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Islam: The Arab Religion

A few months ago, I immersed myself in a kind of reading that I wish was available to me and my teachers when I was in high school in Tangier (Morocco) studying philosophy and Islamic Studies. It is the kind of slow—very slow—reading that keeps you constantly challenged and fully awake. It is archeological and historical work informed by a knowledge so vast that a reader must struggle to keep track of all sorts of cultures, languages, dates, and names. Only scholarship of this scope, though, can aim at the heart of gigantic myths—myths so powerful and persistent that centuries of generations have taken them for reality and billions continue to believe in their truth.

I decided to devote some time to the work of Professor Patricia Crone because her name kept appearing with increasing frequency in the literature I had been reading in the last few years, whether by scholars who share her general view or not. I thought it was time to have a first-hand experience of what Crone’s thesis is about. So, in no particular order, and rather quickly, I read God’s Rule: Government and Islam (2004), co-written with Martin Hinds; Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (first published in 1987); Slaves on Horses (1980) and Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, the book she co-authored with Michael Cook in 1977 and which caused a storm in the rarified circles of scholars. Even though she may have changed her mind since she published the book in 1977, Hagarism and Meccan Trade totally upset the foundations of what we have grown to believe is Muslim history. They show, as do other writers in different ways, like Arthur Jeffery, John Wansborough, and, more recently, Fred Donner and Tom Holland, that what Muslims and non-Muslims learn in school about Islam is not facts that happened but literary compositions whose aim was to create a new religion with its own legitimizing mythology.

A Religion is Born

Muslims believe that their Prophet Mohammed, who was born in 570 AD and died in 632 AD, is the best human ever born in the world, chosen by God to spread his final and everlasting message, preserved in a heavenly tablet, the Koran. Starting out from humble origins in Mecca—a bustling crossroads in the caravan trade—and reputed for his honesty and wisdom, Mohammed married his older boss Khadija, received God’s message through the archangel Gabriel at a local cave when he was 40, fled his native city and migrated to Yathrib (thereafter known as Medina) when his persecution grew more intense, and later returned to Mecca as a triumphant Muslim conqueror. By the time he died, he had married several times and most of Arabia had converted to Islam. Soon his followers, known as Muslims, fanned out in a series of conquests (downplayed as futuhat in Islamic apologetics) that, within a century, had reached France and turned the Fertile Crescent, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula into Muslim nations.

When taken at face value, the rise of Islam is, without a doubt, one of the most astonishing events in the history of civilizations. The problem, however, is that this story doesn’t check out against basic historical methods. Practically, all the facts we know about Islam came down to us from accounts written in the 8th and 9th centuries, or at least some 150 years after the death of the Prophet in 632.

Not until the late Umayyad/early Abbasid periods did we begin to get written history. Prior to that, the transmission of tradition was mostly an oral affair, which meant that a “faithful preservation” of this tradition was practically impossible. One could glimpse that in the earliest written biographies. The first known account of the Prophet’s wars and actions by the scholar (alim) Ibn Ishaq’s —known as siratu rasulillah, or just sira for short—is not a coherent historical narrative but a compilation of “isolated sayings, short accounts of people’s acts, brief references to historical events and the like.”

At that time, the life of Mohammed was part of what was known as `ilm al-maghazi (literally, the science of conquests) and was largely unknown until a large corpus about the Prophet was established. Ibn Hisham’s sira expanded on that of Ibn Ishaq by adding new material and editing out some parts. What is interesting about this process is that it was not about preserving the past but actually about destroying it since the main concern was establishing a new faith that made sense to the authors’ contemporaries. Only scattered debris of the past remained; they were rearranged into a canonical hadith (the doings and saying of Prophet Mohammed as recorded by a chain of witnesses) and swiftly closed and sealed for the rest of time. It is for this reason that many think that Islam was really established in the 9th century, not in the 7th. That is to say, Islam acquired its distinctive identity about 200 years after the Prophet’s death—assuming that the Prophet as we know him today actually existed as such.

What is almost shockingly surprising about the later Muslim accounts is that they say almost nothing about neighboring civilizations with their rich and complex traditions. Members of such civilizations only appear as mere faceless nasara (Christians). The nations of Central Asia, the lands of Turks and Mongols, on the other hand, are described as “vanished nations” (umam khaliya). The goal was to impress on us the belief that Islam was an ahistorical event and a divine intervention that appeared complete and whole in the desert of Arabia. “Islamic civilization,” Crone tells us, “is the only one in the world to begin in the mind of a single man.” It’s a position that must be taken on faith since we have nothing to compare it against, unless one seeks non-Muslim sources—Greek, Armenian, Aramaic, Syriac and Coptic.

