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A while back I purchased In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire on Tom Holland’s recommendation, as this work purports to be based on a spare, but historically contemporaneous, set of sources rooted in the non-Muslim societies which Islam ultimately superseded across the Middle East. The book was a quick read, I finished it on a cross-country plane ride. But for me it did not deliver on the original promise, as I had pretty much assumed or understood many of the novel insights that it outlines. And, I have to say that the narrative is not that different from what could be gleaned from Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, which covers roughly the same era, the 6th and 7th centuries. Unlike Robert Hoyland, the author of In God’s Path, Kennedy explicitly notes in the beginning of The Great Arab Conquests that he leans predominantly on the orthodox and Islamic sources in constructing his story (though he does not dismiss the revisionists out of hand, and seems to reject the traditional accounts of Muawiyah to the point of rehabilitating him).
What seems to have occurred here is that I’m not a typical reader, and so probably not the perfect target for the narrative. Obviously I’m not a scholar in this area, for whom this sort of work would be superfluous, as they’d be familiar with debates roiling around the set of topics and inferences presented. But, neither am I just a well educated lay person who has a passing interest in historical questions. I am very familiar with scholars such as Patricia Crone, to the point where I find her work outside of the origins of Islam actually more interesting (obviously there are more sources here and less speculation). With all that In God’s Path is a fast and densely informative jaunt through a field of scholarship whose broad outlines I’d already been well aware of. It’s worthwhile as a complement to the contributions of mainstream scholars such as Kennedy, who are more respectful and frankly less critical of Islamic historiography, and yet point in the same general big-picture direction.
There are two levels of assessment here that need to occur. On the one level, scholars like Hoyland, Holland, and earlier Patricia Crone, are attempting to apply to Islam the premises which can be found in the historical criticism movement of the Bible in the 19th century. This, along with assorted other events and tendencies, led to the counter-reaction of Protestant fundamentalism. The problem is that Islamic civilization broadly construed has not arrived at the point where this is understood to be socially acceptable, though there were and are isolated Muslim scholars who have long engaged in the same sort of critical-rationalist scholarship. In addition to traditionalist anger at the criticism of the foundations of their religion, many Muslim intellectuals now bring the armamentarium of post-colonial theory to bear on attempts to evaluate Islam in a positivist frame.
In contrast, if you approach the history of the rise and crystallization of Islamic civilization as you approach the rise and crystallization of any civilization, then the conclusions of In God’s Path, and even more conventional works such as Hugh Kennedy’s duology, The Great Arab Conquests and When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, in the generality are far less shocking. In short, Islam did not emerge fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, with Muhammad delivering the essence of the faith in toto in the early 7th century to desert Bedouins, who used it as a precise blueprint. Rather, Islam evolved organically from its historical and geographic matrix, and coalesced into the broad outlines that we perceive it today in the two centuries between 600 and 800 A.D. This is not a revolutionary idea, insofar as that seems how all religions emerge. There are differences in specific parameters, such as the interval across which a religion accrues its primary features organically. If one was to take the lowest values I think one could assert that Judaism and Hinduism both were defined by at least 1,000 year trajectories of development, between the seeds of religious identity, and the crystallization of a set of views and practices we’d recognize as Hindu or Jewish. Christianity’s development is clearer due to various church councils, with most of the core belief established between the 3rd and 6th centuries. But even practices as normative as clerical celibacy in the Western Christian Church took 1,000 years to establish as a universal custom.
