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Book Review: The First Dynasty of Islam: The Umayyad Caliphate AD 661-750 by G. R.


By Mazaher Muraj


The book under review was first published in 1986, however the author felt the need to republish an updated copy in 2000 citing the reasons as an increase in an understanding of the history of the Umayyads and in the 14 year period the first edition was available, the opportunity to correct a few errors had been taken by the author. In this paper, I will review the book, The First Dynasty of Islam: The Umayyad caliphate AD 661-750 by assessing the following points; (1) The authors approach, and (2) The authors style. The Author Gerald Hawting is a professor in the History of the Near and Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and is an acclaimed British Orientalist scholar of Islam possessing an expertise in the geographical areas of Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other areas which conveniently coincide with the areas under Umayyad rule. He speaks Arabic and has also been involved in the production of many publications relating to the history of the early period of Islam, thus one would be wise to assume that the history presented in the book under review is correct and although most of it is, it bears the wound of opinion in some of its chapters which will be discussed.

Authors Approach When considering the approach of the author, it is important to consider the following; (a) the aim of the author, (b) the authors regard towards the history and (c) the organisation/structure of the book. By viewing the book from these angles, we may be able to determine the authors conception of the Umayyad dynasty. In writing this book, the author makes it clear that he intends to provide an introduction to the part of Islamic history that came to be known as the Umayyad dynasty in an academic format for students at undergraduate level. The author does concede that the present book is not an addition to the history already known as recorded by historians such as Patricia Crones Slaves on horses and others, however such books require previous knowledge on the subject whereas this book requires none. Although this may be true to some extent, later in the book, the author expects the reader to have understood the terms of certain words which he has stated in previous chapters. This can be seen in chapter one where the word mawali is mentioned with a definition however in chapter eight the word is mentioned without a definition. To tackle this, the author has provided a short glossary at the beginning of the book. Hawtings view of the Umayyads is difficult to decipher. With regards to the approach taken in this book, it would seem his view is pro-Umayyad since when narrating aspects of history concerning the Umayyads, it appears to be negative however in his analysis he seems to be defending them stating that due to the time period that the history was recorded, the general attitude towards the Umayyads was hostile from a number of sections of the empire such as the religious scholars and those with their own claims to power. Thus, the author states that stories about the Umayyads will therefore appear negatively. Such an opinion suggests that the historians who recorded the history cannot be trusted. An example of this can be found in numerous places in the book starting from the very beginning in chapter one. This opinion is effectively expressed in chapter six when discussing the Marwanid Umayyad, Hisham. The author writes, Hisham is the subject of numerous stories designed to illustrate his character and overwhelmingly attention centres upon his desire for money. The use of words such as designed suggests to the reader that Muslim historians cannot be trusted. Appendix 2 is dedicated to hold this opinion in which the importance of authentic historical collections such as

Tarikh Tabari is played down. The author further makes reference to the character of Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, implying that historians may have tried to balance the history recorded by way of introducing a good Umayyad. This can be found in chapter six page 77, where the author says, While there is no doubt that the acceptance of Umar as a genuine caliph, unlike the other Umayyads who count only as kings, is based to some extent on historical facts and on this caliphs personality and actions, it is also clear that much of the traditional writing about him should be regarded as pious and moralistic story telling in keeping with the needs and outlook of tradition. It seems strange for him lead readers towards doubting the character of Umar II while historians such as Kennedy, Hitti and others embrace him as a righteous caliph. With regards to the complexity of the book, a glance at the table of contents page indicates that the history is presented in a chronological fashion, beginning with Muawiyas assumption to the caliphate and concluding with a detailed account of the demise of the dynasty he founded some ninety years later. Various names are cited and although no distinction is made between an Umayyad name and a non-Umayyad name e.g. Abd al-Malik and al-Hajjaj in chapter five, the contents suggests that a brief report (as indicated by the number of pages allocated) will be given with regards to their roles. Concepts introduced within the book which a reader must be aware of in order to understand certain issues which affected the Umayyads include Islamisation, Arabisation and Factionalism. All the concepts are individually explained and are generally easy to understand since a distinction is made with regards to its definition and the author cites examples from history in order to make clear what he is referring to. Thus a clear picture of the development of the Umayyad dynasty can be drawn in the mind of the reader as well as its fall as a result of factionalism. The use of genealogical tables to display relationships and maps is very helpful since the author makes references to various names and areas. However the complexity emerges in the later chapters when many names are mentioned in reference to important events such as the revolt of Ibn Zubayr and the revolution of the Abbasids in which Maslama led the army to name but a few. This can make the book hard to follow and the reader may be required to constantly refer to previous pages in order to understand what the author is trying to explain. Authors Style

