On Religion and Historical Narrative

Front cover of The Crucible of Islam.
The Crucible of Islam
G.W. Bowersock
Harvard University Press
240pp £18.95

Glen Bowersock is a historian of estimable range. From Emperor Augustus to Julian the Apostate and from Christian martyrdom narratives to the evolution of mosaics, his interests have taken him far and wide. Arabia has always been a particular focus of his scholarship and so it was only to be expected that he would finally turn to writing about the emergence of Islam.

The challenge of narrating it, though – still less of explaining it – is no simple one. Muslim accounts of what happened during the lifetime of Muhammad and over the course of the Arab conquests are both late and palpably shaped by the ideological convictions of those writing them; contemporary accounts, mostly by Christians, appalled by the emergence of what they viewed as a sinister and bellicose heresy, are no less tendentious and often frustratingly lacking in detail.

In his introduction, Bowersock frankly acknowledges the problem. ‘There is a disquieting emptiness in much of what we know about the Arabs and their religion between approximately 560 and 660.’ The Crucible of Islam is an attempt to shed light on a topic that is ‘notoriously obscure’.

Not every aspect of the period is beyond elucidation. Southern Arabia in the sixth century, the theme of Bowersock’s previous book, The Throne of Adulis (2013), is predictably well-handled and provides a showcase for the way in which Jewish and Christian rivalries were fatefully entangled in those between the Byzantine and Persian empires. Similarly skilled is Bowersock’s exploration of just how unreliable the few eyewitness accounts of the great events of the period can be. As he demonstrates, archaeology has proven particularly useful in demonstrating how carefully they have to be read. Bowersock focuses on how it has signally failed to substantiate the lurid terms in which the fall of Jerusalem to the Persians in ad 614 was described by a monk who had lived through it, or the histrionic accounts of the Arab conquests two decades later. The lesson is one which everyone who studies the beginnings of Islam constantly has to bear in mind. Very few written sources, in a period shot through with convulsive religious rivalries and apocalyptic yearnings, can be trusted as objective reports of what might actually have happened.

What, then, when we come to the inevitable core of Bowersock’s narrative – the career of Muhammad – are we to make of his explanation for the origins of the Quran? ‘The revelations that Gabriel brought to Muhammad came in Mecca’ is a simply astonishing sentence for a historian, let alone a non-Muslim historian, to write. Presumably, it is being offered as a rhetorical turn of phrase – except that the same assertion, the casual insistence that the Quran came to Muhammad via an angel, is repeatedly made throughout the book without so much as a breath of qualification. It is hard to over-emphasise just how yawning a gap this leaves at the heart of Bowersock’s exploration of the origins of Islam. The Quran, according to Muslim belief, was both the proof and the fruit of Muhammad’s prophethood. No explanation of Islam’s emergence that does not also explain how and why its holy book came to take the form it did can hold water. Bowersock does not even try.

The reason for this, I can only assume, is that to attempt to trace the origins of the Quran to human sources and to place it in the context of what has fittingly been described as the ‘sectarian milieu’ of late antiquity, is almost impossible without also questioning the traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life. How, if Muslim biographies of the Prophet are accurate, is the emergence of a biblically suffused monotheism in an exclusively pagan cult centre to be explained, except as what Islam has always claimed it to have been: a miracle?

It is bewildering that Bowersock, a rightly esteemed and demanding scholar, should reproduce as history what Patricia Crone, another Princeton historian of Arabia, once aptly summed up as ‘an Arabian Heilsgeschichte’. How can he – correctly – doubt the reliability of an eyewitness account of an event that we can be certain happened, yet also put his trust in biographies written two centuries after their subject died, set in a cult centre that may never even have existed and which have as their central episode an overtly supernatural intervention?

Great scholar though Bowersock is, The Crucible of Islam is a book unworthy of him.

Tom Holland’s books include  In the Shadow of the Sword (Abacus, 2013).

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