Prize Winners 2010

(for books published in 2009)

When the British-Kuwait Friendship Society was founded in 1996 it decided to do something unique among bilateral friendship societies: it established, to the great benefit of Middle Eastern studies in the United Kingdom, the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Prize in Middle Eastern Studies. Each year since then a prize or prizes to the value of up to £10,000, generously funded by the Abdullah Mubarak Al-Sabah Foundation, has been offered for the best scholarly work in English on the Middle East which has been published in its first edition in the United Kingdom.

Particular thanks where the prize for books published in 2009 is concerned go to His Excellency Mr Khalid al-Duwaisan,Image "khalid.gif" Ambassador of the State of Kuwait, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps and Co-Chairman of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society, who not for the first time has kindly agreed to host the award-giving ceremony in his Residence. We are also of course very grateful to Shaikh Mubarak Abdullah Al-Sabah, who takes a close interest in the prize both on his own account and as representative of the Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah Foundation.

The Judges Panel for the 2009 prize consisted of myself; Shaikh Mubarak Abdullah Al-Sabah; Professor Carole Hillenbrand, Professor Emerita and formerly Head of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh; Professor Yasir Suleiman, who holds the His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id Chair of Modern Arabic Studies and is Head of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge; Dr Zahia Salhi, Head of the Department of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Leeds; and Sir Roger Tomkys, formerly Master of Pembroke College Cambridge and until recently Chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce.

The Judges Panel were much assisted by the assessments made by the anonymous professional reviewers to whom the books are submitted in the first place; I extend our grateful thanks to them.

48 books were submitted in 2009, considerably more than in 2008, somewhat more than in 2007, and offering great variety in their subject-matter. The books could of course be categorised in several ways: one way would be to say that they fell into the fields of art, literature, antiquity, anthropology, religion and philosophy, international law, and history and politics.

At the risk of making invidious distinctions the Judges Panel singled out a number of works for honourable mention (by alphabetical order of their authors):

The Great CaliphsImage "greatcaliphsjpg"by Amira K Bennison (I B Tauris). This well written book attempts with considerable success to capture the flavour of medieval Muslim society from within. The author's reliance on very varied sources gives her text richness and depth. Comprehensive in its scope, the work can, in the words of the reviewer, "be placed with confidence in the hands of students or general readers eager to know more about how the medieval Islamic world worked".

The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals by Stephen F Dale (Cambridge University Press). This is the first book-length comparison of the three great Muslim empires of the modern period, with attention paid both to the influence of the empires that preceded them and to the legacies they left to the modern states that now inhabit their territories. The reviewer describes the work as "a masterly overview of a major slice of Muslim history".

Sorrowful Shores - Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire 1912-1923 by Ryan Gingeras (Oxford University Press). Professor Gingeras questions the Turkish and Western nationalist narratives of the period by looking not only at the Greeks and the Armenians but also at other communities in a particular area, South Marmora. Drawing on an impressive range of sources, he convincingly explains the importance of personal, familial and ethnic relationships in determining this crucial corner of Anatolia. The reviewer categorises the book as "extremely important for making sense out of the transition from Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic..."

Al-Ghazali's Philosophical Theology by Frank Griffel (Oxford University Press). The reviewer describes this volume as "a major addition to the available scholarship on al-Ghazali, one of the most important medieval theologians". After an excellent biographical chapter, adding much to our knowledge of al-Ghazali's life, Professor Griffel offers a chapter on his most influential students. He goes on to examine al-Ghazali's stance towards the philosophical tradition, and then explores core elements in the cosmological framework underlying his thought. The reviewer concludes that the book "makes an immensely valuable contribution to the study of medieval Islamic thought", and "sets a very high standard for future Ghazalian studies".

The Emergence of Modern Istanbul by Murat Gul (Tauris Academic Studies). The reviewer, noting that the author of this "excellent book" is a professional architect and planner, says that he is able to present technical material in a readable jargon-free style. Even more impressive, he states, is his grasp of the historical and economic forces shaping the city. "His use of archival material is particularly impressive, as is his outstanding ability to interpret this material in its local and international context".