What Islam asks its believers to do is have faith not in what Mohammed said (that is impossible to verify) but in what 8th, 9th, and even 10th-century writers, mostly in Iraq, decided Islam is. It was at the time that all the canons of the faith—hadith, fiqh (jurisprudence), various Muslim schools (madhahib), shari`a (holy law) and even the Koran—were finalized and entrusted to future generations. Between the rise of Mohammed’s prophecy and that time, we have mostly a disquieting silence. An event of such magnitude, such as the rise of Islam, should have left strong echoes everywhere in the civilized world. We should, after all, find some information on Islam from non-Muslim sources since Arabia was on the fringes of two ancient civilizations—the Roman (in Syria) and the Persian (in Iraq and Iran).

Alas, it turns out that we have precious little documentation to corroborate the later Muslim version of early Islam.  Whatever information we could glean from Christian and Jewish accounts of the 7th and 8th centuries present a different picture from the standard history of Islam. We won’t go into these details here, but I do want to piece together—however reductively—the groundbreaking work of Crone and her collaborators to present a very basic theory of what might have occurred in those vanished decades (let’s call them al `uqud al khaliya). I will have occasion to write more about this in the future since the literature I have read on this subject covers a lot of terrain and provides a good amount of detail. For now, though, I will keep the following reconstruction of Islam as close as possible to Crone’s thesis as conveyed in the books cited above.

As we all know, Islam bears a very close resemblance to its Jewish and Christian predecessors because both religions were well established in Syria and Arabia by the 7th century, when Mohammed is supposed to have received his revelation. The Jews had fled the persecution of Heraclius and drafted Arabs in their attempt to reclaim their land in Jerusalem. Playing on the notion of a common ancestor, Abraham, Ishmaelites and Jews, both hostile to the notion of the Trinity, started out as allies on a hijra (exodus) to the Holy Land, now seen as a birthright of the Hagarines—the descendants of Hagar, Abraham’s concubine and mother of Ishmael. In Greek documents of the period, the Ishmaelite conquerors are described as “Magaritai” and in Syriac documents as “Mahgre” or “Mahgraye”—meaning, muhajirun. In this account—scholars like the Semticist Robert Kerr don’t think that hijra necessarily refers to an actual physical migration to the north—the destination of the Arab immigrants is Palestine, not Medina. The Arab Ishmaelites were engaged in a hijra to the Promised Land, not to a remote dusty town named Yathrib.

Having conquered Palestine, the Hagarenes had to deal with a more diverse population and sought to dissociate themselves from their erstwhile protégés, the Jews. This wasn’t difficult to do. Jesus was adopted as a messiah even as the symbol of the cross was rejected. A Maronite chronicle attests to the Umayyad Caliph Mu`awiya praying at Christian sites upon entering Jerusalem in 659. In this fast changing milieu, the Hagarenes elaborated on their origins, elevating Abraham to the status of prophet and endowing him with his own scriptures (suhuf Ibrahim) and associated him with the construction of the ka`ba in Mecca.  Muslims used an older designation for pagan—hanif—and translated it into a follower of Abraham.

Islam, based on Arab identity, was first developed in Greek-speaking Byzantine Syria, a province of the Roman Empire. It was in Syria that Caliph Mu`awiya collected the mu`allaqat, the classical collection of pre-Islamic Arab poetry, and it was from Syria and Iraq that the Abbasid-era scholar Abu Tammam glorified the Arab past. The proto-ulama were defining God’s law as haqq al-arab (the Arabs’ right) just as the language they spoke was described as lisan al-arab. By the time the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock on the site of the ruined Jewish Temple in the sacred city of Jerusalem to showcase the supremacy of his faith, “something recognizably Islamic” was beginning to emerge. “Plots of Hellenistic dramas, themes of Hellenistic novels, bits and pieces of Greek thought and odds and ends of Roman law [had been] all torn from their original contexts to provide materials for an Arab edifice. In all cases the Arabs supplied the structures, and the Syrians gratefully obliged with their bricks.” Muslim laws would, however, be developed later, in Iraq, “the center of rabbinic Judaism.” It was here that a legalistic tradition was laboriously worked out to uphold and frame the foundations of this new religion within rigid, ironclad fences.

