Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography
By Robert Irwin
Published in February 2018
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography is a study guide for Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah.
I find reading historical books to be very difficult, especially if they are more than a few centuries old. Even when translated in modern English, I often lack the necessary context to really understand many of the key points. This challenge is compounded when dealing with non-Western cultures that I am less familiar with, such as the Middle East.
This book is a short study guide to the work of Ibn Khaldun. Irwin neatly summarizes Khaldun’s ideas, gives necessary historical context, and explains his possible influences.
Writing this sort of book, and making it good, is extremely challenging. Usually, reading this kind of book is either an exercise in pedantic pseudo-intellectualism or is the equivalent of reading the phone book. Far too many of these books use hollow but vaguely intellectual sounding gobbledygook to make their books sound more profound. A good hint is when they talk about the “dimensionality” of a given topic or the “communicativeness of ideas.”
Irwin makes none of the fatal sins that authors usually make when writing this sort of book. He avoids using all inflated language, instead choosing the path of conciseness and clarity.
Ibn Khaldun was an endless source of ideas. He covered topics as diverse as the Kharijite revolution of North Africa, genie hunting in the deserts, and developed theories of taxation that are remarkably similar to those of 20th century economist Arthur Laffer. However, Ibn Khaldun is most well known for his concept of Asabiyyah.
Asabiyyah is an Arabic word that doesn’t translate well into English. It has been alternatively translated with notions as diverse as “esprit de corps,” “ethnocentrism,” or “love for freedom.” None of these words succeed in capturing its essence.
The core idea of Asabiyyah is that history is cyclical. He divides the world into two groups. One one side, there are tough desert people (Bedouins). These are either nomads or subsistence farmers. These bedouins develop simple pious religious ethics, a tradition of personal austerity, have group solidarity, have anti-state political ideologies / support small government, and are tough. These traits are collectively called Asabiyyah. On the other side, there are sedentary peoples living in cities. They lose their Asabiyyah - namely they discard religion, have profligate personal morals, have strong out-group preferences, want big government in order to compensate for their poor morals, and are generally weak.
Over time, the powerful city-based nations and states decline. As the city dwellers lose their Asabiyyah, tough desert peoples come, and kill their political elites. The Bedouins become the new elites because they have more Asabiyyah. However, the city life corrupts the Bedouins. Over time, the Bedouins lose their Asabiyyah - coming to emulate the very city dwellers their forefathers defeated. This opens the gate for a new generation of tough nomads to replace them.
There is some debate about the applicability of the theory of Asabiyyah. Some historians and commentators think that it only strictly applies to the desert tribes of North Africa. Others would take a more generalized interpretation, seeing non-desert peoples like the Germanic goths or Mongols following similar developmental paths.
The book concludes with Irwin talking about how various different groups perceived Ibn Khaldun over time. Many Muslims initially rejected or ignored Ibn Khaldun, as Islam entered its internal dark ages around the time Europe entered the renaissance. Ibn Khaldun was rediscovered by the French when they colonized North Africa, and the French used Khaldun’s work to point out how backwards Islamic societies were. Later, Ibn Khaldun was rehabilitated, and new translations were made. These new translations used Ibn Khaldun to justify Arab nationalism, and the removal of the colonial authorities. Ibn Khaldun also influenced science fiction, with Frank Herbert’s Dune series explicitly modeled on Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah.
So do I recommend this book?
Probably not, it's quite niche, and not of interest for most readers. But, if you are planning on reading the Muqaddimah or any other surviving fragmentary works by Ibn Khaldun, then it is the must read study guide. I wish other Medieval authors had study guides as good as this - especially with authors like Thomas of Aquinas or Paul the Deacon. Instead, it looks like I will be stuck with the fluffy pseudointellectual study guides when I read those books.
In God’s Path
In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire
By Robert G. Hoyland
Published in 2014
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The Arabs burst out of Arabia with incredible speed, rapidly conquering the entire known world. Within two hundred years, Islam had spread from Morocco to Malaysia.
The speed of the Islamic conquests often baffles readers. However, the author points out that Christianity spread at a similar pace. He opens the book by telling a legend about some Christian saints who were fleeing the persecution of a pagan emperor. They hide in a cave and go to sleep. When they wake up, there are churches everywhere and the whole world has become Christian. To help them escape persecution, God had put them to sleep for 200 years.
