Read an Excerpt
The Venture of Islam, Volume 1: The Classical Age of Islam
Conscience and History in a World Civilization
By Marshall G. S. Hodgson
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1974 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The World before Islam
The Islamicate was unique among the great civilizations of its time in failing to maintain the earlier lettered traditions of its region. Elsewhere, the masterpieces of the first millennium BC continued to form the starting point for intellectual life. Right up to Modern times, the classical Greek and Latin (and even ancient Hebrew) masters were read in Europe, their contemporary Sanskrit and Prakrit masters in the Indic regions, the Chinese in the Far East. In Islamdom, on the contrary, the Semitic and Iranian literatures of the preceding periods were gradually replaced by Arabic, and later Persian, during the early centuries of Islam. Except in special little groups they died out, relatively little surviving even in translation. Indirectly, elements of the old lettered traditions persisted strongly in the new; but the great ancient works were mostly unknown to Muslims in the original or in translation. Instead, the Muslims developed their own classical models afresh. On the conscious literary level where the consciences of cultivated persons are engaged, the coming of Islam, then, marked a breach in cultural continuity unparalleled among the great civilizations we have come to know; a breach which can help to produce an impression of youthfulness—or of immaturity—on observers more at home in civilizations with a longer explicit heritage. The breach with the older regional heritage was later emphasized still more when the Islamicate civilization, again uniquely in its time, became so widely dispersed over the hemisphere that it ceased to be associated exclusively with a single region and became dominant even in the heartlands of the older Greek and Sanskritic traditions.
Yet the Islamicate society was not only the direct heir, but in significant degree the positive continuator of the earlier societies in the lands from Nile to Oxus. By geography and in point of human and material resources, it was ultimately heir to the civilized traditions of the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Persians, and their various neighbours; more particularly, it was heir to the traditions expressed in the several Semitic and Iranian languages cultivated during the centuries immediately preceding Islam, traditions which in turn had built on the more ancient heritages. In their more routine dimensions, life and thought did not greatly differ in the earlier Islamic centuries from what they had been in the later pre-Islamic ones. Numerous details in the culture of the Islamic period—art motifs, social customs, the presence of minority religions such as the Christian—make sense only in terms of the earlier cultures which first produced them. What is more, the Muslims inherited also in large measure the problems, the opportunities, and the temptations of their ancestors in the region. Even those aspects of the civilization which were most strikingly new—for instance, the Muslim religion itself—were formed in the context of the earlier Irano-Semitic traditions. The goals to be set, the norms to be abided by, had been adumbrated long before.
Hence the achievements of the Muslims, in the unexpressed implications of their writings or their art, in the deeper problems solved in their institutions, often presuppose the continuing lifeways formed before Islam in the whole region; to savour these achievements, even to assess their uniqueness, one must recall the motive forces of that earlier life. What differed under Islam was largely the relative weighting of different elements in the culture, the balance among them. In working out that new balance, the impulses which formed Islamicate culture proved to be exceptionally comprehensive and self-sufficient.
Even these impulses go back into pre-Islamic times, however. With the proclamation of Islam in Arabia, or at latest with the subsequent Muslim conquests, a new subculture, a new complex of cultural traditions, appeared within the existent Irano-Semitic societies. But this was not yet in itself the Islamicate civilization, though its heritage later formed the decisive element in defining that civilization. As to the substance of social traditions—basic expectations, knowledge, and even taste—others of the many heritages which went into forming the civilization were commonly more decisive in it than the heritage of the nascent Muslim community. The actual civilization, then, took time to form. Even as to the Islamic contribution itself, it was only with time that the developing Islamic traditions could penetrate into the various aspects of the existing high cultural life of the times sufficiently for it to take on identifiably Islamicate forms. But much that was to be associated explicitly with the Islamicate civilization arose less from interaction with the Islamic traditions themselves than from independent new developments within the older traditions. Some of these were well launched long before Islam.
Accordingly, we must recognize an ill-defined period of gestation of the Islamicate civilization, when its characteristic traditions were taking form and being brought together. This period began long before (and ended a considerable time after) the crucial event—the life of Muammad—which marked the beginning of the new subculture. Here we will try to trace, in this pre-Islamic background, the developments that gradually sharpened within it in the direction of Islamicate culture. We will begin by recalling certain long-enduring overall social traits which have now very nearly vanished, but which must be borne in mind at all times in appreciating any work of Islamicate culture.
