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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6 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.

  5. Simon says:

    Hello, rather late to the party, I just stumbled on your weblog and this article. A fascinating read!

    Maybe you could help me with a question? Faced with the theory that Mohammed and the first four caliphs were inventions or re-interpretations by later Muslims, and that Mu’awya was more of a christian (albeit of a non-orthodox eastern based-on-apocryphical-traditions sort of Christian) – how about archaeological finds? Do they give us hints about just how substantial these alternate theories put forth by C. Luxenberg and so on might be? About when the kind of Islamic narrative as we know it today came into being?

    It’s hard to tell ideology from academic position in this debate … I have developed of late an interest in late antiquity (maybe it’s an unhealthy sign of advanced middle age? 🙂 ). But my whole background consists of two books I have read about that era, and both rather pop-history works at that. (Charles Freeman’s “Closing of the western mind” and T. Hollands “Under the shadow of the sword”). They did, however, show just how strong and varied the wealth of “weltanschauliche” developments were in that period. And how some seemingly small sectarian disagreement lead to the most drastic changes in the overall course of history. And yet – we do not know whether the battle of Kerbala was a historic event or something invented much later? We do not know if there was a charismatic leader called Mohammed in a place called Mekka? And there is no way to dig those answers out of the sands of Arabia?

    The proponents of such new theories make much of coins and inscriptions – but there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of that in their favour either.

    Sorry for this long-winded and confused comment …

    • Lucas says:

      Hi and thanks for the interesting questions. I will try to answer them as best I can.

      The writing and re-writing of Islamic history is really nothing novel, but only semi-recently have some of the techniques applied to Biblical exegesis and classical scholarship been applied – this is well-illustrated by the debates surrounding the work of Patricia Crone, in particular. Certainly, the first four caliphs come out good and the Umayyads bad in later Islamic historiography (of which most of the early stuff was produced in Abbasid Baghdad, where there was an impetus to demonize the dynasty they had deposed.) That said, we aren’t reliant on Islamic sources, and actually a good portion of the material that we use for the opening centuries of Islam is coming from writers of varying Christian persuasions. This is particularly well-argued in Robert Hoyland’s ‘Seeing Islam as Others Saw It’. I really see no evidence that any of those figures are pure inventions, especially since we have some Armenian material mentioning Mohammad within a few decades of his death and no evidence that the history has been tampered with. I see no real evidence that Mu’awiya was a Christian, but rather that he was trying to appeal to a broad range of subjects with his (Christian?) coronation in Jerusalem and possibly to add some title that otherwise belonged to the Roman emperor to his name.

      From archaeology, I can’t tell you too much since I haven’t yet managed to get into Gideon Avni’s ‘The Byzantine-Islamic Transition in Palestine’, nor have I thoroughly read all the relevant material in Chris Wickham’s ‘Framing the Early Middle Ages’. What is currently going on is a lot of work with pre-Islamic (5-6th centuries) inscriptions from the kingdom of Himyar in what is now Yemen. Most of this is being done by Christian Robin and his team in Paris. Iwona Gajda’s ‘Le Royaume de Himyar a l’epoque monotheiste’ is a useful book but unless you’re really into inscriptions you may find it extremely tedious (as I did). I’m not well-informed on what is coming from the ground that can be linked to the early decades of Islam, but my guess is not much – it’s typically very difficult to date something so precisely and assign it to particular individuals.

      That said, while every narrative should be treated with caution there are still good reason to uphold much of the original fabric of the story of the Islamic conquests. Battle accounts tend to be ridiculously inflated and full of pompous speeches in Islamic historiography, and yet we have earlier material in Syriac that points to a break in the community and Mu’awiya and Ali fighting it out, so I see no reason to dismiss the entire idea of a battle and of a fissure. While the Greek material is difficult to work with for this period, that Byzantium seems ready to exploit every crack in the caliphate also points to some sort of unrest. We don’t have to believe everything that al-Tabari put in the mouth of Ali or everyone who did a heroic feat in a battle (since these were recorded or invented later for purposes of some families getting legal privileges for being able to prove a connection to a conquest-age hero) but I don’t have a problem with the two sides clashing for the control of the caliphate.

      I’m sorry that you ended up reading Freeman and Holland, as much better material is available. I don’t tend to agree with Freeman’s thesis, but if you’re looking for something on Christianity and politics in late antiquity Philip Jenkins’ ‘Jesus Wars’ is quite good. Although for a later period, I recently read Hannam’s ‘God’s Philosophers’ which I thought to be excellent. For this 6-8th c. period as a whole the best survey is Peter Sarris’ ‘Empires of Faith: From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700’. The narrative is top-notch and very up to date, but it can be very dense reading. For more general material on the rise of Islam, the best recent piece is Robert Hoyland’s ‘In God’s Path’, which seems to be answer to Holland. It’s not just a campaign narrative and is nicely rounded and I highly recommend it. The work of Hugh Kennedy on this period is also very good, and it tends to be available cheaply and makes for good reading.

      Thanks for the comment and I’ll get back to the others tomorrow when I’m fresh.

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