Hagarism, revision, and everything we think is wrong (?)

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This is more a question for readers who know this stuff, what do you think about Patricia Crone & company in their revision of the early history of Islam? I’m more of a Hugh Kennedy guy because I don’t know much about this field and would prefer to stick to the mainstream, but a few years ago I read a short monograph on representational art in mid-Umayyad Syria, and it just didn’t “feel right” in the context of the traditional narrative. The book didn’t really talk much about history, but rather more the Late Antique cultural influences on the Umayyad’s. But what I encountered seemed more like a conventional society of the post-Roman Near East than anything I would recognize as “Muslim.” Of course it’s all impressionistic, and I don’t have a good feel of the lay of the land, so I dismissed it. But how about those of you who know the primary sources? I can’t find Daniel Larison’s opinion on this sort of revisionism via Google, and I would be curious has to his views (since he knows Byzantine history and its sources, and had an interest in Islam at some point as well).
Update: OK, probably crap.
Update: OK, Larison might be talking about a somewhat different model.

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  1. Larison’s take on the hyper-revisionist “Crossroads to Islam”:  

  2. Scraps of evidence supporting the revisionist position: 
    1. There were contingents of pagans and Christians in the original armies. 
    2.For a considerable period, conversion into Islam was discouraged for tax-collection reasons.  
    3. Arabic only became the language of administration under the Caliphate in 684. 
    4. Until about that time the armies were organized predominantly on a tribal basis, not a religious or state basis. 
    5. Originally anti-Muslim tribes conveniently switched once Islam had won and became powerful.

  3. The Larison post referenced above refers to a much more radical “revisionism” than what Crone proposes. I don’t think Crone thinks much of “Crossroads to Islam” either. Crone has never doubted, for example, that Muhammed was a real historical figure.

  4. . There were contingents of pagans and Christians in the original armies. 
    even hugh kennedy admits this (he’s not a revisionist). i was struck that arab christians are recorded as being allowed into the muslim armies without converting because they were arabs. even traditionalist scholars admit the preeminent importance of arab ethnicity in the 7th century, as opposed to the later eras.

  5. I’ve not read “Hagarism”, only a precis of it. It’s out of print, hard to find, & Crone & Cook have since modified their views. Crone’s current opinion is laid out here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/faith-europe_islam/mohammed_3866.jsp 
    In Hagarism C&C note that Muslim literary sources on the early Islamic conquests all date from later periods, long after the events they supposedly record. They’re also usually written to win a theological/political dispute in those later periods, which makes them even more unreliable as history. C&C ask, what would that early Muslim period feel like if we set aside all the Muslim sources, & reconstruct it purely based on contemporary non-Muslim sources? 
    All of the non-Muslim sources are translated into English here: http://web.archive.org/web/20060429163403/www.christianorigins.com/islamrefs.html They’re taken from Robert Hoyland’s “Seeing Islam As Others Saw It”. Hoyland doesn’t think they contradict the traditional Muslim version of events as much as C&C do in “Hagarism”. They seem to suggest that Muhammad died maybe two years later than Muslim sources claim – which isn’t such a big deal. 
    From my reading I can’t find any evidence that the invading Saracen armies included large numbers of Christians in their ranks. If such evidence exists, that would be very awkward for the “Hagarism” argument. 
    In Hagarism C&C suggest that the invaders were originally a joint Arab/Jewish anti-Christian army, originating much further north than Mecca/Medina, united by their common descent from Abraham. Jerusalem was always the primary objective of that army. The split between Arabs & Jews happened after the capture of Jerusalem. At that point the Muslims had to invent a purely Arabian origin for their religion, so brought Mecca/Medina into play. Crone uses the analogy of the Samaritans, where a similar non-Jewish reinvention seems to have happened. 
    I think the following “Hagarism” arguments are fairly sound: 
    1. Muhammad & his followers must have been based much further north than Mecca & Medina. 
    2. Jerusalem, not Mecca, was the primary prize for Muhammad’s army. 
    3. Muhammad & his followers were not fighting against “Wicker Man” style paganists, or heavy metal idol-worshipping satanists. Many modern Muslims I speak to have been brought up to believe the peninsula was like that before Muhammad started preaching. The available archaeological evidence suggests Abrahamic religiosity (Jewish, Christian, or hybrid) was already well-established before Muhammad. Rather, this was a civil war between Abrahamic believers. Muhammad’s Arabian opponents were almost certainly following some adapted Arabian form of Judaism or Christianity. 
    Shlomo Sand points out that Judaism used to be a proselytising religion. That’s how Himyarite Yemen became Jewish. It was the political ascendancy of Christianity and Islam that forced Judaism to become introspective. 
    Regarding the specific question you have about Umayyad Syria. Didn’t it take a long time for the mass of the people to convert to Islam?

