Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Greg Fisher (ed.), Arabs and Empires before Islam. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xxvii, 580. ISBN 9780199654529. $225.00.
Reviewed by Hamish Cameron, Bates College (hcameron@bates.edu)
Version at BMCR home site

Arabs and Empires before Islam seeks to illuminate the pre-Islamic Arabs and their relationship to the empires and kingdoms which surrounded them. The chapters, each of which has been written by an ensemble of scholars, examine a variety of mostly written evidence from multiple traditions, most originating in geographically, politically and chronologically adjacent contexts. Archaeological evidence plays a part in this volume, as do writings by pre-islamic Arab authors themselves.
Greg Fisher marshals a formidable array of scholars of the pre-Islamic and early-Islamic Near East to examine over a thousand years of diverse relationships between the people of pre-Islamic Arabia and the surrounding empires. Only three of the book's eight chapters have a single author. In the remaining chapters, specific sections are sometimes noted as the work of particular scholars, but most are collaborative in some way. Each chapter (except for one devoted entirely to archaeology) includes between 25 and 53 translations of ancient texts, clearly organised by chapter and text number (e.g. 5.10). This gives a strong internal structure to the work that allows the reader to see the wider network of links within the included corpus.
The volume begins with a brief Editor's Introduction by Fisher giving a broad outline of the land and peoples that constitute pre-Islamic Arabia. Fisher discusses the nature of the external and internal sources, the geographical scope of the book, and a number of important terminological issues (including the nature of frontiers and names for Arab collective structures). He then gives an outline of the book. Other notable introductory material includes a guide to the transliteration conventions adopted in the volume and several lists of the names of frequently recurring Arab leaders and dynasties.
Chapter 1, "Arabs and Empires before the Sixth Century", serves the dual roles of historical survey and introduction to regional epigraphy and linguistics. It is divided chronological into two sections. The first covers sources from the Achaemenid period to the Severans. The second covers the fourth and fifth centuries CE. The chapter's long chronological scope is divided among specialists of the respective texts and periods: Michael C. A. Macdonald examines inscriptions in Ancient North Arabian languages and Aramaic; Touraj Daryaee, Greg Fisher, and Matt Gibbs discuss Achaemenid, Parthian and Early Sasanian evidence; Aldo Corcella examines the Classical Greek accounts; Greg Fisher and Ariel Lewin the Roman evidence (with the addition of Conor Whately for the fourth and fifth centuries); Donata Violante the New Testament. The chapter ends with a conclusion by Fisher and Macdonald. The evidence and arguments of the first chapter show the many uses and meanings of the terms "Arab" and "Arabia" and establish the major themes of the volume: the region's internal political complexity as well as the role of Arabia and its peoples as a political and religious borderland between the Roman and Sasanian empires.
In Chapters 2 (Before Ḥimyar) and 3 (Ḥimyar, Aksūm, and Arabia Deserta in Late Antiquity), Christian Julien Robin examines South Arabian epigraphic evidence of the political, social, and religious groups and relationships that existed in the area of modern Yemen. Robin's examples and discussions illustrate the range of evidence as well as the stylistic conventions, common subject matter, and potential biases of the region's epigraphy. Chapter 2 establishes a cultural context for the religious reforms and political changes of the late fourth to early sixth, then Chapter 3 discusses the forms of Judaism and Christianity that emerged during that time, as well as the expansionist kingdoms of the region and their relationship to the Roman and Persian empires.
While most of the book examines relationships on a broad, geographical scale, in Chapter 4 (The Archaeological Evidence for the Jafnids and the Naṣrids) Denis Genequand zooms in for a narrower spatial approach. He discusses a number of sites on the fringes of Roman and Sasanian space that are linked to North Arabia dynasties by epigraphy or by textual sources. The chapter includes several clear archaeological plans and a few site images. The first four-fifths of the chapter deals with the Jafnid dynasty. The Naṣrid material occupies just the final seven pages.
In Chapter 5, "Arabs in the Conflict between Rome and Persia, AD 491-630", Peter Edwell (with unmarked contributions from Greg Fisher, Geoffrey Greatrex, Conor Whately, and Philip Wood) approaches its subject material through a chronological narrative that provides context for the primary source texts. Most of these texts were written by imperial subjects on either side of the conflict and discuss the Arabian peoples and leaders in the conflict as third parties in service of the two empires. The texts that form the backbone of this chapter are primarily excerpts from Greek and Syriac chronicles and histories (often quoted at length and only in translation) that provide fleeting snapshots of the activities of Arab groups at the interface of the two empires. Edwell et al. show how Arab leaders, especially Rome's Jafnid allies negotiated the complexities of inter-imperial warfare, Christian sectarianism, and court politics.
