The Best Books on the Middle East of 2021

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Looking for the best books on the Middle East? You have come to the right place. From ancient history to current affairs, and from modern wars to theology, we have compiled a list of books on the Middle East to add to your reading list.

As the Arab world comes into ever-increasing focus, teachers, students and general readers have a greater array of literature from the Middle East to broaden their horizons. Middle East books are now a prominent feature in international book markets, garnering both critical acclaim and popular appeal. Here are the best books on the Middle East you can read in 2020.

Our list comprises books that cover a wide range of themes and perspectives, suiting both experts as well as those approaching the subject for the first time.

If you want to just get back to studying, get our top choice book on the Middle East here.

Our Top Favorite
The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East
Our Top Runner Up
A History of the Middle East: Fifth Edition
Our Top Value Pick
The Longest War Israel in Lebanon
Book Title
The Great War for Civilisation
A History of the Middle East
The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon
Prime Eligible?
-
Our Top Favorite
The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East
Book Title
The Great War for Civilisation
Prime Eligible?
Our Top Runner Up
A History of the Middle East: Fifth Edition
Book Title
A History of the Middle East
Prime Eligible?
Our Top Value Pick
The Longest War Israel in Lebanon
Book Title
The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon
Prime Eligible?
-

Last update: 2021-01-17

Our Favorites for Best Books on the Middle East

We start with our favorites for the best Middle Eastern history books. These titles have been selected for their relevance, breadth of topics covered and their ability to take their readers on a journey.

The Great War for Civilisation

Robert Fisk's magnum opus, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, brings to paper the author’s long career spanning over 30 years as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. The length of the book, as well as its writing style, might make it a slow read for some. This is partly true to the horrors described in the book. Many of the events described are eye witness accounts. The seasoned journalist also brings his academic side to the fore with a barrage of footnotes and documentary evidence.

What Makes It Unique:

  • Extensive footnotes (perhaps the most quantifiable among most Middle East history books) will help interested readers to other important books of Middle Eastern history and politics.
  • Another pleasant aspect of the book is the visible absence of clichés
  • Almost every chapter contains facts that most readers will come across for the first time
  • Robert Fisk seems to suggest that splitting of the Ottoman Empire by Western colonial powers is the major reason for the bloodbaths of the 20th century
  • Almost halfway in the book, you come to the build-up of the thesis of the cycle of provocation, starting with the slaughter of Algerians by their own government in the 1990s, and how this led to an unending cycle.
  • He applies this thesis to almost every other conflict discussed in the book.
  • You can jump straight to events like the Iran-Iraq war, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the first Palestinian Intifada

Why Choose This Book on the Middle East:

  • Robert Fisk avoids over-analyzing the events he describes; the book is more focused on brute demonstration of the facts.
  • The book is a primer for anyone studying Foreign Affairs, and more generally the Middle East
  • Comprehensive write-up of complex affairs based on first-hand accounts
On Sale
The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East
The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East
  • Vintage Books USA
  • Fisk, Robert (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Last update: 2021-01-17


A History of The Arab Peoples

This 1991 publication by Albert Hourani deserves a mention on our list for a number of reasons. Of course, this is what we expect from the eminent historian, who also penned titles like Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, covering the Arab world during the Enlightenment and the modern period.

What Makes It Unique:

  • The author has undertaken the considerable task of giving you a snapshot of Arab history, covering 12 centuries in a manner that is both detailed and easy to follow.
  • The book has been described in such words as ‘encyclopedic’, ‘panoramic’ and ‘history in grand style’.
  • Unlike Robert Frisk’s provocative tome, Hourani’s History of the Peoples will encourage readers to pause and take a step back to understand current events in light of history.

Why Choose This Book on the Middle East:

  • With a time period of more than 1200 years covered in approximately 500 pages, you are in for information overload.
  • The book is well-documented and scholarly without losing readability
  • Valuable for everyone studying the cultural and geopolitical history of the Middle East
  • The book extensively covers the history of the Arabs, Iranians and Jewish settlers in the region, which is essential to understand many of the regional problems today
A History of the Arab Peoples: Updated Edition
A History of the Arab Peoples: Updated Edition
  • FABER & FABER
  • Hourani, Albert (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Last update: 2021-01-17


A History of The Modern Middle East

William L. Cleveland‘s A History of the Modern Middle East is a great resource for those seeking to understand post-war Arab history, especially fairly recent developments like the Iranian Revolution and the Gulf War.

