The Crucible of Islam
by Glen Warren Bowersock
Harvard, 2017, 220 pages, US$25
Glen Warren Bowersock, now eighty-one years of age, is by any measure one of the West’s most distinguished scholars of classical civilisation. His chosen field, from the start, was the history of the ancient Mediterranean world: Greece, Rome and the Near East. He is a prize-winning graduate of Harvard (1957) and Oxford (1959, as a Rhodes Scholar). His doctorate, at Oxford (1962) was on Augustus and the Greek world. He has served as lecturer in Ancient History at Balliol, Magdalen and New colleges, Oxford (1960–62), Professor of Classics and History at Harvard (1962–80) and was Professor of Ancient History at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University from 1980 until his retirement in 2006. He is the author of over a dozen books and has published over 400 articles on Greek, Roman and Near Eastern history and culture as well as the classical tradition.
The list of his honours is long and impressive and the titles of his books and the number of his scholarly articles are alike the stuff of open-mouthed awe on the part of any aspiring student of classical civilisation. They include a book based on his doctoral dissertation, Augustus and the Greek World (1965), Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (1969), Julian the Apostate (1978), Roman Arabia (1983), Gibbon’s Historical Imagination (1988), Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World (1999), Interpreting Late Antiquity (2001), Mosaics as History: The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam (2006), Lorenzo Valla: On the Donation of Constantine (edition and translation, 2007), From Gibbon to Auden: Essays on the Classical Tradition (2009) and The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (2013).
This is a wonderful body of work and an indication of what our best universities in the West have been able to produce, even if all too many of our students in the twenty-first century read very little of it. Having read several of Professor Bowersock’s earlier works, not least his recent and fascinating study of pre-Islamic Arabia and Christian Ethiopia, The Throne of Adulis, I was prompted to buy and read at once his latest offering, The Crucible of Islam. I was dismayed, therefore, to discover that something strange has happened to the great scholar, leading to some startling, basic errors of history and an approach to his subject that would have astonished Edward Gibbon, whose “historical imagination” had exercised Bowersock in his prime. I had expected mature insights and fresh perspectives from this book, concise though it is, at only 220 pages. Instead, I found myself astonished by its errors and omissions and recoiling from its deference to Islam.
We might anchor a reflection on Bowersock’s writing about the origins of Islam in the famous remarks by Gibbon himself, in the fiftieth and fifty-first chapters of his celebrated history of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He makes the sardonic remark that:
The birth of Mohammed was fortunately placed in the most degenerate and disorderly period of the Persians, the Romans and the barbarians of Europe: the empires of Trajan, or even of Constantine or Charlemagne, would have repelled the assault of the naked Saracens, and the torrent of fanaticism might have been obscurely lost in the sands of Arabia.
These lines have a curious and disturbing resonance in our time, a generation after the end of the Cold War and in the midst of violent upheavals in the name of Islam, not least in the Middle East. They also show Gibbon’s characteristic turn of phrase and sceptical outlook. “Fortunately placed” was not an indication that he believed the Arab conquests to have been fortunate for the conquered, but rather that the Arabs got lucky and hence their desert fanaticism was able to spread far and wide. Bowersock set out to explore the roots of that “fortunate” turn of events in his two most recent books, The Throne of Adulis and The Crucible of Islam.
The first of these books throws light into some rather dark corners of standard Western historiography. The second is a far more questionable contribution to our understanding of the ancient world. It would be, in some respects, ungracious to direct too withering a broadside at Professor Bowersock, given his distinguished career and great learning. But the errors and the general tone of this book on Islam cannot go without comment. They are certainly a cause for concern about failures of editorial assistance at Harvard University Press. But above all, they need correction for the sake of the common interest we all have in understanding accurately how Islam arose and what it represents as a force in history.
The errors that struck me most forcefully are of a kind that would surely have been corrected had any competent scholar or editor checked the book before it was published. How they were committed by an emeritus professor of classical history at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies and overlooked by the editors at Harvard University Press quite eludes me. To take one example: Bowersock refers (at page 16) to Jewish settlers in Arabia having migrated there “in the aftermath of the revolt against Titus in Jerusalem”. Yet the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 AD, which lasted until the sack of Masada in 73 (or archaeologists and historians tell us, perhaps 74) AD, was in no sense a revolt against Titus. Given the weight of his classical learning, Bowersock has to know this.