Another key element is that Islam was mostly a religion that only applied to elites. Conversion was discouraged (at first). As a result, most regions remained Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish, or pagan for centuries. For example, in Egypt, the bulk of the population remained Christian until after the Crusades. In Persia, Muslims came to dominate the cities, but the mountainous and rural regions would remain Zoroastrian for four hundred years after the conquest.
There is a particularly fascinating aspect of this book for anarchist-adjacent readers like me: the conquering armies were stateless and leaderless. The Caliphs were mostly religious figures, and had little practical authority or say about what happened on the field. Instead, the conquests were spearheaded by a decentralized network of warlords. If you want to learn about how anarchist-adjacent armies can conquer vast swaths of land, then this might be an interesting book for you.
The decentralized nature of warfare resulted in a wide variety of outcomes. Some warlords were extremely merciful, while others were cruel. This can be seen during the siege of Damascus. Damascus, in modern day Syria, was a Byzantine fortress. It was attacked by two separate Muslim war parties that teamed up. One party stormed the citadel, and began a slaughter. In the early minutes of the slaughter, the Byzantine general (a man called Thomas) surrendered to the other Muslim party. This party granted the soldiers and civilians safe passage, and moved to restrain their peers in the slaughter. This angered the other Muslim commander who had to cancel his sack of the city. The truce, however, only lasted three days. So, the angered commander stalked the escaping Byzantine soldiers and civilians, waiting for the three days to end. At the dawn of the fourth day, he intercepted them before they arrived in Antioch, slaughtering and enslaving them.
There was a great deal of discontent in the Sassanid Persian and Byzantine Empires. Both suffered from significant internal dissent and hatred of the central authorities. As a result, there were many regions inhabited by heretics who (without converting to Islam) willingly rose up in arms with the Muslims, aiding them in their conquests.
Over time, especially when Muawia took over after the death of Ali, the Caliphs attempted to consolidate power and form states. They went from a role similar to those of 21st century popes into those of a king. These changes were resisted by many, notably the Kharijites and Shia. Many opposition groups would oppose the transformation of Islam, and maintain semi-stateless societies for centuries.
Finally, ethnic tensions would cause the first Islamic states to crumble. Many Muslims wanted to place an emphasis on the racial superiority of Arabs. Others said that anyone who converted to Islam were Arabs. A third faction focused on Islam itself, saying that race was irrelevant, and pointed out that many of the early Muslims in Mohammed’s party had been black slaves. These ethnic tensions boiled down into race-wars. Ultimately, the pro-diversity factions won, and the pro-Arab factions lost in repeated crushing defeats.
A more tolerant Sunni state - the Abbasid Caliphate - would emerge. This Caliphate would welcome the innovations of all peoples and religions, ushering in the golden age of Islam.
This book is pretty well written. It avoids a lot of the hair-splitting which academics love to engage in to a large extent. However, it might be difficult to follow along if you are completely new to Islamic history. If you have a very rough idea of who major figures like Ali, Muawia, or Abu Muslim are - and have a rough idea of what the Rashidun, Umayyad, and Abbasid Caliphates are, then you will enjoy this book. Otherwise, you may need to supplement it with Wikipedia, YouTube videos, etc…
Islamic Law: A Very Short Introduction
By Mashood A. Baderin
Published in May 3 2021
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
One of the things that has consistently fascinated me about Islam is that it isn’t a purely spiritual religion, in the sense that Christianity is. Christianity does not deal with matters of state. At best, the old testament has a few passages cautioning rulers against certain types of behavior and warning about government overreach.
Islam is different. Islam is a complete political and legal system that has spiritual elements. The Bible is a collection of short stories and tales about important figures in Christian history. By contrast, the Quran is a bullet-point style list of rules and prohibitions.
As a result of the particular nature of Islam, interpreting Islam’s semi-legal or legal rulings is a very important field called “Islamic Law.” Today, Islamic Law governs more than one billion people - along with Common Law and Civil Law, it is the third great legal tradition of our day.
Islamic Law is a fascinating topic, but this book does it a dis-service. Very little emphasis is placed on making the topic interesting. Instead of focusing on telling great anecdotal stories to illustrate points, the book instead lists different positions. As a result, the information is not memorable.
Writing about law is very difficult. The best authors know how to use case law to entertain the reader and illustrate various points. This book, by contrast, falls very flat.
