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,…

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