• Email
  • Print

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 Classical Heritage in Islam

by Franz Rosenthal, translated by Emile Marmorstein, by Jenny Marmorstein
University of California Press, 320 pp., $18.50

The Camel and the Wheel

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

History—Remembered, Recovered, Invented

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

Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World

by Patricia Crone, by 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 done, and half of what the Romans had done around the Mediterranean.

Yet what is more remarkable is the speed with which this Arab empire broke up, and the thoroughness with which it “decolonized” itself, leaving vast tracts of Africa and Asia permanently caught in the light but unbreakable net of a common Islamic culture. In AD 800, the date of the problematic coronation of Charlemagne by the pope in Rome, Western Christianity had only just begun to reach beyond its Roman, Mediterranean core into the uncertain world of northern Europe. Eight hundred years after the Hijra, centers of Islamic civilization had been scattered everywhere, throughout Asia, Africa, and southern Europe.

After 800 years in the compact world of Western Europe, all roads still led to Rome. In the Muslim world, after the same period had elapsed, a transient Arab empire had been definitively replaced by a vast Islamic galaxy, pulsating with energy at innumerable points. In landscapes unimaginably different from the Arabic-speaking centers of the Near East, the vernacular languages of Iran, Central Asia, and India blossomed, paradoxically, beneath the unremitting Arabic sun of the new sacred tongue. A scholar might publish in Samarkand the definitive work on arithmetic used in the religious schools of Cairo. Or, in a dialogue with colleagues in Baghdad and Hamadan, he could claim to have recovered the unalloyed teachings of Aristotle in the libraries of Fez and Cordoba.

The seeming stillness of some aspects of Islamic culture often mask the energies that knit the Muslim world together. “Arabesques,” linear patterns which seem to us a timeless and uniform feature of Islamic art, once passed from center to center of this huge world with the speed of signals on a heliograph. The same motif appearing almost simultaneously on a basin in Iran, a goldtooled binding in Morocco, a tile in Spain, or carved across the porch of a caravanserai in Anatolia would have brought home to the Muslim, as subliminally as did the ever-present Arabic of the Qur’an, the fact that he shared a common culture with his fellow believers in places which, only a few centuries before, had been separated from one another by seemingly unbridgeable chasms of race, language, and religion.

The appearance of a West African chieftain scattering gold dust outside the mosques of Cairo; the stately progress of a Turkish man of learning from Bursa—once a classical Greek city, looking toward the Hellespont and into Europe—through Antioch and Cairo to Mecca; the wiles of the Banû Sâsân, that confrérie of tricksters who lay in wait to “gouge” the unwary pilgrims as they streamed into the cities of the Near East once a year from places as far apart as Algeria and Chinese Turkestan—these colorful events and anecdotes gleaned from medieval Islamic sources point to the great fact of the unity of Muslim civilization. This unity was summed up in the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca which every Muslim felt it incumbent on himself to perform at least once in his life: a gathering of all the nations of the world at once too habitual and too stupendous ever to have been seen by a scholar in its entirety.

Not surprisingly, this was a civilization that we can now enter most readily through its great travelers. By the fourth century AD, the Romans had vague and disgruntled notions of who lived outside their borders. By the fourth century after the Hijra, a conception of human geography that embraced the Old World from Peking to Zanzibar, and from Scandinavia to the Kalahari Desert, was the most original feature of Islamic secular culture. Continents that had been mere names on Classical maps of the world came to be filled up with closely observed human societies. The sharp curiosity of Muslim geographers for the variety of the human scene reflected more than the size of the Arab empire and the vast range of its commercial networks. This curiosity had a distinctive religious basis.

Muslim geography was human geography because Islam was concerned with human society and human patterns of behavior. Behind the clear and dispassionate prose of these writers we can sense the quiet confidence of men who had come to live under a new religious law, in which, as André Miquel puts it so well in his Géographie humaine du monde musulman, “every day-to-day gesture involved taking up a stance where the divine, that is, a touch of the perfect, had a part.” The habits of the overpowering societies of India and China are faithfully recorded, without amazement, by Muslim travelers because they can be assessed against the fine grid of possible human relations and possible forms of human deportment given to the new Muslim community by the Prophet: why, the Chinese even piss when standing up—the nobles using a tube for the purpose—and, strange to relate, they wipe themselves with paper!

