Early Islam Wrap-up:

The problem with the study

of Islam’s beginnings

The problems with Islam’s beginnings is that it differs from other important historical time periods in that there is relatively little primary source material to draw from in order to write accurate historical accounts.  Other than the Quran there are no eyewitness accounts of Mohammad’s life. Since religious texts are rarely considered good sources of history, the early Islamic historian is forced to accept historical data that comes later, sometimes two or three centuries later. This has provoked heavy debate within the Islamic historical community.

As Heck argues in “Makkan Trade and the Rise of Islam,” early Islamic sources are mostly “anecdotal.” The serious historian cannot trust these sources unless they are the only ones available.  Therein lies the problem. With scarce primary material to draw on historians are forced into a narrow interpretation of history, allowing for some speculation in the areas, which are not covered.

In most historical arenas scholarly debate is limited to the interpretation of the material. One step further is taken with those who study the beginning of Islam. Interpretation is usually argued as a secondary matter. Debate rages over the actual legitimacy of the data. Often the early historian’s view is tempered with his own religious beliefs, what clan he is associated with and his geographical location in relation to his historical perspective. Modern day historians use this data along with some important but scarce documental letters to piece together a sectional history at best.

Patricia Crone takes the most acerbic stance by using a confrontational style to put her point across. In Hagarism : the making of the Islamic world She argues an Islamic connection to Judaism which disappeared only after Mohammad died. The reaction to this argument evokes a restrained rage within the scholarly Islamic community who find her positions less than admirable. All of the sources used for this study are non-Islamic. They are all from that time period and geographic area but nevertheless are deemed invalid by her critics.

There are other areas however, in which to draw primary source material. Archeology holds the key to much of the physical history of early Islam. Clive Foss wrote “Syria in Transition, A.D. 550-750: An archaeological Approach.” He is able to build a comprehensive physical history of both Antioch and Apamea for the time just before Mohammad to more than a century afterward. Of course, this kind of study is not complete because it leaves out the human element. However, the ruins, broken pottery, old streets are dug up to give a wealth of useful information.

Chase Robinson uses what he calls “source and form criticism” to describe the process in which Islamic historians go about interpreting early Islamic history with a minimum of sources. But even Robinson admits that it promotes more incredible history than credible.

The history of the beginning of the city of Mosul gives a good example of “source and form criticism.” It  began as a monastery which was built adjacent to a military garrison. We know this because the sources cited describe the people taking refuge in the complex during Arab raids. This fits according to Robinson. He says “ Now it is true that ruins and abandoned forts often served as sites for erecting monasteries.”

It seems a little unfair that a history as important as the beginning of Islam should be so devoid of proper primary source documents to interpret what happened. Historians are reduced to accepting “anecdotal” evidence to build their interpretations. Other disciplines help, like archeological excavations but they don’t tell the whole story. Therefore, Early Islamic historians must continue to accept that what is considered primary documentation often written by someone living two or three centuries after the events occurred. It is as if a thousand years from now historians would be forced to write about the American Revolution from historians writing in our own time. That sounds absurd but if that is all the information available, historians would regard it as primary and the interpretation of these documents would be open to debate. It is a comforting relief that the problems that exist with the history of early Islam are not pervasive through other places and times.



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