The Arabs and Islam in Late Antiqiuity: A Critique of Approaches to Arabic Sources

  • Book Title:
 The Arabs And Islam In Late Antiqiuity
  • Book Author:
Aziz Al-Azmeh
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  • Preface vii
  • Divergence of Source Interpretation: the Methodenstreit 1
  • Literary Transmission: Authors, Genres, Traditions 15
  • Credibility and Factual Confirmation 39
  • Genres, Authors and Antiquarians Revisited:
  • the Snares of Narrative 55
  • Fact, Fiction and Narrative Patterns: Ways of Reading 67
  • Transmission of Testimony: the Voice, the Pen, and the Author 87
  • The Pertinence of Poetical Evidence 101
  • Preliminaries to the Use of the Qur’ān as an Historical Source 113
  • Bibliography of ↜a¸€a±®â†œWorks Cited 125
  • Index 149

Divergence of Source Interpretation: 

In the concluding section of a major work, Josef van Ess commented on the Methodenstreit besetting studies of Paleo-Islam.1 Insisting, characteristically, that questions of method should arise from the sources themselves, rather than from what he regards as some epigonal or parasitic relationship to disciplines other than Islamic Studies, he added that the parties to the dispute, particularly the party characterised by what I shall describe as a hyper-critical attitude towards the sources, were fired by institutional group-dynamics and what he calls “Fortschrittspathos,” observing, rather hopefully but not entirely mistakenly, that we have now reached a point where “the old fronts” have lost their attractiveness.2

 Very broadly characterised, these “fronts” are the source-critical and the tradition-historical, the former originally identified with Wellhausen, the latter with Goldziher, followed The Arabs and Islam in Late Antiquity by Schacht in mid-century and the late twentieth-century Schacht “renaissance,”3 after a period of abeyance during which the scholarship of Goldziher had not been much in evidence.

These two approaches to the early Arabic sources were established by scholars who in their times were pioneers: Goldziher, the veritable founder of Islamic Studies,4 alive to contemporary philology and the history of religion, and Wellhausen, the founder of Arab history as a branch of international historical scholarship as well as “the Darwin of Deuteronomy.”5

Both approaches were revived a century later in terms of a dispute over the reliability and the very utility of Arabic literary sources for the reconstruction of the Paleo-Muslim period, with a considerable sharpening of boundaries.6 The initiative was taken, and the challenge was offered, by a hyper-critical school, sometimes expressing itself often with a tart celebration of “Fortschrittspathos” expressed in daring and imaginative views, at others times with a plodding pace spawning one improbable conjecture after another, but in all cases with little conceptual alteration of certain nineteenth-century approaches to the writing of history.

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Van Ess’s is a conservative position, but is yet, not unlike Wellhausen’s when regarded from today’s perspective, one which draws on the strengths of philological research to yield historical reconstructions of considerable importance, and produces results that push far beyond what conservative scholarship might be expected to produce. In terms of approach, this conservative position tends to unite, without clamour, both sides of the “old fronts,” as it deals with the fact that Islamic origins are seen to be largely undocumented, in the hard sense that direct contemporary documentation or witness is, with few exceptions, wanting,7 and draws workable rather than nihilistic cognitive consequences from this condition, a matter to which we shall return below.

 The hyper-critical position, in its turn, is a view which could rather reflect a determined resistance to such documentation as does exist or as could be reconstructed.8 In all, the terms of the debate seem to be starkly simple, counterposing confidence in Arabic sources, critical or uncritical, to the use of hyper-criticism as an elixir against credulity.9

Upon examination, it emerges that the conceptualisation of the hyper-critical position is rudimentary, in fact so simple, and so much given to expressing itself as if giving celebratory voice to the obvious, that it lends itself readily to formulaic and sometimes flippant repetition.

 Decreeing that, as Arabic narrative sources are late compositions, having been written some two centuries after the events they describe (recent research has narrowed the gap to ca. seventy-five years or even less, without altering the conceptual model), they cannot be counted on to provide reliable information on Paleo-Muslim history. Whether such a conclusion is warranted, or adequate, and whether the problem posed thereby is real or contrived, will be discussed in what follows.

