The Rise of Islam (2)

24 November 2010


As I already indicated, I was under the impression that the quest for the historical Muhammad was a cul-de-sac. On the one hand, much criticism of the rationalized legend was fair: the lateness of the sources is indeed a problem and the presence of Christian soldiers in Islamic armies demands an explanation. However, it was obvious, at least to me, that the alternatives were worse, and I did not believe that we would ever come closer to what really happened in Mecca and Medina at the beginning of the seventh century.

But I was too pessimistic. I just read Fred Donner’s recent book Muhammad and the Believers, which may be the equivalent of E.P. Sanders’ book on the historical Jesus, The Historical Figure of Jesus: a common-sense book on a religious innovator that, although not every scholar will agree with every aspect, will be well-respected and will dominate the field for quite some time. I am very impressed. This may be the new synthesis.

According to Donner, Muhammad did not set out to create a new religion. He was a radical monotheist, who accepted in his band of followers all Jews, Christians, and Arabs who believed in one God. To these ecumenical ideas, the Believers added some doctrines of their own, but the main point was that at the end of times, which they believed to be near, only monotheists would be saved. They wanted to prepare the world for this Judgment, cooperating closely with other righteous monotheists.

It was much later, in the early eighth century, that the Muslims became a new, self-consciously different monotheistic religion. Among the factors that contributed to this development was the fact that the Believers and other monotheists recognized that the ideas about God’s uniqueness and oneness, as maintained by the Jews and Muslims, could never be reconciled with the Trinitarian theologies of the Christian churches. Another factor, equally important, was a growing awareness that not all people would accept the Quran as the most important revelation or Muhammad as the seal of the prophets. The end of Islamic expansion may have contributed to this awareness: the conquest of Uzbekistan was extremely difficult and a crisis in Andalusia made it impossible to subject the Frankish kingdom – but this is a point that Donner does not digress upon.

He tells his story well. I really liked his book, not only because of the general thesis, but also because along the road, Donner makes a lot of extremely illuminating remarks. When we discuss the great conquests, he says, we must assume that diplomacy was more important than we can deduce from our sources. He may be right: perhaps, the battles were just violent interruptions of a mostly peaceful process of conversion to ecumenism. The main destructions, at least, seem to belong to the terrible Byzantine-Sassanian War (602-628), and appear to be unrelated to the wars of the Righteous Caliphs.

Donner does not stress it, but people may indeed have become Believers because they were sick of Byzantine and Sassanian violence. They may have regarded the conflict as one of the tribulations of the end time. Apocalyptic ideas, Donner correctly observes, were still very much alive at the end of the seventh century, and he is probably right when he proposes that the Dome of the Rock was meant to be “the locale in which [Caliph] ‘Abd al-Malik (or one of his successors), as leaders of the righteous and God-fearing empire of the Believers, would hand over to God the symbols of sovereignty at the moment the Judgment was to begin”.

The idea that the Believers were originally ecumenical monotheists is simple. Reading the book, I found myself wondering why nobody thought of this before. But now that Muhammad and the Believers has been written, it is hard to think differently. It explains why Christian soldiers joined Arab armies and why, as late as 800, a Zoroastrian could be tax collector in northern Mesopotamia. We need new questions to proceed beyond Donner’s fine book.

Fred M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam (2010)

The Rise of Islam (1)

24 November 2010

The Byzantine-Sassanian War: Heraclius defeating Khusrau II (Louvre)

What happened when Antiquity came to an end? What marks the beginning of the Middle Ages? It will be hard to enumerate all aspects, but at least it’s certain that the imperial institutions disappeared from western Europe: no Roman state, no Roman taxes, no Roman armies. In the East, the transition was less abrupt. The Byzantine Empire continued to demand taxes, continued to build armies, continued to exist. Yet, it had to give up territories: the Arabs conquered Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. There was also a mental change: for the ancients, ‘us’ and ‘them’ had been identical to ‘Graeco-Roman civilization’ and ‘barbarians’, but after the transition, the basic opposition was ‘Christianity’ versus ‘Islam’.

