Five Books Every Middle East Nerd Should Read

By Danny Stoker

The Middle East is a complex and fascinating region and while there is a never ending supply of commentary on the present state of the Middle East in everything from the New York Times to Fox News not all content is created equal. The vast majority of content that can be found in the print and broadcast media is shallow; lacking the necessary depth to provide the depth and understanding to the issues. If you are serious about gaining a solid understanding of the region, then reading books about the key issues confronting the Middle East is necessary. The following list is comprised of books that are 1) written fora general audience and not just Middle East specialists, 2) focused on the region as a whole or specific issues or historical events that reverberate throughout the region, and 3) written with enough detail that even Middle East specialists will learn something.

Lockman, Zachary. Contending Visions of the Middle East: The history and politics of Orientalism. 2nd Edition Cambridge University Press: 2010

Zachary Lockman’s work is not so much a study of the Middle East, but rather a study of how the Middle East has been viewed, researched, and studied in the West. Contending Visions of the Middle provides insight into how ideas of what comprises the “Middle East”  have evolved over the centuries. Most importantly it provides a reasonably detailed explanation on how the legacy of colonialism has impacted the study of Arabs, Islam, and “the East.” More than anything this work focuses on the politics behind different academic approaches to studying the region. Finally, this work discusses how debates within the field of Middle East Studies translate into U.S. policy toward the region.

Donner, Fred. Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam. Harvard University Press: 2010

Any serious student of the Middle East should have a basic knowledge of Islam and its history. Muslims are the majority religion in every country in the Middle East and the faith influences the culture, politics, and economics of the region. Fred Donner’s Muhammad and the Believers provides an excellent look into the history of early Islam, specifically the first century of the religion. While Donner provides the traditional narrative of the beginnings of Islam, he also addresses several issues involved in this narrrative. Using archeological evidence and rarely used sources Donner questions certain aspects of Islam’s traditional and generally accepted narrative. Donner’s chief point of contention is that during the Prophet Muhammad’s life, Islam never developed into a distinct religion but rather a monotheist movement that included Christians and Jews. It wasn’t until nearly a century after the movement’s that it distinguished itself as something separate from Christianity and Judaism. Donner’s hypothesis is a controversial one, but he is able to provide a variety of sources that support it. Donner is respectful of Islam throughout this book. This book should not be viewed as an attack on Islam but rather an attempt to better understand the history of its origins that are so often clouded by the works of apologists and critics of the faith.

Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival: How conflicts within Islam will shape the future. W. W. Norton and Company: 2006

Given the state of the Middle East today, sectarian tensions are shaping the region every where from Turkey to Yemen and Egypt to Iran. In order to understand the contemporary Middle East, one must have reasonable understanding of the underlying history of the Sunni-Shi’a split and how those tensions have evolved and re-emerged in the 20th century. Nasr’s book is not perfect, but I have not found a better book on this important topic. Nasr wrote his book after the U.S. had invaded Iraq and empowered on the Arab World’s largest Shi’a populations. While sectarianism is more nuanced than it is portrayed in Nasr’s book, he adequately details the differences between Sunni and Shi’a and their worldviews. Furthermore, he points to the growing regional rivalry between Iran (Shi’a) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and how it is impacting the region.

Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace: The fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East. Henry Holt and Company: 1989

So many of the Middle East’s current problems are blamed on colonial powers ‘drawing lines in the sand’ that created new nations in the aftermath of World War I. The Western powers’ folly is detailed in several books, but none quite match up to Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace. Fromkin’s work is written primarily from the European perspective and relies heavily on European sources. Its biggest flaw is its neglect of Arab, Turkish, and Muslim voices. That said he discusses in great detail the role the Middle East played in World War I and how its modern boundaries came to be made. Every Middle East nerd should have a decent idea about Sykes-Picot, the Balfour Declaration, San Remo, and the Treaty of Sevres. I cringe every time some one inaccurately tells me how the present day borders of the Middle East were drawn by Sykes and Picot (Sykes-Picot merely created a general framework for how the British and the French were going to divvy up the region after WWI, no final lines were drawn).

Segev, Tom. One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate. Henry Holt and Company: 1999

For many Americans, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most recognizable issue in the Middle East. It is also likely the oldest, most controversial, and least understood issue for many Americans. Anything touching Israel and Palestine is likely to incite some criticism. It is difficult to find any decent history free from the polemics and apologetics related to the issue. Tom Segev’s One Palestine, Complete is one of the few books I have read that is able to do justice to the conflict. The biggest myth that Segev’s work dispels is the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an ancient blood feud between competing factions the patriarch Abraham’s bloodline. The book demonstrates the limits of Jewish-Arab cooperation and the evolution of tension between them. The book also illustrates the role Britain played in creating what seems to be an intractable conflict.