Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 2018, p. 68
To Save an Empire: A Novel of Ottoman History
Reviewed by Amin Gharad
By Allan R. Gall, Ingram Spark, 2018, paperback, 424 pp. MEB: $15.
With the Balkans and ethnic tensions once again back in international headlines, alongside the reliable newsmakers that are Russia and Turkey and their influence in the contemporary Middle East, there’s hardly a more appropriate time to brush up on the events and actors responsible for shaping the region as we know it. In his newly released novel, To Save an Empire, Allan R. Gall does just that. Gall narrates an impressively researched tale of the waning Ottoman Empire set in the late 19th century. Following the fateful tale of the last truly ensconced Ottoman sultan, Abdülhamit II, the novel weaves through stories of palace intrigue, great power struggles and romance. As the reformist Ottoman statesman, Mithat Pasha, sets his eyes on remaking the empire into something more in the image of a European parliament and re-orienting the loyalties of the ruled, Sultan Abdülhamit sees in him an existential threat to his authority. All the while, Abdülhamit’s domain threatens to sink in a sea of external challenges. Already crippled by debt, the Russian Empire and European powers are at the ready to encroach upon territories of the teetering “sick man of Europe.” The eventual outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 results in an influx of thousands upon thousands of Muslim refugees into Ottoman lands.
The dramatized narrative provides a window also into the marriage of Sultan Abdülhamit to his Belgian wife, Flora. Of Christian heritage, her story is intertwined with that of the many war-displaced Muslims whom she commits to assisting, while at the same time providing a glimpse into the complex interplay of various religious and ethnic groupings in late Ottoman Anatolia.
A story of struggle, love, jealousy, fear and loss, Gall’s grasp of the era’s zeitgeist combined with his masterful narrative style makes for a historical retelling as enlightening as it is enthralling.
Philosophy in the Islamic World: A Very Short Introduction
By Peter Adamson, Oxford University Press, 2015, paperback, 144 pp. MEB: $10.
In this small volume, Peter Adamson manages an impressive feat: With the conciseness emblematic of the Very Short Introduction series and a clarity arguably rare in the realm of the field, Adamson pens a sweeping overview of philosophy in the Islamic world.
His work—particularly for a text of its size—is ambitious, and distinguishes itself in avoiding the tendency to focus solely on the ‘philosophers’ (falāsifa). That approach often limits itself to the Medieval period roughly between the 9th and 12th centuries, ending with Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Eschewing this field-wide idiosyncrasy of narrowed focus, Adamson favors a broader treatment, and delves into material of philosophical interest, be it from the tradition of Muslim dialectal theology, Muslim jurisprudence, modern Muslim reformists, and even non-Muslim thinkers residing in the Muslim world such as the great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides.
Topically, Adamson delves into the contributions of various thinkers from the Islamic world on matters related to reason and revelation, God and being, concepts of eternity, and ethics and politics. In addition to exploring the contributions of the likes of al-Kindi, al-Farabi, al-Ghazali, and Mulla Sadra, Adamson does not shy away from telling a story of intellectual continuity, not merely rupture and decline. He cites the contributions of modern voices like the late sociologist, Fatema Mernissi, modern Indian scholars such as Muhammad Iqbal and Sayyid Ahmad Khan, and the late Algerian thinker Mohammed Arkoun. “Medieval thinkers have never stopped being relevant,” Adamson writes, “thanks to many generations of epitomizers, commentators, super-commentators, and critics.”
It is a primer and Adamson makes no pretense insinuating otherwise. Nonetheless, his introduction to philosophy in the Islamic world makes important headway in rehabilitating the often truncated and impoverished treatment of philosophical thought in the historical realms of Islam.
Amin Gharad is director of Middle East Books and More, a project of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.