I was away on vacation so this is a bit late. But better late than never. (from friend Robin Khundkar)
Patricia Crone co-authored a controversial work on early Islam called “Hagarism – making of the Islamic World” which she later conceded had serious problems and with drew from publication, Never the less she was a serious scholar and respected by everyone including those who were critical of her conclusions. Below are remembrances of her as well as three outstanding essays she wrote for Open Democracy in the last decade.
May not be of interest to everyone but worth the time of folks interested in Early Islam
Patricia Crone: Memoir of a superb Islamic scholar
12 July 2015
The great historian of early Islam, Patricia Crone, died peacefully on July 11 after a long battle with cancer. This memoir by her friend and colleague was written earlier this year for a volume of essays in her honour and links to her outstanding essay on Mohammed published by openDemocracy.
This essay is the introduction to Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts, Essays in Honor of Professor Patricia Crone, eds. B. Sadeghi, A. Q. Ahmed, A. Silverstein, and R. Hoyland (Brill 2015), xiv-xx, and is republished with thanks.
About the author
Judith Herrin is emeritus professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King’s College, London. Her books include The Formation of Christendom, Women in Purple and Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
On the floor of Patricia Crone’s grand study that runs the entire depth of her house in Princeton, and looks out on her lovely garden, lies a very striking Persian carpet, most gloriously woven in red with white patterns on it. Her father had it in his office and I always imagined it had been a tribute by him to her brilliance. But no, he thought that all his four daughters should be fluent in at least two international languages and insisted on them going to finishing school in France and England. So after taking the “forprøve” or preliminary exam at Copenhagen University, Patricia had to go to Paris to learn French and then to London where she determined to get into a university as a pleasant and productive way of becoming fluent in English. She was accepted as an occasional student at King’s College London and followed a course in medieval European history, especially church-state relations. And when she discovered SOAS, where they offered exactly the kind of course she wanted and could not do in Denmark (History branch IV), she wrote to her father and asked him if he would pay for three more years in London. His generous agreement thus sponsored her association with Islamic history. At SOAS she learned Arabic, later adding Persian and Syriac, and got a First, which pleased her father, whom she describes as an academic manqué. She then went on to write her PhD on the mawālī in the Umayyad period under the supervision of Bernard Lewis, although he left for America before the thesis was examined in 1974. Then she was awarded a Senior Research Fellowship at the Warburg Institute. And that is where we first met in the autumn of 1976.
Patricia had already spent two years at the Warburg and was well established in a nice office on the third floor looking out over Gordon Square. As this was her final year as SRF she was looking for a more permanent university position. The Director, Joe Trapp, had very kindly offered me a small stipend to organize a couple of interdisciplinary seminars, and arranged for a second desk and chair to be installed in her office. When I knocked on the door and went in to take possession of my designated space, we became acquainted. I was immediately struck by her very bright blue eyes and quizzical expression. As I later learned they were the outward signs of an extremely astute intelligence, a highly skeptical approach to problems and a passionate commitment to her research.
Patricia was a heavy smoker, and I was not. At the time the Warburg allowed smoking even in the Reading Room, though not in the stacks, a striking feature of the ubiquity of the habit. I found this unpleasant and Patricia gallantly agreed to smoke out of the window, which made the room very cold in the winter. But by then we had discovered that there was more that united than divided us – and this great compensation for the disagreement over cigarettes was confirmed when Patricia agreed to contribute to the first seminar I organized which was devoted to Iconoclasm (her paper on Islam, Judaeo-Christianity and Byzantine Iconoclasm, 1980, is reprinted in her Variorum volume, Aldershot 2005). She took some persuading but the result is a fascinating exploration of the forces and borders between Islam, Judaism and Christianity that made the Near East such a trembling cauldron of potent explosion between the seventh and the ninth centuries.
She and Michael Cook had already finished their joint study Hagarism, which was due to be published in the spring of 1977. Michael expressed considerable anxiety about its appearance, realizing that it would ruffle more than a few feathers, especially Muslim ones. This was inevitable because the whole purpose of the book was to look beyond the Islamic tradition for contemporary accounts of the Prophet preserved in other languages. They had carefully examined all the records they could find in Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Persian, Aramaic and Coptic for evidence of the movement that forged the Arab tribes into such a mighty military force. Of course many dismissed Muhammad as just another infidel prophet, but others, especially Babylonian Judaism, presented indisputably useful contemporary evidence. While the first section of the book challenged the average reader with detailed analysis of some rather obscure texts, the second put together an account of the Near Eastern provinces before the rise of Islam, while the third offered an exciting new synthesis of all these observations, presenting the idea of Hagarism as a dominant force in the mixed world of the Prophet. On the eve of the book’s publication, Michael took their names off the bell at the door to their flat on Marylebone High Street, but there were no incidents – reviews ranged from the highly appreciative to the extremely negative and beyond. ‘Crone and Cook’ was to become a term for unacceptable “revisionism,” but also, to those who appreciated the result, a touchstone for the wider explanation of the rise of Islam.
By the summer of 1977 as these notices began to arrive, Anthony Barnett and I had had our first child, who was rapidly introduced to the Warburg. Patricia enjoyed putting up the notice that read, “Quiet please, baby sleeping,” outside our office. Tamara soon became too active to be put to sleep on a cushion but it was typical of Patricia’s generosity that she encouraged me to bring her in, leave her and rush around the stacks checking footnotes. She even offered to look after the 18-month old when I was invited to give a paper to a Middle Eastern History Group in Edinburgh, interested in the role of medieval women. When I protested that I couldn’t go, she simply told me to deliver Tamara to her flat for the day with all the necessary equipment. It was cold that November and Patricia got completely exhausted continuously pushing Tamara. She had discovered that the moment she stopped Tamara started wailing, and as motion in the pushchair seemed the only way to stop the noise, Patricia carried on walking around, up and down the pavements of central London until I got back! And that paper was the first of many efforts to present the power and unusual authority of Byzantine women to a mixed audience, which became a major preoccupation of my later scholarship.
In 1977 Patricia took up an appointment at Oxford University and was rewriting the first part of her thesis as the book entitled Slaves on Horses. Her exploration of the evolution of the Islamic polity followed on from Hagarism with a sophisticated analysis of the role of tribes and tribal culture in early Islam, which she compared with Turkish tribes in the conquest of Central Asia. The two conquests by tribal peoples on horseback form the starting point and cross-fertilize the argument. At first she commuted from London to the Oriental Institute in Oxford, and we continued to see each other, but later she moved to Cambridge and began work on Roman, provincial and Islamic law, based on the second part of her thesis, exploring the inter-connected features of Near Eastern legal systems – Roman, Jewish, Islamic – as well as the promotion of slaves to positions of high authority that set Islamic society apart from traditional late antique and medieval societies. This was followed by Meccan Trade which had a rather different perspective in settling the issue of Muhammad’s rather humble mercantile activity that influenced the early years of Islam. She argued that the spice trade was an Orientalist invention and that the trade depicted in the Muslim sources couldn’t account for the supposed wealth and power of Quraysh. It has proved equally definitive.
These three immensely erudite studies of the role of slaves, law and trade in early Islam are supported by many pages of references and appendices, more footnotes than text, and are rooted in comparative analysis. They do not lack lighter moments. Patricia’s example of how Islamic lawyers tackled the Roman legal dilemma of what happens when a slave girl, who has been promised her freedom if she gives birth to a son, has twins, forms an appendix that makes you laugh out loud.
While still teaching in Oxford, she and Martin Hinds began working together on the earliest conception of religious authority in Islam, which became God’s Caliph. It was a great pleasure to visit them during his visits to Oxford, to see how happy she was, and this made his premature death all the more difficult to bear. She also kept in touch with us as our family expanded and we have photos of Patricia with our younger daughter Portia.
From 1985 onwards I was often in Princeton so we kept in touch by letters, the exchange of offprints and Christmas cards – hers often displayed her puppets during a performance. In these Patricia revealed a talent for making and costuming puppets, which she then controlled to create a performance in the theatre also constructed for the purpose. She invited local children to make up the audience and gave extraordinary pleasure – another unexpected achievement. She also gave extravagant New Year’s Eve parties, which always involved elaborate decorations, with streamers, colored baskets of gifts and much delicious food and drink. I think it was one of the Danish customs she imported with her.
In Cambridge her house was conveniently close to the station so that she could make a quick dash to London or the airport, and within easy bicycling of Gonville and Caius, the Faculty of Oriental Studies and the University Library. Patricia always arranged her life to maximize the time she could spend at work – her efficiency in this respect is clear from the number of books and articles that resulted. She is utterly single-minded manner in the way she pursues intellectual problems.
Her research takes off from a very close reading of the sources, questioning their reliability, credibility and purpose with a general distrust of the common interpretation and received wisdom. She constantly challenges opinions expressed by both medieval and modern experts with a profound skepticism that characterizes her work. Along with this commitment to her chosen field went a determination to make it understandable to those who wanted to know, an example I found inspiring.
This concern with making Islam comprehensible is evident from her contributions to more contemporary issues. When Anthony suggested that she should write something about Muhammad for openDemocracy, she produced two very widely read articles. “What do we actually know about Muhammad” (with nearly 100,000 readers), “Jihad, Idea and History” which answers questions such as “What is Jihad?” and “Was Islam spread by force?”, as well as a reflection on religious freedom in Islam. This direct engagement with problems of today in an unprejudiced fashion balances Patricia’s dedicated research into the much earlier history of Islam. To both spheres she brings a deep sense of involvement based on fearless honesty and very good judgment.
Similarly, when approached by Novin Doostdar of Oneworld Press for a book she did not want to write, she persuaded him to undertake a series of small biographies of Muslim figures modeled on the Oxford Past Masters and the modern equivalent. Together they planned what has become a most successful and informative range of short introductory volumes to key players in the Muslim world, from late antiquity to the present day, which provide a perfect entry point to periods of Islamic history when individual rulers, generals, religious leaders, poets and philosophers helped to create new conditions. Figures as different as Caliph Abd al-Malik, Mehmed Ali, Nazira Zeineddine, Abu Nuwas and Chinggis Khan come to life in brief biographies commissioned, edited and occasionally re-written by Patricia. 30 volumes in her series, Makers of the Muslim World, are already available and two more will be published this autumn.
