Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam

Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam

Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam

Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam


From the dawn of writing in Sumer to the sunset of the Islamic empire, Founding Gods, Inventing Nations traces four thousand years of speculation on the origins of civilization. Investigating a vast range of primary sources, some of which are translated here for the first time, and focusing on the dynamic influence of the Greek, Roman, and Arab conquests of the Near East, William McCants looks at the ways the conquerors and those they conquered reshaped their myths of civilization's origins in response to the social and political consequences of empire.

The Greek and Roman conquests brought with them a learned culture that competed with that of native elites. The conquering Arabs, in contrast, had no learned culture, which led to three hundred years of Muslim competition over the cultural orientation of Islam, a contest reflected in the culture myths of that time. What we know today as Islamic culture is the product of this contest, whose protagonists drew heavily on the lore of non-Arab and pagan antiquity.

McCants argues that authors in all three periods did not write about civilization's origins solely out of pure antiquarian interest--they also sought to address the social and political tensions of the day. The strategies they employed and the postcolonial dilemmas they confronted provide invaluable context for understanding how authors today use myth and history to locate themselves in the confusing aftermath of empire.


In the Ninth Century AD, Abū; Ma‘;shar, an Iranian Muslim astronomer from Balkh (in modern-day Afghanistan), wrote that Adam and his grandson Hermes had founded the arts and sciences before the biblical Flood. Fearing that the coming Flood would eradicate “;all the arts,”; Hermes inscribed knowl; edge of them for posterity in temples he built in Egypt. After the Flood, a sec; ond Hermes from Babylon retrieved this knowledge, and, through his student Pythagoras, it passed to the Greeks. Prefacing this account, Abū; Ma‘;shar ex; plained that the Hebrews equated the first Hermes (a god in Greek mythology) with the biblical Enoch; that the Arabs equated him with the mysterious Idris mentioned in the Qur’;an; and that the Persians equated him with the ancient Iranian king Hō;shang and identified Adam with their first man and king, Gayō;mart.

Abū; Ma‘;shar’;s account is heavily indebted to pre-Islamic thought about the origins and transmission of the arts and sciences. But it also reflects the social and intellectual tensions of ninth-century Iraq, the center of an Islamic empire whose Arab founders were losing their political dominance. At that time, schol; arly elites with divergent learned traditions were competing for cultural ascen; dancy. Some of them were oriented toward Mecca and Jerusalem, others to; ward Persepolis, and still others toward Athens. They, like Abū; Ma‘;shar, wrote about the origins and transmission of the arts and sciences not only out of an; tiquarian interest but also to tell their contemporary audiences what arts and sciences they should value and who should preserve them. Through their ac; counts of civilization’;s origins, they defined themselves and their groups, legiti; mated their authority, and differentiated their learning from competing tradi; tions and claims. Comparing their accounts synchronically provides a map of early Muslim elites and the tensions between them; comparing them diachron; ically shows how the identity of these elites changed in response to political and social developments.

To understand what is unique about early Muslim theorizing on the origins

Ibn Juljul, Ṭ;abaqā;t al-aṭ;ibbā;, 5–;10.

See Van Bladel’;s Arabic Hermes for a thorough discussion of the textual genealogy of Abū; Ma‘;shar’;s account.

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