Islamic History, Part 1: Introduction

Islamic History Series

Welcome to the first part of an extended series on Islamic history, from the life of Muhammad until, well, whenever I can’t continue devoting any time to it, I suppose.

I don’t have much to say by way of introduction, but I will note that we’re starting in one of the most difficult parts of Islamic history to assess, Islam’s origins. Because the religion was–probably–born in a time (the 7th century) and a place (western Arabia) where record-keeping was maybe not that big a priority, and because its origins involve some pretty supernatural occurrences, the study of Muhammad’s life and the periods immediately before and after is jam packed with uncertainty. That uncertainty has led to some wildly divergent narratives about how Islam came to be, most offered in good faith but some perhaps not so much.

Here we’ll be sticking relatively closely to the most commonly accepted academic historical narrative about the development of early Islam, for two reasons. The first is that the field of Islamic history is refined to the point where I think we have to assume that what is widely accepted is a fairly good approximation of what really happened. The second is that the commonly accepted narrative is the one most people learn and therefore what animates their behavior today. Which, I think, is ultimately why we’re interested. I will try to note places where there are still major academic debates happening, but in general¬†nothing I write in this series (at least not until we get a little closer to modern times) should be taken as settled fact.

Also, this will be mostly a kings and wars history, sorry, but I’ll try to talk about theology, philosophy and (probably less often) the arts and sciences as well.

Part of the problem with doing Islamic history is deciding what you mean by “Islamic history.” For example, I can tell you right now that, assuming we get to the point where Indonesia comes into the Islamic world, you will hear almost nothing about Indonesia from me, because I don’t know anything about it. Yet what is the country with the highest number of Muslims in the world? That would be Indonesia. Nigeria will likewise be getting a pass from me, but Nigeria contains more Muslims than any Arab country except Egypt. India has the third-largest population of Muslims in the world, but apart from the period when India was actually ruled by Muslim emperors, it doesn’t factor very much in the story. Really doing a history of all Islam, everywhere, would take forever and overwhelm people with information, so I’ll be limiting the scope of this somewhat. Yes, that means that calling this “Islamic history” is actually kind of a lie, but I’m doing it anyway.

Map - Islamic World 2
This might be a bit much

Limiting can go too far as well. Keeping ourselves to, say, the “Arab” world (Iraq, Arabia, Syria, and North Africa from Egypt to Morocco) would be geographically more defined, but would ignore Turkey, Iran, and south Asia, which just so happen to be the homes of the three greatest early modern Islamic empires (the Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Mughals), so that’s clearly not the right approach. I figure, this is a blog, I’m probably never going to finish this project anyway, so I can make up the rules as I go along. I’ll try to follow the main course of Islamic history as somebody would learn it in an academic setting today, which means the Arab world I just described plus Anatolia (Turkey), Iran (the geographical Iran, which includes Afghanistan), south Asia (sometimes), central Asia (sometimes) and the Caucasus (sometimes). Some places will pop in and out of the story, like Andalusia (southern Spain), India, Russia, even Arabia (where, despite it being the birthplace of the religion, very little of importance happens for big chunks of Islamic history). If I want to do an entry on sub-Saharan Africa, or south-east Asia, or even China, I will, but we’ll see.

The last consideration is how we divide things up over time, which admittedly is less of a consideration for a random collection of blog posts but is a major consideration for historians, who are forever dating things like the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945) and people like Abraham Lincoln (d. 1865), and then taking those things and people they just dated and cramming them here and there into periods. Any historical period is necessarily a completely made-up concept, because almost nobody actually thinks in those terms while they’re alive. People in the Middle Ages didn’t go around complaining about how bad the Middle Ages were and how much they wish the early modern period would get here. But periods are vital in trying to make sense of an otherwise never-ending series of events, and help historians note trends over time across regions, etc. So we have to deal with them. The commonly accepted periodization for Islamic history is (and please note the care that historians have employed in crafting interesting names for these periods):

