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Islam in the Middle Ages: The Origins and Shaping of Classical Islamic Civilization.

Islam in the Middle Ages: The Origins and Shaping of Classical Islamic Civilization. By JACOB LASSNER AND MICHAEL BONNER. Santa Barbara, Calif.: PRAEGER, 2010. Pp. xxiv + 343. $54.95.

In their preface to Islam in the Middle Ages, the two eminent authors position their work in comparison with other descriptions of the establishment and expansion of Islam available in English. They offer a considered and respectful outline of scholarship since the publication of H. A. R. Gibb's Mohammedanism in 1940 and Gustave von Grunebaum's Medieval Islam in 1946. Neither of these formidable accounts has been entirely superseded, but they do not provide the historical setting and implications attempted here. Unlike another prominent historical treatment, Jonathan Berkey's The Formation of Islam, the present book does not attempt to encompass both Muslim and non-Muslim regions and peoples of the Near East. Berkey takes "formation" to extend much further chronologically as well, whereas Lassner and Bonner end their detailed history at about 1000 C.F.., with some observations of subsequent consequences of this period.

It is not as if there are no other books about this period of Islamic history intended for students and scholars of other fields, a non-specialist but fairly serious audience. What sets this volume apart are two factors: an emphasis on assessing the evidence, and a concern for both secular events and the development of religious thought in the first four centuries of the faith.

In any discussion of something as crucially important as the career of Muhammad or the establishment of the Umayyad caliphate, historians will tend to offer cautions about the reliability of the accounts that have come down to us, so it is not particularly innovative to be careful in considering the oral and chronicle traditions. The authors are particularly adept, however, at showing how these histories were influenced by what should have happened in the view of those who composed them. Gratuitous information, implausibilities, and digressions, therefore, reflect the incidents and trends of early Islam that bothered writers or required explanation. Thus the supposed plot to kill Muhammad before his move to Medina seems unlikely given the system of loyalty and conflict resolution, and there is also an exaggeration of the hostility of the prominent citizens of Mecca. In terms of narrative and revelation of religious truth, however, the conspiracy is necessary in order to provide an opportunity for divine intervention, hence validation of the Prophet's mission. Similarly, both cAbbAsid and 'Alid fashioning of early history had to contend with each party's weaknesses, viz., the earlier 'Abbasid temporizing with the Umayyads and overall lack of heroism, versus the inability of the cAlids, despite their steadfast resistance, to win over sufficient support to succeed in their insurrection. In both cases material was made up, highlighted, or shaped to legitimate claims to rulership.

The strength of Islam in the Middle Ages, its careful sifting of putative historical evidence, also makes it difficult to recommend as a basic text appropriate for classes. Not only university students but historians who are not well informed about early Islam will have difficulty with the allusiveness of the narrative and may fail to appreciate the fair evaluation of historical evidence that seems to be in aid of goals imperceptible to the scholarly but in this instance naive reader. That reader is going to have to know that an older historical consensus attributed the rise of the 'Abbasids to the discontent of non-Arab converts, especially Iranians, in order to understand why this view is briefly disposed of, or even that it is being disposed of (p. 106). Similarly, what it means to say that 'Abbasid state organization was not neo-Sasanian may not be sufficiently remarked upon by anyone unfamiliar with the assumption that the relocation to Baghdad and the style of the caliphal court were related to a supposed Persianization of Islamic leadership and culture (p. 150). In both cases the historiographic adjudication obscures the significance of the events.

This is true of even more fundamental concepts and relationships such as the origin of the Shiites (or even that there is a relation between 'Alid and Shi(ite). The career and image of Medwiya were objects of retrospective Shiite hatred (p. 96), but this important observation will be unclear to some readers since it marks the first mention of Shiites. There is a tendency to pass over with minimal comment the important issues that arise for the inexperienced reader, for example why 'Ali could not command more respect and was passed over for leadership, or just how the tax policies worked both to attract and discourage conversion (the mawati problem or non-problem again).

These are for the most part minor flaws. The narrative is clear and there is an easily understandable argument made about the essential fragility of the impressive empire created by the followers of Muhammad. The powerful image of brotherhood in the umma was undermined almost from the start by the divisions among the relations and successors of the Prophet. The conquests were dazzling (although little attempt is made to chronicle them or to explain their surprising success and rapidity), but the internal weaknesses of the ruling structure were evident from an early stage. The creation of Baghdad was impressive but began visibly to unravel within decades, and the even more dramatic overextension of power and money represented by the building of Samara' amounts to part of a pattern, not an isolated instance.

The second half of the book considers religious evolution from the Qur'an to the establishment of the four major legal schools of thought. Religion and historical events are not so much separated as interrelated, but the book does an unusually good job at integrating the evolving content of religious doctrine and practice with the ways of dealing with the community of the faithful, the duties of the individual, and relations with outsiders. As with the historical account there is a particular emphasis on the oral tradition and interpretive problems. In addition to affording an excellent introduction to the major themes and preoccupations of the Qur'an and its commentaries (and here no previous familiarity is assumed), Lassner and Bonner are particularly strong on Muslim attitudes towards Judaism and Christianity and the relation of religious practice to law. The way in which legal principles and norms are derived from the Qur'an is an especially cogent discussion with an emphasis placed on the relation between the sunna as a body of law and the hadith as a way of understanding specific application of the sunna. Here we find the same concern for how oral tradition is formed as was seen in the historical sections, but in a fashion that illuminates what in most other introductory treatments is simply a statement of principles. The book offers throughout a contingent understanding of Islam, truly a process of dynamic formation rather than the establishment of a timeless religious community and ethos.

PAUL FREEDMAN YALE UNIVERSITY
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Author:Freedman, Paul
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
Words:1151
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