Readings

There is no single textbook that the module follows but there are a few ‘key texts’ that develop the central themes of the module. The books introduce students to some of the main conceptual frameworks we will use to explore the various case studies and examples. You will also find a weekly reading schedule and full reading list in the Key Docs section of the website.

Karen Armstrong: Muhammad: a biography of the prophet. Armstrong’s text is a fantastic introduction into the origins of Islam and the political context that Muhammad needed to negotiate when he began his new religion in Arabia. Filled with provocative stories and powerful images, it provides an intellectually rigorous account of the early history of Islam. The key thing to keep in mind about this text is her main sources are the canonical biographies of the prophet written in the seventh and eight centuries by Muslim Scholars. In this sense, her text represents not only a sympathetic portrayal of the prophet and the early days of Islam but also what one might call the ‘official’ or ‘sanctioned’ version. This is not to detract from her work, but you should understand that this book represents (more or less) the way that orthodox Muslim thinkers would represent early Islamic history.

Jonathon Berkey. The formation of Islam: religion and society in the Near East, 600-1800. If Armstrong’s text represents the authorized version of Islam’s early history, Berkey gives a more nuanced and critical perspective. While Berkey does not dismiss the sources that Armstrong relies upon, he is aware that they were written retrospectively, many years after the prophet’s death, and were designed to develop a narrative about Muhammad and the religion’s early history for Muslims. Bringing in archaeological data and a variety of other sources, Berkey’s account of Islam’s development and diffusion is more circumspect and is steeped in a particular understanding of the broader historical context of the region. This is not to say that Berkey’s account is more credible, but it does offer a different perspective to Armstrong. Berkey is also more academic in tone and uses terminology that you might not be familiar with. Please avail yourself of all the resources offered by the library (OED on-line) and the WWW to navigate his terminology.

Ira M Lapidus: A history of Islamic Societies. The emphasis of Lapidus’ text is not the early history of Islam but how it went about creating an empire in the years after Muhammad’s death. Thus, he is less concerned with Islam as a religion and more concerned with Islam as a social, cultural and political movement that had a profound effect on the region. While Berkey is interested in how the Islamic world arose out of a particular social and political context, Lapidus’ constantly returns to the question about how Islam consolidated or ‘Islamicized’ (to use Lapidus’ phrase) a broad multi-ethnic, multi-linguil cosmpoloitan political community. In particular, Lapidus emphasizes how Islam did not impose an Islamic or Arab culture on the territories it conquered, but more accurately absorbed those culture while at the same time giving them a distinctly Islamic hue.

Arthur Goldschmidt jr.: A concise history of the Middle East. Goldschmidt’s book is just what it says on the tin – a concise history. I like it because it presents historical events clearly and quickly. This is a better starting point than Wikipedia and I encourage you to read this along with the other texts to give you a potted history of events.