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Is There Anything Original About Islam?

2455 words - 10 pages

Is there such thing as a true paradigm shift in history? Can events take a new course radically independent of the past? Or is such a view a naive, idealised narrative that should be constrained to the great works of fiction? This is the polarising debate among Western academics with the romantic outlook supported by Hegel and popularised by Carlyle's 1841 lecture series On Heroes and Hero Worship losing ground in the second half of the last century to the deterministic view of the social sciences, a tradition beginning with writers such as Marx. The rise of Islam is a particularly fascinating case study for both camps. A new religious tradition is formed, a civilisation born, and within one hundred years of the founder's death an empire stretching from Western Europe to the Indic plains created. This essay will examine the literature placing these events within the cultural context of the Arabian Peninsula. I will begin by outlining the challenge that faces us in such an investigation, consider the social changes of the period, examine the religious background and conclude that Islam saw itself not as a radically different religion, but the continuation of the tradition of Abraham and Moses, the most original aspect of which is the claim that the Koran is the recited word of God.One key difficulty in assessing the position of Islam in the history of salvation is our lack of knowledge of the cultural situation that existed before the life of the Prophet. There is no Muslim equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, nor is it likely that such evidence will be discovered given what little we do know about the religious background of pre-Islamic Arabia. This issue will taint the main part of this investigation; therefore it is perhaps useful to cite a case study to illustrate the problems that face historians of Islam.Writing in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (1968) , Kister navigates existing scholarship in order to give a clearer insight into the meaning of a single Arabic term that appears in two key stories about the life of the Prophet. The term 'al-taḥannuth' occurs in stories related by both Ibn Ishāq and Al-Bukhārī, both in reference to the Prophet's sojourn at Mt. Ḥirâ. Early Muslim scholars were unaware as the exact meaning of the term but associated it with practices such as seclusion, meditation or contemplation. Clearly there are similarities here with Eastern practices of the Indic peoples as well as the Christian monastic tradition to the West. Kister shows that modern scholars are also divided with definitions varying from "living a solitary life" to "a kind of service at the temple" . Hirschfield believes the term derives directly from the Hebrew 'teḥinnoth' meaning 'prayers'. Watt tentatively agrees stating the term refers to "some sort of devotional prayer". If this is correct then one could certainly put forward a case for Jewish influences in the Prophet's life before...

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