The New York Review of Books

Volume 22, Number 20 December 11, 1975


Mysteries of Islam

By Clifford Geertz

The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol. 1: The Classical Age of Islam
by Marshall G.S. Hodgson
University of Chicago Press, 532 pp., $20.00

The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol. 2: The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods
by Marshall G.S. Hodgson
University of Chicago Press, 609 pp., $20.00

The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol. 3: The Gunpowder Empire and Modern Times
by Marshall G.S. Hodgson
University of Chicago Press, 469 pp., $20.00

What is Islam? A religion? A civilization? A social order? A form of life? A strand of world history? A collection of spiritual attitudes connected only by a common reverence for Muhammad and the Quran? Any tradition which reaches from Senegal and Tanzania through Egypt and Turkey to Iran, India, and Indonesia, which extends from the seventh century to the twentieth, which has drawn on Judaism, Byzantine Christianity, Greek philosophy, Hinduism, Arabian paganism, Spanish intellectualism, and the mystery cults of ancient Persia, which has animated at least a half dozen empires from Abbasid to Ottoman, and which has been legalistic, mystical, rationalist, and hieratic by turns, is clearly not readily characterized, though it all too often has been.

Marshall Hodgson, who was chairman of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago until his tragic death at forty-seven in 1968, and whose masterpiece, now finally published, represents the only serious attempt in English to address the phenomenon of Islam whole and entire, calls it a "Venture," and that will perhaps do as well as anything. The task, which Hodgson, who was a passionate Quaker, attacks with the combination of erudition, chronic querulousness, and resolute common sense characteristic of that persuasion at its best, is to discover what sort of venture it is.

His first move is to rescue Islam from its Western scholastics, the Arabists; his second is to rescue it from its own, the ulama, or Muslim religious leaders. The Arabist bias, a product of nineteenth-century European orientalism, views the early Arabic period, the years of the founding at Mecca and Medina, as defining the true faith. It regards subsequent developments, Persianate, Sufist, Spanish, Mongol, Indic, or whatever, as derivative at best, decadent at worst. For the Arabists Islamic culture is identified as "culture appearing in the Arabic language," and Syriac, Persian, or Greek cultural elements are treated as "foreign," though they formed in fact the ancestral cultural traditions of the vast majority of the peoples who comprised the classical Muslim communities.

The notion—supported often enough by racist ideas, occasionally by curious theories concerning monotheism and desert landscapes, sometimes merely by a too philological approach to the world—that Islam is the expression of "the Arab mind" has proved extremely difficult for even leading scholars to get around, much less the general public, for whom it has become by now a received idea. That such a notion makes, even for the medieval period, more than three-quarters of the world's Muslim population somehow peripheral to their own faith does not seem to be considered much of an argument against it. Islam is a religion that was made in Arabia from Arabian visions and then, hook or crook, impressed upon others.

The ulama bias, which the orientalists, and as a result of their influence the rest of us, incorporate into the Arabist one, Hodgson calls "Shariah-mindedness," after the term for Islamic religious law. Again, everything properly Islamic proceeds from the pristine period of Mecca and Medina, when faith, law, custom, and political authority are conceived to have been completely fused through the person of the Prophet and the pronouncements of the Quran. All later Islam is seen as an effort, at most marginally successful, to maintain this ideal condition throughout the whole of the Muslim world. And the vehicle of this effort is the law, a set of explicit, unambiguous prescriptions constructed on the basis of reports concerning the Prophet's actions and jurisprudential interpretations of the Quranic prophecy.

The ulama, as the guardians of this conception of what Islam should be—an undivided community of free individuals strictly observant of the codified commands of God—have thus been the carriers, as well, of a distinctive religious outlook: a rigorist, moralistic, rather literalist, and pragmatical legalism. Hodgson is no more concerned to deny the enormous importance of the ulama idea over the centuries than he is to discount the Arabian heritage; but he is concerned to question, and fundamentally, the identification of it as the essence of Islam, the orthodoxy by which piety is weighed and fidelity measured. Like Arabism, Shariah-mindedness has been but one element, and not the most important, in a various and irregular spiritual tradition.

