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Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives
The First 1,000 Years
By Chase F. Robinson
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Chase F. Robinson
All rights reserved.
1 Muhammad, the Prophet (632)
Inspiring religious leader, paragon of piety and virtue, brilliant political strategist, doting father and grandfather, misguided megalomaniac or instrument of the devil – Muhammad was and remains many things to many people. To the historian, he is above all an enigma. We know that Muhammad founded a religio-political movement in early seventh-century Arabia, which, by the end of that century, can properly be called an Islamic empire. But saying much more than that requires facing two paradoxes.
The first concerns evidence. Pre-industrial history is filled with individuals who founded religious or political movements. It is the enduringly successful ones that especially deserve our attention, however; and since successful endurance always means creative transformation, a given movement's origins are usually obscured by a fogbank of myth and legend. We have surer evidence for Muhammad than we do for the Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus or Mani, but far less than we would like (and far less than we do for earlier figures in history, such as Augustine). It may not be going too far to say that while Islam owes its foundation to Muhammad, it owes its success to the creative transformations of his memory and legacy that were carried out by Muslims who never knew him. Since most of what we know about Muhammad comes from accounts that date from no earlier than two or three generations' remove (and many accounts come from much later), reconstructing his life requires peeling away the accreted layers of legend, myth and model. Research has shown that there is less left than was once thought – and certainly much less than any historian would like. There has recently been some progress in recovering material that is both early and reliable, but we still have too little of it to draw a portrait that is as authoritative as it is detailed.
The second paradox concerns western Arabia. It was a remarkably unpromising place to found a world religion. Lacking water and so extensive agriculture, it was very much the economic, cultural and political backwater of the seventh-century Middle East. Sparsely settled and cohering uneasily through bonds of kinship and tribalism, the Hijaz (as western Arabia is called in Arabic) consisted of small towns and oases, which were peripheral to the economic and military powerhouses that were the Byzantine and Sasanian empires, based in Asia Minor and Iran, respectively. In this most unpromising of contexts Muhammad somehow managed to assemble not merely a movement that gave social shape to his reforming vision – a community of believers – but one that would re-order what remained of the ancient world. The Arabs were barbarians in the eyes of their civilized neighbours, but unlike Germanic or Turkic tribes (for example), they conquered with an enduring religious vision.
What follows is a reasonable approximation, assembled from some settled facts and informed speculation.
Muhammad in Mecca
Tradition has it that Muhammad was born in about 570 to a middling clan of the high-prestige tribe of the Quraysh. Their prestige was connected to their control of the cultic centre of Mecca that was the Ka'ba, a cube-shaped building that housed the idols worshipped by the town's polytheists. Orphaned at a young age, Muhammad was initiated into the tribe's trading activities, travelling as far north as Syria. Legends have it that a monk (or some other holy man), having recognized 'the mark of prophecy' between Muhammad's shoulder blades, predicted that the boy would become a prophet. Rather than accepting this as genuine history, the modern reader might imagine him or herself as a member of the story's intended audience – perhaps a Christian (or Jew or even sceptical Muslim), who, upon hearing or reading this, is being asked to recognize that Muhammad belonged to a long chain of monotheist prophets sent by God. Other initiation accounts have a young Muhammad's chest opened and miraculously closed; according to one version of this story, the surgery is performed by two angels who remove two black clots of blood, then wash and re-seal the chest with 'the seal of prophethood'. Other accounts are less fantastic, if no more amenable to corroboration. We read that as a young man he married a widow named Khadija, an older woman made wealthy by trade. Khadija offered him financial security and heightened status, and she bore him several children, sometimes numbered at six; two were sons, but neither survived childhood. She is conventionally identified as the first person to acknowledge Muhammad's prophetic claims.
Such were the legends that circulated among Muslims. For their part, Christians wrote for polemical purposes of their own. An eighth- or ninth-century Latin account, for example, has it that Muhammad was 'an avaricious usurer' and 'shrewd son of darkness' who, having committed Christian sermons to memory, manipulated the 'irrational Arabs' to his violent ends.
