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The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the Abbasid Empire.

The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the Abbasid Empire. By Amira K. Bennison. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009. Pp. 244. $30.00.)

This book is remarkable for its accessibility. In five thematically arranged, well-argued, and sufficiently documented chapters, the author traces the development of Islam until the end of the Abbasids. Although, by then the Abbasid Caliphate was a shadow of its former self, the Islamic world, nonetheless, stretched from central Asia to Spain. Also, this vast area was once ruled from either Damascus or Baghdad, but when the Mongols attacked in 1258, there were many competing states across the land. This is more than five hundred years of history when Islamic society for the most part was, as Amira K. Bennison shows, vibrant, dynamic, and creative, when it was also multiethnic and multicultural in its composition and outlook. It is the varied and complex experience of this society during this vast sweep of time and place (the longue duree, in the author's view) that provides the details for the rich tapestry Bennison weaves. Readers will appreciate her candid and critical approach: she discusses the mighty and the meek, the prince and the pauper, the merchant and the scientist, the free and the slave, men and women, rich and poor, the good and the bad, in Cordoba or Baghdad and in many rural areas in between.

This book is interesting and informative to read not only for the knowledge it presents but also for conceptualizing Islamic history as part of Mediterranean history. The author says that
   Islamic civilization, as it came to flourish during the 'Abbasid
   era' ... can legitimately be viewed as one in a succession of
   empires and civilizations which flowered in the Mediterranean.
   Some, like Rome, pushed further north and west ... while others,
   like Islam, pushed into Asia and Africa, but to consider them as
   belonging to either East or West is a quite false dichotomy. (1-2)


The author shows, furthermore, that "Muslims entered into a discursive relationship with the past and their civilization came to draw on the Graeco-Roman, Byzantine and Sasanian heritages in various ways whilst also exhibiting its own separate and sparkling Islamic character" (3). This discursive relationship and the cross-cultural influences discussed by Bennison, whether they be practices and institutions in the political, religious, economic, or cultural realms (the agoranomos and the muhtasib, for example), support her claim that "Islamic society was a joint effort which drew on the resources of its Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian subjects, who reshaped their own culture and religion in response to the spread of Arabic and Islam" (133). Nowhere is this clearer than in the translation movement that Bennison discusses in the context of the rise of Islamic philosophy and the natural sciences, especially medicine and astronomy. Translations of scientific texts, primarily from Greek and Pahlavi, were the foundation built upon by later scientists who wrote in Arabic and nurtured a scientific renaissance across the Islamic world. Bennison, finally, shows how this enriched legacy passed back to Europe to spark its own Renaissance--continuity and change in the long cycle of history around the Mediterranean!

There is much to recommend in this book, especially for those who want to be better informed about Islam's past. It will surely improve our understanding of the present.

Mahmood Ibrahim

California Polytechnic, Pomona
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Author:Ibrahim, Mahmood
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2011
Words:553
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