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Book Review Les Fondations de l'Islam

Martino Diez

Alfred-Louis de Prémare, Les Fondations de l'Islam. Entre écriture et histoire


(Islam's Foundations. Between scripture and history


), Paris: Seuil, 2002


In this book French islamologist Alfred-Louis de Prémare draws together his many interests to give us a rich synthesis of his historical, philological, palaeographic and epigraphic studies. In focusing here on Islam's formative period, de Prémare, who passed away not long ago, keeps the standard of "scientific work" but does so in a language accessible also to the non-specialist reader.


The magnificent hilt that appears on the book's front cover is certainly appropriate for an age defined by conflict, sudden conquests and internecine struggles; however, at a closer look we can see that the artefact is from the 15th century, a paradox that graphically illustrates the problem de Prémare confronts throughout the book, namely that in the Islamic tradition the life of Islam's prophet and of his immediate successors have been told abundantly (Renan said in the mid-19th century that Muhammad's life "is known to us as much as that of a 16th century reformer"), but except for the Charter of Madinah the oldest narratives date no earlier than the late Umayyad period (750 A.D.) and largely represent later interpretations of Islam's early history. By contrast, the few contemporary sources that do describe those early events express the very partial point of view of the conquered. Indeed one would be hard pressed to imagine how anyone in a city under siege, a monastery being sacked or a group negotiating its surrender to an outside force might feel inclined to enquiry into the origins of the newcomers. Last of all, whatever material evidence there is (epigraphs, coins, etc.) its import is pretty limited, ultimately insufficient to inform any answer.


In a not easy attempt to balance Islamic (especially non traditional traditions) and non-Islamic sources, de Prémare tries to embrace Islam's early history. In the first part, entitled the merchants, he looks at 6th century Arabia, a land from which the conquerors surged and whom in the second part he largely describes through the eyes of the conquered. In the third section on the scribes, he looks at the circumstances in which the Qur'an was set down in what is today's familiar form. The author makes the texts he cites available in translation at the end of the book in a kind of choral anthology on the age of conquests.


Despite the difficulties that such an enterprise entails, some facts emerge quite clearly. First, Muhammad's Arabia was not a cultural desert as often thought (this is particularly well-illustrated by the epigraphic evidence found in the Sinai Desert, which are linguistically Arabic but Biblical in style and content). Second, Muslim conquests were made possible by the secular presence of Arabic-speaking tribes in Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia and by the deadly struggle between the Byzantine and the Persian Empires. Thirdly, the conquered peoples soon realised the new religious zeal that drove the conquerors. "These Arabs were no longer just the Tayayê or 'Arabâyâ they knew from before; they [were different], had new traits and a new name;" they were muhâjirûn, those who made the hijra (p. 37). And the new movement's permanent military preparedness was one of its defining characteristic.


Finally according to de Prémare, the transcription and, to some extent, writing of the Qur'an is likely to have occurred in the late Umayyad period, in close association with two successive governors of Iraq, 'Ubayd Allâh ibn Ziyâd and al-Hajjâj ibn Yûsuf, and a Caliph, 'Abd al-Malik, at a time when the distinction between the Qur'an (God's word) and the Hadîth (the prophet's word) had not yet been fully elaborated.


"Drafting the Islamic scriptural corpusthe Qur'an and the Hadîthwas thus a complex and progressive process [. . .]. We must however be grateful to the authors of these texts, expert wordsmiths who knew how to use allusive language, for coming up with many different versions of the same story, for their contrasting points of view on the same facts and for their contradictory opinions about the authors of the same operations" (p. 339).


Yet by the end of the book, something is missing, like a fresco where the setting, the background and the minor characters are clearly visible but where the main character remains absent. Even though the results of de Prémare's research do truly enhance our understanding of early Islam and occasionally do away with certain clichés commonly found in apologetic or polemic works, so much seems bound to remain shrouded, especially in terms of Muhammad's life whose outlines are said to have been irremediably altered in Umayyad times, well after Islam's Age of Conquest ended, perhaps amid what Wansbrough has already called the "sectarian milieu."


Is the scepticism that transpires from de Prémare's book here and there justified? Does attributing Islam's creative phase to mysterious "nameless communities," popular preachers or scribes who lived generations after Muhammad, really explain the awesome changes wrought upon the Middle East in the 7th century? If nothing substantially new had come out of the land between Makkah and Madinah, why would the Arabs have settled in Basra, Kufa, Jerusalem or Damascus or any "sectarian milieu" emerged. In the end whilst we must give outside sources due consideration, Islamic sources can be given greater credit than the author appears willing to do.