Jason Burke

The best of journeys: Justin Marozzi’s monumental trek through the history of the Muslim world

Islamic Empires reviewed

This impressively clever, careful, and often beautiful book is the best sort of journey. It takes us through 15 cities that represent Islamic civilisation, but also through 15 centuries of Islamic history. Our voyage takes us through the core of the Middle East, but also to Fez in what is now Morocco and to Samarkand, in what is now Uzbekistan.

We are introduced to very attractive characters such as Akbar, the tolerant and cultured warrior-poet who was Mughal emperor in the 16th century, and Harun al-Rashid, who turned Baghdad into a cultural and commercial centre so rich and powerful that its fame resonates more than a millennium later. We also meet less savoury types, who torture, burn and kill in innumerable inventive ways, and less powerful ones, such as writers, architects, traders and pilgrims. Our guide is never predictable, continually fascinating, and his elegant writing makes for a very comfortable ride.

Justin Marozzi is a traveller, journalist, Arabist and scholar whose reading is deep and his touch, though not always light, is always clear. A preceding work, an excellent historical biography of Baghdad, has clearly laid the ground for this more ambitious project.

We start, naturally enough, in Mecca. The city is forbidden to non-Muslims and so the joyous descriptive passages inspired by the author’s visits that often enliven the text elsewhere are sadly absent. Imagination is a fair substitute for experience, however, and Marozzi nicely conjures the rough and ready — and atrociously hot — trading settlement that was home to Mohammed before the prophet’s flight to nearby Yathrib, or Medina. Marozzi’s account of the early years of the Islamic faith is impressively fair-minded, encompassing the traditional version of Mohammed’s life and times, as well as touching on recent revisionist interrogations of that account.

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