But hyper-criticism does nevertheless, in its disarming simplicity, convey the impression that it is somehow irrefutable;10 whether the refutation of a false question is really called for is another matter altogether.

 This postulate of historiographical inadequacy is compounded by maintaining that the narrative sources twisted whatever information may have been transmitted beyond recognition, when they did not in fact invent or counterfeit it. Ultimately, what sceptics seem to find wanting is an historiographical state of innocence, the perfect document that might be taken literally, and it is therein that resides the misapprehension leading to the falsity and artificiality of the problem.

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Further, a rudimentary notion of documentary evidence is brought in to bolster the claim made for the ultimate inscrutability of Arabic literary sources. The supposed absence of evidence is deployed in conjunction with an anachronistic requirement of direct documentary evidence so stringent that it is not possible to meet in the investigation of most historical periods.

Clearly, such a lack should not in principle present insurmountable problems, provided there be a readiness to deploy the standard techniques of the historical craft, and to move from declaring a hermeneutic of suspicion to a procedure of retrieval.

 Byzantine history of the seventh century, for one, is accessible through ninth century sources, “without Byzantinists being regretful of this,” and the point has been made by a seasoned historian that the lateness of sources for Paleo-Muslim history which has led to rejection or hyperscepticism does seem exaggerated, leading scholarship to “ever more enclosed discussions.”11

There is clearly here a situation that appears distinctly odd, a tendency to over-exoticise source material to the extent of inscrutability, rendering unthinkable the main task of the historian, that of going beyond the limits of sources in an effort towards historical reconstruction.

 The idiosyncrasy of the situation resulting from simple capitulation to the sources is apparent in a resultant vicious circle: building a picture of early Islam from sources that are then used to invalidate both themselves and the picture drawn from them, the matter devolving to an obsessive concern with source-criticism at the expense of all other historical tasks, ultimately reducing studies of Islam to Quellenkunde,12 what I have termed Higher Bibliography.

There  is a resulting diversion of scholarly energy from productive lines and questions of inquiry to phantom and sometimes frivolous issues, as we shall see.

It would be well to keep a number of crucial matters in mind in what follows. We are never going to recover transcripts of Muḥammad’s conversations, minutes of his meetings, log-books of his expeditions, his registers of booty seized and distributed, the ma‘āqil he attached to his scabbard, physical records of his speeches or the original copy of the treaty of al-Ḥudaybiyya or the successive drafts and revisions of the so-called Constitution of Medina, nor are we likely to recover witnessed documents connected with the authentication of this or that textual fragment in composing the Qur’ānic text, or any registers from ‘Umar’s dīwān.

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But recognition of this absence of direct documentation is the beginning rather than the end of the story, leading the scholar to draw upon the skills of the historical craft and the procedures of historical interpretation in order to deal with such a situation; to suppose otherwise would be entirely unreasonable.

When Schoeler attempted meticulously to verify the authenticity of certain traditions relating to the life of Muḥammad, his very considerable scholarship was adjudged by one reviewer, not untypically, to have been futile.

Arising from Schoeler’s supposition that such traditions might indeed contain material that is historically reliable, the judgement of futility, appealing to in-group dynamics of almost secratian density, stated baldly that “attempts at the reconstruction of hypothetical texts are the hallmarks of the non-sceptics,” and as such contrary to the presumption of self-evidence of futility mentioned above.13

The authenticity of a redaction is of course not in itself a guarantee of the veracity of a report, but the two are connected, and Schoeler, who has generally reserved judgements on veracity, has with his gingerly attitude generally imposed upon his work an ultimately deadening limit of remit, manacled to an artisanal habitus in scholarship.14

Thus the supposed lack of documentation has spawned some scholarship which despairs of historical reconstruction altogether,15 and which is, as an explicit consequence, content with reconstructing later literary representations of the Paleo-Muslim period,16 as a contribution to…

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