  6. There are strong limits on historical revisionism when it comes to the development of Islam post-Muhammad.  
    AFAIK all the known copies of the Coran, including the (perhaps 7th century) Sana’a manuscripts, are highly similar to what we have now. There are variations, but they are extremely minor. So the canon was settled very quickly. 
    The real story about the development of Islam is not what happened after Muhammad, but before – i.e. which sources he used. Like, for example, incorporating well-known hellenistic legends about Alexander the Great into a Surah (Al-Qaf, I think), because he heard these legends through the deforming prism of jewish and christian traditions, and thus didn’t know that they described a pagan King (in addition to being factually dead wrong). 
    Razib, what is surprising in the fact that early 8th century Syria was still very un-Arabic? It still had a strong Christian presence, and the Arabs took a lot of time to simply impose their language – Christians were still given non-Arabic names at birth into the 12th century. Syriac scholarship flourished right into the 13th century. Isn’t that like wondering why much of 3rd century Britain was still so un-Roman? 
    Which leads me to wonder, why don’t we ever hear about the local Christians in accounts of the Crusades? Both the Western and Islamic sides are well represented, but the Syriac viewpoint is missing from much of the discussion. Is it possible that the Syriacs were assimilated with the Western invaders, and thus disappeared with them? 
    (When I say “disappear”, I mean “as a major cultural influence on the population at large” – Syriacs are still around today, and I have two Syriac channels on my cable TV!)

  7. Razib, what is surprising in the fact that early 8th century Syria was still very un-Arabic? It still had a strong Christian presence, and the Arabs took a lot of time to simply impose their language – Christians were still given non-Arabic names at birth into the 12th century. Syriac scholarship flourished right into the 13th century. Isn’t that like wondering why much of 3rd century Britain was still so un-Roman? 
    more like 5th century. 3rd century britain was a normal part of the empire, to the point that some generals stationed in britain attempted to become emperors. in any case, this was visual art sponsored by the ummayyads for their residences, and it was rather hellenistic in character. not indigenous at all. also, remember there were always large arab communities on the margins of the levant, the arabs weren’t aliens. even traditionalists accounts note the utilization of local arabs in the new order of arabs from the south. ergo, philip the arab as emperor in the mid 3rd century.

  8. Syriac scholarship flourished right into the 13th century. Isn’t that like wondering why much of 3rd century Britain was still so un-Roman? 
    The administrative language of Rome was always Latin, whereas the administrative languages of the caliphate were Greek and Persian up until late in the 7th cnetury. 
    The conquering armies were a mix of the available soldiers, mostly Muslims but including Christians and some pagans. This is pretty well-established. The point really is that it was a standard conquering and plundering army deposing and replacing the old rulers rather than a religious group. There were also a lot of opportunistic conversions once the conquests started. 
    The Crusaders were not very friendly to in digenous Middle Eastern Christians, or as far as that goes, Greek Orthodox Christians, though at one point I think that they allied with the Armenians (partly because the Armenians had Mongol contacts.) 
    Don’t know if it’s come up here, but there are major Bible revisionist tendencies. One theory holds that the whole legend of Jesus was constructed in the 2nd century. Another holds that David and Solomon were mythical, and that the Hebrew people came into existence in exile under the Babylonians and Persians.

  9. The analogy between Roman occupied Britain and the Arab occupied Fertile Crescent misses an essential point. The Romans were not just militarily superior to the ancient Britons. They were culturally much more advanced, in terms of literature, the arts, science, agriculture, everything. The Britons had little they could teach the Romans. But the Arabs were initially superior only as warriors. As they reinvented themselves, from zealous warriors to imperial governors, they were bound to turn to the superior culture of those they had conquered. They kept Arabic as the language of government and state religion, and over time their cultural borrowings became more clearly Islamic. Think of Kublai Khan in China.