What Makes It Unique:

  • While the historical timeframe has been confined to the 18th till 20th centuries, the author has also restricted his material geographically, covering events in the central Middle East, which encompasses Egypt, Iran, Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula. So you wouldn’t much on, let’s say, Afghanistan under the Taliban.
  • You can, however, find a brief overview of the region’s history from the rise of Islam to the 18th century.
  • Two chapters of the book have also been devoted to the main features of Islam, as well as the emergence of political Islam.
  • Maps have also been provided so that readers can follow the historical developments visually.

Why Choose This Book on the Middle East:

  • Easy-to-read text and the chapters are well organized
  • Ideal for general readers and college students alike
  • The book does a great job of providing historical trends and how they relate to each other
On Sale
A History of the Modern Middle East
A History of the Modern Middle East
  • Westview Pr
  • Cleveland, William L. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Last update: 2021-01-17


From Beirut to Jerusalem

While Thomas Friedman‘s From Beirut to Jerusalem was published more than 20 years ago, the book continues to be a standard for those interested in the tribes, factions, political parties and sects at war in the region.

What Makes It Unique:

  • It is a wonderful introduction to the Lebanese civil war, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Palestinian Intifada.
  • The book covers Friedman’s time as a war journalist covering the mentioned topics for the New York Times. The journalistic style makes the fact-heavy book easy to follow, and also describes the lives of people on the ground with tremendous empathy.
  • Readers will also get a historical perspective on the Armenian attitude toward Turkey
  • The book is balanced, with enough facts for the experts, but a reader-friendly writing style

Why Choose This Book on the Middle East:

  • If you are already familiar with Friedman’s work, then picking up From Beirut to Jerusalem is a no-brainer.
  • The author also provides practical approaches to achieving peace in the region
  • Readers will also get an insight into the cultures and political characters prominent in the region’s many conflicts
  • We highly recommend it for students studying history, political science or international affairs.
On Sale
From Beirut to Jerusalem
From Beirut to Jerusalem
  • Picador USA
  • Friedman, Thomas L. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Last update: 2021-01-17


Runner Ups for Best Books on the Middle East

Our runners up selections for Middle East history books are as informative as the titles listed above, but their focus seems to be more on modern developments in the Arab world, which is precisely what draws most readers to the genre.

A History of the Middle East

Next on our list is the 600 plus page A History of the Middle East by Peter Mansfield and Nicolas Pelham. Published by Penguin, this book has been described by the Washington Post as ‘the best overall survey of the politics, regional rivalries and economics of contemporary Arab world’. The praise is not without merit, considering A History of the Middle East is now in its fifth edition.

What Makes It Unique:

  • Both authors are distinguished, and Pelham has even served as the editor of the Middle East Times, giving him a unique vantage point to comment upon the contours of Arab history
  • The book covers the struggles of the region in the backdrop of the turmoil in the region, starting with Napoleon’s attack on Egypt, followed by the fall of Caliphate after the First World War and then leading to the emergence of modern, nation-states.
  • The contents of the book are further divided into sections focusing on one region or a particular argument. So for instance, the chapter on the period covering 1970s and 1990s (The Years of Turbulence) is further divided into headings like “The Rise of the Oil States’ and “Egyptian Initiatives”.
  • These topic clusters are further divided into topics like Egypt’s role in Palestine and Lebanon etc.

Why Choose This Book on the Middle East:

  • Even with this in-depth approach, the long history of the Middle East has been presented in the most comprehensive ways that you will seldom find in other books on similar topics.
  • The authors have kept things simple, but not made the crucial elements simplistic.
  • Those interested in contemporary issues like Arab Spring, Israeli-PalestineanPalestinian conflict and the wars of Syria and Yemen will find plenty of new material in the latest edition.
A History of the Middle East: Fifth Edition
A History of the Middle East: Fifth Edition
  • Penguin Books
  • Mansfield, Peter (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Last update: 2021-01-17


A Peace to End All Peace

This second runner up hit the bookstores more almost four decades ago, but still remains relevant because of its subject matter. The complete title of the book gives you an idea of what it is all about: A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Authored by the late David Fromkin (author of such noteworthy non-fiction titles such as The King and the Cowboy), the book traces in the impact (both immediate and ongoing) of the plans of western allies when they decided to break up the modern Middle East after World War I.

