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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.