Writer's Talk: Writing about Islam
Traveler Magazine, Vol. 37, No. 1, January 2007
It is not easy, writing about the early history of Islam. I have got used to spotting that eyebrow flicker of incredulity when I meet Muslim writers and they hear that I have written a biography of the Prophet Muhammad followed by a book about the first Four Caliphs. I know exactly what they feel, but are too polite to say. So I have started saying it for them. It should take a dozen lives of scholarship before I attempt so much as a single chapter. I should first spend a century immersed in the 30 volume histories of Waqidi, Tabari and Ibn Sa’d, and another hundred years on the commentaries on the commentaries of these masters, backed up by an exact and critical knowledge of each of the seven dozen-volume editions of the Hadith. I should know Ibn Ishaq and the Koran by heart and then torture the texts of the early grammarians for the exact shade of meanings of early Arabic verbs before penning so much as a single line. I cap it all by admitting that I can only read the prime texts in English translation.
But there is work to be done for the basic thrust of contemporary Western scholarship over the last 30 years has been to undermine the authority of all the traditional sources of Islamic history. The argument goes that since nothing was written down for 130 years after the Prophet’s death, that they cannot have been transmitted with any accuracy. It is astonishing how quickly this contentious theory has become a new orthodoxy. I was amazed to find that a university text book dismissed the entire early period of Islam as the mythologizing creation of the ninth century historians of Baghdad. So much so that the period before the written histories is labelled “proto-Islam”.
It was at that moment that I decided that silence is a greater evil. I was annoyed by these speculations, but even more horrified by the way that one of mankind’s truly epic stories was being so casually airbrushed out of history. This is an epic that I know from my own travels to be the cherished moral frame, the pattern book of belief and the cultural references by which hundreds of millions navigate their way through life. I neither mind that I will be dismissed as a traditionalist by western academics or as a meddling Orientalist by Muslim scholars. I know where my loyalties stand. I remain true to the story tellers, especially to the Prophet’s young wife whom Urwa, the greatest of the old oral historians praised thus, “What is what I recite, compared to what Aisha could tell.”
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by Barnaby Rogerson