Classical Islam: A History 600 A.D.-1258 A.D.
The Cambridge History of Islam, Volume I: The Central Islamic Lands, Volume II: The Further Islamic Lands; Islamic Society and Civilization
A History of Islamic Philosophy
The Fihrist of al-Nadim: A Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture
Arabic and Persian Poems
There is always something spectacular about the rise of a new religion—the suddenness, in historical terms, with which a new faith, preached by one man to a handful of followers, spreads over a vast area, sweeping along with it whole peoples and often conferring on its first adherents wealth and power beyond their dreams and ambitions. Perhaps none has been so spectacular as the rise of Islam.
At first sight the geographical source looks unpromising—a backwater of civilization even in the seventh century A.D. Arabia was then as now a largely desert area—natura maligna, to use Irfan Shahid’s phrase—thinly populated by a mainly nomadic people, organized on tribal lines that would seem effectively to prevent any mass movement under a centralized administration. This picture is not however complete; the southwestern corner of the peninsula was an important source of spices, frankincense and myrrh, and other products, and the trade routes from Yemen, as well as from Ethiopia on the other side of the Red Sea, passed along the narrow Hijaz coast on their way to the prosperous lands of Syria, Asia Minor, and Persia. The city of Mecca naturally became a breeding ground not merely for material wealth but also for religious, political, and social ideas of all kinds, brought there by merchants and travelers from all over the Middle Eastern world.
In this ferment of Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and pagan ideas was born and raised the young Muhammad. Orphaned as a child, he was brought up by his uncle, a prominent member of the dominant Meccan family, and in due course married a wealthy widow some years older than himself. So far there had been little to mark him out from his contemporaries, though we may be sure that the contacts he made on business trips to Syria and elsewhere as his wife’s agent set him thinking about many matters over and above his commerical interests.
He was already forty when in 610 (Professor von Grunebaum questions this traditional date, as also the date of Muhammad’s birth, but does not give any reasons for his doubts) he began to see visions and to receive revelations which to him, and increasingly to his family, friends, and fellow townsmen, were nothing less than the Divine Word conveyed to him as the chosen messenger of God to His people. The claim is an immense one, accepted now by millions of Muslims throughout the world, rejected by non-Muslims; but neither point of view requires us to ignore either the personality of the Prophet or the social and economic environment that molded it. As Professor Montgomery Watt percipiently remarks, “For him religion was the total response of his personality to the total situation in which he found himself.”
The events of the next twenty years—the steady flow of new revelations (later collected into the book known as the Koran), the opposition of the Meccan politicians, Muhammad’s flight to the town of Yathrib or Medina in 622 A.D. (the Hijra or Migration, from which event the Muslim era is reckoned), the battles between Mecca and Medina, and the Prophet’s final triumphant return to Mecca—all these loom large in the story of Islam, yet considered in the context of contemporary political and international affairs they can scarcely have rippled the somewhat turbulent life of the great empires of Byzantium and Persia. Yet within twenty years or so of Muhammad’s death in 632, his followers, fired by the simple monotheistic faith he had taught, toppled and destroyed the latter regime, and thrust the former back into the confines of Asia Minor, occupying all its Syrian, Levantine, and Egyptian provinces.
The Muslim advance did not stop there; less than a century saw Arab armies and rulers along the whole of North Africa, in Spain and southern France, and to the east in the hitherto Buddhist regions of Central Asia and debouching on to the plains of India. Further expansion brought Islam to Europe, China, Indonesia, East and West Africa, and many other areas in which it is still supreme.
The books now under review describe, but do not consciously set out to explain, the extraordinary phenomenon of Islam’s rise to power, its world-wide expansion, and even more its endurance and solidity under the most divisive influences. It is more extraordinary than the rise of Christendom, not only because it was far more rapid (Christianity did not become the dominant faith of the Roman Empire until the beginning of the fourth century after the Crucifixion), but because it was political as well as religious.
Certainly as time went on there were political and even religious splits and divisions; the history of Islam is no more peaceful, no less bloodthirsty, than the history of any other great section of the human race. Nevertheless for two centuries or more most Muslims paid at least nominal allegiance to the sole Caliph or Successor to the Prophet, and this allegiance was only temporarily shaken by the crisis of the mid-eighth century A.D., when the Syrian dynasty of the Umayyads was replaced more or less violently by the Abbasids in Iraq.
Incredibly, this latter Caliphate lasted for 500 years, until it was destroyed by the non-Muslim Mongol hordes in 1258. By this time certainly it had lost all political power and for centuries had received at best nominal recognition from the many great and small kingdoms and principalities that held sway at different times in various parts of the Islamic world. For this was the pattern of Islam’s history: the rise of a powerful conqueror led to the establishment of a wide-ranging but strictly ephemeral empire that declined in strength with the declining stature of the founder’s successors, until it disintegrated into quarreling fragments, ready for the heavy hand of the next invader.
