Reclaiming Islamic History

A Book Review of Lost Islamic History: Reclaiming Muslim Civilisation from the Past by Firas Alkhateeb

Famously recommended by former Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan, Darul Qasim’s Ustadh Firas Alkhateeb’s book, Lost Islamic History, is a must-add to any Muslim’s bookshelf. Those already familiar with the seerah or well-versed in history likely will not benefit beyond a light review. However, for those like me, who have trouble delineating history between the reign of the khulafa rashidun (righteous caliphs) and our current state (double meaning intended), this is a fantastic place to start. 

The book was written to be a textbook for high schoolers (Alkhateeb is a former high school history teacher) and that is its greatest strength: it is accessible with engaging, easy-to-digest prose, and is focused on introducing our history and timelines of major events. If one does not expect or desire in-depth analysis of any particular aspect of history, but a broader lens that complements the often lacking history curriculum taught in public schools and universities, then Lost Islamic History will be a beneficial, pleasurable read. 

Alkhateeb starts with a general overview of the geography of the Arabian Peninsula and pre-Islamic culture. It is within this context that Alkhateeb concisely covers the life of the Prophet ﷺ and his successors. This not a seerah book per se, but any history termed Islamic must center around the Prophet ﷺ, the final Messenger of God, before tracing history’s successes and failures in modeling his example. Alkhateeb also hints at later developments in history during his overview of the life of the Prophet, reinforcing to the reader that history is not a series of discrete events, but composed of threads that intertwine in ways that we can only fully appreciate after the fact.

For example, one of the famous events in the seerah is the incident of Ta’if. Amidst oppression and violence by the Quraysh, the Prophet ﷺ sought out the leaders of Ta’if, a nearby town to Mecca, as potential allies. They not only rejected him, but the residents threw stones at him, injuring him so severely on his way out that blood soaked through his sandals. In retaliation, the angel Jibril offered to collapse the nearby mountains on Ta’if if the Prophet so wished, but he replied, “No, rather I hope that Allah will bring from their descendants people who will worship Allah alone without associating partners with him.”[1] Less than 100 years later, Muhammad Ibn Qasim (who was 16 or 17 years old), a descendent from Ta’if, would be the first to establish Muslim rule on a portion of Indian land (Sindh) after killing the ruler Raja Dahir for disrupting Muslim trade and failing to prevent Indian pirates from taking Muslim traders as hostages. Thus, it was because of the Prophet’s ﷺ mercy on the people of Ta’if that Islam first arrived to the subcontinent.

Alkhateeb then turns to the Umayyads, followed by the Abbasid caliphate, the rapid expansion of the Islamic state, and intellectual and cultural flourishing during the ninth to twelfth centuries. Rather than glossing over major controversies, he clearly and concisely discusses important theological divides, like the rise of the Mu’tazili “rationalist” sect during the time of Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal, and the deviation of Shias from Sunnis. He also devotes a significant chapter to oft-neglected areas of the Muslim world, like Chinese Hui Muslims, Muslim African American slaves in early American history, and Islam in West and East Africa.

There are some places where I would have enjoyed a more critical eye. Acknowledging that the purpose of the book, again, is not to be a pedantic read but to inspire Muslims, I feel there were some assertions that felt over-simplified and romanticized. For example, Fatima al-Fihri is often called the founder of the first university in the world, but this is an ahistorical projection. Similarly, Baghdad’s Bayt al-Hikmah may not have been the sweeping all-in-one campus center. However, this is a minor issue overall, given that Alkhateeb actually helps break the illusion of a romantic history of unity after the death of the Prophet ﷺ as different political forces and movements brought about periods of peace and periods of strife. 

Of course, the last few chapters cover the rise and fall of the Ottoman empire, the rise of nation states, Arab nationalism, and the threat of secularism still plaguing us today. If we are to move forward, the circumstances that lead to our current condition must be understood through a thread that stretches at least 1400 years back, as illustrated by Alkhateeb:

Whether Islam once again plays a major role, whether nationalism and secularism will be the new driving ideologies, or whether a balance between the two sides will be found that appeals to all, remains to be determined. Those who answer these pertinent questions will dictate a new era for the Muslim world; one that surely cannot be detached from the 1400 years of Islamic history that came before it.

Amazon link to the book here. This is not a sponsored post. 

Words Cited:

[1] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3231, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1759

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

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Farhana Khan

Farhana Khan is based out of North America. She is interested in the Islamic sciences and medical ethics.

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