Sunday, March 25, 2018

Book memo: The Crucible of Islam

The Crucible of Islam by B.W. Bowersock presents what little is known about the history of Arabia in the years preceding the emergence of Islam and immediately after.  Since not a lot is known, the volume is a slim one.

Some of the history appears to be a replay of our times - Arabia as one of the arenas of great power politics, with the Zoroastrian Persians backing the Jews and the Christian empire of Byzantium backing the Ethiopian Christians despite sectarian differences.  Mainly I learned that apparently in 614, when the Persians besieged Jerusalem, the Jews supported them; and in 638 it was the Christians that turned over the city to the armies of the Muslim Caliph 'Umar al Khattab. Archaeology suggests that neither the 614 nor the 638 invasions significantly damaged Jerusalem, and that the kind of Islamization we moderns are more familiar with began only after a generation or so.  I also learned of Michael Lecker's hypothesis about the Prophet's migration to Medina.

Lecker begins with a straightforward observation of a remarkable coincidence-- a coincidence so obvious that it is astonishing to find that it has failed to engage the attention of most historians of the hijra.  The year of the hijra, 622, was precisely the year in which the Byzantine emperor Heraclius began his military onslaught on the Persian Empire......Heraclius must have known from Arabian history of the sixth century that his Persian antagonists supported the Jews, much as the Byzantines supported the Christians, and it was no secret that the Jewish population of Medina was among the most significant community of Jews in northwestern Arabia....He would have certainly seen in the city's Jewish population a political resource that the Persians might exploit against the Byzantine Christians.  This was, after all, exactly what they had done when the captured Jerusalem in 614 by offering support to the Jews in the process of dislodging the Christians and their sacred relics. In planning his Persian offensive in 622 Heraclius would have had every reason to ensure that the Persians would not stir up trouble in the Hijaz of the kind that they had already provoked in the Palestine.   It made perfect sense for him to turn to his Ghassanid clients to address this contingency and what Lecker has now demonstrated is that those clients were in a position to influence the Khazraj and the Jews.  He has meticulously noted the Ghassanid presence in groups that are listed in the Constitution of Medina, notably among both Khazraj and Jews.   This link across the various tribes and religions would explain the otherwise puzzling cooperation of the pagan, anṣa̅r, and Jews, after a recent history of hostility, in both the invitation to Muḥammad and the subsequent incorporation of the Believers into the community of Medina.
 Well, if Lecker is correct, both the Persians and Byzantines were consumed and displaced by what ensued.