Patricia Crone, 1945-2015

During her incredibly prolific career as a scholar of Islamic history, philosophy, and theology, Patricia Crone wrote or co-wrote some of the most indispensable works in the Islamic studies canon. You simply can’t talk about the Caliphal military, for example, without reading her Slaves on Horses, and you can’t talk about how the early Islamic community understood the caliphate itself without reading God’s Caliph, which she co-authored with Martin Hinds. Her reach extended beyond Islamic studies, as well; her Pre-Industrial Societies is one of the most important books ever written on the topic of, well, pre-industrial societies (one thing you can say about Dr. Crone is that the titles of her books definitely let you know what you were about to read). She died of cancer on Saturday.

Patricia Crone

People who have read my Islamic history posts might remember Dr. Crone from my discussion of her first book (co-authored with Michael Cook in 1977), Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World. She later rejected many of the key findings of that book, so I wonder if she’d cringe a little at the fact that it’s being mentioned in so many of the remembrances of her that have been written over the past few days. The truth is, though, that despite its turn into nuttiness when it proposes a radical alternate theory of Islamic origins, Hagarism successfully demonstrated that the academic community that it had failed to take a critical view of the traditional Islamic narrative. Even though modern scholarship tends to support the traditional narrative at least on major points (Muhammad, Mecca, Medina, key battles, etc.), today that support rests on a much stronger intellectual basis than it did before Hagarism shook things up. You have to credit Dr. Crone for that.

Dr. Crone did something similar, albeit on a less-grand scale, in her 1987 book Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, which posited that scholars had again fallen down on the job by taking for granted that Mecca was a major international (or at least regional) trade hub, as the traditional Islamic narrative appears to suggest. As she did in Hagarism, she proposes an alternate theory (that Islam originated not in the Hijaz, but somewhere in northwestern Arabia or possibly near the Mediterranean) that goes off the rails. But on the subject of Mecca’s role in the Mediterranean-Indian Ocean trade route she makes a very strong case that it was virtually irrelevant, and she’s probably right (or at least closer to the reality than the traditional narrative), even if she probably does exaggerate the degree to which modern scholars had uncritically accepted that narrative.

It’s not many scholars who shake their field up the way Patricia Crone did. She held some controversial views that put her at odds with her colleagues, but there’s no denying her influence on the field.

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