Robert Irwin is a great historian of the medieval Arab worldby Robin Banerji / February 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Book: The Alhambra Author: Robert Irwin Price: Profile, ?15.99
Early on in his investigation of the Alhambra, the greatest work of Islamic architecture in Europe, I was pleased to realise that Robert Irwin is not worried about being speciously relevant. Irwin pursues his own interests – Ibn Khaldun on the link between oranges and politics, the influence of irrational numbers on Islamic architecture, 19th-century orientalist painting – and in doing so, he undermines the pseudo-certainties of that epic we’ve heard too much about recently: the clash of civilisations. The responses to the death of Edward Said, and the flood of books on the Arab world, Islam, and al Qaeda have all seemed to reinforce the idea that orientalism, the western study of the Arab world and Islam, is fundamentally concerned with power. Journalists, scholars and the inhabitants of think tanks propagate the notion that the study of the history and languages of the Arab and Muslim peoples will help the west in a fight against radical Islam. This orientalism as Kremlinology is not limited to books published in the last couple of years.
There is, however, an alternative to orientalism as power: histories of the Arab world or the middle east designed to be read for pleasure. Robert Irwin is a historian of the medieval Arab world and of Islamic art; he also writes novels. He’s an orientalist but of a different kind to that of his teacher Bernard Lewis. At the beginning of The Arabian Nightmare, Irwin’s slightly silly but hugely enjoyable pulp thriller set in medieval Cairo, we’re told that his story is for reading in bed, as a stimulant for dreams. And even in his more ambitious non-fiction, Irwin always has a sense of humour about what he is doing, and always writes as if reading should be enjoyable, a stimulant to the imagination. In his history of The Middle East in the Middle Ages: the Early Mamluk Sultanate 1250-1382 Irwin wrote, "it is tempting to… argue that the mamluk institution was a response to Islam’s failure to legitimate other, more satisfactory, ways of distributing political and military power." But he is not really tempted by the seeming clarity of this single timeless cause. He points out that the history of the Islamic lands from the 800s to the 1800s cannot be so easily tidied up: like other places at other times, politics, economics, geography and climate…