In the footsteps of the Prophet

Youssef Choueiri considers a nuanced and erudite portrait of early Muslim lives and ideas.

January 31, 2008

This book has as its focus the formative period of Islam, with all its prominent figures and significant events. Moreover, it includes three chapters (out of seven) on modern and contemporary Islam. In this sense, it represents a major endeavour to offer a full depiction of historical Islam as well as its present embodiments.

The first Muslims stand for all those who founded the message, helped to consolidate it and spread its tenets in the newly conquered territories. They thus include the Prophet Mohammed, his companions, the companions' successors and the successors to the successors, thereby spanning a period of about 300 years. By following this system of classification, the author reproduces a familiar tradition of Islamic historiography, whereby the early historical sources are given credibility for their reliability and methodology. This is further demonstrated by Asma Afsaruddin's dismissal of some revisionist theories advanced in the 1970s by scholars such as John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook.

These scholars attempted to cast doubt on the veracity and authenticity of Muslim historical accounts and sacred texts by arguing the case for using non-Arabic accounts of the same events. These accounts offered different versions and helped to assume a conspiratorial intent of concealment or pure invention by successive generations of Muslim scholars. This book quickly and convincingly demonstrates the tenuous nature of such arguments. Furthermore, by reverting to a well-established tradition, Afsaruddin rehabilitates these same Arabic sources and uses them, albeit critically, to offer a coherent narrative of the first three centuries of Islam.

This is not a conventional history book, but rather a portrait of Muslim lives and ideas as seen through the lens of a sympathetic observer. What we have is a faithful reproduction, intelligently woven into meaningful episodes, of how Muslims themselves perceived their religion and its underlying messages. Historical events are narrated as a framework within which legal, literary, philosophical and theological issues are highlighted. Thus we have comprehensive analysis of the Sharia as delineated by various legal schools, a nuanced discussion of the multilayered meaning of jihad and the status of women.

It goes without saying that the author is fully aware of the shifting interpretations that Muslim historians and theologians put forward as they operated under novel circumstances and different contexts. One of the examples given by Afsaruddin concerns the evolving perceptions of women between the early period and the 9th century. Whereas the earliest chronicles and accounts spoke freely of the role women played in the intellectual and public life of Islam, less than two centuries later the new chroniclers exhibited a reluctant and grudging tendency to accord women such functions. They were now seen as obedient wives, daughters and sisters, always deferring to their menfolk or patriarch and hardly venturing outside their assigned domestic abodes. It is in this context that relying on purely legalistic texts is often a misleading exercise, obscuring the richer social life of Muslims, both men and women.

Another significant contribution of this study concerns the evolving meaning of jihad and its polyvalent dimensions. This is the more so in light of contemporary allusions to the militant nature of Islam by fundamentalists and Western propagandists. Afsaruddin rightly points out that the Koran does not use the word "martyr" or shahid in its present connotations, but rather denotes by the term a person who is a mere witness of an event or a particular incident. However, one or two verses in the Koran consider those who die in the path of God to have overcome death and continued to enjoy life under the beneficence of the Almighty. Hence, the term is not used, but its connotations are plainly spelt out.

Nevertheless, the author offers a very erudite and well-documented exposition of the various functions of jihad as one strives to serve God's purpose or obey his injunctions. Such a duty does not necessarily imply the use of violence or warfare, for the Koran deploys other terms to denote one or the other, such as qital (fighting) and harb (war).

When Afsaruddin turns her attention to the contemporary state of Muslims and the attempts of some Islamists to relive the formative period of Islam, she is able to emphasise how present-day Muslims embrace a wide range of attitudes and ideologies. While some are modernists, others are liberal, and yet some others see no contradiction between democracy and Islam. Then there are "hardline Islamists" who aspire to create a pure version of their own imagined religion, based on a strict and arbitrary interpretation of certain texts. It is all the more remarkable that the author's rebuttal of the fundamentalist message is not anchored in appeals to modern notions of human rights and citizenship but is grounded in restating the classical and medieval juridical concepts of Muslim scholars and Islamic practices.

This is a rich and much-needed text. Its range of scholarship, balanced statements and acute sense of the past and the present makes it required reading for both specialists and non-specialists.

The First Muslims: History and Memory

By Asma Afsaruddin
Oneworld
232pp
£40.00 and £12.99
ISBN 9781851685189 and 4977
Published 1 September 2007

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