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Illuminations and enlightenment throughout the history of the Middle East [reading list]

Explore the vast history of the Middle East and immerse yourself in the stories of the luminaries, leaders, moments, and the movements that shaped the intellectual and cultural landscape for the centuries that followed.

Each of the seven books on this reading list—spanning hundreds of miles geographically and thousands of years chronologically—sheds a contemporary light on the pursuit of knowledge and spirit of curiosity that continues to inspire the region and the world.

1. The Genius of Their Age

The Genius of Their Age by S. Frederick Starr is a vibrant portrait of an age when Arabic enlightenment anticipated and inspired the European Renaissance, illuminated by its guiding figures, Ibn Sina and Biruni.

A thousand years ago, these two intellectual giants and rivals made ground-breaking strides in fields as diverse as medicine, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, geography, and physics. Biruni measured the earth more precisely than anyone else down to the sixteenth century, and Ibn Sina’s impressive repertoire of medical knowledge became the standard for the next 600 years in Europe, the Middle East, and India, and these achievements just barely scrape the surface of a much larger story. Ibn Sina and Biruni both lived and worked in what is now Uzbekistan in the tenth century, and their work both reflected and propelled an era of rapid change.

Starr uses the lives and correspondences of these two brilliant thinkers to bring the age to life.

Buy The Genius of Their Age by S. Frederick Starr

2. Peerless among Princes 

Under the sixteenth-century reign of Süleyman, the Ottoman Empire became a true global power. From Hungary to Iran, and from the Crimea to North Africa and the Indian Ocean, his domain was expansive, multilingual, and multireligious.

The wealth of his treasury, the strength of his armies, and his personality were much discussed by courtiers, diplomats, poets, and publics, making Süleyman an almost mythic figure during his life and through to the present day. His prolific poetic output, charity, and patronage of arts and architecture enhanced his reputation as a universal ruler with a well-rounded character. But who was the man behind the public façade of might and glory?

Peerless among Princes explores the true Süleyman. From his relationship with his overbearing father, to his loving marriage to a concubine named Hürrem, this book paints a compelling portrait of one of history’s most influential rulers.

By Peerless among Princes by Kaya Şahin

3. King of the World

King of the World takes readers back in time to the Persian Empire of the sixth century BC, the world’s first hyperpower, with the purpose of delving into the life of Cyrus the Great, who conquered most of the empire’s territory.

Cyrus was a legend in his own lifetime. His conquests of Media, Lydia, and Babylon earned him a reputation as one of the greatest conquerors in history. But he was equally well-regarded for his approaches to governance and leadership. During his reign, he instituted a policy of religious tolerance, implemented administrative reforms that increased the efficiency of the empire while also respecting regional customs and laws, and he invested in infrastructures that facilitated trade and communication throughout the empire.

King of the World by Matt Waters gives Cyrus’s legacy the recognition it is due and seeks to provide an accurate and approachable portrait of the great ruler’s life and achievements. Waters draws from a wide array of sources, both from the Ancient Greeks and primary evidence from the ancient Near East as well.

Buy King of the World by Matt Waters

4. The Masnavi

If something else can capture your attention

Then it’s not love, but just a trivial passion –

Love is that flame which, once it blazes up,

Burns everything but the Beloved up.

Immerse yourself in the poetic beauty of Rumi’s magnum opus, the Masnavi, widely recognized as the greatest Sufi poem ever written, and dubbed by some “the Koran in Persian.” Composed for the benefit of his disciples in the Sufi order named after him, Rumi weaves entertaining stories and passionate verse to convey his message of divine love and unity.

The latest addition to this multi-book collection is the first ever translation of the entirety of Book Five. Previously, the poem had been deemed too provocative to publish in full and so only translations of select passages or in lineated prose were available.

Buy the Masnavi

5. A Short History of Islamic Thought

While much has been written about Islam, particularly over the past 25 years, few books have explored the full range of the ideas that have defined the faith over a millennium and a half.

A Short History of Islamic Thought is a perfect book for general readers looking to expand their horizons. Tracing Islamic thought from its beginnings in the seventh century, this illuminating introduction to Islam explores the major ideas and figures—those who over the centuries have broached life’s major questions, from the nature of God and the existence of free will to gender relations and the ordering of society, and in the process defined Islam.

Above all, this book reveals the fundamental principles of Islamic thought, both as a source of inspiration for Muslims today and as illuminating and rewarding in their own right.

Buy A Short History of Islamic Thought

6. The Caliph and the Imam

Following the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 a struggle broke out among his followers regarding who would succeed him. Most argued that the leader of Islam should be elected by the community’s elite and rule as Caliph. They would later become the Sunnis. Others believed that Muhammad had designated his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his successor, and that henceforth Ali’s offspring should lead as Imams. They would become known as the Shia.

The Caliph and the Imam by Toby Matthiesen explores this rift and sheds light on the many ways it has shaped the Islamic world to this day.

Buy The Caliph and the Imam

7. Rivers of the Sultan

Dive into the fascinating histories of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in Rivers of the Sultan by Faisal Husain. Running through the heart of the Middle East and merging in the area of Mesopotamia known as the “cradle of civilization,” these two bodies of water experienced a rare period of political stability and integration during the sixteenth century.

Under the rule of Sultan Süleyman I, the management of the system was unified and centralized to enable cooperation among the rivers’ dominant users and improve the exploitation of their waters for navigation and food production. Under this imperial policy, shipments of grain, metal, and timber from upstream areas of surplus in Anatolia were regularly sent to downstream areas of need in Iraq, thus rebalancing the natural resource disparity within the Tigris-Euphrates basin.

Placing these historic bodies of water at its center, Rivers of the Sultan reveals intimate bonds between state and society, metropole and periphery, and nature and culture in the early modern world.

Buy Rivers of the Sultan

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