Here are some excerpts of the review:
BOOK REVIEW: “A Prophet of Peace” and Juan Cole’s New Historicism
“. . . any counter is useful to the propaganda received by bigoted cultural osmosis that portrays Islam and Muhammad as bloodthirsty and monstrous, particularly as a member of a country where our knowledge of geography is largely dependant on what we’re presently bombing.”
“What makes Juan Cole’s history slash biography slash textual criticism “Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires” so valuable is that you walk away scratching your chin about how so much revisionism could have been accomplished in so little time, but largely because you eventually realize you had so little actual knowledge to begin with.”
” . . . Cole’s (I would call) supposition that Muhammad was literate and directly influenced by Greek philosophical ideas, by monotheisms, and by late pagan religions in the Near East during his time as an intermediate-distance trader—blows open a hole in the usual wall of received bigotry so that Cole can portray Muhammad as someone much more tolerant, forgiving, and peaceful than his contemporaries, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, or Persian-aligned pagan alike.”
“The quarter-century-long Byzantine-Sassanid War at the start of the seventh century is often brought up in the history of Islam but only in the most dismissive way. In the final apocalyptic battle between the Mediterranean Greco-Romans and the Persians of the Iranian Plateau, the blood and treasure of two empires gushed all upon Levantine dust to accomplish absolutely nothing for either power except mutual ruin.
. . . As Cole frames it, not considering this has been quite an oversight because Persia had vassal states all the way around the Arabian coast to Yemen, and as their fortunes rose throughout the war, so did their allies and vassals in the interior. Cole posits that Muhammad was closer to Christianity than Zoroastrianism and had more ties to the Byzantine Empire than the Sassanids, meaning his brand of unitarian monotheism encompassing Judaism, the various extant Christianities, and his own syncretic religion became endangered when the Sassanid-allied pagans were emboldened by their patrons’ own success against the empire of Christianity crumbling before them.”
” . . . This reading is useful because it manages to be plausible and to cut against the biases of Western Christendom and its various heretics. It gives another possible vision of the early community of believers who surrounded Muhammad and what true Islam could have meant and therefore could mean.
“Cole claims that the generation immediately following Muhammad’s death were bedouins less attracted to Muhammad’s specific teachings than the unity and possibility for military plunder his movement provided.”
Juan speaking here: Mr. Johnson interestingly compares my original take on Muhammad to the phenomenon of “headcanon” in fan fiction. Fans of e.g. Star Trek or other fictional universes write their own fiction set in them, but usually conserve the standard details and background (“the canon”). Occasionally a fan will write fiction with an innovative take that challenges the canon, which is called “headcanon.”
As someone with lifetime commitments to popular culture and shared universes, I was struck by the insight that historians are in some ways analogous to writers of fan fiction, joining in a pre-existing shared universe set up by the primary sources and previous generations of historians. Of course, historians would *loudly* proclaim that they are not writing fiction, but Hayden White has pointed out that they do protest too much.
In that regard, I would say that academic historians are often attempting to achieve headcanon, not in the sense that they are making shit up but in the sense that they are combing back over the sources looking for ways that their predecessors have gotten the explanations or significance wrong. And of course, they are hoping to establish a framework for interpreting events.
I suppose that postmodernists would also challenge the absolute distinction between canon and headcanon– don’t all participants in shared universes edit the canon for themselves? And isn’t JJ Abrams’ destruction of Vulcan likely to recede into some alternate universe over time, a form of directorial headcanon?
Johnson is kind enough to link to my manifesto on Qur’anic historicism to acknowledge that by my own lights I am not merely engaging in headcanon (or what Gabriel Said Reynolds dismissed as “eisegesis”).
Certainly my treatment of Muhammad challenges 1400 years of assumptions about him both in Europe and the Muslim world. But that is because of a few simple features of the historian’s craft. I was able to recover, through the work of Aziz al-Azmeh, John Healey, Javier Teixidor, and Ahmad al-Jallad, some of the pre-Islamic ideas about peaceful sanctuaries and calendars of Western Arabia, setting a context for the Qur’an and its depiction of Mecca. I was able to use databases to trace the evolution of ideas having to do with peace (slm, slh, skn) in the Qur’an itself.I was able to use the literature on Late Antiquity (c. 200-800 AD) to understand better the world of the Qur’an. I took from the Revisionist school of early Islamic studies a suspicion of the Abbasid literature on the life of the prophet produced in the 800s and 900s, even if sometimes based on works of the mid to late eighth century, and when I carefully compared the Qur’an’s account of events to the depictions in these later sources, I found that almost always the Abbasids militarized events or made them more violent than the Qur’anic depiction, and in many instances appear to have invented events that are not only not in the Qur’an but are contradictory to what is in the Qur’an.
The “shared universe” of historians’ writing about early Islam has been largely shaped by a gullibility concerning the Abbasid accounts in both European and global South writing about Muhammad. This is analogous to the hold that Imperial Christianity of 300-700 AD had on writing about Paul of Tarsus, e.g., in earlier decades, such that he was actually depicted as anti-Jewish!
At the same time, the Muslim Historical Universe was shaped in Europe by Christian (and later atheist) polemics and Orientalist assumptions about Self and Other. That Islam was a Roman religion not different in that regard from late antique Christianity and Judaism rather than an alien product of exotic inner Arabia was resisted by most scholars of European heritage, with the exceptions of Ignaz Goldziher, C. H. Becker and Joseph Schacht, among a handful of others. In more recent decades the earlier gullibility about the Abbasid accounts has been jettisoned in favor of a complete and unhelpful skepticism that created a historiographical black hole around Muhammad and the Qur’an. Nature abhors a vacuum, and there will be many attempts to fill in that black hole; mine is one of the first since the passing of the major revisionist figure Patricia Crone (who turned to writing about the Qur’an late in her own life).
Anyway, my thanks to Mr. Johnson for an original engagement with my work!