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NON-FICTION: CONTEXTUALISING THE DAWN OF ISLAM

June 23, 2019

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A fresco depicting the Battle of Nineveh fought between the armies of Heraclius and Khosrow Parvez. It was painted by the Italian artist Pierro Della Francesca circa 1452 AD | Wikimedia Commons
A fresco depicting the Battle of Nineveh fought between the armies of Heraclius and Khosrow Parvez. It was painted by the Italian artist Pierro Della Francesca circa 1452 AD | Wikimedia Commons

Every once in a while, if we are lucky, we get a book which brings the early days of Islam alive for us in a way that is fresh and new. Martin Lings’s seminal biography of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was one such effort. Fatima Mernissi’s vibrant account of the Islamic revolution in gender roles is the closest thing we have to a women’s history of Islam. Lesley Hazleton recently introduced an entire generation of readers to the epic tale of the Shia-Sunni divide. And now we have Juan Cole focusing a spotlight on the “rich vein of peace” that characterised the Prophet’s mission.

This book is titled Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. Cole is a professor at the University of Michigan and a well-known public intellectual and prominent commentator on Islam and Middle Eastern affairs. He has written extensively on Islamic themes and has translated Khalil Gibran into English and key American writers such as Thomas Jefferson into Arabic. He has a special affinity with Pakistan; he serves on the editorial board of the academic journal Pakistaniat. His wife hails from Lahore.

Islamic history is usually taught to us as a kind of closed universe, unlike Judaism or Christianity where world empires loom large and historical personages such as Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus and Alexander make appearances. But even with Islam, we sometimes get hints of a subtext. Only recently have scholars started to highlight this fascinating new dimension.

Celebrated Western scholar Juan Cole situates the birth of Islam in the middle of an apocalyptic showdown between Rome and Persia, two of the largest empires the ancient world had ever seen

Cole situates the birth of Islam square in the middle of an apocalyptic showdown between Rome and Persia, two of the largest empires the ancient world had ever seen. Most Arab tribes at the time were politically aligned and some served as vassals for these two powers. The Prophet himself interacted with Christians and Jews as part of his prophetic mission. As a merchant, he travelled to Roman and Persian territories such as Damascus and Yemen, the most cosmopolitan cities of the age, where he likely interacted with men of different faiths and cultures. Cole contends that this constant atmosphere of war is a necessary backdrop to understand and illuminate Islam’s novel views on warfare.

Cole introduces us to the kings and the power brokers: in Persia, there is the emperor Khosrow Parvez, the most powerful man in the world. The poets would later recast him as one of Persian literature’s greatest figures in the epic Shahnama and the tragic romance of Khosrow and Shireen. With him are his generals, the most notable being Shahr Varez, who — clad in his famed, glittering scale armour — carves out a trail of conquest and destruction across the Middle East. On the Roman side, we have Herakleios [Heraclius] the Armenian, successor to the Caesars. We have the notables of his court, the poets and the philosophers, the Roman senate and clashing sects within the Christian faith. And on the peripheries we find Jewish communities engaged in dangerous games of politics and intrigue for an ever-precarious self-preservation.

The book is a rich, immersive experience. Cole paints vivid pictures of desert landscapes, oasis communities and ruined mountain cities, so much so that one can feel the desert sand in one’s mouth and hear the march of armies on the move.

We follow the campaigns and battles: the Persians dominate with a string of magnificent victories, seizing Damascus and Egypt from the Romans. The darkest moment is the conquest of Jerusalem, where Shahr Varez deploys ballistas to breach the stone walls and launch a massacre. The patriarch is tortured till he reveals the location of the True Cross, the remnants of the legendary cross from the Crucifixion, which is then promptly dispatched to Persia. An eyewitness recounts, “The heavenly Jerusalem wept for the one down below.”

Khosrow Parvez sends Herakleios a letter urging that he submit and live out his days on a generous feudal estate in Iran. Herakleios assembles his nobles in the Hagia Sophia cathedral and shares the humiliating missive with them. Then they all fall to the stone floor in front of the sacred altar, “weeping, to show Christ how abject they had become.” Defeat seems certain.

The fledgling Muslim community in Arabia, who consider the Christians their natural allies, is also cast into despair at the news, and here the Holy Quran consoles them with promise of an imminent Roman victory. The Battle of Nineveh then turns the tide, forcing Khosrow to flee, driving Persia back to its borders, where a power struggle breaks out. Khosrow is tossed into a dungeon by his own son, Shiroyeh. Shahr Varez is forced into a retreat and the Persian empire is wracked by civil war shortly after. Roman glory is restored. The court poet, Georgios of Pisidia, addresses Herakleios: “He worshipped fire; you, mighty sovereign, adore the sublime wood of the Cross; when this wood rose high into the heavens, the fire of Persia could not touch it.”

It is at that point that the Quran also directly addresses Zoroastrians, urging them to peaceful coexistence: “The believers, the Jews, the Sabians, the Christians, the Zoroastrians and the pagans — God will decide among them on the Resurrection Day. God sees all things” (The Pilgrimage, 22:17).

We see Cole’s main thesis: Islam is inclusivist with regards to theology, in that Islam alone possesses the truth whereas other faiths retain a corrupted version of it. However, more importantly, Islam is pluralist in terms of salvation — in stark contrast to Christianity or Judaism and perhaps more akin to Hinduism, since it acknowledges that other faiths possess equally valid paths to God. This is explicitly spelled out in the Quran: “Those who believed, and the Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, and whoever has believed in God and the Last Day and performed good works, they shall have their reward with their Lord” (The Cow, 2:62). Cole argues that the early Muslims viewed Islam not as a faith sent to supplant other faiths, but as a vanguard community in a commonwealth of believers, a “brotherhood of monotheisms.”

In this light, our early history is infused with new meaning: Cole suggests that the Prophet may even have considered his own battles against unbelievers as playing a part in this overarching conflict between Persia and Rome, another front in the cosmic war between paganism and monotheism, and explicitly a defence of Christians. We have the revelation: “He endorsed those who fought because they had been wronged, and in truth God is able to aid them — those who were expelled from their homes unjustly, solely for saying our lord is God. Had God not checked one people with another, then monasteries, churches, oratories and places of worship wherein God is much mentioned would have been razed to the ground” (The Pilgrimage 22:39-40).

However, Cole’s narrative can also be a little disconcerting; in places, he fills in the gaps in the historical record with guesswork, he argues that certain events may well be inventions of later biographers and he mentions apocryphal Hadith to support his thesis. Whereas these positions are not uncommon in modern scholarship, they may sound a discordant note for traditionalists. A far bigger disappointment for the Pakistani reader, though, is to consider the vast gulf between Cole’s erudite investigation and what passes for religious discourse in our madressahs. Even as we wrestle with extremism at home, this book makes us realise that we have yet to counter it at the ideological level — and what a long way we have to go.

Muhammad: Prophet of
Peace Amid the Clash
of Empires
By Juan Cole
Bold Type Books, US
ISBN: 978-1568587837
336pp.

The reviewer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 23rd, 2019