By Anouar Majid, Tingis Redux, February 22nd

A few months ago, I immersed myself in a kind of reading that I wish was available to me and my teachers when I was in high school in Tangier (Morocco) studying philosophy and Islamic Studies. It is the kind of slow—very slow—reading that keeps you constantly challenged and fully awake. It is archeological and historical work informed by a knowledge so vast that a reader must struggle to keep track of all sorts of cultures, languages, dates, and names. Only scholarship of this scope, though, can aim at the heart of gigantic myths—myths so powerful and persistent that centuries of generations have taken them for reality and billions continue to believe in their truth.

I decided to devote some time to the work of Professor Patricia Crone because her name kept appearing with increasing frequency in the literature I had been reading in the last few years, whether by scholars who share her general view or not. I thought it was time to have a first-hand experience of what Crone’s thesis is about. So, in no particular order, and rather quickly, I read God’s Rule: Government and Islam (2004), co-written with Martin Hinds; Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (first published in 1987); Slaves on Horses (1980) and Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, the book she co-authored with Michael Cook in 1977 and which caused a storm in the rarified circles of scholars. Even though she may have changed her mind since she published the book in 1977, Hagarism and Meccan Trade totally upset the foundations of what we have grown to believe is Muslim history. They show, as do other writers in different ways, like Arthur Jeffery, John Wansborough, and, more recently, Fred Donner, Tom Holland and Robert Spencer, that what Muslims and non-Muslims learn in school about Islam is not facts that happened but literary compositions whose aim was to create a new religion with its own legitimizing mythology.

A Religion is Born

Muslims believe that their Prophet Mohammed, who was born in 570 AD and died in 632 AD, is the best human ever born in the world, chosen by God to spread his final and everlasting message, preserved in a heavenly tablet, the Koran. Starting out from humble origins in Mecca—a bustling crossroads in the caravan trade—and reputed for his honesty and wisdom, Mohammed married his older boss Khadija, received God’s message through the archangel Gabriel at a local cave when he was 40, fled his native city and migrated to Yathrib (thereafter known as Medina) when his persecution grew more intense, and later returned to Mecca as a triumphant Muslim conqueror. By the time he died, he had married several times and most of Arabia had converted to Islam. Soon his followers, known as Muslims, fanned out in a series of conquests (downplayed as futuhat in Islamic apologetics) that, within a century, had reached France and turned the Fertile Crescent, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula into Muslim nations.

When taken at face value, the rise of Islam is, without a doubt, one of the most astonishing events in the history of civilizations. The problem, however, is that this story doesn’t check out against basic historical methods. Practically, all the facts we know about Islam came down to us from accounts written in the 8th and 9th centuries, or at least some 150 years after the death of the Prophet in 632.

Not until the late Umayyad/early Abbasid periods did we begin to get written history. Prior to that, the transmission of tradition was mostly an oral affair, which meant that a “faithful preservation” of this tradition was practically impossible. One could glimpse that in the earliest written biographies. The first known account of the Prophet’s wars and actions by the scholar (alim) Ibn Ishaq’s —known as siratu rasulillah, or just sira for short—is not a coherent historical narrative but a compilation of “isolated sayings, short accounts of people’s acts, brief references to historical events and the like.”

At that time, the life of Mohammed was part of what was known as `ilm al-maghazi (literally, the science of conquests) and was largely unknown until a large corpus about the Prophet was established. Ibn Hisham’s sira expanded on that of Ibn Ishaq by adding new material and editing out some parts. What is interesting about this process is that it was not about preserving the past but actually about destroying it since the main concern was establishing a new faith that made sense to the authors’ contemporaries. Only scattered debris of the past remained; they were rearranged into a canonical hadith (the doings and saying of Prophet Mohammed as recorded by a chain of witnesses) and swiftly closed and sealed for the rest of time. It is for this reason that many think that Islam was really established in the 9th century, not in the 7th. That is to say, Islam acquired its distinctive identity about 200 years after the Prophet’s death—assuming that the Prophet as we know him today actually existed as such.