Finally, this was a world that could quietly abolish the past with the infuriating insensitivity of a mature civilization, basically confident that it could make sense of life on its own terms. As Western Europeans, we have long tended to pay homage to medieval Islam, if for nothing else, at least for having passed on the heritage of Greek philosophy and science at a time when these were largely ignored in Europe. Yet it would be singularly patronizing to think that for a medieval Muslim Greek philosophy and science meant the same as they do for us. He had no intention of gaining our esteem by preserving the idealized family tree of Western culture. Far from it: he used the thought of the Greeks with a characteristically Islamic sense of urgency, in order to answer the burning new Islamic questions of his day—questions of free will and predestination, questions of the nature of revelation, questions on the ideal form of Islamic government.

As a result, the thought and the figures of the ancient Greeks underwent a sea-change into something hauntingly different from the Western image of Classical Greece. For Plato, Aristotle, and Galen were taken so much for granted as ever-present, imaginary colleagues in the schools of Hamadan, Baghdad, and Cordoba that everybody thought they knew what they were like. Plato, of course, was a god-fearing man of ascetic leanings—like any other wise Muslim:

He loved to be alone in lonely rural places. One could usually detect his presence through hearing him weep. When he wept he could be heard two miles away in deserted rural districts. He wept uninterruptedly.

His school must have been the bustling encourage of a Muslim man of learning:

The Stoics are those who used to sit on the portico of his house….

The Peripatetics are those who used to walk alongside his stirrup and receive the pearls of his wisdom.

Only a civilization of impressive density can cause the previous culture of a millennium to spin into so strange an orbit.

Some of the best books that have appeared in recent years now enable us to grasp these features of the Islamic world. Islam and the Arab World provides comprehensive if somewhat breathless summaries, expanded by superb illustrations. The singularly felicitous selection of original sources from all over the medieval Islamic world by Bernard Lewis, Islam from the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, enables us to sense the growth and tensions of medieval Islam: to read it is like being a passenger lying below deck and listening to the creaking of a great ship far out on the high seas. The sober pages of C.E. Bosworth’s The Medieval Islamic Underworld: The Banû Sâsân in Arabic Society and Literature introduces us to a class of scalawags and dropouts who have yet to meet their Natalie Davis or their Richard Cobb. For here are the sturdy beggars through whom we view the structured and punctilious world of Islam turned upside down:

Men who never bother about ablutions, nor do they ever remain in a state of ritual purity…. Whenever they exchange words with a longbearded sheik, famous for his pious utterances…they greet him with thousands of unripe farts.

In the masterly second volume of André Miquel’s La géographie humaine du monde musulman we have a model of a humane and penetrating discussion of how one great civilization viewed itself and others. It deserves a place in English translation beside Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society. While the thought-provoking selections made available in Franz Rosenthal’s The Classical Heritage in Islam show us a tradition which we thought was our own strangely mirrored in other eyes.

The overwhelming impression of these books is of the unexpected strangeness of medieval Islamic civilization. It is always bigger and more original that we had thought. A world that we have come insensibly to identify with the “immemorial East” is, in fact, one of the most recently formed of the great traditional societies of the modern world. It just did not exist at all in AD 622. Indeed, as Richard Bulliet has made clear in his brilliant study The Camel and the Wheel, even the camel, an animal now inextricably associated with a stereotype of the unchanging Arab world, had only recently emerged, around AD 600, in its definitive form as “ship of the desert.” Yet within a few centuries the foundations had been laid for a gigantic “galactic” culture that joined North Africa, the Near East, and outer Asia in a manner unimaginable in earlier centuries, and that showed itself capable of thriving, also, on European soil—in Spain, Sicily and, later, in the Balkans. Ever since the early Middle Ages, Europe’s view to the East has been blocked by a major civilization whose features were all the more disquieting for bearing so strange a family resemblance to its own Judaeo-Christian and Greek inheritance.