What Makes It Unique:

  • Much of the 688 pages have been devoted to the formative years of 1914 – 1922, and how the lines drawn on the map lead to the conflicts we see on news channels today.
  • As far as readability is concerned, the book is well divided into chapters.
  • However, one needs to be careful while reading to remember people, places and important events.
  • The book is devoid of maps, which sometimes makes it difficult to visualize the campaigns covered in its pages.
  • Fromkin’s writing style has also been described as ‘journalistic’.

Why Choose This Book on the Middle East:

  • Comes highly recommended by scholars and teachers for readers seeking to understand the roots of the politics and conflicts in the Middle East
  • While the book is anglocentric, it covers substantial ground on complex issues in a balanced way

Last update: 2021-01-17


The Modern Middle East

Finally, we have James L. Gelvin's highly acclaimed work on Middle Eastern history, which is now in its fifth edition.

What Makes It Unique:

  • The crux of The Modern Middle East is a description of how forces of global modernity have influenced life in this region.
  • This includes changes in economics, politics, cultural and societal norms in the Arab world over the last five centuries.
  • As you open the first few pages, you will be taken into the sixteenth-century area and its contemporary government and economic systems. From there, Gelvin takes you on a course of history, critically examining the impact of imperialism and its legacy, followed by, in subsequent chapters, nineteenth-century transformation, cultural continuities, relations with other nations, economic ‘miracles’ and blunders, authoritarian regimes and resistance movements both past and present.

Why Choose This Book on the Middle East:

  • What readers will appreciate about this book is the engaging tone in which Gelvin communicates his own research as well as other studies.
  • The book is filled with maps, pictures and source documents to keep things accurate and interesting.
The Modern Middle East: A History
The Modern Middle East: A History
  • Gelvin, James L. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 432 Pages - 06/01/2015 (Publication Date) - Oxford University Press (Publisher)

Last update: 2021-01-17


Value Picks for Best Books on the Middle East

Finally, our value picks are books that count as ‘light reading’ and are not as scholarly as the titles mentioned above. Yet, these highly readable books introduce to the core themes of the genre with great lucidity.

The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon

Israel’s conflict with Palestine is often talked about. But the invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s is a subject we feel more people should know about. Hence we give Jacobo Timerman‘s The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon an honorary mention.

What Makes It Unique:

  • Timerman was leading media personality in Argentina before the military government exiled him to Israel. Being a Zionist, it was a dream come true for him. But he didn’t stop questioning and subsequently documenting the cruelties of the Israeli army and the double standards of the government during the Invasion of Lebanon.
  • He writes: ‘For me…Israel is a democracy. Yet it is precisely as an Israeli that I have the duty to remain alert about the stability of its democracy and the risks it faces. In this sense, it is evident to me that Israeli democracy is threatened by the …government, whose policy is not democratic’.
  • He then goes to give the example of Argentina, where Juan Peron became a 3-time president by securing up to 55% to 75% of the vote in every election. All these elections were free and fair, and there was a coalition government in the Parliament.
  • The moral of the story is that free and fair elections in and of themselves cannot guarantee true democracy.
  • Timerman lists down the things that can, namely, freedom of assembly, an independent judiciary, an independent labor movement, no state-sponsored force for violent repression, a free parliament, freedom of academic inquiry, ideological pluralism, and a free press.

Why Choose This Book on the Middle East:

  • Less than 200 pages, yet covers the Lebanon war with great lucidity
  • The book is noteworthy for documenting how Israel’s adventures in the region have affected its own population, a silent reminder for democratic countries everywhere.
The Longest War Israel in Lebanon
The Longest War Israel in Lebanon
  • Jacobo Timerman (Author)
  • 01/18/1982 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)

Last update: 2021-01-17


No God but God

Our final selection in this article is Reza Aslan‘s No God but God. Fresh, factual and concise, this book is recommended for those who want to explore the theological aspects behind much of what is happening in the Middle East today.

