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Book Review


Asma Afsaruddin, The First Muslims: History and Memory. Oxford: Oneworld, 2008.  Pp.xx + 254. $19.95 (paper).


     Asma Afsaruddin takes on quite a challenge relative to the length of her book, but largely succeeds in obtaining her goal. In Chapters 1-8 she surveys the three generations of the "Pious Forbears" (al-salaf al-salih) of Islam (from Muhammad's life to c.855 CE/AD), dividing them into the categories of "Companions," "Successors," and "Successors to the Successors." In Chapters 9-10 she elucidates how later "hard-line Islamists and modernists" appropriated the tradition of the salaf to articulate and legitimize their responses to modernity and globalization (183). In the last two chapters (11-12), she offers her own assessment of the Islamist and modernist views and her summary conclusion.

     It should go without saying, but this book fits into the field of world history because (1) Islam has spread far and wide (the "Islamic world" ranges from Africa through the Middle East, Central/South Asia, and China to Indonesia; Europe and the United States also have sizable populations of Muslims). Furthermore, understanding the development of the early Islamic tradition and how it is interpreted by Muslim religionists and scholars has important currency in our globalized world--especially since 9/11.

     In writing the book, Afsaruddin identifies her main challenge to be the attempt to understand and interpret the classical Arabic historical and biographical sources in light of the politicized contemporary period. As she states: "writing a book even on the early pre-modern history of Islam may be perceived as a political act" driven by "an ideologically motivated stand, according to lines already drawn in the sand" (xiv). As in other religious traditions, certainly in Christianity, interpretation of the early sources among Muslims has led to conflicting intra-religious movements, each claiming that the interpretation of the past legitimizes its movement. This phenomenon is even more vexing in a religion such as Islam that does not have a central authority that can potentially dictate a normative doctrine or theology. But this scenario is what feeds the need to understand the early Islamic period and how different groups remember and use or abuse it in the present.

     Afsaruddin does not simply accept at face value the traditional historical and biographical sources she surveys. She acknowledges both the tendentious slant and interpretation of some facts to favor this or that early faction and the "fanciful and embroidered recreations or even fabrications of certain events" (xx). Furthermore, she admits that Persian and Greek influences infiltrated Islam--for example in the formulation of ideas of divine or sacred kingship and, in the case of Persia, in the areas of cultural practices, literary tastes, and culinary arts (123, 129).

     To obtain a balanced view of the first three centuries of Islam, she calls for assessing the sources and the interpretations thereof against each other. She argues that doing so "with a discerning eye" yields a good view of the broad historical context in which the early Muslim community developed and of the salient issues with which the early Muslim community had to grapple. She concludes that the early sources offer "a largely reliable reflection and reconstruction of actual events in their own time" (xx).

     Of course, revisionist scholars would disagree with Afsaruddin's conclusions. Anticipating this, she briefly brushes over the writings of some of these scholars (or "the minority rejectionist camp," as she calls them), such as John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, and Patricia Crone, and concludes that their skeptical views are based on a tendentious reading and interpretation of the sources and on their own "unsubstantiated speculations" (xiv-xvi, xx). In so portraying them, however, she does not seem to acknowledge the possibility that her own reading and interpretation of the sources, though maybe not blatantly tendentious, is influenced by the time in which she lives and by specific polemical posturings against which she is arguing.

     After reviewing the early historical and biographical sources, and the ways in which hard-line Islamists and reformists/modernists interpret them in the modern period, Afsaruddin concludes that we are justified in calling the latter "the true salafis or even 'fundamentalists' in a positive vein." This is true, she continues, because the reformers/modernists have succeeded both in revealing the true fundamentals of the Islamic tradition and in drawing on "the earliest most historically reliable information regarding the salaf," before later interpolations and constructions "skewed codes of conduct and legislation." The hard-line Islamists, on the other hand, draw on late pre-modern sources, particularly from the period when the Mamluk sultanate ruled Egypt and Syria--i.e. scholars such as ibn Taymiyya (d.1328)--to legitimize their more extremist agenda of relentless, global jihad against "mainstream Muslims and non-Muslims" (196; see also 155, 165-67).

