Pagan Arabs, Arabian Prophecy, and Monotheism

Aziz Al-Azmeh reviews Islam and its Past: Jahiliyya, Late Antiquity, and the Qur’an. 

Cover for Islam and its Past
Carol Bakhos and Michael Cook (eds.). Islam and its Past: Jahiliyya, Late Antiquity, and the Qur’an. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 267. $87.50.

The book under review assembles articles on the Qur’an, the religious profile of Pagan Arabs, Arabian prophecy and monotheism, and Christian and Muslim attitudes to Pagan law, composed to honor Patricia Crone and dedicated to her memory.

Current scholarship on Paleo-Islam was strongly marked by the publication in 1977 of Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World by Crone and Michael Cook. This domain of history had then for decades attracted little consolidated academic energy, its themes generally considered plain and uncomplicated, corresponding to a grand narrative pervading classical Arabic sources. Hagarism proposed that Arabic historical sources should be disregarded, that other sources, including an Armenia chronicle, should be preferred, and that at its inception Islam was really a Jewish sectarian movement. The book’s cognitive harvest was scant, but its warning against uncritical reliance on classical Arabic sources, and its narrative revisionism, were carried forth by a sprightliness altogether uncommon in Islamic studies. Hagarism’s unfledged source-critical skepticism, and consequences drawn from it, came together to define the major commonplaces of what rapidly came to be regarded as the mainstream studies of Paleo-Islam since. A default setting of hyper-scepticism congealed rapidly into an academic orthodoxy that came to project an air of assurance, self-evidence and effortless repeatability. This setting was reinforced by relative institutional isolation of the field from the broader reaches of the historical sciences, by inbred, tribal habits of reading, and dedication to in-house issues and concerns.

Arabic historical traditions that crystallized over a century after the events they narrated were taken, in this hyper-skeptical register, to have been shaped and indeed often fabricated by political, exegetical or legislative concerns of the moment. While it is not unnatural for accounts of the past to be framed and patterned by concerns of the moment, the assumption was that Arabic historical culture was for two centuries a vast space of concordant and silent fabrication by pious and impious fraud،, historical truth leaving hardly a trace – a prodigious, preternatural historical achievement of coordination, control, and manipulation. Hyper-skeptical historiography announced a black hole of inscrutability, sustained by an exorbitant documentary requirement which would settle for little less, one would infer, than original minutes of Muhammad’s consultations.

Clearly, an attitude of hauteur, together with anxiety about pollution by unwholesome Arabic historical traditions, is not historical criticism. Hyper-criticism and its historiographic shadows never really developed beyond its initial moment of admonition. What source-criticism there was, correlated to these anxieties, was given largely to rather bloodless attempts to reconstitute earliest possible tradents and texts, adhering faithfully to the documentary parameters set by hypercriticism. The broader historical craft had meanwhile moved on to develop interesting ways of conceiving documents and using difficult evidence, including indexical, forensic and material evidence so important to the study of Paleo-Islam and of pre-Muhammadan and pre-dynastic Arabia. But anxiety seems, for a whole generation, to have spooked many scholars working on that historical period and beguiled others, augmenting an institutional propensity towards intellectual risk aversion, diverting others to the easier forms of constructivism. Many impressionable graduate students seem as if they had been primed to scorn the historical use of Arabic historical sources – the very same sources that have nevertheless been used unblushingly by the cannier hyper-critical scholars, whenever convenient.

It may seem difficult to account for this peculiar condition, where wide, often ingenuous acceptance is received by claims to self-evidence for matters so patently eccentric and improbable. Perhaps it is not too far fetched to correlate the idea of uncommonly inscrutable Arabic historical traditions with the image of uniquely strange and unwieldy Arabs, more broadly of congenitally distempered Muslims. Initial revisionist derring-do was certainly appealing, taunting Arab historians and traditionists and trumping their conceits. Ultimately, Hagarism’s tone was its clinching argument, overruling level-headed reactions to the book on its appearance. Hyper-skepticism intimated, then spawned a hyper-exoticism congenial to neo-conservative dispositions. So recalcitrant is this hyper-skepticism and resistant to evidence, that its default mode is cognitive filibuster. Limitless skepticism is a creed, not a canon of method.

