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Mysteries of Islam

The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol. 1: The Classical Age of Islam

by Marshall G.S. Hodgson
University of Chicago Press, 532 pp., $20.00

The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol. 2: The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods

by Marshall G.S. Hodgson
University of Chicago Press, 609 pp., $20.00

The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol. 3: The Gunpowder Empire and Modern Times

by Marshall G.S. Hodgson
University of Chicago Press, 469 pp., $20.00

What is Islam? A religion? A civilization? A social order? A form of life? A strand of world history? A collection of spiritual attitudes connected only by a common reverence for Muhammad and the Quran? Any tradition which reaches from Senegal and Tanzania through Egypt and Turkey to Iran, India, and Indonesia, which extends from the seventh century to the twentieth, which has drawn on Judaism, Byzantine Christianity, Greek philosophy, Hinduism, Arabian paganism, Spanish intellectualism, and the mystery cults of ancient Persia, which has animated at least a half dozen empires from Abbasid to Ottoman, and which has been legalistic, mystical, rationalist, and hieratic by turns, is clearly not readily characterized, though it all too often has been.

Marshall Hodgson, who was chairman of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago until his tragic death at forty-seven in 1968, and whose masterpiece, now finally published, represents the only serious attempt in English to address the phenomenon of Islam whole and entire, calls it a “Venture,” and that will perhaps do as well as anything. The task, which Hodgson, who was a passionate Quaker, attacks with the combination of erudition, chronic querulousness, and resolute common sense characteristic of that persuasion at its best, is to discover what sort of venture it is.

His first move is to rescue Islam from its Western scholastics, the Arabists; his second is to rescue it from its own, the ulama, or Muslim religious leaders. The Arabist bias, a product of nineteenth-century European orientalism, views the early Arabic period, the years of the founding at Mecca and Medina, as defining the true faith. It regards subsequent developments, Persianate, Sufist, Spanish, Mongol, Indic, or whatever, as derivative at best, decadent at worst. For the Arabists Islamic culture is identified as “culture appearing in the Arabic language,” and Syriac, Persian, or Greek cultural elements are treated as “foreign,” though they formed in fact the ancestral cultural traditions of the vast majority of the peoples who comprised the classical Muslim communities.

The notion—supported often enough by racist ideas, occasionally by curious theories concerning monotheism and desert landscapes, sometimes merely by a too philological approach to the world—that Islam is the expression of “the Arab mind” has proved extremely difficult for even leading scholars to get around, much less the general public, for whom it has become by now a received idea. That such a notion makes, even for the medieval period, more than three-quarters of the world’s Muslim population somehow peripheral to their own faith does not seem to be considered much of an argument against it. Islam is a religion that was made in Arabia from Arabian visions and then, hook or crook, impressed upon others.

The ulama bias, which the orientalists, and as a result of their influence the rest of us, incorporate into the Arabist one, Hodgson calls “Shariah-mindedness,” after the term for Islamic religious law. Again, everything properly Islamic proceeds from the pristine period of Mecca and Medina, when faith, law, custom, and political authority are conceived to have been completely fused through the person of the Prophet and the pronouncements of the Quran. All later Islam is seen as an effort, at most marginally successful, to maintain this ideal condition throughout the whole of the Muslim world. And the vehicle of this effort is the law, a set of explicit, unambiguous prescriptions constructed on the basis of reports concerning the Prophet’s actions and jurisprudential interpretations of the Quranic prophecy.

The ulama, as the guardians of this conception of what Islam should be—an undivided community of free individuals strictly observant of the codified commands of God—have thus been the carriers, as well, of a distinctive religious outlook: a rigorist, moralistic, rather literalist, and pragmatical legalism. Hodgson is no more concerned to deny the enormous importance of the ulama idea over the centuries than he is to discount the Arabian heritage; but he is concerned to question, and fundamentally, the identification of it as the essence of Islam, the orthodoxy by which piety is weighed and fidelity measured. Like Arabism, Shariah-mindedness has been but one element, and not the most important, in a various and irregular spiritual tradition.

To develop a more realistic conception than the Arabist-legalist one of what the Muslim venture has been all about Hodgson constructs a distinction between “Islam” as “what we may call a religion,” and “the overall society and culture associated with that religion” which he wants to call “Islamicate.” This term, like a number of others he coins (“agrarianate,” “cited,” “technicalistic”), probably hasn’t much of a future; but it does enable him to separate those aspects of the Muslim world which have directly to do with the relations of man and God from those which do not. The line is not sharp, but if one is to define the role of Persian literary traditions, Turkic political structures, or Greek scientific concepts in what, in another coined term, Hodgson calls Islamdom, and to avoid having to talk about Islamic irrigation systems, Islamic languages, or Islamic sex habits, some such distinction is necessary.

Arabic” for Hodgson then becomes a cultural strain in a general Islamicate civilization in which Persian, Berber, Spanish, Turkish, Mughal, Hausa, or Malaysian are others. Shariah-mindedness becomes a particular orientation in a general Islamic religiosity in which Sufism, Shiism, Wahhabism, rationalism, and modernism are others. Hodgson’s theme is therefore the interaction of the Islamic and the Islamicate within Islamdom (the part of the world “where Muslims and their faith are recognized as prevalent and socially dominant”) across the centuries, and the shapes of conscience which that interaction has created. It is a theme he sustains clearly, and continuously, through fifteen hundred pages of the most intricate descriptive argument.