Islam had an incalculable effect on the region. Storming into a Middle East that was culturally Greek and religiously Jewish (Christianity being Judaism stripped of its exclusivist ethnicity), the Arabs, as we saw above, rejected local cultures and proclaimed their own based in the desert of Arabia. The Jewish Arab alliance worked insofar as Jews were able to see their oppressors defeated, but the Arabs were too ambitious to simply settle for another people’s religion. They wanted to have one of their their own. Thus, they neither lost themselves fully in the region’s ancient cultural tradition nor eradicated it completely; they simply conjured up a new civilization out of its ancient components by blending their military force with Judaic precepts, foregrounding Ishmael and Mohammed instead of Israel and Moses, but retaining the notion of a jealous God (Allah like Yahweh).
In Iraq, the Sasanian political style was appropriated without much difficulty, but the core of Roman civil law used by the Nestorian Church was replaced by holy law. Greek philosophy was rejected as alien and was, accordingly, “pilloried as a tradition so outlandish that the names of the greatest men were unpronounceable gibberish on the tongues of true believers; and conversely, it could expect none of the tolerance which the poetry of pagan Arabia, for all its irreligious fatalism, could call upon because it was Arab.” Islam sought its pristine heritage in the pagan poetry of the Arabian desert, not in the rich polytheistic traditions of Greek philosophy! “The sciences of the ancients were progressively reduced to a sort of intellectual pornography,” write Crone and Cook, “and the elite which had cultivated them to a harassed and disreputable sub-culture.” Roman law—known as qanun—and Greek philosophy—known as falsafa—were stripped of their substance and redefined to fit into Islam’s Arab matrix. This Arabian paradigm was, ironically, turned into the cornerstone of a global civilization when the non-Arab converts to Islam, the Shu`ubis and Mawali, protested Arab ethnocentric hegemony and made Arabia’s pagan heritage into the cultural foundation of all Muslims. Only a few imports, such as mysticism, art, medicine, and the hard sciences were left by the ulama to operate undisturbed, despite their foreign provenance.

What mattered most to Muslims was the Arabia of the Prophet—anything that lay outside it was of no major importance to them. “For barbarians who had conquered the most ancient and venerable centres of human civilization,” write Crone and Cook, “this is a tour de force without parallel in history; but by the same token the fate of civilization in Islam could only be an exceptionally unhappy one. In the last resort it was the fusion of Judaic meaning with the force of Arab conquest on the one hand, and the extreme cultural alienation of the Syrians on the other, that determined both why and what Islamic civilization had to be.”

If the intransigence of Hagarism, with its Arab ethnocentrism, was devastating to Zoroastrianism, it imprisoned Islam in a tension that has never been fully resolved. By choosing an ethnically exclusive but culturally parochial milieu as a setting for the rise of Islam, the Hagarenes privileged Arabness and tribalism over the cosmopolitan outlook of settled civilizations. To be sure, the Koran has a few verses preaching the equality of pious believers regardless of their race and ethnicity, but the Prophet also proclaimed his love of Arabs, saying “if you hate the Arabs, you hate me,” something Jesus would have never said.  Arabic, in fact, was elevated to an eternal language. Even Adam is supposed to have spoken Arabic when in Paradise.

This and other tensions kept Islam’s political imagination “fixated on the desert.” Islam’s jahiliyya (pre-Islamic period) was a world of poetry and prophets speaking Arabic, not thinking philosophers discoursing in Greek, the language of the Syrian elite. They chose the Jewish notion of a personal (and jealous) god for their Allah, not the Greek penchant for dabbling in speculation and “impersonal concepts.” Christianity sought compromise and evaded the extremes of both, but the Muslim Allah simply grew more distant, eluding the physical access of the pagans or the scrutiny of philosophers. Only illiterate prophets were licensed to tell us what he is like. “Hagarism ended up neither one thing nor the other, neither comfortably compact nor comfortably diffuse. It was not only antiquity which suffered when the ancient contents were thrust into the Hagarene form; the fate of Hagarism in Islamic civilization was in its own way just as unhappy.”

God’s Rule

Crone’s scholarship is also important even if we take the official Muslim version of history at face value. It can most certainly inform and disabuse Muslims who are wrestling with the proper political course to take in the wake of the Arab Spring. A good number of Muslims today think that Islam is the solution to the crisis besetting their nations and, therefore, call for some Islamic form of government. But what models do they have in mind? What theories did the authors of Islam leave as a guide to a modern Islamic polity and a culture of freedom?

