BMCR 2004.02.33

Crossroads to Islam: The Origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State

, , , Crossroads to Islam : the origins of the Arab religion and the Arab state. Islamic studies. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003. viii, 462 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 1591020832. $32.00.

Radical revisionism can be helpful even when it’s unsound, if it induces scholars to reassess their comfortable assumptions about the evidence and arguments of a traditional interpretation. To the same degree as the subject matter itself, this sort of benefit extends to society and posterity beyond the academic world. As with Holocaust revisionism, for example, when the events at issue are of great importance, everyone gains from having the evidence, and arguments emerge strengthened and sharpened. (Or overturned, but then we’re talking of woolly, not cogent, revisionism.) In reading Crossroads to Islam, however, I began to suspect that there must be a usefulness threshold somewhere. If so, then surely this book fails to cross it. Crossroads to Islam is so unsound — so uninformed in its welter of detail, so specious in the contrivance of its arguments, and so tendentious in its barely hidden agenda — that it’s hard to imagine anyone taking it seriously enough to reassess anything, except possibly his or her decision to pick it up in the first place.

But then I would likely have thought the same thing of any single work of Holocaust revisionism, so perhaps Crossroads to Islam is worth at least our brief attention. There are some parallels, since like Holocaust deniers the authors don’t merely question some aspects of the consensus view, they reject it wholesale. To wit, Crossroads to Islam argues that the rise of Islam as we currently understand it never happened: Muhammad did not exist as a historical person, there were no early Arab conquests, and Islam itself did not begin to take shape until Arab rulers essentially invented it starting in the 690s — some seven decades after the traditional account has Muhammad unifying Arabia under Islam’s banner.

Before addressing these obviously provocative claims, it’s worth noting that others have recently challenged the consensus view of Islam’s origins and the early Arab conquests, suggesting revisionist interpretations of at least certain aspects of these related phenomena. Crossroads to Islam’s authors are unusual only in rejecting the traditional version outright, not in interrogating it. As they rightly point out, the contemporary sources (largely Arab and Byzantine) are sparse, and where they exist at all they’re confused, contradictory, and notoriously difficult to interpret. (In pointing to such challenges, the authors seem to take a page from the Creation Science playbook, which uses uncertainty or controversy over some of evolution’s details to imply that the idea itself is therefore invalid. Holocaust deniers have employed similar tactics.) Most notably among recent scholars, Patricia Crone has succeeded in amending a major feature of the traditional interpretation: the previously unquestioned acceptance of Mecca as a major commercial center in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Indeed, the authors invoke Crone’s well known thesis in an attempt to buttress their own revisionist credibility. Like Crone, they rely primarily on archeological evidence, but there the resemblance ends. Crone is (to say the least) a competent historian with a firm grasp of archeology’s limitations as well as its strengths.

The authors, by contrast, both Israelis, are not historians at all. According to biographical material supplied by the publisher, Yehuda Nevo “gained a B.A. in archeology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem but for many years did not work as an archeologist.” Only in the 1970s, when he was in his forties, did Nevo — cited as the main author of the book — begin what appears from the publicity bio to be somewhat spotty amateur archeology, working intermittently on early Arab rock inscriptions in the Negev desert. In 1982 his work in the Negev was underwritten by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Negev Archeological Research Project, with Nevo as “Director of Research in the field,” although “lack of funds” hindered publication of the inscriptions. After Nevo’s death in 1992, the same consideration prevented his work from being continued. Judith Koren, described as an “information specialist” in the publicity material, worked with Nevo on the Negev inscriptions. While he was alive, she collaborated with him on the development of his revisionist thesis, later putting the book into “its final form.”

This indirectly raises some big issues. To be sure, as an amateur scholar with only a B.A. myself I’m in no position to be snooty, but I have to say that the authors’ résumés hardly inspire confidence. Well, I have two B.A. degrees actually, one of which, in classics, entitles me to an M.A. (it’s a British thing). The only reason I mention it is that both my degrees include history, yet I don’t really consider myself a historian. Instead, I’m a nonfiction writer who often writes about history, which I’d argue belongs to everybody, not just to professional historians. But my status as non-historian doesn’t absolve me of responsibility for historiographical rigor. Quite the opposite. It lays a specially heavy burden on me, as an amateur, to do my level best to think like a historian, even if my main interest ultimately lies elsewhere (in my case, popularizing the work of real historians). What stands out most in both authors’ résumés is the lack of historical training — matched by a corresponding vacuum in historiographical rigor that gapes clearly, even alarmingly, in this presumptuous book.

