It is said that history is written by the victors, or under the shade of the victor’s swords. We know that it is the victor who imposes his vision and formulae for how history is recorded. This applies to all nations and civilizations, but Islamic history – especially its early period – is characterized by another feature. Aside from pretentions to veneration and vindication, it appears to be a document that over the course of 15 centuries has been sealed shut by religious institutions.
BY JADOU JIBRIL
THIS DOCUMENT IS ALSO GUARDED by a fierce and violent force of deterrence directed at everyone who lets himself be seduced into scrutinizing its certainties and shaking its assumptions, or attempting to shed some light onto the ‘black holes’ of early Islamic history. Religious institutions, benefitting from existing powers that be, target anyone who tries to uncover what is hidden. This continues to be done at the hands of the ‘temple guardians’ who have appointed themselves as the stewards of heaven.
‘The black hole’
The early history of Islam remains somewhat ambiguous, due to problems of myths, legends and ‘that which has been passed down’. Shadowy areas mingle and overlap each other due to the marginalization of those who expressed dissenting opinions and the destruction of their works. The first period of Islam’s advance was tossed by many political storms, both internal and external. This intense, desperate struggle for power and influence deeply affected the character of Islam’s early years.
The early history of Islam – such as the Islamic narrative has always presented it – is now in dire need of scrutiny, and of being decluttered by a process of deduction, reasoning and rational proof as long as we do not – yet – have in our possession sufficient material effects that could settle the matter. This is because the Islamic heritage is replete with myths and exaggerations, at times deliberately concealed or left obscure ‘for the sake of Jacob’s soul’.
The early history of Islam is now in dire need of scrutiny and decluttering
Shadowy areas still exist in the Islamic historical narrative. The many questions that remain show that, more than ever, the Islamic heritage is in dire need of a systematic review of this historical narrative as it relates to the first two centuries of Islam’s emergence. The future of Islam, and of Muslims, requires this, in view of the transformations that the world and mankind have witnessed in various ways. Some researchers have gone so far as to say that the early history of Islam has been marred by distortion, falsification and forgery, or at times by outright fabrication and invention for internal or external political purposes, in the interests of power and influence.
In addition to the negative aspects of what historians call the ‘history of the victors / the official history’, and to give some idea of the reality of the situation, many researchers have described the early period of the history of Islam as a ‘black hole’. Muhammad Al-Masih, the Moroccan researcher into early manuscripts has argued for this analogy, when he said:
The early period of Islamic history must be dealt with as if it were a mine, from which you have to extract seams of information from the accumulated tons of soil in the hope that you will get a few grams of value.
To scrutinise this period requires a huge effort from the researcher today, and this task has only been made more complicated by the great delay of Arab and Muslim researchers in embarking on this. This is particularly the case since ‘official Islam’ to this day remains uninterested in this issue, and instead insists on regurgitating what Muhammad al-Masih called the ‘tons of soil’, leaving it as it is and without distinguishing between the good and the bad and leaving it innocent of scrutiny.
Today, it seems they have missed the bus, and will never be in a position to carry out this task even if the will were there, because the ‘guardians of the structure of the Islamic heritage and its narrative’ remain firmly outside the circle of mankind’s enormous cognitive and civilizational development. They have contented themselves with repetition and regurgitation, and with yet more repetition and regurgitation to the point that they now find themselves entirely outside the circle of history. Their vision of history has thus remained a superficial one that divides itself into three phases:
– A golden period, which began with the victory of Islam until the middle of the ‘Abbasid era;
– The era of decadence, the period of the collapse of the Ottoman central authority over the course of 10 centuries;
– The era of nostalgia, a longing for the restoration of the Golden Age of ‘the best of the nations raised up for mankind’.
This is something that one must be constantly aware of when addressing any aspect of the early history of Islam, especially areas that have remained shrouded in secrecy. It is particularly necessary with respect to the ‘separate issues’: the compartmentalisation on the one hand of the problems in the way the Qur’an and the hadith came to be formed, and on the other hand the ‘civil wars’ and bloody internecine conflicts that marked the development of Islam in its first three or four centuries. Yes, the researchers may indeed have paid attention to the two problems – the crystallization of the Qur’an and Hadith and the internecine conflicts – but only separately, without evoking the constant interconnection between them.
But each of these problems affects the other with mutual and lasting effects. Take, for example, the adoption of the final edition of the mushaf of the Qur’an and the process of establishing ultimate authorities for the hadith. These two issues, nevertheless, had their effects on the ground and on behaviour during the internal, civil wars and on the broadening of the circle of conflict between those who the day before were ‘brothers’. In addition, these ‘details’ exercised a very significant impact on the various writings that emerged from the second century AH (eighth century AD) up until the beginning of the fourth century AH (10th – 11th century AD)
It may be that there are no neutral or untendentious writings, either among the Sunnis or the Shi’ites or other sects. Each had its own starting point – the position of the defeated, or the victorious with respect to the Sunnis, or the position of the defeated and the persecuted with respect to the rest. Examination of these writings would appear to be useful only through uncovering their backgrounds, their contradictory or reticent documentation, and cross-referencing between them. This is because each party or denomiation has something to hide, just as each of them has its own justifications for holding the other responsible and ascribing the charge of misguidance and error to them.
 An Arabic expression derived from Qur’an XII (Yusuf) 68: It was but a need of Jacob’s soul which he thus satisfied indicating that there is no clear explanation for it, or the intention or clear reason may be concealed.
 Qur’an III (Al ‘Imran), 110: كُنْتُمْ خَيْرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخْرِجَتْ لِلنَّاسِ ‘You are the best of the nations raised up for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong and believe in Allah; and if the followers of the Book had believed it would have been better for them.’
Important note: What we aim at here is positioning ourselves within the circle of historical research, scrutiny and excavation, and not in the circle of theology, faith and belief.