Reading Bowersock, one cannot readily tell whether Titus is supposed to have been emperor at the time of the revolt, or perhaps the governor of Judaea against whom the Jews rebelled. He was neither. They revolted against the taxation policies of the Roman governor Gessius Florus. After local efforts to quell it had failed in 66, Vespasian was appointed, in 67, to conduct a large-scale counter-insurgency operation. Titus was his son and second-in-command. When Vespasian departed for the west in 69 to bid for imperial power in the famous Year of Four Emperors, Titus took command of what was already a three-year campaign against the Jews. He then took Jerusalem and completed the suppression of the Jewish rebellion.
Another breathtaking lapse is Bowersock’s remark that the ferment in Arabia in the second half of the sixth century and the early seventh century—the rise of a Jewish kingdom in Yemen, the invasion of Arabia by the Christian Ethiopians and the first stirrings of what would become Islam—prefigured possible upheaval and “neither Byzantium nor Baghdad could ignore this possibility” (page 105). There are two solecisms here. Constantinople was not generally known as Byzantium at that time, even if that had been its name before Constantine made it his capital. But this is a minor point. Far more significant is the reference to Baghdad as the Persian capital, when Baghdad did not exist at all until after 762, when it was built by the Abbasid caliphs. The Persian capital was Ctesiphon. Again, Bowersock has to know this. How many of his readers will be jarred by this kind of error and how many will entirely fail to notice it? It is disturbing to think that his general readership will take it to be no error at all and will imagine Baghdad to have indeed been the Persian capital.
He repeats this error at page 120, where he states, “After the Persian capture of the city [Jerusalem] in 614, the Christians had been dispossessed and the relics of the True Cross removed to Baghdad.” Those relics were removed to no such place, since Baghdad did not exist at that point and would not do so for almost another century and a half. Such an error is all the more mystifying in that, in his Acknowledgments, he expresses glowing gratitude to two other eminent classicists, Peter Brown and Christopher Jones, for their interest in and close attention to the book as a project and for improving his pages with their “perceptive observations and searching questions”. Evidently, neither of them noted his strangely anachronistic references to Baghdad or his description of Titus as the object of the Great Revolt by the Jews.
An equally strange and disturbing error comes at page 142, where Bowersock, in discussing the Dome of the Rock as sitting on Mount Moriah, where Solomon’s Temple stood before the sack of the city in 587 BC, describes that sacking as the occasion on which “the Assyrians took the Jews of Jerusalem into captivity in Babylon”. How is it possible that a scholar of ancient history in an Ivy League university could make so basic an error as to state that the Assyrians took the Jews to Babylon? Assyria had ceased to exist a generation before that date, destroyed by the Babylonians themselves and the Medes; the climax being the destruction of the Assyrian capital at Nineveh. It was the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar who took the Jews into exile in 587-86 BC. This is such a famous story that it is astonishing to see a senior and distinguished scholar get it so obviously wrong.
Egregious errors of this nature do much to undermine one’s confidence in the credibility of an author, or at least of a book. If Bowersock was just starting out, publishing a book marred by such howlers would surely obstruct the development of his academic career. Ironically, just because he has long since become a distinguished and decorated scholar, neither his most brilliant and learned colleagues, nor the copy editors at one of the world’s most prestigious publishing houses saw fit to closely check his accuracy. Well before I finished reading the book, however, I was shaking my head in disbelief. Yet it is not only the obvious mistakes that trouble one. It is the consideration that, if he can get things like this wrong, how can we rely on his judgment and accuracy in points of more minute detail, regarding the obscure origins and controversial rise of Islam at the end of the classical era?
Nor is it only errors of fact that mar this book. Drawing upon well over a century of scholarship that has been seeking to pin down the actual history of early Islam, as distinct from the myths and dogmas hallowed by Muslim tradition, Bowersock consistently fails to display any of the qualities of irony, literary flair or sardonic humour that make Gibbon such an education to read. He long ago made a close study of Gibbon’s historical imagination. How could he immerse himself for a lifetime in the very materials studied by the eighteenth-century Englishman and yet acquire none of the master’s genius for inflection and Olympian detachment? This is especially so with regard to Islam as a set of beliefs and practices. Gibbon has been much berated for his slyly irreverent asides about Christian theology, if not for his salacious footnotes often disguised, as William Beckford long ago observed, in the obscurity of the original Greek and Latin. Regrettably, no one could accuse Bowersock of such things in his work on Islam.
