What We Are Reading Today: Islamic Empires — Fifteen Cities That Define A Civilization

Updated 05 September 2019
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What We Are Reading Today: Islamic Empires — Fifteen Cities That Define A Civilization

LONDON: The much-anticipated book by historian and journalist Justin Marozzi — “Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities That Define A Civilization” — was launched in London on Wednesday.

Marozzi’s task might appear daunting — tracking a millennia-and-a-half of history across the vast geographical space and varied populations and cultures that make up the center of the Islamic world.

Using an approach he calls “the greatest hits of the Muslim world,” Marozzi does this by charting 15 centuries of Islam’s history by shining a spotlight on 15 cities and the development of Islamic civilization, which as the book points out, was once the “envy of the world.”

From the beginnings of Islam in seventh century Makkah to the glittering, modern metropolis of Dubai, and the cultural and scientific centers of Baghdad, Isfahan and Cairo in between, Marozzi’s expertly crafted narrative highlights the historical, cultural and social impact each city had on the spread of Islam.

Marozzi is well qualified to dissect and examine the Islamic world, having spent time in nearly every one of the 15 cities throughout his career and research for the book. Some of them he knows extremely well — he was given the Ondaatje Award for “Baghdad: A City of Peace, A City of Blood,” a multi-layered study of the Iraqi capital and its fascinating history.

The author readily admits that his book is not an in-depth study of the Islamic world’s history, but what he manages to do well is capture the rich, varied and often complex nature of Islamic civilization by offering glimpses of not just its leaders and their institutions, but also its cultural shifts throughout history.

“We get a look at these wonderful figures, these greatest and mightiest leaders in their capitals, people like Saladin in Cairo, Mehmed the Conqueror in Istanbul and founder of the Mughal empire Babur in Kabul,” Marozzi said.

“But one of the enduring themes that is developed in the book is the value of tolerance and understanding between different communities. When great cities cease to be cosmopolitan, they wither and die, that’s one of the lessons we can learn,” he added.

While Marozzi’s tendency to explain many terms already familiar to Muslims or those from the Middle East might be tiresome for some, he does not assume knowledge for a wider, global audience, which means his book can be enjoyed by those within the Islamic world and those outside it.

As Stuart Proffitt of publisher Penguin Books said: “It’s an extraordinary civilization that is so important to us all but one that, if we are totally honest, we don’t know nearly as much as we would like or need to.”

Cue Marozzi's excellent chronicle.


What We Are Reading Today: Our Great Purpose by Ryan Patrick Hanley

Updated 18 September 2019

What We Are Reading Today: Our Great Purpose by Ryan Patrick Hanley

Adam Smith is best known today as the founder of modern economics, but he was also an uncommonly brilliant philosopher who was especially interested in the perennial question of how to live a good life. 

Our Great Purpose is a short and illuminating guide to Smith’s incomparable wisdom on how to live well, written by one of today’s leading Smith scholars, says a review on the Princeton University Press website.

In this inspiring and entertaining book, Ryan Patrick Hanley describes Smith’s vision of “the excellent and praiseworthy character,” and draws on the philosopher’s writings to show how each of us can go about developing one. For Smith, an excellent character is distinguished by qualities such as prudence, self-command, justice, and benevolence — virtues that have been extolled since antiquity. 

Yet Smith wrote not for the ancient polis but for the world of market society — our world — which rewards self-interest more than virtue. Hanley shows how Smith set forth a vision of the worthy life that is uniquely suited to us today.