Two abiding problems, related by mutual implication, were begotten by this once-fetching revisionism. One is that, once a condition of cluelessness had been affirmed, and an historical tabula rasa had been postulated, license was given to ideologically pleasing fancy unconstrained by historical verisimilitude and impervious to evidence. Thus the supposition that the beginnings of Paleo-Islam, including Muhammad’s activities, had occurred outside Arabia, a supposition still appearing, incidentally, as an unrequited call in Crone’s contribution to this volume; or the surreal propositions that neither Muhammad nor the Arabs ever existed. The other, more persistent and sweeping, complementary issue relates to the perspective of the historical gaze. Striking is the invisibility of historical terrain, of place – Arabia – and of agency – its inhabitants, the Arabs of Arabia and beyond in Muhammadan and pre-Muhammadan times. Their history becomes not really their history as concrete, situated historical actors, but that of dogmatic fragments, duly anthropomorphized, culled from the flotsam of surrounding regions, to which they are tagged. Paleo-Islam’s is served up as a history figuring doctrinal and textual spolia, emanating from anywhere but Arabia, a scenario of ventriloquy without a discernible puppet-master. The crucially important human, ethnographic element is almost entirely absent, but for clichés about nomads, tribes, barbarian energy and so on.

Thus Hagarism, for instance, eliding Arabia substantively, spoke of Samaritanism, Muslim Rabbis, and of calques of this or that doctrine as explanatory templates for Hagarism/Islam. Other scholars following a long tradition of discussing Islam in almost heresiological terms as a deviant form of Christianity or of Judaism, or both, rapidly acquired an elective affinity to this projective and reductive manner of analysis. It has been particularly attractive to certain scholars with Roman Catholic commitments, to US Evangelical polemicists and to civilization warriors everywhere.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, given history conceived as if the historical world were stood upon its head, there is little room for concrete Arabia. There is a conspicuous incuriosity in the scholarship discussed here about cult and cultic associations (what Paleo-Muslims were initially), the languages of worship and prophecy (shared by polytheistic and monotheistic religions), Muhammad’s occasionally divided self, the genesis of Allah, polytheism, henotheism, monotheism and monolatry (the Qur’an has moments of all) in Arabia and beyond. Recent as well as older work informed by ethnography and the history of religions comes to be regarded in this context as eccentric, indulging somewhat exotic tastes. Needless to say, archaeology and epigraphy appear only adventitiously.

The primary features of this trend in the study of Paleo-Islam, and its outcomes, possibilities and limitations, are to a considerable degree reflected in most of the eight contributions to the book under review. Devin Stewart reflects thoughtfully on the state of Qur’anic studies as he sees it, noting various trends (New Biblicism, oral performance, New Textualism and others), and recent firm institutionalisation, ultimately under the impact of historiographic trends related to Hagarism. For this he coined the term Allohistory, to designate the history of a derivative movement and its epigonic scripture. Unfortunately, he devotes only a hasty summary of developments in studies of orality, canonisation and codicology, which are now the most promising fields. Inexplicably, Stewart’s essay is oddly off balance, seemingly susceptible to the shadow of hyper-critical scholarship, dedicating considerable space to Luxenberg’s kooky theses proposing that the Qur’an be a Christian text in pidgin Syriac, while allocating no more than a throwaway reference to work on the Qur’an’s Arabian conditions, to which Stewart himself had made a productive contribution.

Stewart also writes of a Late Antiquarian trend in Qur’anic studies, and this is well represented here by Angelika Neuwirth’s characteristically engaging contribution. Propelled by what one suspects is a quest for historical inclusiveness, the Qur’an is regarded as an integral part of Late Antiquity, related to previous texts not by ‘borrowing’ but by ‘intertextuality.’ Of all the contributors to this volume, Neuwirth is by far the most explicitly sensitive to the improbabilities of hyper-criticism. Yet the conception of Late Antiquity here deployed lacks the requisite language for grasping Arabia and the Arabs according to their concrete historical measure, being philologically-constrained intellectual history. Late Antiquity appears less as a time and place with specific social actors than a receptacle for religion, reduced to what is described grandly as an “epistemic space.” This space is animated by texts and mythemes of seemingly indeterminate social, cultural and religious consistencies, more a primal soup of motifs and fragments than elements with determinate places, chronologies, and media and agents of circulation. Dwelling in no particular places, times or contexts, they can readily be attributed to any. The ostensible shift of Paleo-Islam here proposed, from a pious conventicle sustained by psalmody in the early Meccan period to a liturgical community later on, is described almost as an outflow of the text with a hypothetical captive congregation. That said, Neuwirth shows expertly and cogently that the relation of the Qur’an to previous scriptures and dogmatic templates is one of typology, mimesis, counter-history and the deployment of mythemes. Yet the way in which Arab cultic arrangements on the ground, with their motifs, turns of religious language, structured socio-liturgical practices and much else crucially, remain distant.