As might be expected, some of the biggest holes lie in the parts of the book dealing with literary sources. In the first place, there are crippling deficiencies in the authors’ overall methodological approach. For example, in the introduction they defend the applicability to their case of the argument from silence, in a rather confused discussion obviously deemed necessary for the simple reason that no sources explicitly support the book’s thesis. They also proclaim flatly that all non-contemporary historical sources are “inadmissable as historical evidence.”1 This unnecessarily strict standard conveniently excludes at a stroke any later accounts that might be based on valuable but lost contemporary or near contemporary sources. Yet the bulk of Byzantine and Arabic historical writing on the conquests is made up of precisely such accounts, dating mostly from the ninth century and (scholars believe) based partly on lost Syriac and Greek Christian sources, some perhaps ultimately oral. The later writers include Nicephorus (eighth century) and Theophanes on the Byzantine side, and al-Baladhuri, al-Tabari, al-Yaqubi, and al-Kafi among others on the Arabic side. Each is fraught with problems, each needs to be approached critically and indeed skeptically, but such difficulties need not negate their value as sources. 2 Since the traditional view not just of the conquests but also of Muhammad and early Islam is based largely on them, however, they must collectively and arbitrarily be ruled “inadmissable” if that view is to be overturned, which one must suspect is real reason for so ruling.

Similar methodological problems dog the authors’ individual treatments of the few surviving contemporary and near contemporary literary sources. Anything in these sources that agrees with the traditional account is cavalierly dismissed or explained away on the flimsiest of pretexts. Particularly egregious is the authors’ suggestion, which they themselves acknowledge as unevidenced, that an important passage in a sermon by Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem from 634 to 638, is a later interpolation. The logic here is entirely circular: because the passage accords closely with the traditional interpretation, it must have been interpolated by a later writer who was familiar with that interpretation and wished to buttress it — this despite the authors’ own admission that “we have no information on the date of the manuscript or its transmission history.”3 By this sort of reasoning, which is repeated over and over in the book, other sources might also be expected to have been “corrected” by later writers to conform more closely to the traditional account, yet they were not.

For example, the anti-Jewish polemic known as Doctrina Iacobi nuper baptizati, securely dated to around 634, is commonly taken as containing the first reference to Muhammad in a Byzantine source. Describing the empire as “humiliated,” “diminished and torn asunder,” “fallen down and plundered,” and “shivered and divided,” it attributes these disasters to a “prophet who appeared among the Saracens,” a “false” prophet who has come “with sword and chariot” and “bloodshed.”4 To be sure, the picture given in the Doctrina Iacobi seems garbled, and many of its details disagree with the traditional account (for example, in seeming to describe the prophet as leading the armies of the Saracens himself). For that reason, the authors make the unwarranted leap of disqualifying it entirely, suggesting that the prophet referred to must be some figure other than Muhammad. Yet one could hardly expect a Byzantine source from this early and turbulent period to get all the details right. Even later, most Byzantine sources displayed gross misunderstanding of matters Islamic, just as Muslim sources generally did of matters Byzantine. The authors furthermore ignore the glaring question of what other figure than Muhammad (though here perhaps conflated with the caliph Umar) might be taken at the time as a prophet who had led the Arabs in conquering large parts of the empire.

That brings us to the biggest hole of all: the authors’ claim that the conquests as such never happened. In the traditional account, the Arabs explode out of Arabia after Muhammad’s death in 632, rapidly conquering large slices of the Byzantine empire and all of the Persian empire in a series of well-known battles. The zeal behind this energetic campaign, of course, is traditionally ascribed to Islam, under whose banner the previously disunited Arab tribes are assembled into a powerfully cohesive military force. Hence anyone wishing to argue that Islam itself did not take shape until much later is faced with what might be called a zeal gap: if there was no Islam to fire the Arabs with militant zeal, how to explain the conquests?

The authors’ answer is to downgrade conquest to the status of giveaway. They argue, in other words, that as part of a deliberate, long-standing policy promoting their own imperial dissolution the Byzantines had been trying literally for centuries to get rid of these lands, and they were only too happy to have the still largely pagan Arabs move in and take over. A major feature of this determined, monolithic, and previously undetected policy, it is claimed, was Byzantium’s deliberate encouragement of religious heresies such as Monophysitism, as part of a conscious effort to sow hatred of the emperor and the official church in the unwanted territories. Accordingly, the authors propose that the battles (Dathin, Ajnadayn, Yarmuk, etc.) never occurred at all, but were fabricated later by embarrassed (Byzantine) or gloating (Arab) historians. They offer suitably contorted interpretations of various sources to support their novel slant on the empire as rational actor in its own dismemberment, which needless to say will be a considerable eye-opener to any number of Byzantinists. Refuting it is beyond my meager resources, so I’ll leave that job to them, should they choose to accept it.

Crossroads to Islam hangs together with the same superficial, reality-challenged coherence that allows Christian fundamentalists to argue, for example, that God created the fossil record as is, and that therefore it can’t be taken as representing evidence of past life forms. As I’ve suggested right along, this book reeks of being argued backwards from a conclusion. That may, of course, be an unfair accusation. But in the end the skeptical reader is entitled to weigh two likelihoods. The first, certainly a possibility, is that everyone else — including generations of accomplished Byzantinists and Orientalists — got it completely wrong. The second is that two comparatively untrained Israelis might have an undeclared contemporary motive for attempting to discredit the cherished beliefs of Arabs and other Muslims.


1. Yehudah D. Nevo and Judith Koren, Crossroads to Islam (Amherst, New York: 2003) 9.

2. A good summary can be found in Chapter 1 of Walter Kaegi, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests (Cambridge: 1992), which I’ve relied on here.

3. Nevo and Koren, 121.

4. Quoted in Kaegi, 211, with discussion.