None of these assertions present a problem if you don’t believe that religion is revealed from on high, and so has some imprimatur of metaphysical or ontological truth at the deepest level. The pro-imperial and Roman-centric views of some Christians in the 4th to 6th centuries makes eminent sense if you believe that the religion is true, and was destined to be universal, and therefore a universal empire would be the perfect vehicle for its spread. Similarly, for Muslims who believe that Muhammad’s revelation was divine, the explosive rise of the Arab empires of the first century of the religion’s history is an inevitable consequence of its fundamental rightness. But to understand history I generally don’t put too much stock in the hand of God. I knew that Rodney Stark was transitioning to apologetics when reading One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism, where he contends that one shouldn’t dismiss out of hand speculations from evangelical Christians who take divine revelation and purpose seriously as empirical matters which shape history (Stark completes the transformation in his book Discovering God). These sorts of interpretative frameworks are not illegitimate in my view, but, they will always have a relatively narrow audience of those who are already believers in the particular specific revelation. Similarly, the reaction of many Muslims to revisionists who challenge the orthodox Islamic historiography should be met with dismissal, not considerate respect. In the domain of general scholarship, as opposed to sectarian interpretation, blasphemy is not just permissible, it is meritorious.*
What all the works I cite above and reference seem to point to is the fact that the development of Islam as we recognize it today was a two step process. The first step was the explosion of a group of Arab monotheists in the early 7th century, and the subsequent fall of Persia, and cannibalization of much of the Byzantine domain. This should not be inexplicable. Around 500 A.D. the Western Roman Empire was divided between various German tribes, the majority of whom were Arian Christian sectarians. The Goths and many of their German confederates received Christianity from the Roman Empire during a period when Arian theology was ascendant. By the second half of the 4th century this viewpoint rapidly disappeared from the Christian landscape of the Roman lands. But beyond the empire the reach of orthodox Nicene Christianity was weaker, and the Arian sect was incubated among the barbarians, and by the 5th century had become a de facto folk religion among many German groups who blasted past the frontiers and set themselves up within the empire. The consequence of this was that these were societies where a military German elite were set apart from the Roman masses by their ethnicity and religion. In the 6th century most of the Arian German kingdoms fell, or, the elites were converted to Nicene Christianity (the Lombards, who were latecomers, were the last to convert in the 7th century, though there were religious peculiarities with this group down to the period when the Franks finally conquered them).
There is a clear analogy between Arab monotheism in the 7th century and German Arianism in the 5th. Traditionalists and revisionists both emphasize the importance of ethnicity, as opposed to religion, in the early decades of the Islamic imperium. Some of the former have referred to the Umayyad dynasty as the “Arab Kingdom,” with the important aspect here that the connotation of the term king in Islam is as negative as it was for the Romans. During the early phases of the conquest Arabs who were not Muslim (usually Christian) could often avail themselves of more rights than those who were non-Arab, but converted to the sect of the conquerors (these non-Arabs were often Persians). Both Kennedy and Hoyland assert that Arab tribes which were non-Muslim participated in the “Islamic” conquests of the first few decades. I am not particularly invested in the thesis of the revisionists that the Muslim armies drew in large part on north Arabian tribes, in contrast to the traditionalist narrative which privileges Mecca and Medina, far to the south. It seems plausible, but to me it is of academic interest. Rather, the key is that the Muslim armies were a mix of various groups, adherents of a new religious dispensation, somewhat inchoate at the time, as well as Arabs who had converted earlier to the mainstream traditions of Judaism and Christianity. A major factor though may have been the presence of pastoralists as a backbone of these mobile forces, as the cross-cultural evidence is rather robust that these groups are incredibly effective at overturning the the social and political orders of civilized states, assuming that conditions are right. Often these expansions take on a life of their own, as the original core element accrues confederates and allies of very diverse natures which join to gain the spoils of victory. The Hun confederacy, the dual Vandal and Alan monarchy, or the nature of the Mongol armies after the death of Genghis Khan, all illustrate this.
But the Arab kingdom became something very different from the Pax Mongolica or the Arian German commonwealth which flourished during the reign of Theodoric. Assuming that the Arab Muslims were monotheist sectarians, why did they not go the way of the various heterodox Christian groups which eventually became associated with particular ethnic elements in the Near East? This is where Hoyland’s book actually made something crystal clear for me: the near total conquest of Persia, and the rapid co-option of that civilization into the Arab domains presented particular challenges distinct from those of Byzantium or Persia. Islam may have developed its divergent identity by necessity to establish a relatively neutral and acceptable ideology for the sub-elites across the empire, which spanned Roman and Persian spheres of influence. Hugh Kennedy’s history of the Abbasids who succeeded the Umayyads, When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, and S. Frederick Star’s Lost Enlightenment, both emphasize the incredible impact the conquest of Persia and Central Asia had on the development of Muslim civilization. While what became Byzantium remained a Christian bulwark to the west, the pluralistic Persianate world was swallowed whole by the Arab armies, and became the motors for the Abbasid revolution against the Umayyads. In the vein of “you are what you eat,” the western focus of the Umayyads of Damascus, and perhaps the influence of Arab Christians in the 7th century, likely gave way to an identity more distinct from a religion which was identified now with the state that was the successor of late antique Rome. Some of this obviously predates the Abbasids, as aspects of Islamic orthodoxy (e.g., Umayyad patronage of Hellenistic styles of depiction of human and animal form give way to iconoclasm) begin to show up in the archaeological record in the late 7th century under the Umayyads. But the transformation of the proto-Islamic sectarianism of the 7th century Arabs into a cosmopolitan universal religion in the second half the 8th century almost certainly has to do with the eastern influence on the Abbasids and the central role that Khorsan and Turan had in that state and society.