  1. The Early Period (610 or 622-945): this runs from either Muhamamd’s first revelations, which would eventually be collected into the Quran we know today, or his flight from Mecca to Medina (the foundational event in Islamic history and the Year 1 in the Islamic/Hijri Calendar), until the conquest of Baghdad by an Iranian dynasty, the Buyids, and the subjugation of the caliph, who until that point was the most powerful figure in the empire.
  2. The Middle Period (945-1789): this period, which itself can be divided into as many as three periods (breaking at 1258 when the Mongols sacked Baghdad and again at 1501 when the Islamic world more-or-less coalesced into three large empires out of a chaotic mess of many smaller principalities), runs from the subjugation of the caliph in Baghdad to the first serious “modernization” (or “Europeanization” if you prefer) movements in the Ottoman Empire in 1789 (which also closely enough coincides with the end of the Safavid Empire and the almost total loss of power by the Mughals in India to a Hindu confederation and, later, to the British)
  3. The Modern Period (1789-???): one assumes that if we don’t kill ourselves anytime soon, this period will have to end and will be called something else, but since the period before it went on for 800 freaking years, we’ve probably still got some time before that happens.

So, geography and chronology established, it’s time to start. Next time: the world before Muhammad.


4 thoughts on “Islamic History, Part 1: Introduction

  1. Hello Derek – a fascinating blog you got going here. I am quite impressed with your knowledge of history (esp. Middle-Eastern). You make a good point as to what constitutes ‘Islamic history’ and it’s an intriguing topic. It tempts me to digress just a little.
    I feel as though there’s another dimension to the discussion. As a mediocre Muslim, I’ve always wondered why everyone insists that Islam started with the first verse of the Qur’an in circa 610 AD. In fact, it picked up where the Jesus’s (Jesuses’?) teachings left off and completed the Religion. In the Qur’an, Islam is not a separate tradition, but a final installment on earlier laws given by the same God. Assuming I’d have been able to choose my creed, I’d be a Christian if born before the time of Muhammad; and a Jew, before Jesus. That is why, both Adam and Abraham can be considered to be Muslims / Christians / Jews. My point is that the true Islamic history is also Biblical and Talmudic history.
    Anyways, I know this isn’t your area of interest or the topic of the post. I guess this comment is more like thinking out loud. Keep the series going. Its brevity and clarity are its greatest assets.

    1. Sure, societies evolve slowly and everything builds on what came before. Any decision to study this or that piece of history is going to be arbitrary on some level. Even someone studying the entirety of human history will have to ignore or only briefly touch on pre-history, if for no other reason than the fact that nobody was writing anything down then, and it’s not as though human society radically and immediately changed once people started to write things down.

      Hodgson starts his Venture of Islam with the Axial Age, which was invented by German historian/philosopher Karl Jaspers. It denotes a period from around 800-200 BCE when Jaspers contended that a lot of intellectual development suddenly started happening around the world (Zoroastrianism and Judaism in the Middle East, the Greek philosophers, Confucianism in China, Buddhism in South Asia), and Hodgson connects the currents that came together to shape Islam back to that period. But of course Jaspers was also being arbitrary. It’s exceedingly unlikely that human beings just magically started to think about complex religious and philosophical questions in 800 BCE, but obviously the further back you go in history the less surviving written material you have with which to study that sort of thing.

      Given the imperfection and inexactness of any kind of historical undertaking, from writing a book to teaching a course to scribbling some things down on a blog, I think Muhammad is as good a place to start the story of Islam as anything else. He’s the figure around which the Abrahamic tradition coalesced into something that eventually became a new faith. I could start with Abraham, or with Christianity, and in either case that would provide a heck of a lot more important context for the rise of Islam, but for one thing, let’s be honest, I’d probably never get to Islam that way, and for another thing, those would also be equally arbitrary choices, ignoring the influence of ancient Mesopotamian or Egyptian civilization on the early Israelites, or the influence of Zoroastrianism on later Judaism and Christianity, etc. I’d like to write a piece about the Axial Age one of these days, and maybe that would take off into periodic looks at the Jewish/Iranian traditions that shaped Islam, but that’s a long way off if it ever happens at all.

      Thanks for reading and I hope you stick around!

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