Thursday, October 09, 2014

Urwa's Muhammad, Part III

This is the last post in my series on a current model of historical Muhammad research.  I putting links to all of them at the bottom of the first.

7.) Conquest of Mecca - Urwa b. al-Zubayr was clearly not a preferred authority for military campaigns.  All the authors are willing to say for sure about Urwa's transmission on this matter is that there was a connection between Hudaybiyya and the conquest of Mecca, that after the conquest of Mecca Muhammad spent two weeks in the city before attacking the Hawazin, and that the Hawazin prisoners were freed when their people accepted Islam.

When it comes to his son Hisham b. Urwa, however, the authors believe that he reported the following:  Mecca violated the treaty, leading to the Muslim conquest of the city.  Abu Sufyan and two other Meccans went to Muhammad before the conquest and converted to Islam.  Muhammad then sent them back to the city to preach Islam.  He also said that anyone who took refuge in the homes of Abu Sufyan and another of the new Meccan converts would have their safety guaranteed when the Muslims attacked.  For the attack, Muhammad and his general Khalid b. al-Walid approached from different sides.  Only two people were killed in the fighting, then afterward we have the Hawazin matter as described above.

This account does not include the iconic scene of the "Cleansing of the Ka'aba" followed by the pardoning of the Meccans.  According to this story, when he enters the city, Muhammad goes to the Ka'aba and smashes its idols, leaving only an icon of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, presumably because Jesus is a prophet in Islam.  While he is doing this, the Meccans come out of where they had taken sanctuary (some sources claim all houses in Mecca were sanctuaries, and not just Abu Sufyan's).  Muhammad then comes out to address them, saying brief words that God is one and polytheism wrong, God has shown his faithfulness to his servants by helping them triumph over their enemies, Meccan pride in their heritage and tribal ancestry is wrong because all are descendants of Adam, and finishing with Quran 49:13.

In this story, Muhammad then asks the Meccans what he expects him to do to them.  (By Arabian tradition, prisoners of war could be enslaved, held for ransom, or on very rare occasions killed.)  The Meccans reply that they expect mercy, because they have seen nothing but that from him.  Muhammad then says that he will treat them as Joseph treated his brothers who sold him into slavery, and declares a general amnesty.  The Meccans then convert to Islam en masse, with the implication that they are moved by Muhammad's character and the powerlessness of their gods before his.

This is mentioned nowhere in the Urwa corpus, nor is it mentioned in Ibn Rashid.  Both the Tabari and Ibn Hisham recensions of Ibn Ishaq have it, but the chain of authorities goes back only two generations to the early 700's.  My own impression is that it comes from the story-telling tradition, a pious account designed to telescope developments to convey an essential truth.  In addition to its rather cinematic staging, we have a crowd speaking Greek chorus-style.  This is something we also often see in the Christian gospels.

The accounts presented above both leave open whether Muhammad forced conversions of Meccan polytheists.  A standard interpretation of sura 9, linked to this period of his life, says he did, but I think there are good reasons for doubting this.  First, short Muslim accounts do reference various people whom Muhammad allegedly ordered killed after the conquest.  These, however, are hard to work with, and contradictory both with each other and accounts which have allegedly killed people alive later.  More to the point, the "smoke" behind which a fire may lie is that Muhammad was most concerned with avoiding any violence that would violate Mecca's sacred status, including violence against polytheists. Looking more broadly, there is archaeological evidence suggesting that pagan practices survived in Arabia into the 700's.  For my book project, I've been looking into the early 700's conquest of the Indus Valley, and the followers of Indian religions there were treated no differently than Christians and Jews elsewhere.  There were still pagans in the Middle Eastern city of Harran in the 830's, when we know the Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun wanted to force their conversion until he got talked out of it.