In some ways this is just recapitulating history. As most people know the transformation of Hebrews into Jews occurred during a period when the demographic center of world Jewry was in Mesopotamia, under the aegis of the rulers of Persia. It was during this exile that many ideas which became central to Jewish and Christian conceptions of their religion percolated in from the Zoroastrian milieu. One thousand years later the Babylonian Talmud were compiled again under Zoroastrian monarchs and a Persian polity. And yet the self-conception of many Jews is that their religion developed in situ in Palestine (I grant here that most educated and modernist Jews would freely admit the influence of Persian ideas on their religion). Similarly, Christianity perceives itself as the heir of ancient Judaism, and does not highlight its heritage from Persia through that source (again, this does not apply to many modernists). And so it is with Islam. Muslims perceive themselves to be heirs of Abraham, with Muhammad’s revelation simply reinvigorating the primal religious tradition of the human race. More proximately Islam is clearly a religion which believers see as having emerged in the deserts of Arabia, in a Christian, Jewish, and pagan, milieu. But the evidence tells a more complex story. In particular, many aspects of the religion which we perceive as fundamentally Islamic post-date the genesis of the sectarian movement among the Arabs by a century or more (e.g., Starr and Hoyland both clearly argue that science of hadith can not be understood without reference to the traditions of Central Asia on the eve of the Umayyad conquest of the early 8th century).
Why does this matter? Well, to those of us who are interested in history it’s fascinating to see the recurrence of particular dynamics over and over in history. Obviously there are those who have sectarian axes to grind. From evangelical Christians to Muslim modernists. I’m not particularly interested in those issues personally, though obviously they’re important pieces of the puzzle. Islam in the youngest of the world religions which transcends ethnicity and has demographic heft. Arguably, it is the youngest civilization on this planet. Therefore its dynamics are particularly clear to us. Unlike the fog that pervades the slow congealing together of Indian society and Hindu thought, or the antique and distant character of Chinese genesis during the later Zhou period 2,500 years ago, Muslims emerge during a period relatively recent in history. Islam did not arise in situ in a jahiliyyah. Rather, it erupted into a world thick with proto-civilizational identities, what Peter Turchin would term “meta-ethnic” identities. By cannibalizing the Roman Christian East, and swallowing in totality the nascent meta-ethnic polities of Persian Christianity and Zoroastrianism, as well as Central Asian Buddhism, in a few centuries Islamic civilization emerged as a relatively fully-fleshed system of thought and way of life, by synthesizing elements which had already been in place previously. Rather than a sui generis revelation given to an illiterate Arab, the origins of Islam stretch out over centuries, and around the interstices of civilizations which had existed for a millennia.
* Note here that the sort of skepticism which many fundamentalist Christians flinch from in relation to their own religion, they apply to that of others, in particular Islam, which they perceive, rightly, to be a set of institutions and beliefs which emerge not through divine providence, but human intuition and rationality.
Addendum: One of the major historical myths that persist is that Christian groups that dissented from what was being promoted as orthodoxy in Constantinople in the early 7th century welcomed the liberation of Muslims because of religious and national divides. In God’s Path reiterates through the sources that actually the attitude was one of resignation and ambivalence, at best, with the germ of the idea of welcome and liberation arising later on in a period of Islamic-Byzantine hostilities when the Christian majorities of the old Byzantine provinces would want to distinguish themselves from the enemy of their rulers. The context of the period is that these populations had already suffered through a Persian occupation, which had come and gone, so no doubt saw the arrival of Arab rulers as another of God’s various tests. The idea that rather these Arabs would spearhead a revolution in identity across the Near East would probably have struck the first generations of Christians, who continued to run their societies and polities as much as they had earlier due to the light hand of the Arab Muslims, would probably have struck them as preposterous. And though religion and ethnic identity have a long association in this region today, to some extent this is an artifact of the past 1,500 years. Many of the theologians who inveighed against orthodoxy imposed from the Greek-speaking center upon non-Greek majority provinces were themselves Greeks by language and culture.