As she realized how difficult it was for students of the late twentieth century to grasp the restrictions of the pre-industrial world, she began to introduce her lectures on Islamic history with one on the main features of pre-industrial societies. John Davey, an editor with Blackwells, suggested that she expand this into a book without footnotes designed for the general reader, something of a departure from her previous work. In Pre-Industrial Societies she emphasized a broad comparative approach to clarify the gap that separates us moderns from the non-industrialized world, and the huge differences wrought by the industrial revolution. Evidence from the Far East (China, Japan), the Indian sub-continent and Islamic societies of the Near East and North Africa, was employed to highlight the specific character of such communities prior to industrialization, drawing parallels between imperial structures (of the Byzantine, Chinese, Japanese and the Muslim Caliphate), and the looser, less organized small units that dominated Northern Europe. In an imaginary island setting, she sets out the options for people who suddenly find themselves without a government and traces how they might react. Above all, she elucidates the underlying significance embedded in systems of land tenure, the role of cities and most important of religion in such pre-modern societies, whether Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian or Christian.
Her delight in identifying structural inversions is captured in vivid terms: “there was nothing shameful about patronage as such: it benefitted employed and employee alike. Wherever trust mattered as much as or more than skills, nepotism was a virtue, not a sign of corruption.” (33) And after exploring these features across a very wide spectrum of such societies Patricia then looked at the particularly distinctive nature of Europe, ‘First or freak?’ and the concept of modernity. She asks what constitutes the modern and her reply encapsulates a great deal of thought, how to present Marxism, totalitarianism and democracy, in a commanding survey of what industrialization brought in its wake. And what a basic shift this involved: “ideologically we are all identical, however different we may seem, not, as in pre-industrial societies, different regardless of our fundamental similarities.” (194) It is a book whose depth of insight grows with re-rereading.
Much to my regret, in 1995 when I returned to England to take up the Chair of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King’s College London, Patricia was already being courted by the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. So we swapped continents and remained on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Before she left, however, Patricia gave one of her most extravagant parties, taking over the Hall of Gonville and Caius College for a feast, a real feast, preceded by champagne on the lawn. Anthony helped light fireworks to mark the event. Every table was packed with friends and colleagues who had been carefully placed to provoke interesting conversations, and after the great dinner college staff cleared away the long tables and benches so that we could dance to her favorite Strauss waltzes and polkas. This is so much harder to do than you imagine – we needed more rock and roll as well – but everyone enjoyed celebrating her and wishing her all the best for her move to the States.
Fortunately, it didn’t mean that we saw each other less, as we made more effort to keep in touch. After discovering that we shared a passion for opera, we planned our visits to Glyndebourne and London operas to be sure that we could go together, and in this way enjoyed several memorable performances and splendid picnics every summer. I also return to America frequently and take every opportunity to visit her in Princeton, in the elegant double house she converted on Humbert Street. Typical of Patricia, she decided against living in the grand accommodation provided by the Institute down Olden Lane, and purchased this plot in central Princeton, which was near the shops and the University library. As usual she ensured that she could bicycle to work.
Ensconced at the Institute, Patricia devoted herself to further detailed studies of Islamic government, the Muslim dynasties, the nativist prophets and pagan opponents of the Prophet – and yet more work in progress. All this is only achieved by maintaining a rigorous working schedule, never relaxing her concentration until the evening, passed as often as not watching old films and favorite BBC series. Yet hers has never been an ascetic existence. An extraordinarily welcoming manner and generous hospitality means any number of parties for students and colleagues, delicious dinners and a range of Californian red wines to accompany her excellent cooking. She has always travelled most adventurously – all over the Near East, further afield to Vietnam and more recently to Uzbekistan. For my part I only persuaded her to travel from London to Lewes, though once we went as far as Aberystwyth for a seminar on comparative medieval social structures (we thoroughly enjoyed the single track railway through the Welsh hills and the sea front on the coast). But I can confirm what a cheerful travelling companion she is, and what an enormous pleasure it is to count her as the best of friends.
Patricia has an extraordinary capacity to adapt to change and appears equally at home in London, Princeton and surely in Denmark at family reunions with her siblings. Yet she is very rooted, taking immense care over the planting of her garden (and her neighbors’), and joyfully celebrating their flowering. Her devotion to the roses which bloom so briefly in Princeton blocks any effort to lure her away at that time. She is also unusually responsive to changes in other parts of the world today, foreseeing with great distress and her acerbic tongue the agonizing conflicts across the Middle East today.
Any lasting solution to these deep social clefts will need to respect and understand their history. The rise of Islam brought to an end what is now called Late Antiquity and precipitated the formation of eastern and western Christendom in what remained of the Roman Empire north of the Arab conquests. This makes Islam the most recent historically of all the world’s great monotheistic religions. Perhaps for this reason, its insistence on being the only vehicle of the true prophet is amongst the most vehement, and its claims are the most vulnerable to research. The historian of the extraordinary rise of Islam, therefore, has to be especially scrupulous, exacting and meticulous, both in order to be sensitive and if possible unimpeachable in her reconstruction of what happened, as well as to glimpse the previously existing context through the all-encompassing stamp of the conquests. It is Patricia’s accomplishment to have achieved this. Acutely conscious of the human realities (of all kinds) she remains utterly intransigent in her own approach as a secular historian par excellance. What makes it doubly awesome is that she carried this through both for what became the Arab world and for the pre-Islamic history of Persia, to which she dedicated her most recent years resulting in yet another magnum opus, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran, which has now garnered four prestigious prizes, including the Albert Hourani book award, the Houshang Pourshariati Iranian Studies book award, the Central Eurasian Studies Society award, and the James Henry Breasted Prize of the American Historical Society for the best book in English in any field of history prior to 1000CE. Together with her major works on Medieval Islamic Political Theory and God’s Rule, she has transformed our understanding of this critical period of history that is so relevant today.
Patricia Crone, Questioning Scholar of Islamic History, Dies at 70
By SAM ROBERTS
New York Times
JULY 22, 2015
Patricia Crone, a scholar who explored untapped archaeological records and contemporary Greek and Aramaic sources to challenge conventional views of the roots and evolution of Islam, died on July 11 at her home in Princeton, N.J. She was 70.
The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where she was a professor from 1997 until her retirement last year, said the cause was cancer.
Fred M. Donner, a professor of Near Eastern history at the University of Chicago, said Professor Crone had “made it clear that historians of early Islam had failed to really behave as historians — that is, had failed to challenge the validity of their sources, but rather had accepted complacently what I call the ‘traditional origins narrative’ created by the Islamic tradition itself.”
As a result, in books like “Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World” (1977, written with Michael Cook), she disputed assumptions that Islam had been transmitted by trade from Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia, suggesting that it had been spread by conquest instead. She also identified how indigenous rural prophets in what is now Iran had defied conquering Arabs and helped shape Islamic culture, setting the stage for conflicts within Islam that endure today.
Current events frequently intruded on Professor Crone’s scholarship on historic divisions in the Middle East between secularism and Islamic orthodoxy, and between the Arab world and the West. Writing about present-day Muslims on the website openDemocracy in 2007, she said, “Wherever they look, they are being invaded by so-called Western values — in the form of giant billboards advertising self-indulgence, semi-pornographic films, liquor, pop music, fat tourists in indecent clothes and funny hats, and politicians lecturing people about the virtues of democracy.”
Patricia Crone was born in Kyndelose, Denmark, on March 28, 1945, to Thomas Crone, the chief executive of the Scandinavian Tobacco Company, and the former Vibeke Scheel Richter. She is survived by four siblings, Clarissa Crone, Diana Crone Frank, Alexander Crone and Camilla Castenskiold.
She attended the University of Copenhagen and then received undergraduate and doctoral degrees from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She taught at Oxford and Cambridge before joining the Institute for Advanced Study, an independent research center, where she was the Andrew W. Mellon professor.
“Each one of her brilliant and original monographs — and the same holds true for most of her articles — had profoundly impacted the field or helped to identify entirely new branches within the discipline,” Professor Sabine Schmidtke, who succeeded Professor Crone at the Institute for Advanced Study, said in an interview.
In another essay for openDemocracy, Professor Crone focused on the Prophet Muhammad himself, writing that “we can be reasonably sure that the Quran is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God.” She summarized the major themes of the Quran as “God’s unity, the reality of the resurrection and judgment, and the imminence of violent punishment.”
She also wrote that Muhammad was perceived not as the founder of a new religion but as a preacher in the Old Testament tradition, hailing the coming of a messiah. His success, she argued, “had something to do with the fact that he preached both state formation and conquest: Without conquest, first in Arabia and next in the Fertile Crescent, the unification of Arabia would not have been achieved.”
Her other books include “God’s Rule: Government and Islam: Six Centuries of Medieval Islamic Political Thought” (2004) and “The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran” (2012), which detailed the historical precedents for local rebels defying the ruling elite.
“Her death,” Professor Donner said, “deprives our field of someone who was at one and the same time its main motor and, in a way, its conscience; and while many in the field of Islamic history might have disliked some of what she said, I doubt that anyone in the field didn’t care what she said.”
What do we actually know about Mohammed?
10 June 2008
About the author
Patricia Crone was professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton until her death in July 2015. Her publications most relevant to this article include Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (Princeton University Press, 1987 [reprinted 2004]; “How did the quranic pagans make a living?” (Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (68 / 2005); and “Quraysh and the Roman Army: Making Sense of the Qurashi Leathertrade” (Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, forthcoming [spring 2007]).
Patricia Crone’s main recent work is Medieval Islamic Political Thought (Edinburgh University Press, 2004); published in the United States as God’s Rule: Government and Islam [Columbia University Press, 2004])
It is notoriously difficult to know anything for sure about the founder of a world religion. Just as one shrine after the other obliterates the contours of the localities in which he was active, so one doctrine after another reshapes him as a figure for veneration and imitation for a vast number of people in times and places that he never knew.
In the case of Mohammed, Muslim literary sources for his life only begin around 750-800 CE (common era), some four to five generations after his death, and few Islamicists (specialists in the history and study of Islam) these days assume them to be straightforward historical accounts. For all that, we probably know more about Mohammed than we do about Jesus (let alone Moses or the Buddha), and we certainly have the potential to know a great deal more.
There is no doubt that Mohammed existed, occasional attempts to deny it notwithstanding. His neighbours in Byzantine Syria got to hear of him within two years of his death at the latest; a Greek text written during the Arab invasion of Syria between 632 and 634 mentions that “a false prophet has appeared among the Saracens” and dismisses him as an impostor on the ground that prophets do not come “with sword and chariot”. It thus conveys the impression that he was actually leading the invasions.
