Curriculum on early Islam

Kim asked:

Dear Jessica,

I hope you are still taking questions on this site. I am an aspiring Religion teacher (high school level) who want to ask about early Muslim history. To summarize, there is a lot of fear, hate and outright contempt of Islam and Muslims today which I find disturbing, while at the same time I find it difficult to provide refreshing viewpoints of this religion. Inevitably the question that comes up is regarding Jihad – since the early Muslims were warriors and conquerors, this makes people suspicious of the whole religion. I want to be able to present the early history of Islam to students while helping them avoid the “essentialist” pitfall, but this seems easier said than done. My main question is as follows:

– What were the primary motivations for the Arab (Rashidun/Umayyad) conquests? Is it possible to say whether there was a theological component to this or not? Was it a holy war to expand the realm of submission to God or were the conquests “merely political” (as Karen Armstrong among others has claimed)? Personally I find the “merely political” argument weak because there was not yet any separation of “politics” and “religion” in the modern sense. Yet for a long period of time the Umayyad caliphs apparently did not care to convert anyone.

– Secondly, there is a video series which I consider using in future classes. It has the merit of giving a feeling for what the early ummah might have been like, and depicting the early Muslims as noble and upright and easy to emphasise with, something I believe is needed in today’s climate. What I find most interesting here is how the author narrates an evolution of Islamic doctrine during the Rashidun caliphate. He claims that Abu Bakr created the doctrine for apostasy (first link) and that Umar created the doctrine of dar al-Islam/dar al-Harb (second link) in order to justify the invasion of Persia. I believe this could serve as an “essentialist anti-dote” for students, yet I am not sure if it is correct. The author offers no sources and I find surprisingly little about the Rashidun caliphate online and in libraries. Which brings me back to the first question… (9:00-10:15) (4:00-7:30)

Kind regards,


Hi, Kim!  Thanks for the question – I am still taking questions, although I’m also still rubbish at updating regularly.  Sorry about that!

Before I get started, a quick bit of housekeeping – I’ve also started writing as a contributor for Huffington Post.  I may re-post the odd HuffPo article here, but for the most part, my column for them is more educated opinions, and this site will continue to be more of the nitty-gritty detail (not least because HuffPo posts are supposed to be 1000 words or less, and I think I’ve established on this site that I am not brief).  So yeah, check it out, reblog stuff, guess how to pronounce my unusual, Germanic surname – go wild.  Hopefully this will not result in my small but dedicated community of haters tracking me down and murdering me.  If they do, someone please feed my cat.  And scratch his ears.  He gets very itchy ears.  Thanks.

Onwards to curriculum on early Islam!  You are quite correct, Kim, there is not a lot out there, especially for works not aimed at a specialist audience.  In fact, that lack is a big part of how I ended up in this field – I really enjoyed history, but didn’t think I wanted to study it as a major in college because it had always been presented to me that “history” meant US or European history, and I felt like I’d done both to death.  I started studying Arabic, and discovered that there was a whole part of the world that I knew nothing about except for the occasional mention on the news, and just sort of got sucked in.

As you also seem to be aware, even for the specialist, Islamic and Middle Eastern studies is an area with a lot of debate and contradiction, so I’m afraid I can’t really say what the ‘correct’ stuff to teach is.  Instead, I’m going to recommend three veins that might be helpful to your students.  (Also, one further caveat: my preferred reading in high school were translations of Plato and Machiavelli because I am a huge nerd, so I have no idea what a high school reading level is.  I’ve tried to focus on works intended for a lay audience or the handful of academics that I know write well, but you’ll definitely want to vet the reading level to see if I’m even in the right ballpark.)

  1. Understanding the controversy.

So as you’ve already realized, there’s a lot of contradiction among scholars as to how we should study Middle Eastern sources, and unfortunately, I don’t think you’ll be able to find any modern secondary sources that don’t fall somewhere within these debates, and which make assumptions that they assume you, as the audience, will understand, based on their particular school of thought.  You could read only the old, pre-controversy works (which, to be fair, Oxford actually does – our students read the works of Montgomery Watts, first published in 1953), or you can teach the controversy itself.  There’s a good breakdown of the various schools of thought in the first chapter of Fred Donner’s Narratives of Islamic Origins (full disclosure: Donner himself is considered a far-left scholar, in that he broadly accepts nearly the entire Muslim corpus, but he does a good job presenting the various schools objectively).  There’s also a more recent, but also denser account of the field in the introduction of Gabriel Said Reynold’s The Qur’an.  These introductions are not only a good way to set up further study on early Islam, but also a good primer on historiography, and introducing the idea the historians shape narrative by deciding which sources to use and how.

2. The world of Late Antiquity

As for the issue of jihad and the Muslims as conquerors, as well as whether Islam was a religious movement, a political movement, or both, I think the most useful way to approach these questions is by placing Islam within the broader context of the Late Antique world, and comparing the early Muslim governments to their nearest neighbors, the Byzantines and the Persians.  Unfortunately, again, there’s not a lot of non-specialist writing, but there are some decent writers among Late Antiquarians that might suit.  Byzantium Matters by Averil Cameron is a short work directly addressing the idea that “byzantine” is a synonym of “outdated” or “unnecessary,” but also does a good job giving a broad overview of life in the Byzantine world.  John Haldon’s The Byzantine Wars is a nice counter to the idea that the Islamic caliphate was uniquely violent, illustrating instead that both Byzantine economy and society were deeply invested in warfare, and that the entire empire, including the hierarchy of the Greek church, were all pretty on board to go to war with basically anyone over basically anything.

