Book Review: Seeing Islam as Others Saw It, by Robert Hoyland

Something I noticed very quickly when looking into Islamic history is that its written record didn’t start until about a century AH, over a generation after Muhammad’s death. When you think of it, this is not entirely surprising due to a number of factors. The Arabs were culturally fond of oral storytelling, their first generation of Muslims were not reputed to be widely literate or educated, and their first century in power was consumed with conquest and civil war. One could hypothesize that the civilization needed a growth period to both develop and assimilate the kinds of people and culture that took the time to put things down in writing. One could also hypothesize that, like Christianity, it wasn’t until those early generations started dying off that the leadership realized they needed to pin down and codify their beliefs and identity in writing. And write they did. There is a lot of Islamic literature about the rise of Islam and the expansion of its caliphate from the Arabian peninsula, but there is the quandary that it is a history told by the victors, moreover the victors whose perspective had already been shaped after a century of political drama.

So are there resources more contemporary to the rise of Islam and its State? Well, yes, but they’re complicated. Enter Robert Hoyland’s Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. My review in short: a marvelous book but not for newcomers to the history of this era and area.

The First Half: Meeting the World

There is a difference between me telling you about a friend of mine and you meeting that friend yourself. Perhaps I’m a very insightful person and gave you a very dynamic representation of that friend, but still that is no substitute for an actual meeting. In a direct meeting, you would pick up the conversational ticks, the body language, the inflection and probably some additional knowledge that I did not represent. My representation might still be helpful for understanding that person –especially if you only have a limited dose of them– but it does not replace the chance for you to make some conclusions from your own experience. This, I feel, is one of the biggest shortcomings of most history books. They tell you things in summary, they draw dynamic pictures, but too often they don’t actually let you “meet” their sources. And that is…fine…for some books. It can make a good story, but I’m not satisfied that it makes a good history.

Hoyland’s book is largely about meeting the sources. I was delighted with the number and size of quotations he provided in each survey. Though all these quotes are moderated by translation and in some cases mutilated from later emendations, the chance to read what people were actually thinking is so much more revealing and concrete than even a truly dynamic portrait written in summary. The majority of the content had some amount of direct quotation included and only a few resources were summarized in the same manner as an annotated bibliography. Within the back content (the “excurses”) of this book are some sizable excerpts or even entire documents that Hoyland or his colleagues translated.

That being said, Hoyland does not present these works in a vacuum but prepares you with contextual explanations of the culture and zeitgeists from which these texts were born. This preparation is really critical, because it both explains why these writings have been so little used in historical analysis and in what manner they should be used. The truth of the matter seems to be that Late Antiquity had a rather unforgivable handle on preserving history. They were less interested in recording events than in interpreting them, and that interpretation trended largely towards envisioning a climax of drama towards The Last Day, whether a Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian version of it. So Hoyland briefs readers on what biases to expect (racism, a lot of racism), the problem of textual records (many works were preserved through a process of being “improved” by later writers), and what information you can glean from them despite these flaws.

One disappointment I had was that most of the literature surveyed was done by Christians. This primacy of Christian literature does not seem to be Hoyland’s fault, for he acknowledges the shortage of material from the Jewish and Zoroastrian communities. The prolificacy of Christian writings is easy to explain: they were the privileged population in Byzantine culture and continued to hold majority numbers and high status long after the Arab conquests. Hoyland does observe that Jewish writings become more available in the dates after the Arab conquests, suggesting that their literature had been suppressed beforehand and explaining the shortage. Why there are so few Zoroastrian documents is not clear to me, except for the observation that Zoroastrians received more censure as “pagans” and that their culture did not survive to the same extent as Christians and Jews and thus did not have continuous communities to preserve them. There is also the possibility in my mind that Persian documents and history are still outside the reach and scope of Western academics and thus not available or known by Hoyland. Hoyland certainly shows effort in reaching beyond Christian and Jewish literature for this book. He even found and included documents written by the Chinese about their earliest encounters with Arab Muslims, which was a fascinating delight to read. And while the book focuses on the writings of non-Muslims, Hoyland’s broader goal is to elevate all relevant contemporary writings, and thus includes evidence from coinage and rock graffiti by Muslims that he thinks are under-utilized in Islamic histories.

