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.
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.