Crossroads to Islam

This blogpost does not represent the view of a scholar versed in the subject matter it is dealing with. Although I am an archaeologist, and I happen to know quite a bit about Islam, I am in no way to be considered an expert on either Islam or the history and archaeology of the Middle East in Late Antiquity. Instead, this post is about how a scholar forms an opinion about works of scholarship not in his field, and how ‘scientific instinct’ and human intuition can sometimes force you to take a decision, before you can determine the merits of said work on pure, objective, scientific -and time consuming- grounds.

I’ve been reading ‘Crossroads to Islam: the origins of the Arab religion and the Arab state‘ by Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren the past week. The book came out in 2003 and proposes a radically new theory about where Islam and the qur’an came from and when. In short: it did not originate in the Hijaz, but in Northern Arabia, and it did so during a slow process that only culminated in what we now call ‘islam’ at the end of the 8th century, not in the first half of the 7th.

To prove his theory, Nevo uses various archaeological sources: the results of digs in the Middle East, pictures and texts on early Islamic coins, early Arabic papyri and Arabic inscriptions from the first few Islamic centuries in the Middle East, most notably the Negev. Besides that he also uses non-Muslim contemporary sources. I say ‘Nevo’ because from the introduction it is clear that most of the work that went into the book was done by Nevo, and finished by Koren after his untimely death in 1992.

As I said, I am not an expert in early Arabic epigraphy, nor in any type of numismatics, nor in the archaeology of the Middle East, but still I get the strong impression that the book proposes a untennable hypothesis. One reason -and the only acceptably scholarly one- is that we now know the qur’an to be an ancient document that certainly predates the 8th century, thanks to the finds of very old qur’an fragments in Sanaa in Jemen. Nevo follows Wansbrough in his thesis that the qur’an in its present form dates to the end of the 8th, or the 9th century at the earliest. He may -like Wansbrough- not have been aware of these finds (they are certainly not mentioned in his book). But for all other reasons I have had to resort to intuition and gut feeling, rather than expertise.

Back in university I learned two useful concepts: ‘context of discovery’ and ‘context of justification’. The former refers to how you come up with an idea, the latter with how you scientifically justify it. The two are not necessarily the same!

As for context of discovery: throughout the book, actually already in the first chapter, I got the overwhelming impression that Nevo is into something very close to conspiracy theories. It was either that or his career as an archaeologist was secondary and he used to be a lawyer before he chose to be an archaeologist.

Now, I need to at least elaborate from a context of justification. To start with the point that got me thinking in the first place: Nevo proposes a hypothesis on the policy of the Roman empire towards its provinces in the Levant in the first chapter. The hypothesis boils down to this: the Arabs didn’t wrest this part of the world from Byzantine control, but simply took over because it had been the policy of the Roman Empire ever since Diocletian to give up these lands and install a satellite state there. This policy was pursued from the 3rd century to the 8th and entailed not only creating a local elite that could take over the new buffer state but also encouraging religious differences with the Byzantine state.

The first process is a known one in the western part of the Roman empire also: border provinces imported ‘barbarians’ from abroad, giving them land to live on in return for strengthening the border defenses. Eventually these people took over and the West was lost. It may be regarded as a conscious policy, but it’s generally seen as a way to preserve territory, not lose it.

Nevo’s thesis would be the first instance of a state in history that voluntarily chooses to delegate itself away in certain areas. Not only that, it amounts roughly to claiming that British foreign policy towards the America’s for example has been pursuing the same goals and using the same means to attain those ends ever since Henry VIII. It also assumes a Roman/Byzantine empire that was in control during half a millennium, playing it’s allies and enemies around like pawns and not suffering at any time from powerful dissidents or political or religious strife that could have spoiled their grand political strategy. That stretches the imagination.

All this got me in a sceptic mood, but it’s where Nevo starts explaining about the conscious encouragement of religious differences where I really started to frown. The Byzantine empire was characterised by many theological strifes in which the state took a great interest. Nevo assumes these strifes were also part of the grand scheme to decouple the Arab territories from the main empire. When the Christians in both the empire and their Arab satellites seemed to have found some kind of unity in accepting the idea of Monothelitism, the empire made a volte face by suddenly condemning it in 680, thus leaving the nascent Arab states with their own religious identity, as had been intended.

According to Nevo it was all purpose. An almost almighty state, controlling or at least successfully manipulating policy, local elites, religion both internal and external during half a millennium, without ever meeting a serious obstacle and with eventual success: the Middle East became a separate Arab polity. It’s too slick, too smooth, too much of a conspiracy theory to me.

After that, smaller things begin to attract attention. Like Nevo’s use of the writings of St. John of Damascus (676-749), who lived through the period Nevo describes and who used for what we now call ‘muslims’ the word ‘pagans’. Archaeologically it is an attested fact that paganism was all but dead in the 8th century. Nevo uses that and St. John’s terminology to prove the Arabs were still pagan -in a modern sense- in the 8th century. At no point does Nevo acknowledge that St. John may have used the word simply to indicate anything that was just non-Christian and non-Jewish.

Similar streaks of literal-mindedness permeate the book. Let one other example suffice. The same St. John of Damascus at one point mentions the Arab’s holy writ. Instead of using the word ‘qur’an’ or something that sounds like it, he mentions several titles of separate sura’s from the qur’an, like ‘the cow‘. He also mentions ‘the camel’, which is now not a chapter of the qur’an. Nevo concludes from this that during his lifetime the qur’an was not yet a fixed text and the holy writ of the Arabs was still composed of separate bodies of texts, known under their chapter name. We now know this to be incorrect, but even if we had not known this, Nevo should at least have dealt with a few issues before he could draw this conclusion. Was St. John not very well-informed? This does not seem to be likely as he was the chief administrator of the caliph, but it is by all means possible. Umayyads weren’t too much into religion after all. Nevo bypasses this whole discussion. Was St. John writing for an audience that was very well-informed and knew that ‘the cow’ was part of the qur’an, so any reference to the book by its generic name was unnecessary? May St. John have been mocking the type of titles of the sura’s? Was he referring to a known sura under another name?

Nevo’s book fails to convince me. It raises more questions than it answers and even a relative layman like me can come up with rather obvious counter claims, critical questions or -more serious- methodical shortcomings. The only thing that can be said in favor of it, is that it is a must-read for anyone following the scholarly debates on the origins of Islam.


One Response to “Crossroads to Islam”

  1. […] theorieën over het ontstaan van de islam die nauwelijks wetenschappelijk zijn onderbouwd, overduidelijk naar een vooropgezette conclusie toe redeneren of, in dit geval, niet bijster handig ‘naar de leek toe worden doorgecommuniceerd’. […]

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