Words of Wisdom, in a Time of Troubles


Words of Wisdom, in a Time of Troubles

Darrell Sutton reviews a new exegesis of Islam

Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, 3rd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2014), xxxvii, pp 979.

These are unhappy times. The dawning of each new day obliges us to brazen through perils. Incidents of a dreadful kind are multiplying. Nations are dealing with grief as a collective experience, and the mournful tones exhibited by residents on the international scene are more than a symbolic gesture: people are hurting and confused because merriment to-day is replaced by untold miseries. As these words are penned, I am once more accosted by grisly pictures on the television. Bodies lay strewn along the ground in a European country. The photographs of blood-soaked garments, dismembered or mangled cadavers, and tear-stained faces arouse questions in abundance. They are usually the same ones: ‘Who would do such a thing? How did this happen? Surely they must be mentally deranged, right? What kindles this sort of rage in the hearts of attackers? Why target us?’…

Time and again connective links to religion are supposed, and in due course proved. If later the harmful episode is revealed to be a mishap with an Islamic imprint, then it should follow that the answers to the aforesaid questions ought to face up to select, contradictory interpretations about proceedings in Islamic history and about passages in the Qur’an. Rational people condemn the violence. It is the only reasonable thing to do; but one cannot disallow the perpetrators’ own ardent views. Their aspirations are obvious. Their heroes are celebrated. They desire to reinstate a once glorious Islamic past, the 30 year governance of the four rightly guided caliphs who succeeded Muhammad (570AD-632AD). So much of the chronicles of Islamic history is a mystery to westerners. It is high time we discover why Muslims believe their heritage is indispensable to the rest of the world.

History is an important aspect of human studies. The one who controls the writing of it may control its interpretation also. As a branch of learning, ‘Islamic historiography’ is not unknown in the academy. As in most religions, techniques of truths and half-truths were managed. Propaganda was used powerfully by Muslim writers, aiding movements toward purposes that were both positive and negative in their effects. Consequently, more than a few habits of Islamic historical research are visible in extant documents of Late Antiquity. Through the years, several eminent Arabists, Iranian specialists and Ottoman scholars delved into these writings and published their findings in English, German and French. Some of their works have a peculiar appeal.

All the same, authors of even-handed views of Islamic sources can hardly be found in the western hemisphere. Ivy League departments of religion and think-tanks in the West are funded, not infrequently, by dubious persons or groups. The manner in which Islamic history should be construed is the new methodological battlefront. University professors, journalists and government officials are divided over how to portray orthodox and unorthodox Islam these days, and each of them has very different agendas.

It is no secret the solution rests in a return to the sources. Who would argue otherwise? Many writers claim to be restoring those resources to primary positions in their research. Fundamentalists, Jihadists, Reformists and/or Post-modern Islamists in the East and West have attempted to justify their attitudes in pamphlets. The success of their efforts is limited. Their treatises may or may not encourage a struggle by pen or by sword. Inactivity, though, still is disdained. And such as they are, their stances have been in varying degrees affective. Clearly this period of disquiet in which we now live is an appropriate time to have Ira M. Lapidus as a guide. He is an old hand at Arabic/Islamic studies, and is Emeritus Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic History at The University of California at Berkeley. His training befits him for this project.

He was a student of the renowned Oxford historian, Sir H.A.R. Gibb (1895-1971), himself a professor in the School of Oriental Studies. Gibb commenced teaching a course at Harvard in 1955. Before its end, Dr. Lapidus, an undergraduate pupil, had thoroughly absorbed Gibb’s genius and his sociological method. That muse speaks volubly in this thick tome. A History of Islamic Societies appeared previously in two editions, 1988 and in 2002. Neither needs to be consulted now that the latest addition has come on the market. It surpasses them in every way.

Dr. Lapidus’ research is thorough, though not conspicuously original. However, every person will learn something new. The book is received by readers at present who dwell in a media age swarming with daily reports of extremism. Laymen, unfortunately, cannot read the primary languages necessary to confirm or deny his claims regarding the formation of Islamic societies; but experts of Arabic, Turkish, Persian and other idioms of Muslim civilizations can distinguish what is true and what is false in the reporting of accounts of the first centuries of the “Muhammadan” expansion and of the foundation of each society.