Mohammed’s death is normally placed in 632, but the possibility that it should be placed two or three years later cannot be completely excluded. The Muslim calendar was instituted after Mohammed’s death, with a starting-point of his emigration (hijra) to Medina (then Yathrib) ten years earlier. Some Muslims, however, seem to have correlated this point of origin with the year which came to span 624-5 in the Gregorian calendar rather than the canonical year of 622.
If such a revised date is accurate, the evidence of the Greek text would mean that Mohammed is the only founder of a world religion who is attested in a contemporary source. But in any case, this source gives us pretty irrefutable evidence that he was an historical figure. Moreover, an Armenian document probably written shortly after 661 identifies him by name and gives a recognisable account of his monotheist preaching.
Patricia Crone is professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Her publications most relevant to this article include Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (Princeton University Press, 1987 [reprinted 2004]; “How did the quranic pagans make a living?” (Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (68 / 2005); and “Quraysh and the Roman Army: Making Sense of the Qurashi Leathertrade” (Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, forthcoming [spring 2007]).
Patricia Crone’s main recent work is Medieval Islamic Political Thought (Edinburgh University Press, 2004); published in the United States as God’s Rule: Government and Islam [Columbia University Press, 2004])
On the Islamic side, sources dating from the mid-8th century onwards preserve a document drawn up between Mohammed and the inhabitants of Yathrib, which there are good reasons to accept as broadly authentic; Mohammed is also mentioned by name, and identified as a messenger of God, four times in the Qur’an (on which more below).
True, on Arabic coins and inscriptions, and in papyri and other documentary evidence in the language, Mohammed only appears in the 680s, some fifty years after his death (whatever its exact date). This is the ground on which some, notably Yehuda D Nevo and Judith Koren, have questioned his existence. But few would accept the implied premise that history has to be reconstructed on the sole basis of documentary evidence (i.e. information which has not been handed down from one generation to the next, but rather been inscribed on stone or metal or dug up from the ground and thus preserved in its original form). The evidence that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, on the eve of the Arab conquest of the middle east, must be said to be exceptionally good.
Everything else about Mohammed is more uncertain, but we can still say a fair amount with reasonable assurance. Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qur’an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death – how long after is controversial. But that he uttered all or most of them is difficult to doubt. Those who deny the existence of an Arabian prophet dispute it, of course, but it causes too many problems with later evidence, and indeed with the Qur’an itself, for the attempt to be persuasive.
The text and the message
For all that, the book is difficult to use as a historical source. The roots of this difficulty include unresolved questions about how it reached its classical form, and the fact that it still is not available in a scholarly edition. But they are also internal to the text. The earliest versions of the Qur’an offer only the consonantal skeleton of the text. No vowels are marked, and worse, there are no diacritical marks, so that many consonants can also be read in a number of ways.
Modern scholars usually assure themselves that since the Qur’an was recited from the start, we can rely on the oral tradition to supply us with the correct reading. But there is often considerable disagreement in the tradition – usually to do with vowelling, but sometimes involving consonants as well – over the correct way in which a word should be read. This rarely affects the overall meaning of the text, but it does affect the details which are so important for historical reconstruction.
In any case, with or without uncertainty over the reading, the Qur’an is often highly obscure. Sometimes it uses expressions that were unknown even to the earliest exegetes, or words that do not seem to fit entirely, though they can be made to fit more or less; sometimes it seems to give us fragments detached from a long-lost context; and the style is highly allusive.
One explanation for these features would be that the prophet formulated his message in the liturgical language current in the religious community in which he grew up, adapting and/or imitating ancient texts such as hymns, recitations, and prayers, which had been translated or adapted from another Semitic language in their turn. This idea has been explored in two German works, by Günter Lüling and Christoph Luxenberg, and there is much to be said for it. At the same time, however, both books are open to so many scholarly objections (notably amateurism in Luxenberg’s case) that they cannot be said to have done the field much good.
The attempt to relate the linguistic and stylistic features of the Qur’an to those of earlier religious texts calls for a mastery of Semitic languages and literature that few today possess, and those who do so tend to work on other things. This is sensible, perhaps, given that the field has become highly charged politically.
Luxenberg’s work is a case in point: it was picked up by the press and paraded in a sensationalist vein on the strength of what to a specialist was its worst idea – to instruct Muslims living in the west that they ought to become enlightened. Neither Muslims nor Islamicists were amused.
The inside story
The Qur’an does not give us an account of the prophet’s life. On the contrary: it does not show us the prophet from the outside at all, but rather takes us inside his head, where God is speaking to him, telling him what to preach, how to react to people who poke fun at him, what to say to his supporters, and so on. We see the world through his eyes, and the allusive style makes it difficult to follow what is going on.
Events are referred to, but not narrated; disagreements are debated without being explained; people and places are mentioned, but rarely named. Supporters are simply referred to as believers; opponents are condemned as unbelievers, polytheists, wrongdoers, hypocrites and the like, with only the barest information on who they were or what they said or did in concrete terms (rather as modern political ideologues will reduce their enemies to abstractions: revisionists, reactionaries, capitalist-roaders, terrorists). It could be, and sometimes seems to be, that the same people now appear under one label and then another.
One thing seems clear, however: all the parties in the Qur’an are monotheists worshipping the God of the Biblical tradition, and all are familiar – if rarely directly from the Bible itself – with Biblical concepts and stories. This is true even of the so-called polytheists, traditionally identified with Mohammed’s tribe in Mecca. The Islamic tradition says that the members of this tribe, known as Quraysh, were believers in the God of Abraham whose monotheism had been corrupted by pagan elements; modern historians would be inclined to reverse the relationship and cast the pagan elements as older than the monotheism; but some kind of combination of Biblical-type monotheism and Arabian paganism is indeed what one encounters in the Qur’an.
The so-called polytheists believed in one creator God who ruled the world and whom one approached through prayer and ritual; in fact, like the anathematised ideological enemies of modern times, they seem to have originated in the same community as the people who denounced them. For a variety of doctrinal reasons, however, the tradition likes to stress the pagan side of the prophet’s opponents, and one highly influential source in particular (Ibn al-Kalbi) casts them as naive worshippers of stones and idols of a type that may very well have existed in other parts of Arabia. For this reason, the secondary literature has tended to depict them as straightforward pagans too.
Some exegetes are considerably more sophisticated than Ibn al-Kalbi, and among modern historians GR Hawting stands out as the first to have shown that the people denounced as polytheists in the Qur’an are anything but straightforward pagans. The fact that the Qur’an seems to record a split in a monotheist community in Arabia can be expected to transform our understanding of how the new religion arose.
The prophet and the polytheists
What then are the big issues dividing the prophet and his opponents? Two stand out. First, time and again he accuses the polytheists of the same crime as the Christians – deification of lesser beings. The Christians elevated Jesus to divine status (though some of them were believers); the polytheists elevated the angels to the same status and compounded their error by casting them (or some of them) as females; and just as the Christians identified Jesus as the son of God, so the polytheists called the angels sons and daughters of God, apparently implying some sort of identity of essence.
The polytheists further claimed that the angels (or deities, as they are also called) were intercessors who enabled them to approach God, a well-known argument by late antique monotheists who retained their ancestral gods by identifying them as angels. For Christians also saw the angels as intercessors, and the prophet was of the same view: his polemics arise entirely from the fact that the pagan angels are seen as manifestations of God himself rather than his servants. The prophet responds by endlessly affirming that God is one and alone, without children or anyone else sharing in his divinity.
The second bone of contention between the prophet and his opponents was the resurrection. Some doubted its reality, others denied it outright, still others rejected the idea of afterlife altogether. The hardliners appear to have come from the ranks of the Jews and/or Christians rather than – or in addition to – the polytheists; or perhaps the so-called polytheists were actually Jews or Christians of some local kind. In any case, the hardliners convey the impression of having made their appearance quite recently, and again people of the same type are attested on the Greek (and Syriac) side of the fence.
The prophet responds by repeatedly rehearsing arguments in favour of the resurrection of the type familiar from the Christian tradition, insisting that people will be raised up for judgment. He adds that the judgment is coming soon, in the form of some local disaster such as those which overtook earlier communities (e.g. Lot’s) and/or a universal conflagration. His opponents tease him, asking him why it does not seem to be happening; he persists. At some point the confrontation turns violent and the book is filled with calls to arms, with much fighting over a sanctuary.
By then it is clear that there has been an emigration (hijra), though the event itself is not described, and there is some legislation for the new community. Throughout the book there is also much acrimonious debate about the credentials of the prophet himself. But God’s unity, the reality of the resurrection and judgment, and the imminence of violent punishment are by far the most important themes, reiterated in most of the sura (chapters of the Qur’an).
In sum, not only do we know that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, we also have a fair idea of what he preached. Non-Islamicists may therefore conclude that the historians’ complaint that they know so little about him is mere professional grumpiness. But on one issue it is unquestionably more. This is a big problem to do with Arabia.
A question of geography
The inhabitants of the Byzantine and Persian empires wrote about the northern and the southern ends of the peninsula, from where we also have numerous inscriptions; but the middle was terra incognita. This is precisely where the Islamic tradition places Mohammed’s career. We do not know what was going on there, except insofar as the Islamic tradition tells us.
It yields no literature to which we can relate the Qur’an – excepting poetry, for which we are again dependent on the Islamic tradition and which is in any case so different in character that it does not throw much light on the book. Not a single source outside Arabia mentions Mecca before the conquests, and not one displays any sign of recognition or tells us what was known about it when it appears in the sources thereafter. That there was a place called Mecca where Mecca is today may well be true; that it had a pagan sanctuary is perfectly plausible (Arabia was full of sanctuaries), and it could well have belonged to a tribe called the Quraysh. But we know nothing about the place with anything approaching reasonable certainty. In sum, we have no context for the prophet and his message.
It is difficult not to suspect that the tradition places the prophet’s career in Mecca for the same reason that it insists that he was illiterate: the only way he could have acquired his knowledge of all the things that God had previously told the Jews and the Christians was by revelation from God himself. Mecca was virgin territory; it had neither Jewish nor Christian communities.
The suspicion that the location is doctrinally inspired is reinforced by the fact that the Qur’an describes the polytheist opponents as agriculturalists who cultivated wheat, grapes, olives, and date palms. Wheat, grapes and olives are the three staples of the Mediterranean; date palms take us southwards, but Mecca was not suitable for any kind of agriculture, and one could not possibly have produced olives there.