  10. Roman occupied Britain versus Arab occupied Fertile Crescent: 
    The Romans weren’t just superior soldiers. Their culture, literature, sculpture, science & agriculture was also far superior. The Britons couldn’t teach the Romans anything. 
    The Arabs were superior warriors. But their culture lagged behind the conquered peoples. As they transformed themselves from zealous jihadi warriors to imperial governors they were bound to borrow from the superior local culture. Think of Kublai Khan in China. 
    John Emerson –  
    “The conquering armies were a mix of the available soldiers, mostly Muslims but including Christians and some pagans. This is pretty well-established.” 
    Could you provide a link so I can get understand what exactly the evidence for this consists of? Are you referring to the earliest Saracen attacks, such as that described by the author of the Doctrina Jacobi? Or the conquest of Jerusalem, witnessed by St Sophronius? Their writings – which you can read here – http://web.archive.org/web/20060429163403/http://www.christianorigins.com/islamrefs.html – don’t mention Christians serving in the invading armies; to me, they make such involvement seem unlikely. Later on, once the Saracens were obviously on the winning side, I can see how this might have changed. 
    (BTW I think it’s unlikely that Jesus was an entirely fictional character, even if there’s no non-Christian evidence for his existence. We know, independent of the Gospels, that Pilate, Caiaphas & John the Baptist all lived at the correct dates. Perhaps the best argument for Jesus as a real person is the convoluted story of his birth. The Gospel writers go to great trouble to have the Nazarene Jesus born in Bethlehem & so fulfil Jewish prophecy. This suggests there was a real historical figure, known to be from Nazareth. If he was an invented character they could place him in Bethlehem for the whole of his youth with no problem.)

  11. Razib – are you going to take down that update since it’s clear that Larison is not talking about the same revisionist position that you are?

  12. Maybe I’m oversimplifying but isn’t the crux of the standard vs. revisionist arguments the following? 
    Standard – Muhammed was primarily a spiritual man who was inspired to start a new Abrahamic tradition, gathered followers and led them on a holy war to spread the good world. 
    Revisionist – Muhammed and his tribe were primarily men of action who saw an opportunity to carve out a lucrative chunk of the weakened Byzantine and Persian Empires, and then retrofit a new religious tradition after the conquests in order to provide a unifying ideology to keep their new territories together and under their control.

  13. Qaf (the letter Q) is sura 50, and different from Kahf (the Cave) which is sura 18. Sura 18 deals with the Alexander Romance. I wrote on the tafsir of sura 18. In a former life, one might say. 
    In that former life I cared about Islamic history. Now, rather less. Had my papers rejected a few too many times. Either I’m just nuts or else I’m not as good at history and textual-criticism as I thought I was. There’s the obvious paranoiac alternative, which is that the whole of the academy is biased toward progressivism and Islam; but even if this were true there’s always the nagging probability that even if the colleges were all run by a coalition of the Elders of Zion and Ibn Warraq I’d still be getting my stuff thrown away. 
    With that primal scream of despair out of the way: my thought is that I have no way of knowing what Muhammad himself thought. I do think several of the suras are post-Muhammadan though. No: not “think” – I’ve concluded, based on the best evidence I can find. Sura 3, the second part of it anyway, is transparently a reaction to Muhammad’s death. (Ignore what the Sira claims about “Uhud” – a name not used in sura 3 – and just reread the thing.) Crossroads to Islam got a lot wrong, but did successfully prove sura 48 as a late insertion. Joseph Schacht’s Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence found that suras 2 and 33 were not being used for legal purposes in Iraq and the Hijaz until about 100 AH which implies those two suras weren’t widely canonical until then, hinting at decades before that when they were disputed, hinting that they might have come in later. On the topic of sura 33 it rather looks like an attempt to defend the sira – the Zayd episode – from the complaints of John of Damascus. (You might want to google that guy, he’s got… interesting things to say.) That would put sura 33 into the time of post-Muhammad debate as well. 
    To me all this seems obvious. Maybe I can blame Asperger’s. 
    If you accept the above comments, and I’ll repeat there is no reason you should just based on my say-so: Arab warlords and propagandists had a large impact on the Qur’an and on how the Sira was composed. Muhammad seems like a cipher after the warlords get through with him. y.m.m.v