The Social Origins of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse

by A. Rippin
The Social Origins of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse
A. Rippin
Journal of the American Oriental Society
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Reviewed work(s): The Social Origins of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse by Mohammed A. Bamyeh

The Social Origins of Islam: Mind, Economy, Discourse. By MOHAMMED A. BAMYEH. Minneapolis: UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS, 1999. Pp. xiii 316. $18.95 (paper).
The question of the origins of Islam continues to attract attention from a variety of academic perspectives. Mohammed Bamyeh, who teaches social theory and comparative civilizations at New York University. comes at the question from a different angle than most studies encountered in the field. He defines his interest as how the idea of Islam "became thinkable at a particular point in time" (p. x), a concern which is described as that of "historical sociology." In order to ascertain the factors associated with the rise of Islam, "mind, economy and discourse" are the major themes to be examined. The overall thrust of the book is to compare the Qur""an with the ethos and ideology of pre-Islamic poetry, in the first place, and then, to a lesser extent, to consider what became known as "Islam" with the ideology of the Qur""an. All this is done in the language of theoretical sociology. Personally, I find this theoretical aspect of the book its most interesting and valuable contribution. It serves to elevate the di scussion of Islamic origins to a new level and truly suggests that Islamic studies could enter into a discussion with the broader disciplines of the human sciences. Banished now are the days when the mixing of sociological theory and the study of Islam's origins meant W. Montgomery Watt's Islam and the integration of Society (London, 1961). While some people may react negatively to the jargon with which this book is (relatively lightly) scattered, the merits of the book will mean that the effort is worthwhile.
Part one of the book deals with the world constructed in the long pre-Islamic odes. The themes considered are the role of sedentary versus bedouin lifestyles, the role of money and Mecca as the focus of trade (although, of course, there is no evidence for that in the poetry, but let us leave that objection aside for the moment), the experience of life and death, the presence of "spirituality" (including "hanifism," conceived of as an organized path of faith, with prophets and the like), and, finally, the style of the discourse itself. Part two treats the notions of prophet, community, and power, each dealing with aspects of the life of Muhammad. Here the emphasis falls on the break with the past which Muhammad represents even while he worked within the structures available to him (especially within "hanifism"). The author's aim is to determine the social mechanism and the textual strategies that allowed the emergence of a changed social order as represented in the Qur""an. The final chapter, "In Lieu of a Co nclusion," emphasizes a non-determinist view of Islamic history in treating the subsequent emergence of Islam as a state religion: "It could be that an 'Arab state' rather than being 'a great need of the times' [as Rodinson's Mohammed has it at one point] was in effect the unintended result of many developments based on pronouncements of less-profound needs. The emergence of the state out of this story can be understood in terms of structural imperatives coalescing out of unpredictable and unforeseen actions and counteractions rather than in terms of preexistent needs" (pp. 257-58).
Throughout the book Bamyeh is disdainful of the "Orientalist" tradition, with its deterministic view of history, its desire to create consistent narratives, and its privileging of "facts" over "theory." His cavalier dismissal of research that has a central bearing upon his thesis seems simply dogmatic. Patricia Crone's Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (Princeton, 1987) (along with the work of Sulayman Bashir) is cast aside with the following: "In the revisionist school, discoveries are not made by marshaling in new 'facts' about the origins of Islam but by recombining and contrasting a variety of tales pervading well-known classical sources. But according to what logic and what order of selection are such recombinations and contrasts conducted? What validity do their criteria possess?" (p. viii). While those methodological aspects are, of course, of interest, Bamyeh himself cannot avoid the same dilemma in his own work, even as he claims to be disinterested in the "facts." His reconstruction of the world v iew inherent in pre-Islamic poetry is not self-evident and, indeed, a recombination of those facts which he uses could lead to a much different conclusion, especially in those areas which Crone is concerned with in her book. To take the obvious example of the reconstruction of the sociology of wealth in pre-Islamic Mecca: the lack of explicit support for the details-pre-Islamic poetry testifies more to a non-commercial environment and the Qur""an is notable for the dearth of such themes-may be thought to raise severe problems for the thesis of the book; those problems can only be partially solved by reference to fully nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyles of the "authors" of the pre-Islamic poems.
Bamyeh's disdain for "Orientalism" also leads him to follow a generally sloppy approach. For example, he says of his method that he follows the text of al-Tibrizi for the pre-Islamic poems "neither blindly nor to the extent that concerns of transcription, order or matters of otherwise pure historicist detail could derail the reflective nature of the commentary" (p. xiii)! This type of attitude also leads to all sorts of variability in transliteration, including the use of "Abi" in place of Abu (at least that is done consistently) and the like. Laughable statements such as annotating Eric Wolf's classic but woefully outdated article, "The social organization of Mecca and the origins of Islam" as "hitherto little known"--implying that some sort of "conspiracy" of Orientalists has obscured this article--just continue the objectionable and unnecessary "attitude" of this book. (Wolf's article appears in every bibliography on the subject and on every graduate, if not undergraduate, student's reading list.)
These criticisms are petty, however, and should not be allowed to obscure the merits of this book. I find it a thought provoking and useful work. I would definitely recommend it as an addition to the literature that deals with the emergence of Islam, alongside other works that attempt a similar feat, such as Jacqueline Chabbi, Le seigneur des tribus: bus: L'Islam de Mahomet (Paris, 1997). The mere act of situating the discussion within a theoretical framework with an appropriate academic language enables the discussion. No longer do we need to talk in the vague language of popular Marxism. The attention to the "how" of the question of origins turns the focus of the question necessarily to a theoretical level, even more so because of the paucity of sources from which an answer could be constructed in historicist fashion. This book hardly presents the final answer to the question, but it does frame it in the way in which it needs to be approached.
COPYRIGHT 2000 American Oriental Society


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