"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).

Friday, July 16, 2021

The Life of Mohammad and Early Islam

It is by no means uncommon for Eastern and other Christians in their more zealously apologetic works to portray themselves up against a hard-nosed enemy in Islam that brooked no tolerance of perceived ambiguity and ambivalence in certain Christian teachings, especially around the incarnation and Trinity. Even more common today, especially in America over the last two decades, one finds all sorts of reactionary commentators willing to portray Islam as an intolerant and incorrigibly violent "fundamentalist" tradition that brooks no uncertainty or ambiguity at all. To be sure, some Muslims figures, not least those associated with ISIS, themselves put forward this same version of Islam. Whether by ISIS or its opponents, such a portrait of Islam is seriously at odds with the developed tradition and invariably tendentious.

Two recent books will help us appreciate that both the life of Mohammad and the development of Islam, were, of course, far messier and more complex than extreme apologists for it, or extreme "Orientalist" opponents of it, like to admit. 

The first of these is simply a new translation of a major biography that has been around for some time in French: Muhammad, by Maxime Rodinson, trans. Anne Carter (NYRB Classics, 2021), 432pp. 

Tariq Ali has a very appreciative and helpfully contextualizing review of this biography in a recent issue of the London Review of Books. About this book we are told this by the publisher:

A classic secular history of the prophet Muhammad that vividly recreates the fascinating time in which Islam was born.

Maxime Rodinson, both a maverick Marxist and a distinguished professor at the Sorbonne, first published his biography of Muhammad in 1960. The book, a classic in its field, has been widely read ever since. Rodinson, though deeply versed in scholarly studies of the Prophet, does not seek to add to it here but to introduce Muhammad, first of all, as “a man of flesh and blood” who led a life of extraordinary drama and shaped history as few others have. Equally, he seeks to lay out an understanding of Muhammad’s legacy and Islam as what he called an ideological movement, similar to the universalist religions of Christianity and Buddhism as well as the secular movement of Marxism, but possessing a singular commitment to “the deeply ingrained idea that Islam offers not only a path to salvation but (for many, above all) the ideal of a just society to be realized on earth.” 

Rodinson’s book begins by introducing the specific land and the larger world into which Muhammad was born and the development of his prophetic calling. It then follows the steps of his career and the way his leadership gave birth to a religion and a state. A final chapter considers the world as Islam has transformed it.

The second book looks to be equally important: A Culture of Ambiguity: An Alternative History of Islam by Thomas Bauer. Translated by Hinrich Biesterfeldt and Tricia Tunstall (Columbia University Press 336pp. About this book the publisher tells us this: 

In the Western imagination, Islamic cultures are dominated by dogmatic religious norms that permit no nuance. Those fighting such stereotypes have countered with a portrait of Islam’s medieval “Golden Age,” marked by rationality, tolerance, and even proto-secularism. How can we understand Islamic history, culture, and thought beyond this dichotomy?

In this magisterial cultural and intellectual history, Thomas Bauer reconsiders classical and modern Islam by tracing differing attitudes toward ambiguity. Over a span of many centuries, he explores the tension between one strand that aspires to annihilate all uncertainties and establish absolute, uncontestable truths and another, competing tendency that looks for ways to live with ambiguity and accept complexity. Bauer ranges across cultural and linguistic ambiguities, considering premodern Islamic textual and cultural forms from law to Quranic exegesis to literary genres alongside attitudes toward religious minorities and foreigners. He emphasizes the relative absence of conflict between religious and secular discourses in classical Islamic culture, which stands in striking contrast to both present-day fundamentalism and much of European history. Bauer shows how Islam’s encounter with the modern West and its demand for certainty helped bring about both Islamicist and secular liberal ideologies that in their own ways rejected ambiguity—and therefore also their own cultural traditions.

Awarded the prestigious Leibniz Prize, A Culture of Ambiguity not only reframes a vast range of Islamic history but also offers an interdisciplinary model for investigating the tolerance of ambiguity across cultures and eras.

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