Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

8
In Search of
Islam’s Past

For Muslims, history is important. The mission of Muhammad and the promulgation of the Qur’ān are events in history, and knowledge of them was preserved and disseminated through historical memory and record. In this respect Islam takes the same view as its two predecessors, Judaism and Christianity, and indeed the earliest Islamic narratives bear a generic resemblance to those of the Jews and Christians, in scripture and elsewhere. The Muslims too had their kings and their prophets, their saints and their martyrs, and preserve the memory of their lives and their deaths in history and biography, in tradition and commemoration.

But there is more. Judaism began among a small group of migratory tribes, grew among the inhabitants of a small kingdom, overshadowed and often dominated by mighty neighbors, and achieved its greatest flowering among a people who were conquered, subjugated, and ultimately dispersed. Christianity first appeared as the faith of a small minority in a subject province of the Roman Empire and remained through its early formative centuries a religion of the downtrodden and the oppressed. Islam, in contrast, triumphed during the lifetime of its founder, who created a state which, under his immediate successors, the caliphs, became a vast empire. The Christianized Roman Empire strove, albeit with limited success, to preserve the language, the laws, and the institutions of pagan Rome, and even the barbarian conquerors who

A review of Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry, Revised Edition by R. Stephen
Humphreys, Princeton University Press, from The New York Review of Books, 5 December
1991.

-103-

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