This makes Muhammad one of the most influential people of Late Antiquity, or the Early Middle Ages. Without him, no Islam and no loss of eastern provinces for the Byzantine Empire. The prophet, his message, and his followers are extremely important subjects to any student of Antiquity, but they are very hard to understand. Our main sources are the Quran, which is not a work of historiography, and the traditions (hadith), which were written down many years after Islam had come into being. Even worse, many traditions have been regarded with suspicion from the outset. Using what he believed to be reliable traditions, Ibn Ishaq wrote the extremely influential Life of the Prophet in the 750s, more than a century after the death of Muhammad.

Until quite recently, modern western scholars have accepted the events mentioned by Ibn Ishaq as essentially historical. Although the miracle stories were ignored, the other anecdotes were considered to be reliable. The result was a more or less rationalized legend; an example is the book by Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad (1960). This approach was not unlike the way Thomas Jefferson dealt with the gospels. Rodinson’s view has become more or less canonical – Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad. A Prophet for Our Time is an example – but we might have expected something more critical than “believing everything in the sources except that which presupposes a suspension of the laws of nature”. Accepting sources in this way, without asking why they were written down in the first place, is called “naïve positivism”.

Because rationalized legends became untenable, there have been new quests for the “historical Muhammad”. There is, for example, the Luxenberg thesis, which implies that the Quran is not written in Arabic, but in a mix of Syriac and Arabic. This is not as far-fetched as it seems, because Syria was certainly important in early Islam and the Quran is written in a “defective script” without vowels and with possible confusion of several consonants (e.g. bt, and th). The Luxenberg thesis indeed helps to expel some minor problems, but also creates one big problem: we have to assume that the Quran was not recited for a sufficiently long time to forget its original language. This seems extremely implausible (more…).

Yet, the Luxenberg thesis is not the worst new idea. There are also a couple of nonsensical theories. Although it is certain that Nestorian and Monophysite Christians left the Byzantine Empire and settled in the Syrian and Arabian Deserts, and although it is certain that many warriors in the early Islamic armies were Christians, it is ridiculous to assume that Islam was created when people no longer understood the Monophysite hymns and prayers. Granted, the name “Muhammad” means “the blessed one”, but it is unlikely that people, after singing a Syriac or Arabic version of “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” asked “who is that Mr Blessed?” and started to invent both the anecdotes about and the person of the Prophet.

I was under the impression that the quest for the historical Muhammad was a cul-de-sac. But I was wrong, as I will show in my next posting.

The End of Antiquity and the Origins of Europe

19 January 2009

It is something of a truism that Europe has its origins in the great migrations and the fall of Rome. Before these events, about a third of mankind identified themselves with the Mediterranean civilization and called themselves Romans. They distinguished themselves from the aggressive Sasanian Persians in the east and the barbarous Germanic tribesmen from the north. However, in the fifth century, these tribal warriors settled within the former Empire, while the Sasanian Empire ceased to exist in the early seventh century. The old Mediterranean Empire desintegrated, and the new superpowers were Byzantium and the Caliphate of Damascus. It is commonly taken for granted that ‘Europe’ originated in this messy period.

In his book God’s Crucible. Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (2008, Norton New York) Pulitzer Prize winner David Levering Lewis tries to trace the origins of European civilization more precisely, but he has to do a lot of groundwork first. In the first chapters, he describes the long struggle between the Byzantine emperor Heraclius and the Sasanian shah Khusrau II. Christian orthodoxy and Zoroastrian beliefs played a role in this conflict, and religious purity was something that both the emperor and the shah were interested in. Lewis points out how the two empires were exhausted after this war, and that it was relatively easy for the first Muslims to conquer Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. I found these chapters more accessible than Hugh Kennedy’s detailed Great Arab Conquests (2008), which is also a very good book.

Lewis devotes several chapters to the Arab conquest of Andalusia, the attacks on the Frankish kingdom north of the Pyrenees, and the story of ‘Abd al-Rahman I, the adventurer who created the Emirate of Cordoba as an independent Islamic state. In between, Lewis deals with “the myth of Poitiers”: the idea that the battle of Tours (or Poitiers) in 732 in some sense stopped the Islamic expansion north of the Pyrenees. He convincingly shows that the Muslim armies continued to invade Aquitaine and the Provence, and that the real reason why the Arab conquests came to a standstill was a Berber insurrection followed by a civil war in the Caliphate. (Kennedy offers the same analysis.)