Iranian studies is far more specialized, and the Sassanians tend to appear as footnotes in most histories – even on Amazon, we get into technical works on the first page of search results (and I assume you don’t want to force your students into the mind-numbingly dull realm of reading about coins).  The Cambridge Ancient History series has some good, if dry articles, and has the advantage of being available online for free.  There’s also some good material in the Khuzistani chronicle, available in part in the slightly obscure Andrew Palmer work, The Seventh Century in West Syrian Chronicles that you might be able to cut into digestible pieces.  The major takeaway is that the Sassanians were similarly fond of war (and also seemed to harbor a particular fondness for crucifixion and for dragging people by horse around the city walls).

Thus, by comparison, many of the rules in the Qur’an would have seemed lenient – cutting off someone’s hand is heinous by our standards, but at least it’s survivable, and definitely preferable to crucifixion.

3. Life in the Caliphate

The final vein is to talk about life in the caliphate, which also gets to your point about why didn’t the caliphs require conversion and does this mean there was no religion of Islam for the first two centuries.  Again, there’s no real scholarly agreement about this, but one possible interpretation for co-existence comes from Fred Donner’s Muhammad and the Believers.  It’s a short work, and again, very readable, and offers a compelling (although by no means universally accepted) argument for how Christians and Jews might have been integrated not only into a society under Muslim rule, but into the early Islamic religion, due to their shared status as believers in the God of Abraham.  Hugh Kennedy’s slightly older The Court of Caliphs is a sort of “day in the life” attempt to understand what life was like under the Abbasid caliphate, including why conversion might have started so late after the rise of Islamic rule.  Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests is, in my opinion, the best lay-audience work on the early expansion – it’s very readable (it is, admittedly, very long), and yet doesn’t sacrifice solid scholarship in order to simply the narrative, but doesn’t really delve into any of these deeper issues of what “Islam” was at that stage.

If you can get access to them, it might also be helpful to integrate some primary sources in order to illustrate the fantastic range of indigenous responses to Muslim rule, as it’s this range that has spurred the continued division among modern scholars. Robert Hoyland’s Seeing Islam as Others Saw It is literally just translations of every non-Muslim reference to Islam from the first two and a half centuries.  It also has some limited commentary on the various genres of works and what we know about their authors.  Palmer’s Seventh Century includes a reconstruction of the Chronicle of Dionysus of Tel Mahre, a non-extant, ninth century chronicle that was heavily relied on by the later chronicles of Michael the Syrian, 1234, and Bar Hebraeus, which together make up the core of what we know about the Medieval Middle East (sidenote to any other Late Antiquarians or Medievalists reading this – does everyone call it “the chronicle of 1-2-3-4” in their head, or is that just me?).  Although the accuracy of Palmer’s reconstruction has recently been questioned by Robert Hoyland in his reconstruction of the even older and more non-extant Theophilus of Edessa, supposed source for Dionysus (yes, this is the sort of thing we Late Antiquarians fight over – my non-extant source can beat up your non-extant source), I think Palmer’s version of Dionysus is still useful, not least because it portrays the Muslims as basically the best rulers ever whom everyone loves.  Palmer’s work also has a translation of the Maronite chronicle, a seventh-century source that is interesting because the Maronites, despite being Christians, were not loyal to the Byzantines, and just sort of hated everyone at this point, and so a lot of the descriptions are “our enemies are all killing each other – this is awesome!”

Finally, as for your question about videos, and Caspian Report specifically – unfortunately no, I don’t know of any videos about early Islamic  history.  If I didn’t hate being filmed, I’d offer to make some myself, as this seems like it’d be a great thing to have.  Possible collab with someone more photogenic than me?  As for the Caspian Report, I’ve only watched a bit of his videos, but they do seem broadly accurate – actually, I’d guess for the historical chronology, he’s paraphrasing from Hugh Kennedy’s very detailed, but very boring (sorry, Hugh!) Age of the Caliphates, which is basically a blow-by-blow of everything that happened during the Islamic expansion.  I’d definitely say that Caspian Report (who, according to the internet, is an Azerbaijani researcher) would fall on the liberal end of source analysis – he clearly accepts the Muslim cannon and assumes that Muslim sources date from approximately the period they claim to and were not heavily redacted after the fact, and so his work would not be accepted by the source-skeptical school of Islamic studies, but at least from what I’ve watched, everything he’s saying could be verified somewhere, even if parts of the field would not accept the source as authentically dating from early Islam.  Again, I think it’s only fair to teach your students about this ongoing debate, but so long as they’re aware, I don’t see any problem with using his videos in class.

I hope that helps!  I’m happy to help you track down these materials if they’re not available to you, or to review course material – I promise I’m more reliable by email than I am good at posting blog posts (askanislamicist at gmail dot com).

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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2 Responses to Curriculum on early Islam

  1. Jehanzeb says:

    Age of Caliphates is by Hugh Kennedy, not Donner 🙂

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