I’m reading a book called “Hagarism: The making of the Islamic World” by the two scholars, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook.
It is a rather controversial and – for some – provocative piece of writing, presenting a theory on how the Islamic culture and religion came to be, not – as we would believe – based on a single person’s revelations and his followers acceptance as him being receiving these revelations, but rather that it was a “trade of cultures and ideas,” being established in the meeting with other cultures, either taking from them or giving them elements needed.
What is special about this book, besides its theories, is that it attempts to base its theories on non-Muslim contemporary sources, and by them explain what actually happened.
In all its simplicity the theory is that the Arabs, called Hagarites, “met” the Jews in the Arabian Desert, who told them about Ishmael and that they believed that the Hagarites were descendants of Ishmael. The Arab conquest then became a joint operation of Jews and Hagarites, who had embraced Jewish messianism and Ishmaelite genealogy, but in its aftermath, when there appeared disagreements on the restoration of the Temple and more and more Christians became subjects, the Hagarites understood the need to break with Judaism, and establish their own religion. In this light it is important to point out, that the two authors believe that Muhammad at first only was a secondary figure, and ‘Umar was the main figure (being called al-Faruq, faraqa in Aramaic, meaning “the Redeemer”). Later on this rising civilization had to establish itself, something it only could do in a vacuum, and that vacuum was found in Syria, and after that it went to Iraq, where it received further elements of importance, such as elements of law.
The book is interesting, no doubt, but I’m not sure what to think of it. They provide a lot of sources, and they certainly have some interesting points in the evolution of Middle Eastern cultures, but I don’t buy their theory of the foundation of Islam itself, it seems a little too speculated, and they basically trust too much on sources, which wouldn’t have much opportunity to know or understand what was going on in the Arab society, except rumors, and rumors are indeed what these sources seem to be build on. That doesn’t render them not useful, but we have to be aware that these sources’ presentations of facts have to be viewed in a critical light.
There is also the issue of later discovered sources, such as the findings of early Quranic manuscripts in Yemen, which gives a different understanding of the compilation of the Quran.
But to be fair, they do point out that this is a theory not being based on too stable evidence, and that they are aware that findings might be done, which would change the picture. This is a period we don’t know much about, in a region we don’t know much about, so it is always important to be cautious when establishing “facts” in this context.
I would recommend the book, if nothing else, then for its many sources on historical material and background for the situation in the 7th and 8th centuries’ Middle East.
If you have any thoughts on this book or other material related to it, then please share. It will be much appreciated.
All the best.