Looking at other reviews of “The Arab Mind,” it appears readers divide into two camps. The first group, for whom ideology matters more than reality, hate this book. The second group, largely military, for whom their lives depend on an accurate perception of reality, love this book. This divergence alone suggests the book is worth reading.
William Easterly is a leading critic of traditional approaches to development—that is, of traditional approaches to bridging the Great Divergence. He, and everyone else studying development, want to know why and how the West and a few Western-influenced countries have become wealthy, and everyone else in the world has stayed poor, despite trillions of dollars spent fruitlessly over seven decades by the West to bring the poor out of poverty.
Who knew how exciting the events of the fourth century BC could be? Most of us have a dim idea of Alexander the Great—conqueror of Greece and points East, all the way to India. But it’s a pretty dim idea. And most of us have very little idea of what happened in the classical world after Alexander and before Julius Caesar. Perhaps we’re vaguely aware that the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty was started by one of Alexander’s lieutenants, who took that part of Alexander’s empire, and that the famous Cleopatra wasn’t Egyptian in the least. But mostly our awareness is a blank page. This book fills in a small part of that page.
This is an awful book. It (the fifth edition, from 2012) contains a tiny bit of apparently useful information, which may or may not be true or generally applicable, combined with heaps of mendacious propaganda and annoying hectoring, padded out with material yanked from the likes of Wikipedia. If you’re relying on it to help you, say, understand Arabs, I doubt very much if it will do that. If you are looking for accurate historical information or informed commentary on Islam, a major focus of the book, you should run away as fast as you can.
This is a fascinating book—half travelogue and half conversion memoir. Muhammad Asad was born a Jew, Leopold Weiss, in the Austro-Hungarian empire (in what is now Ukraine, the city of Lvov). He was prominent both in interactions with the West in the 20th Century, for example as Pakistani ambassador to the UN, and in theological work, including translation and exegesis of the Q’uran. Asad is regarded, and should be even more regarded in these days of Al Qaeda and ISIS, as a voice for a revitalized, mainstream (he would accurately reject the term “moderate”) Islam. But long before that, he was just a Westerner adrift and looking for spiritual answers.
Whether this book is good or bad depends largely on what you expect it to be. If you expect it to be a cautious attempt to open up to discussion the subject of the existence of distinct races and genetic racial differences, and how those might affect social structures and institutions, you will think it is good. If you expect it to be a definitive proof of one interpretation or another of those same matters, you will think it is bad, for it is nothing of the sort. And, of course, if you are stuck in the old politically dictated paradigm that all differences among humans are purely random or cultural, and that “race is a social construct,” you will think it is mad, bad and dangerous to know.
Milestones claims to be a revivalist primer, to return Islam to its roots, but it is really a hybrid of traditional Islam with modern ideological organizing systems, primarily Leninism. This hybrid has proven to be a powerful combination, perhaps unsurprisingly given the power of both Leninism and modern Islamism in the 20th Century. Qutb’s contribution was to meld the two, promising the fusion will create harmonious societies with unparalleled virtues equivalent to those of the first Islamic societies. This is the core of modern, late 20th-century Islamism, of which Qutb was its primary theoretician.
This is an interesting book, because it’s a book of (pessimistic) analysis and predictions made long enough ago (mid- to late-1990s) that some judgment can be made of its accuracy. It’s a book of several essays of varying lengths on varying topics, based largely on direct observation from Kaplan’s travels, but all generally focused around the future structure and stability of the world. Kaplan is a very vivid and incisive writer, so just on that basis alone the book is worth reading. He’s also a very pessimistic writer, or realist as he would say.