Thursday, July 26, 2012

Oxford History of Islam (4th most popular review)

John Esposito, Oxford History of Islam

"Whitewashes History"

(***)  113 + / 48 -

This is a beautiful book with a lot of lovely pictures and illustrations, and a great deal of useful and interesting information. I appreciated learning more about sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The chapter on the relationship between Aristotelian philosophy and Arabic theology was interesting. I also learned a lot from the chapter on Islam and Christianity, which generally seemed fairly balanced. This rather hefty volume helped fill a large hole in my historical knowledge, and I am sure I will continue to find it a useful resource. (An Egyptian colleague, herself Muslim, actually borrowed it to prep for a talk she was asked to give on Islam!) 

I have two major complaints, however. First, I bought the book hoping to learn more about the history of Islam, the religion. While I appreciate the fact that the editor chose to tell us about art and law and economics too, it often seemed like the history of Islam, the religion, got drowned out in the somewhat accidental details of Islam, the civilization.

In particular, I came to the text with questions such as, "How did Islam spread? What motivated those who spread it? How did the teachings and example Mohammed, in particular, affect human history?" These seem like reasonable questions to ask of the "Oxford History of Islam." But there was almost nothing about Mohammed in the book. (Fortunately, I had just read Maxime Rodinson's Mohammed, which is a good supplement to that portion of the book.) While the authors gave a great deal of information around the edges of other great expansionist periods in Islamic history, some kind of scholarly myopia seemed to prevent them from getting to the heart of the matter.

I wanted to know, for example, if the frequent claim that Indonesia became Muslim peacefully were true. Bruce Lawrence, in his chapter on Islam in Southeast Asia, hardly addressed the question of how the islands became Muslim, except, for example, in the following subordinate clause of one sentence: "Although the actual Islamic conquest of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit took place in 1478 . . . "

That brings me to my second complaint. On page 352, there is a photo of a tomb, identified as that of Tamerlane. "His majestic blue-domed tomb epitomizes the splendor of Timurid architecture," the caption reads. When I read that, and leafed through the index for further references, I had to wonder: what kind of history of Islam is it that, in 750 pages, cannot find room for a single clear sentence about the greatest Muslim conquerer of all -- and less for his millions of victims? It is like writing a history of communism and only noting, in passing, that a fellow named Stalin inspired a new movement in socialist realist painting. (Granted, however, that the tyrants of yesteryear had much better taste in art.)
Similiarly, Lawrence seems to completely whitewash the thousand-year history of the Islamic assault on India, that Durant describes as "probably the bloodiest story in human history." Sultan Mahmud, the text merely notes, "not only pillaged and destroyed; he also built and rebuilt." (As, of course, did Stalin.)

It is said that history is written by the winners. The authors seem to want to prove that aphorism. Mohammed's own cruel career is glossed over a few pages. Tamerlane is memorialized with a pretty tomb, his victims ignored. Nehemia Levtizion seems to blame the Ethopians for putting up too good a fight, therefore bringing jihad down on themselves. (As opposed to other tribes that were simply swallowed.) Another writer calls the Medieval Europeans "xenophobic," and the European idea that Islam is violent is treated as a prejudice. Muslim armies had just conquered half of the Christian world, launched attacks against Rome and Constantinople, and into France. If half of your children had been kidnapped by a neighbor, would it be fair to call you "paranoid" if you locked your doors at night? (Or even in the day?) (See Jihad for more details.)

One author mentions an Islamic attrocity -- discreetly, so as not to embarrass anyone -- then marches on to the dogmatic but question-begging conclusion, "The contest is over political authority even when it is framed as a contest over religious truth." How, in a religion that does not distinguish between mosque and state, is one to tell the difference? And can we really generalize about what made Muslim conquerers tick in this way? From what sources?

Ira Lapidus is more frank, and suggests perhaps a bit more sympathy with the victims, in her description of the tyrannical Ottoman empire and its "divinely given mission to conquer the world." Again, I would have appreciated more details on exactly how the Ottomans formulated and explained their ideology, and how they related it to the Qu'ran and the career of Mohammed. But at least she does mention the "losers."

The book probably does deserve the five stars in some respects. It is, as I said, a physically-beautiful book, and an erudite work of scholarship.  But I am getting tired of this habit of scholars whitewashing inhumanity and painting a pretty picture on top. I felt like giving it one star, in protest. But a lot of good scholarship and artistry went into the text as well, and it would be unfair not to acknowledge that.

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