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Revisionist account of early Islamic history and culture

29th Sep 2017

In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire. By Robert G Hoyland. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp303. PB. 2017. £12.99

The author of this book is currently a Professor of Late Antique and Early Islamic Middle Eastern History at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. He is author/editor of several books on aspects of early Islamic history and culture including Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam (1998), Arabia and the Arabs (2001), Medieval Islamic Swords and Swordmaking (2006) and Jerusalem, Part Two: 705-1120 (2012)

The book under review is one of his latest contributions and certainly his most interesting and controversial works. As a former student of Patricia Crone (1945-2015), he specialised in Middle Eastern history at Oxford University focusing on early Muslim history and was profoundly influenced by his tutor and guide. In his own words, Crone ‘introduced me to Islamic history and encouraged me to think critically about its origins and formation.’ (p ix)

Patricia Crone was a prominent member of the ‘Revisionist School’ that emerged in the West during the 1970s and they questioned the historicity of Islam and its beginnings, to the extent that some ‘revisionists’ even doubted whether the Prophet of Islam (peace be on him) or Makkah as a historical citadel ever existed. Crone became particularly known for her two revisionist works, namely Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (co-authored with M. A. Cook, 1977) and Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987).

By relying largely on non-Muslim sources (eg, secondary Christian Byzantine or Armenian works), the revisionists endeavoured to reconstruct the early history of Islam as if it was the ‘rise’ of the tribes of sixth-century Arabia rather than as the ‘unfolding’ of Islam as a universal faith and culture, inspired of course by the Prophet and his successors, which galvanised the Arabs for the first time in their history. Dismissing early Islamic traditions and sources as unreliable and concocted, unsurprisingly the ‘revisionists’ struggled to formulate a convincing narrative for the emergence of Islam in seventh-century Arabia.

As a revisionist himself, the author of the book under review has also fallen between two stools; that is, being rather unsure whether to classify the emergence of Islam in the seventh century as ‘Islamic’ history or simply ‘Arab’ awakening. In the end, he opted for ‘Arab conquests’ (during the early period) followed by the formation of an ‘Islamic Empire’ (during the Umayyad era) as indicated by the subtitle of his book.

Even so, unlike the early ‘revisionists’, the author is forced to utilise a selection of early Muslim sources (eg, al-Baladhuri, Ibn Abd al-Hakam, al-Tabari and Ya’qubi) in his efforts to reconstruct the history of the Umayyad (661-750) dynasty, although he makes no serious attempts to explore the subsequent development of the Muslim world under the Abbasids (750-1258).

It is understandable why the author was forced to use a selection of Muslim sources: how can a historian make sense of a global faith and culture without resorting to its own primary, first-hand sources? Can we explain the origins of the English people without utilising early English sources, literary and oral? Unsurprisingly, the ‘revisionists’ efforts to explain the origin and development of Islam in seventh-century Arabia purely on the basis of contemporaneous non-Muslim sources was bound to fail and the partiality of the book under review is a testament to this fact.

Indeed, the author more often than not prefers non-Muslim sources over Muslim account of the origins of early Islam. For example, relying on anecdotal non-Muslim contemporary sources, he argues that the early ‘Arab conquests were not initiated by Muhammad alone, but had begun before him and were being conducted by other leaders in other locations; yet we cannot easily recover their aims and identities.’ (p57) The author does not explain who those ‘leaders’ were and where actually they were operating – I wonder why? The answer is: because they did not exist in the first place!

Consisting of seven short chapters and an equally brief introduction but a useful appendix, this book provides a highly slanted overview of early Islamic history based largely on non-Muslim sources whilst only paying lip service to early Muslim source materials. Scholars and historians of Islam may find this book interesting and useful but students of early Muslim history may find M A Shaban’s Islamic History: A New Interpretation (2 vols, 1976) more authentic, balanced and representative.

Muhammad Khan. M Khan is author of Great Muslims of the West: Makers of Western Islam (Kube Publishing, October 2017).

 

 

 

 

 

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