David Frum September 29th, 2007 at 12:00 am
The Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) has been bombarding journalists and local politicians with press releases urging that October be proclaimed “Islamic History Month.” The cities of Victoria and Kingston have duly complied, in the same crowd-pleasing spirit that has inspired the U.S. Congress to proclaim the last week in May “National Pickle Week.”
As organizations go, the Canadian Islamic Congress is at once ludicrous and worrisome. When it is not trying to silence journalists, it is condoning militant Islamists. But just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, this time the CIC has got hold of an interesting idea.
We in the West do need better understanding of Islamic history and culture. For almost three-quarters of a millennium, from the early 700s until the middle 1400s, the Muslim Middle East excelled Christian Europe in science, technology and culture. Famines and plagues occurred less often in the Middle East than in Europe; and writers and thinkers enjoyed greater liberty.
After the Middle East fell into relative decline, Islam spread through Africa and Asia largely by peaceful conversion, because it offered people a more consoling and convincing belief system than they had known before.
The joyless, obscurantist, intolerant, authoritarian and often violent Islam in the ascendant today is not Islam’s only form. Islam has been other, better, things in the past. Wider understanding of Islam’s progressive past may help to create a more progressive future. When you reach a dead end, the best thing to do is retrace your steps, and return to the point at which you made your wrong turn.
If that’s what is meant by the study of Islamic history, yes, let’s have a month of it.
But is that what is meant? The story of the Islamic cultural zone–and of the many brilliant and accomplished people who worked, studied and innovated in that zone–is a very different thing from the history of Islam, the religion. Indeed, the most brilliant of those accomplishments were often achieved in defiance of–and in opposition to–the religious orthodoxy that now annexes their reputations.
Take the case of the great medieval doctor known to the English-speaking world as Rhazes, or in Arabic al-Razi. In Baghdad, more than 1,000 years ago, he wrote the first known clinical descriptions of smallpox and measles. He also collected some private thoughts on religion and philosophy. These writings found their way to the chief imam of the city, who ordered him beaten with a codex of his writings until the executioner broke either Razi’s book or Razi’s head. Razi died blind, apparently the result of the beating.
Or consider Omar Khayyam, the great Persian mathematician and astronomer. His poems, translated into English as the Rubaiyat scoff at the pretensions of religious sages:
The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d,
Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep,
They told their fellows, and to Sleep return’d.
In Western historiography, we have a clear distinction between history on the one hand and myths and legends on the other.
Yet visit the Web site, IslamicHistoryMonth. com, and it immediately becomes apparent that teaching legend as history is precisely what the Canadian Islamic Congress has in mind. The fact is, much of the early history of Islam is barely more reliable than the stories of the Prophet Muhammad’s near-contemporary, the Roman military commander whom we (mis)remember as King Arthur.
When did Muhammad live and die? The first biography of Muhammad is said to have been written 120 years after Muhammad’s death. That work though has been lost. The oldest surviving biography was written almost 100 years later still. Many of the stories told in those after-the-fact accounts cannot be true: We are told for example that Mecca was an important trading city–and that Muhammad himself married a wealthy caravan merchant. And yet it has been exhaustively documented that the Arabian trade routes of Muhammad’s time went nowhere near Mecca. (See, for example, Patricia Crone’s Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam).
Likewise, the story of the Koran itself is inconsistent with historical knowledge. Far from being written in one time and place, it seems to have been compiled over a period of centuries from a variety of sources, many pre-Islamic, some non-Arabic.
If we are going to understand Islamic history, we have to understand that–precisely because it is history. The encounter between history and religious orthodoxy is never comfortable for any orthodoxy, be it Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Yet societies succeed only to the extent that they defend free inquiry against religious dogma. That was true in the golden age of Islam. It remains true today.