Unfortunately, Islamic political literature has very little to offer to a Muslim in Casablanca or Cairo today.  In the early centuries of Islam, good government was understood to be one that tried to live up to God’s mandates and prescriptions in the Koran and perhaps the hadith. From the very start, Islam didn’t separate religious practice from political life since it was the Prophet Mohammed who brought together the warring tribes of Arabia within the super tribe of believers, the umma, a nation united by faith and conquests under God’s rule.

In fact, the prophecy of Mohammed is based on the notion of restoring God’s order. Since, according to Islam, the ways of the world are crooked, God sends warners (nabis or anbiya’a) and bringers of new religions (rusul) to remind wayward people of God’s true path. By Crone and Hinds’ estimate, God must have sent some 124,000 nabis and only some 315 rusul (sing. rasul), the last of whom is Prophet Mohammed. For there is no alternative to God’s rule—it’s either that or anarchy. One must obey God or fall into sin (ma`siya). The choices are stark but clear.

God’s messengers are dispatched to represent Him in the world. Thus, according to Muslim literature, the first man Adam was invested with leadership, the imama, and was God’s representative on earth (khalifatu allah fi ardih). Violence is often part of the process of restoring good government. Prophet Mohammed waged wars to convert and rally Arabs for God’s cause. Unlike Christianity, which appeared in a well-established empire and grow slowly within it, Islam never imagined a separation between the religious and the political—both were part of the same divine mission. This was quite a novel order in the Middle East since older civilizations, like Rome and Persia, had no such rigid expectations.  Mohammed was, in fact, the new Moses, the latter being the “paradigmatic prophet” in the Koran.

After Mohammed’s death, the seeds for civil war were already planted with the question of political succession. The second caliph following the prophet’s death, Omar, gave himself the title of amir al-mu’minin as he extended the prophet’s conquests. He was stabbed by a slave in 644.  His successor, Uthman, the prophet’s father-in-law, was killed by the shi`a (partisans) of Ali, the prophet’s cousin, because of his alleged nepotism. Civil war broke out over the nature of leadership, one party (the shi`a or partisans of Uthman) accusing Ali’s supporters and those who believed that the murder of Uthman was unlawful. Supporters of Ali believed that leadership of Muslims ought to remain in the prophet’s household (ahl al-bayt), whereas supporters of Uthman, a member of the powerful Umayyad clan, were willing to broaden their options, even though they, too, gave special status to the prophet’s lineage. This group of Muslims favored community consensus.

Since the ruler in Islam was an imam, like a shepherd who leads his cattle (ra`iyya) to salvation, the Umayyads who took over from Ali couldn’t resist the temptation of describing the ruler as the best man alive (khayr annass or al afdhal) and God’s vice-regent on earth (khalifatu allah ala ardih), a mahdi (redeemer) to whom obedience (ta`a ) is due. The Umayyads introduced dynastic succession (although election by designation remained an option and the ruler was expected to be an Arab from Quraysh). Since the caliph couldn’t attend to every religious need everyday questions were addressed by self-taught scholars (ulama) who were closer to the people. This worked well for the ulama—since only God’s rules mattered, they were free to bind everyone, caliphs included, into this divinized system. There would be no human law. The caliphate (khilafa, or succession) of Mohammed, not God, was acceptable, and, in fact, best. Mulk, or kingship, on the other hand, was bad because it led to autocracy and selfishness.

As the decades and centuries wore on, the ulama decreed that all wisdom ended with the prophet because he alone had access to God. There would be no more scriptures or sources of knowledge besides the Koran and the hadith. The dynasty that ended Umayyad rule, the Abbasids, also related to the prophet’s family, accepted the ulama’s system. It was during their reign that the Traditionalists (ahl al-hadith wal jama`a) were empowered over the rational theologians, the Mu`tazila. The Traditionalists invented the “four rightly guided caliphs” thesis in the 9th century in an effort to end the fitna (social discord or anarchy). With the possible exception of Omar ibn Abd al-Aziz of the Umayyad dynasty, no ruler (whether caliph, sultan, or king) after these four caliphs would have their stature again. The Sunni Traditionalists were fine with the caliph or ruler being from Quraysh only, or just even a Muslim, since, in their quietist philosophy, they believed that tyranny is the norm anyway and that they, the scholars, by defining the rules of behavior, would shield pious Muslims from perdition.

