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).
The authority of the work may be judged from the fact that its 1,600 pages contain contributions by nearly fifty scholars from more than a dozen countries (some have been quoted earlier in this article). The method of course has its disadvantages. There is some lack of coordination, some overlapping; sometimes indeed there are serious omissions. For instance, the important Shu’ubiya movement, the reaction of the non-Arab Muslims against the self-assumed superiority of the Arabs as the original carriers of Islam, is referred to in passing by Professor Spuler in his chapter on the disintegration of the Caliphate, but it is not even mentioned, let alone described, in the earlier and more appropriate chapter by Professor Sourdel.
The contributions are by no means even in quality. In general it may be said that those dealing with the earlier period are more authoritative than the sections on the post-medieval and modern times. The latter in particular are not helped by the apparently arbitrary decision of the editors to cut off the narrative abruptly (and this is exactly how it appears in some of the chapters) at 1948. This year was not in any sense a landmark in the history of any of the Islamic countries. The result is that we get tempting glimpses and foretastes of subsequent events, but no account of them. A general history of the Islamic world published in 1970 ought to contain some mention of the independence of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq (to say nothing of smaller countries), the Mosaddeq era in Persia and the nationalization of the Persian oil industry, the Suez crisis of 1956, and the Arab-Israeli confrontation culminating in the six-day war of 1967.
On second thought, though, it might have been better to stop at 1914. The writers of the interwar chapters seem all to have had some difficulty in seeing their subject in proper perspective. Particularly poor chapters in this respect are those on “Modern Persia,” “Islam in the Soviet Union,” and “The Political Impact of the West.” The inclusion of a special chapter on “Communism in the Central Islamic Lands,” though written by two acknowledged authorities, Bennigsen and Quelquejay, seems to be a routine genuflection toward the prevailing international climate rather than a piece of objective historiography.
The general reader may find it more rewarding to turn at once to the second half of Volume II, Islamic Society and Civilization. Professor von Grunebaum figures here again, with a magisterial chapter on “The Sources of Islamic Civilization,” packed with a great deal more illuminating information than might be expected from his opening denial that it is possible to identify the sources of a civilization in a meaningful way. In the same category of importance are Claude Cahen on the economy, society, and institutions of Islam, Joseph Schacht on law and justice, and Louis Gardet on religion and culture.
The remaining contributions, designed to cater to all tastes, are somewhat less successful. The chapter on literature, divided into four brief sections for Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu, is inevitably restricted to rather superficial surveys, unrelieved by examples—a criticism that cannot be leveled at the late Professor Arberry’s useful survey of Islamic mysticism, which is lavish in its quotations from texts (in translation), and all the more effective because of this. G. Fehervari’s account of Islamic art and architecture makes the subject much duller than it really is, an impression reinforced by the uninspiring illustrations (the specimens of calligraphy on plate 20 are particularly poor).
In view of the immense contribution of Islam to medieval philosophical thought, S. Pines’s chapter on Islamic philosophy seems surprisingly sketchy. True, the editors have required him to follow other writers on religion, mysticism, literature, and science, and so much of his thunder has already been stolen. But this scarcely explains why he has only three lines on Ibn al-‘Arabi and eight on Sadr al-Din Shirazi, and even to Suhrawardi devotes less than a page; while of modern thought he has nothing to say at all.
For a full account of Islamic philosophy we must turn to Majid Fakhry’s book, which is indeed the first comprehensive survey of the subject to have appeared in a European language for at least fifty years. Professor Fakhry does not make the mistake of trying to detach philosophy from its close associates (at any rate in Islam) theology and mysticism, nor does he ignore political questions where these are relevant. For instance, he has a brief but useful section on the religio-political factions that disturbed the early years of the Islamic Umma and led to at least one major and lasting split, that between the orthodox Sunnis and the secessionist and sometimes revolutionary Shi’a.