The culture of agrarian-based society
We necessarily possess some image of society and culture in civilized lands before the Modern Technical Age—an image usually influenced at least vaguely by Karl Marx or Max Weber and their masters. In order to specify effectively what was distinctive in the Islamicate development, I shall have to single out points in pre-Modern social structure that were crucial to that development as I see it in this work; and then to define a term that will (I hope) bring to mind the particular complex of phenomena I find relevant—which does not coincide exactly with those that Marx or Weber have brought into view.
When men first built cities and extended an urban governmental authority over the surrounding villages, they posed in a new form the dilemma between social privilege and equal justice. In the valleys of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Kârûn, and of the Nile, and in several neighbouring lands, the city dwellers, especially the wealthier among them, enjoyed a substantial share of whatever was produced in the countryside, beyond what the peasants themselves needed so as to keep going. This was the 'revenue' of the lands. It was regarded as at the disposal of whoever wielded power locally, and served to support those who performed such essential functions as storing grain against the day of bad harvests, maintaining internal order, defending the area against outside predators, and, directly or indirectly, an increasing variety of other specialized tasks ranging from the propitiation of natural forces to the importation of exotic objects, such as metal, which all had need of.
Those who controlled the revenues patronized all that was refined in cultural life above the level of village subsistence; and the quality of this culture tended to depend directly on the material prosperity of its well-to-do patrons. Thus it was the wealthy who patronized the fine crafts which, in the cities, produced beautiful objects of leather and cloth and wood, as well as of bronze and silver and gold, for ornamentation and for all everyday purposes; whatever came under the hand or the eye of the wealthy was a specially designed work of art. The craftsmen passed on their methods from father to son; the methods included as much the aesthetic standards, and even the particular aesthetic forms, as they did the physical technique, from which indeed the forms were inseparable. The excellence of the result depended largely on the quality of materials used, the amount of time the craftsman could spend on a piece, and the degree of discipline of the craft tradition; all these depended in turn on the patrons. When the revenues from the land were great, when the wealthy who received them could use them in security to gratify their tastes, and when those tastes in turn had been cultivated through lifetimes of high standards, the craftsmen were able to develop their skills and put forth their best efforts. If, on the other hand, times were troubled, and for some reason the wealthy could not collect much revenue from the peasants, or could not use it freely for their private tastes, the quality of craft work was likely to decline.
It was in the cities likewise that more monumental art was produced—fine massive buildings, and the statuary and other carving and painting that went with them. Enormous effort was commonly put into temples which, as expressions of the honour paid by the community to the gods, were to the interest of all, or at least all in the cities; commonly the temples represented the best that men's resources could achieve. At the same time, the homes and courts of rulers and of well-to-do individuals were likewise built as sumptuously as such individuals could command. Finally, it was in the cities, and among those released by wealth or office from the everyday labour of the peasant, that people produced a refined literature of ritual and of myth and legend; a literature which finally came to enshrine a sense of personal conscience in the face of the cosmos. Such monumental literature, like the monumental architecture, was often devoted to magnifying rulers also, whom indeed it was sometimes difficult to distinguish from the more natural Powers.
All these arts of civilization, then, were dependent on the patronage and appreciation of a limited number of privileged persons in the cities. As in the case of handicrafts, when wealth failed to concentrate peacefully in their hands, standards of excellence declined. Their wealth, in turn, depended on the subjection of the bulk of the population, especially the peasants.
Most persons who troubled to compare the state of the great and the lot of the peasants, or other lesser beings, were content to observe that a mere peasant, rude and uncultivated from his childhood, had all that was due him if he had just enough to live on. Yet, very early, voices were raised in doubt. One of the arts of civilization was the art of legally enshrined justice; a ruler might pride himself not only on a magnificent palace, or on a magnificently composed record of his awesome exploits, but also on a reputation as a giver of just laws. As the cultivation of a personal conscience came to the fore among the civilized arts, the pride of justice might be expected to loom ever larger.