What is almost shockingly surprising about the later Muslim accounts is that they say almost nothing about neighboring civilizations with their rich and complex traditions. Members of such civilizations only appear as mere faceless nasara (Christians). The nations of Central Asia, the lands of Turks and Mongols, on the other hand, are described as “vanished nations” (umam khaliya). The goal was to impress on us the belief that Islam was an ahistorical event and a divine intervention that appeared complete and whole in the desert of Arabia. “Islamic civilization,” Crone tells us, “is the only one in the world to begin in the mind of a single man.” It’s a position that must be taken on faith since we have nothing to compare it against, unless one seeks non-Muslim sources—Greek, Armenian, Aramaic, Syriac and Coptic.

What Islam asks its believers to do is have faith not in what Mohammed said (that is impossibly to verify) but in what 8th, 9th, and even 10th-century writers, mostly in Iraq, decided Islam is. It was at the time that all the canons of the faith—hadith, fiqh (jurisprudence), various Muslim schools (madhahib), shari`a (holy law) and even the Koran—were finalized and entrusted to future generations. Between the rise of Mohammed’s prophecy and that time, we have mostly a disquieting silence. An event of such magnitude, such as the rise of Islam, should have left strong echoes everywhere in the civilized world. We should, after all, find some information on Islam from non-Muslim sources since Arabia was on the fringes of two ancient civilizations–the Roman (in Syria) and the Persian (in Iraq and Iran).

Alas, it turns out that we have precious little documentation to corroborate the later Muslim version of early Islam. Whatever information we could glean from Christian and Jewish accounts of the 7th and 8th centuries present a different picture from the standard history of Islam. We won’t go into these details here, but I do want to piece together—however reductively—the groundbreaking work of Crone and her collaborators to present a very basic theory of what might have occurred in those vanished decades (let’s call them al `uqud al khaliya). I will have occasion to write more about this in the future since the literature I have read on this subject covers a lot of terrain and provides a good amount of detail. For now, though, I will keep the following reconstruction of Islam as close as possible to Crone’s thesis as conveyed in the books cited above.

As we all know, Islam bears a very close resemblance to its Jewish and Christian predecessors because both religions were well established in Syria and Arabia by the 7th century, when Mohammed is supposed to have received his revelation. The Jews had fled the persecution of Heraclius and drafted Arabs in their attempt to reclaim their land in Jerusalem. Playing on the notion of a common ancestor, Abraham, Ishmaelites and Jews, both hostile to the notion of the Trinity, started out as allies on a hijra (exodus) to the Holy Land, now seen as a birthright of the Hagarines—the descendants of Hagar, Abraham’s concubine and mother of Ishmael. In Greek documents of the period, the Ishmaelite conquerors are described as “Magaritai” and in Syriac documents as “Mahgre” or “Mahgraye”—meaning, muhajirun. In this account—scholars like the Semticist Robert Kerr don’t think that hijra necessarily refers to an actual phyical migration to the north—the destination of the Arab immigrants is Palestine, not Medina. The Arab Ishmaelites were engaged in a hijra to the Promised Land, not to a remote dusty town named Yathrib.

Having conquered Palestine, the Hagarenes had to deal with a more diverse population and sought to dissociate themselves from their erstwhile protégés, the Jews. This wasn’t difficult to do. Jesus was adopted as a messiah even as the symbol of the cross was rejected. A Maronite chronicle attests to the Umayyad Caliph Mu`awiya praying at Christian sites upon entering Jerusalem in 659. In this fast changing milieu, the Hagarenes elaborated on their origins, elevating Abraham to the status of prophet and endowing him with his own scriptures (suhuf Ibrahim) and associated him with the construction of the ka`ba in Mecca. Muslims used an older designation for pagan—hanif—and translated it into a follower of Abraham.

