Saturday, August 27, 2016

Review of Fisher (ed.), Arabs and Empires before Islam

Greg Fisher (ed.), Arabs and Empires before Islam. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xxvii, 580. ISBN 9780199654529. $225.00.

Reviewed by Hamish Cameron, Bates College (

Arabs and Empires before Islam seeks to illuminate the pre-Islamic Arabs and their relationship to the empires and kingdoms which surrounded them. The chapters, each of which has been written by an ensemble of scholars, examine a variety of mostly written evidence from multiple traditions, most originating in geographically, politically and chronologically adjacent contexts. Archaeological evidence plays a part in this volume, as do writings by pre-islamic Arab authors themselves.

This chapter in particular caught my eye:
Chapter 7 (Provincia Arabia: Nabataea, the Emergence of Arabic as a Written Language, and Graeco-Arabia) addresses the life of the Roman province of Arabia from its annexation to its loss. In the first section (Petra and Ḥegrā between the Roman annexation and the coming of Islam), Zbigniew T. Fiema and Laïla Nehmé survey the Roman annexation of the region. They explore the administration, urbanization, and economic development of the province as well as the relationships between the Roman province and peripheral Arab groups and the impact of Christianity on the region. This section is based mostly on archaeological evidence. The second section, “The Emergence of Arabic as a Written Language”, examines the textual evidence for the province. Michael C. A. MacDonald begins by discussing how cultural norms around language use and writing may have affected the development of written Arabic. He then proceeds through a close philological commentary of inscriptions in the Nabatean script that illustrate the relationship between Arabic and Aramaic in the region. The section includes a sub-section by Laïla Nehmé on ‘transitional’ Nabataeo-Arabic texts and ends with a discussion of the Greco-Arabica, a loose corpus of Arabic words transliterated into the Greek script that allows access to otherwise unknown aspects of pronunciation and meaning.
Cross-file under Nabatean (Nabataean) Watch. Some posts thematically related to the book are collected here and here.