: experts and novices alike.
The great strength of this work lies in its wonderful accessibility. It possesses that rare quality of making the reader think and use his imagination that so many other historical works lack. In all the literature pertaining to the Arab world and its civilisation, I can confidently assert that I have never come across any book that has outmatched Hitti's study in its ability to convey the passion and enthusiasm of discovering a new subject.
The reader quickly finds himself being effortlessly guided through the contents as his interest is progressively built up. The author takes great care not to influence the opinion of his audience, allowing them instead to smoothly deliberate through the material and formulate their own judgements.
Hitti develops a uniquely attractive style of relating Arab history. His approach caters to his public and reaches out into several fields. There is of course a meticulous recounting of important historical developments grounded in ancient arabic sources and archaeological finds. This is coupled with an analysis elaborating on the importance and significance of these events (which any knowledgeable reader would expect). But Hitti also cleverly intertwines his historical narrative with colourful anecdotes that provide surprising insights into the Arab mind and mentality. Of particular note are extensive sections devoted to Arab culture and traditions along with the birth and development of Islam and its numerous sects and interpretations.
The scope of this book is vast and at times seems quite intimidating; but Hitti always approaches his subject with a great degree of panache while always remaining modest and impartial. Everything is there for the taking if the reader can only keep up! The Himyarite kingdoms of ancient Arabia, the advent of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, the Umayyad and Abassid Empires and their rivalries with Rome and Byzantium, the Golden Age of Baghdad, Turks and their Mameluke dynasties, the terrifying Mongol Invasions, and the rise of the Ottoman Empire.
For the lucky newcomer, 'History of the Arabs' will serve as a fantastic introduction. For the expert, a second read never fails to uncover that forgotten detail or anecdote which rekindles interest in a particular topic.
A passionate book written by a very talented man that will leave its audience with as many questions being answered as new ones born from the vitality of its debate. You can only come away the wiser from having read it!
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