Peeling more veils from the life of Islam

The Archaeology of Islam
July 13, 2001

The arts, culture and theology of Islam have long been studied and many ancient sites lived in by Muslims have been excavated by archaeologists, but until now there has been no attempt to describe the main aims of archaeological study nor the way in which archaeology could illuminate Muslim ways of life. Past emphasis has tended to be on the arts of Islam, whose attractions have been obvious even to non-Muslims, but a synthesis of the whole Muslim life to include the nature of towns and villages, religious and lay buildings and all aspects of the life and death of believers has not previously been made.

Timothy Insoll's original book covers all these aspects and makes a strong argument for the development of the archaeology of Islam as a distinct discipline on its own covering all periods and all countries, even traditionally non-Islamic ones. To emphasise the way in which Islamic affairs now need to be considered in the West, Insoll gives the example of the way in which a small house in Cambridge was altered to reflect its use as a mosque even though this might not in the future be observable by archaeological investigation.

Insoll begins by making the case for a new approach to the archaeology of Islam with due attention to many aspects of life (and death). He says:

"Excavated material has contributed to our understanding of... Islamic art, but we know very little of what was eaten", a matter which archaeology is well placed to tell us. He then goes on to give a clear description of the nature of Islam, how its beliefs were formed and of the early history when the basic division between the Sunni and the Shia as well as the four legal schools developed. This description, though going beyond the normal role of archaeology, is essential for a full understanding of the nature of the religion and Insoll's description is of value for those with little knowledge of the subject.

Subsequent chapters deal with sacred and domestic buildings, describing how they could be identified by archaeologists. The book also covers details of daily life, of art and of trade. One of the most interesting and archaeologically relevant aspects in Insoll's description is of the finding of routes by which both trade and the pilgrimage ( hajj ) can be traced archaeologically. There is a chapter on death and burial and a description of Islamic practice - though my experience suggests that archaeologists will not find it easy to excavate in areas where the burial places are known to be Islamic. A final descriptive chapter concerns cities, settlements and the landscape.

The standard of scholarship shown by the author is considerable and his reading and understanding of Islam most impressive. I note one mistake. Insoll describes the site of Yendi Dabari in Ghana as being deep in the tropical forest of West Africa. It is in fact far north of the forest in Guinea savanna country and though the excavations referred to may well be interpreted as showing evidence of caravans of pack animals there is nothing to indicate that the society was Muslim though it may well have been so. There are many Muslims in the area now.

In summing up and asking if an archaeology of Islam is possible the author expresses some confidence that if the wider aspects of the problem are studied and a holistic approach taken, a new dimension of archaeology is possible and a deeper understanding of the life of Muslims in the past can be achieved. His tone is optimistic and though in some cases the problems of interpretation may be more difficult than he suggests, careful work by field archaeologists will provide much more information and open up new views of past Islamic development.

Peter L. Shinnie is emeritus professor of archaeology, University of Calgary, Canada.

The Archaeology of Islam

Author - Timothy Insoll
ISBN - 0 631 20114 9 and 20115 7
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £60.00 and £16.99
Pages - 4

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