"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Problems of Arabic Historiography of Conquest

Every group, nation, state, culture, or even church or religious group tends to write the history of its founding and of its past with a certain eye on the present and another on the future. As I have often quoted the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, "memories always have a certain future in mind." And very often, too, in the writing of that history those memories are rarely displayed, so far as can be known, in all their messiness. Rather, they are often tidied up into carefully selected narratives of "chosen trauma" and "chosen glory," to use Vamik Volkan's very useful concepts.

All of that is true in spades for the historiography of the rise of Islam, the problems with and in which are notorious and have long bedeviled scholars. Released in December in a paperback version, Boaz Shoshan, The Arabic Historical Tradition and the Early Islamic Conquests: Folklore, Tribal Lore, Holy War (2016, Routledge) reminds us anew of those problems and takes a fresh and necessary look at them.

As the publisher tells us about this book:
The early Arab conquests pose a considerable challenge to modern-day historians. The earliest historical written tradition emerges only after the second half of the eighth century- over one hundred years removed from the events it contends to describe, and was undoubtedly influenced by the motives and interpretations of its authors. Indeed, when speaking or writing about the past, fact was not the only, nor even the prime, concern of Muslims of old.
The Arabic Historic Tradition and the Early Islamic Conquests presents a thorough examination of Arabic narratives on the early Islamic conquests. It uncovers the influence of contemporary ideology, examining recurring fictive motifs and evaluating the reasons behind their use. Folklore and tribal traditions are evident throughout the narratives, which aimed to promote individual, tribal and regional fame through describing military prowess in the battles for the spread of Islam. Common tropes are encountered across the materials, which all serve a central theme; the moral superiority of the Muslims, which destined them to victory in God’s plan.
Offering a key to the state of mind and agenda of early Muslim writers, this critical reading of Arabic texts would be of great interest to students and scholars of early Arabic History and Literature, as well as a general resource for Middle Eastern History.

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