Shari'a: Theory, Practice, TransformationsImage "sharia.jpg" by Wael B Hallaq (Cambridge University Press). This is a weighty book (600 pages) on a weighty subject; as such it cannot please everybody. That said, the key word "Transformations" in its title sets it aside from, and above, much else that has been written on Islamic law. Professor Hallaq takes the reader through a vast swathe of Islamic legal theory and practice, dividing his work into three major parts entitled "The pre-modern tradition", "The law: an outline" and "The sweep of modernity". The reviewer characterises it as "a work of brilliant synthesis with original insights".

Aramaic Inscriptions and Documents of the Roman Period by John F Healey (Oxford University Press). John Healey's book fills a long-felt need for a collection of representative texts from the different dialects during the Roman period of a language that was the common tongue of the Middle East for over a millennium before it was replaced by Arabic. The selection is first-class, and the introductions setting them in their contexts clear. The reviewer concludes that the work "is likely to remain a standard work on the subject for many years".

Poetry and Politics in Contemporary Bedouin Society by Clives Holes and Said Salman (Ithaca Press). This carefully produced book offers the work of five bedouin poets on a range of topics related to political and social issues. The original Arabic is presented together with vigorous English translations and an extensive range of explanatory material. Among books discussing contemporary bedouin material this is, in the opinion of the reviewer, "by far the most accessible for the non-specialist".

The Persians by Homa Katouzian (Yale University Press). The reviewer describes this work as "the best of a number of recent general histories of Iran". It is a long book - 400 pages long - but the author brings the narrative to life with frequent quotations from literature, with anecdotes and with other colourful details, giving it a distinctive voice. It is a rich book, giving the reader not only a sense of the broad sweep of historical developments but also a vivid picture of the character of the events and personalities described. The reviewer categorises it as a work of sound scholarship that would enhance understanding of the Middle East among a wide readership.

Rituals of Islamic Monarchy by Andrew Marsham (Edinburgh University Press). This book is an excellent contribution to a sub-field in the early days of Islam, providing, in the words of the reviewer, "the first systematic and thorough history of the bay'a in any period of Islamic history". The author uses a wide range of sources - published and unpublished, literary and documentary, Islamic and non-Islamic - and he approaches these with an eye to the bigger picture of Late Antique political culture: "Westernists" might find their way into Middle Eastern history through this book.

The Arabs by Eugene Rogan (Allen Lane). This volume is ambitious in scope, covering the political history of much of the Arab world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It presents, in the words of the reviewer, "a readable and accurate account of the major political developments that shaped the modern Arab Middle East. The historical narrative is enlivened by well described incidents and by portrayals of people whose part in or observation of the history of different parts of the Arab world are integral to its story".

As in all previous years, the judges decided that the award itself should be split. They decided that prizes of £3,000 should be awarded to each of:

Image "sexual politics in iran 2010.jpg" Sexual Politics in Modern Iran] by Janet Afary (Cambridge University Press). The reviewer describes this work as an "extremely sophisticated" history of sexual politics in modern Iran. "Based on extensive research, nuanced analysis, and astonishing erudition, the book is sure to be a standard for years to come". It sketches a process of transformation from pre-modern times to a Westernised modernity and an Islamist modern sexuality. The author, evidently aware of the contested nature of writings on sexuality, gives a sense of the ways in which the transformations described were at once affected by larger political movements and were influential in shaping them.

Image "sasanian persia 2010.jpg"Sasanian Persia by Touraj Daryaee] (I B Tauris). The reviewer calls this "a very fine book indeed, and original from start to finish". The first detailed history of Sasanian Iran in English, it offers a timely counter-balance to the Eurocentricity that has distorted the study of late antiquity. The reviewer calls it "an extremely erudite book" but says that the author wears his learning lightly, showing an enviable ability to distinguish the wood from the trees and writing in a reader-friendly manner - a "masterpiece".

Image "enlightenment quran 2010_.jpg" The Enlightenment Qur'an by Ziad Elmarsafy] (Oneworld). The reviewer calls this "a really clever book - it takes the translations of the Quran made into Western European languages and examines how they mesh into the notions of Western hegemony current at the time". The author demonstrates how Islamophobia in its modern guise on the one hand and the medieval polemic against Islam on the other had between them a period of relatively little anti-Islamic polemic among Western scholars: the translators were not necessarily apologists for Islam, but they did seriously engage with the text. Elmarsafy's reflections on the "politics of translation" make for a fascinating read. "All in all, a very impressive piece of work".

(HW, July 2010)