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ISLAMIC EMPIRES by Justin Marozzi review

  • Written by  A S H SMYTH
  • Published in Books
ISLAMIC EMPIRES by Justin Marozzi review
10 Oct
by Justin Marozzi • Allen Lane • £25 (hardback)

‘Civilisation’, Justin Marozzi writes, is ‘by definition an urban phenomenon, and no one did cities quite like the Muslims.’ After initial bursts of stunning conquest in the 7th century, the new Islamic empire soon enough turned into empires plural, not least through the Sunni/Shia schism. In turn, these empires fought with one another, split, were merged, absorbed, and generally migrated to and fro, down through the ages, each one necessitating a new capital: some created out of nothing, and some with lengthy histories of their own.

From Umayyad Damascus, the Muslims’ first great capital, to Abbasid Baghdad, the ‘pre-eminent city on Earth’ for almost 500 years, while London and Paris were little better than provincial towns; from Cordoba, the ‘ornament of the world’, to Timur’s Samarkand, ‘Pearl of the East’; from Jerusalem, ground zero for so much of the world’s religious strife, to Dubai, likewise for so much dizzying commercialism; Shiite Isfahan, bibliophile Fez, Saladin’s Cairo, beleaguered Constantinople (‘a bone in the throat of Allah’), piratical Tripoli, proto-Mughal Kabul, glamorous Beirut… Islamic Empires is a seemingly boundless trove of intellectual, architectural, and actual treasures, as a succession of world-changing rulers shifted the focus of the Muslim world from east to west, north and south, butting up against the consciousnesses of surrounding domains and cultures, each city-chapter exemplifying the Islamosphere and to some extent the changing world around it, century by century.

Marozzi, a Fellow and former Trustee of the RGS-IBG, writes colourful, narrative history of the finest kind: pacey, crimson, and with all the references left until the end. The whole book is, as he says of 9th century Baghdad, ‘a kaleidoscope of bloodshed and conquest, pilgrimage and procreation, science and scholarship, [and] palatial building.’

He clearly loves this part of the world, its wonders and its history; but he is polite, rather than captive, and is vocally hesitant about the more floridly-rhetorical (and court-appointed) Arab sources, especially their ‘deeply suspect’ stats. That said, there’s no escaping (nor would one want to) the endless procession of medieval Muslim traveller-historians and all their dazzling details: the world’s first fountain pen, millstones of gold, assessments of the world that run to 50 volumes. His bibliography and notes reflect – indeed invite – a life’s work.

The author’s abiding theme is that the mark of every successful Islamic empire and/or its capital was diversity and tolerance. As a (contested) hadith instructs: ‘Seek knowledge even unto China.’ From pre-Muslim Mecca to the ‘almost unhinged’ 20th century urban explosions of Dubai and Doha, compulsive trade encouraged educated and entrepreneurial foreigners to come to the cities, and ethno-religious toleration kept them there, ‘allowing the free flow of goods and ideas across the empire and beyond.’

When it came to non-Arabs/Muslims, many of the caliphs, sultans and the like conquered smarter, not just harder; and even under the (admittedly ‘enforced’) patronage of the near-genocidal Timur, ‘literary culture, music and the visual arts flourished’. Time and again the adjectives used to describe these empires at their peak are ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘liberalising’, ‘pluralist’, ‘outward-looking’, ‘multicultural’, ‘polyglot’.

But for every story of ‘intellects rov[ing] freely and widely’, there are still two massacres. And then comes the crash. As Marozzi writes of Damascus, ‘from its world-illuminating zenith to its blood-spattered nadir’. There emerges a wearyingly inevitable pattern, typically within just a couple of generations, of imperial cities regressing into closed-minded, purgative misrule – ‘Debate about the correct Islamic manner of washing… replaced philosophical conjecture and scientific invention’ – followed swiftly by defeat, plunder and the burning of libraries.

The casualties who fell before the ‘rampant banner of Islam’ were, it is noted, overwhelmingly Muslims themselves. For much of this history, Christian Europe ‘wasn’t even worth the journey’. From the 17th century on, though, there begins a steady acceleration in interactions with Western cultures. It’s worth observing that native discomfort at rampant multiculturalism is already a part of 21st century Doha’s cultural and political discourse.

‘A thousand years ago, Islamic civilisation bestrode the world.’ But Islamic Empires ends, of course, with a ‘civilisation’ once again plunged into and laid waste by fitna – the Arabic term for conflict, civil discord, and division. The Middle East ‘has turned back the clock and shrivelled in on itself’ – and the first words in the book are: ‘I’m embarrassed to be an Arab these days.’

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