Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam

Every first-year student knows that Mecca at the time of the Prophet was the centre of a far-flung trading empire, which plays a role of some importance in all orthodox accounts of the rise of Islam. Indeed the international trade of the Meccans has achieved such fame that not only first-year students, but also professional Islamicists have come to consider documentation to be quite superfluous. Thus Montgomery Watt, whose well-known interpretation of Muhammed's life centres on the impact of commercial wealth on the social and moral order in Mecca, devotes less than a page of his two-volume work to a discussion of the commerce from which the wealth in question supposedly derived; and with references he dispenses alogether. But what do we actually know about Meccan trade? (1)

Crone goes on to answer this question, drawing on a huge amount of primary source material.

Just looking at a map should give a hint that Meccan trade at the time of Muhammed was not the illustrious spice/silk/incense/ivory that everybody 'knows' - Mecca is in completely the wrong place. It's not a coastal city, and has just one tiny port, not much used. It has no timber, and is nowhere near the customers of any purported overland trade in luxuries. The Islamic tradition is quite unaware that the Meccans are supposed to have handled this of type of goods, and the Greeks to whom they are supposed to have sold them had never even heard of Mecca. Meccan trade there was, if we trust the Islamic tradition. But the trade described in this tradition bears little resemblance to that known from Lammens, Watt, or their various followers. (11)

What the trade of the period boils down to is leather and a few bits and pieces. Commonplaces about the wealth of Mecca can no longer form part of the scholarly explanation for the rise of Islam. So, Crone says, we must look elsewhere.

The risk of this work being a slightly dull debate over economic history is averted by Crone's swashbuckling prose, and her infectious fascination with detail on everything from cinnabar, senna and bdellium to the opacity of the Qur'anic text and the fabrication of the hadith.

On the Qur'an she demonstrates the impossibility of recovering the meaning of Surah Quraysh, which has often been used by historians in backing up their descriptions of Meccan trade. The short Surah reads, "For the ilaf of Quraysh, / their ilaf of the journey in winter and summer. / So worship the lord of this house, who fed them against a hunger / and gave them security from a fear." The reader can gather a few things from the surface of the text, but the classical Muslim exegetes proceeded to find a huge amount in these words, one of which, ilaf, nobody knows the meaning of. Crone examines the work of Ibn al-Kalbi, Ibn Qutayba, Baydawi, Tusi, Tabari, Muqatil, Qummi, Ibn Habib, Baladhuri, Razi, Suyuti and others, and exposes the discord...

In short, the sura refers to the fact that Quraysh used to trade in Syria, or in Syria and the Yeme, or in Syria and Ethiopia, or in all three, and maybe also in Iraq, or else to their habit of spending the summer in Ta'if, or else to ritual visits to Mecca. It celebrates the fact that they began to trade, or that they continuted to do so, or that they stopped; or else it does not refer to trade at all. It alludes to a Meccan need for imported foodstuffs, or to a Meccan famine, or to a Meccan habit of commiting sucide by starvation; it refers to Qurashi agreements with other tribes, or to Qurashi inviolability, or to the inviolability of Mecca or its need for defence, or to its safety after the Ethiopian defeat, or to Qurashi exemption from leprosy, or the Qurashi monopoly on the caliphate; and it does all this using a word that means habit, or clinging to, or mutual love, or divine blessing, or pact and protection. (209)

On the hadith she exposes the contradicitons and elaborations of the various non-Qur'anic sources through external observation...

the contribution of the storyellers to the rise of Islam is manifest [in] the steady growth of the information. It is obvious that if one storyteller should happen to mention a raid, the next storyteller would know the date of this raid, while the third would know everything that an audience might wish to hear about it. This process is graphically illustrated in the sheer contrast of size between the works of Ibn Ishaq (d.767) and Waqidi (d.823), that of Waqidi being much larger for all that it covers only Muhammed's period in Medina But practically any incident narrated by both illustrates the same point. The raid of Kharrar, for example, is told... (223)

...and through heavily-documented internal comparison. Among several examples, we find...

The sources are familiar with a large number of stories, all of which are variations on the theme of "Muhammed's encounter with representatives of non-Islamic religions who recognise him as a future prophet". According to one set of traditions, this encounter took place when Muhammed was a small child still (in practically all versions) in the care of his foster mother. He was seen by Ethiopian Christians who wanted to kill him, or by kabin at Ukaz, or an 'arraf there, or by a kabin or 'arraf at Dhul'l-Majz, or by a kabin in Mecca, all of whom similarly wanted to have him killed, or my a seer at Mecca who wanted to take him away. According to another set of traditions the encounter took place when Muhammed was aged nine or twelve. He was taken to Syria by Abu Talib (or Abd al-Muttalib) and was seen by Jews of Tayma, or by a nameless monk in a nameless place, or by Bahira, a Christian monk at Busra, or by Bahira in an unnamed place, or by Bahira, a Jewish rabbi. In the these version, too, the Jews (or the Greeks) are after him, with the result that he is quickly taken away. Yet another set of traditions hold the encounter to have taken place when he was twenty-five...
That these accounts represent some fifteen different versions of the same event is unlikely to be disputed by anyone. Which of them is true, then? Evidently none. The story itself is of the kind which, as Watt puts it, is "not true in the realistic sense of the secular historian." What the sources offer are fifteen equally fictitious versions of an event that never took place.

Crone also rightly criticises Watt for his 'secular stance' towards the sources - merely subtracting the miraculous elements but taking the historical detail at face value. The nature of the material remains unnoticed. (222) And the nature of the material is not reliably factual. It is essentially exegetical - plausible elaborations on 'truths' coming from a religious direction that needed shoring up. And so the storytellers obliged.

More of this sort of work is needed to unsettle the complacent confidence of Muslims in the historical basis for their beliefs and way of life. Since Islamic polemic insists so stridently on evidence and a quasi-rationalist approach to texts, history, and so on, it falls so much harder when confronted with detailed critical work on its own sources. Like the ludicrous insistence that the Qur'an has never been altered or changed over all these centuries (how many times have I heard that claim at University 'Islamic Awareness' talks, or read it in Islamic apologetic literature?), when confronted with the evidence of textual fluidity, the position collapses through its inherent brittleness.