He divides the career of Islam and Islamicate culture into six major phases:

1) the foundation of the tradition in the midst of pagan Arabia in the seventh century;

2) the initial political and cultural development, from about 750 to 950, of that tradition—the civilization of the high caliphates at Damascus and Baghdad;

3) the eleventh- and twelfth-century spread of that civilization throughout the central Islamic lands, the so-called Middle East, plus, at that time, Spain;

4) the Mongol explosion of the fourteenth century—Tamerlane and all that—which at once invaded this newly formed culture sphere and, joining it, introduced into it a powerful new principle of political organization, the military patronage state;

5) the foundation, from 1500, after the Mongol lesson had been absorbed and the Mongol dynamism exhausted, of the early-modern Muslim states, the “gunpowder empires”—Sufavid, Mughal, and Ottoman; and,

6) the reaction of the Muslim heritage, Islamic and Islamicate alike, to the “technicalistic” world the West produced after 1789.

It is a vast panorama, with a cast of thousands continuously in motion, and if Hodgson wobbles a bit (and sometimes more than a bit) when he gets west of the Nile or east of the Oxus, the over-all effect is magisterial: he handles with equal sureness Ghazali, Al-Farabi, Arabic poetry, Persian miniatures, Shii sectarianism, Sufi ecstasy, nomadic militarism, urban mercantilism, Syrian land tenure, the triumph of Ataturk, and anti-Zionism.

The view that emerges from this welter of detail—he has a half-dozen pages on young men’s clubs in medieval Syria, another half-dozen on Mamluk city planning, and at one point he goes on about Muslim iconoclasm and modern art—challenges the commonly accepted version of Islam as a narrowly exclusivist creed combining fanaticism, fundamentalism, and xenophobia in equal proportions. For Hodgson Islam has been as broadly catholic a religion as the world has seen, making a place within itself for virtually every sort of spiritual orientation it encountered in its spread along the midline of the world. The Islamicate impulse has been indeed the stronger and Muhammad’s community has become more what its history has made it than what its dogmas projected.

Even the founding period along the Western edge of the Arabian peninsula was much less of a parochial, corner-of-the-world affair than later commentators, for reasons of their own, have represented it. Mecca was far from a camp in the desert. It was the crossroads of two of the most important trade routes of the seventh century, one from the Gulf of Aden to the Mediterranean, the Suez of the time, and one from Abyssinia and East Africa to Iraq, Iran, and central Eurasia. Wedged in thus between the Sasanian Empire—Zoroaster, Mani, the Magi, and sacred monarchy—and the Eastern Roman Empire—Hellenism, iconolatry, and the ecclesiastical spirit—it was exposed as well to Judaism, gnosticism, and the oratorical “moralism” of Bedouin nomads. Muhammad drew on all of these in articulating his prophecy.

When during the course of the seventh century and the three following, Islam spread through Syria, Mesopotamia, Iran, and the western Mediterranean, this initial cosmopolitanism was permanently reinforced. By the time Al-Ma’mun was caliph in Baghdad—that is, after 813—the eclecticism of Islamicate civilization and the diversity of Islamic faith were indelible characteristics. Greek science and Mazdean occultism, Arabic grammar and Persian poetry, Syrian mercantilism and Iranian absolutism, Medinan traditionalism and Iraqi chiliasm, were all entangled, together with a Thousand and One Nights folk tradition of jinn and marvels. The result was a promiscuous melange even the most militantly reformist movement has never been able to sort out again.

But it was, in Hodgson’s view, the period after the classical caliphate lost its dominant position in the new international civilization that had been launched under its auspices and before the Mongol incursion—that is, between the mid-tenth and the mid-thirteenth centuries—which was the definitive one for both the religious and cultural dimensions of Islam, and to which he devotes by far the longest, the most original, and the most deeply felt section of his book. It was then that three crucial developments took place. First an international political order was formed “which tied the world of Islam together regardless of particular states.” Secondly, a distinctive social structure, centering around a dominant class of urban notables and local garrison commanders, a complex organization of craft and trading guilds, and that shining triumph of male narcissism, the harem system, appeared through the whole Islamic world. Finally, and most fundamentally, a radical spiritual revolution, emerging at once from above and below, transformed the entire cast of Muslim piety and with it the civilization it supported: Sufism. All this occurred at the axial time in Islamic history, the creation of “the true House of Islam.” What comes before is viewed by Hodgson as having been an aggressive, ultimately successful struggle to build; and what comes after as a defensive, ultimately unavailing effort to maintain.

Sufism, which Hodgson, who otherwise is finicky to the point of obsessiveness about definitions, rather nonchalantly glosses as “mysticism,” thus emerges as the critical historical category in his interpretation of the Islamic venture. It is the bridging idea that connects North African saint worship with Indian illuminationism, Shii esotericism with Sunni populism, tenth-century cosmologizing with nineteenth-and twentieth-century reform mongering, the Aristotelianism of Ibn Sina with the Platonism of Suhravardi and the Bergsonism of Iqbal. Therefore much depends—almost everything really—on the skill with which he characterizes Sufism as a phenomenon and deploys it as an idea.

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