Islam: The View from the Edge

Article excerpt

Islam: The View from the Edge, by Richard W. Bulliet. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 207 pages. Notes to p. 228. Index to p. 236. $16 paper.

Reviewed by Douglas E. Streusand

Over the past two decades, Richard W. Bulliet has produced a series of innovative and provocative monographs on the middle periods of Islamic history. Islam: The View from the Edge is thus not unexpected. Like Bulliet's first book, The Patricians of Nishapur,' and his later Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period,2 this volume rests on Bulliet's extensive and intensive research in medieval biographical dictionaries. On that foundation, Bulliet erects a new interpretive paradigm for Islamic history, relevant to the interpretation of Islam and Islamic societies from the 7th to the 21 st centuries. The book is an essay, not a detailed history. It seeks to open vistas for future study, not to present a complete and final interpretation. Islam: The View from the Edge is comparable to Hamilton A.R. Gibb's "An Interpretation of Islamic History,"3 but Bulliet challenges the incumbent interpretation which Gibb's article epitomizes.

Gibb identifies the struggle of the Sunni 'ulama (scholars), whom he calls "orthodox," to maintain universalism throughout the Islamic world as the fundamental theme of medieval Islamic history. Bulliet contends that what Gibb mistakenly calls orthodox Islam is really recentered Sunnism, and that it did not develop until the 11th century. Bulliet sees its formulation and spread as the defining theme of this era of Islamic history. Bulliet's interpretation begins with a complex conception of the "edge." It has a geographic component, the frontiers of the Islamic world, and a social and cultural one, the edge of Islam. The concept stems from Bulliet's effort to understand the development of Islamic society in the cities of Khurasan in northwest Iran. The view from the center, as Bulliet calls it, places Khurasan inside the frontier of Islamic society from the lateseventh-century Arab conquest on. Most of its inhabitants, however, remained outside the edge, since they were non-Muslims for many decades after the conquest. Bulliet's inquiry begins with the internal edge: How did the population of Iran become Muslim, and how did they learn what being a Muslim meant? The available sources do not answer these questions directly. Bulliet synthesizes answers through close analysis of the information in biographical dictionaries and by using reasonable imagination to fill the gaps. Much of Bulliet's work thus rests within the realm of surmise. Such questions can be answered only by surmise; the alternative to speculation is silence. If one accepts the premise that speculation is necessary, Bulliet's appears reasonable and prudent.

Bulliet asserts that the spread of Islam to Iran came, at first, from the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, who could personally describe the Prophet's words and actions. Bulliet argues that personal knowledge of the Prophet, orally transmitted, carried greater weight than knowledge of the Quran. The direct chain of oral transmission, which is recorded as the isnad (attribution) of hadith (the sayings of the Prophet), defined an individual's ability to explain what Islam meant. On the edge, this process involved the encounter between Islam and a variety of local customs and practices. This encounter defined the Muslim way of life on the edge. It produced, according to Bulliet, both the hadith literature and the focus on the learning and teaching of hadith. It also produced highly localized, differentiated Islamic societies. Bulliet does not make extensive use of recent literature on the development of the hadith corpus, and his findings differ from those of other writers.

At the center, the early centuries of Islamic history were a time of political unity and cultural uniformity. On the edge, it was an era of diversity, produced by the process of reconciliation of local customs, many connected with other religions. …