To develop a more realistic conception than the Arabist-legalist one of what the Muslim venture has been all about Hodgson constructs a distinction between "Islam" as "what we may call a religion," and "the overall society and culture associated with that religion" which he wants to call "Islamicate." This term, like a number of others he coins ("agrarianate," "cited," "technicalistic"), probably hasn't much of a future; but it does enable him to separate those aspects of the Muslim world which have directly to do with the relations of man and God from those which do not. The line is not sharp, but if one is to define the role of Persian literary traditions, Turkic political structures, or Greek scientific concepts in what, in another coined term, Hodgson calls Islamdom, and to avoid having to talk about Islamic irrigation systems, Islamic languages, or Islamic sex habits, some such distinction is necessary.

"Arabic" for Hodgson then becomes a cultural strain in a general Islamicate civilization in which Persian, Berber, Spanish, Turkish, Mughal, Hausa, or Malaysian are others. Shariah-mindedness becomes a particular orientation in a general Islamic religiosity in which Sufism, Shiism, Wahhabism, rationalism, and modernism are others. Hodgson's theme is therefore the interaction of the Islamic and the Islamicate within Islamdom (the part of the world "where Muslims and their faith are recognized as prevalent and socially dominant") across the centuries, and the shapes of conscience which that interaction has created. It is a theme he sustains clearly, and continuously, through fifteen hundred pages of the most intricate descriptive argument.

He divides the career of Islam and Islamicate culture into six major phases:

1) the foundation of the tradition in the midst of pagan Arabia in the seventh century;

2) the initial political and cultural development, from about 750 to 950, of that tradition—the civilization of the high caliphates at Damascus and Baghdad;

3) the eleventh- and twelfth-century spread of that civilization throughout the central Islamic lands, the so-called Middle East, plus, at that time, Spain;

4) the Mongol explosion of the fourteenth century—Tamerlane and all that—which at once invaded this newly formed culture sphere and, joining it, introduced into it a powerful new principle of political organization, the military patronage state;

5) the foundation, from 1500, after the Mongol lesson had been absorbed and the Mongol dynamism exhausted, of the early-modern Muslim states, the "gunpowder empires"—Sufavid, Mughal, and Ottoman; and,

6) the reaction of the Muslim heritage, Islamic and Islamicate alike, to the "technicalistic" world the West produced after 1789.

It is a vast panorama, with a cast of thousands continuously in motion, and if Hodgson wobbles a bit (and sometimes more than a bit) when he gets west of the Nile or east of the Oxus, the over-all effect is magisterial: he handles with equal sureness Ghazali, Al-Farabi, Arabic poetry, Persian miniatures, Shii sectarianism, Sufi ecstasy, nomadic militarism, urban mercantilism, Syrian land tenure, the triumph of Ataturk, and anti-Zionism.

The view that emerges from this welter of detail—he has a half-dozen pages on young men's clubs in medieval Syria, another half-dozen on Mamluk city planning, and at one point he goes on about Muslim iconoclasm and modern art—challenges the commonly accepted version of Islam as a narrowly exclusivist creed combining fanaticism, fundamentalism, and xenophobia in equal proportions. For Hodgson Islam has been as broadly catholic a religion as the world has seen, making a place within itself for virtually every sort of spiritual orientation it encountered in its spread along the midline of the world. The Islamicate impulse has been indeed the stronger and Muhammad's community has become more what its history has made it than what its dogmas projected.

Even the founding period along the Western edge of the Arabian peninsula was much less of a parochial, corner-of-the-world affair than later commentators, for reasons of their own, have represented it. Mecca was far from a camp in the desert. It was the crossroads of two of the most important trade routes of the seventh century, one from the Gulf of Aden to the Mediterranean, the Suez of the time, and one from Abyssinia and East Africa to Iraq, Iran, and central Eurasia. Wedged in thus between the Sasanian Empire—Zoroaster, Mani, the Magi, and sacred monarchy—and the Eastern Roman Empire—Hellenism, iconolatry, and the ecclesiastical spirit—it was exposed as well to Judaism, gnosticism, and the oratorical "moralism" of Bedouin nomads. Muhammad drew on all of these in articulating his prophecy.

When during the course of the seventh century and the three following, Islam spread through Syria, Mesopotamia, Iran, and the western Mediterranean, this initial cosmopolitanism was permanently reinforced. By the time Al-Ma'mun was caliph in Baghdad—that is, after 813—the eclecticism of Islamicate civilization and the diversity of Islamic faith were indelible characteristics. Greek science and Mazdean occultism, Arabic grammar and Persian poetry, Syrian mercantilism and Iranian absolutism, Medinan traditionalism and Iraqi chiliasm, were all entangled, together with a Thousand and One Nights folk tradition of jinn and marvels. The result was a promiscuous melange even the most militantly reformist movement has never been able to sort out again.