This book was a slog. Several times I considered not finishing it and writing it off as a waste of time. However, because it was so short, I plowed through it. The only redeeming quality is its brevity.
I did learn a few things; notably how Islamic Law is applied today by various governments. One surprising example is the prohibition against usury (riba) was waived so that the Egyptian government could borrow money to build freeways. The conclusion always seems to goes one way: sacrifice principal and tradition for the sake of political expediency.
I don’t recommend this book. Its boring. There is no reason to read it. Maybe if you are a law student, having a physical copy as a reference to study could be helpful - but there might be better sources.
Published around 100 AD
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The Annals, by Tacitus, is a history of the Roman Republic from the time of Tiberius (the second emperor) until Nero (the fifth emperor). The book is published in two volumes. The first covers the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. The second focuses exclusively on Nero.
I only read the first book closely, and skimmed the parts about Nero (you can only read so much about prostitutes in the palace). For most ancient books, I always read a physical copy when possible. By contrast, for more modern books, I listen to an audiobook when available.
Tacitus is quite boring. He covers page after page of discussions in the senate, mostly focusing on plots and breaches of protocol. His history covers the dirty political tricks of a long forgotten era. Furthermore, without extensive pre-existing knowledge of the period, this book is extremely difficult.
That being said, there are fascinating tid-bits that give insight into Roman life scattered here and there. The tidbits that most interested me were the ones that shed light into economic history. For example, there is an extensive discussion of a recession which occurred in 33 AD under Tiberius and the stimulus packages that were passed by the government to solve the problem.
Another interesting tidbit is when Germanicus visits Egypt. The geographical descriptions of Egypt seem strange, because as far as I know, Egypt never included places like Armenia. Besides that they are good. They also discuss the presence of the phoenix, a magic bird, in Egypt.
Finally, I enjoyed reading the intro blurb about how Augustus destroyed the republic covertly.
Overall, Tacitus strikes me as an arch-conservative. He is nostalgic for long-lost republican virtues, and laments the present state of empire. Despite this, his political thinking would have been quite mainstream by the standards of his time. He doesn’t seem like he is a particularly free thinker - if anything, he strikes me as someone who likes to complain about politics.
One last thing that struck me throughout the book is the importance of the Senate as an institution throughout the early empire. The emperors, especially Tiberius, are constantly struggling with the senate. The senate is often downplayed by modern historians, but seems like it was way more important than it is often made out to be.
Parts of the book are missing. Especially chapters about Caligula. To me, it seems like they were censored. If I had to guess, roughly one third of the book is missing. I think that what he wrote upset later emperors, who ordered the offending chapters to be removed. Later monks dutifully copied the text with the absent passages.
There are also some modern historiographical questions about the degree to which Tacitus may have been altered by later Christian authors to insert early references to Christians in the chapters concerning Nero. I have no idea if these historiographical questions are meaningful.
It was fascinating, but just too dull. It is worth skimming if you are into Roman history but probably not worth reading cover to cover the way that I did.
Claudius the God
Claudius the God
By Robert Graves
Published in 1935
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Claudius the God is the sequel to “I, Claudius.” It covers Claudius’ reign as emperor, still written as a fake autobiography.
The book heavily features two new characters.
The first (briefly mentioned in the first) is Claudius’ wife Messalina. She turns out to be a slut, and constantly cheats on Claudius, ruining his life. She is much younger than she is, and manipulates him to obtain what she wants. Her manipulations result in seriously harming the Roman Empire.
The second new character is King Herod, King of the Jews. King Herod is a scoundrel with a heart of gold. Before Claudius is emperor, he helps him escape. During the unstable early days of his reign, he also helps the budding new emperor. However, during the later part of his reign, he becomes a rebel and a hindrance.
As in the first book, the events covered run roughly parallel to the real non-fiction account of the Roman historian Tacitus and Cassis Dio.
Claudius is corrupted by the immense power that he gets to wield as Roman Emperor. He eventually ends up himself becoming decadent, although he does not ruin the empire. He repeats many of the mistakes of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula - realizing that the latter had far less choice in the matter of their errors than he was led to believe before he was in power.
This book starts off very strong, much stronger than the first book. However, it starts getting slow as the narrative moves on. The end is very satisfying, ultimately concluding with Claudius becoming a God against his will.