Nevertheless, the battle of Tours is crucial to Lewis’ account, because the victor, general Charles the Hammer, now had an excellent reputation for efficient leadership, which he used to increase his power. The official Frankish kings became increasingly irrelevant, until Charles’ son Pippin proclaimed himself king and was anointed by the pope. As a quid pro quo, the Christian leader demanded that Pippin defend Rome against the Langobards. The architect of this bargain may have been the capable archbishop of Mainz, Boniface.

Lewis also deals with the reign of Pippin’s son and successor Charlemagne, who inherited the deal with the papacy and decisively beat the Langobards. He also subdued the Saxons, who were mercilessly forced to become subjects of both the Frankish ruler and the pope – a sad story to read. Charlemagne’s policy was the exact opposite of the one pursued in the Emirate of Cordoba, which never forced its subjects to become Muslims.

Charlemagne’s harsh religious policy is important for Lewis’ book. In 778, the Frankish king invaded Catalonia, but the war was not the success he had been hoping for; worse, the commander of the rear guard, count Roland, was defeated by Basque warriors at Roncevalles. In the Chanson de Roland, written by an author who presented Charlemagne more as leader of Christianity than as a Frankish king, this rearguard action was converted into an epic struggle between Christianity and Islam.

By now, a new cultural identity had been created. People could call themselves ‘Europenses’, and it was obvious to anyone that this meant that they belonged to Latin Christianity, had to be distinguished from the Byzantines, and were opposed to Islam. The Reconquista put the ideas of the Chanson de Roland into practice, and provoked an intervention from the Moroccan Almoravids and Almohads, who were just as intolerant as their Christian enemies. The opposition between Europe and Islam had been created; and we are only too familiar with the consequences.

At least, this is what Lewis writes. I think he is right. After all, his ideas are not very new. His account of Visigothic Spain and the Emirate of Cordoba does not offer much that can not be found as well in the books by Roger Collins (e.g., The Arab Conquest of Spain, 710-797 (1989). Still, this is a good book and a useful counterpoison against those theories that place the origins of Europe in the Greek wars against Persia. This idea was already refuted more than a century ago by Max Weber in his well-known ‘Kritische Studien auf dem Gebiet der kulturwissenschaftlichen Logik’, and it is shocking to see that it is still repeated today.

Lewis’ book is not perfect, though. His account of early Islam is strangely conservative, essentially a rational retelling of the Islamic sources. You don’t have to believe the Luxenberg Thesis or the (in my view unconvincing) reinterpretation of the rise of Islam proposed in Ohlig and Puin’s Die dunklen Anfänge; but ignoring them altogether is a bit cheap. But this is the only major objection I have.

Still, there are too many minor errors. The Germanic tribes did not invade the Roman Empire after the sack of Rome in 410, but four years before that event (page 109); there were no rabbits north of the Pyrenees, although the Frankish noblemen may have appreciated hares (p.296); the Sharia in Spain was – as far as I know – Zahiri, not Malikite (passim); Otto I was not a member of the Hohenstaufen family and ‘Abd al-Rahman does not mean ‘Champion of the Religion of God’ (both on p.321). There are several printing errors (caesares becomes cesari on p.8 and on p.242, we find ‘Franksih’ noblemen). On one point, Lewis appears to have believed modern-day propaganda by Iranian royalists and I would not be surprised if some of the information on p.6 was taken from the Wikipedia. The old canard that the Romans tried to reach the Elbe in Germany is mentioned on p.233 (no military bases have been identified east of the Weser). The observations on the sexual lives of Muhammad and Charlemagne are irrelevant to the main thesis. Et cetera, et cetera.

Lewis acknowledges the help of three research assistants and seven people “who read evolving versions of this book”. They have obviously been sleeping and, worse, are employed by well-known universities. Is it really possible that none of them has spotted that France is not east of the Pyrenees, that Ctesiphon is not north of Baghdad, and that Bari is not south of Rome – somewhere in the Tyrrhenian Sea? For a moment, I was wondering what I could possibly learn from an author who makes mistakes like these. But that would be unkind. Although it contains too many minor errors to be a real page turner, God’s Crucible offers a convincing interpretation of the origins of Europe. I sincerely recommend it.