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People of the book: the Forgotten History of Islam and the West by Zachary Karabell

Not a book for complete beginners, I feel some familiarity with basic Islamic, political, economic and historical terms would be helpful but not essential in reading this book. In a reasonably accessible manner, Zachary Karabell maps out the development of Islam and Christianity and their respective civilizations. He combines chronological history with detailed stories that are intriguing and informative across 14 centuries; uncovering both known and forgotten history.

Whether you are atheist, agnostic, Christian, Muslim or something else or nothing else it is well worth reading this book. Zachary Karabell argues that the relationship between Islam and the West has never been simply one of animosity and competition, but has also comprised long periods of cooperation and coexistence. It shows that Christians and Muslims have known prosperous peace before — and could do so again. As was proved not just right at the beginning at the time of the prophet (peace be upon him) but in subsequent and significant periods in time for example in 9th-century Baghdad in the Abbasid empire where Harun al Rashid was the greatest of its caliphs and he regularly transformed the court there into an arena of theological debate. Scholars and preachers of other faiths were invited for spiritual jousts and each religion benefited from the knowledge of the other. But Harun al Rashid passed into myth known mostly as a character in one thousand and one nights. Today the notion that an Islamic state and ruler would even tolerate other faiths is alien (Karabell 2007; 5).

This book asks us to consider the consequences to our selective reading of the past. It highlights how we are so set on the idea that religion causes wars that we cannot even open our minds to understand the real reasons behind our conflicts or to see the evidence of coexistence between people of different faiths throughout history. It looks at how the memories of events seep into western culture while the context has disappeared. For example how Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) confronted the Jews in madinah was no different from how his successors dealt with Arabian tribes who refused to bow to Muslim caliphs or how warring Israeli tribes dealt with one another during the rise and fall of the kingdom of David and Solomon which is recounted in the bible. Despite this, all that seems to have been preserved was simply that Islam did not tolerate Judaism (Karabell 2007; 18).

While the Qur’an orders Muslims to respect people of the book (Christians and Jews) who surrendered to the message it also criticizes those same people for losing their way. A good point is made that it would have been easier for the Muslims to make a clean break from the Christians and Jews. However, like the Christians when persecuted by the Jews could not find a justification for ending Judaism, the Muslims also had the task of making room for and respecting the Christians and Jews. (Karabell 2007; 20)

During the mid 9th century Andalusia, under rule of the Muslims was entering a period of nearly unrivaled prosperity, a centre of learning and commerce. This is a time in Islamic history that few westerners really comprehend. It is almost as if they see that Europe has always been just white Europeans and anyone there of any other ethnic origin are the immigrants, forgetting history is continuous completely. In this period the rate of conversion to Islam in Spain was higher than in Egypt or Iraq. Christians and Jews lived in peace under Muslim rule at this time with Jews enjoying more freedom, affluence and social standing than any Jewish community would until the 19th century (Karabell 2007; 71)

The story of Saladin the sultan of Egypt regaining control of Jerusalem after 100 years of Christian rule in particular the dome of rock and Al Aqsa mosque on Friday October 2nd 1187 on a day full of symbolism as by the Islamic calendar this was the anniversary of Prophet Muhammad’s night journey to the dome of rock and then to heaven. On what he achieved Saladin was not big headed he was humbled and determined to show his respect. Being committed to the basic tenants of Islam, he treated any Christians caught in the siege honorably as he took Qu’ranic injunctions about treatment of people of the book seriously and his chosen preacher to give a speech at the time of this moment of glory gave a sermon that linked Jerusalem to the biblical traditions of Abraham and Jesus. ‘Jerusalem was holy to Muslims not in spite of but because it had been the holiest of holies for people of the book’ (Karabell 2007; 117).

This book continues to inform about the civilizations through time giving example after example of respectful relationships from Muslims towards people of the book. It looks at conflicts too and examines the reasons behind them – very rarely are the reasons solely or mostly down to religious difference. Very often reasons are power, money and resources or disrespect. Right up until the 20th century when at the beginning, ‘religion as a central force in the fate of most nations was almost non-existent’ (Karabell 2007; 244).

It highlights that security seems to be a prerequisite to tolerance – that the Muslim world was more tolerant when it had more security, until the last century when it has felt insecure. That the Christian world only gained security in the last 100 years and in the time preceding this the intolerance it showed towards the Jews and the Muslims was a stark contrast to some of the examples previously highlighted of the respect from the Muslims towards the Christians and the Jews in the same periods.

The forgetting of a history of tolerance is a problem on all sides and what a huge shame after ‘centuries of Islamic history, when respect had been so woven into the moral framework that no one thought to challenge it’ (Karabell 2007;245)

The story continues to more recent history that is extremely relevant today such as the birth of Israel and its consequences. The effects of media in the west and the implication that ‘Islam and violence keep close company’ (Karabell 2007; 286). Dubai and its embracing of the logic of global capitalism, the underestimation of a middle eastern country that isn’t defined by its conflict with the west or by Muslims locked in battle with Christians and Jews but is an underrated testament to the ability of all to live within a common cause, that being unentrenched in the history, nations such as Dubai and china can and are really rushing into the 21st century in prosperity (karabell 2007; 290). This part of the book is surprising as it could easily be misconstrued as encouraging capitalism but I think it is going beyond that, taking a fresh perspective to warn of the real danger of Muslims, Christians and Jews being so caught up in a history of perceived conflict that they may miss the opportunities of the future, the opportunities that can be created and were historically created by a relationship of respect cooperation and coexistence.

One thing I absolutely loved about this book is that it has maps in it so that you can really visualize the history it’s explaining. It has a thorough index which makes it a great reference book if you want to refer to just one particular era or place or topic. With both pro’s and con’s the chapters merge into each other which makes it difficult to simply open at a chapter when using it for reference, however, this ensures it flows and is read almost as you want to get to the end of a novel to see what happens next, you almost forget at times that you are reading about reality. Being a bit of a free spirited hippy at heart I tend to avoid structured history as it goes right over my head but this book was beautifully written to really capture the imagination and it creates pictures of the personalities and lives of the people influencing that history and this is what makes it both real and relevant as well as personal and enticing, something I have not found in such an informative book before.


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