Review of A History of the Modern Middle East, Fifth Edition by William Cleveland and Martin Bunton Westview Press

A History of the Modern Middle East, Fifth Edition. William Cleveland and Martin Bunton. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780813348339

This essay is a part of our new series, Graduate Students and The Middle Ground Journal.

The fifth volume of William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton’s History of the Modern Middle East is a comprehensive analytical tome, which covers the major developments in the Middle East, to the present. After providing a background of how Islam spread in and unified the region, Cleveland and Bunton focus intently on the major changes that have reshaped the Middle East over the past two centuries.

The work’s major themes are transformations: the last two centuries cover the fragmentation of the former Ottoman world and responses to Western imperialism. Less directly impacted by the latter, the major changes that occurred in Iran are set in comparative perspective to those taking place in Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States. The events discussed here include Ottoman imperial reforms, the challenge of Western imperialism and the rise of native nationalisms, the creation of modern Egypt and Turkey and post-colonial Arab Peninsula states, secularism and Islamic resurgence, the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, the Iranian Revolution, petroleum era, and authoritarian regimes, the Iraq-Iran war, and American influence in the region. The volume is primarily meant to function as an introductory textbook to students of Middle Eastern political history, and comes packed with information. It has undergone several revisions since first coming out in 1994 always striving to encompass and address more recent developments. The fifth edition features a reconsidered part six that deals with political developments since 1900 and concludes with a tentative analysis on the meanings of the still unfolding Arab Spring.

The strength of this work lies in that it offers a generous analysis of a complex, but intimately woven set of subjects merging social, cultural, economic, and political aspects of Middle Eastern transformations in a broad historical perspective that is both well written and easy to grasp. The major challenge for the scholars, Cleveland and Bunton, however, has been covering a lot of chronology, while being mindful to address and evaluate the major turning points that have shaped the Middle Eastern experience. Hence, the length of the work may prove to be a handicap to readers looking for a facile overview of an otherwise very broad and dense subject matter. Its structure is more effective for serious students who want to deepen their understanding of Middle Eastern history.

Overtly the work provides an overview of political history of the modern Middle East. There are, however, a number of overarching themes that the authors want to highlight. One of those larger underlying issues is defining the Middle East. The chronological setup in six parts is especially helpful to that end. Part One centers Islam as a unifying force that merged together into a single “religiously based empire” the areas operating under Byzantine and Iranian administration, and Greco-Christian and Zoroastrian cultures. There is, thus, an identification of the Middle East with Islam as both a dynamic force of change, and of continuity, that is a recurring theme. The authors point out that, time and again, political brokers in the Middle East have looked to Islam in times of uncertainty and integrated it into their agendas to attract a following while offering a semblance of stability.

Another point that the authors have tried to get across is that the scope of the Middle East is changing. Geographically, the book covers the regions bounded by Egypt in the west, and Iran in the east, with Turkey as the northern border, and the Arabian Peninsula as the southern one. As their work has expanded to cover more of the developments taking place in the 1990s, the authors acknowledge that this traditional geography of the Middle East has to acquire territorial breadth to include regions that have been shaken up by the resurgence of Islam and that (sometimes) have provoked Western, increasingly American, intervention. The change the authors signal could take place is that the term “Middle East” may also will include the areas of Arab North Africa, the Sudan, and Islamic Afghanistan.

If the coming of Islam is a good starting point for understanding the modern Middle East, another important concern of the veteran scholars has been to operate against two major media-driven tropes: that is, that the Middle East is in stasis and that Islma is a monolith. This work complicates that picture by arguing that change has, in fact, been a constant in Middle Eastern history, and that Islam and its embrace have been dynamic forces between these transformations. The work captures the intersections between Islam and politics at different moments, at different locations, and in constant dialogue with forces of change from inside and outside the Middle East- a theme which strongly drives the core subject matter of the book, namely the transformations between the late 18th and early 21st centuries.

Part One focuses on the processes that created the Modern Middle East: the coming of Islam and its impact on the existing civilizations of the area, and the eventual rise of the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Parts Two through Six discuss the diminution of these established centers of political authority, as challenged both from within and from the outside world, facing first European and later American encroachment. The authors demonstrate that Islamic civilizations thrived in a number of settings leading to diverse experiences that were “anchored in culturally and economically unique settings” (xii). Transformation, therefore, happened in different ways in each of these regions: the most glaring one took shape along an imaginary axis that set apart the Ottoman and Iranian worlds. What made up that experiential difference was that there was a greater degree of direct western intervention in Ottoman-controlled areas.

The work is built on a rich bibliography, and it comes well into Bill Cleveland’s career as one of the leading lights of Middle Eastern history in North America. It is well- documented and the setup responds well to the ongoing challenge of cohesion. There is an obvious disproportionality with attention devoted to later periods in the textbook. Bearing in mind that a majority of interested readers will be more attracted to the hot topics of the 19th and 20th centuries, the authors’ tendency is understandable. The selected bibliography, both thematically and regionally organized, at the end of the book provides a good selection for further reading.

Reviewed by Nevila Pahumi, University of Michigan
Edited by Sarah R. Hamilton

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]