Was Hagarism Racist?

hagarismWhen Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s Hagarism was first published in 1977 it was immediately controversial. Hagarism argued that the problems with the historical material of Islamic tradition were so severe that it was worthwhile looking at what source material there is from outside the Islamic tradition and reconstructing the history of the religion and Arab-Islamic civilization’s formation on that basis; or as they famously and breezily put it, “the only way out of the dilemma is thus to step outside the Islamic tradition altogether and start again”.

What followed was the depiction of a messianic movement in constant search of an identity, which in time evolved into something that we would recognize today as ‘Islam’. The shifting elements in this reconfiguration of the Semitic monotheistic tradition would include the concept of the caliphate, which Crone went on to argue with Martin Hinds in God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam was originally a ‘Shi’ite’ institution whereby the caliphs claimed direct authority from God as His representative; the idea of Sunna, or exemplary emulative behaviour, which they and others have argued originally included the caliphs and which only in Abbasid Baghdad, with the growing influence of the ulama, came to be conceived of as exclusively the preserve of Muhammad as The Prophet; the role of the class of ulama, who developed into a restraining force on the original absolutism of the caliph.

Hagarism and the research that followed from it mesmerized and inspired an entire generation of students of Islamic history, as well as horrifying a good portion of students and scholars too. Hagarism was also, however, subject to a string of scholarly critiques. This partly stemmed from a sense among many that Islam had finally been subjected to an unseemly and blatant attack from within the ivory towers of Western scholarship itself, vindicating the arguments outlined in Edward Said’s equally seminal Orientalism – scholarship had dropped the veil of intellectual inquiry and academic rigour to reveal its true anti-Orient motives. So while on the one hand the study was a ‘watershed’, as Stephen Shoemacher puts it, it remains on a list of ‘extreme reading’ in many, of not most, Islamic studies departments in the West.

One aspect of the criticism really stuck in my mind for a long time. Said’s response to Hagarism was that it was informed, consciously or otherwise, by the anti-Arab spirit of the 1970s in the wake of the Seven Day War of 1967 and the Arab oil embargo during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. He also attacked the book on the self-evident grounds that it was relying on non-Islamic sources, although Crone and Cook were explicit that that was the whole point of the enterprise, to demonstrate how different the vision and conception of the religion, its origins and development, would be from Islam’s history of itself (Robert Hoyland has taken this further by publishing translations of material written by outsiders at the time of the early Arab-Islamic empire in his Seeing Islam As Others Saw It). But his more important implication was that Hagarism reflected a certain racism. Was Said right?

The essence of Crone and Cook’s presentation of Islam is that it is a religion which took the Utopian promise of Semitic monotheism – a vision of the future in Judaism, the fleeting years of a man-god’s mission in Christianity – and attempted to make of it a living reality. Islamic history, in their view, is the subsequent elaboration of so many failed Utopian fantasies in a bleak, unitary ulama-dominated world, but the consolation for that was that “the Muslims [sic] can at least be at home in their own homes”. They placed a particular emphasis on the fate of pre-Islamic thought, the treatment meted out to Greek, Iranian, Berber and other cultural production – some of it subsumed under the syncretic Islamic aegis – as the Arabs of the Peninsula wrestled with ‘civilization’ and disdained that which could not be dressed up as Arab-Islamic as some kind of intellectual pornography (Roman canon law, Hagarism argues for example, was redistributed in the hadith literature, thus Islamicized and made acceptable). The conquering Arabs they depict as ‘barbarians’ like the Mongols to the Chinese, though it seems to me the Hijazis who masterminded the invasions/futuhaat would have a thing to say about that (note, for example, their view of Najdis today).

Now, the language they use here, despite the brilliance of the arguments (whether one agrees with them or not) is, I think, clearly derogatory. “The only observe to the gravitas of Muslims is the giggling of their womenfolk,” they write in their last paragraph. There is something sinister in the repeated use of ‘the Muslims’; the definite article ‘others’ them as something akin to The Visitors that had ABBA all scared in the infamous 1982 album of that name. I found this line in the concluding chapter which, if it wasn’t so erudite, could have come in one of those neo-arrogant tomes of populist history by Niall Ferguson: “The interacting reactions of European history issued in a modernity which has engulfed the world; the unitary reaction of Islam in the Wahhabism of the inner Arabian wilderness.” Crone and Cook write in the preface that their “evaluative overtones” should not be taken for a “simplistic judgement for or against”, but I ask myself why you would set yourself such a polemical task of ‘evaluation’ that would be more appropriate in the realm of newspapers than in scholarly debate. I can’t help feeling that Said is right in his placing of Hagarism in the context of 1970s polemics against Islam and Arabs.

gods caliphThen we come to God’s Caliph. It is a brilliant study. “…rulers were obeyed as outsiders to the community, not as representatives of it, except (in Islam) in their performance of ritual duties such as leadership of prayer or conduct of jihad, the latter being an activity particularly apt to restore moral continuity between the ruler and his subjects,” they write, adding with devastating directness: “The state was thus something which sat on top of society, not something which was rooted in it.” However, when they go on to say, “given that there was minimal interaction between the two, there was also minimal political development”, we come back to reductive generalizations about the post-colonial polities of today that try to find reasons and justifications for their pathologies in Islam, the historical diversity of which you can’t help feeling they are giving short thrift (colonialism, for a start, is clearly off the hook in this reading). Though the disturbing use of the definite article has been shelved, they still conclude that Islam displays “ideological instransigence” towards the Western world today because in Islam all aspects of life were rolled together in a single “God-given packet”, and this has “interfered with the capacity of Muslims to organize themselves”. So again, in this view, certain post-colonial states are Islamic before they are anything else, and they have the problems they do because of the Essence of Islam (a perfume you don’t want to buy).

With that in mind, it’s worth noting the thoughts on Islam of sociologist Ernst Gellner. In his Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History, Gellner imagined Islam in a different light. Rather than make war on Islam because it has failed to “secularise” under the force of Western modernity, Gellner sees Islam as in a stronger position to face the future and survive as a discrete civilizational identity. Again, a religious tradition embracing immensely diverse cultural and political traditions is viewed in monolithic terms, but this time with a positive prognosis. “A strict unitarianism, a (theoretical) absence of any clergy, hence, in principle, equidistance of all believers from the deity, a strict scripturalism and stress on orderly law-observance, a sober religiosity, avoiding ecstasy and the audio-visual aids of religion – all these features are highly congruent with an urban bourgeois life style and with commercialism,” he writes. “(Islam’s) ‘protestant’ features made it compatible with the modern world, the newly found strengths of urban life give it a wider and more stable appeal. Above all it could define the Muslim community as something which had dignity, by modern standards, but which at the same time was genuinely indigenous.”

Gellner – who incidently cited the central argument of God’s Caliph as worthy of consideration – was focussed primarily here on the Sunni tradition, but his further discussion of the metropolis and rural hinterland was relevant and applicable across the diversity of Muslim societies today. Importantly, his analysis was rooted neither in 1967 nor 1973, nor bore any traces of it; if anything he was following the line of argument espoused by the great 14th century historian from Tunisia, Ibn Khaldoun.

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