In addition, the Qur’an twice describes its opponents as living in the site of a vanished nation, that is to say a town destroyed by God for its sins. There were many such ruined sites in northwest Arabia. The prophet frequently tells his opponents to consider their significance and on one occasion remarks, with reference to the remains of Lot’s people, that “you pass by them in the morning and in the evening”. This takes us to somewhere in the Dead Sea region. Respect for the traditional account has prevailed to such an extent among modern historians that the first two points have passed unnoticed until quite recently, while the third has been ignored. The exegetes said that the Quraysh passed by Lot’s remains on their annual journeys to Syria, but the only way in which one can pass by a place in the morning and the evening is evidently by living somewhere in the vicinity.
The annual journeys invoked by the exegetes were trading journeys. All the sources say that the Quraysh traded in southern Syria, many say that they traded in Yemen too, and some add Iraq and Ethiopia to their destinations. They are described as trading primarily in leather goods, woollen clothing, and other items of mostly pastoralist origin, as well as perfume (not south Arabian frankincense or Indian luxury goods, as used to be thought). Their caravan trade has been invoked to explain the familiarity with Biblical and para-Biblical material which is so marked a feature of the Qur’an, but this goes well beyond what traders would be likely to pick up on annual journeys. There is no doubt, however, that one way or the other a trading community is involved in the rise of Islam, though it is not clear how it relates to that of the agriculturalists of the Qur’an. On all this there is much to be said, if not yet with any certainty.
Three sources of evidence
The biggest problem facing scholars of the rise of Islam is identifying the context in which the prophet worked. What was he reacting to, and why was the rest of Arabia so responsive to his message? We stand a good chance of making headway, for we are nowhere near having exploited to the full our three main types of evidence – the traditions associated with the prophet (primarily the hadith), the Qur’an itself, and (a new source of enormous promise) archaeology.
The first is the most difficult to handle; this overwhelmingly takes the form of hadith – short reports (sometimes just a line or two) recording what an early figure, such as a companion of the prophet or Mohammed himself, said or did on a particular occasion, prefixed by a chain of transmitters. (Nowadays, hadith almost always means hadith from Mohammed himself.) Most of the early sources for the prophet’s life, as also for the period of his immediate successors, consist of hadith in some arrangement or other.
The purpose of such reports was to validate Islamic law and doctrine, not to record history in the modern sense, and since they were transmitted orally, as very short statements, they easily drifted away from their original meaning as conditions changed. (They were also easily fabricated, but this is actually less of a problem.) They testify to intense conflicts over what was or was not true Islam in the period up to the 9th century, when the material was collected and stabilised; these debates obscured the historical nature of the figures invoked as authorities, while telling us much about later perceptions.
The material is amorphous and difficult to handle. Simply to collect the huge mass of variant versions and conflicting reports on a particular subject used to be a laborious task; now it has been rendered practically effortless by searchable databases. However, we still do not have generally accepted methods for ordering the material, whether as evidence for the prophet or for the later doctrinal disputes (for which it will probably prove more fruitful). But much interesting work is going on in the field.
As regards the second source, the Qur’an, its study has so far been dominated by the method of the early Muslim exegetes, who were in the habit of considering its verses in isolation, explaining them with reference to events in the prophet’s life without regard for the context in which it appeared in the Qur’an itself. In effect, they were replacing the Qur’anic context with a new one.
Some fifty years ago an Egyptian scholar by the name of Mohammed Shaltut, later rector of al-Azhar, rejected this method in favour of understanding the Qur’an in the light of the Qur’an itself. He was a religious scholar interested in the religious and moral message of the Qur’an, not a western-style historian, but his method should be adopted by historians too. The procedure of the early exegetes served to locate the meaning of the book in Arabia alone, insulating it from religious and cultural developments in the world outside it, so that the Biblical stories and other ideas originating outside Arabia came across to modern scholars as “foreign borrowings”, picked up in an accidental fashion by a trader who did not really understand what they meant.
The realisation is slowly dawning that this is fundamentally wrong. The prophet was not an outsider haphazardly collecting fallout from debates in the monotheist world around him, but rather a full participant in these debates. Differently put, the rise of Islam has to be related to developments in the world of late antiquity, and it is with that context in mind that we need to reread the Qur’an. It is a big task, and there will be, indeed already have been, false turns on the way. But it will revolutionise the field.
The third, and immeasurably exciting, type of source is looming increasingly large on the horizon: archaeology. Arabia, the big unknown, has begun to be excavated, and though it is unlikely that there will be archaeological explorations of Mecca and Medina anytime soon, the results from this discipline are already mind-opening.
Arabia seems to have been a much more developed place than most Islamicists (myself included) had ever suspected – not just in the north and south, but also in the middle. We are beginning to get a much more nuanced sense of the place, and again it is clear that we should think of it as more closely tied in with the rest of the near east than we used to do. The inscriptional record is expanding, too. With every bit of certainty we gain on one problem, the range of possible interpretations in connection with others contracts, making for a better sense of where to look for solutions and better conjectures where no evidence exists.
We shall never be able to do without the literary sources, of course, and the chances are that most of what the tradition tells us about the prophet’s life is more or less correct in some sense or other. But no historical interpretation succeeds unless the details, the context and the perspectives are right. We shall never know as much as we would like to (when do we?), but Islamicists have every reason to feel optimistic that many of the gaps in our current knowledge will be filled in the years ahead.
‘Jihad’: idea and history
1 May 2007
About the author
Patricia Crone was professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton until her death in July 2015
What is jihad?
Jihad is a subject that non-Muslims find difficult to understand. In fact, there is nothing particularly outlandish about it. All one has to remember is that holy war is not the opposite of pacifism, but rather of secular war – fighting in pursuit of aims lying outside religion. Whether people are militant or not in its pursuit is another matter.
With that general observation, let me pose the four questions to be addressed in this essay. They are:
1. Exactly what is jihad, apart from holy war in a broad sense?
2. Is it true that Islam was spread by force?
3. Did the pre-modern Muslims ever feel that there was anything wrong about religious warfare?
4. What is the relevance of all this to the world today? (I must stress that when I get to this fourth topic, I am no longer speaking as a specialist).
So first, just what is jihad?
Well, actually there are two kinds, depending on whether the Muslims are politically strong or weak. I shall start with the type associated with political strength, because that’s the normal type in Islamic history. I shall get to the second in connection with the question of modern relevance.
The normal type of jihad is missionary warfare. That’s how you’ll find it described in the classical law-books, from about 800 to about 1800. What the Quran has to say on the subject is a different question: the rules it presupposes seem to be a good deal more pacifist than those developed by the jurists and exegetes. But it is the work of the latter which came to form the sharia – the huge mass of precepts on which the public and private lives of Muslims were based (at least in theory), down to the coming of modernity, which still regulates their devotional lives today, and on which Islamists (or “fundamentalists”) would like once more to base the entire arena of public life.
The scholars said that jihad consisted in backing the call to Islam with violence, where necessary. It was “the forcible mission assisted by the unsheathed sword against wrongheaded people who arrogantly refuse to accept the plain truth after it has become clear”: thus a scholar who died in 1085. The idea was that God was the only ruler of the universe. Humans who refused to acknowledge this were in the nature of rebels, who had to be brought to heel. At the very least, they had to submit to God politically, by being brought under Muslim government. But ideally, they would submit to him in religious terms as well, by converting.
Holy warriors worked by making regular incursions into the lands of the infidels order to call them to Islam. Normally, they would do so as part of an official expedition launched by the state, but they might also operate on their own. In any case, if the infidels didn’t want to convert, they could just surrender politically (at least if they were Christians and Jews). In that case they were placed under Muslim government, but kept their own religion in return for the payment of poll-tax. But if they refused both religious and political surrender, they should be fought until they were defeated. The terms were in that case set by the conquerors, who might kill the men and enslave the women and children (or so at least if they were pagans); or they might treat them as if they had surrendered voluntarily.
Once an infidel community had been subdued politically, one moved on to the next lot of infidels and did the same to them. This had to go on until the whole earth was God’s or the world came to an end, whichever would be the sooner.
Missionary warfare was a duty imposed by God on the Muslim community, not on individuals, and it was discharged primarily by the ruler, who’d typically mount one expedition into infidel territory a year, if he had infidel neighbours. But it was highly meritorious for private individuals to go and fight as well, and there were always volunteers on the borders. If you couldn’t go yourself, you could earn merit by donating money or giving gifts to the cause, like people in 19th-century Europe would make donations in support of the missionaries working in distant countries.
The way that ordinary Muslims thought of jihad in the past can be compared to Christians’ attitude towards those of their co-religionists who chose to become missionaries. Nowadays the latter are often regarded as interfering busybodies, but formerly they were admired for their willingness to devote their lives to the salvation of benighted natives. That’s the attitude that prevailed in jihad: it was an extremely noble enterprise. After all, people risked their own lives for it. It was the height of altruism.
The Christian missionaries did not themselves fight; they merely followed in the wake of soldiers. But a holy warrior was a missionary and a soldier all in one. He was engaged in something that modern observers would call religious imperialism.
That’s an institution with very long roots in the middle east. Ancient near-eastern historians call it warfare at the command of a god, and the star example is the Assyrians. Their god Ashshur endlessly told them to go and conquer. The god of the Israelites was of the same type. “I have given into your hands Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land. Begin to possess it and fight him in battle”, he says to Moses in Deuteronomy, where Moses reports that “We took all his cities and utterly destroyed the men, the women and the little ones”.
In the same vein a Moabite king says in an inscription that “Kamosh (the deity) spoke to me and said, Go and take Nebo from Israel. So I went and fought it…and took it and killed everybody, 7,000 men, boys, women, girls and slave girls”. The Muslim God also told his people to conquer, but with one big difference in classical thought, namely that he wanted the victims to convert.
The Assyrians, the Israelites and the Moabites didn’t pretend to be doing anything for the good of the victims. They fought for the greater glory of their own god, and their own community, not to save anyone else. The same seems to have been true of the early Arab conquerors. But in classical Islam, the divine command to go and fight is no longer addressed to an ethnic group, only to believers, whoever they may be; and it is now linked to a religious mission civilisatrice: the believers conquer in order to save souls, not (or not just) to glorify their own community.
It is this fusion of religious and political imperialism that makes classical jihad distinctive, for the two don’t usually go together. The great universalist religions were apolitical and spread by peaceful proselytisation: thus Buddhism, Christianity, and Manichaeism, and also Bahai’ism. And universalist conquerors are not usually out to save people’s souls: think of Alexander the Great, the Romans, or the Mongols. But in Islam, religious mission and world conquest have married up.
