Before and After Muhammad:
The First Millennium Refocused

Garth Fowden

Princeton University Press 2014
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
If we want to understand the history of religions and ideas "before and after Muhammad", what temporal and geographical scope should we choose? Arguably the proof of any periodization is in the payout, which here consists of two chapters, the first a history of Aristotelianism and the second a parallel treatment of Roman law, rabbinic Judaism, patristic Christianity and Islam. These chapters take up only a third of Before and After Muhammad, however, with the remainder spent justifying and contextualising Fowden's choice of periodization. That consists of the entire First Millennium, in what he calls the "Eurasian hinge": the eastern Mediterranean, the Iranian plateau, and the "Mountain Arena" in between them, stretching from the Caucasus down to the Yemen.

Fowden begins by going back to Gibbon and the problem of how to incorporate Islam into European history, emphasising how the focus of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire changed as it was written. There follows a history of the concept of "late antiquity" or sp├Ątantike. Here Fowden describes the ideas of art historians such as Alois Riegl and Josef Strzygowski. And he surveys the debates sparked by Henri Pirenne, who argued that the Islamic conquests were the decisive break between the Roman and medieval periods, and Peter Brown, who has argued for an extended late antiquity running from around 250 to 800.

Fowden's own idea is to take the entire First Millennium as a period, at least for religious and ideological history. At one end this is anchored by Augustus, Jesus, and the destruction of Jerusalem; at the other end by the development of a "mature" Islam in the 10th century. Maturity here is seen in terms of a development through prophetic, scriptural and exegetical phases. Four double-pages are devoted to a tabulation of aspects of these phases, with columns covering Greek philosophy, Christianity, Judaism, Manicheism, Islam, Roman Law, and Mazdaism. Fowden looks at the ideas of historians writing within the First Millennium, above all Eusebius but also his successors and historians such as Ibn Ishaq and Tabari. He also defends his approach against objections, such as being "suspiciously Eusebian" or "perilously teleological", and glances at some recent publications which tackle a similar if not quite so extensive span.

There follows the geographical argument for the "Eurasian Hinge". Fowden explores the history of links, cultural and intellectual as well as commercial and political, between the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean on one side and the Iranian plateau on the other. Turning to political frameworks, he expounds on the idea of "commonwealths", flexible cultural and political networks associated with the major empires (this material recapitulates and extends some of the ideas in his earlier Empire to Commonwealth).

"Exegetical Cultures 1" is a history of Aristotelianism, covering "its own almost millennial exegetical age" and its contributions to Christian exegesis and Islamic theological debates and to other traditions. Fowden emphasises the importance of translations into Latin, Armenian and especially Syriac, a geographical shift from Alexandria to Baghdad, and the work of Kindi, Farabi, and Ibn Sina (Avicenna).

"In his maturer works, notably The cure (1020-27), Ibn Sina presented himself as an admirer but also reformer of Aristotle, who had no compunction about criticizing or diverging from him, or omitting material discussed by his predecessors simply because it was part of the Aristotelian corpus. Ibn Sina eschewed the writing of commentaries... Instead, he addressed Aristotle as an equal and propounded a system based on the corpus Aristotelicum and the commentary tradition with its marked Platonist coloring, but internalizing it and recasting it into a carefully argued, scientifically structured, coherent synthesis, almost a new edition of Aristotle a millennium after Andronicus."

"Exegetical Cultures 2" consists of brief First Millennium histories of Roman law, rabbinical Judaism, patristic Christianity, and Islam. These traditions are treated separately, but Fowden brings out the links between them.

"The Qur'an's debts to, but also criticism of, its forerunners were not unprecedented. In the second century Marcion had accused the Church of falsifying its Gospel, and retained only Luke (which of course encouraged adherence to the four-gospel model). The third-century Mesopotamian prophet Mani (d. 276/277), raised in a Judaeo-Christian Baptist sect, had upbraided Jesus, Zarathustra, and Buddha for not clearly stating their teaching in book form, with the result that their Churches were bound to pass away and their teachings be adulterated."

A final chapter offers four "viewpoints around 1000", named after cities. These actually make up a kind of miscellany: a brief account of Avestan religion and a look at Firdowsi's Shahnameh (Tus); encyclopedism and the Brethren of Purity's Letters (Basra); rationalist multi-faith debate in 10th century Baghdad; and the implications of a First Millennium periodization for the medieval history of the Latin West (Pisa).

Fowden occasionally makes note of parallels with the present, in sectarian violence in Baghdad or in the need for a reconnection between Europe and the Islamic world, but he never pushes these too far. And in general he combines a broad-brush approach, prepared to risk generalisation and simplification, with a lively wealth of detail. If one wanted a thirty-page history of Aristotelianism and its impact on Islam, for example, Fowden's chapter here would be an excellent choice. And while much of his discussion of periodization is at least in principle unnecessary — it's not as if anyone is going to excommunicate him for making an unorthodox choice — that discussion is involving and provoking. There are a lot of unexplored possibilities here, so one hopes the six pages of "prospects for further research" will inspire some graduate students.

March 2014

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%T Before and After Muhammad
%S The First Millennium Refocused
%A Fowden, Garth
%I Princeton University Press
%D 2014
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9780691158532
%P 230pp