Dr. Peter Brown here reviews three books which, he says, highlight “submerged worlds.” The political struggles between the late Roman Empire and the neo-Persian or Sassanian Empire have received relatively scant treatment over the years, certainly when compared to the body of work dealing with earlier Greek and Roman interactions with Persia. But this struggle, it seems, is directly responsible for the political rise of Islam, certainly its quick dominance of the Middle East in the 7th and 8th centuries. These “submerged worlds” can teach us valuable information about the cultures which subsequently emerged, namely Western Europe and political Islam, as well as their relationship to the earlier world they overtook.
Dr. Brown says:
How we think the first Muslims reacted to this situation depends on how we are prepared to imagine their relation to the religions of those they had conquered. Did they come only as conquerors, bearing a fully formed religion? Or were they prepared to be listeners as well as conquerors? Altogether, what was the extent of the “intervisibility” between rival religions (and rival confessions within these religions) in the seventh- and eighth-century Middle East?
It seems to me that the balance of learned opinion is that the early Muslims were both conquerors and good listeners. They were proud to have been conquerors. They had watched a Middle East where the collision between East Rome and the Sassanian Empire to their north and the bitter Red Sea Wars to their south made plain that God showed his favor on entire kingdoms by granting them victory over their enemies. Their own stunning success confirmed (in a language that all seventh-century persons could understand) that theirs was a religion “victorious over all religions.” But victory was not enough. Muslims needed to be reassured. Far from leaving their subjects alone, out of proud indifference or sheer ignorance, they wanted to prove the superiority of their own religion by participating vigorously in the debates of others. They knew how to pick up the religious twittering of the age.
And there was a lot of twittering to pick up. Here our view has been blocked by a particularly tenacious stereotype. While the idiosyncrasy of post-Islamic Iran has been amply acknowledged by modern scholars, the Christian communities of what became the Arabic-speaking Middle East have remained largely invisible to us. It is as if the large Christian churches of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt had fallen silent at the moment of the Muslim conquest. They are treated as having become religious “minorities” overnight. It is assumed that they were cut off as much from each other (by confessional rivalries) as they were cut off from their now-dominant Muslim neighbors. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Not only did Christianity remain the religion of the majority of the inhabitants of the Middle East until the year 1000; the rival Christian churches continued debates among themselves into which Muslims were drawn by the sheer vigor and openness with which these debates were conducted.
He concludes with this:
In a world where the pre-Islamic Middle East, Arabia, and the Red Sea have been thrown open for us by Glen Bowersock, and where Patricia Crone has done the same for the Iranian lands, it is time to stop and look again. Conventional accounts of the origin and texture of Islamic civilization in the early Middle Ages present only a two-dimensional image of that world. We need a third dimension. Patient listening to snatches of debate on all levels and between all groups in the great echo chamber of the Middle East may finally give us this dimension. This is the path forward. Bowersock and Crone have led the way. Given the resources of modern scholarship, there is no reason not to follow.