Anyone who has had the pleasure of reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or taken the time at least to do so, is likely to carry with them ever afterwards some of Gibbon’s famous quips or beautifully constructed passages of historiographic rhetoric. I love the writings of St Augustine, but cannot forget Gibbon’s acid footnote to the effect that Augustine’s learning was too often borrowed and his arguments too often his own. Or his wonderfully droll footnote about the Roman Emperor Gordian II, who left behind on his death “twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes”. If the number of his progeny and his literary productions were any indication, Gibbon drily remarked, then both the women and the library had been intended “for use rather than ostentation”. Bowersock’s tone stands in marked contrast with that of Gibbon precisely on account of its painful and humourless deference to Muslim traditions and dogmatic claims.
Despite the wealth of serious archaeology and history available to him, which he explicitly acknowledges and cites, Bowersock refers again and again, without the least trace of irony or scepticism, to the Prophet Muhammad, the “revelations” to Muhammad from the Archangel Gabriel, even the night flight of Muhammad to Jerusalem and his meeting there with Gabriel, as if such things had the status of historical fact. It seems vanishingly unlikely that he actually believes these things, yet he betrays not an iota of scepticism or irony as he slips such phrases into an otherwise resolutely secular and earnest history. Why is this? His oblique reference at page 70 to what he calls the “now notorious story of the so-called Satanic verses that Satan himself was alleged to have induced the Prophet to include in his Qur’an” may be an indirect clue as to why he adopts the tone that he does.
Salman Rushdie notoriously suffered a fatwa condemning him to death for writing The Satanic Verses (1988) and publishers and distributors of the book were verbally and physically attacked for doing so. Its Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, for example, was stabbed and killed. Its Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was seriously injured in a stabbing, and there were quite a few other acts of incredible violence committed under the sign of the fatwa by fanatics. Many incidents of violence have occurred since, in which critics of Islam or Muhammad have been assaulted for their words or drawings. It seems disturbingly possible that Bowersock, eminent scholar of Harvard, Oxford and Princeton, was pulling possible punches and avoiding all irony in order to avoid incurring the anger of fanatical Muslims, whether Sunni or Shia. This is all the more remarkable given his observation at the outset that it has taken a long time for Islam to be subjected to the same kind of textual and historical criticism that, from the Renaissance onwards, steadily undermined the dogmatic claims of established Christianity.
He is worth quoting on this, because this caution, hesitancy and self-censorship on his part go to the heart of a dilemma that has confronted the West since the 1980s and has grown steadily more acute in recent years. On page 2, he states:
The pioneering generation of Islamicists in the West, including Theodor Noldeke, Julius Wellhausen and Ignaz Goldziher, applied the methods of classical philology as they had been successfully imported into the study of the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible by Erasmus and Gesenius. As these scholars recognized, the transmission of these old texts was susceptible to critical analysis, which in the fullness of time could be supplemented by surviving documents on stone, papyri and coins and eventually the discoveries of archaeological excavation. For Islam, the authority of the Qur’an, being the revealed word of God, notoriously resisted the Erasmian challenge, because of the vast hiatus between its creation, at whatever time and by whatever means, and very much later reports of the context from which it came. It took nearly two centuries for Islamic exegetes to acquire a corpus of what was known about the genesis of their religion. By then a complex process of textual contamination had already taken place.
The better part of his book attempts to build upon this foundation. It is vitiated by his regrettable tendency to concede by indirection that the Koran was, in fact, a “revelation” from Gabriel to Muhammad and that Muhammad was, indeed, the singular progenitor of the religion that, from the late seventh century and especially after the Abbasid revolution in the mid-eighth century, became the state religion of the Arab empire stretching from Central Asia to Spain.
Much that Bowersock relates in his short book will be a revelation, if one may use that word in its secular sense, to the naive reader. He offers something of a synthesis of a century and more of secular scholarship of the Erasmian kind on the origins of Islam. But given the startling errors of basic fact and the disturbing deference to Muslim religious sensitivities that characterise the book, one has to caution any reader with the time-honoured Latin phrase caveat emptor—buyer beware, or read with care. The great scholar wants to write a summary account of the rise of Islam, but he gets elementary historical facts in his own field flat wrong and shows marked signs of not wishing to offend any believing Muslim. From this starting point, we need to take cum grano salis, to use another Latin term (with a grain of salt), his assertions that Islam did begin almost exactly as Muslim tradition asserts: with revelations to Muhammad, the creation of the base (al-qaeda) at Medina, the triumph at Mecca and the rapid diffusion of original and pure Islam across the stricken Roman and Persian empires by inspired Muslim armies after 632, when Muhammad reportedly died at Mecca.
