The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Monday, October 27, 2014

How not to do an outsider-reaction survey for Islam

Robert Hoyland's Seeing Islam has spawned a cottage industry of outsider-reaction collections, some of which fall in the revisionist camp. Of these, I have recently found Stefano Nikolaou's A Survey of Byzantine Responses to Islam, just this day on Answering-Islam. We are promised: [The author received his M.A. in Theology from the Australian Catholic University in 2007. The following paper was an independent research project counting towards the MA degree and receiving high recognition.]

I suspect that Dr Hoyland won't be fearing the competition. I should also like a chat with the professors who graded Nikolaou's paper...

The historical section starts with Nikephoros and Theophanes; and a scan through the bibliography turns up that these come from Cyril Mango's editions and translations - which would be excellent, if I'd had the confidence that Nikolaou had taken any care in reading these translations. For a start Nikolaou asserts that Theophanes does not seem to know about Mecca. This statement, at its most literal interpretation, is false. Mecca is absolutely noted - not in a 620 AD context, sure; but not all that later on, because it'll be the focus of the Zubayrid (anti)caliphate. One might muse, more precisely, that "Theophanes does not seem to know about Mecca's role in Islam"; but I'd not place money on that bet, either.

Mango elsewhere had pointed out that these two historians had used two common Byzantine sources before them: a pro-Leo, or at least patriotic, source up to 720ish AD and then an iconodoule tract of the 760s. If we're talking reactions to Islam, the former source is the one we care about. Nikephoros brings also an even earlier Constantinopolitan source, contemporary with Muhammad.

Hoyland, 434, relies entirely on Mango here. So as of 1998, scholars had broadly accepted Mango that these lost sources were real. I think most scholars have sided with Harry Turtledove that the 720 AD source was Trajan the Patrician; as of 2007, Dmitry Afinogenov (not in Nikolaou's bibliography) had additionally published "The Source of Theophanes' Chronography and Nikephoros' Breviarium for the years 685–717", Hristianskij Vostok n.s. 4 (2005), 11–22, which mused that it was a bio of Leo. My point is, that these scholars debate only the nature of this source; they all agree upon its existence. (Since 2007, Warren Treadgold has revived Trajan, and as far as I know this be the last word on't.)

Whoever did this 720ish AD source, we can get at it through a synopsis of the two who used it. This synopsis mentions the Arabs. A lot. It could hardly avoid the topic. In fact we should transpose much of Nikolaou's discussion of Nikephoros back to Trajan (or whoever).

(As for whether Trajan mentions the names of Muhammad, the name Muslim or the Quran... well, probably not as such. I have argued elsewhere that Trajan used the Qur'an, or at least used the jargon in it as it was - concurrently - being translated into Greek. But that's a side issue.)

Also, and this pains me to say it, Nikolaou's mistakes and omissions break in one direction. He doesn't mention Mecca when it should be mentioned, 70 / 690 at latest. He doesn't recognise synoptic sources where most scholars agree they should be recognised, 100 / 720. If we were to believe him, the canon of Islam would be late - very late. This goes to scholarly bias and possible suppression of evidence - and that goes up the chain to his teachers.

So we can't believe him. Answering-Islam isn't helping its case by entertaining his notions. As for Australian Catholic University - I concede that this essay might net a "B" grade in a side class, so counting that class for college-credit; but I wouldn't count it toward the MA directly.


posted by Zimri on 18:27 | link | 0 comments

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