Prize Winners 2011

British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize
Professor Yasir Suleiman, CBE
Chair, Panel of Judges
University of Cambridge

Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests and Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen

I have taken up the position of Chair of the Panel of Judges of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Prize in Middle Eastern Studies at an auspicious time. This privilege coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of Kuwait. So, on this occasion, let me offer my personal greetings and those of the Panel of Judges to the people of Kuwait and their government, represented today by His Excellency Mr Khalid Al Duwaisan, Ambassador of the State of Kuwait, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps and Co-Chairman of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society. We are grateful to His Excellency for generously hosting the award-giving ceremony in his Residence this year, as he did last year and on other occasions in the past. I am conscious that we should reciprocate the hospitality offered to us by His Excellency, so we hope to hold the award-giving ceremony next year in Cambridge, the new home of the Prize. The date for this is 12 July 2012 and  my Faculty, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies looks forward to welcoming  you as distinguished guests on its home turf.

We are also very grateful indeed to His Excellency Shaikh Mubarak Abdullah Al Sabah for taking such an active interest in the Prize since its inception, acting as judge and representative of the Abdullah Al Mubarak Al Sabah Foundation, which generously funds the Prize. In this respect, our Book Prize reflects the long-standing interest of Kuwait in sponsoring culture, scholarship and innovation even before its independence. The Al-‘Arabī magazine, the book series ‘Ālam Al-Ma‘rifa and the Kuwait Prize for Scientific Advancement are but three shining examples of this continued interest.
I would also like to offer my personal thanks to Sir Harold Walker, a great judge and ambassador for the Prize, while serving as Chair of the Panel of Judges between  2006 and 2010, and to Dr Zahia Salhi, formerly Executive Director of the British Society of Middle Eastern Studies, who stepped down as a Judge in 2010.

The Panel of Judges for 2010 consisted of ; Shaikh Mubarak Abdullah Al Sabah; Professor Carole Hillenbrand, Professor Emerita at the University of Edinburgh; Professor Charles Trip, Professor of Politics with reference to the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; and Sir Roger Tomkys, formerly Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge and, until last year, Chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, and myself. I would like to offer my personal gratitude to Sir Roger, the longest serving member of the Panel of Judges, for his deep and continued commitment to the Prize and for being a great support when I, a fledgling Chair, needed advice and help, which, I should add, was always topped up with words of wisdom from Professor Carole Hillenbrand. The work of the Panel of Judges has consistently benefited from the unstinting support of Louise Haysey who has been at the administrative helm since the inception of the Prize. I want to thank her publicly for being such an excellent colleague to work with in the administration of the Prize.

We are lucky to welcome to the Panel of Judges Mr AlAstair Newton, President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. Mr Newton will serve in a personal capacity starting this year.

Assisting the Panel of Judges in their work are anonymous reviewers whose contribution is important in helping the Judges make their final selections. I would like to thank the reviewers for their help, and, in this context, to point out that the Judges read extensively and intensively to ensure that reviews are calibrated. This direct involvement is important to reach what the Judges consider to be informed decisions. This is a long and intensive process but it is a testament tothe integrity of the Prize.

Since 1998 when the Prize had its debut appearance in Middle Eastern Studies, 500 books have been submitted to the prize. In its early years, the tally of books for the Prize was around 23-28 per year, but this number has increased steadily in recent years. Fifty two books were submitted for consideration in 2010, an increase by four on last year. Four items arrived late for no fault of the publisher. These will, exceptionally, be considered for the Prize next year. The books we received this year covered the humanities and social sciences, including art and architecture, anthropology, history, international relations, language, law, politics and religion. Twelve publishers submitted books, including university presses and independent publishers. The Panel of Judges hopes to find ways of increasing the number of submitted entries and publishers in the future, despite the challenges faced. The Panel of Judges selected the following items for honourable mention which I commend to you in alphabetical order, by author:

The Ottoman Age of Exploration by Giancarlo Casale (Oxford University Press) is written from an Ottoman perspective, using maps and other sources of information, for practical and ideological endeavours. The reviewer praises this book for being ‘well written, well presented and easy [to] read’.
Another book on the Ottoman period is Ebru Boyar and Kate Fleet’s A Social History of Ottoman Istanbul (Cambridge University Press). The book sets out to offer a ‘social portrait of [Istanbul as] a vibrant, violent, dynamic and cosmopolitan capital’. The reviewer notes that the authors succeed to a great degree in providing a ‘different and interesting narrative of the Social history of Istanbul in a form that was not done before.’  The reviewer concludes by saying that this book is a ‘valuable contribution to the expanding field of Ottoman studies as it takes a new approach and looks at social aspects which so far were mainly neglected.’

