At the Center of a Roiling World

Michael Gervers
Mark the Evangelist; illustration from the Garima Gospels, late fifth or sixth century CE. As Peter Brown writes, the discovery of the gospels at the Ethiopian monastery of Abba Garima confirms G.W. Bowersock’s emphasis in The Crucible of Islam on the importance of the kingdom of Axum, to which early Muslims fled for protection in about 615.

To write about the Arabian background of the Prophet Muhammad, about the origin of Islam in Mecca and Medina, and about the first conquests that led to the formation of the Arab empire (roughly between 560 and 690 AD) is to attempt to describe the first moments of a supernova—the flash of a stupendous detonation that marks the death of a massive star and the release of enormous amounts of energy. G.W. Bowersock has met this challenge in a little book of explosive originality and penetrating judgment.

In his scholarly trajectory, Bowersock has often paced himself against Edward Gibbon. He has now thoroughly outpaced him. His first books, Augustus and the Greek World (1965) and Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (1969), took us into the age of the Antonines in the second century AD, with which Gibbon began his majestic account of the decline of the Roman Empire. But a vivid spirit of curiosity and a zest for truth, worthy of his mentor the British historian Ronald Syme, have driven him ever further forward in time and ever further east. He has now reached the Arabia of the Prophet Muhammad and the first tentative generations of Islamic rule in the Middle East.

The Crucible of Islam is the last of a trilogy. The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (2013) described the sixth-century confrontation between the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia and the Jewish kings of Himyar for control of southern Arabia. Empires in Collision in Late Antiquity (2012) conjured up the epoch-making struggle of the Persian and Eastern Roman empires for the control of the Middle East at the beginning of the seventh century, and the repercussions of this clash of giants on the Arabian peninsula where the Prophet Muhammad had already begun to preach.1 With The Crucible of Islam we reach the very center of this roiling world. We look into the depths of the crucible itself, to seize, in a true historical perspective, the “molten ingredients” that came to form Islam.

Bowersock urges us to take his title, The Crucible of Islam, seriously: “The formation of the vessel that Muhammad bequeathed to the world under the name of Islam took place in a crucible.” It is to the walls of this crucible and to the ingredients that were fed into it—to the environment of the Prophet and to the materials from which he created his message—that he directs our attention.

Bowersock evokes a series of landscapes: first, sixth-century Arabia, crisscrossed…

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