But it was, in Hodgson's view, the period after the classical caliphate lost its dominant position in the new international civilization that had been launched under its auspices and before the Mongol incursion—that is, between the mid-tenth and the mid-thirteenth centuries—which was the definitive one for both the religious and cultural dimensions of Islam, and to which he devotes by far the longest, the most original, and the most deeply felt section of his book. It was then that three crucial developments took place. First an international political order was formed "which tied the world of Islam together regardless of particular states." Secondly, a distinctive social structure, centering around a dominant class of urban notables and local garrison commanders, a complex organization of craft and trading guilds, and that shining triumph of male narcissism, the harem system, appeared through the whole Islamic world. Finally, and most fundamentally, a radical spiritual revolution, emerging at once from above and below, transformed the entire cast of Muslim piety and with it the civilization it supported: Sufism. All this occurred at the axial time in Islamic history, the creation of "the true House of Islam." What comes before is viewed by Hodgson as having been an aggressive, ultimately successful struggle to build; and what comes after as a defensive, ultimately unavailing effort to maintain.

Sufism, which Hodgson, who otherwise is finicky to the point of obsessiveness about definitions, rather nonchalantly glosses as "mysticism," thus emerges as the critical historical category in his interpretation of the Islamic venture. It is the bridging idea that connects North African saint worship with Indian illuminationism, Shii esotericism with Sunni populism, tenth-century cosmologizing with nineteenth-and twentieth-century reform mongering, the Aristotelianism of Ibn Sina with the Platonism of Suhravardi and the Bergsonism of Iqbal. Therefore much depends—almost everything really—on the skill with which he characterizes Sufism as a phenomenon and deploys it as an idea.

Defining Sufism too capaciously would blur historical reality to the point where the specifics of Islamic faith and Islamicate civilization dissolve into a kind of generalized milk-and-water piety, half-religious, half-aesthetic; while if Sufism is too restrictively defined, the result will be strained attempts to force Islam's diversities into a single mold, a new orthodoxy to replace legalism. With the cautionary Arabist-Shariah example before him, Hodgson only occasionally succumbs to the latter fate, as when he tries to make Indic conceptions of divine kingship an outgrowth of Sufi notions of the perfect man. But perhaps because he is so concerned to avoid the narrowness of the Arabists (and because of his own notions of what, behind all variations in style and custom, true spirituality really is—a clarified inwardness that shines outward as love), he is not as successful in avoiding the former. His is, in the end, a rather tamed sort of Islam, a mild, poetic, unaffected religion of experience and fellowship constantly harassed by petty formalists, bigoted ideologues, crude tribesmen, and ambitious soldiers.

For Hodgson, Sufism is, first and foremost, an intellectual tradition, a conceptual mysticism. For all the dervish-whirling and God-is-Great chanting of the brotherhoods, for all the radical populism that animated its rise, and for all the vapors and superstitions that gathered about it, it projected an organized picture of reality fit to stand comparison with its major competitors for the mind (and thus, for this scholar-pietist, the soul) of the reflective Muslim. In the Middle Ages, these competitors were mainly Greek rationalism, Persian symbology, and, once again, Semitic legalism. Far from being a mere outburst of ragged emotion against these towers of methodical thought, Sufism for Hodgson was their proper rival—indeed, in the end, their master.

With such a perspective, the key figure, the man who made Sufism respectable both intellectually and religiously, and thus secured its place at the center of medieval Muslim culture, becomes inevitably Al-Ghazali, who died in 1111. Ghazali combined, in a curious and fateful way, Augustinian doubt-torn probings of the limits of faith with a Thomistic urge to reconcile conflicting spiritual trends. He integrated reason, revelation, law, and experience in the Islamic tradition by making the last, in the form of Sufi mysticism, the guarantor of the other three. Speculative, dialectical thought on the Greek pattern, to which he had given his early allegiance, and which he never could bring himself wholly to abandon, could not provide certainty; the doctrines it produced were correct, but the Greek methods could not prove them so. Muhammad's Prophecy had been a genuine irruption of the divine into the world, and by far the greatest of them; but mere knowledge of that fact, learned from traditions, texts, and schoolmen, could not provide the certainty of faith either. Nor could the Islamic law; built on the Revelation it must on pain of heresy be scrupulously obeyed, but it was merely the outer face of faith, not its inner substance. Only gnosis—if that is how one ought to translate the Sufi macrifa ("cognition," "intellection," "experience," "realization," "conversance")—provided more than reasons for belief but belief itself:

[The historical, legal, and philosophical doctrines] that would verify the presence of the Prophet must be capped by [another] ingredient…some touch of prophesying itself. One must be able to perceive the ultimate truth, in however slight a measure, in the same way the prophets perceived it, in order to verify definitely that they were prophets—just as one must be in some slight measure oneself a physician to judge of physicians. One must know what it is, to have not merely knowledge about the truth but immediate acquaintance with it as prophets had….
This lay in the Sf experience…. Ghazl interpreted prophecy not as an unparalleled event but…as a special natural species of awareness which merely took its most perfect form in Muhammad. This awareness was of the same sort as the Sfs gained, though of a much higher degree. Hence Sfs were in a position to recognize full-scale prophecy when they saw it…. Though the Prophet was long since dead, a touch of prophecy was always present and accessible in the community….
The intellectual foundation of Ghazl's mission, then, was an expanded appreciation of Sfism. Kalm [dogmatics] was relegated to a secondary role; and the most valuable insights of Falsafah [Greek-style philosophy]…were subsumed into a re-valorized Sfism, which now appeared as guarantor and interpreter of even the Shar' [legal] aspects of the Islamic faith.

It was through this Sufist process that, first unselfconsciously and then more and more explicitly, "the international Islamicate social order" formed between 950 and 1250 (Ghazali coming at the exact midpoint of it) developed, bringing popular piety, Shariah-mindedness, and courtly high culture into uneasy but stable balance. On the one hand, Sufism evolved an elaborate metaphysics, centering around images of light, love, and the perfect man; on the other, it gave birth to a flexible yet intricate form of social organization—the tariqah brotherhoods—based on long, spread-out chains of teacher-disciple relationships. A civilization that threatened to break into separate parts as it spread east toward India and Southeast Asia, north into the Eurasian steppes, and west to Spain and North Africa found a new and stronger principle of integration to replace that of the vanished Caliphate, in a "comprehensive Sf spirituality…supported by high intellectual sophistication."

Poetry, urban organization, state formation, class structure, architecture, and trading institutions all took form—the styles, alleys, veils, and arabesques we now associate with Islamicate culture—under the aegis of a new cosmopolitanism, "tolerating wider differences in tongue, and welcoming all that was Muslim from anywhere," so long as it connected in some way to "the ultimate spiritual criterion of the mystic, the sense of inward taste [of the divine]."

Yet, it is not, somehow, entirely convincing, this Sufi-ized (and Persian-ized) view of Islam's triumphant Middle Ages. For it makes them, as some views of our own medieval period also do, seem held together by a vague but constant religiosity suffusing all things, a religiosity both hard to define ("mysticism" will simply not do when it has to cover Moroccan miracle-workers, Anatolian poets, and Punjabi cosmologists) and difficult to connect in any exact way with the enormously varied institutional life it supposedly governed. Life in Hodgson's work seems organized by a mood, and though the mood was doubtless there, and powerful, there is an imprecision in such a way of seeing things that makes one wonder whether analyzing the Islamic venture largely by such mega-concepts as "Arabism," "Shariah-mindedness," "Islamicate," "mercantilism," "the mid-Arid zone," "agrarianate," and "Sufism" is not likely to lift the entire enterprise, despite the piling on of immense weights of descriptive detail, a few feet off the ground.

The vast dimensions of the subject—Islam, religion and civilization, everywhere and always—to some degree require the historian to work with such diffuse and panoramic ideas. But that his analysis must be based on them exclusively, or very nearly so, is less clear. Nor is it clear whether such concepts, or they alone, can bring one to the heart of such a phenomenon as Islam, close to the immediacies of its historical experience. Hodgson, thorough, scrupulous, and concrete to a fault—nothing he argues is left without supporting evidence—goes about as far toward elucidating the course of Islamic history as anyone probably can, and surely further than anyone has before him. But even he seems blocked by the very sweep of his categories, condemned to see the progression of Islam in the reduced middle distance, half montage, half silhouette.

The problem becomes all the more acute as, the great age over, Hodgson moves forward to confront less a coalesced "world civilization" than a tumbled collection of rival states and clashing cultures. When the history of "Islamdom" can no longer be represented as moving toward the crystallization of an inner ideal, but only as struggling to keep an achieved one alive, the weakness of Hodgson's broadly framed integrative concepts in grasping its irregularities grows apparent. His touch loses something of its delicacy. In part, this is doubtless because he died while working on the final sections of this book and never had a chance to revise them. But it is also true that as the historical record becomes more circumstantial, events become more visible and eras less so; and so a direct challenge is posed to what is perhaps Hodgson's central methodological premise: that the character of a civilization is defined by its most general features.

