Somehow or the other I stumbled into a blog called “Entitled to an opinion” that I believe is run by TGGP and I got this fascinating post/comment by Razib on early Islamic history. Its part of a thread on the Clash of Civilisations.
I find the scholarly research into the social pathologies of Bedouin society leading up to the Islamic revolution to be more than sufficient to explain the success of Mohammad, just as I find the socio-political condition of Roman society to explain Julius Caesar, and the anarchy of revolutionary France to explain Napolean Bonaparte.
what scholarly research? citations?
1) there were multiple arab eruptions prior to muhammad. the ghassanids and lakhmids were both christianized. the ‘muslim’ eruption is an anomaly in generating a alternative religion.
2) we know there are monotheists around the arabian peninsula. jews, christians and “hanifs.” these last usually converted to judaism and christianity after an exploratory phase, though there was usually an extant number in arabia during muhammad’s life. so the typical response of arabs to monotheism wasn’t to make up their own religion, it was to convert to the ones that were extant.
3) there is a lot of revisionist work which throws a lot of doubt around how islam arose. there is a spectrum, from what the muslims say (that is, islam arose in arabia in the time of muhammad) to those who would argue that islam as such didn’t really exist until the early abbasids. see crone et. al. i suspect the revisionists are pushing things too far, but there’s a lot of confusion about the early period, and much of the current mainstream model relies purely on muslim legend (legends are worth taking seriously, but not alone without other lines of evidence).
4) even muslim scholars cast a pall over the muslim bonafides of the ummayyad period (650-750). here are two facts of note: 1) there is attested de facto and de jure discrimination against non-arab muslims 2) there were north arabian christian tribes which were allowed into the arab muslim armies without the requirement to convert to islam but given all the privileges of arabs as the ruling race (sinecures, taxation exemptions, et.). the codification of the koran is also likely a feature of the 8th century, not the period of the early ‘muslim’ conquests.
5) so, there is debate about exactly when and how islam arose. it is plausibly a causal agent if islam actually did arise and manifest in the form that muslims tell us by 630 in arabia, but islam is more likely to be a byproduct of the arab encounter with civilization after their conquest if the revisionists are correct. that is, there is a lot of circumstantial data that the arab conquerers constructed islam as a special revelation to the arabs to boost their prestige as the ruling caste after the encounter with christians, jews and zoroastrians. but as i note above, there were other arab eruptions (remember that one roman emperor, phillip, had arab ancestry) which didn’t produce a new religion, so this isn’t inevitable. it was perhaps a peculiar response to extraordinary conquests.
6) i’m a little confused as to why you focus on the bedouins. even islamic tradition seems to indicate that the original muslims were not bedouins, they were the city-dwellers (merchants and oasis farmers) of mecca and medina (as i note above, there is reason to be a bit skeptical of this narrative, and reza aslan himself has presented the revisionist argument in his works that suggest that mecca as a entrepot is a fiction). additionally, it seems quantitatively most arabs were probably not obligately bedouin in their lifestyle, since there were tributary states of some heft to the north until the recent roman-persian wars (the ghassanids and lakhmids who i refer to). from what i have read the bedouins were actually relative latecomers who arrived for the plunder (there was some resistance to the muslim demand that they cut out the intertribal warfare, but made up for the fact that they had new lands to seek rents from).
7) there are other major eruptions of nomads historically in this period. e.g., the avars and the turkish empire antedated the muslims by a century or so (the avars lingered on for centuries, though were in sharp decline contemporaneously with the rise of islam). later there were the mongols. the arabs are exceptional in constructing a ‘world religion’ which their civilized subjects assimilated to. rather, the typical pattern is for barbarians to acclimate to the religion of their subjects, or, adopt a rival religion (e.g., the turko-mongols in russia).
8) so, the arab muslim event is to some extent sui generis. i didn’t say that muhammad was responsible for it, there might not have been a muhammad just as there might not have been a jesus. because it is sui generis to a great extent i think it is critical to look to the contingent historical events which serve as the context for that eruption.
9) e.g., the eruption of the 7th century can not be considered by only the noting dynamics in situ within arabian society. “unrest” is not atypical for marginalized barbarians, and arabs were a part of middle eastern politics since at least the time of the roman republic. what was exceptional about the 7th century? as everyone knows, there were tensions within roman society (the monophysite/chalcedonian controversy) and perisan society (the suppression of the mazdakites) and a recent ‘world war’ between the two states which had pushed both to exhaustion (which the east romans won nominally). i think it is a bit much to attribute all arab success to these exogenous events, but they can’t be denied, and were probably necessary preconditions for the fact that they spread so far and overran ancient societies so quickly.
10) there were many religious factions before and after the arabs and their islam. many of these are attested during the first few centuries of the rule of the caliphs (often they came out of a shia-zoroastrian milieu in iran). none of them succeeded. since i’m an atheist i don’t attribute their failure to divine providence, rather, almost all new religions fail. that being said, paganism, or non-institutionalized reliigon, tend to cede ground before ‘higher religion’ over time (see the mongols, whose shamanism ceded to islam in the west and lamaism in the east). so if islam had not arisen, i doubt that the arabs would have been pagan to this day. even during the period of muhammad’s life before islam allah was the high god in mecca (though there were other gods). it seems likely that arabs without islam would have been christianized or judaized, just as ethiopians, nubians and mesopatamians were (zoroastrianism tended to have strong ethnic connotations, with very little outreach to non-persians except for the armenians).
so my main point is that saying that some sort of new arab religion predicated on jewish or christian antecedents seems unlikely. rather, the precedent before the muslims was for arabs to become christians (the allies of the persians, the lakhimids, became ‘heretical’ christians aligned with the persian church). it seems likely that arabs were in a position to expand and acquire byzantine and persian territory in the 7th century (both the ghassinids and lakhimids as buffer states were destroyed by the early 7th century war so tribes to their south now had room to move and grow). but an eruption from the atlantic to sindh to transoxiana was obviously a deviation from expectation. that being said, the turkish empire of the 6th century encompassed the region from the borders of china to the ukraine. one could say that this was due to the special psychology of islam…but as i stated, there is some doubt as to whether islam as such existed in the mid-7th century.
all that is to say i don’t know why islam arose. but, i bet it is more likely if we rewound history that the arabs would be christian. how confident am i? not very. but more confident than your hypothesis that the arabs were bound to invent a monotheistic religion which they would adhere to as opposed to a world religion already extant.
since i took some time out to explain myself i await your illuminating response.