Sunday, July 12, 2015

Patricia Crone (1945-2015)

Yesterday Patricia Crone died at the age of 70.  I mention this because she is clearly her generation's most significant scholar of early Islamic history, for even though many of her early conclusions from the 1970's and 1980's look shaky with time, she set the agenda within which all other scholars in the field have had to work.  Something like this point was made by Fred Donner in a retrospective review of Hagarism, a book she co-wrote with Michael Cook, in a MESA publication published near the middle of last decade.  What he said was more or less that while the authors did not arrive at the right conclusions, they asked the right questions, pushing both against the idea that the Arabic primary sources from the 800's are unproblematic tools for reconstructing the history of the 600's and recognizing that Islam arose in the conquest of the late antique Middle East rather than being a sort of out-of-nowhere bolt of remote Arabian lightning.

On the latter point, it is now customary for books on the medieval Islamic world to dedicate increasing space to the Middle East before Islam. Ira Lapidus's A History of Islamic Societies dedicates 18 pages to the topic out of about 450 on Islamic history before 1800.  Jonathan Berkey's The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800 has 53 of its 269 pages before Muhammad, and that title is misleading since only a brief epilogue goes past 1500.  Historians studying the 7th and 8th centuries today must take account not only of Arabic sources, but of Syriac, as well.

A good overview of her influence is found in Chase Robinson's essay "Crone and the End of Orienatilism," available online here and published earlier this year in a collection of essays in Crone's honor.  Building off Robinsin, I would like to highlight one point.  Among Crone's works is Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World, which I have often used in world history classes, to both the profit and anguish of students.  As Robinson notes, in this we can see part of her background in asking based on general patterns of history what made the Islamic world distinct.  My related point is that in important ways, it and its relationship to her other work shows how she represents an advance over her predecessor as a scholarly trendsetter, Marshall Hodgson.  Hodgson's magnum opus was the three-volume The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization.  It is this civilization model of history which Crone helped Islamic Studies to transcend.  As seen most clearly in her last book, the award-winning, Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism, her conception of historical communities is less bounded and more comparative.  What a previous generation saw as distinct civilizations are porous both spatially and temporally, and Maori preachers and evolues of the French colonial empire might be points of comparison as easily as Judaism and Christianity.  This is a modern development found in many areas of history which have abandoned civilizational analysis, but in Islamic history, it is Crone's ratting the set consensus that made it both necessary and possible.

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