Was Islam spread by force?
The second question posed at the start of this essay was: is it true that Islam was spread by force?
The answer is, in one sense, yes, but even this needs careful qualification. Warfare did play a major role both in the rise of Islam and its later diffusion. But some places were Islamised without any war at all, notably Malaysia and Indonesia. Above all, even where Islam was spread by jihad, it was not usually done the way people imagine. People usually think of holy warriors as engaging in something like Charlemagne’s forced conversion of the Saxons, war for the extirpation of wrong beliefs throughout an entire community. But that model is very rare in Islamic history. The effect of war was usually more indirect.
The scholars said that all infidels had to be brought under Muslim sovereignty, but that Jews and Christians acknowledged the true God and had a revelation from him, so they could be allowed to exist under Muslim protection in return for paying poll-tax. All other infidels were pagans, so how were they to be treated? There is general agreement that the Arabs of Mohammed’s Arabia got the choice between Islam and the sword, and that they did so because they had no religion, as one early scholar put it. (Paganism didn’t count as one.) That’s the best example there is on the Muslim side of the Charlemagne model, if I may call it that, and it is a juristic schematisation of history rather than rather than historical reporting.
Some jurists insisted that this was how all pagans should be treated: people who did not acknowledge the sole sovereignty of God had no right to exist. Others said that for one reason or another, the Arabs were exceptional: all other pagans could be granted protection in return for paying poll-tax in the same way as the Jews and the Christians. This disagreement was enshrined in Muslim law, and modern Islamists typically go for the first view, equating pagans with modern secularists and atheists (among them is an associate of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, lionised in Europe by some of the very secularists whom his associate would force to convert). In pre-modern practice, tolerance usually prevailed as far as conquered communities were concerned. The only infidels who could not be allowed to exist in either theory or practice were apostates – who have become a highly sensitive issue today.
But if people were allowed to keep their religion under Muslim rule, how could the jurists define jihad as missionary warfare? How was it different from other forms of imperialism, such as the Crusades (which were fought for the recovery of the holy land, not the conversion of the Muslims) or secular expansionism?
The answer is that in effect jihad just was ordinary imperialism, but it was undertaken, or at least justified, on the grounds that it would result in conversion, if not straightaway, then sooner or later – and it usually did so too, in a number of ways. For a start, the Muslims routinely took a lot of captives. Male captives were often given the choice between Islam and death, or they might recite the Muslim profession of faith of their own accord to avoid execution. More importantly, captives were usually sold off as slaves, and slaves almost always ended up by converting because most slavery was domestic.
And above all, back in the conquered area, Muslim rulers would move in along with judges and religious scholars to build mosques, apply Islamic law, place restrictions on the building of non-Muslim houses of worship and introduce other discriminatory measures so that the original inhabitants were reduced to tributaries in their own land. They were not necessarily persecuted. The Muslim record of tolerance is generally good. (Obviously, there are plenty of examples of persecution of one kind or another; that religious minorities generally speaking did better under Muslim than under Christian rule under pre-modern conditions nonetheless remains true, however hackneyed the claim has become.) But the non-Muslims would soon have a sense that history was passing them by, that all the action was elsewhere, and this would translate into a feeling that their own beliefs were outmoded. So they would convert too, and that’s the method that really mattered.
In sum, jihad typically spread Islam in much the same way that 19th-century European imperialism spread western culture (and/or Christianity): nobody was directly forced to accept western modernity, or Christianity, but by moving in as the politically dominant elite, the imperialists gave their own beliefs and institutions a persuasiveness that made them difficult to resist. Medieval Muslim scholars were well aware of this effect, and unlike their modern successors, they never tried to deny the role of war in the expansion of Islam.
Muslims, morality, and religious warfare
That brings me to the third question: did the pre-modern Muslims never worry about the moral status of religious warfare?
The answer is mostly no, but sometimes yes. The scholars insisted that the warriors had to fight with the right intentions, for God, not for booty. They also debated whether it was right to conduct holy war under a wrongful ruler (the Sunni answer was yes). But if everything was in order on the side of the warriors, the jurists were satisfied that the enterprise was in the best interests of the victims. The conquered peoples were being dragged to Paradise in chains, as a famous saying went. Far from feeling ashamed about their use of war, Muslims often stressed that holy war was something that only they would engage in, meaning that they were willing to do much more for their religion than other people. They were willing to sacrifice their own lives so that others might live, as they put it. To them, it proved that only Islam was a truly universalist religion.
But the conquered peoples, above all the Christians, always held the Muslim use of war to be wrong, and this did eventually affect the Muslims. As early as 634 CE, a Greek tract declared that the so-called prophet must be an impostor because prophets don’t come armed with the sword. Fifty years later a Christian patriarch supposedly told the caliph that Islam was a religion spread by the sword, meaning that therefore it could not be true. The Christians were to harp on this theme for ever after. In the 10th and 11th centuries, the Muslims began to mention this claim, clearly because they were upset by it.
For example, al-Amiri, an Iranian philosopher who died in 996, takes issue with unidentified people who say that “if Islam were a religion of truth, it would be a religion of mercy, and the one who calls to it would not in that case attack people with the sword to take their property and capture and enslave their families; rather, he would proselytise with words and guide to it by the force of his explanations”. In other words, true religion is spread by peaceful mission; holy war is just a religious cover for rapaciousness, whatever people might say about the purity of their intentions.
It isn’t always clear in these texts whether the charges were made by Muslims or non-Muslims, but there were certainly Muslims now who felt the association of warfare and religion to be wrong. A 10th-century religious leader by the name of Ibn Karram, for example, was said by his followers to have been worthier of prophethood than Mohammed, because he lived an ascetic life and did not conduct war. And some Muslims (or ex-Muslims) rejected all established religions, not just Islam, on the grounds that all prophets, not just Mohammed, were tricksters who used religion to start wars and accumulate worldly power. So now the concept of holy war had to be defended.
One of the most interesting defences is by this philosopher al-Amiri. He responded by identifying jihad as defensive warfare. That’s what many modern apologetes do, too, sometimes writing off offensive jihad – missionary warfare – as an Orientalist invention. (Orientalism often gets used as a grand trash-can in which modern Muslims dump all the aspects of pre-modern Islam that they have come to dislike.) Modern Muslims will even go so far as to cast the prophet’s wars and the Arab conquests as defensive, or pre-emptive, but this was more than al-Amiri could bring himself to do.
When it came to the prophet, he fell back on the altruism argument: Mohammed was not in it for material wealth or power. This is clear from the fact that he suffered for ten years in Mecca before setting up a state in Medina; he conquered people for their own good, not for his own sake, and the Iranians ought to be grateful to the Arabs for having destroyed the Persian empire; not only did the Arabs bring the truth, they also freed them from for the oppressive tyranny and rigid social hierarchy that prevailed in that empire. The Muslims came as liberators on all fronts. Of course, al-Amiri says, Mohammed would have preferred not to use the sword at all, but since the infidels so stubbornly resisted him, he had no choice.
Al-Amiri’s tone here is rather like that of the 19th-century British imperialists who felt resentment against all those uncooperative peoples whose recalcitrance had forced Britain to take them over more or less against its will, as they felt it. They didn’t like war either, but what could one do when the natives refused to see the light. One had to fight them for their own sake, and the noble purpose elevated the war to a high moral status. That was al-Amiri’s response in a nutshell. But what his opponents argued was precisely that on the contrary, the use of war discredited the alleged purpose and proved the religion it was meant to spread to be false. So the more the Muslims defended jihad by yoking it to the service of religion, the more their non-Muslim opponents reacted by thinking that the religion must be bad. That’s how Christians and Muslims have been talking past each other for 1,400 years.
Meanwhile, other people defended jihad by observing that religion had two different functions: it organised collective life, and it also offered individual salvation. At the collective level it was a prescription for socio-political order, with its do’s and don’ts, its morality, its law and its war. At this level, coercion was indispensable, and holy war was just one form in which it was practiced. At the individual level it was pure spirituality, and at that level coercion was impossible. The only jihad you could fight here was the so-called greater jihad against your own evil inclinations.
So for example, the scholars will say that a man who has been converted by force becomes a full member of the Muslim community and must live as a Muslim in public, even though he is not a believer in his inner self. He had been coerced at the level of social and political affiliation, but one couldn’t force him to believe. In fact, they said, one could never know what was going on in people’s inner selves, and it wasn’t anyone’s business either: it was between the individuals and God alone. But what people did externally affected others and so had to be regulated. Having been forced into the Muslim community, the captive would have to live as a Muslim – the rest was up to him. Eventually, they said, the chances were that he or his children would see the light, become sincere believers of their own accord, and grateful for having been forced.
In this formulation the claim was that jihad was better than secular conquest. Unlike Alexander the Great, Mohammed incorporated people in a polity in which they had the option of being saved, in which they had the ability to see for themselves, in which they could choose to become true believers. But it left inner conviction as something over which the individual had full control.
This argument ought to be easy for modern people to understand, or at least Americans, for they also tend to think that war can be legitimated by a high moral purpose – as long as that purpose hasn’t got anything to do with individual faith. The moral purposes they have in mind are wholly secular, not the lower level of religion, and the salvation they talk about is in this world. But they too tend to be eager to rescue other people by enabling them to become more like themselves: richer, freer, more democratic. What do you do when your fingers are itching to intervene, when you have the power to do it, when you are sure you are right and you are convinced that the victims will be grateful – quite apart from all the advantages that may redound to yourself from intervening? Aren’t you allowed to use force? Indeed, aren’t you obliged to use it? Is it right to save people against their will? Should you force them to be free? If you say yes to these questions, you are in effect a believer in jihad.
But will the victims be grateful? In the Muslim case, the answer was normally yes. The scholars mention it time and again, as something everyone knew. People fell grateful that they had become Muslims, in whatever manner it had happened, voluntarily or by force. This made it difficult to entertain serious doubts about the legitimacy of jihad. In the last resort, most people liked the result. And this is one of the most striking differences between Muslim and European imperialism, which are otherwise so comparable. The one led to Islamisation, the other to westernisation; the one dragged you to Paradise in chains, the other to secular modernity. But people aren’t grateful for having been westernised. In line with this, westerners no longer take any pride in their imperial past. Today, westerners often hold imperialism to have invalidated the very civilisation it spread. They have been persuaded by their own arguments against jihad in a way the Muslims never were. Why this difference? It would call for another lecture.