Chapter 6 (Arabs and Christianity) attempts to understand the penetration of Christianity into the Arab world in Late Antiquity and how its spread was related to Roman imperial interests in its promotion. At close to 100 pages, this is a weighty chapter. Fisher himself begins by examining interactions between individual Christian holy men and local Arab groups and individuals before the 6th century. The second section (Romans, Persians, Arabs, and Christianity in the 6th Century) covers a range of topics focused mostly around specific bodies of evidence: George Bevan, Greg Fisher, and Philip Wood use hagiographic evidence to consider relations between Jafnids, Miaphysite monasteries, and Saint Sergius. Basema Hamarneh examines church mosaics at Nitl and Tall al-'Umayri East and their Islamic-era modification. George Bevan and Greg Fisher treat sixth-century martyria from Syria. Philip Wood explores how Miaphysite missions negotiated a lack of state structures among the Arabs of the Jazira (northern Mesopotamia), Philip Wood (with Geoffrey Greatrex) discusses the conversion of the pagan Naṣrids of al-Ḥīra to Christianity. Greg Fisher and Geoffrey Greatrex examine three passages describing an episode of anti-Christian persecution at Najrān in South Arabia in 523. The chapter ends with a note by Peter Schadler on the application of the term Ishmaelites to groups in Arabia and the later development of the term Saracen. The chapter weaves these threads together to show how Christianity provided a space of opportunity for political advancement in Arabia. It also reveals how, as the link between religious affiliation and political allegiance grew in Late Antiquity, Christianity both induced conflicts and built relationships between different Arab groups and leaders who adhered to various interpretations of Christian theology.
Chapter 7 (Provincia Arabia: Nabataea, the Emergence of Arabic as a Written Language, and Graeco-Arabia) addresses the life of the Roman province of Arabia from its annexation to its loss. In the first section (Petra and Ḥegrā between the Roman annexation and the coming of Islam), Zbigniew T. Fiema and Laïla Nehmé survey the Roman annexation of the region. They explore the administration, urbanization, and economic development of the province as well as the relationships between the Roman province and peripheral Arab groups and the impact of Christianity on the region. This section is based mostly on archaeological evidence. The second section, "The Emergence of Arabic as a Written Language", examines the textual evidence for the province. Michael C. A. MacDonald begins by discussing how cultural norms around language use and writing may have affected the development of written Arabic. He then proceeds through a close philological commentary of inscriptions in the Nabatean script that illustrate the relationship between Arabic and Aramaic in the region. The section includes a sub-section by Laïla Nehmé on 'transitional' Nabataeo-Arabic texts and ends with a discussion of the Greco-Arabica, a loose corpus of Arabic words transliterated into the Greek script that allows access to otherwise unknown aspects of pronunciation and meaning.
The eighth and final chapter, "Arabic and Persian Sources for Pre-Islamic Arabia", uses later sources to show how Islamic writers looked back on the pre-Islamic past. There are five sections. The first begins by establishing the political and religious context for Islamic prose writing about pre-Islamic Arabs. It positions pre-Islamic history as an ideological battleground for Islamic writers of the 9th and 10th century who were concerned about Arab identity and its relationship to other peoples, especially Persians. The texts in this section are arranged thematically under a combination of geographical and thematic headings to highlight areas and types of interaction between Arabs and Empires. The section briefly discusses the central role of the Qur'an in mediating knowledge about pre-Islamic Arabia to Islamic writers. The third section examines the pre-Islamic poetry frequently used by Islamic scholars for qur'anic exegesis, the study of Arabic philology, and questions of Arabic identity. The texts in this section give glimpses of pre-Islamic political activity as well as representations of traditional Arabic ways of life. In these first three sections, Harry Munt (with contributions from Omar Edaibat and Robert Hoyland) shows how these later Arabic sources relate to the contemporary sources in previous chapters. He then shows how different perspectives on the same events shed light on questions raised earlier in the volume. The final part of the chapter comprises a section (by Isabel Toral-Niehoff) on Al-Ḥīra and the conversion and death of its last Naṣrid king, Al-Nu'man. It also includes a brief section by Touraj Daryaee giving a glimpse into a few Middle Persian and Persian sources that illuminate relationships between Sasanian kings and Arab rulers. These final sections give further perspectives on texts discussed earlier in the chapter and the book. All the texts in this chapter are contextualised within the Arabic or Persian traditions with short biographies of their authors or historiography and important bibliography.
There is a degree of inconsistency in the treatment of the primary texts from chapter to chapter. Many of the primary texts are provided in translation only and the original language of the texts is not always clear. Some source translations rely on the presence of transliterated Greek words to hint at their use of language. Others assume knowledge of the language used by the author. Generally, the passages are accompanied by references to previous publications, translation credits, additional reading, notes on linguistic oddities and translational practices. This makes the omission of a consistent notation of original language appear odd. However, given the editorial consistency that Fisher has managed to apply across such a wide range of contributors, this seems a minor quibble.
The text is accompanied by a number of helpful visual aids. The first four chapters in particular are well illustrated with drawings of inscriptions clearly showing scripts and letter forms, photos of inscriptions and find sites, and regional maps showing sites, kingdoms and campaigns. The volume includes an attractive selection of 16 colour plates showing sites, buildings, landscapes, inscriptions and other relevant archaeological evidence.
Arabs and Empires Before Islam gives an excellent overview of the complexity of social, political and religious action in pre-Islamic Arabia. Because each of the chapters in the volume is organised according to its own logic, there is some overlap across them. This overlap, however, provides opportunity for interactivity between chapters and illuminates different perspectives on the same material. While the volume can only introduce the field of pre-Islamic Arabia to non-specialists, it does so through a series of deep, focused bores into selected topics, rather than by attempting an all-encompassing overview that merely scratches the surface. Much here will be familiar to specialists, but the volume includes some previously unpublished epigraphic and archaeological evidence, as well as much more material that is otherwise unpublished in English. Moreover, each chapter's footnotes provide ample guides for those who wish to explore these topics further. This work will be of use to scholars and graduate students seeking an introduction to pre-Islamic Arabia and will prove especially valuable to those with an interest in ancient borderlands, empires, and people on their fringes.

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