Friday, September 12, 2003

Religion in the Jahiliyya

Over the summer, there was an ongoing discussion of the methods and value of Western Qur'an scholarship, much of which focused on the accounts of the Luxenberg book carried in the mainstream press. G.R. Hawting's The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam, which I just finished reading, is an example of more mainstream work on the subject by a leading expert from the University of London. He writes in response to what he sees as clear problems with the existing history of early Islam, and quotes extensively from Muslim scholars, even including Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. (Yes, that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.) His conclusions if accepted definitely overturn some conventional views of the 7th century religious picture, but do so without the arrogance one sometimes sense from media portrayals of the need for Muslims to question their tradition so as to catch up with an implicitly superior Christianity.

Hawting's concern is that the picture of Qurayshi religion in the Qur'an does not appear to match what one reads in the Muslim tradition. One finds his conclusion on p. 149: "The image of Arab idolatry and polytheism offered by the tradition bears little relation to the koranic (sic.) material attacking the mushrikun for their attachment to intermediaries between themselves and God, their hope for the intercession of angels, and their half-hearted an imperfect monotheism. The traditional material in general portrays a world of primitive idols and a multiplicity of gods." Before reaching this point, Hawting shows convincing similarities between the Qur'anic arguments against the mushrikun, or those who associate others with God, and the arguments of other monotheistic faiths against each other and their own dissidents. He then points out how scholars' views of pre-Islamic Arabian religion, such as the "Daughters of Allah," have been shaped not by the Qur'an read in this light, but by Muslim traditionists of the Abbasid period with particular reasons for forcing the historical narrative of Arabian religion into one in which Ibrahim brought a monotheism which was gradually corrupted before Muhammad restored it with his revelations.

I'm not qualified to assess all Hawting's arguments, and to be honest the book left me hungry: I can see the point that the Quraysh may not have been polytheistic in the literal sense, but what we're left with instead is a sort of uncertain monotheism which is neither Christian nor Jewish and probably having a well-developed angelology. However, given the available sources for that topic, that may be the best we can hope for: I am aware of no non-Muslim Qurayshi voices speaking through the historical corpus that could explain where they were coming from. Still, the book was interesting, and for those who wanted some reading suggestions, the bibliography and introductory arguments contain such works as F.E. Peters's Muhammad and the Origins of Islam and The Sectarian Milieu and Quranic Studies by John Wansborough (neither of which I have actually read, though I see them cited a lot.

Unfortunately, after reading this, I'm a lot more pessimistic the traditions about the pre-Islamic religion of the Azd will be useful for my dissertation. But you can't have everything.


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