At first it was the temple that was the focus of whatever high culture there was. At the temples in ancient Sumeria, where urban life began in the fourth millennium BC, the work of controlling the local flooding and providing for the drought of the Mesopotamian alluvial plain was carried on under the learnèd priests, who in turn disposed of the surplus. It was they who sent out traders to bring in exotic goods necessary to the developing exploitation of the plain, fertile but lacking in minerals and even stone. When disputes arose with rival towns, perhaps over control of the trade, they organized the fighting men. But then as warfare became more elaborate—each town trying to outdo the others—military affairs and the general control of the town fell into the hands of non-priestly specialists: kings and their dependents. The royal court became a second focus of high culture alongside the temple, and was based like it upon agricultural production. Its revenue, in whatever form it took it, may be called taxes, which came chiefly from the land. Much more gradually, at last, the traders too became independent merchants, doing business on their own account and gaining enough profit to share, if more modestly and indirectly than temple or court, in the revenue of the land. When this happened, rich merchants too became patrons of the arts and the market became a third focus of high culture.
All three foci of high culture depended on the condition of agriculture. The basis of temple and court was agrarian in that their wealth and power presupposed chiefly arrangements concerning agricultural production. The market depended on agriculture less directly than did temple or court, for the traders brought goods from afar subject to other hazards than that of the local weather, and (provided there were sufficient stored savings) sold their goods in lean years as in fat. Yet, in the long run, the merchants too depended on the state of agriculture and their profits presupposed the peasants' surplus. Even when, as in Syria, mercantile city-states arose which depended primarily on distant trading by sea and land, their trade depended so intimately on the agrarian societies about them that both morally and materially they too lived ultimately from the peasants. Even the pastoralists, including the desert nomads, who depended on the agriculturists for much of their food and goods, were part of the same social complex. Accordingly, the type of social order which was introduced into the agricultural regions (and the areas dependent on them) with the rise of cities may be called agrarian-based or (to be more comprehensive) agrarianate citied society. (I say 'citied', not 'urban', because the society included the peasants, who were not urban though their life reflected the presence of cities.)
We shall use the phrases 'agrarianate' society or culture to refer not just to the agrarian sector and the agrarian institutions immediately based on it, but to the whole level of cultural complexity in which agrarian relations were characteristically crucial, which prevailed in citied societies between the first advent of citied life and the technicalizing transformations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The term 'agrarianate', in contrast to 'agrarian', then, will refer not only to the agrarian society itself but to all the forms of society even indirectly dependent on it—including that of mercantile cities and of pastoral tribesmen. The crucial point was that the society had reached a level of complexity associated with urban dominance—in this sense, it was 'urbanized'—but the urban dominance was itself based, directly or indirectly, primarily on agrarian resources which were developed on the level of manual power: based on them not in the sense that all must eat but that (since most production was agricultural) the income of crucial classes was derived from their relation to the land.
The culture of agrarianate citied society can be characterized as a distinct type in contrast both to the pre-literate types of culture that preceded it and to the Modern technicalistic culture that has followed. In contrast to precitied society—even to agricultural society before the rise of cities—it knew a high degree of social and cultural complexity: a complexity represented not only by the presence of cities (or, occasionally, some organizational equivalent to them), but by writing (or its equivalent for recording), and by all that these imply of possibilities for specialization and large-scale intermingling of differing groups, and for the lively multiplication and development of cumulative cultural traditions. Yet the pace of the seasons set by natural conditions imposed limits on the resources available for cultural elaboration; moreover, any economic or cultural development that did occur, above the level implied in the essentials of the symbiosis of town and land, remained precarious and subject to reversal—in contrast to the conditions of Modern times, of our Technical Age, when agriculture tends to become one 'industry' among others, rather than the primary source of wealth (at least on the level of the world economy as a whole).
We must recognize the great diversity within what we call 'agrarianate' society, both as to the level of complexity it reached and as to the forms of elaboration to be found in different areas. Fundamental changes took place everywhere, especially during what we call the Axial Age (800–200 BC). At that time, letters ceased being the monopoly of a priestly scribal class and became widespread among a section of the bourgeoisie, and correspondingly the character and pace of development of the lettered traditions changed; and at the same time, the overall geographical setting of historical action was transformed, being articulated into vast cultural regions spanning the hemisphere among them.
Excerpted from The Venture of Islam, Volume 1: The Classical Age of Islam by Marshall G. S. Hodgson. Copyright © 1974 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.