All Islamic social orders derive their cultural norms from the extension of the Prophet’s ideas and sunnah/traditions. Even more, those societies adjusted themselves through the centuries to the legacy bequeathed to them by his successors.

These two facts should not be lightly regarded. It is currently fashionable to include Islam in conversations on a ‘shared European West-Asian heritage.’ The elongated label does not roll easily off the tongue. This narrative was cast decades ago in order to be more inclusive in academic circles, even if no such ‘heritage’ was/is acknowledged or acceptable in non-western professorial circles of the Middle East. The same vision now is being re-cast in post-modern literary productions as authors seek to emphasize Sufi contributions to an eclectic Muslim identity. That is not a bad approach, but it might give the wrong impression to a specific group, to second generation immigrants who desire to learn of the formative stages of their ancestors’ societies which originated around the Mediterranean basin and in East Asia. The pacific, a-political ethos of the Sufi, while not negligible, is not as all-round pervasive as some might stress. For the majority of Muslims in the Middle East, politics and religion are interchangeable in municipal affairs.

A Sufi

A Sufi

The immediate benefit of Dr. Lapidus’ large book must be stated. It is not burdened with ideological overload. And I presume that as more journalists, politicians and instructors get this book in their hands, if they are duty-bound to accuracy, verbal corrections will be issued on a variety of topics. There are new chapters and many revised sections. Moreover this is a companion volume to his other massive survey, Islamic Societies to the Nineteenth century: A Global History (2012). In light of recent scorn poured upon old Orientalist prejudices one wonders why anyone would attempt to tell this story to westerners. Personally I think it is better to have it told in an expert way, than it is to leave it to the uninformed to mislead people or to foster in them misconceptions.

Let me provide some idea of its contents. Only a few of its features can be noticed. There are 60 chapters divided into 4 sections. Part I: The Beginnings of Islamic Civilizations: The Middle East from c.600 to c.1000 (pp.7-174); Part II: From Islamic Community to Islamic Society: Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, 945-c.1500 (pp.177-265) ; Part III: The Global Expansion of Islam from the Seventh to the Nineteenth Centuries (pp.269-507); Part IV: The Modern Transformation: Muslim Peoples from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Centuries (pp.511-857). 34 illustrations, 8 figures and 40 maps adorn the volume. There is also a ‘Glossary’, ‘Bibliography’ and an ‘Annotated bibliography from A History of Islamic Societies, second edition’.

Wisely, Lapidus spends little time on the biography of the Prophet. Our modern quandaries are founded on misinterpretations of his career. This is an exploration through shifting stages of antiquity. His description of the ‘Historians and The Sources’ (pp.22-25) is concise and even-handed. Readers will be happy with the section on ‘The Caliphate to 750’ (pp.65-73). It, too, is impartial in its outlook. Non-Muslim minorities are discussed, as are gender perspectives. Women of sense continue to wonder at the existing treatment of females in Muslim domains. Rational men marvel that the male status is still lionised in the West. If in these pages a reader is at times is seized by astonishment, he will find that by continuing under Dr. Lapidus’ learned tuition, that brooding sentiment easily is subdued.

Social studies obtrude throughout the book; but ‘Islam in Asia’ (pp.329-446) and ‘Islam in Africa’ (pp.447-489) are weakened only by the fact that unifying themes in Shia and Sunni, Sufi philosophies seem to be overly stressed. Within each of those sects are multitudes of competing beliefs. And the best way to comprehend those divisions is to master the transmission of specific ideas originating with various distinguished clerics or mullahs. A case in point is the Islamic legal system, in too many ways it is incompletely surveyed; but Table 8 (p.255), subtitled: ‘Islamic religious movements and sects’, is helpful so far as it goes. Informed readers might desire a more satisfactory classification. Scholars could argue that the table is too controlled, since a large number of Islamic minorities settled throughout the Islamic Ummah, community of believers, go unnoticed; and is there not more to say about local and foreign influences on deviant sects and on conformist Muslims in each of these societies?