As a result, no other non-European civilization has been so persistently gagged and bridled by European stereotypes as has Islam. It has always been important that such a vast world with haunting resemblances in thought and religion to our own should be made to appear smaller and more easily comprehensible than it is in reality. The industrious if muddled book of Dorothee Metlitzki, The Matter of Araby in Medieval England, shows how for medieval Christians Islam had become an antipodes of the Christian mind. The legend that Muhammad had once been a learned cardinal who might have become pope condensed the nagging sense that irreversible changes, which intimately affected the standing of Christianity in the known world, had happened far away to the southeast, in “Surre”—the land of Syria.

As cited in the clear, brisk essays of Bernard Lewis, History—Remembered, Recovered, Invented, the “intellectual pabulum” to which Europeans of the colonial age turned when brought into contact with living Muslim communities makes distressing reading. But sadder by far is the zeal with which some members of the Muslim elites of modern times have hastened to twist their image of themselves and of their civilization into the crippling shapes propounded to them by confident Europeans. In far too many examples of the literature that has recently appeared, Islam has been able to communicate itself to the West only in the partial and trivialized images that have been forced upon it by centuries of Western opinion. It is a dire feat, such as is possible only in a modern world of quick communication and intensive educational programs, to be able both to misrepresent others and to ensure that they will misrepresent themselves.

Hence, Islam is still frequently presented as almost synonymous with the Arab world. As a result, the greatest historical achievement of Islam can be safely ignored: that extraordinary capacity to “decolonize” itself—while maintaining a sense of community symbolized by the great gathering of the Hajj at Mecca and the irreducible Arabic of its sacred language—that has made it the most truly universal of the monotheistic religions of the Old World. Furthermore, the weight of the religious message of Islam has been minimized. The deep religious anger of the Prophet Muhammad at what he saw around him—wealth squandered, the weak oppressed, the insensitive pride of the wellfed—is discreetly muffled. The urgent strivings of centuries of Muslim lawyers, men of learning, and religious leaders to apply the clear and chilling message of the Prophet to the untamed society of their own days, so that at least some touch of the possible perfection of a human being, living at ease with his fellows, should be found within the community of Muslims: this has not been made central to the story of Islam.

Instead we are presented with a bland and colorful stereotype. If medieval Western Europe had its Gothic Age of Faith, medieval Islam, by contrast, must be given its Age of Affluence. Trade, the arts of living, scientific progress are emphasized to the exclusion of the less reassuringly secular achievements of the Islamic world. It is a pity that the collection of essays that has done most, in a short compass, to allow us to glimpse the immensity of the Islamic world and the undiminished seriousness of its religious concerns should combine on its dustcover the two most crippling Western stereotypes of Islam. For it has appeared in America under the myopic title of Islam and the Arab World; and it shows learned Turks—not Arabs—seriously applying themselves, as late as the sixteenth century, to the fashionable Western pursuit of remaining technologically advanced.

It is, therefore, only by the application of “negative capability,” by with-holding assent from facile stereotypes, that Muslim and non-Muslim scholars can hope to encourage a Western public to listen with respect to the alien voice of the Islamic world. Hence it is a pleasure to end this review by discussing a short and learned volume whose professed aim is to spell out as provocatively as possible an entirely different view from that usually held of the origins of Islam as we know it. Whatever we may think of the truth of its assertions, and however much we may regret the truculent and offhand manner in which many of these are presented, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World is a book to be taken seriously.

In the opinion of its authors, Islam still lacked a clear identity in the first century of the Arab conquests. The “new and assured religious persona” of Islam, which we now take for granted as having always existed, was nowhere to be seen in those headlong generations. What is more, Islam was not brought to the settled populations of the Near East by the Arabs; for the Arabs, in the opinion of the authors, had only the vaguest idea of the message of their new prophet. Hence the title of the book, Hagarism. Contemporary sources speak of the Arabs as “Hagarenes”: like the Jews and the Christians, they claimed a common descent from Abraham, through Ishmael, the son of Hagar. In the previous generation their prophet Muhammad had endowed them with little more than “a sort of elementary religious literacy” and a wish, as descendants of Hagar, to partake in the religious life of the Jews and Christians of the settled provinces of the Near East.

