Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Muslim Roots

I mentioned a while back that I was curious about the roots of Islam and in particular, how the new learning, ahem, nuances the old.  Brad warned me that the topic would drive me crazy but he needn't have worried: in my case, ADD trumps OCD , and my mind will wander away long before any serious damage has done.   Still, I did stick around long enough to finish the Tom Holland book on the subject and to follow up on some attendant threads.  I'll say more about Holland in a moment but first some context.

Try this: it seems to me that there are two different rhetorical strategies by which one might undertake to exhume the history of a religion.  You can go big picture and try to show how the received version just isn't plausible in terms of what we know about the surrounding historical context.  For example, if you are exploring Judaism you might point out that it is unlikely Solomon married 700 daughters of kings because there probably weren't that many kings in the catchment area.   Similarly if you are considering Christianity, you will likely try to situate it in the tectonic shift of cultures that generated so much religious activity around the time of the birth of the Roman Empire.  This approach is beguiling and can be productive: it  makes for good copy.  But pretty soon it falls victim to the curse of cross-examination: just who did what when and how do the pieces fit together?

Or you can approach the task in micro, trying to dope out the meaning and context of individual relics or shards of vocabulary. Heaven knows we have whole heaps of Judaic and Christian rubble. With both Christianity (Greek, but also Hebrew and Latin)  and Judaism (Hebrew, but also Greek and a bit of Latin) we have reams of linguistic analysis.  This approach of promise of being more challenging and more persuasive but it also may leave you sleeping in the doorway with a brown paper bag.

The inquirer after Islam faces a similar range of choices, in a context even more stark.  We have the "received account" of a religion that appears more or less ex nihilo--from God's mouth to Muhammad's ear, as it were, with essentially nothing by way of preparation or intermediation.  

For a secularist inquirer, such a stance is inherently implausible.  We live in a mind-set where nothing comes out of nothing, and the suggestion that it does an amounts to an invitation to find out why it does not.

I think this framework might help the reader to understand what it is that Holland is up to in his book, and why he seems to take so long in getting to the point.    The remarkable fact that the "Islamic" part of the book comes only in the last couple of chapters. Prior to that, he is romping all over the Mediterranean  and Middle , tracking "original" Romans, Byzantines, Sassanids and heaven knows else in the centuries that precede the rise of Islam.  The point, although Holland doesn't make it s explicit as he might, is that this is the cultural apparatus into which the Muslims obtrude.  On the hypothesis that they must have got their material from somewhere, this is what they got and this is where they got it.

 Put the point another way: there was  a lot of contact in the centuries preceding Muhammad between the Arabs and their neighbors, the desert and the sown.  The Arabs had countless occasions to stand by as astonished observers, or to join as participants in the affairs of the sown. For their part the sown didn't take the Arabs particularly seriously as full human; still, they did recognize their desert neighbors as the baddest dudes in the neighborhood, to be deployed in conflict as appropriate, to be treated with caution.

Holland's telling of this story is somewhat uneven.  He seems most at home with the Rome/Byzantine parts of his story, less so with the Sassanids.  He is most convincing when he is sketching the outlines of the bloody and interminable religious wars. But even here, there is an odd sort of diffidence about him, together with some plain bloviating.  I  can't quite tell why this might be true.  My guess is that he doesn't feel sufficiently at home with the Sassanid parts of the story.

Or perhaps, here and in the later (Islamic) parts of the book, he is simply cagy, wanting to tell his tale, but aware of the fact that this  is a field where a scholar of even modest secularist sympathies may find himself pitched out of a window.   Understandable perhaps, but perhaps also more cautious than is entirely necessary. For the fact is that there is a large and apparently growing body of secularist scholarship that treats Islam the way one might treat Christianity or Judaism.  Holland cites some of work in his bibliography, though his coverage seems a bit patchy.  Perhaps he should have taken more heart.  There was a time, and not too long ago, when students of Christianity and Judaism horrified themselves by the seemingly necessary implications of their inquiries.  These days, that kind of study is mainstream.  Sooner or later there will come a time when we can study Islam with the same mix of curiosity and detachment.    As a way station on the road to that eventuality, good popularizations are one thing we very much need.


Anonymous said...

"We have the "received account" of a religion that appears more or less ex nihilo--from God's mouth to Muhammad's ear, as it were, with essentially nothing by way of preparation or intermediation. "

This is incorrect---past historians have said that Islam developed in "the full light of history" and this is a more accurate picture---true the "full light" at that time were oral records which were only later written down---but they WERE written down and are still available for scrutiny and criticism. In fact these written records are already well researched and sorted out according to reliability/authenticity. Holland simply chooses not to look at this evidence---probably because he is not a scholar of Islamic history....so this subject is not his strong point. In fact---simply because Christianity evolved through a particular historical trajectory does not mean that Islam should also do so---It would be a good idea for Western scholars to dispose of "Western/Christian-centric biases and approach Islam in a neutral manner and let the evidence and data prove the facts....

marcel said...

Why the "sown"? Agriculture?

Buce said...

It's the name of a remarkable book by a remarkable lady--Gertrude Bell, inter alia the architect of modern Iraq. Modern translations of Jeremiah 2:2 also use the comparison, although the KJV uses "wilderness" in lieu of "desert."