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Saturday, December 07, 2013
How undergrads are learning about the Islamic conquests
I found something interesting on academia.edu. This is an undergraduate essay, Christine Vandor's "Some factors that may help explain Islam's dramatic early expansion". The original essay-question:
I have some interest in this. When I was a senior in college, I earned some extra scratch grading undergraduate math papers (linear-algebra specifically). As for Vandor, her research interests - and willingness to float her output on academia.edu - identify her as serious. But above all, this gives us outsiders to academia some insight into what the kids are being taught these days.
So: on with the critique. I will try to keep this constructive.
Structurally, the essay is of one piece, followed by a (short) bibliography. The first paragraph reads like an abstract of the whole essay. Now, I like abstracts, and I am glad that the essay has one. But I prefer to mark them out under their own header as not part of the essay proper.
This essay lacks a true introduction, which would set out the question and would promise how it is to be answered. The essay will develop as of the "pushmi-pullyu" type: it attempts why, in the context of the first Islamic decades in the Near East, the Arabs were strong and their foes were weak. A meta-essay explaining that (it doesn't need to justify it, for this is how the posed question should be answered) is what the essay needs as introduction.
The next two paragraphs and much of the rest dealing with the Arab side assume facts not in evidence. I would not have used Muhammad's personality nor the Koran to explain the conquests up to AH 30 / 650 CE - there is no contemporary evidence for either. We do have material about "the Prophet" and certain of his teachings, scil. about the qitâl and the Garden. We might also have "the Constitution of Madina", but there we are approaching Dragons.
(True, we can invoke the memory of "Mahmet" (with some specie of "t") as we move toward the mid-40s / 660s (in order: Chron. 640, Khuz. Chron., Ps.-Seb., Maronite Chron.); and we certainly have our recognisable Islâm once we get into 'Abd al-Malik's raids into the Romania mid-70s / 690s. But I think that, here, we are supposed to be restricting ourselves to the first Arab expansion.)
Eventually the essay gets to the non-Arab side - and here it is at its best. Here is also where we have our contemporary and near-contemporary information: I mentioned several sources already, and we can add maybe John of Nikiu.
A few comments on the Bibliography: For "Espirato", read "Esposito" as noted in the footnotes. But honestly Vandor were better off if she had not read Esposito at all - or Rodinson. Their two books have led her to place the auxiliary facts from Berkey (on the Constitution of Madina), Lasser / Bonner (on the spoils of war) and Montefiore (on the unification of Arabia) into the classical Islamic frame and - worse - the western pro-Islamic apologetic frame. The initial question demands the contemporary frame, as best the essayist can seek it out. Once the author pulls free of Esposito's grasp and cites a real scholar - Hugh Kennedy - she does fine.
I recommend, before her next foray into Near Antique military history - and I do hope she makes one - that she burn Esposito's book in the quad and replace it with others. This must start with Robert Hoyland, Seeing Islam. For more by Kennedy: The Armies of the Caliphs. I can also recommend Patricia Crone, Slaves on Horses. And if she feels daring: Donner, Muhammad and the Believers. (But if she had been assigned Esposito by her prof, the prof might consider Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword as a white glove to the face.)
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