Islamic History and the Role of Memory

The current edition of the neo-conservative Standpoint magazine carries an interesting review by Eric Ormsby of two new books about the Prophet Muhammad by Robert Spencer (of JihadWatch) and the Muslim writer Ziauddin Sardar.  In view of the recent controversy over Tom Holland’s C4 documentary ‘Islam: The Untold Story’, this final paragraph from Ormsby’s review is particularly worth reflecting upon:

“Spencer’s hypotheses, as it turns out, are no more plausible than the traditional Muslim accounts, and in most instances, decidedly less so. The lack of written documentation for the period between 632, when the Prophet supposedly died, and 691 when Umayyad coinage or such structures as the Dome of the Rock unambiguously display a Muslim identity — or even the greater gap between 632 and the time of the Prophet’s first biographers — proves nothing in itself; it is simply that, a lack of written evidence. Those who make much of this underestimate or ignore the role of memory in traditional Muslim culture; for us memory is slippery, fallible, elusive. But for those raised in an oral culture, in which the spoken word weighed more than the written, texts committed to memory were deemed superior to those consigned to mere parchment and ink. From the memorisation of the Koran to the learning of thousands of lines of poetry by heart to the retention of hundreds upon hundreds of traditions, Muslim scholars have always been what Jorge Luis Borges termed “memorious”, and to an extent we can hardly grasp. The transmission of detailed lore about Muhammad or early Islam from one scholar to another over generations or even centuries, purely by memory, does not strike me as inherently impossible. Or might it be that there is something stubborn and uncanny, in me, as in all of us, some memory of mystery, that persuades us to cherish the shadows of all origins?”

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11 Responses to Islamic History and the Role of Memory

  1. anon says:

    role of memory in Islam—can be proven today—-the Quran is memorized in its entirety without error and this can be checked and verified because today it is also written—if this feat of memorization is possible today—it would have been more common place in early Islam at a time when the writing was scarce……….

  2. anon says:

    Perhaps the Christian-centric West will be asking if Prince Siddartha ever existed?…..Counter-theories that work for Christianity do not necessarily work for all other world religions and for the West to assume that all religions follow the “Christian” historical pattern is ignorant and arrogant….

    Assuming without evidence that the documentation by Muslim scholar/historians are not facts based on witnesses—means that a large chunk of early history has been discarded on an ill-assumed whim……….Perhaps it is time for the West to critically re-examine the way they conduct “historical research” into Non-Western areas—-because it is incorrect to assume that “history” must follow the Western pattern…..

  3. One thing over a 600 years period a 30-60 years short period seems much like a margin of error.

  4. Eliott says:

    Inayat, using quotes from Ormsby doesn’t help your case.

  5. JGN says:

    @ Inayat, Allah is supposed to be “formless”. How the formless entity can have a voice to reveal something to Gabriel? Did Gabriel hear a male voice or a female voice?

    Why the all powerful and most merciful creator put the onus of remembering HIS revealations on some poor humanbeings and later on printing/publishing them? Allah could have very well revealed what ever HE/SHE/IT wanted to say for all to hear like the sunlight we all can see or still better display the same in bold letters in the sky.

  6. Reg says:

    Hi Inayat, A Muslim friend and I often go to Spitsbergen to study the Arctic wildlife and we usually go in June because it’s always daylight. At the moment we are concerned about our trip in 2016 as my friend observes Ramadan. In 2016 the sun will not set in Spitzbergen during the Islamic month of fasting. Will we have to cancel our trip or will my friend die of thirst and hunger because your Supreme Being didn’t realise that at the top of the world the sun doen’t set for weeks on end?

  7. Reg: He is your friend. Why don’t you just ask him? Unless, of course, your real motive was to come here and be a prat.

  8. It is not surprising that Eric Ormsby says little about Ziauddin Sardar except ‘revisionist’, ‘apologist for islam’ and ‘bad style’. Ziauddin Sardar is perhaps a bit heavyweight for many people to take in because he concerns himself as much with the future as with the past. Ziauddin represents a rationalist point of view, and perhaps a humanist point of view. Thinking people have to be ready to expose fraud and deception under the guise of religion and the Koran seems to have plenty of this rhetoric, directed against the clique currently in power in Makkah. Naive students of Islam may see something in the Koran saying how terrible are the people of Makkah,
    ant then go on to the internet read about call girl rings run in those big towers by corrupt members of the religious police.
    I think the best way for muslims to defend their religion is to make use of the ‘Satirical Verses’
    which so roundly condemn abuse of power and hypocracy. Laugh at your enemies and ridicule them because the power of the book and the word travels fast these days.

  9. abdullah says:

    The Quran is not only memorized but the books of hadith too. In the Islamic university of Madinah, for example, a student studying hadith is required to memorize atleast 1000 hadith, which includes the text, the names in the chain of narration and what book it is found in. This is considered a very small amount of hadiths to memorize. There are also books for every science in islam that students memorize and they can be between 30 to 300 pages long. It is not uncommon to find muslim students who have memorized the Quran entirely, the 6 books of hadith and many lines of poetry to do with creed, jurisprudence, arabic, etc.

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