But Fakhry’s main purpose is to survey the course of philosophical inquiry into the Middle East as it evolved out of the remnants of Greek (and to a much lesser extent Persian and Indian) philosophy under the stimulus of the new faith of Islam. In language that is remarkably clear for a subject which is inclined to lose itself in jargon, Professor Fakhry shows how the practical needs of interpreting the Koran, regarded by early orthodox Islam as the sole incontrovertible source of knowledge in all fields, led to the development of the linguistic and logical sciences, and so to Kalam (scholasticism), the debating of dogmatic questions raised but not answered by the Holy Book. One of the first of these questions was the perennial paradox of free will versus predestination, a debate that could almost be taken as a barometer of the intellectual climate throughout the history of Islam. Thinkers also disputed over whether the universe was eternal without beginning or end, or was created at a point in time, and so ultimately destructible. Such questions had direct bearing on the problem of the nature of God.
For the first century or so the spirit of free inquiry made the running. The movement known as the Mu’tazilah generally upheld the doctrine of free will, and regarded God’s omnipotence as limited by His inability to act except in conformity with natural justice and righteousness. Later, in reaction against some of the extremer forms of free thought and under the influence of political developments, the Ash’ari movement, using the logical weapons evolved by the Mu’tazilah, restored the authority of dogma, and free thought passed under a cloud.
Meanwhile the evolution of a systematic philosophical system, based on Greek and to a large extent Neoplatonic thought (though some Islamic philosophers followed Aristotle), was being forwarded by such writers as the ninth-century al-Kindi, the tenth-century al-Razi (Rhazes) and al-Farabi, and above all the greatest thinker in all Islam, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), whose influence on all branches of medieval thought in the East and West is incalculable, and to whom Professor Fakhry rightly devotes a substantial chapter. Contemporary with Ibn Sina was the remarkable group known as the Brethren of Purity, who produced a series of theses on a wide range of philosophical and scientific subjects in an attempt to break down the barriers between philosophy and dogma.
This marked the zenith of rationalist thought in Islam. The reaction was already setting in; the Ash’ari school of thought, with its insistence on the absolute omnipotence of God, was supreme, and at the beginning of the twelfth century the theologian and mystic al-Ghazali, in a systematic refutation of Neoplatonism, finally brought together orthodox theology, philosophy, and mysticism.
Mysticism was the other strain that had a part in the development of Islam, and Fakhry provides a useful account from the ascetic beginnings through the ecstatic pantheism of Bistami and Hallaj (influenced perhaps by Hindu thought) to the synthesis and systematization of al-Ghazali and Ibn al-‘Arabi. Apart from a brief revival of Greek thought in Islamic Spain in the hands of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), another seminal thinker for Europe but of relatively minor influence in Islam, philosophical and theological thought seems to have thereafter followed either the mystical course, with the doctrine of Illumination evolved by Suhrawardi (twelfth century) and Sadr al-Din Shirazi (sixteenth-seventeenth centuries), or a return to rigid orthodoxy under such teachers as Ibn Taymiyya (thirteenth century) and Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab, the eighteenth-century founder of the fundamentalist Wahhabi movement, still dominant in Saudi Arabia. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, have seen the emergence of a modernist spirit in such men as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, and Muhammad Iqbal, as well as more recent and lesser known names.
Professor Fakhry’s book is a balanced and stimulating account of an area of human thinking that has been sadly neglected in the West; it will have achieved a great deal if it creates some awareness of the wide range of Islamic thought, which is by no means limited, as some would have us believe, to the odder idiosyncrasies of mystical extravaganza. Professor Fakhry might indeed have devoted even more space to the mystical aspect, but in his defense it could be said that he is more concerned with the development of systematic thought, for which the language of expression in all Islamic countries has been Arabic, his own tongue, whereas Persian, with which he is less familiar, has been the language of ecstasy and emotion.
Another survey of Islamic thought of a very different kind, now accessible for the first time to English-speaking readers, is the tenth-century Fihrist (Index) of al-Nadim, the first encyclopedia and biographical dictionary to have been written in Arabic and the source and model for many later works. The work in fact goes far beyond the original intention of the author, who was the son of a bookseller and describes his book as “a catalogue of the books of all peoples, Arab and foreign, existing in the language of the Arabs.” In fact it includes biographical details of the authors, summaries of their writings, and much other information that combine to form a comprehensive survey of the learning of the tenth-century Islamic world. There are introductory sections on languages and calligraphy and on sacred books, and these are followed by chapters on grammarians, historians, poets, theologians and religious sects, jurists, philosophers, storytellers, and even heretics.