Jihad, then and now
This leads to the fourth question: what is the relevance of all this to the modern world? The Muslims have not practised missionary jihad since the decline of the Ottoman empire, at least not under the sponsorship of states, and to my knowledge there are no serious calls for its return. What the tradition has left is a strong activist streak, a sense that it is right to fight for your convictions. “Look at you, you Christians, with your passivity you have turned religion into something that doesn’t exist”, as demonstrators against Salman Rushdie said in Paris in March 1989. But to understand the fundamentalists we need to go to the other kind of jihad, the one practised when the Muslims are politically weak.
What happens when Muslim territory falls under infidel sovereignty? Can Muslims stay on and live under non-Muslim rule? Some jurists said yes, others denied it on the grounds that Islamic law could only be applied in full under Muslim sovereignty. If infidels conquered Muslim land, the Muslims had to emigrate, they had to make a hijra to a place where they could practice Islamic law – either an existing Muslim state or a new one set up by themselves – and then they should start holy war in order to reconquer their homeland. Not all scholars subscribed to this view, but it was upheld by many in response to the loss of Muslim territory in Spain and it also inspired anti-colonial movements in British India, French Algeria and elsewhere.
Imagine an even worse scenario: what happens when not a single Islamic state exists any more, when all political power has turned infidel? The answer is the same with greater urgency (and probably less disagreement too). You must emigrate to a place where you can establish a Muslim state and then you must wage holy war to get it going. In both cases, the model is Mohammed: first he lived in pagan Mecca, under infidel sovereignty, then he emigrated to Medina where he established a Muslim polity and started jihad and conquered Mecca, which he cleansed and purified; thereafter his followers began the conquest of the rest of the world, in what eventually turned into missionary warfare.
Jihad for the recovery or actual creation of Muslim sovereignty (as opposed to its expansion): that’s the type that is practised today. Modern fundamentalists (or Islamists) call it defensive jihad, though it is not what the classical Muslims understood by that term. It makes sense to them, partly because they feel on the defensive; partly because everyone recognises the legitimacy of defensive war; and not least, because participation in defensive jihad is an individual obligation, like fasting and prayer, not a communal duty like the missionary type, which you don’t have to undertake as long as others are doing it. So calling your jihad defensive is good for mobilisation.
Whatever you call it, the missionary element is greatly reduced in this type of warfare. Of course, you have to convert people to your own beliefs in order to get them together for state formation and conquest, but the emphasis is not so much on saving people as on saving Islam, especially in the more extreme version when no Islamic state is deemed to exist at all. For Islam can’t exist without political embodiment, according to this view. There has to be a place on earth where God rules. Without it, collective (and individual?) life ceases to have any moral foundations.
In the past, jihad for the actual creation of Muslim sovereignty was only practised by heretics, for it was only heretics who would deny that existing states were Islamic. The very first to do so were the Kharijites, who are almost as old as Islam itself. There were also Shi’ites who did. But the Sunnis always accepted their own states as Islamic in some (sometimes minimalist) sense, at least until the 18th century, and most still do, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas. Their jihad is concentrated on the recovery of Muslim territory, such as Palestine, and the defence of Muslims in places such as Chechnya. They don’t attack infidels elsewhere, nor don’t they believe in fighting Muslim rulers, or not any more.
But other fundamentalists deem all Muslim states, or even all Muslim people apart from themselves, to be infidels. Al-Qaida is among them. They direct their efforts against America rather than fellow Muslims because America is deemed to be behind everything wrong in the Muslim world – you can’t correct the shadow cast by a crooked stick, as Osama bin Laden is said to have put it. But when America, the crooked stick, has been removed, it will be the turn of the Muslim world in general, and by that they mean all countries with a Muslim population, which is in effect the whole earth by now. So as far as al-Qaida is concerned, the old distinction between the abode of Islam and the abode of war has disappeared.
The extreme fundamentalists can’t see any difference between living in Egypt, for example, and living under non-Muslim rule, thanks to the all-pervasive influence of the modern state. In the old days the political domain was also worldly and corrupt, but the social domain was still shaped by Islam. Nowadays, however, it is the state that regulates marriage, divorce, inheritance, trade, finance, work, health, childcare, schooling, higher education, and so on, often with attention to what the sharia says, but freely reshaping it to fit modern, secular aims which originate in the infidel and politically dominant west.
So one way or the other, Muslims are ruled by the west wherever they live, not just politically but also socially and culturally. Wherever they are look, they are being invaded by so-called western values – in the form of giant billboards advertising self-indulgence, semi-pornographic films, liquor, pop music, fat tourists in indecent clothes and funny hats, and politicians lecturing people about the virtues of democracy. Religion does not actually shape the social realm any more, except rhetorically. All that religion shapes in modern Muslim societies is voluntary associations such as Sufi orders, Muslim brotherhoods, and fundamentalist cells, which fall short of being whole societies, let alone states, and which you can set up in non-Muslim countries too. So in effect, as the fundamentalists see it, all Muslims have become diaspora Muslims.
Some Muslims are happy with this. They want the socio-political order to be secularised; they want religious affiliation to be voluntary. They are the secularists, the people we have no trouble understanding. But to the fundamentalists, or rather to the extremists among them, all Muslims are now living in a new age of ignorance (jahiliyya) such as that which prevailed in pagan Arabia before the rise of Islam. This is why one must get together to reenact Mohammed’s career and save Islam.
Establishment religious scholars often compare such fundamentalists to the Kharijites of the early Islamic period, and with good reason. They are amazingly similar. There is the same declaration of other Muslims to be infidels, the same sense of fighting for God rather than for people – God has to rule even if the whole world is going to perish in the attempt -the same utter ruthlessness too. The Kharijites allowed assassinations, indiscriminate slaughter, the killing of men, women and children alike, much like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Their missions were often suicidal, too, not in the sense that they’d set out on individual missions bound to result in death, but rather in the sense that tiny numbers would take on huge forces bound to exterminate them, inspired by a quest for martyrdom. They had sold their souls to God, as they put it, and got a good price for them, too, namely Paradise; they went into battle intending to collect the price. And then as today, women would fight along with the men.
There is of course no direct link whatever between the Kharijites and modern fundamentalists. People like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri don’t even seem to know their own tradition all that well. Rather, they have stripped Islam of practically everything that most Muslims consider to be their religion.
What’s left is an archetypal monotheist of the confrontational type: a separatist and militant zealot. In the view of such zealots, God’s people can’t live together with infidels, they must have their own political space. Right and wrong must be embodied in separate communities, and every Muslim must fight to bring this about.
The history of Islam starts with a great separation of God’s people from the rest of mankind by force of arms, and Islamic history thereafter is punctuated by regular attempts to restore the separation, to get rid of all the complexity that obscured the simplicity of the original vision. Those who engaged in such attempts tended to come from the more peripheral areas of the middle east, often from a tribal background, and they were always minorities. The fundamentalists, too, are only a small minority today. But you don’t need an awful lot of people of this kind for an awful lot of trouble.
No pressure, then: religious freedom in Islam
7 November 2009
About the author
Patricia Crone was professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton until her death in July 2015. This article is based on a lecture given at the University of Freiburg in 2007, which was itself based on P. Crone, ‘No Compulsion in Religion: Q. 2:256 in Medieval and Modern Interpretation’, in M.-A. Amir-Moezzi, M.M. Bar-Asher & S. Hopkins, eds., Le Shi`isme imamate quarante ans après, Paris: Brepols, 2009, 131-78, to which the reader is referred for documentation
The Quranic statement: “There is no compulsion in religion” – erupted into controversy again in 2006 when the Pope selected the most illiberal view of the text available. But when the thirty-eight Muslim scholars responded that he was wrong, they were necessarily misrepresenting history. To understand why they might wish to do this, we have to go back to 720-750 AD.
To understand the place of religious freedom in Islam, I will examine the different interpretations, from the earliest times until today, of the Quranic statement, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). Actually, I could not possibly cover all that in one article either, but that’s not too much of a problem, for all the major pre-modern interpretations were in place by the tenth century. So first I shall deal with the interpretations up to the tenth century, then I shall jump to the twentieth century and deal with the modernists, the Islamists and the context in which you may all have heard about the verse recently, namely the controversy over the Pope’s speech at Regensburg in September 2006, almost exactly one year ago.
The Pope was just one out of many people to talk about this verse. You hear a lot about it these days. When the American journalist Jill Carroll was kidnapped in Iraq in Jan. 2006, her kidnappers tried to convert her to Islam, but insisted that there was “no pressure” (= “no compulsion”) on her to convert. A friend of mine recently spotted the statement on a bumper sticker: “no compulsion in Islam”, it said; and you can read a lot about the verse on many websites too.
So why is there so much fuss about this statement? Well, one reason is that it expresses a tolerant view that Westerners like to hear, so it is a good passage to dispel their prejudices about Islam with. But it is also a statement of great importance in connection with the question whether Islam can coexist with a secular sphere: is Islam a belief system that you can combine with a any political order that you like – as long as they are religiously neutral? Or is it a religion that dictates its own political order? That’s a key issue today, and the “no compulsion” verse figures in the discussion. But you can’t appreciate what people say about it today without knowing the traditional interpretations, so as I said, we have to look at the pre-modern exegetes. They start round about 720-750 AD.
The six interpretations
La ikraha fi’l-din, “There’s no compulsion in religion”: to our modern ears it sounds like a declaration of unlimited religious freedom. It sounded that way to the earliest exegetes too, so in principle they could have said, this verse shows that Muslims must reject the use of compulsion in religious matters and that everyone must be free to choose his own religious beliefs. But in practice, they could not, and did not, say anything of the kind. Because if it is up to the individual to choose his own religion, then you can’t have a polity based on religion; if religion is a private matter, then the public space is secular, in the sense of based on some non-religious principle, such as territory or nationality, or whatever else a large number of people can feel they have in common. The exegetes lived in a polity based on Islam. Islam had created the public space they shared. For as you know, Islam had not grown up within a state, the way Christianity had; rather; it had created its own state. You obviously can’t have religious freedom in a community based on religion. You can’t have religious freedom in a church. All you can have is freedom to leave the church, if you don’t agree with it. But in a society based on shared religion you can’t easily have that freedom either unless you remove yourself physically, to go to live somewhere else.
So the “no compulsion” verse was a problem to the earliest exegetes, and they reacted by interpreting it restrictively, in one of three ways.
