Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

7
Sources for the
Economic History of
the Middle East

The economic historian, even more than his colleagues in other fields of historical inquiry, has a liking for documentary evidence—a marked tendency to prefer archives to annals and other literature. The historian will of course be aware of the insights and even information that books can give him, and he will appreciate the relevance to his researches of the image of a society as reflected in the works of its authors and compilers. But whenever possible he will direct his main attention to the contemporary and immediate evidence or traces of historical events, in their original form, not as transmitted—and therefore transmuted—by a literary intermediary. The modern economic historian relies very largely on published and unpublished documentary and statistical materials. In the West, even the medievalist has at his disposal a mass of records, public and private, lay and ecclesiastical, central and local, on which to base his study of economic structures and economic change.

One of the classical difficulties of the historian of Islam is the lack of such evidence.1 Without entering into the complex theoretical and philosophical problems of periodization, we may, for practical purposes, divide the history of the Middle East since the rise of Islam into three periods, defined by the availability and quality of documentary sources, and describe them by the neutral terms early, middle, and late. In the late period, which in most areas begins in the nineteenth century and continues to our own day, our knowledge is enriched—if that is the right word—by the multifarious bureaucratic activities of the state and of other agencies. Research into the recent economic history of the Middle

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