Just like the Umayyads were influenced by Byzantine ways, the Abbasids were culturally Persian, not Arab. The Persian political tradition with its advice literature (nassiha) and testament (wassiya) informed government practice. The Buyids of Iraq (945-1055) assumed titles like King of Kings (shahanshah in Persian or malik al-muluk in Arabic). Courtiers and subjects were advised to be very careful in the company of kings because there is never any trust.  (The inscription illustrating this article is from the Alhambra Palace. It advises people in the audience of the king to say little if they want to be safe.) The caliph grew more remote, attended by elaborate rituals of kingship, which Crone and Hind describe as “half brutal power and half theatre.” The early separation of God and man was making a comeback.

Interestingly, the Greek tradition and “political science” were rediscovered in Iraq, not Syria or Egypt. In their quest for scientific knowledge, the Muslims couldn’t overlook the  Al Yunaniyyun (Ionians or Greeks), yet they restricted their philosophical quest to mostly Aristotle and some work by Plato. Entire schools of philosophy, like the pre-Socratics, Cynics, Stoics, Skeptics and others remained unknown, except in scattered sayings. A deep suspicion of philosophy was vexing to scholars who enjoyed it. They called it hikma (wisdom) to avoid being called heretics or infidels. The great philosopher Al-Farabi believed that philosophy was better than religion for Muslim societies, but he also believed that the masses can’t be philosophers and so must have religion, which is a downgraded popularization of the higher truths attained through philosophy. Al-Farabi’s virtuous city was simply beyond the reach of average people, which is why another philosopher, Abu Bakr Al-Razi, believed that organized religion is necessary for social order. The shi`a Ismailis shared some of Al-Razi’s views that prophecy or organized religion was not needed to reach the truth. After all, they reasoned, people knew God without prophets before the Flood.

Like all nations, Muslims reflected on the nature of government. They started out from the premise that human nature is defective and corrupt and that governments are needed to establish peace and create the foundations of civilization. Was religion indispensable for establishing government?  Some like Al-Rawandi, Al-Sarakhsi, and Al-Razi believed that reason was sufficient, a view that was later accepted by Ibn Taymiyya and endorsed by Ibn Khaldun. For most, however, religion was necessary for social order, especially since in Islam there is no romantic notion of a perfect pre-Islamic state (as one might find in Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Western tradition, in general). It is Islam-as-government that rectifies a fallen state. Unaware of the Greek democratic traditions but quite impressed by the feats of Alexander the Great, Muslims assumed that a virtuous polity must by definition be totalitarian. Government must, therefore, enforce public morality through a muhtasib, a sort of low-level market inspector and inquisitor in one. Because the Koran orders rights and forbids wrong (al amr `ani al ma`aruf wa annahy `ala munkar) the public monitoring of sinful behavior, including deputizing every Muslim for that role, was condoned by scholars like the great Imam Al-Ghazali. (The American founder Thomas Jefferson would have considered such policies antithetical to virtue, since enforcing morality produces hypocrites, not pious men and women. But that was the thinking then and remains so today in many parts of the Muslim world.)

Associating virtue with religion led to humorous episodes, as when the poor complained to the Prophet about how come rich good Muslims get to have it all—a good life on earth and paradise in the hereafter. Some Muslim communities, like the Zanadiqa, the Qaramita, or the Brethren of Purity were more communistic than Muslim. Some believed that freedom was the default condition (al asl huwwa al hurriyya), but this meant that only believers were equal. Many cared about animals and were vegetarian. Some, like the philosopher-poet Al-Ma`arri, were even vegan.

They were the exception, however. Humans, in Muslim eyes, were divided between believers and unbelievers (kuffar). Non-Muslims were part of the abode of war (dar al-harb), but safe conduct was granted to those who received God’s revelations (people of the book, or ahl al-kitab). The scholar Al-Mawardi granted Muslims the right to live in dar-al-harb as long as they could practice their religion, but there was wide agreement that jihad in the sense of qital (combat) in the cause of Allah is highly meritorious. Dragging people in chains to salvation seems like an odd way to please God, but only a few, like Al-Razi and the Qaramita, rejected this approach.

