Remapping Emergent Islam. Texts, Social Settings, and Ideological Trajectories
Remapping Emergent Islam – Book Sample
Introduction – Remapping Emergent Islam
This multidisciplinary volume aims at moving forward the scholarly discussion on Islam’s origins by paying attention to three domains – textual, social, and ideological – whose intersections need to be examined afresh to get a more-or-less clear picture of the concurrent phenomena that made possible the emergence of a new religious identity and the progressive delimitation of its initially fuzzy boundaries.
It therefore deals with the renewed analysis of a number of key texts, social contexts, and ideological developments relevant for the study of Islam’s beginnings – taking the latter expression in its broadest possible sense.
More specifically, the essays in this volume explore: (1) the multifactored socio-cultural milieux in which the early quranic movement might have gradually taken shape, as well as their multi-layered ideological frameworks, which are the subject of chapters 1–4; and (2) the various ways in which its identity was measured, narrated, and encrypted – i.e. directly or indirectly thematised – within and beyond the Qur’ān itself, on which, in turn, chapters 5–9 offer renewed insights.
No unifying pattern in terms of methodology and style has been imposed on the authors’ creativity. Intentionally. For selecting different accoutrements when disembarking on a continent still lacking any precise cartography risks different perceptions of its landscape, which cannot be totalised beforehand. Furthermore, the pretension that such cartography exists, and that such totality must be taken for granted at the very outset of the exploration, is what this volume would like to question.
Thus in Chapter 1, ‘South Arabian “Judaism”, Ḥimyarite Raḥmanism, and the Origins of Islam’, Aaron W. Hughes explores the social and religious settings of South Arabia at the advent of Islam. Rather than assume that the ‘Jews’ of Ḥimyar (present-day Yemen) were religiously normative (as scholars like Glen W. Bowersock do), Hughes works on the assumption that they were not.
Who, to use but one example, were the Ḥimyarite Raḥmanists of South Arabia?Were they ‘Jewish’, ‘Christian’, or some combination thereof? This fluidity of religious forms and identities – argues Hughes – means that boundaries amongst Arabian Christianity, Judaism, and what would emerge as Islam were often ambiguous. And yet this ambiguity – he adds – does not mean that there were not distinct Christianising and Judaising tendencies, given the lengthy history of these two religious traditions in the area. In short it is not simply the case that Islam emerges as the sum of other, more established, monotheisms in the area, but that Islam’s appearance played an active role in their self-definition, which went in both directions – he concludes.
In turn, in Chapter 2, ‘Early Islam as a Messianic Movement: A Non-Issue?’, José Costa reminds us that, while the Qur’ān refers to Jesus as al-masīḥ, the ‘Messiah’, it never explains the meaning of the term. Besides – he goes on to say – if one leaves aside the ambiguous passages dealing with al-masīḥ, then the Messiah and messianism do not appear in the Qur’ān. And this absence is all the more puzzling given that eschatology and apocalypticism do play an important role within it.
Some scholars have argued that Muhammad’s function was to announce the imminent coming of the Jewish Messiah or the return of Jesus, and that the messianic materials of the Qur’ān were erased from the text at a later period. In his paper, Costa offers an alternative approach to the issue, based on often overlooked aspects of Jewish and Jewish-Christian eschatology. As pointed out by David Flusser – Costa underlines – ‘for ancient Judaism the idea of eschatological salvation was more important than the concept of Messiah. Hence there are books from the Second Temple period where the Messiah does not occur, even if they refer to eschatological salvation.’
Moreover, the Rabbis only admitted a sort of minimalist messianism. This Jewish background contributes to shed light on the early layers of the Qur’ān, which contain an eschatology without Messiah. Conversely, in its late layers one finds a a non-eschatological Messiah identified with Jesus, which, in turn, may be related to Ebionite conceptions – Costa argues.
Daniel A. Beck takes an altogether different approach to the beginnings of Islam in Chapter 3, ‘The Astral Messenger, The Lunar Redemption, The Solar Salvation: Manichaean Cosmic Soteriology in the Qur’ān’s Archaic Surahs (Q 84, Q 75, Q 54)’, where he interprets the cosmological imagery of several archaic quranic passages, with special attention to analysing their depiction of the moon as an eschatological sign and soteriological mechanism.
Beck argues that the parallel celestial messenger’s oaths embody Manichaean cosmological concepts, in which the sun and moon were the primary cosmic vehicles of redemption during the ‘Third Evocation’, our human era. By comparing archaic quranic cosmology, ancient North Arabian devotional epigraphy, and Manichaean cosmology, he suggests that the divine speaker’s oaths were discontinuous with Old Arabic pagan devotional structures, and were instead closely related to contemporary forms of late antique Manichaean eschatology.
In turn, in Chapter 4, ‘Messalianism, Binitarianism, and the East-Syrian Background of the Qur’ān’, I make the point that the theology of the earliest quranic layers displays a puzzling characteristic: it is – I claim – overtly binitarian. Such theology was soon replaced by the combination of a human prophetology and a more strictly monotheist theology that entailed not only an ‘epistemological rupture’, but also the ‘foreclosure’ of the Qur’ān’s early binitarianism. Through the interplay and alignment of quranic discourse analysis, structuralist-Marxist epistemology, and Lacanian psychoanalysis, I thus try to uncover the most plausible historical setting of the early binitar-ian theology of the Qur’ān in light of the east-Syrian monastic crisis of the early seventh century and the role played in it by the Messalians, whose recent characterisation as a ‘polemical category’ I also discus.
In other words, whereas chapters 1 and 2 examine possible Jewish back-grounds for the early quranic movement, chapters 3 and 4 instead inquire into peripheral Christian settings. And they arrive at contrasting conclusions, because they place their interpretative stresses on different aspects of the extremely rich and complex quranic textuality.
An additional contrast, this time between chapters 2, 3, and 4, on the one hand, and chapter 1, on the other hand, is that while the former three begin by rethinking a series of concepts and/or conceptual strategies, and then attempt to offer a tentative reconstruction of their more-likely background, the latter attempts to clarify a historical context right from the start.
Moreover, it could be argued that, rather than searching for cultural re-elaborations as chapters 2, 3, and 4 do, chapter 1 analyses primarily cultural effects. And yet these four chapters all deal with issues related to the process of cultural adjustment at the textual, social, and ideological levels.
Basil Lourié brings together the Jewish and Christian trimmings of emergent Islam in Chapter 5, ‘The Jewish and Christian Background of the Earliest Islamic Liturgical Calendar’, by exploring the ways in which the Islamic festivals of ‘Āšūrā’ (10 Muḥarram), Laylat al-Mi‘rāǧ (27 Raǧab), and Laylat al-Qadr (at the end of Ramaḍān) preserve the core structure of Jewish and early Christian calendars, where the main dates were the Day of Atonement, Passover, and Pentecost (although, in the Second Temple period and in Christian Jerusalem, the Day of Atonement and the Christian feasts on 13–14 September derived from it were assimilated into Passover).
Now, while the two former festivals share an Exodus-typology – observes Lourié – the revelation of the Qur’ān in the latter has an obvious precedent in the Jewish and Christian Pentecosts. These considerations – he adds – are
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