Jonathan Bloom & Sheila Blair, Islam: A thousand years of faith and power (Yale Nota Bene 2002)
I bought this book some years ago in the hope of finding some insight into how a religion that has sustained so many people for so long over such a geographic and cultural range could be used to justify the barbarity of suicide bombings and videoed beheadings. Since I don’t have much insight into how Christianity or Judaism can be used to justify mass murder either, and I’m already reasonably familiar with at least some parts of the former, maybe I should have expected my hope to be dashed, but it springs eternal, and trust in book-learnin’ is hard to shake.
The authors’ expertise, and presumably their passion as well, lie in Islamic art. This book was written to accompany a US television series, and despite its self-described aim as ‘to help Americans – of whatever and even no religion – understand the religion and culture of another place and time’, what it actually does is to provide background, to tell the grand, sweeping narrative of the beginnings, growth and spread of Islam in its first thousand years, with an inevitable emphasis military conquests and defeats, political struggles and religious strife, with a couple of welcome chapters on the flourishing of science and poetry between 750 and 1200 CE. The succession of dynasties and ruling elites – Abbasids, Barmakids, Chaghatayids, Fatimids, Ilkhanids, Mamluks, Mughals, Ottomans, Seljuqs, Umayyads – is as bewildering and at times as dull as the begats of Genesis.
I’m not complaining. In fact I wish I’d read the book 50 years ago as a supplement and antidote to the Eurocentric version of world history I received in my schooling. It’s bracing to read the stories, even in broad outline as here, of people and places that I know mainly as elements of Orientalist decor: Saladin of the curly-toed shoes becomes Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub; Suleyman (isn’t that the guy from Lord of the Rings? – yes, I’m that ignorant) ruled the Ottoman Empire for 46 years, Marlowe’s Tamberlaine the Great becomes Timur, a Great Mongol conqueror; Samarkand, Timbuktu, Xanadu all existed outside romantic poems and fantasy literature. Many things I have assumed to be creations of Western culture are in fact borrowed from the Islamic world: romantic love I already knew about, but x as a way of representing an unknown in maths was news to me; The Divine Comedy wouldn’t have existed if Dante hadn’t read in translation popular Arabic stories of Muhammad’s mystical journey to heaven.
I’d just finished the book when I heard Ramona Koval on The Book Show with James Delgado talking about his Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet. As Ramona, helping out her audience by displaying her own real or pretend ignorance, wrestled with the difference between Khubilai Khan and Genghis Khan, I realised how glad I am to have read Bloom and Blair’s book. If I had read it 50 years ago, when my memory was much more retentive, I might have emerged from it knowing who all those people were. As it is, I can expect the names to ring some kind of bell, and I’ll know where to look for a quick rundown – and yes, as well as a list of further reading, this book is blessed with a substantial index.