The story ends with a real poem written by Seneca about Claudius’ ascension to become a God. The fiction narrative ends where the non-fiction narrative begins, coming full circle.
By Robert Graves
Published in 1934
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
I usually hate historical novels because I spend so much time studying history that I am immediately distracted by every single mistake or error in them. As a result, I can’t get immersed into fiction.
However, “I, Claudius” is so incredibly well researched and masterfully written that it did not bother me. It reads like a fake primary source, only slightly favored by the biases and perspective of an author writing in the 1930s.
The book tells the story of Claudius, the fourth Roman emperor who eventually restores the empire after the troubled reigns of Tiberius and Caligula. Claudius was handicapped, and likely had a cerebral palsy - but was nevertheless intelligent. Most of the real sources about his life were written by only two authors - Tacitus and Cassius Dio.
Graves successfully re-invests and re-imagines a plausible narrative for Claudius’ life, and gives him an incredibly plausible voice which he uses to tell the unlikely story of how he eventually became the Roman Emperor.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who loves Roman history. However, reading this book without some pre-existing knowledge or familiarity with how the Roman Empire operated in its early days might be a little bit difficult.
This is not only the best historical fiction that I have ever read but might also be one of the best fiction books that I have ever read in general.
I am eagerly looking forward to reading the sequel “Claudius the God” which covers his reign as emperor.
Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth
Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Updated Edition
By Ina May Gaskin
Published in March 4 2003
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
It’s been several months since my last book review - but I have a good excuse. My wife is pregnant, and that has preoccupied much of my mental focus. She recently read this book, and told me to read it too.
Ina May Gaskin is a midwife who has helped thousands of women give birth over the course of her long career. She decided to write this book to gather all of the lessons which she had learned over the course of her protracted career in one place.
The first half of the book is a collection of stories of different women who have all given birth; under very different circumstances. Many of the women had easy pregnancies. Others had extremely difficult pregnancies; and yet others gave birth to babies who died immediately. Some had abortions; others had irresponsible sex and became single moms; and some needed C-Sections.
Going through the chronology of the birth experiences of different women helped my wife, who is now pregnant. After reading that part of the book and also finding it helpful, I decided to read the rest.
The next quarter of the book is a “cookbook” style list of practical advice about various topics. It covers birth positions, ways to negotiate with hospital staff, and advice on whether or not mothers should seek medication. Because I am male and will never be pregnant, I found this part of the book to be less relevant.
Finally, the last quarter of the book focuses on several topics that should be of universal interest - even to non parents. Ina May discusses how modern technology is creating many new risks that pregnant mothers did not face in the past.
First, she points out that many historical midwives had very good success rates. My own studies of history seem to corroborate this - even in the early 1800s, cases of mothers dying during birth were very extremely rare (despite misconceptions created by corporate pop culture).
Then, she shows how the modern medical system removes many key parental rights. Mothers are cajoled and scared into taking drugs and using medical procedures that create unnecessary risks. Overmedicalization means that cesarean rates are very high - as high as 80% in some countries - despite the fact that only between 1% and 3% of mothers really need them. Finally, some drugs are known to cause extremely serious side effects to both babies and mothers.
Small things have a huge impact.
Many hospitals prevent women in labor from eating or drinking - despite overwhelming evidence that eating and drinking makes the process of giving birth much easier. This is done for purely historical reasons, when in the early 20th century, doctors sometimes gave women chloroform. Women using chloroform were at risk of vomiting, and suffocating. Although chloroform is no longer used, the old custom has remained.
Many hospitals also prevent women from moving. Some go as far as forcing mothers to lie down. Lying down is practical due to the physical layout of most hospitals; but most women cannot comfortably give birth lying down. Instead, there is significant evidence that suggests that women give birth more safely when moving.
The most important conclusion that the book draws is that the safest way to give birth is the most natural. Giving birth is not a medical procedure - it is a natural bodily function. Very few women actually need any drugs or treatments; and these often do more harm than good.
Looking at the last part of the books through the lens of economics has let me draw some conclusions which Ina May does not spell out.
On the corporate side of healthcare, insurance companies are very risk averse. Proving that a drug caused serious side effects can be difficult. By contrast, if a mother dies during childbirth, the cause of death is obvious. Insurance companies choose to shift blame and liability away from themselves, always opting for routes of treatment that cause less direct harm. The actual amount of harm is economically irrelevant as long as the assignment of blame is difficult.
