Book review: A thousand points of light

A new book looks at the history of Arab peoples, empires and countries from the dawn of civilization to the present.

CAMELS WERE used in Arab military conquests. (photo credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS)
CAMELS WERE used in Arab military conquests.
(photo credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS)
In the early days of the rise of Islam in 635 CE, the Caliph Umar was murdered by a slave. It was an important time in the development of Islamic law and religion. The Quran was being published as a standard text. “Muhammad’s revolution had shifted the whole foundation and focus of Arab society from tribal to theocratic,” writes the author of a new book on the history of Arabs.
It is hard to capture the entire history of any group of people, but trying to capture the history of Arabs in one volume seems like too much. The subtitle of Tim Mackintosh Smith’s book: Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires already seems like a mouthful. But this Yemen-based British writer is willing to take on the task. He sees the history of Arabs as a history of poets, preachers, orators and authors. He speaks of words as holding “mesmerizing magic,” and in this 600-page story, he clearly tries to bring the English language to its heights in explaining Arab civilizations.
Mackintosh-Smith begins by noting that many books on Arabs or “the Arabs” tend to begin with Islam. He thinks this is a mistake, and says it’s like beginning in the middle. He is also particularly interested in themes. The theme of tribes and peoples. The theme of different civilizations, whether the Romans or Byzantines, washing over the Middle East. “Language is what ties together all those key historical developments based on information technology,” he writes. But he cautions this is a history of Arabs, not of Arabic.
Another theme in the book is fragmentation. He argues that the Arab world was too big to create a unifying state, even if it was sometimes unified under others, such as the Ottomans.
Some of the fascinating chapters are those that explore the pre-Islamic Arab world. This includes the Nabateans, who constructed trade routes linking Arabia with the Negev and Gaza. Another interesting civilization depicted in the book is Yemen and its great architectural achievements, such as the great dam at Marib. This amazing structure was built in the 8th century BCE. It was a marvel of the ancient world – or at least it should have been.
MUCH OF the world that existed from that time to the arrival of Islam was fascinating. But it was sometimes overshadowed by the rise and fall of Rome or Babylon or another empire. Later, when it fell into disrepair, it was forgotten. For instance, the glories of Petra and other Nabatean sites have only been excavated recently.
Arab military conquests were driven on by the camel and the horse. “The camel is a spearshaft that gives you reach, but the horse is the spearhead,” the author notes. This is an interesting way to think of camels, since from looking at them, it seems a bit odd to imagine armies riding them into battle, or even to a staging area before the battle. But evidently they were quite useful when necessary and the Arabs used them to great success to conquer neighboring lands.
To get a sense of the breadth of this book’s accomplishment, it isn’t until a third of the way through the book that the reader gets to the first Caliph of the Umaayad Caliphate, Mu’awiyah. Eventually, a little later, we get to the one governor of the province of Khurasan, named Al-Muhallab, who had 300 children. He had so many kids that they became their own sub-tribe. It is from here that the Abbasids sprang forth. A fearsome rebellion defeated the Umayyads in Persia and Iraq. It was in January 750 that, with black banners flying, they defeated the Umayyad caliphate and its leader Marwan II.
As it happens, I was at the Great Zab River in the past several years covering the war on Islamic State. ISIS too had black banners and once threatened to conquer much of Iraq. Unlike the victory of the Abbasids, ISIS was turned back at that same river and was eventually defeated in Mosul. What is particularly interesting in this latest account of the rise and fall of Arab empires is how much some of the fragmentation and cycle of history has similarities with today. These days, regimes have ossified and fell just as back then caliphs rose, gave birth to weak and decadent offspring and saw their states overthrown.
Mackintosh-Smith is at his best discussing these dynasties and the poetry, colorful characters and tapestries that held together Arabs from the 700s to the 1700s. By the time Arabs gets to the 1800s, it has lost some of its vigor. Nevertheless, the author has not lost his interest in storytelling, as when describing the traveling mahmal (throne room) that accompanied the King of Egypt in 1952.
Arabs is an accessible and readable account of a complex and long history. It is so full of storytelling and blending of peoples and culture that it surmounts the challenge of trying to tell so much history in one volume.