My Specific Reaction

Okay, if you come from a Western background your perception of history and world affairs is likely to be affected by the “east verses west” archetyping of history: Greeks vs. Persians, Crusaders vs. Muslims, NATO vs. USSR, America vs. Middle East. In all these situations, you’ve likely been conditioned to feel a connection to whatever culture approximates “team west” in the dichotomy. Even if you know that “team west” doesn’t really align to your same values, and that they were flawed people who did terrible things too, they still feel more relational to your own identity and you root for them. So coming into this era of history, I still had some tagalong baggage for being “team Byzantium.” Two hallmarks of their identity were Greek/Roman culture and Christianity, and those are two hallmarks relevant to the shaping of my culture. And they were awesome to play in “Age of Empires II.” Though I technically knew that the Byzantines were a grubby empire like every other, I still felt closer and more sympathetic to them through the commonality of their history to mine, at least respective to the “team easts” they faced.

This book took any sentimental association I had with Byzantium, threw it on the ground, and ran over it a few times for good measure. And to be clear, it wasn’t Hoyland doing this –it was the writers themselves. It was the grossness of their self-entitlement to political dominance. It was the ease with which they promoted their preferred mistruths about people they didn’t like. It was the hatred with which they regarded other peoples, and their eagerness to define more and more people as “others.” These things came through in the conversational ticks and queues that do not come across so clearly in summary.

Perhaps if you don’t come with Christian baggage these Christians will not be so off-putting to you. My disgust with most of the Christian writers is definitely galvanized by my own belief in Christianity. They are not especially worse than any human beings of history or the present, but since I want to hold a high standard for Christianity and see Christians live up to it, I am disappointed and horrified when they don’t. So ironically, my reaction is just a different shade of their own reactions, for they are viewing the world through much the same method of setting a standard and coming down with feelings when those standards aren’t lived up to. And just as they looked through their events not through the objective statements of “this happened” but through interpretive narratives of “there’s sin among us, so we deserved this,” so also I cannot help but see a narrative of punishment in their downfall. After reading how gloating and oppressive they were in their position of power, I see poetic justice or cruel irony at work in the reversal of their fortunes under the Islamic conquest. My standards and values are different than theirs, but as a human I am fundamentally not different.

The Second Half: Processing and Promoting

My disillusionment with the Byzantine Christians aside, this book is not about portraying the communities, condemning or praising their cultures, or picking sides. It’s about justifying the use of their accounts –skewed though they may be– to glean information about the early Muslims. After having thoroughly acquainted us with the sources, Hoyland reviews the resources to break down what kinds of interpretive opinions and attitudes the non-Muslims adopted of the Muslims. Again, it is a matter of dealing with writers who are more interested in interpreting rather than recording, and seeing how their interpretive goals might affect their choice or representation of facts. A lot of this has to do with the apocalyptic anticipation of that era. The arrival of the Arabs on the political field disrupted the trajectories predicted by many popular prophesies, and thus writers became busy with shoehorning the Arabs into their respective cultures’ eschatological spaces and molds. And also there are writers who, having a new player in their society, had to categorize that player and arrange them into their social hierarchies. So for example, Hoyland points out that several of the Christian resources are eager to accept the Muslims’ claims to Abrahamic origin, but that this comes with the intention to talk down to them as “primitive.”

These kinds of interpretive goals mean that some authors present the Arabs/Muslims as a sort of natural disaster like a famine rather than an organized force with goals and motivations, while others interpret them as a political power entering the arena of superpowers. Some present the Muslims as noble but simple people who must be educated into sophisticated society and religion, while others see them as a fully competitive religion that must be debunked. I think it’s important that Hoyland only starts summarizing and presenting these generalizations after having introduced and exposed us to the material of these authors. When he is making these summaries of the author’s attitudes, he is able to cite, for example, John bar Penkaye. Since I have experienced some of John bar Penkaye I can feel some ground under me with which to judge Hoyland’s evidence and conclusions.

