Genesis 21:13 and Islam

I met the author and blogger Lee Harmon on Goodreads, where I’ve put far too much time and effort into cataloguing my personal library. I’ve always found him to be nothing short of a scholar and a gentleman. We’ve communicated a few times, and he has always been friendly and generous. Lee runs a blog, The Dubious Disciple, and that brings me to the topic of today’s post. The subtitle of his post is “How Constantine Created Islam.” I have no issues with this title. I would personally have said something along the lines of “How Late Sixth and Early Seventh Century Chaos Coupled With the Imperial Religious Program Created Islam,” you, dear reader, are now able to understand why his blog gets far more views than mine (Lee also constantly updates it, so that might help, too.) Anyhow, there are a few nitpicky issues which I have with this post, which are less about what Lee wrote and more about common ideas associated with early Islam and the Arabs in antiquity which have little basis in reality: that Arabs were limited to the Arabian peninsula and that Genesis provides a basis for separation between Jews and Arabs, and that Islam was created in a near vacuum.

The first is the story told in Genesis 21:13 about the division between Isaac and Ishmael. Lee notes that “tradition holds” that the division between Judaism and Islam can be traced back to this point. This later tradition is nothing other than an attempt to explain the Arabs (and Islam) in a Biblical cosmogony. It clouds the reality of the origins of Near Eastern peoples and creates a division where one does not exist. It helps to reinforce the stereotype of Arab = Muslim, and has been used to create a Biblical basis in which Islam could be explained. While early Islam was primarily an Arab movement, we need to remember that Arabs come from an area much greater than the Arabian peninsula. The great Roman-era cities of Edessa and Palmyra in Mesopotamia and Syria were ruled and peopled by Arabs. We would do well to remember that the first Christian state in the world (sorry, Armenians), the Abgarid dynasty which ruled Edessa, was Arab. With this in mind, it is hard to give much credence to the alleged Genesis-based separation between Judaism (and thus Christianity) and Islam on the basis of Jews and Arabs. Arabs occupied much of the Near East before Islam as its inhabitants, but we tend to forget that because in the pre-Islamic period we look at the region as part of the Roman world. It certainly was, but the peoples within were Romanized Arabs. When the centres of power changed from the Mediterranean trades axes that had led from the Phoenician cities to Constantinople to ones centred on first Damascus and then Baghdad, the locals began to change their customs, appearance, and in some cases, religions, to better interact with those new centres of power. The picture is far more complex than this Biblical interpretation makes it out to be.

It also seems to me that Lee’s post neglects the Christianization of the Arabian peninsula and sets Mohammed too far from the Graeco-Roman context which he lived on the edge of. Mecca and Medina were not isolated desert communities that had no contact with the outside world. As a merchant culture, the Arabs of the Hijaz travelled widely. When we first begin to get texts written in Arabic about their travels, it is hard not to be impressed. Not only did they go to many of the places they talked about, they took a genuine interest in the places they visited. This is not to say that these accounts are unbiased or beyond any sort of myth-making, but in comparison to Roman geographical treatises you can see that the Arabs actually left the comfort of their surroundings. Penguin recently published some translations of Arab travellers in Russia and the far north under the title Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness. I highly recommend it. Not only were the Arabs of the peninsula regularly in contact with the Graeco-Roman world (or perhaps more accurately, were part of its periphery) many were Christians. In the south, wars were fought between the Christian kingdom of Axum and a state which converted to Judaism in the Yemen and had begun to persecute its Christian population. Given the time frame here (520s) we can put it into the context of imperial Christianity, which was increasingly using conversion as a means of controlling satellite states in the ongoing conflict with the Sassanian Persian empire, the other major power in the region. The ruler in Himyar (Yemen) likely saw conversion to Judaism as a way to keep Constantinople’s hands out of his pie. The king of Lazika in the Caucasus also converted around this time. The eventual result was Roman troops in his territory and decades of small-scale, intermittent warfare, so perhaps we can understand the Himyarite king’s fears. Both the Romans and Sassanian Persians employed Arab tribes to guard their respective desert frontiers, and the Romans efforts to convert theirs were successful. Thus not only were the Arabs of the peninsula familiar with Christianity, large sections were thoroughly Christianized. As for what went on in Mohammed’s mind, I wouldn’t have the gall to guess. However, I would not be surprised in the least if the strict monotheism of early Islam was not a direct reaction to the centuries of Christological strife in the Near East and the power vacuum opened by the recent war between Persia and Rome.

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3 Responses to Genesis 21:13 and Islam

  1. Big Papa Johnson says:

    Hello Lucas.

    I am BigPapaJohnson from Historum. I’m sorry I’m posting a comment here, I couldn’t PM you on historum due to a lack of posts. I am looking for guidance and books on post-macedonian Byzantium. If you e-mail me I can tell you what this is all about. Thanks for your time.

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