Monday, February 04, 2008

Things You Should Know about Islam: Number One

I continually intend to post notes on what I am reading, but almost always ruminate too long until I have moved onto a new topic. That isn't working. There is an anarchy to the thought process in blogging ... say what's tickling you enough times and eventually you figure out the joke.

So in that spirit ...

My reading patterns have a distinct tendency to circle back, and the point of no return often ends up being the early years of Islam and the Arab Empire. So, in December I read a new book, The Heirs of Muhammad: Islam's First Century and the Origins of the Sunni-Shia Split by Barnaby Rogerson as preparation for re-reading the 1970s classics that redefined the study of early Islam.

So, first things first, Rogerson doesn't live up to his title. He is not a scholar, doesn't speak Arabic, and has no particular background in the subject. In his introduction he notes the eye-rolling skepticism he inspired in any number of Muslims he consulted on the project. Naturally, a man writing a popular reduction of the epochal issues that only just began to develop during the early caliphate (conventionally, 632-661 C.E., but there are deep problems with those dates) has to watch his step for there is all manner of incipient rage and riots waiting to greet the unwary. For some reason, scholars have tended to avoid being the subjects of riots, but the writers of for-profit writings have not been so lucky.

Well, by Rogerson, all the early folks of Islam were just peachy nice ... occasionally stern, occasionally cranky, but always genteel and devoted. Abu Bakr, the first caliph, was a kindly old man; Umar, the second, was stern; Uthman a tad muddled; and Ali just plain too bloody good for his good. This is not history, alas, and it is at bottom boring. But I ploughed through if only because I thought it probably presented the most conventional, in modern popular Islamic terms,Western-oriented presentation of the first four caliphs that I had ever read. Because ... I cannot avoid it ... I just prefer the intricate fulminations of professional scholars.

So I moved on to a re-read of the strident and compelling two volume Islamic History: A New Interpretation by M.A. Shaban, published in 1971 and 1976 respectively. I'll address Shaban at some point, but it is worth noting that the first of these volumes is essential reading for understanding just how it happened, in the event, that Muhammad ended up being one of the half dozen or so prophets who founded a religion that stuck.

Shaban's decidedly economic/tribal/military approach demands a return to the font ... Marshal G.S. Hodgson's magisterial three-volume The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Hodgson is concerned about world history, about great movements, and about the refraction of history through the the life of the mind, and the refraction of religion through history.

Hodgson's work played a big role in my graduate career and I have never left him behind. (He tragically died at 46 in 1968, a great scholarly life cut untimely short.) His first volume concerns the High Caliphal period of Islam (let's call it 632-945 C.E.), which came to a close, with a whimper and not a bang somewhere between 837 and 945 ... you pick which band of Turks sufficiently reduced the Abbasid caliphs to impotence that they could no longer be considered as actual rulers. So that will suffice as the first thing everyone should know about Islam ...first only in the sense that it is the first thing that I am writing about ... that the caliphate was captured and domesticated by the Turks about 200 years after the prophet died.

This fact is actually more significant for Arab history than Islamic history ... and that points to a deep misconception about the history of Islam. It started, certainly, as an Arab religion, but after the embers of the Arab conquests had cooled down, Islam became the consummate expression of what Hodgson calls the "Irano-Semitic" religious complex. This is not a desert religion, but a religion of the urban merchant classes. More properly, it is a religion that embodies in its constitutive contradictions that enduring contradiction of life in the middle of the Eurasian continent, to whit the long struggle between the urban elites or notables against the assorted marshal forces, whether imperial or nomadic-tribal, who dominated them politically.

Hodgson calls this the "a'yan-amir" complex, where a'yan is urban notable and amir is tribal military commander.

One of the great myths that we hear repeated ad nauseam is that there is no separation of church and state in Islam, and that Christianity differs thereby in allowing such a differentiation. It is not just that this is a reduction to the point of silliness ... it is rather that at every point in religious history, the relationship with the state is what drives the dynamic. In Islam, all the struggles ultimately are about the state. The Shia/Sunni split is about the state, and the Sunni compromise that dominates the Muslim world is based precisely on the separation of church and state ... or more properly, religion and state. (There is an excellent review of precisely this issue in L. Carl Brown's Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics.)

It was in the High Caliphal period that the separation of religion and politics in the consummate religion of oneness developed its broad lines. But it was in the long middle period of fractured rule and universalized civilization that the terms which ported to modern reality developed. This is the period of Islamic history which earnest liberals like to point to as being so much more developed and cosmopolitan than the corresponding period of Catholic dominated recalcitrance in Europe. But it turns out that neither caricature is precisely true, and in reaction to this long period, one civilization ultimately developed a flexibility that came to rule the world, while the other devolved drip by drip into a period of steadily more stultifying calcification. Why?

No simple answer to that, and I think that accident and happenstance have something of a role. But there is an critical role to the patterns of rulership and its struggle with religion that came to provide fertile ground on the one hand and barren on the other. Neither party in either case liked the terms, and it took centuries to play out.

I shall return to this theme regularly, and I will always mark these posts at least under the tag "Horses and Peoples" for ease of reference.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellence article.

Like to recommend Muhammad Biography of the Prophet

Written by a former Roman Catholic nun, Karen Armstrong, this unique biography addresses the roots of prejudice against Muhammad in the West that continue to be voiced today, and examines his achievements in the context of world history. Armstrong takes the reader through the development of Muhammad from his early days as the enemy of the established rule in Mecca, to his becoming a prophet and spreading a new religion, through wars and political intrigue to, finally, the death of the Prophet. Throughout this historical journey, Armstrong enlightens and helps the reader sort out fact from fallacy.