So with this survey and introduction of the non-Muslim writings, Hoyland ventures to demonstrate some of the conclusions and contributions that can be drawn from these materials. For example, he uses the writings of non-Muslims to verify some of the basic rituals and beliefs held by Muslims. The significance in that case is not that the information is anything new or contradictory, but that it is contemporary evidence of those rituals and beliefs that Muslim accounts do not have. He also proposes that using these documents helps us fill in gaps of knowledge about the timing and order of events of the conquest, using the invasion of Egypt as his particular case example.

It must be clearly said that Hoyland does not seek to use these documents to contradict Muslim traditional history. He is more interested in finding commonalities between the histories, for as he leads in his concluding chapter:

Throughout this book I have striven to bring out the parallels and similarities between the reports of Muslim and non-Muslim witnesses. The reason for this approach is that it seems to me a strong argument in favour of the latter that they do frequently coincide with what is said by the former. If both the Muslim and non-Muslim sources give a false picture of events, how are we to explain that they both give the same false picture?

Hoyland, Robert. Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam (Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam Book 13) . The Darwin Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The point of using these non-Muslim resources, Hoyland argues, is that they are datable to earlier periods of time than the Muslim accounts. Though the non-Muslim accounts are not objective data (which, to be fair, no written history exactly is), they are still useful for parsing and combining together to render pictures of that period of history and to track the oral history of the Muslims.

If Hoyland trends towards any contradictarian thought as far as traditional Islamic history goes, it is to doubt the self-assured destiny narrative that Muslims have of their own history and to emphasize the ways that civil wars in the Arab communities shaped political rhetoric to lean upon religious thought for self-justification. However, since this book is not a survey of Islamic literature, the origins and nature of Hoyland’s theories aren’t visible here except in a few occasional statements and his justification for the inclusion of some early Muslim inscriptions and writings (he wants to make visible their content and tone for contrast with later Muslim writings). Again, this book is focused on promoting under-utilized, contemporary resources to the events, and not about promoting theories of those events. Hoyland sets out with a specific goal, does it well, and holds to it with faithful focus.

Not for Newbies

As the book’s tagline might suggest, this is not a book for casual reading or for introduction to this area of history. Because this book is not a linear history or even focused on a small range of time or location, it is really essential to have some established familiarity with dates, names, and locations under your belt when you read through this. The date range of the literature in this survey can be kept track of if you are anchored to two points: Muhammad’s death in 632AD, and the end of the Ummayad caliphate in 750AD. Those anchor points will help you recognize really early from merely early. It wasn’t till after the Ummayads that Islamic culture really bloomed into literacy and intellectualism and they really took to writing about themselves. As for locations, you can get by in this survey with general knowledge of the regions and important cities. The names of people are the hard part, partly due to the habit of the naming one person after someone else, and partly due to the naming conventions of the Arabs being foreign to Western eyes. The names of the Christian communities can also be hard to follow; I kept having to remember that Melkite and Chalcedonean Christians were the same group.

Hoyland’s range of research is very impressive, and within his bibliography are lots of articles and books worth compiling for further reading. Unfortunately, the academic nature of this work also limits its accessibility for the lay historian. Quite a number of resources in this book’s bibliography are written in other academic languages such as French or German. Articles cited are bound to be locked behind the paywall of academic journals, and the books can run quite expensive. In truth I find this to be a hazard of all serious works on Islamic material in the West, given that such books are not popular sellers and thus circulate more in the publishing level of textbooks. I came away from this book with quite an inventory of materials I would like to read, but it’ll be a costly adventure to acquire them.

Speaking of costly…

Seeing Islam as Others Saw It is expensive as far as books for the lay reader go. Thankfully, in this case at least, there’s an affordable $40 option on Kindle (though it lacks the modern forward Hoyland has added in the second edition) which is what I purchased. The Kindle edition has some small typos (most frequently an abundance of hyphens in words that would’ve run off the line in a physical book), and a few hyperlink issues when jumping between footnotes. On the whole it is very handy to have searchable text and built-in note-taking with this read, given that I want to return to it and follow some of those citations in the future. That being said, I still miss the ability to flip through the pages easily, as it can be hard to relocate a passage if I don’t remember a precise keyword or didn’t place a helpful note while reading. Even in writing this blog post I was trying to reach for specific examples and hampered by the tedium of turning pages individually through Kindle.

If you are wanting to get into the history of the world surrounding Islam and have some experience already, this book is a definite read.

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