Michael Mock asked: Well… for those of us who are late to the topic, is there a good general primer for a history of Islam?
A very good question – probably should have started with that! Whoops!
Unfortunately, there are a lot of very biased works on Islam. Particularly anything written before 1977 (the publication of Orientalism) tends to work from the assumption that Islam is corrupted or evil. But there are some very good recent general works on Islamic belief and custom. As ridiculous as it sounds, Islam for Dummies is actually quite good (it appeared on every intro reading list I had as an undergraduate, and I have continued that trend with my own students). It gives a brief overview of Islamic history, but focuses primarily on the modern period. The Very Short Introduction to Islam written by Malise Ruthven is also very good, although slightly slanted to modern concerns over Islamism – it’s a short work, and he devotes a significant section of it to the nature of jihad, which I would argue is an unfair representation of the concerns of Islamic theology.
As for works that discuss the history of early Islam and its development in particular, Hugh Kennedy, now head of the Arabic department at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, published a work, entitled The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live in, which gives a very enjoyable narrative of the Islamic expansion, as well as explaining how the Islamic expansion affected the nature of the Western world. It’s a long work (about 500 pages), but in very large type, and very easy to read. Kennedy is an engaging author, and he tells the story of the Islamic expansion in an easy, fluid manner.
In terms of the history of the interactions between Islam and Christianity, the most recent work of Fred Donner, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam, discusses the role played by Christians and Jews in the earliest community of Islam, arguing that they were accepted as part of the early community without an expectation that they should change their practices or abandon their own laws. It’s well-balanced between being aimed at a specialist audience and a lay audience, and also includes a very thorough glossary of both Arabic and non-Arabic terms.
Hopefully that’s enough to get started with!