Derek Davison's History of Islam for Dummies
August 19, 2015 6:59 PM   Subscribe

Writer, researcher, and Middle East scholar Derek Davison is writing an ongoing series on "a very bare bones, 'just the facts' history of Islam" at his blog, and that’s the way it was. In the introduction, he writes: "I'm going to stick as closely as possible to the most commonly accepted historical narrative, for two reasons: one, because the field is refined to the point where what is widely accepted is probably a fairly good approximation of what really happened, and two, because the commonly accepted narrative (particular for the origins of the faith) is what most people learn and therefore what animates their behavior today." posted by Rustic Etruscan (20 comments total) 90 users marked this as a favorite
 
thanks for this! too bad my side of the world is probably (necessarily?) overlooked, as explained in the introduction.
posted by cendawanita at 7:25 PM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Thank you. Up to now, I have resisted any book or blog labeled "X for Dummies." But for the first time, I am making an exception. Despite all the media attention directed towards explaining Islam to those of us who know little about it (especially historically), all I've heard about is the Sunni/Shiite divide, the radical Wahhabi sect, and those moderates who live amongst us in the West and are expected to explain everything to us--and especially, to condemn the radical/violent Islam jihad adherents to the rest of us.

Oh, and then there is always a nod to the glory of the high point of the Muslim world of science and math and etc., a sop thrown to those of us who know something about the contributions of Islam to our modern Western system of knowledge. But, still, I don't know much about the historical context of this high point. I will, if I can work my way through this!
posted by kozad at 8:34 PM on August 19, 2015


There's actually a really great show (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_%28TV_series%29) about the history of Islam, seen through the perspective of the eventual second Caliph Umar who was a contemporary to Muhammad, for those interested in watching rather than reading.
posted by Dalby at 9:09 PM on August 19, 2015


I had no idea Mohammed had a magic flying horse, Buraq. Which apparently, nobody else ever saw. Sounds legit.
posted by w0mbat at 9:19 PM on August 19, 2015


I find it interesting that his first wife, Khadijah, was a businesswoman. In fact they met when she hired him. And they were monogamous throughout their marriage.

You could say she was the first Muslim.
posted by eye of newt at 11:49 PM on August 19, 2015


I kind of dispute the general premise that the field is so refined etc. It seems to me that we're at a really exciting moment in Islamic studies in English where a considerable number of scholars are coming up who are versed in modern techniques of historical analysis and also have thorough Arabic language skills and are not animated by hostility or contempt for their subject matter. There are just rafts of source materials that are being translated into English for the first time or the first time competently in the last few decades. Davison sniffs at Martin Lings' biography of Muhammad for example while Lings was drawing on sources that had never been translated into English before! I get that I'm not the audience he's writing for, but I just don't see how you can be so self-satisfied while possessing so little.
posted by BinGregory at 1:53 AM on August 20, 2015 [6 favorites]


This looks amazing. I just wish it also existed as a History of Rome-style podcast so I could pipe the learning straight into my brain whilst driving.
posted by him at 2:46 AM on August 20, 2015


This is a fantastic resource, and I'm looking forward to giving into it. Thanks very much for posting!
posted by zarq at 4:00 AM on August 20, 2015


> I kind of dispute the general premise that the field is so refined etc.

I do too. I don't think the field has yet come to terms with the radical skepticism of Patricia Crone and M.A. Cook's 1977 Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World; it ignored traditional Muslim sources as being too late and focused solely on contemporary material, and while even the authors decided they had been a little too skeptical, it was a much-needed breath of fresh air that brought into question just about everything that had been "known" about Muhammad and his times. It's obvious why the field hasn't come to terms with it (that approach offends Muslims), but anyone who cares about historical truth should not rest content with the traditions of Islam any more than with those of any other religion.
posted by languagehat at 7:04 AM on August 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


I do too. I don't think the field has yet come to terms with the radical skepticism of Patricia Crone and M.A. Cook's 1977 Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World

FWIW, the one of these I've managed to read yet covers this in what seems like a pretty even-handed way.
posted by brennen at 7:23 AM on August 20, 2015


Thanks, that is pretty even-handed:
Today Hagarism is appreciated for shaking up the stagnant scholarly consensus and making some good, stinging critiques of the way Islamic origins were being studied to that point, but its attempt to rewrite Islamic history is either ignored or downright ridiculed, and has even been disavowed by the authors. Most modern scholarship tends to accept a basic validity of the traditional sources, maybe not on the details but certainly at the level of major events, unless and until new hard evidence is introduced that contradicts them.
The problem is that (to my mind) accepting "a basic validity of the traditional sources" (what does "a basic validity" even mean, by the way?) "unless and until new hard evidence is introduced that contradicts them" is a terrible idea. It's one thing to say "this is the traditional story, and so far no hard evidence has turned up that contradicts it [but that doesn't make it right]" and quite another to say, as I take it scholars tend to, "this is the traditional story, and since no hard evidence has turned up that contradicts it we'll just pass it along as though it were fact." I mean, we don't do that with, say, Homer; we say "there is presumably a certain amount of historical fact behind the story, but we have no way of knowing how much," not "unless proven otherwise, we'll assume the story of Paris and Helen is accurate." (Which is what they did until history became more of a science.)

