Prize Winners 2016

Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests and Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the presentation of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize book prize for books published in 2015.  

I would like to start by offering my personal greetings and those of the Panel of Judges to His Excellency Mr Khalid Al Duwaisan, Ambassador of the State of Kuwait, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps and Chairman of the British-Kuwait Friendship Society. We are grateful to His Excellency for generously hosting the award-giving ceremony once again this year and for his continued support of the prize which has come to be an eagerly anticipated annual event.  

We are also deeply indebted to, and highly appreciative of His Excellency Shaikh Mubarak Abdullah Al Sabah for continuing to take such an active interest in the Prize.  Sheikh Mubarak has been involved 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 and of the Foundations’ role in this regard.  

This year, we welcome Frances Guy to the Panel of Judges.  Frances is currently Head of Middle Eastern Region, Christian Aid, based in London. Prior to that Frances Served as representative for the United Nations Women in Iraq.  Until May 2012, she was a member of the British Diplomatic Service. She joined the Diplomatic Service in 1986 and held numerous roles including, most recently, as the Foreign Secretary's envoy to the Syrian opposition. She was HM ambassador to Beirut from 2006 to 2011 and HM ambassador to Sana'a from 2001 to 2004.  Frances is also the current President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, thus continuing our links with the Society.

The Panel of Judges, therefore, consisted of the following (in alphabetical order):

Shaikh Mubarak Abdullah Al Sabah;
Ms Frances Guy,
Professor Carole Hillenbrand, Professor Emerita at the University of Edinburgh;
Sir Roger Tomkys, formerly Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge and former Chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce
Professor Charles Trip, Professor of Politics with reference to the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London,
and myself.

As ever, I would like to offer my personal gratitude to Sir Roger.  Sir Roger was not only instrumental in setting up the prize in 1998, but he continues to be the longest serving member of the Panel of Judges.  Sir Roger’s continued commitment to the Prize reflects the esteem in which we all hold his judgement and I would like to thank him both for this and for the support he has given me personally.  I would also like to add my thanks to all the Judges for working so hard to ensure that the Prize continues to enjoy the high reputation in Middle Eastern Studies it so richly deserves.  

I am delighted that the authors of the winning titles are able to join us to collect their prizes.  You will have an opportunity to speak to them once the announcement of the winners has been made.  Publishers of the winning titles have also provided us with some copies of the books for display purposes. We also have order forms which will be placed with the titles, should any of you wish to make a purchase!

The work of the Panel of Judges has consistently benefited from the support of Louise Haysey who has been at the administrative helm since the inception of the Prize. I want to thank Louise for being such an excellent colleague to work with in the administration of the Prize.

Assisting the Panel of Judges in their work are anonymous reviewers whose contribution is important in helping the Judges make their final selections. Again this year, the judges were impressed with the quality of each and every review we received this year so I would like to extend my thanks to the many reviewers who took the time to produce such helpful reports.  

In this context, I would like to add 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 to the integrity of the Prize.

Since 1998 when the Prize had its debut appearance in Middle Eastern Studies, almost 800 books have been submitted to the prize.  In its early years, the tally of books for the Prize was around 25 per year, but this number has increased steadily in recent year, reflecting the high esteem in which the prize is held by both publishers and authors.  

As you will see from the books selected for special mention, the books we received again covered an incredibly wide range - the humanities and social sciences, including art and architecture, anthropology, history, international relations, language, law, politics and religion.

A dozen publishers submitted books, and again these included both university presses and independent publishers. Last year, we were delighted that we received submissions from more publishers and I am very pleased to report that this trend has continued this year.  We were also very pleased yet again to receive books from authors whose works have been submitted in the past, which again reflects the esteem in which the prize it held.  

Many reviewers made specific mention of the accessibility of the style of writing and the broad appeal of some of the titles.  One of the criteria on which books are assessed is by their ability to open up the area to a wider readership.  We were particularly pleased, therefore, to receive books which succeeded, and succeeded admirably, in so doing.

Before moving to the prize-winners, I would like to mention a selection of books which the judges singled out for honourable mention.  I have noted these in alphabetical order by author.  

China's Early Mosques
Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt
Edinburgh University Press

The reviewer commented that the book is outstanding in almost every single respect, making readily available, for the first time, an historical survey of China’s mosques.  The authority with which the material is presented was also highly commended.  The reviewer felt that the author’s ‘command of Chinese history and Chinese primary and secondary sources, not to mention Chinese architecture, is surely without equal’.  

Contemporary Issues in Islam
Asma Afsaruddin
Edinburgh University Press

Our reviewer was impressed specifically with the originality of the methodology used, suggesting that the author ‘reveals herself as a considerable and formidable force in her knowledge of the historical development of the interpretation of Islam’s primary sacred sources, especially the Qur’an’.

