Reviewed by Liz Dexter
A beautiful object, as you can see from the cover image, this is published to be an accessible introduction to pre-modern Islam, looking at thirty of the individuals who founded and continued Islam and shaped it into a coherent and important religion, paying close attention to historical sources but acknowledging other sources and discussions within the text.
The author is a history professor at the City University of New York, having also taught Islamic history at Oxford, and has published a good few volumes on pre-modern Islam. He certainly knows his stuff but is also able to make it, indeed, accessible, when presenting a disparate group of theologians, scholars, poets and law-makers, including, of course, Muhammad himself, his cousin ‘Ali and his wife ‘A’isha, moving through sections based on empire, the Islamic Commonwealth, and what he calls synthesis and disruption, and covering 600 to 1525 – so that is indeed almost 1000 years covered through the lives of these 30 people.
In the Preface, Robinson addresses the important issues of how we distinguish between myth and genuine history (with the caveat that this is history ‘as reconstructed according to modern standards of critical scholarship’) which he will revisit. Notably, in the piece on Muhammad, he notes that because you don’t expect particular people to become great prophets and the founders of religions, records aren’t necessarily kept about their beginnings. He’s careful throughout the book to point out what is a matter of record and where that record is, what has become generally accepted tradition and what is merely conjecture, but in a balanced and what seems from here like a respectful way.
There’s a useful note on the conventions Robinson uses: he takes out the confusing references to dates from two calendars that most books on this topic use, but retains traditions of orthography to help readers understand how names and places are pronounced. Moving on to the Introduction, the author’s stated aim is this:
… collectively, these thirty figures can offer what I hope to be an accessible introduction to Islamic civilization, which, for all its extraordinary diversity, remains poorly understood in the English-speaking world.’
I would really like to know what people who speak English but come from other than Western cultures make of this book, but this is a noble aim and anything that increases understanding between cultures is obviously a good thing.
Robinson explains the reason for the finishing point of the book (it has obviously started with Muhammad, the founder of Islam) as being when the politics and economics of the Middle East changed from pre-modern to modern as the region underwent major changes – this seems a sensible place to stop to me, though another volume would be valuable, too.
He emphasises throughout the book the huge range of creativity and diversity which came into existence in this area during the time under consideration. He aims to – and succeeds in – capturing a wide spectrum of ideas, personal styles and social practices, looking at a culture that was full of ‘dynamism, experimentation and risk-taking’.
I particularly liked the sections on ‘A’isha, recognising the differences in culture and marriage age with acceptance and going into the sometimes confusing sources on this fascinating and powerful figure, and of Ibn Muqla, who is said to have been instrumental in codifying the manuscript writing style of the age. This piece contains some fascinating detail about Qur’anic script, and the same happens in all of the pieces; not only is someone’s life explored, but a detail about the culture, history or historical sources is also explored at the same time, which gives a rich and interesting reading experience. In addition, because the pieces are fairly short and discrete within themselves, it’s possible to read a few then reflect and take a break, rather than having to plough through pages of history and exposition, another attractive aspect to the book. For example, in the piece on Timur, we’re introduced to the Mongol world and its relation to the Muslim one, and the piece on Saladin discusses the power of nationalist discourses.
It’s still an academic book – albeit a notably accessible and readable one – and so has all the accoutrements you would expect – the aforementioned Preface mentioning conventions and abbreviations, great referencing, an index, bibliography and further reading as well as the notes, and some truly lovely colour plates with sumptuous illustrations from manuscripts. As anyone who reads my reviews knows, this stuff is important to me and adds the necessary gravitas to mean this is a subject made approachable but done seriously. A good introduction giving pathways to more detail.
Liz Dexter blogs about books and running and running books at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com. She has an interest but not an expertise in Islam.
Chase F. Robinson, Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives: The First 1000 Years (Thames & Hudson, 2018). 978-0500293782, 280 pp., ill. Paperback.
Buy at the Book Depository (affiliate link).