Prize Winners 2008

(for books published in 2007)

Speech given at the presentation ceremony by Sir Harold Walker.

Forty-five books were submitted, seven short of the record of fifty-two in 2006 but still a significant number, indicating the continued attractiveness of the prize to publishers. In the opinion of the judges the entry overall was of high quality. It was also of considerable variety, the range covering anthropology, archaeology, architecture, history, law, literature, politics and religion. Missing this year, however, was any work on language or linguistics.

At the risk of making invidious distinctions in a high-quality field, the judges singled out a number of works for honorable mention (by alphabetical order of their authors):

Cairo of the Mamluks by Doris Behrens-Abouseif (I B Tauris).
This beautifully illustrated book, complete with some spectacular axonometric drawings, adroitly treads the dividing line between a work aimed at a scholarly audience and one intended for the interested amateur. The core of the work is devoted to descriptions of sixty of the most important Mamluk buildings, with much out-of-the-way detail - a valuable addition to knowledge of the monuments of "a city beyond imagination" (Ibn Khaldun).

Martyrdom in Islam by David Cook (Cambridge University Press).
A comprehensive yet not over-long study of a topical but largely misunderstood subject, wide in scope, well researched, and full of fascinating insights. Coming from a background in religious studies, the author is able to speak in comparative terms about martyrdom in the two other montheistic traditions, while a good number of the case studies with which he illustrates his analysis of doctrine come from beyond Arabia - from India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Africa.

The Future for Palestinian Refugees: Towards Equity and Peace by Michael Dumper (Lynne Rienner Publishers).
Michael Dumper has found something fresh to say about this long-standing problem, placing it in the context of other conflicts involving refugees. A thoroughly well researched and clearly written book which deserves to be read not only by the parties but also by the broader interested public.

Introduction to Middle Eastern Law by Chibli Mallat (Oxford University Presss).
A well written work, based on extensive research, that constitutes a bold attempt to frame the law of the Middle Eastern countries in a new way.

Power, Politics and Religion in Timurid Iran by Beatrice Forbes Manz (Cambridge University Press).
Of this work the reviewer noted that, fifteen years or so in the making, it was "a rich and detailed examination of a dynamic period in the history of Iran and Central Asia". The chapters on the sources of religious authority and the involvement of the religious classes in politics were particularly original and important. "Manz makes magisterial use of a wide range of sources; her work will be a model for the discussion of these issues [of Timurid society] on a broader canvas."

Governing Property, Making the Modern State by Martha Mundy and Richard Saumarez Smith (I B Tauris).
This original work, written for the specialist rather than the general reader, sets out an argument, backed by an impressive collation of over ten years of fieldwork and analysis of archival records, that modernity came to Ottoman society in the nineteenth century as the outcome of internal processes, not as an import from the West.

Space and Muslim Urban Life by Simon O'Meara (Routledge).
In this short but packed book Simon O' Meara brings, in the words of the reviewer, "a new depth and sophistication" to the literature on the Islamic city. In an examination showing intimate on-the-spot knowledge he homes in on space rather than monuments to interpret pre-modern Fez not as a UNESCO World Heritage site but as a machine for living. He assembles an impressive body of legal data to explain the purpose of the many walls that subdivide Fez, with far-reaching implications for the study of other Islamic cities.

As in all previous years, the judges decided that the award itself should be split. They decided that two works should be awarded £4000 each:

Image "weir receives award 08.JPG"A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen by Shelagh Weir (The British Museum Press).
This admirably readable work of anthropology describes the politico-legal system in an area of northern Yemen. The reviewer commented: "She explores in impressive detail the tribal system, tribal governance, law and politics, and state and tribal relations, the latter crucial to our understanding of Yemen today". The book is the result not only of extensive fieldwork but the examination of some 350 Arabic documents describing for example the minutiae of land transactions on the one hand and defence pacts on the other. The judges agreed with the judgment of the reviewer that overall "the book is a remarkable achievement in adding greatly to our understanding of this complex tribal world" and, they would add, to dispelling notions of the uniformity of tribal systems.

Image "porman receives prize 08.JPG"Medieval Islamic Medicine by Peter E Pormann and Emilie Savage-Smith (Edinburgh University Press).
This volume not only updates Manfred Ullmann's monumental Die Medizin im Islam of 1968 but also challenges aspects of past conventional wisdom, for example on the importance of the translation movement of the 9th century. The reviewer, after stating that the book offers a readable, up-to-date introduction to the field covered by its title, comments that the "book will be useful also to the many academics within the field who are becoming aware of the discipline's growing importance", adding that "this volume will certainly take its place among the sources that allow easy access to 'non-Western' accomplishments". He concludes that it is "an inestimable contribution both to its own field, but also within and - perhaps most importantly - outwith Islamic and Middle Eastern studies."

The judges further decided that £2000 should be awarded to The Ismailis in the Middle Ages by Shafique N Virani (Oxford University Press). This fascinating and elegantly written book deals with a little known area of later medieval Islamic history, namely that of the Ismailis after the Mongol destruction of Alamut in 1256.The author draws on a wide array of Arabic and Persian sources, providing new and valuable information on the fate of the Ismailis in the period 1256-1500. The author gives an admirably lucid account of the history of both events and doctrines, and explains how the Ismailis survived in hostile environments, using a variety of stratagems.