I cannot agree with, and I am sure that the ulama, [Islamic] scholars would beg to differ with, his assertion on page 256 that “Islam has no master science as Christianity has in theology.” That is untrue. Each Islamic sect has its own systems of divinity in place. Indeed it is also true that there is a wide spectrum of beliefs, but each movement does maintain its own fixed theological norms. The assembly of so many persons centred on particular doctrines ensures that those codes of belief will be popularly taught. Within that framework of thinking, qualified Islamic instruction is of academic grade and is esteemed to be a ‘master science’ by its adherents.

There was one surprising oversight a propos the so-called Constitution of Medina (c.622AD). Although it receives an honourable mention in the index, its significance is understated greatly. Dr. Lapidus proffers an abrupt description in a few lines on page 41. Of it he writes:

“This was an agreement to fight together and to accept Muhammad’s authority to resolve disputes”.

What he says is true, but he represents the above words as the core of the agreement. Actually he combines two thoughts from the charter into a single clause. There are no less than 40 other statements, e.g., “everyone shall avenge the blood of a fellow-believer if he dies fighting in the cause of God.” Or, “Jews are permitted to fight alongside Muslims, spending their wealth in support Islamic campaigns, and thus can be considered an Ummah alongside Muslims.” Again, “Muslims must stand against other Muslims if it is perceived that injustice, sin or corruption is disseminated, and this is to be done even if the offender is a son of a fellow believer.” That last one by itself provides context for why modern Islamists (of a violent sort) view as incidental the deaths of their fellow-Muslims who they allege supported the corruptions of “Christendom”, Communism, Judaism or any accepted mind-sets anchored in infidel values.

The “Constitution” is the underlying historical basis of all Islamic societies. In reality it is a document whose worth and content goes unnoticed in contemporary debates. If ever a 4th century edition is published, great are the benefits to readers if an analysis of it is included – as an appendix. If the historical treatment of the origins of Islamic societies can be justly situated in its narrower context, tied to Muhammad’s original intentions in his restructuring of Yathrib (Medina), undoubtedly the shelf-life of this volume will appreciate remarkably. The passing of years has resulted in landmark evolutions in how the formative periods of Islamic history are understood. Direct studies of texts and sources are invaluable. Modern Islamic jurisprudence is rather incomprehensible apart from a rudimentary knowledge of Dastuur Al-Madina The Constitution of Medina.

Little more needs to be said. Part IV is the longest section, containing 16 chapters. It is detailed and reads like an up-to-date conspectus of current affairs. The diagram is international; problems are presented. Dr. Lapidus does not shy away from interspersing remarks on a plethora of internal events in each nation. Financial systems, industrial development and individual terrorist elements are highlighted. The commentary generally is enlightening. I envy his proficiency.

Of a truth there is no love lost between Marxist thinkers and Muslim intellectuals (see pp.679-684). Explanations on the history of Islam in Russia and in Caucasus States, especially of succinct lessons to be drawn from his depiction of Persian influences on Islam in India and Pakistan, instils in readers the Berkeley professor’s sagely wisdom.

What is more, Dr. Lapidus is acquainted with Reformist movements whose progressive principles by and large are impeded by enthusiasts who hold a view of Sharia law that pretends it to be immutable. He does not whitewash Islamic history, nor does he exaggerate the importance of similar events, albeit gruesome, that have parallels in other religions.

The book is magisterial in every way. It is eloquently written. The penetration is deep. Readers easily are brought through thousands of years of empire and economics and the effects that those two stimuli imposed on Islamic religion.


Darrell Sutton lived in the Middle East, in Amman Jordan, when he was young, learning the fine points of Arabic in a grammar school there. Ancillary to his studies were the text of the Quran and Islamic Law. This schoolwork was shored up by the fact he resided with an Iraqi family for a year and with a Jordanian family for one year, afterwards moving to Israel to study Hebrew idiom


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