Neuwirth declares herself against supposing a “premeditated authorial process” for the Qur’anic text. This supposition has generally been postulated in models proposed for the emergence and canonization of the Qur’anic text, supposing it to have been composed consecutively and revised from dictation or transcription, with ideas of a master-copy existing somewhere presumed, but not elaborated, and unjustified assumptions of suratic coherence. This model of composition over-simplifies the history of Qur’anic emergence, supposing the Book’s development to have been primarily bookish, and is well represented in this volume by Nicolai Sinai’s contribution, which speaks of literary growth and editorial expansion.

The author sets out clearly and explicitly what he proposes to do and not to do; he is highly accomplished technically, and prudent in judgement, a prudence highlighted equally by ritual disavowal of Arabic historical narratives, the acceptance of which might be “inappropriately credulous,” unless worthiness may be demonstrated, and it be used only by way of reconfirmation. Sinai proposes, broadly, a refinement and expansion, a “codification” of Nöldeke’s famous history of the Qur’an (initiated in 1857), with detailed work on the opening sections of two suras (5 and 9), aiming to disentangle their inner chronological layers, with sound results overall. One would expect and hope that Sinai will continue and extend this line of research. But one would also hope that chronological layers will be taken for more than editorial interventions, and referred back to more complex, less linear Sitz im Leben of multiple reiterations in multiple media during the lifetime of Muhammad. Instead, here Sinai seems to wish to resist such concrete description of the extra-textual and para-textual processes and elements of composition, and older as well as recent work that explores these in detail, including textual issues such as the major indicator of pronominal shifts, which he does not like. The consequence is keeping Arabian conditions invisible, perhaps irrelevant.

Joseph Witzum’s contribution to this volume relates to a Qur’anic passage (Q 33:69), seeking to show the great degree to which early Islamic sources were steeped in biblical lore. Indeed, early Islamic Qur’anic and para-Qur’anic traditions are steeped in Biblical and para-Biblical lore, but the relationship of Paleo-Islam and the Paleo-Muslim canon to this lore is more complex and more interesting. It cannot be adjudicated with reference to what Biblical scholars a generation ago viewed unfavorably as “paralellomania”: in itself, a harmless antiquarian sport which nevertheless claims too much explanatory potential. The relationship between Paleo-Islam and its canon to earlier religions and texts cannot be summarily reduced to the supposition made in Crone’s spirited contribution that Muhammad’s constituency were “saturated” with thought of Biblical origin, and were “so well informed about biblical and para-biblical literature”, which they “must” have acquired “by attending synagogue service.” Crone also states that, with regard to Muhammadan ritual as “residues” of Muhammad’s alleged God-Fearer days, and by extension to the whole domain of Paleo-Islam, “one guess is as good as another.”

This indifference to probability and plausibility could hardly be encouraging. It is correlative with unwillingness to read Arabic historical sources forensically, and to ethnographic incuriosity. Crone prefers at one point to confine her propositions to what might be inferred from the Qur’an, which is a potentially productive procedure, and from sources from outside Arabia, irrespective of their probative value.

Regarding “saturation” with biblical knowledge, often proposed in recent scholarship, small constituencies of Muhammad’s may indeed have had some fragmentary familiarity with Biblical names and some narrative and mythemetic motifs, retained even more fragmentarily in an environment that was woefully under-catechised (even in Syria). Christianity in some places, including Najran, is likely hardly to have exceeded a cult of the cross, observed alongside other cults, as one might see this practiced in some Hindu temples in parts of India today. Assertions of saturation would also misconstrue the nature and settings of Qur’an’s circulation as primarily vatic speech and beatific audition, fragmentarily delivered, rather than a book of instruction or one read consecutively. One gains the impression that Muhammad’s listeners are here modeled on congregations that one might expect in Princeton University’s Chapel or London’s Brompton Oratory. A Book with a preternatural source cannot in any case be presumed to be subject to normal expectations, including clarity of reference. Further, there are no grounds for assuming that Muhammad’s audiences were homogeneous; certain Qur’anic passages, for example, might have conveyed an evocation of standard eschatological scenarios to some, and have been received by others as a this-worldly malediction, as Quraysh-specific chastisement resulting from betylic wrath, well reflected in Arabian legends (including Thamud in the Qur’an). Viewing the pre-exegetical Qur’an entirely in light of later developments is unhelpful.