According to Crone and Cook, Islam proper came into existence after the conquests, more than a generation after the death of the Prophet in 632, at a time when the Arabs found themselves in close contact with the settled population of Syria, and especially with the Jewish and Christian populations there. It was these provincials, most notably the Jews of Palestine, who set about to turn the malleable and ambiguous opinions of their new Arab masters into a world religion. They did this, so Crone and Cook believe, because they had long been groping for an alternate identity to that which they enjoyed under the metropolitan, basically Hellenistic, culture of the Byzantine Empire. The Arabs provided this identity: their armies were unbeatable, and their culture, though rudimentary, had the advantage of an unshakeable confidence based on its fully developed language and uneroded system of tribal values.

Hence the rapid creation of that craggy profile of Islam to which we have become accustomed. The Arabs gained from their subjects the inestimable advantage, in a religious age, of a sharp sense of possessing the one, true religion; while, as converts to Islam, their Jewish and Christian mentors felt free to expand their talents within the reassuring mass of a new culture different from that of the Mediterranean world. Seldom has such a stunning virtue been made out of a necessity. It is in this way that Crone and Cook seek to explain the one certain feature of the history of Asia and Africa in the early Middle Ages—the novelty and the absorptive power of Islamic civilization. For, in creating Islam for the Arabs, the “outsiders” of the Near East found themselves at the center of the culture of all previous millennia:

The values of a Judaism which had remained spiritually outside eastern Christendom fused with the force of barbarians who had remained physically outside it.

After such a joining, nothing could be the same again.

One can only hope that this daring thesis will be the object of prolonged scholarly debate; and that this debate, while it is likely to reject Crone and Cook’s conclusions, will respect the problems to which they have drawn attention. For it is the problems raised in Hagarism—not the flimsy and precipitate solutions that the authors propose for these problems—which make this a book of genuine historical importance. Hagarism is a salutary reminder of how much still needs to be explained in the origins of medieval Islam.

The authors make us constantly aware of one fact that is almost too big to be seen. In Western Europe, the barbarian invasions meant very little. The conquerors rapidly became detribalized, and frequently ended up more Roman than the Romans; within a few generations they had adopted the language and the religion of their subjects. The Arab conquests in the Near East between the seventh and ninth centuries AD were no more drastic from the military point of view: small armies took over huge territories that boasted cultures which reached back continuously to the beginnings of civilization. Yet the Arabs did not “go native.” They preserved their language and culture, and identified these with a new religion. It was they who introduced their culture to their new subjects.

The importance of this phenomenon stands out in high relief because Crone and Cook have refused to accept what had always been propounded, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, as the obvious explanation for the impact of Islam. Up to now, we could assume that, in the period between AD 610 and his death in AD 632, the preaching of the Prophet Muhammad had created for the Arabs of Arabia a religion with a firm profile, fully expressed in Arabic scriptures, the Qur’an, thus establishing the basis of an autonomous religious culture. This happened a generation before the Arab armies came into contact with any considerable non-Arab populations. So we tend to assume that the Arabs brought with them from the desert a largely formed religion; and we tend to believe that the process by which Islamic thought, theology, and mysticism was later enriched by the incorporation of non-Arab elements was a slow one, which only began in the second century after the Hijra—when non-Arab converts came to the fore as the intellectual leaders of the Muslim community.

The creation of Islam by Arabs in an Arab environment has been accepted as the one unshakable fact in the early history of Islamic culture. To a Muslim, whether of Arab or non-Arab nationality, it has always been a source of confidence and comfort that, while Judaism and Christianity appear to have grown erratically and to have assembled their sacred scriptures in a leisurely and haphazard manner, the origins of Islam took place within a reassuringly narrow and clearly defined compass of space and time. Not only was God’s message revealed once and for all in an unquestionably reliable form to the Prophet, but the revelation in its entirety—the Qur’an—was preserved by its human recipients with a promptness and certainty that left no reasonable grounds to doubt that this was the authentic message as received by the Prophet.