For the Mongol period around the fourteenth century, about which not all that much is known anyway, the challenge can be deflected. The Mongols, with their towers of skulls and their horseback adventurism, shook the Sufi synthesis but they did not shatter it, and they ended by joining it. Their main contribution to it was the organization of government "as a single massive army," with the monarch as its commander in chief. His camp, wherever it lighted, was its headquarters, and privileged military families its officer corps, the whole governing apparatus riding arrogant and self-contained above the established forms of social and cultural life.

By the next period, this political revolution—"the military patronage state"—came to fruition in a set of independent and quite disparate early-modern "gunpowder empires"—Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal—dominating respectively the western, central, and eastern regions of the Islamic world. Hodgson notes that "by 1550 a major blow had been dealt to the cosmopolitan comprehensiveness of Islam" by the formation of these more effectively organized armed soldier states. But he evades the issue this presents to his enterprise and treats them descriptively (this is the one part of his work that seems potted—standard summaries from standard sources), trying, vaguely and halfheartedly, to see in them a last, defensive expression of the medieval pattern.

With the modern period, between 1800 and 1950, there is no plausible way to represent matters as still in some form of Ghazalian balance. Here the incongruity between Hodgson's notion of what a civilization (and within a civilization, a religion) is and the facts of Muslim life, as Muslims lead it, becomes intensely apparent. He is forced toward the uncomfortable suggestion that the Islamic venture is just about over, an expired vision destined to persist as a nameless ghost haunting its literary remains:

…Islam as an identifiable institutional tradition may not last indefinitely. It is a question, for Muslims as for all other heirs of a religious heritage, how far any creative vision for the future…will depend on preserving and developing the heritage; and how far it will depend on escaping the inhibiting effects of the wishful thinking and even the grand (but partial) formulations of truth which the heritage seems to impose. It is possible that eventually Islam (like Christianity already in some circles) will prove to have its most creative thrust by way of the great "secular" literature in which its challenge has been embedded, and will move among its heirs like a secret leaven long after they have forgotten they were once Muslims. Persian poetry will not die so soon as the disquisitions of [law] or [theology]. And Persian poetry may eventually prove to be as potent everywhere as among those who use language touched by the Persianate spirit, and so by Islam.

So Hodgson's book ends with the end-of-Islam, except for its legacy of moral aestheticism. He foresees an Islamless Islamicate that can coexist, in the modern "technicalistic" world, with the religionless Christianity so popular "in some circles" when Hodgson was writing, and so vieux jeu now in those same circles, which now are fascinated by popular beliefs and festal celebrations. Perhaps such a view is the final outcome of trying to inflate Sufism into a comprehensive interpretative category with neither well-drawn edges nor a well-located center. The diversity of Islamic religious viewpoints remains; Qaddhafi's desert camp fundamentalism and Sadat's Cairene eclecticism do as much to divide as connect them. And, though it is not much more attractive to me than it is to Hodgson, the great power of Shariah legalism persists. So too does the diversity of institutions and cultural traditions within Islamdom: the Berbers and Malaysians both regard their sharply different social systems as properly Islamic.

One might be in a better position to understand and evaluate such phenomena if one's idea of what Islam is and has always been were closer to Wittgenstein's notion of a "family resemblance." We think we see striking resemblances between different generations of a family but, as Wittgenstein pointed out, we may find that there is no one feature common to them; the resemblance may come from many different features "overlapping and crisscrossing." This sort of approach seems more promising than one that sees the history of Islam, as Hodgson's does, as an extended struggle of a gentle pietism to escape from an arid legalism. A picture of the Islamic venture derived from "overlaps" and "crosscrosses" would be less ordered and less continuous, a matter of oblique connections and glancing contrasts, and general conclusions would be harder to come by. But it could leave us with a history less orchestrated than Hodgson's, and more immediate.

Yet his is, for all that, a magnificent achievement: a clear, comprehensive, beautifully researched, and, above all, profoundly felt account of a great spiritual tradition, a monument both to the faith of Muslims and to his own. For once, the clich applies: no one seriously interested in Islam can ignore this book. Muslim illuminism has found a powerful scholarly voice, and its echoes will be with us for a very long time.


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