06 February 2011 The publication of The New Cambridge History of Islam (NCHI) is being heralded as a major event in academia, especially by those who are interested in the Islamic world . NCHI is an encyclopedic work of six volumes, each roughly 800 pages, with a £650 price tag to match its size. Volumes 1-3 explore the growth of Islam and how it took root in the Middle East as the Byzantine empire waned. Volume 4 reveals the richness and dynamism of Islamic culture and society from its origins to circa 1800. This series of essays addresses such topics as Sufism, Islamic law, Arabic, Persian and Urdu literature, education, music and cookery. Volume 5 explores the impact on the Islamic world of Western conquest and domination from circa 1800 to the present. Volume 6 covers such broad topics as migrations and communications, Islamic reform, Muslims in Europe, women, family and the law, the press and publishing, and the modern art of the Middle East. The original Cambridge History of Islam, which came out in 1970, was a third its size, cosisting of two large volumes. One of them covered the "Central Islamic Lands" (mainly the Middle East) from the origins of Islam to the present; the other dealt with the West, Africa, and other parts of Asia. The contributors were leading experts, but their chapters were mostly rather simplified narratives, aimed at the general reader and almost footnote-free. And the version of history that was being simplified was in some cases a standard view already long established in the textbooks. Four decades later, the The New Cambridge History of Islam is quite different. Not only is the new history three times the size of the old one, footnotes abound, and so do lengthy reading lists; the contributions are plugged into ongoing academic debates. The huge difference in length between this work and its predecessor is only partly explained, though, by the fact that it is intended for academics as well as general readers. The main reason is that the last two generations have witnessed an extraordinary expansion of knowledge in the field of Islamic studies. Areas such as Central Asian history, or topics such as the spread of Islam in West Africa, or the peculiarities of Indonesian Islam, have been the targets of barrages of monographs; the NCHI is a first attempt to map out a whole new landscape of knowledge. If those topics sound somehow peripheral, there has also been original work on some of the central features of Islamic history. The entries on "Sufism" is a case in point. In the indexes of the old Cambridge History, and you will find a few scattered references here and there. That reflected the standard view, in which Islam was "official Islam", a religion celebrated in mosques, and run by imams and muftis; Sufism was regarded by most Western scholars as some sort of exotic appendage, a minor optional extra for the mystically inclined. In the NCHI, on the other hand, one finds a lengthy chapter on the early development of Sufism, another one on Sufism and "Neo-Sufism" in the modern age, and multiple references to the Sufi orders or brotherhoods throughout the work. These orders, with their revered leaders, their traditions of personal instruction and their own special forms of worship, are treated in depth as an important part of the Islamic landscape. Yet only recently have scholars outside of the Muslim world begun to appreciate the major role - whether positive or negative - that Sufism has played in Muslim society. The NCHI also offers unprecedented chapters on thematic and cultural subjects (such as women and sexuality, "the city and the nomad", or religious conversion). The sixth volume brings discussions about the background to the various forms of present- day "political Islam". However, critics point out certain glaring omissions. There is no chapter on slavery in Islam, for example, or on the history of the Hajj. There is also scarce material about the indigenous Muslims of Europe; Bosnia gets just a couple of pages, roughly the same amount as the history of Muslim immigrants in Canada.
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