Academia at its finest

There’s a wonderful tribute to the long-deceased University of Chicago scholar Marshall Hodgson in The New York Times Magazine today. Hodgson founded the year-long Islamic history course that Chicago still offers to this day, and the text he wrote to accompany it, the three-volume Venture of Islam, is still required reading for that course.

There they are

The first volume, at least, should be required reading for anybody governing or commentating on anything having to do with Islam, but I’m probably biased in that regard. When you read my Islamic History series (I’m working on the next one, I swear), you’re mostly reading my meager attempt to summarize (heavily summarize) Venture, with some more recent scholarship thrown in. Hodgson died in 1968, a mere 46 years old, but he fundamentally changed the way Islamic history and civilization are studied in America, at least for those who want to approach those studies with some intellectual honesty:

Before 1957, when Hodgson founded his yearlong course on Islamic civilizations at Chicago, there was no course like it. Islamic studies in America was an outgrowth of European Orientalist thought, which focused on Arabic language and literature and the core Arab lands of Islam. Persianate and Turkic dynasties were considered backwaters: Persians were important for their pre-Islamic achievements, Ottomans for their role in European diplomatic history. Sufism — the vast mystical current of Islam — was a blip in European and American historiography. A roughly 500-year period was glossed as a time of “Oriental decline,” wherein Muslim empires were said to languish under ineffectual despots.

Hodgson devoted his professional life to correcting the errors of the Orientalists. He was interested in Islam as a global creative force that propelled numerous achievements in science, art and politics. He was influenced by Marx; he believed in the realities of material conditions, of objective social relations in determining historical outcomes. But he also believed in human genius and creativity and set very high, very moving stakes for their study. He sought “what it is that makes for creativity, or for power … for sensitivity, or saintliness, in societies.”

Of course, there’s no place for nuance or respect in 2016 America when it comes to Islam:

Toggling between Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and Hodgson’s “Venture,” it’s hard to believe they’re discussing the same religion. In Islam Hodgson found one of the most creative and the most excellent of our collective human enterprises. He was a committed Quaker, and his own religious beliefs allowed him to find deep resonance in both the unity and variety of Islamic experience. “Medieval” is a kind of slur now, too, but there was something medieval about Hodgson’s combination of study and belief. For much of history, Islamic and otherwise, the pursuit of knowledge and the practice of faith were a single project. This was likewise Hodgson’s motivation and his way of reckoning with the role of Islam in world history.

…but one wonders what kind of an impact Hodgson might have had on contemporary discourse had he lived longer, had he completed and even updated Venture (he died while still working on the third volume) and had he published more. Truly a remarkable academic figure.



4 thoughts on “Academia at its finest

  1. Bravo!

    My local newspaper has disabled comments on the internet edition, which takes away the biggest megaphone the local bigots had been using to broadcast their toxic message – and boy howdy are they pissed.

    If I could only get these people to read your blog (they can write, so they can read, right?), or maybe a book, or maybe even Hodgson’s trilogy, then maybe they might start thinking and stop urging mass slaughter upon us all.

  2. On the subject of academia: do you have any opinions/experiences/clever musings on some of the newer literature that’s been published on Islams formative period? I’m thinking about works like Gabriel Said Reynolds “The Emergence of Islam”, for example. I’m no expert on the area but from what I understand they offer quite a radical new theory on the origins of Islam compared to the writings of men like Montgomery Watts and Marshall Hodgson.

    Just curious if you have any opinions on this academic b̶a̶t̶t̶l̶e̶f̶i̶e̶l̶d̶ debate 🙂

    1. OK, so, I haven’t read that Reynolds book, but I know some of his work and I’m familiar with contemporary arguments about the development of Islam from folks like Fred Donner. They come out of arguments about the formation of Islam that went on in the mid 20th century, between scholars who generally accepted the traditional narrative of Islamic origins and scholars who rejected the whole thing in favor of some really wild revisionism–there are books arguing that Islam began as a militant Jewish sect, that the Quran is an Arabic translation of a Syriac prayer book, that the Quran developed in Iraq in the centuries after Muhammad died, that Muhammad never really existed, that the original “Mecca” wasn’t where “Mecca” is today, and more.

      The trend in academia nowadays is actually back toward respecting the framework of the traditional narrative (Mecca is Mecca, Muhammad really lived and really preached what became the Quran, etc.) but with an understanding that nothing comes from nothing and that it takes time for sophisticated systems to develop. So there’s a lot more research into the texts and religious communities that might have influenced the Quran instead of accepting the idea that Muhammad just had a religious experience one day and the words started pouring out of his mouth. Donner’s thesis is that the “Islamic” community began as a much more loosely defined group of Abrahamic monotheists who accepted a few basic principles in common, and only later did it coalesce into the very distinctive faith we see today.

      This is very compelling to me because that’s how these things generally develop, over time and with a lot of thought, social development, etc. There are things you have to account for–a big one to me is the poll tax; if there wasn’t really a way to distinguish “Muslims” from Christians and Jews then who was paying the extra tax levied on non-Muslims? One simple answer is that the poll tax applied to non-Arabs, but that’s not how it’s described in the early sources. But in general it’s a lot easier to accept that Islam developed gradually than that it emerged fully formed over a few years in the 620s.

      Hodgson strikes me as someone who would’ve been all about some of these recent trends and who in fact helped to inspire them. In Venture he goes into some depth about the world before Muhammad and talks about the religious and intellectual milieu into which Muhammad and his teachings emerged. I think he understood the way new movements develop. His lasting contribution to the field to me is the way he approaches the study of Islam respectfully but thoughtfully. He’s not trying to discredit the faith the way the hard-core revisionists often are, but he’s also trying to get beyond the tradition and really think about what must have been going on.

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