When analysing the authors style, it is important to study the sources in order to determine how the book was produced and then assess whether the book is suitable in relation to the aim which the author set out at the beginning when writing this book. All sources used in the production of this book are secondary and only in the English language and this can have its benefits but also has its drawbacks. The benefits of using this referencing style has been stated by the author at the beginning in the Preface of the book in which he says the book has been written as an introduction with English readers in mind thus readers who do not speak the Arabic language in which the earliest of sources are written, will have to opportunity to refer to books which are accessible to them. The author also mentions that since this book is not suppose to supersede more detailed books as The Arab Kingdom and Its Fall by Wellhausen and that literature regarding this period of history is not very extensive, this book thus increases the amount of works available. The drawbacks however are that secondary sources are works which have been derived from the use of the primary sources which are in Arabic and therefore these sources are potentially imprinted with the opinions of their authors. Therefore the opinions of these authors may have influenced the views of Hawting and it is also possible that historical inaccuracies may have resulted. Another drawback is that these sources may not be suitable for the readers as Hawting himself says about The Arab Kingdom and Its Fall that students at undergraduate level (for whom the book under review is intended), usually result in puzzlement. A critique of the referencing style is that there is a heavy reliance of The Arab Kingdom and Its Fall by Wellhausen which leads a reader to understand the work better due to Hawtings explanation of it however the reader will understand Wellhausen in the view of Hawting. Another criticism is that Wellhausens book was originally written in German and then translated and of this Hawting says that it is an, idiosyncratic English of a translation. The use of Hagarism by P. Crone and M. A. Cook as a source is puzzling since the authors themselves have rejected it and stopped it from further printing and reviews for Hagarism state that it lacks balance and lacks proof. Appendix 1 at the end of the book is interesting since one would assume that the section would be dedicated to commenting on the sources that the author has used in order produce the book with regards to their suitability and choice. However in this section, the author again (to the very end) insists that the historical literature as recorded by Muslim or even Arab historians, which are the earliest collections available, cannot

be completely trusted since they are subject to bias. Rather the author makes mention of later historians, who themselves may have relied on the Arabic sources for the production of their books stating that the first port of call for further information relating to Islamic history. Thus he plays down the importance of works such as Tarikh Tabari which has been translated into English.

In this review, I have sought to determine whether this book provides a good introduction into the Umayyad dynasty in relation to the intention of the author writing this book. In order to determine this, a number of points have been analysed; the authors approach and the authors style. Having considered both points I can conclude that the book is a good introduction to the history of the Umayyad dynasty. This is for a number of reasons; (1) the intention of the author was to provide an introduction for undergraduates and those who have either none or little knowledge of the Umayyads. This is clearly displayed by the fact that the author explains Arabic terms and also explains concepts in a concise manner citing examples from history in order to aid understanding, (2) the is written in a chronological format which enables a reader to easily follow the events of history and (3) although this point may also be viewed as a critique, the choice of referencing style enables a student or beginner, who lacks an understanding of the Arabic language, to refer to sources readily available. However the book as mentioned earlier bears the wound of opinion which may be a result of pro-Umayyad leanings. This was seen in the example given regarding the character of Umar b. Abd al-Aziz and how the author portrays him as an individual who may not have been how historians have portrayed him as a righteous caliph. This is despite the fact that many

historians have written about him in this regard. Such opinions can also be found elsewhere in the book. Another critique is that, since the author is proficient in the Arabic language, it may have been adequate to refer to primary sources, rather than only secondary ones.