All Western healthcare systems are at least, partially, socialistic. This means that governmental medical standards organizations have a disproportionate say. In a free market, mothers have all of the spending power. Under socialism, the government must make decisions about which kind of childbirth it will subsidize and which it will not. As a result, independent practitioners like Ina May Gaskin are often underfunded and hampered by rules and regulations.
Although Ina May Gaskin does not talk at all about politics - to me the situation seems quite clear. Our society has created an extremely dangerous environment for women who want to give birth. Small details have a huge impact - for example women need to be free to move or eat. Although death or the injury of infants is rare, it could be even rarer. Because of our current system, many women experience Cesarians, tearing, pain, or other injuries for no good reason.
I recommend this book to all pregnant women or anyone who has a pregnant wife, daughter, or sister in their life.
The Cygnus Key
The Cygnus Key: The Denisovan Legacy, Göbekli Tepe, and the Birth of Egypt
By Andrew Collins
Published in May 2018
Thibault’s Score: 3/5
The Cygnus Key is a book that seemingly collects a jumble of ancient mysteries ranging from Denisovian technology, to pre-historic anatolians, to ancient Egyptians into a chaotic mash of ideas.
The beginning of the book is fascinating, giving a clear overview of Göbekli Tepe and explaining how many of the ideas found there are common throughout other sites inhabited by denisovans. He makes a fascinating argument that denisovans - pre-human hominids - were significantly more technologically and mathematically advanced than previously believed. Then, his narrative deteriorates into speculation about symbolism.
Most of the book is devoted to ancient symbolism and numerology. He makes many highly speculative guesses about what different building alignments and animal carvings may represent. In the absence of knowledge about the day to day lives of the people of these civilizations, they are nothing but guesses. Also, the topic of sacred geometry and star alignment isn’t of much interest to me.
If you are into the history of sacred geometry, then this book might be fascinating. It might also have some interest to people who are into the history of the development of mathematics. However, I found it quite dull.
This isn’t a bad book - it just isn’t a book for me. I read about halfway, then put it down and moved on.
Children of Time
Children of Time
By Adrian Tchaikovsky
Published in 2015
Thibault’s Score: 5/5
Sometimes, you come across a book that is so good that you recommend it to everyone that you know - however, in cases where that book is fiction, describing why it needs to be read without spoiling the plot can be difficult. Children of Time was recommended to me by my wife Katarina, who has great taste in science fiction.
It is a story about evolutionary biology, the end of man, and the rise of a new intelligent species. The story manages to grab your attention and remain fast paced, despite happening over the course of several millennia.
I will not say more, out of fear of spoiling the surprises that you will encounter. When embarking on this great literary journey.
Let me say this: it is likely the best science fiction book that I have ever read.
The Anunnaki Chronicles
The Anunnaki Chronicles
By Zecharia Sitchin
Published in September 2015
Thibault’s Score: 2/5
Zecharia Sitchin was an Israeli ancient aliens theorist. He was an expert in ancient languages, and could translate various early languages competently, from where he draws many of his ideas. This book is a compilation of his various writings by his grand niece.
Having read a large number of primary sources, mostly from the middle ages and antiquity, I have been shocked by the number of seeming anachronisms - there are all sorts of details which, to me, seem like they possibly could be alien. For this reason, I was attracted to this book.
What I was hoping to find was an unbiased catalog of all of the anachronisms, along with a variety of explanations for them - explanations that both favor and disfavor extraterrestrial or anachronistic explanations.
Instead, Sitchin has wild theories that go far beyond what can be borne out by the evidence. You can easily point to a Sumerian tablet and ask “how the hell did they know that there were at least 10 planets, when Pluto, Uranus, and Neptune were only discovered in the last 200 years thanks to telescopes?” and offer a wide variety of theories and explanations (aliens being one of them). Instead, Sitchin has very detailed timelines explaining that XYZ had a moon base, with clones, etc… His theories seem unsubstantiated and outlandish.
I also wish that he included his complete translations of primary sources, not just quotes out of context. Then I wish I could compare his translations of primary sources with those of other academics who do not believe in aliens.
This book makes for mediocre science fiction, but bad history. I am looking for a good ancient aliens book - but this is not it.
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