Yet Islam survived and increased in strength, absorbing into itself even the terrible Mongols, the greatest of the many catastrophes that afflicted the lands of Western Asia. This was partly because Islam was no mere religion, but a way of life. As the late Professor Schacht puts it, “The essential bond that unites the Muslims is not so much a common simple creed as a common way of life, a common ideal of society.” Islam owes this source of strength to its founder, the Prophet Muhammad, to whom is due the conception of the Muslim Umma or Community.
Religion was not in his eyes a private and individual matter; it was an acceptance of membership in a greater whole. Certainly religious faith stood at the apex; but even this, by its reduction to the simplest terms, was an aid to universality. As von Grunebaum emphasizes, in place of the dualism of Zoroastrianism and Manichaeanism, instead of the complex and puzzling Christian doctrine of the Trinity, Muhammad asked of his followers a simple, definite creed: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God.” Under this plain statement could be—and were—embraced the widest extremes of thought: freethinking rationalism, ecstatic mysticism, narrow-minded ritualism, careful logic, inquiring science, imaginative poetry, all acknowledging the supremacy of the One God, of His Prophet, and of His Book, the Koran.
Heresy was not unknown; shirk, the setting up of partners with God, was the worst blasphemy, and there were other beliefs derived from India and Europe that were unacceptable. But Islam also comprehended within itself much that was common to Judaism and Christianity, and indeed was regarded by Muslims as the fulfillment of these two creeds. Muhammad was the Seal of the Prophets, the last and greatest of a line that included Moses, Jesus, and many others whose teachings, so the belief was, had been corrupted by their followers. The Koran knows many of the stories from the Old Testament, and even from the New. So it was not difficult for Jews, Christians, and even Zoroastrians to accept conversion to Islam (a conversion which, by the way, was rarely enforced). Anything that could be reconciled, by whatever devious argument, with the teaching of the Koran, could be absorbed into Islam, and doubtless changed in the process.
So the Muslim Umma found within itself all it needed for the full life. Within the Dar al-Islam, the Realm of Islam, there were many races, languages, societies, cultures, systems of government, even variations of religious belief; but a Muslim could pass from one end to another and be accepted wherever he went. Outside lay the Dar al-Harb, the Realm of War, hostile and unfriendly lands and peoples with whom Muslims had no concern. Ventures into such lands were justified as a means of spreading Islam; but exploration of them for its own sake was discounted. Islam numbered as many intrepid travelers and mariners as the Christian world; but it never produced a Columbus, a Vasco da Gama, a Magellan. The Dar al-Islam held within itself enough to satisfy anyone’s curiosity.
The five books that form the subject of this review constitute in themselves a kind of mini-course in the civilization of the Islamic world. Professor von Grunebaum’s little book is certainly the most concise, but this poses a difficulty that even his vast erudition is not entirely able to overcome. Certainly he breaks off the narrative at the climactic fall of Bagdad to the Mongols in 1258, but this only goes halfway to solving the problem of packing it all into a mere 200 pages. For the author is not content to limit himself to the Islamic heartlands, Mesopotamia, Persia, Syria, and Egypt; his scope includes—quite properly—North Africa and Spain to the west, East Africa to the south, and even an occasional glance at India to the east.
The consequent compression sometimes leads him to make dogmatic statements for which we would have liked more supporting evidence, to crowd in an excess of detail, or to introduce new facts, ideas, and personalities without sufficient explanation for the lay reader. One might cite, for instance, the references to the Chinese on page 69, the Mazdakites on page 88, the Sufis on page 105, the “Suburb Affair” on page 122, and the Bargawata on page 118. But it would be a pity if these minor blemishes were to discourage the reader; this is a book that can safely be put into the hands of any student of medieval history. Among the best chapters are the one on Islamic society and social-religious movements, and the final one entitled “Withdrawal and Mysticism at the End of the Caliphate.” The translation is fluent and readable, and only occasionally stumbles into the pitfalls of German syntax (page 120: “In the East, [Spain’s] considerable and individual artistic achievement was accepted: in architecture not at all, and in poetry…only in the second half of the twelfth century.”)
The two-volume Cambridge History of Islam is the latest in that remarkable and old-established series of historical works, the policy of which is to gather together from the most authoritative sources the results of the latest research in the chosen field of human civilization. The present work necessarily goes over the whole of the ground covered by von Grunebaum’s book; but whereas his approach tends to emphasize the essential unity of his subject, the Cambridge History method stresses the infinite variety. The scope is of course much wider. The story is brought up almost to the present day, and consequently the editors have had to include important sections on Central Asia, India, Southeast Asia, and Africa (not to mention Spain, which appears rather forlornly at the end of the last of these sections).