The author takes the approach of tracking every single verse and showing how understanding of the verse has changed throughout history, thus enabling the author to counter prevailing understandings of Islam as ‘anti-modern’.  The reviewer concludes that the book is ‘beautifully constructed, highly knowledgeable of primary sources’ and ‘challenging to popular stereotypes’.  

Lisa Urkevich
Music and Traditions of the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar

Our reviewer commented, ‘This is an ambitious, well-researched and ground-breaking survey’.  The scope of the work is vast, the result of a ‘rich ethnography’ which creates ‘an impressive distillation of the results of many years of study’.  It also constitutes a significant documentation of an area hitherto inadequately researched, providing us with a ‘major scholarly contribution to the field’.

Madawi Al-Rasheed
Muted Modernists: The Struggle Over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia

In this book, Madawi Al Rasheed explores the politics of those Saudi Islamists who have reinterpreted mainstream theology and have challenged Salafism from within.  The reviewer describes the book as a ‘gripping account’ of protests around the time of the Arab uprisings of 2011.    Our reviewer further commented that the book is ‘Intensely original, very clearly written, and based on sources that are inaccessible to most Anglophone readers’.  

Andrew C. S. Peacock
The Great Seljuk Empire
Edinburgh University Press

Andrew Peacock is to be commended on the challenge undertaken.  He has produced ‘the first serious overall study of the Great Seljuk Empire which has ever existed’.  Our reviewer was impressed by the fact that the book is ‘very well and clearly organised’ and written in a ‘pleasing style which renders it remarkably accessible to the reader’.  The book ‘places strong emphasis on the nomadic background of the Seljuks, and on the continued importance of their relations with the nomadic Turks who they led as well as were often in conflict with.   This is something which the sources, the majority of which were written by bureaucrats or clerics – and certainly not by the Seljuks themselves or other Turks – has tended to obscure’.  In short, Andrew Peacock has produced ‘a most remarkable book’.

So with no further ado, I move to the winners:

This year, the judges awarded two Joint Runner Up prizes and one winning prize:

The first of the runners-up is:

Karen Bauer
Gender Heirarchy in the Qur’an
Cambridge University Press

Our reviewer’s opening remark is as follows:  

‘Karen Bauer’s book is a ground-breaking contribution to the history of Muslim exegesis of the Qur’an.  It is highly original not only in its diachronic perspective, but also in the variety of material it examines’.  

The reviewer continues:

‘The book is highly readable.  Through the case studies that lie at its core, Bauer develops convincing arguments that demonstrate her tremendous knowledge and her analytical rigour.  She strikes an ideal balance between factual findings and synthesis, providing the reader with a wealth of insights into discursive structures and historical developments’.  

The reviewer concludes, ‘In my opinion, it is by far the best monograph on the history of Qur’anic exegesis that has been published in recent years and will be an indispensable resource for future scholars’.  

I feel it is unnecessary to add to such praise, so please can I ask Karen Bauer to come to receive her prize.  

The second of our runner up titles is:

Nadav Samin
Of Sand or Soil
Princeton University Press

This is another book which succeeds admirably in making material accessible to a wider audience.  

As our reviewer comments: ‘The backbone of the book is a remarkable amount of primary research’.  This enables the author to provide us with a ‘series of insights not only into the day-to-day work of a genealogies within a living tradition, but also into the evolution of the Wahhabi state from the pre-oil period to the 21st century’.  Throughout the book, Samin illustrates ‘a dynamic relationship between the state, scholar and tribe, and in so doing succeeds in his aim of providing a narrative of Saudi history that does not focus solely on oil or Islam’.  

The reviewer concludes that ‘the ability of Samin to link the big picture political story to his archival and field work on a scholar almost completely unknown outside the Arabian Peninsula is a remarkable achievement and would make him a worthy winner of this book prize’.

I would like to invite Nadav Samin to receive his prize.  

Our winning title this year is:

Christian Lange
Paradise and Hell in Islamic Traditions
Cambridge University Press

Following the high praise heaped on the runner up titles, it will come as no surprise that our reviewer opens by stating that ‘This book is quite simply a scholarly masterpiece, a path-breaking and fascinating piece of research.  It will remain THE study of Islamic eschatology for a long time to come’.

The reviewer was particularly impressed by the use of source material, commenting that Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish texts are used as well as Biblical and Apocryphal works.  The reviewer continues – ‘The book is erudite and probing: it really makes the reader think.  Much of the information given in the book is new.  The scholarly apparatus is exemplary’.

Our reviewer concludes, ‘This is the first comprehensive study of the Islamic Paradise and Hell.  It is full of brilliant and fascinating insights.  It should be read slowly and carefully, as it is laden with much detailed and original material.’

The judges were unanimous in their support of this, so with no further ado, it is with great pleasure that I invite Christian Lange to accept the main prize.

Thank you.

Professor Yasir Suleiman, CBE
16th November 2016