How about the Koranic verse that states that there can be no coercion in matters of religion (la ikraha fil din)? One could use it to widen religious freedom because forced conversions have no moral value. Some claimed that only apostates and infidels could be targets of jihad.  For others, living with difference is, in fact, part of one’s moral education. This, too, was a small minority view. The vast majority, some 99 percent of Muslims, believed that only Islam leads to salvation. Even Ibn Khaldun agreed.

Such ethical concerns did not help Muslims establish the foundations of good government. The Abbasids of Iraq staged a revolution (dawla) with shi`a coloring and messianic overtones against the Arab-centric and presumably corrupt Umayyads, but they didn’t trust their people either. Worried about their legitimacy, Abbasid rulers chose to recruit alien slave warriors, mostly Turks—the Mamluks—to keep their own subjects at bay. Mamluks were expected to ride horses and fight, not make political decisions. The institution soon spread throughout the Muslim world and survived to modern times. Uniquely Islamic in many ways, the Mamluk political order differed markedly from Europe’s feudal system, with its barons who, despite whatever cynicism they may have harbored, were members of the same community. It removed the give-and-take that characterized rulers and aristocrats in Europe, since it alienated free males, historically the basis of any self-governing polity. This “exclusion of the free males of the community bespeaks a moral gap of such dimensions that within the great civilizations it has been found only in one,” comments Crone.

No sooner had the Mamluk institution been established that the caliphate lost its power and the empire, for all practical purposes, broke down into autonomous regions. Abbasid caliphs were not conquerors or warriors. They recruited shi`a secretaries with little investment in their rule. Thus, with alien Mamluks and secretaries, the stage was set for intrigue and fragmentation. The disintegration of the Abbasid state gave more power to the ulama and saw the rise of new depoliticized titles, such as that of the sharif, a descendant of Ali with social status but no claim to political power. State and society stood separated by a chasm that was only tenuously bridged by the ulama and local notables, who were played by rulers to keep them off balance. As long as the state executed the basic function of safety and protected the shari`a, it was, for all intents and purposes, left unmolested. Unlike in other parts of the globe, like China, for instance, the assumption was that states are bound by cycles of birth and decline since the strength of a polity, as theorized by Ibn Khaldun, is its tribal solidarity bred on the fringes of civilization. Settled life was associated with effeminacy that led to the downfall of the state. “The idea that the transition to settled rule could be a transition to better, stronger and more enduring government never suggested itself to [Ibn Khaldun],” Crone writes, “and he would certainly have been puzzled by Manchu [of China] and Frankish history, had he known of them . . . .  Ibn Khaldun, in short, saw the cycles from the barbarian’s point of view:  we have here the Muslim fixation on the tribal past restated in the secular terms of macro-history.”

Freedom from Arabia?

Based on the best available work on historical records, Crone’s method is the only way to rescue the rise of Islam from the dark sandstorms of oblivion and dust off its beginnings from the accretions of myth, fantasy, and the ideological writings of Abbasid scholars. What she presents may or may not be the right interpretation and the scenarios could have been very different, but the least we can say of her work and that of her colleagues is that it opens the door to new vistas and invites unfrightened minds to examine the literary traditions that pass for history. She makes it possible for free people to explore what really happened in the 7th century, not what later generations decided history and early Islam were.

In the end, whether we wish to accept the official version of Muslim history or are more inclined to question it based on the gaps that Crone and her colleagues have so painstakingly tried to bridge, the culture we now call Islam is the expression of an Arabian ideology elaborated by scholars and writers over the course of two or three centuries. The language, culture, and habits of Arabia—real or imagined—were made to be the foundations of a new religion. Whether created by the Arabs of Hijaz or those of Gaza, Syria, or Baghdad, the beginnings were firmly fixed in one of the least civilized places in the Near East and one of the most backward regions in the Mediterranean. Such a culture was eventually heavily infused by Byzantine and Persian motifs, and later, by European and American ones, but the core, the myth, remained safely ensconced in the wilderness of Arabia and its mores. That is why we have the somewhat innocuous spectacle of robed and bearded men with sandals speaking in cell phones and flying first class in airplanes. That is why, too, many Muslims from distant places try to emulate the Arabian accent to somehow feel closer to the origins of the faith.

The Muslim fabulists who wrote their tales in the 8th and 9th centuries have kept audiences trapped for more than a millennium. Will Muslims today ever have the courage to step out of the ulama‘s box and take a wider look around? In some ways, their fate and that of the entire world depends on whether they do so.

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