What Makes It Unique:

  • We learn about the importance of cultural sensitivities from a Muslim scholar of Christianity who hails from Iran but lives in America.
  • The book begins with an introduction of the origins of Islam and its emergence as a political war.
  • Aslan’s main argument is one that not many people observers take, namely that Islam can only break from the shackles of violence and extremism by undergoing its own Reformation. The West ideally should serve as a bystander, and if it wants to help the Muslim world, it must do so in a style and language that is Arab and Muslim in its outlook.

Why Choose This Book on the Middle East:

  • You will also be introduced to fascinating concepts, such as the fact that while Islam is strictly monotheist, its origins are more of ‘henotheistic’, which refers to the worship of one God without negation of other deities.
  • Great book for understanding words like ‘Jihad’ that are often misunderstood in the West
  • Fresh and contemporary writing style
On Sale
No god but God (Updated Edition): The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam
No god but God (Updated Edition): The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam
  • Random House Trade
  • Aslan, Reza (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Last update: 2021-01-17


How to Choose the Best Books on the Middle East for You

By now you have a good idea of the best Middle East history books out there. That said, we also believe that research and education are best done independently following your own pace and interests. That is why we want to add a few tips on how you can choose the best books on the Middle East on your own.

These tips will also come in handy because, well, we can’t read everything, can we? So let’s start.

Locate Specific Titles

This means that you should try to find books that match your topic of interest exactly. Are you interested in Islamic history or the political history of Saudi Arabia, for instance. The more specific your topic of interest, the easier it will be for you to select books.

Check the Contents

When purchasing, downloading or borrowing a book, go through the table of contents. See if there are direct references to your topic, and how many pages have been devoted to them. Is it a page, a footnote, a chapter or an entire section? This is also a good indicator of whether a Middle East history book is worth your time or not.

Check the Bibliography

Finally, when reading books or scanning their contents, keep an eye on the footnotes and the bibliography. See which books are the most referenced and to which most authors point to. That is perhaps where you may want to go.

Wrapping Things Up: The Best Books on the Middle East

Our Top Favorite
The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East
Our Top Runner Up
A History of the Middle East: Fifth Edition
Our Top Value Pick
The Longest War Israel in Lebanon
Book Title
The Great War for Civilisation
A History of the Middle East
The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon
Prime Eligible?
-
Our Top Favorite
The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East
Book Title
The Great War for Civilisation
Prime Eligible?
Our Top Runner Up
A History of the Middle East: Fifth Edition
Book Title
A History of the Middle East
Prime Eligible?
Our Top Value Pick
The Longest War Israel in Lebanon
Book Title
The Longest War: Israel in Lebanon
Prime Eligible?
-

Last update: 2021-01-17

This sums our guide on the best books on the Middle East. These books are fairly lengthy. But regardless of the page count, they are packed with historical facts. Some of these texts are study resources for students but doesn’t mean other readers cannot appreciate them and learn from them.

We hope this brief review will help you in the right direction in understanding the sensitive region, whether you are interested in war history, international diplomacy or the religion of Islam itself. Of course, all Middle East history books listed above contain one or more of all these aspects.

We suggest you start with 500-600 page works like A History Of The Arab Peoples, which succinctly covers the history of the Arab world over a millennium, but without dragging the subject.

You can then proceed on to works like A History of The Middle East or A History of The Modern Middle East to jump straight to more contemporary issues, especially of the later 20th century.

We suggest this because some of our selections, like From Beirut to Jerusalemwere published decades ago, and the material hasn’t been updated since to cover modern developments in the region. However, we recommend these books, especially From Beirut to Jerusalem for their narrative style of writing history. As already mentioned, some of these authors have actually witnessed and covered many modern wars and political uprisings as foreign correspondents.

Of course, you find all these qualities in Robert Fisk’s 1,200-word long Great War on Civilization. But we suggest that you build up your reading appetite with the aforementioned selections before tackling this full-length volume.

We also suggest that as you read different authors describing more or less the same history, keep an eye on their literary styles and focus areas which will enrich your own understanding of Middle Eastern history and will help better analyze current affairs.

If you enjoy this post, check out our other history book reviews here.

Check our selection of some of the best history book reviews here:

> Best Chinese History Books

> Best Roman History Books

> Best Russian History Books

> Best Books on Latin America

Professor Conquer
Professor Conquer

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