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In Search of Islam’s Past

Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry, Revised Edition

by R. Stephen Humphreys
Princeton University Press,, 401 pp., $12.95 (paper)

For Muslims, history is important. The mission of Mohammed and the promulgation of the Qur’an are events in history, and knowledge of them was preserved and disseminated through historical memory and record. In this respect Islam takes the same view as its two predecessors, Judaism and Christianity, and indeed the earliest Islamic narratives bear a generic resemblance to those of the Jews and Christians, in scripture and elsewhere. The Muslims too had their kings and their prophets, their saints and their martyrs, and preserve the memory of their lives and their deaths in history and biography, in tradition and commemoration.

But there is more. Judaism began among a small group of migratory tribes, grew among the inhabitants of a small kingdom, overshadowed and often dominated by mighty neighbors, and achieved its greatest flowering among a people who were conquered, subjugated, and ultimately dispersed. Christianity first appeared as the faith of a small minority in a subject province of the Roman Empire, and remained through its early formative centuries a religion of the downtrodden and the oppressed. Islam, in contrast, triumphed during the lifetime of its founder, who created a state which, under his immediate successors, the caliphs, became a vast empire.

The Christianized Roman Empire strove, albeit with limited success, to preserve the language, the laws, and the institutions of pagan Rome, and even the barbarian conquerors who became its real masters paid at least lip service to the state and church which they had conquered.

The situation in the Islamic caliphate was totally different. The Muslim Arabs, unlike the Western barbarians, brought their own scripture, in their own language, and created their own imperial system and structure. Though much remained of the Roman and Christian past in the former Roman Christian provinces of the Levant and North Africa, it evoked no respect, and conferred no legitimacy. Its survival was, so to speak, surreptitious, and ultimately vestigial. In the new Islamic polity and society, only Islam conferred legitimacy; only Islamic precedent, that is, the Islamic past, could validate government and law.

Even during the lifetime of the Prophet, and much more frequently after his death, pressing problems arose for which the Qur’an provided no explicit answers. At an early date the principle was adopted that the Prophet was divinely guided in all his actions and utterances, and that after his death the divine guidance was given to the Muslim community as a whole. “My community,” the Prophet is cited as saying, “will not agree on an error.” The practice of the Prophet and the decisions made by the early caliphs thus constitute a body of precedents, ranking second only to the Qur’an itself among the authoritative sources of the shari’a, the holy law of Islam. It is designated by a variety of terms, the commonest being sunna, meaning, approximately, the corpus of custom and example left by revered predecessors.

But between the Qur’an and the sunna there was an important difference. The Qur’an was scripture, in the Muslim view literally divine, having been dictated to the Prophet by an angel. A written and authorized text was established at an early date, and, apart from a few minor and insignificant variants, there is no argument about the accuracy or authenticity of the canon. The sunna, on the other hand, though divinely inspired, was human, and therefore subject to error and even fraud. It consists of a multiplicity of traditions, orally transmitted for generations before they were committed to writing. Human memory is always fallible, and the bitter religious, social, and political struggles of the early Islamic period encouraged the distortion or even the fabrication of traditions, designed to support an argument, a faction, or a cause.

From an early date Muslim scholars recognized the danger of false testimony and hence of false doctrine, and developed an elaborate science for criticizing tradition. “Tradition science,” as it was called, differed in many respects from modern historical source criticism, and modern scholarship has often disagreed with the evaluations of tradition scientists about the authenticity and accuracy of ancient narratives. But their careful scrutiny of the chains of transmission, and their meticulous collection and preservation of variants in the transmitted narratives, give to medieval Arabic historiography a professionalism and a sophistication without precedent in antiquity and without parallel in the contemporary medieval West. By comparison, the historiography of Latin Christendom seems poor and meager, and even the more advanced and complex historiography of Greek Christendom still falls short of the historical literature of Islam in volume, variety, and analytical depth. For Sunni Muslims—the Shi’a take a different view—God’s community was the embodiment of God’s design for mankind, and its history, providentially guided, revealed the working out of God’s purpose. An accurate knowledge of history was therefore supremely important, since it could provide authoritative guidance in both the profoundest problems of religion and the most practical matters of law.