A History of Islam in America by Kambiz Ghanea Bassari (Cambridge University Press) deals with Muslim presence in the United States and shows that, rather than being a new importation, Islam in America has deep roots. The book charts the historical stages through which Islam spread in the United States, providing a wealth of information that can act as an antidote to ideologically-driven constructions of Islam in the New World. The reviewer describes this book as a ‘work of impressive erudition and rigour [that] is extremely well written.’

The Shiites of Lebanon under Ottoman Rule, 1516-1788 by Stefan Winter (Cambridge University Press) is based on unpublished Ottoman sources. Its primary interest is the socio-economic and political fortunes of the Shiite community of Ottoman Lebanon as of two leading families of the period. The reviewer describes this book as ‘very well researched, clearly written and persuasively argued,’ adding that it constitutes a ‘very strong contribution to our understanding of Ottoman state building, imperial-local power nexus and identity politics.’

Islamic History: A Very Short Introduction by Adam Silverstein (Oxford University Press) provides a ‘refreshing thematic division’ of its subject matter that is ‘different from those usually found in general overviews of Islamic history.’ The reviewer singles out for praise the book’s ‘admirable clarity, concision and penetrating apercus on a wide range of themes.’

Ibadism: Origins and Early Development in Oman by John C Wilkinson (Oxford University Press) deconstructs the standard accounts of this branch of Islam showing that its evolution into a madhhab can only be understood in a wider historical context that stresses its rootedness in old tribal traditions. The book argues that Ibadism’s strength in Oman lies in its ability to adapt to local conditions in the areas of agriculture, trade and mining. The book’s authoritative tone and rich analysis make it an essential reading on Oman and the development of schools of law in Islam.

Knowledge in Later Islamic Philosophy: Mulla Sadra on Existence, Intellect and Intuition by Ibrahim Kalin (Oxford University Press) is not a book for the fainthearted.  Trying to piece together the diverse works of Mulla Sadra into a coherent study has been a challenging task for generations of scholars. This book goeswhere angels fear to tread, pointing out the hybrid influences on Mulla Sadra, drawing mainly from Greek and Muslim sources.

The Hymn of Zaroaster: A New Translation of the Most Ancient Texts of Iran by Martin West (IB Tauris). Unlike earlier translations which are based on the premise that these ancient texts are about ritual, Martin West approaches his translation from the perspective that these texts are works with a moral and ethical inflection. The reviewer singles out for praise the ‘highly readable English’ of this new translation, the ‘admirable analysis of language’ it evinces and the ‘extremely lucid and succinct introduction’ that accompanies it.      

The Odyssey of Ibn Battuta: Uncommon Tales of a Medieval Adventurer by David Waines (IB Tauris) joins a very rich field of modern studies on this Arab travel writer, to use a modern term. The reviewer says that this book as ‘elegantly and clearly written’, ‘delightful’, ‘highly readable’ and ‘enjoyable’, particularly in those sections that deal with food and, dare I say, ‘women.’  

The Ilkhanid Book of Ascension: A Persian-Sunni Devotional Tale by Christiane Gruber (IB Tuarus) provides a translation from Persian of a 1286 text that describes the Prophet Muhammad’s Ascension into the Seventh Heavens. The book provides contextualised discussion of the text, showing an impressive grasp of ‘Muslim hagiography, angelology and apocalyptic writing.’ The reviewer says that that the ‘writing [in this book] is snappy and muscular; the argument is well structured; and [the ideas are explained in] concise, simple [and] direct language.’

As in all previous years, the judges decided that the award itself should be split. They decided that prizes of £5,000 should be awarded to each of the following authors (in alphabetical order):

Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century by James Howard-Johnston (Oxford University Press) deals with the Middle East and the Mediterranean at the time of the emergence of Islam using sources in six languages. The reviewer says this is a ‘magisterial book’ that is ‘beautifully written and clearly structured,’ adding that it ‘delves thoroughly and carefully into the minefield of complex sources about the rise of Islam and the world of late antiquity, with fascinating insights especially into the Sasanian background.’ These qualities will undoubtedly make the book the ‘key reference work on this subject for years to come.’

Mamluk History through Architecture, Monuments, Culture and Politics in Medieval Egypt and Syria by Nasser Rabbat (IB Tauris) ‘catapults a familiar subject into new realms of enquiry, and that is a stellar achievement’ considering the stature of scholars on Mamluk architecture who have preceded the author. The reviewer notes that this is the ‘first serious attempt to use medieval sources to explain medieval Mamluk architecture.’ The reviewer then continues: ‘All in all, this volume represents a quantum leap in current understanding of one of the early bodies of medieval Islamic architecture. It is deeply erudite, but Rabbat wears his learning lightly.’ And what a good note to end my remarks on tonight!  

(Yasir Suleiman, December 2011)