Professor Bayard Dodge has provided a workmanlike translation of this invaluable work, based on a text edited by himself from a number of manuscripts but unfortunately not yet published. To compensate for the absence of this, he has provided liberal footnotes giving alternative readings and other information; and, in addition to the mandatory glossary and bibliography, he has compiled an invaluable 200-page biographical index, in which the names of all the writers mentioned in the Fihrist are listed in alphabetical order with page references and brief details. Professor Dodge has sensibly avoided any literary flights, confining himself to a straightforward and, so far as can be judged without collation with the original, accurate rendering, which is at the same time highly readable. Indeed the only criticism it seems possible to make of the book is that the publishers, having chosen for the cover an arabesque design incorporating an irrelevant Arabic inscription, have compounded the offense by printing it upside down.
An entirely different approach to translation is offered by Omar Pound’s renderings of classical Arabic and Persian poems, and one that is bound to arouse controversy in academic circles. So far from confining himself to pedestrian accuracy, Pound has sought rather to bridge the vast gap between the medieval East and the twentieth-century West by re-creating the poetic inspiration of the originals in modern terms. This of course is not altogether new; FitzGerald did something of the kind with Omar Khayyam’s verses, and has been severely criticized by scholars for his audacity. But Pound has certainly gone a good deal further, at least in some cases. Not that he always wholly jettisons his original text. Here for instance is one of his versions compared with a literal translation of the original by the twelfth-century Persian poet Jamal Isfahani:
Pound: White hairs are the voice of the wind of death and with them comes
they shudder the willow of my heart—and moan:
What! Still asleep! You’re no longer needed here it is time to leave for home.
Jamal: Don’t you know what white hairs mean? The tongue of Death! Because whoever sees them despairs of himself.
Last night they said to my heart in dumb appeal Something that set my soul trembling with fear like the willow in the wind.
They said, “Prepare for death, if you are not asleep! “How often must I tell you, for my tongue has turned white!”
Pound can fairly claim not only that his rendering is pretty close, but that he has sharpened and intensified the impact that is present in the Persian original but does not come out in a verbatim translation. But what are we to make of the invocation, by the tenth-century - Arab satirist al-Ifriqi al-Mutayyam, of “Mr. Getty” and “Mr. Clore” as specimens of the rich and powerful? Or of Minuchihri’s “Recantation,” in Pound’s version of which the eleventh-century poets sneered at by their Persian contemporary are replaced by
Betjeman, Ginsberg and Ogden Nash
guitars and Trinidaddy drums…
Mr. Pound would of course maintain that Ginsberg means more to present-day Western, and for that matter Eastern, readers than the unknown Bu Bakr Rababi; and since his avowed purpose is to produce not translations but English poems that will make the same impact on his readers as did the originals on theirs, the point is relevant. On the other hand, having gone so far, is he right to continue later in the poem with
Will they never learn,
if all praise be lies,
the Prophet was never born
and cities never sacked.
which seems a reversion to the environment of the eleventh century?
But one cannot really criticize these translations line by line. One must accept or reject his method; and as an academic I am inclined to accept it. His versions will be of little use to the student seeking for a quick crib as an aid to examination prowess; but they may well provide him with flashes of insight that will shorten his journey to the center of medieval—and modern—Islamic thought. If they do this, they are fully justified.
This much at least can be said: Mr. Pound’s poems are a great deal more readable and exciting than the pseudo-Augustan versifications, top-heavy with the Latin elegance of the eighteenth century, that even today seem to be regarded as appropriate to the translation of ancient poetry. The book then is to be welcomed, and further ventures along the same road are to be called for. The scholarly basis beneath is glimpsed in Mr. Pound’s brief introductory essays on Arabic and Persian poetry, and one does not need to take too seriously Basil Bunting’s rather juvenile Foreword.