Islam, based on Arab identity, was first developed in Greek-speaking Byzantine Syria, a province of the Roman Empire. It was in Syria that Caliph Mu`awiya collected the mu`allaqat, the classical collection of pre-Islamic Arab poetry, and it was from Syria and Iraq that the Abbasid-era scholar Abu Tammam glorified the Arab past. The proto-ulama were defining God’s law as haqq al-arab (the Arabs’ right) just as the language they spoke was described as lisan al-arab. By the time the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock on the site of the ruined Jewish Temple in the sacred city of Jerusalem to showcase the supremacy of his faith, “something recognizably Islamic” was beginning to emerge. “Plots of Hellenistic dramas, themes of Hellenistic novels, bits and pieces of Greek thought and odds and ends of Roman law [had been] all torn from their original contexts to provide materials for an Arab edifice. In all cases the Arabs supplied the structures, and the Syrians gratefully obliged with their bricks.” Muslim laws would, however, be developed later, in Iraq, “the center of rabbinic Judaism.” It was here that a legalistic tradition was laboriously worked out to uphold and frame the foundations of this new religion within rigid, ironclad fences.

Islam had an incalculable effect on the region. Storming into a Middle East that was culturally Greek and religiously Jewish (Christianity being Judaism stripped of its exclusivist ethnicity), the Arabs, as we saw above, rejected local cultures and proclaimed their own based in the desert of Arabia. The Jewish Arab alliance worked insofar as Jews were able to see their oppressors defeated, but the Arabs were too ambitious to simply settle for another people’s religion. They wanted to have one of their their own. Thus, they neither lost themselves fully in the region’s ancient cultural tradition nor eradicated it completely; they simply conjured up a new civilization out of its ancient components by blending their military force with Judaic precepts, foregrounding Ishmael and Mohammed instead of Israel and Moses, but retaining the notion of a jealous God (Allah like Yahweh).

In Iraq, the Sasanian political style was appropriated without much difficulty, but the core of Roman civil law used by the Nestorian Church was replaced by holy law. Greek philosophy was rejected as alien and was, accordingly, “pilloried as a tradition so outlandish that the names of the greatest men were unpronounceable gibberish on the tongues of true believers; and conversely, it could expect none of the tolerance which the poetry of pagan Arabia, for all its irreligious fatalism, could call upon because it was Arab.” Islam sought its pristine heritage in the pagan poetry of the Arabian desert, not in the rich polytheistic traditions of Greek philosophy! “The sciences of the ancients were progressively reduced to a sort of intellectual pornography,” write Crone and Cook, “and the elite which had cultivated them to a harassed and disreputable sub-culture.” Roman law—known as qanun—and Greek philosophy—known as falsafa—were stripped of their substance and redefined to fit into Islam’s Arab matrix. This Arabian paradigm was, ironically, turned into the cornerstone of a global civilization when the non-Arab converts to Islam, the Shu`ubis and Mawali, protested Arab ethnocentric hegemony and made Arabia’s pagan heritage into the cultural foundation of all Muslims. Only a few imports, such as mysticism, art, medicine, and the hard sciences were left by the ulama to operate undisturbed, despite their foreign provenance.

What mattered most to Muslims was the Arabia of the Prophet—anything that lay outside it was of no major importance to them. “For barbarians who had conquered the most ancient and venerable centres of human civilization,” write Crone and Cook, “this is a tour de force without parallel in history; but by the same token the fate of civilization in Islam could only be an exceptionally unhappy one. In the last resort it was the fusion of Judaic meaning with the force of Arab conquest on the one hand, and the extreme cultural alienation of the Syrians on the other, that determined both why and what Islamic civilization had to be.”

If the intransigence of Hagarism, with its Arab ethnocentrism, was devastating to Zoroastrianism, it imprisoned Islam in a tension that has never been fully resolved. By choosing an ethnically exclusive but culturally parochial milieu as a setting for the rise of Islam, the Hagarenes privileged Arabness and tribalism over the cosmopolitan outlook of settled civilizations. To be sure, the Koran has a few verses preaching the equality of pious believers regardless of their race and ethnicity, but the Prophet also proclaimed his love of Arabs, saying “if you hate the Arabs, you hate me,” something Jesus would have never said. Arabic, in fact, was elevated to an eternal language. Even Adam is supposed to have spoken Arabic when in Paradise.

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