History was important—that is to say, Muslim history. The history of non-Muslim states and communities, which did not accept God’s final revelation and did not obey God’s law, offered no such guidance, and possessed no such value. Muslim historians therefore paid scant attention to non-Muslim history, whether of their neighbors in Christian Europe and elsewhere, or of their own Christian, Zoroastrian, and pagan ancestors. Some knowledge of the immediately pre-Islamic past was retained, and included in the corpus of historic knowledge. Of the great civilizations of the ancient Middle East, all that Muslim historiography knew was what was related in the Qur’an, with some additional explanatory matter, mostly derived from Jewish and Christian informants. The rest of the ancient past was forgotten and, often literally, buried beneath the ground. Perhaps even more remarkable was the almost total disregard of Europe which characterizes Islamic writings in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish from the beginning of historiography until the nineteenth century, when the advancing power of Europe demanded, and finally received, attention.

For a long time, European Christian historians showed a similar lack of interest in non-Christian history. They were of course very much concerned with the advance of Islam, which had wrested the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean from Christendom, and which for a thousand years threatened Europe itself from both ends, the Arabs in the West, the Turks and Tatars in the East. But the study of Islam in medieval Europe, such as it was, was religious. It was pursued principally in monasteries, and had as its primary aim to protect Christians from conversion to Islam—a very real danger at the time—and, ultimately, to launch a Christian counter-mission for the conversion of the Muslims to Christianity.

By the end of the Middle Ages, it was becoming increasingly clear that the first task was no longer necessary, the second impossible. But if the Islamic religion was no longer seen as a serious rival, Islamic power, now embodied in the rising empire of the Turks, remained a major threat. European writers, their concerns aroused by the Turkish conquests, their curiosity whetted by the adventures in ideas of the Renaissance, their methods sharpened by the new learning, devoted increasing attention to Turkish history, and produced a considerable body of writing on the subject. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, an English clergyman, Richard Knolles, was able to publish an immense volume on the history of the Turks, based on a wide range of continental European writings, some of them translations from Turkish originals.1

But all this was what we would nowadays call modern and contemporary history, with some minimal necessary background. This literature paid little attention to classical Islam, and it had no place in the universities, or in the research and teaching carried out under their auspices. The universities of the time were not interested in modern languages like Turkish, any more than they were interested in French or German; they were not interested in the history of Turkey, any more than in the history of Germany or France. The only history worthy of the attention of academic scholars was ancient history, based on classical and scriptural sources, and it was to this aspect of Islam that, in due course, scholars in the European universities began to devote their attention.

The first chair of Arabic in France was established by King Francis I at the Collège de France in 1529; the first chairs of Arabic in England at Cambridge and Oxford in 1633 and 1636. Others appeared at about the same time in the German states and, notably, at the University of Leiden in Holland, which from the seventeenth century onward became a major center of Arabic and Islamic studies. Those engaged in these and similar studies came to be known as Orientalists, a term coined on the analogy of the Hellenists and Latinists whose intellectual discipline and rigorous philological method they adapted to the study, and later to the edition, translation, and annotation, of Oriental texts. These texts were principally in Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic, and the third led naturally and inevitably to the study of scriptural and then classical Islamic history—that is, the life of the Prophet and the history of the medieval caliphate.

Like the Jewish scholars who helped the first Christian Hebraists, so also Arab Christian scholars from the Middle East contributed significantly to the early development of Arabic scholarship in Europe. These early modern scholars performed a task of the greatest importance in discovering, editing, analyzing, and interpreting the original sources for early Islamic history. In doing so they laid the foundations of virtually all modern scholarship in this field, in the Arab lands as well as in the West. At first they published most of their work in Latin, still at that time the common language of European scholarship. But soon, especially but not exclusively in Protestant countries, they began to use their own languages. By the nineteenth, still more the twentieth century, the serious student of classical Islamic history required a wide range of linguistic equipment, giving him access not only to the indispensable original sources, but also to scholarly monographs in all the major and several of the minor languages of Europe.

Arabic and Islamic studies presented—to some degree still present—special difficulties, as compared with Latin and Greek, or even with medieval European studies. The quantity of surviving texts was enormous, but in the early days of Orientalism they were almost all still in manuscript, scattered through countless libraries, many of them difficult or impossible of access. Very few were printed, and the small production of published texts was for long due largely to the efforts of Western scholars. Printed editions of classical texts did not appear in Middle Eastern countries until the mid-nineteenth century; critical editions not until the twentieth. Because of their small numbers, and the magnitude of their tasks, the Arabists of Europe fell far behind the Hellenists and Latinists.

  1. 1

    Richard Knolles, The General Historie of the Turkes…together with the Lives and Conquests of the Othoman Kings and Emperours (London: A. Islip, 1603; later reprints and continuations).

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