A single entry in the chronological table of Bernard Lewis’s Islam: From the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople tells its own tale of the speed and efficiency of the early Muslims: “650-651—Establishment of standard text of Qur’an; most of Iran conquered.” In a world where every ethnic and religious group had seemed to the Prophet to be trapped in its own, private truths, the Qur’an was for Muslims a revelation untainted by human wish-fulfillment, its written form passed down in a manner uncloyed by human interest groups, and so its message was magnificently unconfined by the complexities of human cultural horizons.

As non-Muslims, Western scholars do not accept this strictly religious position; but they do come close to the corollary which Muslim Arab historians already drew from this presupposition when they came to write the life and to preserve the sayings of the Prophet in the course of the second century after the Hijra. Even if they do not believe the Qur’an to be utterly uncontaminated by human intermediaries, at least most Western historians follow the Arab sources in accepting that the message of the Prophet has been reliably preserved and that it came to its maturity in an environment largely uncontaminated by strong non-Arab influences. In its early days, so the current opinion goes, Islam was new precisely because it was Arab: it had gained a firm persona because preached by a new Arab prophet in a new Arab environment.

Crone and Cook will have none of this. For them, the text of the Qur’an remained in flux until the end of the seventh century AD; and the Arabs began to take their prophet seriously only a generation after his death, when helped to do so by their new subjects. Islam was born, not in Mecca and Medina, but in Syria, when the Arabs crossed the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire and stumbled, unwittingly, upon the religious ferment of the local Jews and Christians.

This startlingly new presentation has one obvious merit. Though their account could never be accepted by a Muslim, and hardly by a conservative scholar who is prepared to put his trust in the story as told by Arab historians of the second century after the Hijra, Hagarism has the great advantage of directing attention away from the Arabian Peninsula to the spiritual and cultural climate of the Near East as a whole on the eve of the arrival of the Arab armies. Compared with the circumstantial and rather cozy picture of Arabian society and of the preaching of the Prophet in Mecca and Medina, with which most books on the history of Islam are content to begin, the pages in which Crone and Cook evoke the possible malaise of the Near East in the early seventh century AD show remarkable erudition. For them, the creation and spread of Islam is not a new departure: it is intelligible only as the playing out of the last, most headlong act in the history of the ancient Near East.

As a result, the spread of Islam has to be seen in a different light. It is no longer possible to think of the process of Islamization exclusively as the slow and grudging acculturation of the subject peoples to the hard, new faith of their Arab masters. Far from coming with the sword and the Qur’an, as in most popular accounts, the Arabs as presented by Crone and Cook merely unleashed the pent-up inellectual energies of the provincials of the conquered territories: they settled down as the colleagues of alienated Jews and Christians in a daring conspiracy to create together something new. Beneath the infuriatingly cerebral and nonhistorical tone with which this book speaks of the choices Arabs and non-Arabs may have faced in the seventh century, we can glimpse a human fact that has received very little attention in modern scholarship: for many of the subjects of the new Arab empire, conversion to Islam may have been more than a capitulation. For many Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, to become a Muslim meant a resolution of previous dilemmas and a startling new field for religious endeavor.

Yet this book suffers from one decisive disadvantage. In straining with such panache at one stereotype—the all-Arab origins of Islam—Crone and Cook have managed to swallow two of the biggest and most pervasive stereotypes current in Western attitudes to Islam. They accept without question the image of the pre-Islamic Arabs as “simple savages,” largely untouched by the religious and cultural life of their more sophisticated Near Eastern neighbors. And in explaining the motives which, in their opinion, led the provincials of Syria to invent a new identity for themselves in the form of Islam, they perpetuate, albeit in a highly original form, the long-engrained Western tendency to treat Islam as anything but what it has claimed to be—an intelligible and persuasive religious message.

