Blogs > Cliopatria > Crossroads To Islam

Jun 29, 2007 5:20 pm

Crossroads To Islam

A few years ago a book came out called Crossroads to Islam. To call it a revisionist history is to state the case too weakly. It would also tend to give revisionist history a very, very bad name. In the future, I will probably have more extended remarks about this book, but for the moment I will focus mainly on the book's claims about Byzantine religious policy, as that is my main interest in the book.

Crossroads to Islam has many controversial interpretations of early Islam and 6th and 7th century Byzantium. In fact, to call them controversial once again fails to capture how bizarre they are. One of the its principal claims is that Islam as anything like the distinctive monotheistic religion that it was later did not exist in the seventh century in any way. This is not just a claim that Islam developed over time or borrowed heavily from Jewish and Christian sources, both of which are familiar and more or less defensible arguments. The book's claim is that Muhammad never existed, the entire tradition about him was invented substantially later, at the end of the seventh century under Caliph Abd al-Malik, and that Islam as its own religion is a product of the eighth and ninth centuries. Again, this is not merely a claim that Christians initially believed Islam to be a new Christian heresy (which they did), but that everything distinctive about Islam was only created much later. Oh, yes, and Mu'awiya was the first caliph. All of this allegedly comes from rock inscriptions, archaeological research and recourse to "contemporary sources." However, "contemporary sources" on the Muslim side are essentially non-existent as far as literary records go, and on the Byzantine side every piece of evidence suggests that this revisionism is dead wrong.

I trust that there are Islamicists more competent than I am in early Islamic history who have and will continue to make the necessary arguments to refute these claims. The claims about Byzantine policy are equally odd, if less inherently offensive to hundreds of millions of people, and they are no more defensible. The main claim is that Byzantine religious policy from the late sixth century onwards was a deliberate effort to alienate the Near Eastern, non-Chalcedonian populations of the empire with increasingly confrontational religious policies. I am certainly sympathetic to revision of Byzantine religious history, but this is ridiculous. Besides being based mainly on conjecture derived from secondary sources, such as Aziz Atiya's History of Eastern Christianity, most of which are not even the standard references for Byzantinists, the evidence for a planned Byzantine withdrawal from some of its richest territories is that the Byzantines used the Ghassanids as foederati. This supposedly proves that the Byzantines were giving up on the Near East, even though most of their subjects and tax revenues came from the provinces they were apparently in a hurry to cast off.

There are obvious reasons why this is completely unpersuasive. States are not in the business of hiving off their richest territories and actively pursuing policies that they know and hope will cause their subjects to welcome the end of their rule. States may be indifferent to their subjects' attitudes towards the rulers, but they are definitely not indifferent to a decline in revenues and power. On the religious side, without giving away too much of my dissertation, I will simply say that the authors of Crossroads to Islam do not understand some of the most basic theological questions involved in the religious disputes of the sixth and seventh century in the Christian Near East. They say, for instance, that the "result of the religious policy which Byzantium pursued during these crucial years was to remove the remaining vestiges of Chalcedonianism from the eastern provinces, by unifying both churches, Orthodox and Monophysite, in acceptance of a non-Chalcedonian position." (p. 61) This would be interesting, if there were any truth to it. The problem with monotheletism was not that it was non-Chalcedonian, but that it was Chalcedonian while also trying to sound ever-more extremely Cyrilline. Chalcedonianism did not cease to exist in the eastern provinces, but split into two factions over this very question, while the non-Chalcedonians went on their merry way, being largely quite indifferent to a dispute between "Synodites." There are additional problems with the book's treatment of monotheletism (and virtually everything else), but this gives a basic sense of the kind of mistakes that the authors make.

Cross-posted at Eunomia, The American Scene and WWWTW

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Jonathan Dresner - 7/2/2007

I'm talking about historical and intellectual patterns. Apparently fruitlessly.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/1/2007

As a matter of fact, _no_ one here has objected to such an inquiry and, if you'd bothered yourself to read the conversation, you'd know that. The objections have been to bad scholarship -- bad scholarship, whether it concerns the early history of Islam or the politics of the Byzantine empire.

Hank Bower - 7/1/2007

As I understand it, the real problem in looking at Islamic origins is that there is no non-Muslim evidence of the historicity of Muhammed or 7th century Islam. The only evidence comes from Muslim literary sources. The earliest extant biography of Muhammed was written over 200 years after his death. It was supposedly based on the earliest biography (long since lost to history) written over 100 years after Muhammed's death.

As one of the revisionists put it, "Consider the prospect of reconstructing the origins of Chritianity on the basis of the writings of Clement or Justin in a recension by Origen."

