Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing, by Fred M. Dormer. Princeton, NJ: The Darwin Press, 1998. xv + 358 pages. $29.95.
Reviewed by Muhammad Qasim Zaman
This work represents a major contribution to early Islamic historiography and historical thought. It is an ambitious enterprise that seeks to understand the circumstances in which, and the reasons for which, the early Muslims began to write historical works, and attempting a major revision of the existing scholarship on this complex and contentious subject.
The beginnings of Arab historical writing have often been attributed to an "innate historical curiosity," a "natural" desire to think and write about the past. This simplistic view is not acceptable to Donner, however, any more than is the assumption that the influence of neighboring cultures, which already had highly developed historiographical traditions, must have led to the emergence of historical thought among the Arabs. Donner argues that the Qur'an is profoundly ahistorical in its view of the world; and that early Muslims were so preoccupied with questions of piety and, indeed, with eschatology, that it is anything but obvious that they should innately possess or necessarily develop an interest in historical narration, that is, in "the conscious effort to explain a specific human situation by relating how it resulted from a sequence of earlier events" (p. 96). The case for foreign borrowing is likewise unconvincing, since some need from within the community must usually arise before an idea or institution from the outside can become sufficiently attractive to be adopted.
So what led, then, to the emergence of historical writing in the first century of Islam-the period of "Islamic origins"-leading, as it eventually did, to a highly sophisticated historiographical tradition? The answer, Dormer argues, lies in the need of the early "Believers" (a term he prefers to "Muslims" for much of the first century) to articulate an increasingly precise identity as a separate religious community. The articulation of this identity took place both in the context of debates with members of the other communities the Believers encountered in the Middle East after the Arab conquests, as well as through debates and disputes initiated by political crises within the ranks of the Believers. Debates over identity underlie themes such as prophecy, community, leadership, and hegemony, all of which Donner takes to be among the earliest major concerns of Arabic historical writing.
Explaining why a historical interest developed at all is, however, not the only task Donner sets for himself in this stimulating book. He is equally interested in explaining how the historical narratives evolved, why they took the form in which they have come down to us, and how their reliability is to be assessed. He provides an extensive and very helpful review of the major modern Western approaches to the study of Islamic historiography, but it is with what he calls the "sceptical approach" that he is most extensively engaged throughout this study. The "sceptical approach," best typified by the work of Patricia Crone, denies that any authentic reconstruction of Islamic origins is possible, at least on the basis of the Arabic-Muslim sources. As Crone has put it, for example, "the religious tradition of Islam is...a monument to the destruction rather than the preservation of the past" (cited in Donner, p. 26, fn. 66). Dormer responds, inter alia, by positing a distinction between "information" about the past, based on people's recollections of important events, and the "historicization" of these recollections whereby they were made part of varied (and often contradictory) historical narratives. Information about the past could exist and be passed on even when an overarching historical framework, and, indeed, any particular interest in history itself, did not yet exist. The construction of narratives about the past, on the other hand, clearly presupposes, and testifies to, the emergence of a genuine historical interest. …