The Social Origins of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse

The Social Origins of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse

The Social Origins of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse

The Social Origins of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse


The story of the origins of Islam provides a rich and suggestive example of sweeping cultural transformation. Incorporating both innovation and continuity, Islam built upon the existing cultural patterns among the peoples of the Arabian peninsula even as it threatened to eradicate these same patterns. In this provocative interdisciplinary study, Mohammed A. Bamyeh combines perspectives from sociology, literary studies, anthropology, and economic history to examine the cultural ecology that fostered Islam.

Highlighting the pivotal connections in pre-Islamic society between the emergence of certain economic practices (such as trade and money-based exchange), world view (as rendered in pre-Islamic literature and theology), and the reconfiguration of transtribal patterns of solidarity and settlement, Bamyeh finds in the genesis of Islam a sophisticated model for examining ideological transformation in general.

At the heart of Bamyeh's enterprise are close readings of both the Qur'an and the pre-Islamic poetry that preceded it. Bamyeh uncovers in these texts narrative and pedagogical content, poetic structure, use of metaphor, and historical references that are suggestive of societies in transition. He also explores the expressive limits of the pre-Islamic literature and its transmutation into Qur'anicspeech in the wake of social transformation.

Emphasizing the organic connections between belief structures, economic formations, and modes of discourse in pre-Islamic Arabia, The Social Origins of Islam explains how various material and discursive changes made the idea of Islam possible at a particular point in history. More broadly, it persuasively demonstrates how grand cultural shiftsgive rise to new systems of faith.


We are speaking of a terrain in which life repeats itself both endlessly and precariously. Here, the eyes of the inhabitant open daily to a topography of solemn solitude, far more imposing to the soul than the minuscule islets of social life encountered thereupon. The desert is a sphere of absolute speechlessness. What is strange in the desert is speaking, thinking in words, dialogizing, communicating. In this vast expanse, ridiculing all notions of paramount subjectivity, profuse wilderness covers all visible destinations between the here and all horizons; the human actor is but an insignificant footnote to the space; to think of presence in dogmatic terms of space—where space as a habitat is at best a seasonal interruption—is to practically annul oneself. Only a perennially visible enigma, the horizon, sets the boundaries of knowable nature. Like the sea, the horizon of the desert stands out in contrast to the landscape as the unreachable terminus of nature, its inconclusive conclusion.

The Arabian Peninsula—the cradle of Islam—is dominated by the two vast deserts that occupy the bulk of the land. The great Nufud wilderness claims much of the north, while the Empty Quarter, one of the most arid . . .

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