Traditionalists have simply accepted Muslim sources as being adequate. This is as though sholars accepted the gospels, Acts of the Apostles and the letters in the Christian scriptures as fully adequate to answer all questions about the origins of Christianity. The surprising fact seems to me not that some scholars are raising questions about the strength of the evidence of Islamic origins, but that some scholars seem to oppose asking such questions.

To make this puzzle even more curious, apparently no independent sources attest to Mecca as an important trading city in the 6th and 7th century. As I understand it, no archaeological work has been allowed in Mecca. This contrasts to the tremendous archaelogical work in Jerusalem.

The revisionists seem to apply the same historical critical method to Islam that has been applied to Jewish and Christian scriptures for over 100 years. Some of the commenters seem to see this as leading to crackpot theories. I guess I always thought the type of work that led to the J, E, D and P sources of Torah and the Quella of the synoptic gospels was brilliant scholarly analysis, not crackpot theories.


Ralph E. Luker - 7/1/2007

I don't understand how a "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" observation and a bad analogy constructively advances a conversation about bad scholarship.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/1/2007

I would have mentioned it, if I thought it were a significant component of the history I was talking about.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/1/2007

You forgot to mention Jewish hostility to Christian -- and, in the case of Crossroads -- to Muslim claims.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/1/2007

Sorry, I meant "shouldn't"....

The history of textual criticism has a fair bit of hostility in it as well -- Christian hostility to Jewish claims and secular hostility to Christian claims (and sectarian hostility to sectarian claims) are not far from the surface of a lot of it, at least at the beginning -- and crackpot interpretations often drew on reasonably respectable scholarly theories (some of which have turned out to be really, really wrong) and methods.

Part of our job as scholars is distinguishing the crackpot from the responsible claims, and deciding whether hostility is overwhelming evidence.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/1/2007

Nathanael makes a good point here. Superficially, Crossroads to Islam and Pentateuch revisionism are comparable in that they both challenge founding "mythologies," but some of the reviews suggest that Crossroads is actually closer to Holocaust revisionism is its denial of substantial evidence. The more I read about Crossroads, the more I suspected that ethnic hostility played a greater role in its claims than disinterested research.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 7/1/2007

Isn't there some difference between historical criticism and crackpot theories? I'm not sure that all reinterpretations of the Exodus, for instance, are based on wild assumptions (and personally, I'm comfortable with the notion of mature Judaism being a product of Josiah's era, no Moses'.)

Jonathan Dresner - 7/1/2007

I'm not saying that those crackpots should get brickbats from competent scholars, either. It's good clean fun.

I'm just trying to put it in context.

Daniel B. Larison - 6/30/2007

I suppose there's no reason why it wouldn't suffer from the same crackpots. It happens to be a book that I had come across that I thought was worth remarking on, because it says unusually bizarre things about Byzantine history. My main interest in the book is in its strange ideas about Byzantium. I suppose it matters to me because I am attempting a revisionist interpretation of 7th century Byzantine policy in the East, and so I was interested in showing what particularly crazy revisionism looks like.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/30/2007

Revisionism seems to strike ever religious tradition at some point. The textual debates about the New Testament and the historicity of Christ question, the textual deconstruction of texts in the Pentateuch and archaeological revision of Jewish history, etc..... why shouldn't Islam suffer the same questions and the same crackpots?

Brian Ulrich - 6/30/2007

Revisionism in Islamic origins is nothing new, but this work is off the deep end, and everyone knows it. My advisor wants me to "deal with it" in my dissertation, so I have a few pages about its flaws from the historical perspective. I've also been told their reading of the Sede Boqer remains goes against that of other archaeologists, which would just be icing on the cake.

Daniel B. Larison - 6/29/2007

Thanks for the question. You raise a good point. It seems so wildly wrong that it may not be worth spending much time on in the dissertation, and I don't expect to talk about it much at all. Most of its focus is on its bizarre revisionist account of the origins of Islam, so only a small part of it pertains to my topic in any case. However, it is a relatively recent and revisionist interpretation of 7th century transformation from the Byzantine to the Islamic Near East,and it discusses monotheletism in some detail, and so I think I should take account of it, even if I only do so very briefly. As of right now, I think it will be in my bibliography, which I am trying to make as broad as possible in including all relevant monotheletism-related works, but it will not merit much attention. It was brought to my attention by one of my professors, who recommended that I look at it to be aware of it. It seemed worth talking about, if only to warn people about the problems with it.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/29/2007

Daniel, It's been a very long time since I've read much on Byzantine history or early Islam, but your commments stirred me to look at some reviews of Crossroads to Islam. Those that I read pretty much confirm what you've said about it here. My question is about whether this book simply falls in the category of books that get largely ignored simply because there's a concensus -- established or emerging -- that they're not credible. Will it be in the bibliography of your dissertation? Will you even refer to it in the diss? Why?