Pre-Islamic Western Arabia had several cities sacred to certain gods; within the precincts of these cities, violence was not permitted, and the peace was guaranteed by the military reputation of the lineage which dominated the city and oversaw the performance of the rituals of the god.  Muhammad seems to have established Medina as such a city for the "God of Abraham."  If he did, then conflict with Mecca was probably inevitable, regardless of who started it.  In Mecca, Muhammad's policy can be read as control of the city's ritual space rather than a concern with individual beliefs.  A command to "establish prayer" in this cultural context is different from a command for everyone to pray.  Significantly, accounts of the Hawazin indicate that their prisoners were freed once others of their tribe accepted Islam.  A focus on such ritual cities is a key thread in two recent books, Aziz al-Azmeh's The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity and Harry Munt's The Holy City of Medina: Sacred Space in Early Islamic Arabia.

Three Final Thoughts

First, a brief personal note.  Historical Muhammad research is its own distinct subspecialty within early Islamic history, and it is not my own subspecialty.  This is not just a case of academic hyper-specialization.  The potential source material is huge.  For example, Sunnis recognize about 10,000 authentic hadith.  For modern historical methods, we would need to look also at those deemed inauthentic, Shi'ite hadith, material found only in historians and Quran commentaries, and other scattered references.  I have referred occasionally to the two 8th-century biographies of Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Rashid, but have made no pretense of looking at later bios which certainly preserve older material.  This is interesting and important research which I felt deserved a wider audience, and I come at it as someone who understands the issues involved, but not as someone who can pronounce on individual points in detail.

Second, it is a grave error to look at secular scholarly reconstructions of Muhammad, even those by scholars of Muslim heritage, and on that basis claim to understand Islam.  This is the same with any religion - in Western Christianity, reading Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan will not lead you to understand what Christians mean when they recite the Nicene Creed or declare they just accepted Jesus as their personal Saviour.  The only way to research what Muhammad means to Muslims is to look at Muslim religious sources.  In the United States, my sense is that Muslims generally learn about the life of Muhammad through abridged translations of Ibn Ishaq and, particularly for younger Muslims, the interpretation of his life by Tariq Ramadan.  And yes, for the Muhammad of, say, the Taliban, you would want to look at a completely different set of sources.

I am, at any rate, not even sure what the historical reconstruction described here would mean theologically.  How does a desire for Islam to occupy the sacred centers of Western Arabia's stateless society translate into today?  An understanding of the Islamization of Arabia and the first wave of Islamic conquests under Umar might have a bearing on this, but none has been undertaken since 1981.  The distinction which arose in the late 700's of a division between a "House of Islam" and a "House of War" does seem a logical reading of the situation, but even then, many would say that the "House of Islam" should be any land where Islam can be practiced, not necessarily a land ruled by Muslims.  This is not just a modern interpretation; it first caught on in the 12th century among Muslims living in the Qara Khitai Khanate.

Third, I am aware that for many Muslims, there is something offensive about non-Muslims, particularly of Western Christian background, studying the history of the Islamic world and especially Islamic sacred history.  The last 200-300 years have seen a pattern of military, economic, and cultural assaults on Muslim-majority societies all over the world, and some take the more general stand that each civilization should study and teach its own history.  However, I admit despite understanding where this critique comes from, I do not find it persuasive.

Civilizations are not sealed compartments that can convey authenticity.  For example, today Christians arguing against atheism often reference the "Kalam Cosmological Argument" for the existence of God, an argument which draws upon Muslim thought.  Study the history of this idea advanced by Christians, therefore, whether to support or refute it, therefore involves the study of the milieu of Muslim thought.  Beyond that, Muhammad and his community did not just impact what became Islam.  If we define "Western" as the culture that developed out of medieval Christendom, then its geographical scope would be different were it not for Islam.  Finally, comparative history matters, and by definition cannot be limited to a single cultural background.

Although the book I have blogged about was written by scholars in Switzerland, I do not see it as purely a product of "Western civilization."  Most obviously, they build upon the work of isnads from the medieval Muslims.  Beyond that, I understand their methods are similar to those advanced by some Muslim scholars in Muslim-majority societies during the 20th century.  I wish I knew more about that so I could credit those Muslim scholars, but I do not.  I do, however, perhaps naively, believe that we can have a global community of scholars who are all collectively dedicated to understanding the human past.

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