For the purposes of historical reconstruction, it can be said that presumptive or manifest legend and polemic begins to yield to something like plausible history when Muhammad starts to make prophetic claims. For this point in Muhammad's career the historian can turn to the Qur'an, which is widely accepted to be a contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous witness to Muhammad's life and thought. The turning point thus comes when God is given to speak to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. The first words are usually thought to be these, which appear in Qur'an sura (chapter) 96, verses 1–5:
Recite in the name of your Lord who created
Created man from a blood-clot.
Recite – your Lord is the most generous
Who taught by the pen
Taught man what he did not know.
A second sura (74, verses 1–5) is also thought to mark the inauguration of Muhammad as Prophet:
O you who are wrapped in your cloak
Arise and warn!
Magnify your Lord,
Purify your clothes,
And shun pollution.
How did the Meccan establishment, especially those who had a stake in its polytheist institutions, respond? The Qur'an, which directly tackles how Muhammad was received, makes plain that many Meccans took him to be a (mere) poet, magician, soothsayer or otherwise possessed, speaking in some cases in God's voice: 'Or they [Muhammad's opponents] say, "He is a poet, for whom we await the uncertainty of fate?" Say "Wait, and I shall wait along with you"' (Q 52:30–31). Elsewhere the Qur'an expressly rejects charges that Muhammad was a sorcerer. In a polytheistic society where sorcerers, seers and other holy men wielded palpable social power, the rejection makes some sense. There were other reasons to find Muhammad unpersuasive or even objectionable. As a 'warner' in the tradition of earlier prophets, he emphasized man's accountability to God, His power, the rewards of Heaven and the punishment of Hell. He also levelled criticism against prevailing social norms, such as female infanticide, and the abuses of wealth.
As his followers grew in number and Muhammad grew in stature, the opposition to his movement stiffened. Muhammad lived in a society where kinship ties provided such protection and safety as were possible, and once these ties were broken, a man could find himself vulnerable. Precisely this happened when his uncle and guardian, Abu Talib, died. A flight by Muhammad's followers to Abyssinia came to little; a flight to the nearby town of Yathrib (later renamed Medina) was successful. This 'emigration', or Hijra, took place in 622, and it quickly came to mark the starting point for the Muslim calendar. It was in Medina, between 622 and his death in 632, that Muhammad established his religio-political movement on a firm footing.
Muhammad in Medina
Something of Muhammad's early activity in Medina can be gleaned from the most important document to survive from the first decades of Islam, which scholars have come to call the 'Constitution of Medina'. An almost unique exception to the general loss and deformation of historical material, the text 'sticks out like a piece of solid rock in an accumulation of rubble', as one scholar has put it. Beyond the fact that it is very early, much remains uncertain about the text's composition and transmission (some have even argued that in origin there were multiple texts, which were subsequently combined); for well over a century translators have made sense of its obscure clauses in very different ways. Leaving this and its misappellation aside (the text is not a constitution in the conventional sense of the word), one can say with some confidence that much of it only makes good sense when situated historically in Medina shortly after Muhammad's arrival there, perhaps even in the very first year of the Hijra.
According to the most recent edition, the document consists of sixty-four clauses in two main parts, which prescribe relations among people in Medina (here called Yathrib) – the Emigrants (from Mecca to Medina), Helpers (those Medinans who came to their aid), and a number of kinship groups, including Jewish tribes. The following captures something of the document's style and content, including the injunction to prosecute jihad, religiously sanctioned warfare:
1. In the name of God, the merciful and compassionate. This is a compact from Muhammad, the Prophet, between the Believers and Muslims of the Quraysh and Yathrib, and those who join them, attach themselves to them, and carry out jihad alongside them.
2. They are a single community to the exclusion of [other] people.
3. The Emigrants of the Quraysh keep to their tribal organization and leadership, cooperating with each other with regards to blood money, and ransoming their captives according to that which is customary and equitable among the Believers ...
