Breathtaking Diversity

Gudrun Krämer, Professor of Islamic Studies at the Free University in Berlin, has written a history of Islam from the beginnings to the present day, from its outer limits in Asia to its furthest Western outpost in Andalusia. By Mona Naggar

​​Only 300 pages long, Krämer's book "History of Islam" is lucid, accessible, attractively written, and illuminated by copious illustrations and maps. "Islam" is defined broadly, and Krämer's book examines everything that contributes to the emergence of a religion over the course of several centuries: the social and political circumstances, the cultural influences, the impact of other faiths and worldviews.

Shared histories

In the foreword, she announces her intention of focusing on the "shared histories" of Islam, the exchanges and interactions that made it what it is: "This can also cast light on the diversity and mutability of Islamic ideas and ways of life, for these have not simply emerged inexorably from the Koran, the Sunna, or (indeed) the Arabic peninsula."

And on that note, the author begins with a detailed description of the Arabic peninsula at the end of the sixth century, 30 years after the birth of Mohammed and around a decade before he experienced his revelation.

At that time, Mecca and Medina (then known as "Yathrib") were at the periphery of contemporary cultural centres, though not totally cut off. The population was made up of traders, peasants, craftsmen and nomads, and the peninsula played host to a wide range of religious tendencies: apart from Jews, "heathens", and various Christian groups, there were also faiths in which monotheistic and pagan tendencies overlapped.

"Allah's daughters"

In Mecca, three female divinities were worshipped as "Allah's daughters", and it remains unclear whether Allah himself was actually the chief God in this pantheon.

It was in this setting that Mohammed appeared with the revelation of the Koran, preaching of one God, a Last Judgment and a Kingdom of Heaven. To what extent was Islam an autochthonous development? How much influence did external factors play?

These questions aren't easily answered, for as Gudrun Krämer points out, only Muslim sources are available for the period. Nonetheless, one wishes the author had supplied a deeper analysis of the content of the Koran itself, and that she had examined in greater detail the development of the religious rites.

She does tell us that the teachings and practice of Islam were not yet strictly laid down in the early decades, that everything was in a state of flux; but, sadly, she doesn't elaborate any further. Similar considerations apply to her discussion of the Hadiths.

In the 8th and 9th centuries, this collection of the Prophet's words and deeds expanded greatly. We learn that the Hadiths were often used to legitimise the most diverse interpretations, and that many of them were forgeries; but here too, it would have been good to encounter more detail and more context.

In the decades following Mohammed's death (in 632), the young Islamic community was racked by conflicts concerning the succession to the Prophet. This section of the book is positively gripping.

During the period in question, the importance of social and economic factors was particularly stark; these included clan membership and the division of the rich spoils after successful wars of conquest against the Byzantines and the Persian Sassanid dynasty. Such inner-Islamic clashes sowed the seeds for the later emergence of the Sunnis, Shiites and Kharijites.

The zenith of Islamic civilisation

Despite these internal conflicts (which never really ceased), Islam continued to expand apace. Under the Caliph Hisham bin Abdul Malik (724-742), the Umayyad dynasty ruled the largest empire the world had ever seen.

photo: Universität Erfurt
Gudrun Krämer has lectured at universities in Berlin, Kairo, Bologna, Paris and Indonesia

​​It provided ideal conditions for interactions, cross-pollinations and various forms of coexistence, out of which, says Krämer, a new and recognisably Arabic-Islamic culture emerged. This process of intermingling and exchange continued under the Abbasid dynasty that followed (750-1258) – the zenith or heyday of Islamic civilisation.

In the centuries that followed, Islam carried on developing independently, and the history of this period is rich in diversity. Its protagonists include the descendants of the Mongols, the Savafids of Iran, the Ottomans, and the Mogul potentates of India.

Gudrun Krämer succeeds in casting light on events and circumstances beyond the sphere of the political; even when examining the political development of the various dynasties, she always finds time to look at social structures, economic conditions and the position of non-Muslims.

The book's main emphasis is undoubtedly on the period up to the end of the 18th century. Only in broad brushstrokes does the author deal with Europe's expansion into the Muslim sphere of influence, the emergence of nation-states, or tendencies in contemporary Islam.

Yet Gudrun Krämer does conclude by showing the increasingly conservative tendency that has characterised many Islamic countries since the 1980s. She also traces the discussions that have been dominated by Islamist themes, such as the unity of state and religion – an Islamist utopia that has never been manifested in the real world.

Gudrun Krämer's book makes one thing very clear: throughout its long history, Islam has always been too multifaceted and adaptable to be reduced to the dreams of Islamist zealots.

Mona Naggar

© 2006

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

Gudrun Krämer: "Geschichte des Islam", (History of Islam), Verlag C.H.Beck 2005, EUR 24.90

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