Perhaps there is an explanation for all this that has eluded me. Perhaps a more charitable explanation for the errors of fact and the lack of scepticism and irony in Bowersock’s history of Islam is that it is all a very sly and artfully constructed polemic. Perhaps he knows very well that the errors I have pointed out are flagrant and has included them as an indirect way of arguing that the history of Islam he offers should not be relied upon either. I am, of course, being sardonic. It is surely inconceivable that Harvard University Press would lend itself to such a strange exercise, or that scholars like Peter Brown and Christopher Jones would connive in it. Yet short of such a far-fetched apology for what has been published in this book, one can only lament the author’s evidently failing powers and the travesty of scholarship that has resulted. Readers should be advised to turn, instead, to Ibn Warraq’s The Quest for the Historical Muhammad (2000), Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword (2012), or Karl-Heinz Ohlig’s Early Islam: A Critical Reconstruction Based on Contemporary Sources (2013).
Bowersock goes out of his way to dismiss the argument by the late Patricia Crone that Mecca was not the trading city of Muslim tradition and that there are good reasons for doubting the conventional story of Islam having arisen there from whole cloth. He would have done well to urge his readers to linger in such territory, as Holland does, for example, and to recognise that the history is far more uncertain than the religious believers assert. It is, for example, the opinion of Moshe Sharon, a specialist on these matters of considerably more learning about the origins of Islam than Glen Bowersock (whose work has overwhelmingly been on Greece and Rome) that it arose from several discordant and geographically dispersed centres, which were pulled together by force under the Umayyads, then made into a state religion for the Arab empire in the late seventh century. Sharon may be in error, but Bowersock does not so much as entertain such an intriguing hypothesis.
The best scholarship on the subject does not point to the neat and pious conclusions that Bowersock seems determined to offer us in The Crucible of Islam. It points, rather, to Arab monotheisms having germinated in multiple places, as Sharon argues, as Arab migrations overran the exhausted Roman and Persian empires in the seventh century. The Ghassanid and Lakhmid Arab states in what is now Syria and Iraq had been client states of the Romans and Persians, respectively, throughout the climactic wars of the sixth and seventh centuries. When the Persians overran the Roman empire and were then decisively defeated by the Emperor Heraclius in the 620s, frontiers opened up to the Arabs that had been closed for centuries; much as such opportunities opened up in the West for the Goths and other Germanic peoples as the Roman empire imploded in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Arab tribes then migrated widely and, like the Goths in Italy, southern France and Spain, established new principalities within the provinces of the old empires. The Umayyads then pulled all this into a single empire by force, including the conquest of Mecca and Medina in the late seventh century. Abd al-Malik completed the task and built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to signify and assert, for the first time, that Islam was the state religion and the purest of monotheisms. Early the following century, Arabs and Berbers broke into Visigothic Spain and overran it. Half a century later again, it was taken over by Abd al-Rahman, an Umayyad princeling who had survived the overthrow and wholesale massacre of his family by the insurgent Abbasids, who had come out of Khorasan (Central Asia), not out of Arabia, in the late 740s.
I bought and read Bowersock’s book believing that it would add to my stock of knowledge of these matters. It dismays me to report that it did nothing of the kind, but rather reinforced a sense that Western scholarship on Islam has found itself caught between objectivity and fanatical religion in a manner that it has not been (with regard to Christianity) for almost three centuries. It is very important that this not be permitted. The efforts by a number of powerful and well-resourced Muslim movements to get criticism of Islam banned in the West and broadly defined anti-blasphemy laws introduced must be resisted strenuously. Liberty itself is at stake in such matters. If a society based on broadly liberal norms and freedoms is to be maintained—and, indeed, extended more widely around the world, not least to the Muslim world itself—then we simply cannot bend to an alien religion which would forbid us to so much as critically inquire into its claims. I would like to believe that Glen Bowersock would agree.
Paul Monk’s latest book, The Secret Gospel According to Mark, will be published shortly. He has been contributing to Quadrant since the 1980s.