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Documenting History

Wajahat Habibullah

By Ira Marvin Lapidus
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 758, Rs. 995.00


I must admit to having agreed to review this book with a high degree of trepidation. How could a single volume hope to cover in 658 pages, so vast an area with all its dimensions, conflict and, most of all the variety and the depth of its impact on civilizations across the world? And yet, by this singular work Lapidus, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California at Berkeley, has, in a book more compact, placed himself in the recording of Islamic history on a pedestal equivalent to Gibbon’s for that of Rome.   Lapidus’s work begins from pre-Islamic times. It dextrously places the then civilized world as a group of societies increasingly ossified, questing for new beginnings. Part I ‘Beginnings of Islamic Civilisations’ is a must read for all students of Islamic history. Thereafter, for those who seek illumination of specific aspects of Islamic civilizations, it is quite safe to refer to those chapters which specifically relate to the subject of interest. And illumination the reader is sure to find in each stream. What makes the work a testimony to the impressive teaching skills of the author is that each part and chapter concludes with a deft summary, which places before the reader the essence of the lessons that can be gleaned from the panoply of information provided. Thus, in summarizing the structures of the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires, the mightiest of the political entities of the ancient world in the region where Islam took birth, Lapidus states, In sum, the Byzantine Empire was built on urban elites, bureaucracy, and a standing army. The Persian Empire was built on an alliance of a warrior, landed, horse-borne fighting aristocracy, with lower ranking landowners(dihqans) as the base of the Sassanian army and tax administration.   Any student of Islamic history will immediately see the continuity of these threads of imperial administration in the great Islamic Empires, Abbasid, Ottoman, Safavi or Mughal.   This vast canvas is covered through reference to a prodigious bibliographical resource, from interpretive works on late antiquity and its extinction to an examination of historians and the authority of their sources, and then stretching into diverse bibliographies for Arabia, the emergence of Islam, Arab-Muslim Empires and the evolution of the Caliphate from Arab rule to multi-ethnic states, the different paths towards development and their effect on administration and culture, the changing ideology of Imperial Islam and the ...

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