World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Zayde Antrim, Routes and Realms: The Power of Place in the Early Islamic World. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xviii + 240. $73.00 (hardcover).


     The way we look at history changed tremendously in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From a history mainly looked upon from above, which took states and great men as its foci, we now look at history as a multidimensional arena, unlimited in its scope. Antrim's book is important on three levels. It is an impressive contribution to the growing body of literature related to what historians call the "spatial turn," an intellectual movement that emphasizes the meaning of place in the humanities. It is also an equally impressive contribution to the study of the Early Islamic period, a field yearning for interdisciplinary and untraditional points of view. And last, it is an interesting read for students and scholars of the history of cartography, knowledge transmission, and identity creation.

     Antrim's argument that "in the early Islamic world, from the Iberian Peninsula to the river valleys of the Indus and Oxus, land was an object of desire and a category of belonging" (8) might look obvious, but one has to appreciate the view it offers. Unlike other comprehensive works, such as the encyclopedia of human geography of the medieval Islamic World written by Andre Miguel, this book does not offer a geographical view but rather a view that reflects on the uses and the meanings of geographic knowledge.

     The first part of the book discusses longing for home (al-hanin ila al-watan). The word watan in Arabic means nation, but in early Arabic poetry it is almost always plural, which might be related to the nature of the arid peninsula on which it was written, where nomads shared multiple plots over their lifetime (22). The innovative conclusion of Antrim is, then, that the nostalgia (al-hanin) is always a derivative of a plot of land. The lack, perhaps, of one plot of land on which one is born, lives, and dies is what made the longing such a popular theme, as the longing is not necessarily for the specific plot but rather for a plot. Students and scholars of gender will appreciate the discussion of the metaphors attributed to the land (al-watan), which is often depicted as a passive lover or a wet nurse. It might explain, then, why in the modern Middle East women are equated to watan, a nation, and a nation is often anthropomorphized as a female.

     Scholars of medieval Islam have probably noticed the recent emphasis put on urban history. The second part of this work, then, is another contribution to urban history. It tries to locate the city apart from the homeland, to determine its precise features in this regional network. Focusing on topographical histories, and especially al-Azraqi's Akhbar Mekka, Antrim analyzes strategies such as foundation or conquest narratives and what she calls "citational performance" along with descriptions of the urban space and shows that the "strategies of naming and locating a city, assembling a foundation or conquest narrative, and describing an urban built environment emphasized connectivity and facilitated diverse claims to allegiance and authority in a proliferation of texts—fada'il treatises, topographical histories, and geographies—that may have neutralized otherwise controversial material. More than ever at a time of political fragmentation and decentralization, attachment to land made possible the expression and legitimization of pluralist forms of belonging" (83).

     Despite the key conclusions laid in the first two parts of the book, Antrim's most significant contribution is in the study of regionalism in the medieval Islamic world. While people have always divided their environments into digestible regions, Antrim aptly discussed the performance of belonging to a specific region. With her definition of regionalism as "something other than the presence or absence of a Muslim ruler" (100), she adds to the historiography of the medieval Middle East by analyzing the tension between the unity of the realm of Islam and the uniqueness of each region.

     Using a well-chosen, wide-ranging corpus that includes medieval Arabic anthologies, topographical histories and religious treatises, itinerary literature, geography textbooks and maps, Antrim seeks to show that people felt attached to the lands with which they identified and attributed deep, various meanings to the land. Her study focuses on the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, despite, as she claims herself, that differentiating manuscripts of that time period from the additions of the scribes who copied them in the thirteenth period is difficult or indeed impossible, and that the twelfth century saw a revolution in what she refers to as the "discourse of place". By borrowing the concept of textual performance from philosophy, she manages to extract shared experiences and words that reflect the response of the reader, as evoked by the author.

     To conclude, Antrim's contribution to the scholarly discourse cannot be overestimated. It is a well-organized, rich-in-evidence book that should be on the reading list of undergraduate students, graduate students, and scholars alike.

Orel Beilinson teaches Early Modern East European and Middle Eastern History at Harare College Worldwide. His research focuses on institutions (schools, churches, monasteries, and courts) and un-institutions (mysticism) in late medieval to nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, especially in the areas that once were a part of the Russian Empire. You may contact him at


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2016 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use