by Ali Minai
The Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries CE were arguably among the most cataclysmic and consequential events in world history, creating a completely new and long-lasting civilization from India and Central Asia to the Western edge of North Africa. And, while this civilization has ramified and fragmented considerably over the subsequent thirteen centuries, its imprint still shapes the history of these regions today to a decisive degree. An especially important manifestation of this influence is the widespread sentiment among the Muslims of this region for some sort of “return” to that idealized earlier period of glory and purity – a sentiment that has fueled revivalist movements ranging from political ones such as the Muslim Brotherhood to violent ones like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, this revivalist impulse goes far beyond these visible movements, and pervades Muslim societies from South Asia to Morocco, entering every aspect of social, cultural and political life in myriad ways. In a sense, this can be seen as the natural impulse of people attempting to repossess their past after a period of colonization, but what makes such a desire compellingly possible is the fact that so little is truly known about the early period of Islam.
Ernest Renan famously said that Islam – unlike other great world religions – was “born in the full light of history”. However, this view has been challenged vigorously in the last century by Western scholars seeking to apply modern historical methods to the origins of Islam. To be sure, some of this “near-revisionism” is motivated by skepticism about the religion itself, but the problem is real enough. Most Muslims have implicit faith in the received reports and traditions about the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, but the fact is that the first biographical reports of the Prophet – by Ibn Ishāq and Mālik b. Anas – were not written down until more than a century after his death, and the earliest comprehensive histories of Islam – by Ibn Sa'd, Al-Wāqidī, Al-Tabarī, al-Balādhurī, et al. – date from the late 8th to early 9th century. A century or two may not seem long in the context of history, but the rise of Islam was so rapid that its truly formative period was basically over by the mid-8th century when the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyad caliphate, replacing that most Arab of dynasties with one rooted in a more cosmopolitan ethos. Also, because of the way it had acquired power, the Abbasid dynasty had a strong incentive to promote a specific version of early Islamic history and doctrine. Thus, it is especially important to look at contemporary evidence to obtain an accurate picture of Islam's earliest period.