14. The God-fearing Believers are against whosoever of them demands an excessive sum of blood money or desires a gift [that involves] injustice, sin, transgression or evil among the Believers. They shall all unite against him even if he is the son of one of them.
15. A Believer will not kill a[nother] Believer in retaliation for a Non-believer and will not aid a Non-believer against a Believer ...
18. The Jews who join us will receive aid and equal rights; they will not be wronged, nor their enemies aided against them ...
26. Whatever you disagree about should be taken to God and to Muhammad.
27. The Jews share expenditure with the Believers as long as they are at war ...
39. The nomadic allies of the Jews are on a par with them ...
52. Every major crime or dispute between the people of this document, from which evil is feared, should be taken to God and Muhammad.
53. God guarantees the truest and most righteous fulfilment of the clauses of this document.
54. No protection will be granted to the Quraysh nor to he who aids them.
Much is obscure, but two themes recur. The first is that the parties to the agreement must cooperate, such as by keeping their word, raiding together, refraining from violence against each other or allying with others outside of the community. The second is that religious belief and political loyalty are intertwined, Muhammad being an instrument of God's will. 'Whatever you differ about should be brought before God and Muhammad', one clause prescribes; 'God is the protector of him who is righteous and God-fearing, and so is Muhammad, the messenger of God', says another.
In his capacity as God's Prophet, Muhammad was thus confederating kinship groups in and around Medina, and prescribing their relations so as to minimize internal conflict and maximize their position vis-à-vis their adversaries, the Meccans. In other words, Muhammad was putting the nascent community into shape for engaging polytheist opponents. In this respect, the document conforms to the great stress laid in the Qur'an upon fighting on God's behalf, especially upon the connection between emigration or 'going out' and fighting, as Q 2:218 ('those who emigrate and fight on the path of God'), and other verses put it. The Muslim is 'one who believes in God and the last Day and fights on the path of God' (Q 9:19).
What were the borders of this first community? Outside of it stood polytheists, and within it those who followed Muhammad or publicly allied themselves to his movement – not merely those whom we would conventionally call 'Muslims', but apparently also some Jews (there was no Christian community in Medina to speak of). This model stands in contrast to the one that would emerge over the next century or so, when Muslims began to settle on common doctrines and ritual practices. In this and other ways Muslims became distinct not just from polytheists, but also fellow monotheists. In time, Jews and Christians would enjoy the protection of the state against external enemies and internal compulsion to convert.
So what needs to be emphasized here is the provisional character of belief in this nascent phase. The lines between Muslim and Jew were not yet fully and clearly drawn. We know that practices of fasting and prayer shared commonalities with Jewish traditions. Even a matter as important as the direction of prayer took some time to settle: it seems that Muslims prostrated themselves towards Jerusalem until what the Qur'an and the historical tradition describe as a decisive break with the Jews, which functioned to replace Jerusalem with Mecca. The break would also involve expelling and massacring Jews. This narrative – of a sudden parting of the ways after a period of coexistence and confessional ambiguity – telescopes a longer period during which Islamic belief and ritual more gradually emerged, disentangling itself from its Jewish and Christian roots. It took at least two centuries before the 'Five Pillars of Islam' (the confession of faith; pilgrimage; fasting in Ramadan; paying alms; daily prayers) were established, on the basis of the Qur'an and the practice of Muhammad (the sunna).
Raids and future directions
Insofar as the historical tradition offers anything like an accurate record of Muhammad's concerns, much of Muhammad's attention was focused upon military campaigns outside of Medina. The Medinan phase of Muhammad's life, from 622 to 632, is dominated by raids against passing caravans, settlements and Bedouin tribes, and these culminated in the capitulation of Mecca. The first notable battle was sparked by a caravan raid at a settlement called Nakhla. The battle of Badr, a town that lay about 90 miles southwest of Medina, soon followed. A humiliating defeat of the Meccans is celebrated in the Qur'an as proof of God's providential direction: angels fought alongside the Muslims, we read. Fortunes were dramatically turned at the battle of Uhud, which is conventionally dated to 624 or 625. There, a relatively large Meccan force of 3,000 horsemen avenged the defeat at Badr by killing about seventy Muslims. We read that the Prophet himself was wounded.