     A useful way to talk about the differing interpretations is to explain that reformers/modernists pursue a historical approach to the salafi period, as opposed to the ahistorical approach of the hard-line Islamists. For example, concerning the Islamist model of the "Islamic state," we might ask the Islamists: to which exact time and place in Islamic history should we look for the ideal model of such a state? The ahistorical approach affords Islamists the freedom/luxury to creatively construct such a state by selectively picking from the tradition to suit their desired agenda. Reformers/modernists, on the other hand, may likely argue that historically no ideal "Islamic state" ever existed and that both the Islamic tradition and the salaf who forged it were greatly colored by the historical context in which Islam emerged and by the changing historical contexts in which it developed and spread. Afsaruddin argues that her "historical, diachronic survey" of the early period demonstrates that it is clearly untenable to speak of Islam as a reified, monolithic tradition through the generations, severed somehow from Muslim men and women who interpreted and engaged creatively with their scripture [the Qur'an], the prophetic tradition [the Sunna], and their ancillary sciences in diverse historical and socio-political circumstances. (152)

     Accepting this assessment, reformers/modernists may believe they have the right, or even the obligation, to attempt to make sense of how Islam should reconcile itself with the modern world--i.e., the "diverse and socio-political circumstances"--in which they now find themselves.

     Though Afsaruddin clearly writes within her religious tradition (as a believer), she does not evade controversial issues and interpretations on issues such as defining "Islamic government," the status of women, and the concept of jihad. Based on her own generalized separation between traditionalists/hard-line Islamists and modernists/reformers, she clearly and unsurprisingly takes sides with the latter. This begs the question: does her more liberal perspective intrude into the approach, arguments, and conclusions presented in this book? On the one hand, it seems clear that our life's experiences, worldviews, and political motivations influence all of us in our scholarship--at the subconscious level at least. However, speaking as a historian (and thus laying bare my own disciplinary bias), the historical approach that guides Afsaruddin's research and analysis makes much more sense than the ahistorical approach.

     That said, it is easy to discredit the ahistorical, hard-line Islamist perspective on key issues, as Afsaruddin does, but one wishes she had offered more analysis on why hard-liners take this ahistorical approach, something more about the worldview that leads them to their ahistorical interpretation. More explanation of this point would complement the goals she set out for her book and would help solidify for her readers the main points she makes.

     Afsaruddin's book aids teachers in conceptualizing an approach to teaching students about varying modern interpretations of Islam and why these interpretations vary. WHC readers should therefore certainly consider it as background reading. For classroom use, the text is best suited for upper-division undergraduate and graduate courses dealing with Islam (its origins, its development, and/or its contemporary interpretations) and with history and memory (as a case study perhaps).

     Finally, here is a suggestion for teachers seeking to use Afsaruddin's book to conceptualize a teaching approach for their students. You may consider supplementing your conceptualization by using a "layers of tradition" chart based on the ideas of the members of "The Jesus Seminar," who talk about four layers in the oral, and later oral and written, development of the early Christian tradition:

  1. JESUS talking about the kingdom of God
  2. DISCIPLES talking about Jesus talking about the kingdom of God
  3. COMMUNITY talking about the Disciples talking about Jesus talking about the kingdom of God
  4. COMMUNITY talking about itself talking about the Disciples talking about Jesus talking about the kingdom of God (the self-reflective layer of development)

[Source: see Robert Walter Funk, et. al, The Parables of Jesus, Jesus Seminar Series (Sonama, California: Polebridge Press, 1988), 1-24.]

     Similarly, conceptualizing the development of the early Islamic tradition would look like this:

  1. MUHAMMAD talking about Allah and Allah's revelation (to Muhammad's death in 632)
  2. COMPANIONS talking about Muhammad talking about Allah and Allah's revelation (632-c.713; includes the age of the rashidun, or "rightly-guided" Caliphs)
  3. SUCCESSORS talking about the Companions talking about Muhammad talking about Allah and Allah's revelation (c.713-c.796)
  4. SUCCESSORS TO THE SUCCESSORS talking about the Successors talking about the Companions talking about Muhammad talking about Allah and Allah's revelation (c.796-855) (This layer would include the Islamic community--or ummah--talking about itself talking about earlier generations.)

     Obviously, these layers overlap at some points, thus making the relationship between the different periods more complex than this chart allows, but it is still a helpful tool for teaching students who may have little or no background knowledge about the origins of Islam.

Eric Tuten is an Assistant Professor of History at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, where he specializes in the modern history of the Middle East. His published work includes Between Capital and Land: The Jewish National Fund's Finances and Land-Purchase Priorities in Palestine, 1939-1945 (Routledge Curzon, 2005). He can be reached at


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