This saturation hypothesis is only one in a series of cumulative postulates upon which Crone’s contribution is based (that God fearers were a denomination, that they were Judaeo-Christian, that they were to be found in Arabia, that Muhammad had been one), each spun out of the preceding one and as improbable as the next. Transposed to Arabia, the allogenic setting appears monotheistic, pagan “only in the minimalist sense,” the author citing one unique “genuinely” pagan practice remaining, female infanticide. How the Ka’ba, the various component rituals of Meccan pilgrimage, the jinn, and much else are classified in this scheme remains unsaid. There is assertively a blanket attribution of monotheism which has little justification, except as part of a patterned monotheistic history of self-definition, which is linear, abhors unevenness and is shared by Muslim divines, where earlier periods are merely typological prefigurations. This makes the emergence of Allah appear as if it were somehow self-evident and self-explanatory, as in Muslim traditions. As evidence, Crone takes the Qur’an, unblinkingly, for the record of Muhammad’s addresses to his audience. He tells them that they were monotheists. This is apparently sufficient to make the audience monotheistic. What, then, of the rhetorical ways that the Qur’an shares with many other oratorical occasions, including the hectoring and shaming of an audience by importunately telling them that they believe what they don’t necessarily believe, in order to constrain them to acceding to the speaker’s wishes?

Only if the assumption of Allah’s self-explanatory emergence were relaxed would it be possible to reach a more complex and more interesting picture. Like many other scholars beginning with F. Beeston, Crone cited South Arabia of the fifth and sixth centuries and what is known as Rahmanism as evidence for Arabian monotheism, the discussion being pitched at the level of ostensible theology rather than cultic practice. This point had been made elaborately by Ivona Gajda in previous work based largely on evidence from archaeology and epigraphy. Her contribution to this volume nuances this position considerably, although still speaking of a “neutral,” presumably non-denominational monotheism, despite a gingerly note of skepticism she directed towards Crone’s contribution. She remains, nevertheless, confined to predictable terms of reference and desists from considering the interesting issues that arise from considerations of henotheism and monolatry. Gerald Hawting’s contribution, on whether there may have been prophets in pre-Muhammadan Arabia, is engrossed by uncertainties in Arabic sources, and will conclude only, and not entirely convincingly, that there may have been messianic expectations in Arabia comparable to Christian interpretations of veterotestamental prophets.

Finally, Cook’s contribution sits somewhat uncertainly with the rest of the volume in thematic and chronological terms. It seeks contrastively to investigate alleged Christian acceptance of secular law with the allegedly inhospitable Muslim attitudes, sustained as these were by “hardline monotheism.” Apart from the implicit presumption that theology might explain law and politics, from begging the question of what constitutes religious law, and the supposition of overall uniformity for each of these religions, one is not quite certain if the task of this essay was purposeful comparison in terms of broad categories relating to law and religion, or the erection of clichés. The former task would have elicited types of sources on both sides that would nuance the primary thesis resulting here, to such an extent as to disconfirm it.

It seems a pity that Hagarism is no longer being reprinted. It had cast a shadow on the mainstream of the entire field and generated an atmosphere of captive complaisance, which has blunted sound and cogent criticism. This is a curious issue related to certain disciplinary and institutional histories and styles, valences of patronage networks and personal sympathies across, first, the Anglo-American and, later, Euro-American systems of academic knowledge production, and interfaces between the academy and ideological and political currents and actors, especially in the broad Middle East studies context. Yet it is clear from the book under review and others that the moods and topoi spawned by hyper-criticism have been depleting scholarly energies in unproductive directions, often determinedly and archly ideological and polemical. Synthetic work like Neuwirth’s belongs to a genre apart; cumulative empirical work like that of Sinai or Gajda is promising. But in order for promising work to be less readily susceptible to being unhinged and canted into the prevalent in-house idiom, dusting the corners after three decades of paradigmatic confinement is unlikely to be sufficient. For all the merit of alertness to source-critical issues, the outcome has created a rather outlandish condition where one might fittingly echo the vexation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice: “things should not be as they seem, and turn out to be as they cannot possibly be.” The field needs to be reset so that history can be brought back into the history of Paleo-Islam. You might call it hijra from Hagaristan.

Dr. Aziz Al-Azmeh is a Professor at Central European University.  He was a founding member and executive committee member of the Center for Religious Studies, which he also directed from 2013 to 2016. He is founding director of Striking from the Margins, a research project at Central European University’s Center for Religious Studies and financed by Carnegie Corporation of New York.


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