One solution was to say that the verse had been abrogated. It was generally agreed that God sometimes repealed a verse in favour of another without removing the text of the old one from the book. So some exegetes said that the verse had been revealed in Mecca, when Muhammad had no power: God was telling him that he could not and should not try to force the infidels to convert. But when he moved to Medina and set up a state of his own, God ordered him to wage holy war against the infidels. So the proclamation of religious freedom to the infidels was abrogated. In short, religious freedom had come and gone.
Another solution was to say that the verse had been revealed in Medina in connection with some problems of purely historical relevance, to do with children of the Medinese: there were people in Medina whose children had been brought up by Jews, and so had become Jewish, or there were some who had converted to Christianity back in the days before the coming of Islam. When Muhammad came to Medina, the parents wanted these (by now adult) children to become Muslims and tried to force them, so this verse was revealed telling them to stop. This interpretation tied the verse to a unique historical situation. It hadn’t been formally abrogated, it just had no relevance any more, for no situation like that could arise again. For good measure some adherents of this scenario added that the verse had been abrogated. So this second solution was really a less drastic version of the first.
Freedom for dhimmis
The third solution also said that the verse had been revealed in Medina, but it placed its revelation in a later context to do with defeated infidels. According to this third interpretation, the verse was about protected people (dhimmis). Dhimmis were Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims who had passed under Muslim rule and been allowed to retain their own religion in return for the payment of jizya, poll-tax. Legally, they were not members of the Muslim community, just protegés of it. The third interpretation was to the effect that the verse prohibited forced conversion of dhimmis. Actually, all the jurists agreed anyway that dhimmis could not be forced to convert, so this was really just a way of finding something for the verse to do, but it had the advantage of giving the rule a memorable formulation, and we actually know of real cases where the verse was invoked to protect the right of dhimmis to retain their religion. So on the third interpretation the verse was indeed a proclamation of religious freedom, but only for dhimmis, not for Muslims or mankind at large.
So these were the three positions advanced by the earliest exegetes: the verse had been abrogated, or it had lost relevance, or it applied only to dhimmis. These are the canonical interpretations – the interpretations of the equivalent of the church fathers – and you’ll find one, or two or all three of them in every commentary on the Quran down to modern times, and quite often in modern ones as well. They all had the merit of making the verse compatible with the use of force for the maintenance and expansion of the Muslim community. It did not clash with the rule that apostates had to be executed, or with the use of force against internal dissenters, for it wasn’t about Muslims. Nor did it clash with the duty to wage jihad to bring all mankind under Muslim sovereignty, for it only granted freedom to infidels after they’d been subjected.
So the problem had been solved. But you aren’t going to get off that lightly. There are more interpretations that you need to know about.
The descriptive turn
The three canonical interpretations rest on the assumption that the verse should be understood as laying down a legal norm: it says that there is no compulsion in religion in the sense that it is morally wrong and legally forbidden to use force in religious matters. In other words, it is prescriptive. But from the ninth century onwards there were people who wanted to use the verse for purposes of theology rather than law. They included the theologians of the Mu’tazilite school, and according to them, the verse was not prescriptive, but descriptive. It did not condemn or prohibit anything, it was a straightforward factual statement. “There is no compulsion in religion” means just that: there isn’t any, full stop.
What they meant by this was that when God says that there is no compulsion in the religion, He means that He does not practise compulsion. God does not force you to be a believer or an infidel – i.e. He does not predestine or determine it for you: you have free will. This may sound farfetched to you, but the word for determination was jabr, compulsion, and the word for free will, or one of them, was qadar, power. God was seen as refraining from using His power so that you could have your own; he was abstaining from compulsion – from determination – so that you could choose whether to be a believer or an unbeliever. That’s what God was saying here, according to the Mu’tazilites: the verse was a declaration of unlimited freedom from divine coercion. God allows you to choose your own salvation. It is just humans who don’t: the Mu’tazilites accepted that. They agreed that religious freedom was only for dhimmis. But vis-à-vis God everybody was free to choose for himself.
You’ll say, how could the Mu’tazilites hold that humans can use coercion where God won’t? Well, they had a second interpretation here. They said that the verse could also be read as declaring that there is not and cannot really be any such thing as human coercion in religious matters either, for it simply is not possible to force other people to believe. You can only force them to act as believers, i.e. to conform on the surface; you can’t force them to believe in their innermost hearts. So on the first Mu’tazilite interpretation, God is saying that He won’t force people to believe; and on the second Mu’tazilite interpretation, He is saying that you can’t do it. In short, in your inner self, your private interior, you are free vis-à-vis humans and God alike.
But your external self was a different matter. You were free as a disembodied soul, not as an embodied social being. As a member of a human society you were subject to coercion in all kinds of ways. Social life is impossible without coercion. There was – still is – no way round that. And since the Muslim polity was based on religion, coercion had to be used in religious matters too. But that didn’t contradict the verse according to the Mu>tazilites because the coercion was only applied to the external person: the inner person was free; there was no coercion in religion in the sense of inner conviction. So on their interpretation the verse was not contradicted by the duty to wage holy or execute apostates either. It was even compatible with forced conversion. It was allowed to force people to become Muslims when they hadn’t become dhimmis yet or couldn’t become dhimmis, either because they were pagans rather than Christians, Jews or Zoroastrians or because they were slaves. In fact, one Mu’tazilite said that forcing people to convert was a good thing, because sooner or later they or their children would acquire genuine faith: so you would have saved them from eternal hellfire. And you hadn’t forced them to accept the truth. In their inner hearts they had converted of their own accord. You had only forced them into the Muslim community which made it possible for them to see the truth.
You’ll probably react by finding this a self-serving argument, and so it was, of course. It allowed the Mu’tazilites to legitimate the use of force in religious matters while at the same time claiming that there was no such thing. But they weren’t just being self-serving. When the Mu’tazilites made their sharp distinction between inner conviction and external conformance, they were saying was that individual salvation was one thing, civic religion was something else. Civic religion was all about keeping Muslim society together in the here and now, it was the religion you had for the public space, the religion that was good for the social and political order. Your own wishes had to be subordinated to those of the community here. You could not and did not have complete freedom at that level. Here as in other societies, you had to obey the law, and the law happened to be religious. But you could choose your own innermost convictions, your own avenue to salvation. You could believe what you liked as long as you did not endanger the boat that everybody was sailing in.
This distinction between civic religion based on the law and individual conviction based on a freely chosen theology or philosophy or spirituality was quite a marked feature of Muslim thinking in the tenth and the eleventh centuries. Many people saw the law-based, collective religion of the community as something lower and more prosaic than individual spirituality or philosophy or esotericism. They had a strong sense that individuals had needs that went far beyond those served by communal worship. So they distinguished between the external and the internal, the lower and the higher: they saw these two as forming two distinct levels of religion. But they did not go so far as to secularise the lower level. They didn’t say that the civic level should have nothing to do with religion at all. Some came close. The Ismaili Shi’ites initially denied that the civic religion – the law – had any saving power. You were saved by your inner convictions alone. But that put them beyond the pale, so they changed their mind. Being a good social being, a good citizen, did have saving value by common consent, that of the Ismailis included. It just wasn’t all there was to religion, or even the most important part.
What the Mu’tazilites were saying was that in the higher sphere of religion there was no compulsion. All human beings, not just dhimmis or Muslims, had an inner sanctum that was controlled by themselves alone. They had what you would call freedom of conscience. But this freedom was wholly internal, you couldn’t claim it as a social being. And it was deemed to exist as a matter of fact, so it was not protected by the law. It wasn’t a right you could claim. All you could do was to retreat into your inner self, where you were alone with God. Here again the Ismailis were an exception: they did award legal protection to individual religiosity. But for everyone else it remains true to say that individual freedom of religion was never given legal expression; it was never allowed to prevail against the social order.
The two Mu’tazilite interpretations of the verse, as a statement that God will not and that humans cannot coerce in religious matters, were extremely long-lived. They went into both Shi’ism and Sunnism, where their Mu’tazilite origin was soon forgotten. You’ll find those two interpretations along with the canonical three in a fair number of Sunni and Shi’ite commentaries all the way down to modern times.
No forced renunciations of Islam
Now I’ve given you five interpretations. I’m sorry, but I have to add a sixth: it takes us back to the prescriptive interpretations. Some people said that the verse did indeed prohibit forced conversion, but not of dhimmis: what it prohibited was forced conversion of Muslims to something false, i.e. it said that it was unlawful to force Muslims to renounce Islam. This interpretation was also in place by the tenth century, but it is much less common than the other five. In fact, there were more interpretations, but I shall leave them aside because practically all modern interpretations involve doing things with one or more of these six.
Modernism and Islamism
So what happens in modern times? Well, what happens is that Europe becomes the dominant power, and the Europeans go around saying that Islam is a backward religion which established itself by force, which lacks the virtue of tolerance, and so on. So Muslims now have to rebut these charges, and the “no compulsion” verse is an obvious one to do it with. As I said, it voices a view that Westerners like. But as I also said, there’s more to it. The dominance of the West doesn’t just mean that Muslims have to cope with rude remarks from Westerners. It also means that their own traditional pattern of a society based on a religious law begins to looks outmoded. Modernism means separating religion from socio-political matters, it means draining law and war of religious significance and basing them instead on secular ideologies such as nationalism or communism, leaving religion as something optional for your private salvation. That’s the European pattern; that’s what allows for religious toleration; and that’s what every self-respecting society now had to claim to have as well in order to count in an era of European dominance. So whereas the early exegetes had to interpret the “no compulsion” verse restrictively, the twentieth-century exegetes have to widen its meaning again, to read it as a universal declaration of religious freedom that would both refute the European charges and provide an impeccable Quranic basis for something like a separation between religious and political matters in Islam. The religious scholars start working on the verse in a modernist vein already around 1900, but it isn’t really till the 1940s that they get going.
So how could they widen the interpretation of the verse without declaring all the earlier exegetes to be wrong, and so throw out their entire exegetical tradition? Well, for one thing they could stop talking about the verse being abrogated: nobody, absolutely nobody says that it is abrogated anymore, not even the most conservative Saudis.
But then what? Well, the answer is they could go to the Mu’tazilite strand which was embedded in both the Sunni and Shi’ite traditions. The Mu’tazilites had done some separation of the public and the private spheres, the civic and the individual; and if you read them in the light of modern preoccupations, you’ll misunderstand them. You’ll engage in creative reinterpretation, as people will say these days. When a modern person reads a pre-modern exegete explaining that there is no coercion in religion because we have to choose for ourselves, he will not see that the exegete means that God does not coerce you; he will take the exegete to be saying that we should not do it. In other words, he will understand a factual statement about the absence of divine coercion as a prescriptive statement prohibiting human coercion – and that gives him the position he wants. Or again, if he sees a statement to the effect that religion is confession by the heart and therefore beyond compulsion, he will read that too as a prohibition of compulsion, not as a claim that compulsion is all right because it only affects outer man.
