Understanding Islam

The Miraculous Journey of Mahomet: Mirâj Nâmeh

introduction and commentaries by Marie-Rose Séguy
Braziller, 158, 58 plates pp., $40.00

La géographie humaine du monde musulman jusqu'au milieu du 11e siècle

by André Miquel
Mouton (Paris), 705 pp., $72.00

Islam and the Arab World

edited by Bernard Lewis
Knopf, 360 pp., $35.00

Islam from the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople Vol. I: Politics and War

edited and translated by Bernard Lewis
Harper & Row, 266 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Islam from the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople Vol. II: Religion and Society

edited and translated by Bernard Lewis
Harper & Row, 310 pp., $5.95 (paper)

The Mediaeval Islamic Underworld: The Banû Sâsân in Arabic Society and Literature

by C.E. Bosworth
Brill (Leiden), Vol. II, 360 plus Arabic text pp., £ 25.92

The Camel and the Wheel

by Richard W. Bulliet
Harvard University Press, 352 pp., $16.00

Remembered, Recovered, Invented

by Bernard Lewis
Princeton University Press, 111 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World

by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook
Cambridge University Press, 268 pp., $21.50

At the time when Columbus sailed to the New World, Islam was the largest world religion, and the only world religion that showed itself capable of expanding rapidly in areas as far apart and as different from each other as Senegal, Bosnia, Java, and the Philippines. To take one small example: in the early fifteenth century, at the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance, when Western culture was still compressed between the frontiers of the Ottoman Empire and an unknown Atlantic, a man of learning and a manuscript illuminator in Herat, in western Afghanistan, together could take a legend of the Prophet Muhammad from the original Arabic and translate it into Uighur, a Turkish language of eastern Central Asia. This magnificent book in which the two scripts—Arabic and Uighur—march together across every page, and where the motifs and the styles of painting of Iran and China mingle, is now edited and introduced by Marie-Rose Séguy. It takes us in one sweep across one of the axes of the Islamic world, from the Hijaz, in western Saudi Arabia, to the westward provinces of China.

Yet, at the same time, other Muslims could travel along yet another axis that joined Southeast Asia to sub-Saharan Africa. A generation before Mîr Haydar and Mâlik Bakhshî set to work on their manuscript on the edge of the Hindu Kush, Ibn Battûta, a native of Tangier, had traveled along a continuous chain of Muslim communities that linked the China Sea, Indonesia, and India to the Atlantic coast of West Africa. Seen through Muslim eyes, the emergence of Europe as the temporary master of the world remains an anomaly in the natural unfolding of the course of history. In the Old World, it had been the monotheistic preaching of the Prophet, and not a Christianity cramped by its carapace of European culture, that could be observed to have spoken to all nations.

The breathtaking size of the medieval and modern Islamic world is merely a registration in geographical space of the speed with which medieval Islamic civilization had been formed, and the vigor with which it continued to embrace and absorb cultures scattered all over the Old World. There is something headlong even about the dates of medieval Islamic history. Muslims date their history from the year in which the Prophet Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina, in AD 622, the fateful Hijra, the “emigration,” that set him free to act as the head of his own community. Judged by the slow rhythms of the European, Christian Middle Ages, the turning points of Islamic history come unexpectedly early. At the end of the first century AD, the Christian community still lived in fear of the Roman mob. By the end of the first century after the Hijra, the Muslim community had created what has rightly been called “the last great empire of the Ancient World.” Starting from Arabia after the death of Muhammad in 632, Muslim generals had done in Asia all that Alexander the Great had…

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