- - Tuesday, January 2, 2018


The old saw about not being able to see the forest for the trees is particularly applicable to historians. By honing in on a particular angle or aspect of their subject academic historians can dig deeply and possibly come up with a few fresh shards, interesting details or curiosities about the trees in their tiny part of the forest. Then they can try to piece together these shards to theorize along new lines. There’s only once catch. Most such lines, given their constricted point of origin, are narrow or marginal. They may contribute a lot to our knowledge of individual trees but they seldom tell us much about the forests around them.

As historians go, G.W. Bowersock, professor emeritus of Ancient History at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, is definitely a tree surgeon rather than a forester. But his diligent scholarship and rigorous, inquiring intellect still make for interesting reading. This is certainly the case with “The Crucible of Islam,” his attempt to clarify and, to a certain extent, re-define the roots of the Islamic religion.

His job is not made any easier by the fact that the Prophet Mohammed and most of his followers were illiterate, that the Koran is riddled with internal contradictions, and that the accumulated hadith — interpretations and retellings of the prophet’s life and message by later-day Muslim theologians with their own axes to grind — are “tendentious texts as sources for the formative age of Islam.” There also are obvious problems with early accounts of Islam filtered through more literate but biased Christian and Jewish chroniclers.

“The crucible of Islam remains an elusive vessel,” Mr. Bowersock warns us. “Although it may never be possible to describe it in definitive detail, an attempt to delineate its principal contours and the molten ingredients that it contained will oblige us to step aside both from unquestioning acceptance of later Muslim tradition and equally unquestioning rejection of it … What follows is an attempt to expose and describe the complex cultural and social environment that fostered a new religion precisely where Judaism, Christianity, and ancient pagan cults had endured for centuries.”

Take away the footnotes and index and he is left with only 159 pages to tell the story, but the author manages to pull together a lot of what was going on culturally, politically and religiously in the relatively backward but far from isolated part of the world where Mohammed first appeared. Pre-existing centers of civilization that were overrun, plundered and then occupied by him or his successors at the dawn of what might be called Islamic imperialism are also described.

But it is primarily the Arabian peninsula that engages Mr. Bowersock who sometimes exaggerates the centrality of his pet tree. “Even before the opening up of commercial routes by sea in the Hellenistic period, western Arabia had provided overland routes through which … perfumes and spices … made their way northward into Transjordan and Syria and westward to the Mediterranean.”

“Overland routes” may be the key words here. The area was not so much a center of civilization as an ancient Route 66 over which sophisticated goods rolled through dingy one-horse (or camel) towns where little if anything was being written or read because of illiteracy, and where would-be local messiahs tended to string together dissonant fragments — mainly transmitted orally — of Jewish, Christian and other religious lore developed in more advanced parts of the world.

The subsequent Muslim-Arab conquest of what had been much of civilized antiquity is in many ways comparable to another massive barbarian conquest that happened some time after it: The Mongol sweep through the Middle and Near East and into Europe. Genghis Khan started as a tribal leader, built a mighty war machine held together by discipline and esprit and fueled by plunder. While his vast empire was divided among his heirs, it far outlived him.

But the Mongols lacked one crucial ingredient. They were primitive pagans with no religious motivation to add impetus — and “moral” depth — to their desire for plunder. Their Tartar successors, having taken up Islam, became a power to be reckoned with for centuries afterward.

Muhammad gave his early followers a sense of holy mission that merged seamlessly with their warrior spirit and lust for loot. The result was an unstoppable wave that swept over many tired old civilizations, finally halted by rising European Christendom. Ironically, today’s Islamic zealots — as opposed to law-abiding ordinary Muslims — depend on Western learning, technology and economics in their attempts to compete with or destroy their more advanced neighbors.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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By G.W. Bowersock

Harvard University Press, $25, 220 pages

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