Thursday, May 31, 2012

When Your History Book Tries to Weasel Out of Something

I'm currently reading A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani.  I'm finding it to be strangely compulsive reading - highly enjoyable.  It also carries glowing review blurbs from Rashid Khalidi, Daniel Pipes, Edward Said, and Fouad Ajami - and when those four agree on a history of the Arab peoples, that's saying something.


I came across this strange passage on pp. 46-47 while reading on the train today:

"By the end of the...eighth Christian century, less than 10 per cent of the population of Iran and Iraq, Syria and Egypt, Tunisia and Spain was Muslim..."

Huh.  Interesting.

"By the end of the...tenth century AD, the picture had changed.  A large part of the population had become Muslim."

Ok.  How did that happen?

Hourani goes on to detail how the subject peoples of the Islamic empire (mostly Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians) "suffered from restrictions," including a special tax, clothing regulations, legal and political disadvantages, etc.

He ends with this sentence: "Even in the best circumstances the position of a minority is uneasy, and the inducement to convert existed."

A minority?  Mr. Hourani, you're purporting to explain how these people went from being 90 percent of the population to well under 10. "It's tough being a minority" is not an explanation for loss of supermajority status!

It seems there's more to this story than the three paragraphs Hourani allots it.  That story is the topic of the next book on my list - The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam by Bat Ye'or.

Anyway, Hourani is still a great read.  412 pages to go.

(Thanks to my housemate Bob for letting me borrow it.)

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