Thus Crone and Cook have merely put on its head the conventional image of an unsophisticated Arab society, emerging from barbarism at the call of its native prophet. Their picture of the Arabs as “Hagarenes,” as the puzzled country cousins of sophisticated Jews and Christians, takes for granted that they had little or no previous culture or religion. The provocative central thesis of Hagarism, that the Arabs had to have Islam invented for them because they knew no better, will not be rebutted only by reasserting the traditional consensus of learned opinion on the validity of the Arab sources for the life of the prophet and the establishment of the text of the Qur’an. Refutation will take long, slow work on the role of the Arabs in the culture of the Near East in previous centuries, supported by access to the unexplored archaeological riches of Saudi Arabia. Only the spade will decide for or against the pervasive Western assumption that the Arabian Peninsula in the sixth and seventh centuries AD had been a cultural and religious vacuum.

Furthermore, the argument of Hagarism on the motives of the provincials of the Near East in creating a new Islamic culture for themselves studiously avoids the one question which a man of the seventh century AD would have asked first: was the new religion true? Plainly, no scholar would be naïve enough to give a simple answer to such a blunt question, and still less to make a process as complex and as shot through with paradox as the slow Islamization of much of Africa and Asia depend solely on that answer. Yet it is a question that can be raised: and Crone and Cook make plain that it is the one question they have no intention of raising. As described in Hagarism, the Jews and Christians of the seventh century AD appear to have stepped straight out of a brilliantly witty seminar on the tragicomic paradoxes of national identity in the modern world. For the provincials of Syria, as we read about them in these pages, Islam is an elegant chemical formula for a new national and cultural identity. That Islam might be a convincing monotheistic religion, preached by a new prophet in an idiom close enough to their own to have some claim to credence, is a thought too blunt to pass through their complex minds.

Yet we still know far less than we can about the strictly religious aspects of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim dialogue in these centuries, and about the changes in the religious and social climate which, quite apart from the world-shaking dominance of the new Arab empire, slowly but surely edged the new religion into the position of a “cognitive majority.” If, as Crone and Cook seem to imply, Arabs and non-Arabs collaborated in the earliest stages of the formation of Islamic civilization, then they may have done this because they thought the new religion had some claim to be true, and not merely because they were caught up in some fine-spun and suspiciously modern quest for a long-lost national identity. By this anachronistic dismissal of religious factors, Hagarism has failed to become what it might have been—a major historical reassessment of the long-term causes and consequences of the Islamization of the ancient Near East.

Sad to say, this enterprising and learned book registers the extent to which Western scholarship in the past century has, if anything, drifted further from its Islamic neighbors. For the most challenging aspect of the Islamic world may yet be Islam itself. The tone of modern studies, with their heavy insistence on the cultural and material environment of medieval Islam, marks a deadening of Western sensibilities to the central problems of Islamic history. The Old Masters of Islamic scholarship—men like Julius Wellhausen and Ignaz Goldziher—knew a great traditional religion when they saw one. For they were still embedded in its equivalents in Europe, in Lutheranism and Judaism. Though they turned to the study of Islam in order to apply to a safely distant religion standards of critical, nonpartisan scholarship that had made them unpopular among their co-religionists, they nevertheless brought a deep religious sense to the study of the origin and development of Islamic civilization. At a time when the supremacy of Europe over the Islamic societies of Asia and Africa seemed unshakeable, they nevertheless still had ears to hear the voices of their neighbors: for their own European culture held them close to the religious preoccupations which Europeans, as Jews and Christians, shared with Muslims—with the restraints imposed on behavior and thought by a revealed religion, with Heaven and Hell, with the Last Judgment and with the terror of the grave.

In a world where the supremacy of the West is far less certain, and where the effects of Westernization can now be clearly observed to be tainted with deep ambivalence, can we afford to hear less well than they the distant sound of medieval Islam, as we catch it on a gravestone from ninth-century Cairo?

This is what Makina, the daughter of Yahya, testifies. She testifies there is no God but God alone, without partner, and that Muhammad is his slave and Prophet, that life and death are truth, that heaven and hell are truth, and that God will resurrect those who are in the grave. By this she lived, by this she died, and by this she will be resurrected, please God.

  • Email
  • Print