Islamic Imperialism

Lee asked: Hi, Jessica. Was referred to your blog by a local participant in an ongoing argument about Sharia and how it fits in American jurisprudence.

I find your opinions fascinating even though a bit biased toward Islam, and in light of that would be interested in your view of Islamic Imperialism: A History, by Efraim Karsh. His presentation seems to be somewhat at odds with your loving analysis of how Islam expanded.

As I mentioned in my email, I actually wasn’t familiar with Professor Karsh’s work before this, so thanks for the recommendation; it was a very interesting read.  For everyone else, the book is an attempt to trace a line through Islamic history, looking for internal cues for the rise of Islamism in the 20th century, using the lens of “Islamic imperialism,” by which Karsh means roughly an expansionist zeal, coupled with integration of large portions of the conquered indigenous communities into the Muslim caliphate, which he sees as similar to European imperial colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I think it’s an interesting idea, but I do think the thesis has weaknesses, most of which stem from it being of the ‘pop history’ genre.  Unfortunately, in order to write something that will make sense to a layman, and which has an interesting and sexy enough narrative to hook a publisher, historians often have to sand down a lot of rough edges when it comes to historical narrative, and I think in this case, some of those rough edges, if they had been left, would have unsettled the rather neat picture of the Islamic expansion which Karsh presents.

In particular, while I agree with his thesis that we need to be looking at the history of Islamic thought and political philosophy as much as contemporary history to explain Islamism, I think it’s an overstatement to say that don’t need to look at contemporary history at all, which Karsh attempts to do with Osama b. Laden, claiming that his commitment to Islamism stems from his understanding of Islamic history, and, in Karsh’s words, only “superficially… [from] the ongoing US-orchestrated ‘butchering’ of the world’s 1.2 billion-strong Muslim community – ‘in Palestine, in Iraq, in Somalia, in southern Sudan, in Kashmir, in the Philippines, in Bosnia, in Chechnya, and in Assam’” (p. 227).  While we might be able to argue this for bin Laden himself (although to do so, I think we’d need to have much more than 10 pages devoted to his writings), I think it’s arrogant to presume that the deaths of hundreds of thousands around the world did not have any impact at all on the minds of their neighbors.  Moreover, people just aren’t that tied to their own history, even when it comes to religion – to take a contemporary example, there are plenty of ways you can illustrate that being a Christian influenced the actions of George W. Bush, but it would be an overstatement to say that being a Christian was the singular drive of his life, overshadowing all others.

I would also argue there are places where Karsh’s desire for a clean narrative tends towards broad generalization.  In particular, his understanding of World War I and the end of the Ottoman empire as a watershed for the creation of the modern Middle East would seem at odds with his belief that internal belief and dispute are more important for Muslim thought than geopolitics.  Similarly, although I know what he means, I can’t accept the statement that, “unlike other parts of the world, where the demise of empire during the twentieth century has invariably led to the acceptance of the reality of the modern nation-state, the contemporary Middle Eastern state system has been under sustained assault since its formation in the wake of World War I” (p. 229).  In terms of redrawing maps, Africa, in particular Center Africa, has the Middle East beaten hands down, and if you include regime changes and factional disputes, South America has been fraught with political upheaval throughout the twentieth century.  And that’s to say nothing of the fall of the USSR, which completely altered the concept of ‘nation-state’ for peoples from Central Europe as far as Central Asia.

My other problem with Islamic Imperialism is one that I really can’t claim is a fault, at all – it’s just a matter of I would have done it differently.  As is often the case with academics, there are parts of my own research that I think would have been useful here, and so it seems only fair that I disclose that explicitly.  I am, both by training and by temperament, an intellectual and social historian, and although I would not consider myself postmodernist, I am distinctly poststructuralist, and I’m not sure I’ve ever thought it possible to write a history of “what really happened,” as that’s just too much of a moving target.  I believe that history, like most scholarship, depends on the questions asked.  For example, you’ll get a very different narrative of WWI by reading histories of the battles than by reading letters written by men in the trenches.  But neither is wrong.  They simply have different intentions.  Both are useful, depending what question you’re trying to answer.

Being me, I found myself confused as to whether it was Karsh’s intention to write a history of the Islamic expansion as it really happened and as it was experienced by the indigenous communities of the 7th and 8th centuries, in which case I think his source basis is too narrow, or whether he was writing what Osama b. Laden thought the history of the Islamic expansion was, in order to discuss his personal philosophy, in which case, I think that intention needed to be stated more explicitly.

Karsh relies almost exclusively on four works to tell the history of the Islamic expansion – the histories of al-Baladhuri, al-Tabari and al-Waqidi and the biography of the Prophet (peace be upon him) of ibn Ishaq.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with this – lots of Islamicists have done the same thing.  And if we’re writing about what bin Laden thought happened in the expansion, it makes perfect sense, as these works are relied on heavily by later Muslim historians.

But if we’re trying to write a history of how the expansion really happened and how it was experienced, then we need to talk about what these sources are.  All four were written or redacted at least a century (and in the case of al-Tabari, three centuries) after the events they describe, and of the four, at least three are fairly explicitly stated to be propaganda – al-Baladhuri for the Abbasids and al-Tabari and ibn Ishaq for the Muslim caliphate generally (and the last one, al-Waqidi, is not universally accepted as authentic).  Thus, to my mind, Karsh has set out to write a history to demonstrate how important imperialism was to Muslims, and has chosen as his sources three works written to support imperialism.  It’s certainly an important topic to those authors, but that doesn’t mean it was important to everyone.

It also overlooks a whole lot of sources written on the ground by a wide range of peoples, who would be in a position to provide different points of view on the expansion.  The Christian and Jewish communities of the Near East continued to write histories, legal texts, stories, sermons, apologetics, and letters, but the view we get from these is much fuzzier.  Sometimes the Muslims seem like tyrants and monsters.  Sometimes they seem like kind and wonderful rulers.  And sometimes they seem barely visible.  All of these viewpoints, I think, would disrupt the neat vision of expansion that Karsh has laid out.

But again, this is what I do, so I think it’s important!

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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