The very fact that the even-handed account is shunted off into its own "Alternative Theories of Islamic Origins" chapter shows the bias of the field; can you imagine an account of the Trojan War that gave Homer's story as the main one and then had a sidebar saying "By the way, there's no actual evidence for this, and some people think most of it is invented"?
posted by languagehat at 7:43 AM on August 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


Toby Lester had a great piece in the January 1999 Atlantic, "What Is the Koran?," that discusses all this and that I'm pleased to see is no longer behind a paywall. Anyone interested in the topic should read it.
posted by languagehat at 7:50 AM on August 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


People hear "oral tradition" and it calls to mind campfire tales and whatnot. The difference with the Islamic sources, speaking of hadith literature specifically, is that they were subjected to their own robust system of critical scholarly analysis from the get go. To suppose that mutawatir transmission does not convey historical truth is to presume a conspiracy of mind-boggling proportions.
posted by BinGregory at 8:08 AM on August 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


No disrespect, but "X said that Y said that Z said that .... heard it from the mouth of the Prophet" is not exactly compelling proof from a historian's standpoint. No conspiracy required, just normal human error.
posted by languagehat at 12:39 PM on August 20, 2015 [4 favorites]



No disrespect, but "X said that Y said that Z said that .... heard it from the mouth of the Prophet" is not exactly compelling proof from a historian's standpoint. No conspiracy required, just normal human error.

languagehat : My late father and I firmly endorse that. I have only just realised how similar your style of thinking and expressing that thinking is to his.
posted by bardophile at 4:36 PM on August 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


i can agree with the skepticism in general*, but the field itself does have checks for rigour - to get something categorised as mutawatir for example means, for one thing, it's corroborated from other credible sources. It's basically detective work. BUT, that critique isn't exactly misplaced. For one thing, the Prophet may be considered to be a person of unimpeachable character and deep understanding of justice, but his companions were still people.

*But What About That Sahih Hadith? [A quick definition of sahih] - And as my friend points out, the chain of narrators of this hadith has been considered by Shaykh al-Albaani, among other scholars, to be sahih. But then, what is wrong with the imam in Philadelphia? Does he not know about this report? Is he overruling the very command of Prophet (peace be upon him)? Is he, God forbid, a deviant?

These questions not only apply to this imam, but also generalize to other situations. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard “but what about that sahih hadith…” used to criticize scholars, dismiss some fatwas in favor of others, and even undermine entire methodologies of Islamic thought. Thus, I don’t want to limit the discussion to this particular issue. Instead, I want to share some thoughts on why it may be problematic to take a sahih hadith to be the end of the discussion when deducing or dismissing a legal opinion.

posted by cendawanita at 4:44 PM on August 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


"X said that Y said that Z said that .... heard it from the mouth of the Prophet"

"It is known, Khaleesi", right? lol.

But when you also have A getting the exact same thing from B getting it from C, even though C and Z were known ideological enemies and even went to war later on, and D getting the same thing independently from E who got it from F on the other edge of the world because F left Mecca shortly thereafter and never returned. And these chains were sharply contested and weighed so that G who got something contradictory to A and X from H who got it from I, but H and I were not contemporaneous, and the fact that G didn't know that or chose to pass it along anyway means for the muhaddithun that anything else G has to say or is involved in has to be taken with a grain of salt or dismissed entirely. And for the mutawatir hadith there are literally dozens and dozens of unique chains of this sort... It begins to look you are faced with a preponderance of evidence that cannot simply be dismissed out of hand as "tales of the ancients".

I'm not here to argue the point. But what I was saying in my first comment is that we are finally at the point where hadith studies are being engaged with by Western trained scholars who are also competent in and sensitive to the Islamic approach enough to synthesize the two without undue piety on the one hand or orientalism on the other and that's what I'm excited about.
posted by BinGregory at 5:29 PM on August 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yes, that is exciting, and I hope if something turns up that would make a good post you'll post it, because I don't follow this stuff closely and would probably miss it.
posted by languagehat at 6:00 PM on August 20, 2015


Did you hear the possibly oldest Quran fragment in existence was just found in Birmingham? That was wild.
posted by BinGregory at 6:04 PM on August 20, 2015


The Birmingham and Sana'a manuscripts in context by Joseph Lumbard, Brandeis.
posted by BinGregory at 8:57 PM on August 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


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