- The Arabs of the Ottoman Empire, 1516–1918: A Social and Cultural History by Bruce Masters
Bruce Masters’s fine book, The Arabs of the Ottoman Empire, surveys the history of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Masters has published extensively on various aspects of the Ottoman Arab world, especially Syria, and is thus exceedingly well-qualified to author this work of synthesis based mostly on secondary literature. The book consists of an introduction, seven chapters, and a conclusion. The first four chapters concern what is conventionally referred to as the early modern period, which spans from 1516 to the early 19th century. The four chapters discuss, respectively, how the Ottomans were able to conquer and maintain control of the Arab lands up to 1798; the political, administrative, judicial, and military institutions established by the Ottomans; the economies of the Arab provinces; and their intellectual and cultural lives. The last three chapters examine the modern period: the challenges posed to the Ottomans by Napoleon’s brief occupation of Egypt in 1798, by Mehmed ‘Ali and his son Ibrahim, by the Wahhabis, and by rebellions in Aleppo and the Peloponnese; the era of reform and attempts at re-Ottomanizing the Arab provinces; and the dissolution of the empire. [End Page 158]
The main argument advanced by Masters is that the Arabs were not merely “subject people of the empire,” controlled by the sultan through force, but rather “collaborators in the imperial project” (p. 7). The empire survived in the Arab provinces because of “the legitimization that the Sunni Muslim elite was willing to extend to the Ottoman sultans,” (p. 47) both for self-interest and because of “the ideology of the Islamic sultanate that supported the Ottoman Empire” (p. 227) and avowed to protect Sunni Muslims. This collaboration also helps to explain why the early modern period was “relatively tranquil in most of the Arab provinces” (p. 46). Masters does not claim that this is a new argument. Indeed, in the 1970s and 1980s scholars began to systematically use previously untapped archival sources, such as the Islamic court records of Arab cities and other official Ottoman documents, and started to rewrite the history of the region and to attack the then-dominant Arab nationalist narrative of the Ottoman period as a dark age of oppression and of political, social, economic, and cultural stagnation. If not in the novelty of its argument, then, the great value of Masters’s book lies in the fact that it is the most comprehensive synthesis to date. It shares some similarities with Jane Hathaway’s The Arab Lands under Ottoman Rule, 1516–1800 (with Karl Barbir, 2008), but, notably, Masters expanded the time frame to include the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The most significant shortcoming of the book, in this reviewer’s opinion, is the cursory treatment of the empire’s peripheral provinces of Yemen and North Africa. Chapters 1 and 6 do include sections on the establishment of Ottoman rule in Yemen and North Africa, and on Yemen and the North African provinces in the era of the Tanzimat, but overall Masters focuses predominantly on Greater Syria and to a slightly lesser extent on Egypt. To some degree, this is simply a reflection of the state of the field: at least in the English-speaking world, historians of the Ottoman Arab lands have privileged Greater Syria and Egypt. The reasons are various, as well as the relative abundance of sources and ease of access to them and the special status of these provinces as some of the most prized possessions of the Ottomans. But given the availability of excellent historical scholarship on Ottoman Algeria, Tunisia, and even Libya (Nora Lafi’s superb work on late Ottoman Tripoli, for example), Masters’s book would have been strengthened by a more geographically inclusive approach.
Proofreading issues aside — there are a fair amount of typos, for which the author is not responsible — The Arabs of the Ottoman Empire...