This commentary is in response to Colonel Adam Oler's article "A Critical But Missing Piece: Educating Our Professional Military on the History of Islam "published in the Spring 2011 issue of Parameters (vol. 41, no. 1).
I strongly back the message of Colonel Adam Oler's article in the Spring 2011 issue of Parameters. The quotation from Aristotle at the beginning could well be a motto for my own work and an introduction to my latest book, subtitled The Use of History for Thinking about Morality and War. There is a great lack of knowledge among Americans on the historical development of Islam and the Islamic tradition on war in particular. This lack of knowledge has affected us negatively.
Oler is right on target to advocate the study of the history of Islam at the war college level. I think it also belongs in the service academy curricula, though because of the tightness of those curricula it would necessarily have to be a compact unit. Oler's insistence that what he proposes not include the study of Islam as religion is, though, misplaced, for one cannot really study the history of Islam without taking into account the religion of Islam in its historical development. Islam the religion is there at every stage.
To take some examples from Oler's argument, he rightly points to the need to understand the Shia-Sunni difference, but this is a religious difference that cannot be understood historically without being understood religiously. Oler would have the first section of his proposed course be on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, but all the existing records on this are religious in nature, and scholarship on it is closely guarded by religious authorities. Contemporary radical Islamists use Ibn Taymiyya's reaction to the Mongols as providing warrant for their own views toward the West, and this is by far not taken as the normative meaning of Sharia by the Muslim majority.
Oler's citations provide a possible bibliography for studying the history of Islam. I would like to add two other important sources: John Kelsay's Arguing the Just War in Islam, and Ibn Khaldun's The Muqaddimah. Kelsay's book follows history from the life of Muhammad and his companions to presentday arguments over the present and future of Islam by following the course of Sharia reasoning. The medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun's monumental work The Muqaddimah takes readers inside the world whose history it treats.
The Author Replies
professor Johnson is absolutely correct to emphasize that one cannot study Islamic history without incorporating the critical role of religion. Indeed, several of the works I cite emphasize that a key distinction between Muslim and Western societies is the absence of church and state separation in the Islamic tradition. …