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Internet Islamic History Sourcebook

Paul Halsall, University of North Florida and Fordham University
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Reviewed by:
Sumaiya Hamdani
George Mason University
September 2003

This massive database of primary and secondary source material on the Islamic world is a subsidiary to the larger Internet History Sourcebook project. The title is somewhat misleading as the term “Islamic History” usually refers to the history of Islam in the pre-modern period. This sourcebook, however, includes sources on Islamic history and sources specific to the Middle East and North Africa in the modern period. Materials include links to text excerpts available in the public domain, audio, and websites that offer both primary and secondary material. In all cases, the editor notes whether a source is primary or secondary or whether it comes from another website.

Introductory material is followed by a long table of contents and links to sources, whose range is quite formidable. Arranged chronologically, the sourcebook covers thirteen main periods in the history of Islam, as well as topics and sources specific to nation-states of the modern Middle East. The periods covered include pre-Islamic Arabia and Persia, Islam in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, early Islamic conquests and empire, the Abbasid Caliphate, the Ottoman period, and modern history. Topics include Islamic sects, women in Islam, Islamic culture, arts, and philosophy, Crusades, Mongol invasions, different ethnic groups such as Turks and Persians, and Islamic expansion into Africa, Asia, and Spain. Thirty-four maps of major areas and periods of Islamic history are provided, as is a final section of 33 links to other websites offering sources.

Some scholars might disagree with the periodization or organization of topics, but as they follow the breakdown of Islamic history in most world history textbooks and as the organization of material is clear and easy, problems with how the material is organized are ultimately academic.

The source links are sometimes to secondary articles, or links to other websites where a source is available. Most however are primary sources from the Internet History Sourcebooks—come from scholarly translations published before 1923 and thus are in the public domain. This does raise the question of whether newer and better translations exist. Sources on Islam have historically been translated either for understanding by the faithful (i.e., Muslims) or by scholars. Translations of religious texts can often be polemical, whereas translations of non-religious texts are often linguistically accurate but can be arcane. Whereas there are many translations of the Qur’an, other historical sources are often only available in one form. This accounts for the distribution of sources on this website, and the varying quality of the translations. In all events, even if newer or better translations of certain materials are available, they are not as accessible as the material on this website, which has amassed a vast array of sources in one place.

Of the many primary sources available, a few standout as especially problematic or useful. For example, most of the material under the headings “Muhammad and Foundations” and “Islam Faith and Theology” comes from other websites such as those of the Muslim Student Association at the University of Southern California, which has conservative Islamic leanings. The translations of Prophetic traditions (or Hadith) are either unclear in provenance or from an antiquated (1917) Western source whose author (Charles Horne) denigrates the validity of the traditions themselves. Also many excerpts on theology, piety, eschatology, and Sufism are linked to one scholar’s website (Mircea Eliade), even though more reliable translations of the same texts exist in the public domain. This means that one should exercise caution in using the translations of these primary sources because of the highly subjective leanings of their translators.

Other materials are less problematic and greatly enhance any discussion or research about Islam. For example, an excellent excerpt from Ibn Battuta’s Travels in Africa and Asia is available under the subject heading “Islamic Africa.” Ibn Battuta was a 14th-century scholar who traveled to many parts of the world and left a record of Islam in these regions. His comments on Africa provide a rare glimpse and evocative commentary on a world for which few records exist.

Equally valuable for classroom use are the primary source translations under the “Government” subheading of “The Caliphate.” These excerpts are from classical works of Islamic history and give a sense of the cosmopolitan and intellectually vibrant world of the medieval period of Islamic history. The excerpts are from works by al-Tanukhi (a 9th-century official of the Abbasid court in Baghdad), Miskawayhi (another official of the period), al-Biruni (a discoverer and explorer who traveled to India), Avicenna (or Ibn Sina) on medicine, and the memoir of an Arab ambassador to the Byzantine court at Constantinople, among others. Other valuable areas include “Science,” “Culture,” and “Philosophy” under “The Caliphate” heading, as well as the excerpts available under “The Mongol Invasions” and “The Ottomans,” and the ethnographic accounts excerpted under “The Western Intrusion.”

Such excerpts are rarely found in world history textbooks or readers, and thus—despite the pitfalls of organization, bias in translations, and unwieldy archive—this website is a useful supplement to assignments for and research on world history.

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