David Santiuste's Reviews > Out of Arabia: Phoenicians, Arabs, and the Discovery of Europe

Out of Arabia by Warwick Ball
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Oct 02, 2012

bookshelves: other-history

In Out of Arabia, Warwick Ball offers an original and thought-provoking approach to Arab history. His theme is the impact of the Arabs on Europe, from ancient times to the end of the Middle Ages. The book opens with a startling juxtaposition: a ‘Roman’ Emperor and an ‘Arab’ Caliph. It is startling because the Roman, the Emperor Philip, was the son of an Arab sheik, whereas the Caliph, ‘Abd al-Rahman III, the ruler of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), was blond and blue-eyed. The reader is therefore immediately challenged to reassess a wide range of preconceptions. Whether the word ‘Arab’ is defined ethnologically or culturally (in the sense of a culture being ‘Arab-derived’), it can be argued that in many important senses ‘Europeans’ and ‘Arabs’ share a common heritage.

Unlike most writers today whose work examines the relationship between Arabs and ‘the West’, Ball is determined to avoid an approach purely focused on confrontation. Ball is critical not only of Samuel Huntingdon (whose Clash of Civilisations is now notorious) but also (perhaps less successfully) of Edward Said. Whilst he obviously cannot avoid discussing conflict between Europeans and Arabs – most notably during the Crusades – Ball is keen to stress the more subtle and positive ways in which Europe has been affected by its contact with the Arabs. Such an approach is understandably most fruitful in Ball’s discussion of Muslim Spain, the civilisation over which ‘Abd al-Rahman (the descendent of Franks and Basques, as well as Arabs) ruled at its height. At this time, in the 10th century, al-Andalus witnessed a golden age in the fields of science and the arts, fusing together elements from a wide range of cultures.

It would be a mistake, however, to view Arab history entirely within an Islamic context. The Arabs are all too often presented as emerging out of thin air in the 7th century, under the leadership of Muhammad, but Ball argues strongly that Islam should be viewed as a ‘culmination’ rather than a beginning. Fascinating early chapters examine the history of the Arabs’ forbears, the Phoenicians; later passages examine ancient Arab states such as Palmyra, and their complex relations with the Roman Empire. But it is clear, of course, that the coming of Islam was a defining moment in Arab – and therefore European – history. Yet some of the outcomes are surprising, and remain little known today. How many people know, for example, that for much of the 10th century a large part of Switzerland was occupied by the Muslim descendents of Arab corsairs?

The author – an archaeologist, historian and tour guide - has worked extensively throughout the Middle East. It is perhaps as a consequence of this that many of his arguments appear to have been formed through conversation and observation. Ball writes in a lively style that should carry most readers to the end of the book. This is a timely and interesting work that deserves to reach a wide readership.

[NB: this review was previously available at Historytimes.com.]
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Finished Reading
October 2, 2012 – Shelved
October 2, 2012 – Shelved as: other-history

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