From the 1940s onwards you see one exegete after another adapt the two Mu’tazilite arguments along those modernist lines. Tantawi, the current rector of al-Azhar in Cairo, is among them. He is actually perfectly familiar with the explanation of the verse as a factual statement that God doesn’t coerce us, but that doesn’t stop him having the modernist adaptation as well. The modernist (mis)interpretation has become an independent position in its own right. Countless exegetes have it. More often than not, they’ll tell you that the verse is a declaration of religious freedom and that this shows Christians to be wrong when they claim that Islam was spread by force. Along with this they’ll often adduce the second canonical interpretation, about how the verse was revealed when the Medinese wanted to convert their Jewish or Christian children to Islam by force: this interpretation (which had changed already in the centuries not covered here) is now read as a timeless account of how Islam respects religious differences, not as a story trying to get rid of the verse by tying it to a bygone historical situation. Modern exegetes will often add that it isn’t possible to convert people by force, meaning that therefore it is prohibited, not that therefore no legal prohibition is necessary.
But of course forced conversion of Jews and Christians isn’t the real issue any more. The big issue is Muslim society itself. The laws regulating modern Muslim states are mostly secular: should the civic sphere be wholly secularised? Can Muslims be fully integrated in secular societies in the West? In other words, should religion be something you have along with your citizenship rather than as part of it?
And if yes, should this additional membership be wholly voluntary, so that Muslims would be free to convert to other religions, or to have no religion? The modernists tend to be rather unclear on this: they hide behind the bluster about forced conversion, feeling that if they assert the principle of religious freedom there, then they’ve paid their respects to modern values and can keep silent about the rest. For to say that people are free to leave Islam is officially to declare the public order to be secular, so that one could in principle be an atheist or a Buddhist or a Hindu along with being a full citizen of Egypt. And you are then half way to the situation where no religious community has privileged access to the state, where all religious associations are equally private. That is full secularism, and it would be a radical change. It is too radical for most modernists to contemplate it. Islamists.
Nowadays the modernists are under siege by the Islamists –people who want the public sphere to be fully based on Islam again. Some are militant and some are not, but all are convinced that secularism is a mistake. In their view, Islam should not be drained of authority, but on the contrary serve as the basis of it. As they see it, Islam prescribes its own social space and its own political agency, and religious freedom is nonsense unless Muslims are allowed to have this freedom within their own political organisation: religious freedom is the right to live as a Muslim, not just in private affairs, but also in public ones.
You can read that in Sayyid Qutb, the enormously influential Islamist who was hanged by Nasser in 1966. According to him, you must wage jihad to bring about that freedom now, for secularism is an oppressive system that doesn’t allow you to practise what you believe. All this is directed against the Egyptian regime, Nasser’s state, not against the infidel West. He wrote his exegesis in jail; it was a secularist regime that was persecuting him, and which eventually hanged him: secularism did not mean freedom to him, just as it didn’t to the mullahs in the Shah’s Iran.
To them, as to other the victims of Middle Eastern regimes, secularism did not stand for religious neutrality, as it does to Westerners, but rather the forced imposition of something false and foreign. They would adduce the “no compulsion” verse against these regimes. The verse forbids forced conversion to falsehood, as the blind shaykh Umar b. Abd al-Rahman said during his trial for complicity in the assassination of Sadat in 1981. He was quoting the sixth interpretation I have given you, from an Andalusian scholar who’d written at the time of the Christian Reconquista. According to Sayyid Qutb and others, true religious freedom can only obtain under Islamic rule, for it is only under Islamic rule that people will be allowed to follow their own creeds.
It sounds great until you start thinking about the implications. How can Christians, Jews, Buddhists or atheists be full members of a state which is conceived as an expression of Islamic aims? They can’t, of course. Several Islamists will explicitly tell you that actually, non-Muslims will have to resume the position of dhimmis, protected people. And by non-Muslims they typically mean Jews and Christians, full stop. In the past, some jurists held that only Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians qualified for dhimmi status; others said that all infidels did, whoever they were. The Islamists always go for the restrictive view, and what they want to outlaw with it is atheism. Their position is quite clear: atheism is a form of paganism, or idolatry, and Islam does not recognize that as a religion. Religion means monotheism, and religious freedom does not include the freedom to have no religion, because in their view there can’t be any morality without religion.
In actual fact, the Islamists don’t really believe in religious freedom, except for themselves, because they believe that religion should form the basis of the social and political order; but the concept of religious freedom is so prestigious that even they can’t quite abandon it.
Many of them are so torn between their desire to present Islam as a religion of tolerance and their determination to force their fellow-citizens back into the Islamic fold that they end up in complete incoherence. Take the ayatullah Sabzawari, a Shi’ite cleric who published his exegesis in 1997. He starts by interpreting the no compulsion verse to mean that compulsion is unnecessary, impossible, and forbidden: it couldn’t be clearer. He adds that Islam was not established by the sword: fine. But Muslims do have to fight, he says, not to convert people by force, only to restore them to their original nature, which is Islam. In his view this is not really compulsion, for like other Imamis he combines the second Mu’tazilite argument with the old idea of Islam as original human nature (fitra) and argues that to deny Islam is to deny one’s own identity and will, so that being forced to live as a Muslim is simply to be restored to one’s self. Besides, he says, compulsion only affects the external man, and sometimes it is actually a good thing for both the public order and the victim; indeed, what would be more repugnant in moral term than leaving people to work for their own damnation? In short, forced conversion is unnecessary, impossible, forbidden, required, a good thing, and highly commendable.
Or for a Sunni example, take Dr ‘Amir ‘Abd al-‘Aziz , editor with Yusuf al-Qaradawi and others of the Journal of Islamic Jerusalem Studies, who published an exegetical work, in Arabic, in 2000. He too starts by affirming that the “no compulsion” verse rejects forced conversion. “It is not permitted for Muslims to convert infidels to the faith by force”, he says, “for that kind of thing is no use, leads to no good, and does not bring about faith in the hearts of their own free will”. He adds that it is not necessary to use force either, for Islam is a clear religion based on cogent arguments (many traditional exegetes say that too). On the contrary, he declares, the coercive method is characteristic of vacuous, odious, self-absorbed egoists and oppressive authorities. So there is no coercion. But, he says, the verse was revealed specifically about Christians and Jews. Idolaters and similar godless and permissive people have to be compelled to adopt Islam, since they cannot be accepted as dhimmis and do not deserve any consideration because of their godlessness, stupidity, error and foolishness. In other words, Muslims are not permitted to convert anyone force, but “anyone” really just means dhimmis, as in traditional law. All others have to be forced, above all Muslim secularists.
The Islamists tend to avoid discussing apostates, but some of them explicitly say that the verse does not grant freedom of religion to them. So all their talk about religious freedom is really designed to get rid of it. Unclarity. In short, everybody is agreed that Islam goes in for religious freedom, but not on what it means, except that Christians and Jews shouldn’t be forced to convert. Everything else is unclear. Unclarity is also the key impression left by the controversy over the Pope’s speech at Regenburg in 2006, with which I shall conclude.
The Pope mentioned that according to some experts, the “no compulsion” verse probably dated from “the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat” and that other rules had later been added concerning holy war; in other words, the Pope adopted the first canonical interpretation, according to which the verse had been revealed in Mecca and abrogated in Medina. Thirty-eight Muslim scholars responded that the Pope was wrong: the verse had been revealed in Medina in connection with some Jews or Christians who had wanted to force their children to convert to Islam, as one could read in al-Tabari and other early commentators; it did not date from the period when the Muslims were weak and powerless, but rather from their period of political ascendance, and it taught them that “they could not force another’s heart to believe”.
Well, to a historian, that was an odd reaction. One can read the Pope’s interpretation in al-Tabari and other early commentators too. One might have expected the thirty-eight scholars to respond that the Pope was out of date, and that the interpretation he went for no longer carried any weight: that is certainly true. But that is not what they said. They said that he was mistaken; and they corrected him with reference to a hybrid interpretation of their own: the Medinese were forbidden to convert their children by force, they said. Fine, that’s the second canonical interpretation, as dusted off by modernists. The verse taught them that they could not force another’s heart to believe. That’s the second Mu’tazilite interpretation, the verse as a factual statement about the impossibility of coercing inner man. Traditionally, that goes with the view that coercing outer man is all right, though it doesn’t usually do so in modern works, so what did they mean? Were they reserving the right to coerce outer man, the social being? I don’t know. I suspect that the formulation was a compromise designed to paper over the cracks between different positions.
Here the interpreters of the “no compulsion” verse show us another aspect of the clash between secularism and Islam. To a historian, the thirty-eight scholars were being somewhat less than frank. They told the Pope that he was wrong instead of freely admitting that the view he had selected is indeed part of the Islamic tradition. One Islamicist professor in America happily followed suit and publicly said that the Pope should apologize for getting his facts wrong. But the Pope didn’t get his facts wrong, he just selected the most illiberal view available, which is out of date. The reason why the thirty-eight scholars did not simply say this outright is partly that they were not writing as historians, but rather as theologians, and partly that it would have been to acknowledge that doctrines change. That is something that Muslim clerics are still reluctant to do.
To a historian, the thirty-eight clerics were guilty of traducing the past: they knowingly misrepresented it. But what the thirty-eight clerics would reply, I imagine, is that we historians are guilty of traducing the present: for we knowingly show people’s convictions to be historically conditioned rather than perennial truths. By insisting that the past must be understood in its own light, we remove the support of the tradition from the present; we undermine its authority. This is true, and it is all the worse if you think that change is a sign of falsehood.
We historians do not equate change with falsehood, but there is no way around the fact that we are secularisers: we are secularising history, because we separate the past we are studying from our own and other people’s modern convictions; we do not allow the past to be rewritten as mere support for these modern convictions. That’s a problem to all traditional believers, and perhaps to Muslims more than most. Muslims tend not to have a problem with modern science: the Quran does not have a mythological account of the creation, it is not incompatible with any modern scientific views. But history is a different matter because the truths of Islam are tied to history. So whether they want to or not, historians also find themselves as actors in the debate whether, or to what extent, Islam should coexist with a secular sphere.
Where will it all end? Well, there at least even the most modern of historians can give the most traditional of answers: God knows best.