Islam in the Middle Ages: The Origins and Shaping of Classical Islamic Civilization. By JACOB LASSNER AND MICHAEL BONNER. Santa Barbara, Calif.: PRAEGER, 2010. Pp. xxiv + 343. $54.95.
In their preface to Islam in the Middle Ages, the two eminent authors position their work in comparison with other descriptions of the establishment and expansion of Islam available in English. They offer a considered and respectful outline of scholarship since the publication of H. A. R. Gibb's Mohammedanism in 1940 and Gustave von Grunebaum's Medieval Islam in 1946. Neither of these formidable accounts has been entirely superseded, but they do not provide the historical setting and implications attempted here. Unlike another prominent historical treatment, Jonathan Berkey's The Formation of Islam, the present book does not attempt to encompass both Muslim and non-Muslim regions and peoples of the Near East. Berkey takes "formation" to extend much further chronologically as well, whereas Lassner and Bonner end their detailed history at about 1000 C.F.., with some observations of subsequent consequences of this period.
It is not as if there are no other books about this period of Islamic history intended for students and scholars of other fields, a non-specialist but fairly serious audience. What sets this volume apart are two factors: an emphasis on assessing the evidence, and a concern for both secular events and the development of religious thought in the first four centuries of the faith.
In any discussion of something as crucially important as the career of Muhammad or the establishment of the Umayyad caliphate, historians will tend to offer cautions about the reliability of the accounts that have come down to us, so it is not particularly innovative to be careful in considering the oral and chronicle traditions. The authors are particularly adept, however, at showing how these histories were influenced by what should have happened in the view of those who composed them. Gratuitous information, implausibilities, and digressions, therefore, reflect the incidents and trends of early Islam that bothered writers or required explanation. Thus the supposed plot to kill Muhammad before his move to Medina seems unlikely given the system of loyalty and conflict resolution, and there is also an exaggeration of the hostility of the prominent citizens of Mecca. In terms of narrative and revelation of religious truth, however, the conspiracy is necessary in order to provide an opportunity for divine intervention, hence validation of the Prophet's mission. Similarly, both cAbbAsid and 'Alid fashioning of early history had to contend with each party's weaknesses, viz., the earlier 'Abbasid temporizing with the Umayyads and overall lack of heroism, versus the inability of the cAlids, despite their steadfast resistance, to win over sufficient support to succeed in their insurrection. In both cases material was made up, highlighted, or shaped to legitimate claims to rulership.
The strength of Islam in the Middle Ages, its careful sifting of putative historical evidence, also makes it difficult to recommend as a basic text appropriate for classes. Not only university students but historians who are not well informed about early Islam will have difficulty with the allusiveness of the narrative and may fail to appreciate the fair evaluation of historical evidence that seems to be in aid of goals imperceptible to the scholarly but in this instance naive reader. That reader is going to have to know that an older historical consensus attributed the rise of the 'Abbasids to the discontent of non-Arab converts, especially Iranians, in order to understand why this view is briefly disposed of, or even that it is being disposed of (p. …