At this point – the fifth and sixth year of the Hijra – the traditional chronology leads in two directions. The first is towards Mecca. In 627–28 Muhammad led a group of Muslims on a pilgrimage there, and although he had to abort it, he came away from the negotiations that followed with an agreement that a pilgrimage could be conducted the following year; a ten-year truce was also signed. The following year the oasis town of al-Khaybar fell, delivering large amounts of booty and spoils into Muslim hands. In the same year Muhammad carried out that deferred pilgrimage. Meanwhile, Medina's strength had been growing at the expense of Mecca's, and so the almost bloodless capitulation of Mecca in 630 or so may have come as something of an anti-climax. The Prophet had been carrying out what amounted to a charm offensive against some especially influential polytheists in the town. Muhammad returned to Medina for the final two years of his life.
From about 626 to 628 the chronology also leads in a second direction – towards the conquests in general and Syria in particular. The oasis town of Dumat al-Jandal lay about fifteen days' march north from Medina and about half that distance from Damascus. Its strategic position presumably explains why it was the target of no fewer than three raids. As early as 627 to 629, the tradition also has Muhammad dispatch letters to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, the Negus (ruler) of Abyssinia, and the Persian shah, inviting them to acknowledge his prophecy and convert to Islam. (They all declined.) After the conquest of Mecca, Muhammad extended his influence in eastern and southern Arabia, chiefly by treaty rather than conquest. Some early, non-Islamic sources have Muhammad active outside of Arabia, leading conquests in Palestine and other provinces, but there is no corroboration for this in the Islamic tradition.
Excerpted from Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives by Chase F. Robinson. Copyright © 2016 Chase F. Robinson. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Conventions, abbreviations & equivocations 8
Part 1 Islam & Empire 600-850 13
1 Muhammad the Prophet (632) 20
2 'Ali cousin, caliph and forefather of Shi'ism (66a) 31
3 'A'isha wife of the Prophet (678) 37
4 'Abd al-Malik engineer of the caliphate (705) 42
5 Ibn al-Muqaffa' translator and essayist (759) 48
6 Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya renunciant and saint (801) 54
7 al-Ma'mun caliph-patron (833) 60
Part 2 The Islamic Commonwealth 850-1050 69
8 'Arib courtesan of caliphs (890) 74
9 al-Hallaj 'the Truth' (922) 79
10 al-Tabari traditionalist rationalist (923) 85
11 Abu Bakr al-Razi free-thinking physician (925 or 935) 90
12 Ibn Fadlan intrepid envoy (fl. tenth century) 90
13 Ibn Muqla vizier, scribe, calligrapher? (940) 100
14 Mahmud of Ghazna conqueror and patron (1030) 107
15 al-Biruni cataloguer of nature and culture (c.1050) 112
Part 3 A Provisional Synthesis 1050-1250 119
16 Ibn Hazm polemicist, polymath (1064) 128
17 Karima al-Marwaziyya hadith scholar (1070) 134
18 al-Ghazali 'Renewer' of Islam (1111) 139
19 Abu al-Qasim Ramisht merchant millionaire (c. 1150) 148
20 al-Idrisi cosmopolitan cartographer (1165) 153
21 Saladin anti-Crusader hero (1193) 160
22 Ibn Rushd (Averroes) Aristotelian monotheist (1198) 169
Part 4 Disruption & Integration 1250-1525 178
23 Rumi Sufi 'poet' (1273) 188
24 Rashid al-Din physician, courtier and global historian (1318) 194
25 al-Hilli paragon of Shi'ism ascendant (1325) 200
26 Ibn Taymiyya stubborn reactionary (1328) 205
27 Timur sheep-rustler, world-conqueror (1405) 212
28 Ibn Khaldun social theorist and historian (1406) 220
29 Mehmed II irofiqueror and renaissance man (1481) 229
30 Shah Isma'il esoteric charismatic (1524) 238
Suggestions for Further Reading 248
Sources of Illustrations 266