The Lack(?) of Sources for Early Islamic History

Since at least the time of Henri Pirenne, the idea that the Muslim conquests brought an end to classical world has received some respect. The collapse of the Mediterranean economy, as Pirenne has argued, ushered in the so-called “Dark Ages.” The question of just how far civilization waned in the western world during that time is part of a vigorous intellectual debate these days, and I might as well admit that I’m a regionalist. However, the term “Dark Age” has another meaning as well, and can refer to period in which the textual source material is poor. By that logic, it is possible that we’re living in a dark age right now, given how much of our data is on magnetic or plastic media or acidic paper. It’s hard to beat vellum and oak gall for sheer preservation, but I’ve digressed before even getting to the point I am going to try to (briefly) make: that the early Islamic period was not really all that dark in terms of source material. For sake of terminology, I am generally referring to the “Islamic” here to be the period, ca. 620-750 AD. Thus authors do not have to be Muslims to be writing “Islamic” sources.

What distinguishes the early Islamic sources is their limited nature, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Our actual sources from the seventh and early eighth centuries are scattered across the Mediterranean. Not a single one from this time has any grand encompassing narrative relating to the Muslim conquests. The academic material reflects this. Dates, particularly in the seventh century, remain in flux. Major events, like the supposed siege of Constantinople in 654, may or may not have happened. We do not really know what sort of message Mu’awiya was send when he was crowned caliph in Jerusalem. Nonetheless, it’s the lack of a coherent political narrative that give us a good understanding of the period. The scattered and incidental nature of our sources ensure good reporting because they come from a wide geographical area and are in a variety of languages.

The value of these sources is that they do not give us what we want: a coherent narrative in which to understand a series of movements that are too complex for any one story. This period is dark because it is dissatisfying. We do not have all the answers, and are unlikely to ever find many. What is important about this seemingly dark period is how it compares to other periods in which we feel we know it well. Let’s take the Peloponnesian War as an example. We have one major, contemporary source for the bulk of it, Thucydides, and Xenophon fills in the end. We have some scattered archaeological material, and Thucydides’ narrative clearly took place in the lands around the Aegean Sea. Thucydides was, of course, hardly an impartial observer to events even if he was a very perceptive one. Nonetheless, Thucydides is the only other contemporary source to inform us about the war. We can get a sense of how some Athenians felt about it from non-historical literature like Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, but we only have one account of the details of the war, and most of our other material derives from Athens anyhow.

Often, that is more than we have for the early Islamic period, but those many pieces come together to make a colourful, and often blurry, but understandable mosaic. Whereas most of our knowledge on the Peloponnesian War derives from one man in one place at one time and is all in Greek, the early Islamic material is much more diffuse and appears in Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Syriac. The early Islamic sources have a wide range of interests and are in many genres, including letters, apocalypses, homilies, hagiographies, and poems, whereas Thucydides is one highly complex piece of literature. He tells a story, but the story he tells is the Peloponnesian War through Thucydides, and we really have no other material to compare it to. His account generally makes good sense; his battle narratives are very sober and his figures reasonable, but it remains the lone contemporary source. The same goes for Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul or Justinian’s wars in Africa and Italy. The main story arc comes through single figures writing grand literary histories. The early Islamic materials are not nearly as monolithic, and nor do they make such a satisfying story. They often are responding to the new world in a variety of different ways and are not explicitly writing down words for the sake of posterity, as Thucydides claims to have done. We have some of the actual working materials from the period, although they rarely gives us a deep insight on, for example, politics in Umayyad Damascus under Abd al-Malik.

This is actually good news because instead of having a coherent political narrative from one source which is certainly not impartial, we now have a variety of pieces of the story and have to put it together ourselves. This is a lot of hard work. As mentioned above, the materials are in a lot of different languages, and unless you’re this guy, knowing them all just isn’t reasonable. You have  to be prepared to deal with the failure to answer the sort of questions that we traditionally think we can understand. The reality is that we have no idea why Constans II was assassinated. The best guesses are just guesses and barely enter the realm of hypotheses since they are so speculative. The material is just not there to understand the world in the same way we’re used to when we have large literary histories, but because these sources together are not monolithic literary constructs, it serves to reason that our knowledge of this “dark age” is actually rather good. We can ascertain the attitudes of different classes and groups of people from the wide spectrum of the central and eastern Mediterranean worlds, which is a lot more than we are able to with most classical history. Salacious spin is much more difficult when you have works coming from Alexandria, Dvin, and Constantinople by authors of different political and religious persuasions. We have no Carthaginian account telling us about their war with Rome, nor do we have any material from the Sicilians who were caught in the middle between the two powers. Similarly, the people of Delos have not left us an apocalypse or a series of letters illuminating their views on Athenian intervention. The seventh and eighth century sources may not always give us what we want, but in terms of accessing the past they give a broader and less constructed view than the major literary sources which inform so much of our knowledge of the classical world, so perhaps the seventh-century dark age just was not so dark after all.

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4 Responses to The Lack(?) of Sources for Early Islamic History

  1. This is all quite interesting, and it certainly makes solid sense to value a multiplicity of perspectives over a single, inherently problematic source. However, most of the complaints I have heard in regard to this period pertain not to the political histor, but instead the perceived dearth of material for religious studies scholars to examine on early Islam. Several revisionists have recently claimed that most of our major information on the emergence of Islam as a religion, as opposed to a political force, is written retrospectively by Islamic scholars centuries after the fact. Does the myriad of source material from this period have much to say on the religious phenomena of early Islam?

  2. Lucas says:

    No, the early material has little to say about Islam as a religion. The Muslims are consistently discussed in religious terms, but they are simply seen as an apocalyptic force designed to punish various groups of Christians for various reasons. The early material on Mohammed broadly matches that of the Islamic tradition: he was a merchant, he believed he had visions, and he managed to get a group together. Perhaps most interestingly is a text from the 630s in which some Jews in North Africa meet up with another Jew who has just come from Palestine, and he tells them that the prophet they have heard about is not a real prophet and that they should not go east, suggesting that at least some Jews were viewing the Muslim conquest in messianic terms. I certainly can’t blame them, since Herakleios’ regime was the most anti-Jewish in centuries. The earliest material that seriously engages with Islam sees it as a Christian heresy and dates from the eighth century.

  3. nick says:

    Slightly off topic, but still from the same period, what do you make of this: The Gospel According to Islam”?

  4. Lucas says:

    I’d say it’s bang-on. Apocryphal literature seems to have been just as common or even moreso in the east than canonical material. The author of that piece is quite well respected. If you have the time, give his ‘Jesus Wars’ a read. It’s quite good.

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