Middle Eastern History #19
A New Perspective
The “View From the Edge”, as illustrated by Bulliet, is a unique perspective of Islamic history that focuses on how nonArab converts in remote lands shaped the evolution of Islam into a globally embraced religion. Such a different outlook does not focus on battles and conquests and the subsequent rise and fall of dynasties as most Islamic historians concentrate, but rather on how ordinary people molded the rising of one of the most universal and cherished traditions. By replacing politics and the caliph with the individual and his life, the early period of Islam and how it developed into a universal and homogeneous “normative Islam” by the 12th century can be better understood. Because of the distinct separation between local religious authority and the caliph, a “view from the center” fails to address how “normative Islam” could become rooted and homogenized throughout the globe. Bulliet claims that individuals, particularly nonArab Muslim converts, who raised questions about Muslim rituals and behaviors defined the “edge”. Many of these poorly indoctrinated religious communities on the edge were illiterate, and therefore could not resort to the Quran for authoritative answers. Others had converted, for various reasons including government benefits or freedom (for convert slaves), and had only now begun to question their responsibilities as a new Muslim. Because of such a desire to understand their faith, people turned to Companions (or Sahaba), Followers (or Tabi’un) and eventually transmitters of Hadith (or Muhaddithun) for answers and guidance. These uninstitutionalized religious authorities, who otherwise would have been ignored given a more “central” view of the caliphate, played an essential role in answering convert’s questions and thereby spreading Islamic knowledge to “edge” societies. In search of such answers and knowledge, new converts migrated from nonMuslim rural areas where they had been ostracized and spiritually deprived and congregated in large Muslim communities. By the end of the bandwagon period these communities had grown into huge Muslim cities. Bullliet comments that the “urban Muslim communities of eleventh century Iran . . . evolved from the local consolidation of societal edges rather than from a centralized religious tradition or authority symbolized by the caliphate” (146). Whereas the“view from the center” concentrates on a homogenous early Islam represented by prominent Arab Muslims in Mecca and Medina, Bulliet’s perspective focuses on the diverse group of nonArabs living in areas distant from the religious cities. Bulliet states that the “view from the edge” “sees Islam not as an Arab tent or caliphal
palace, but as a house with many rooms” (114). Although evidence from these dispersed and ignorant individuals in biographical dictionaries is rare, they were the main force, according to Bulliet, that shaped Islam simply by raising questions to local religious authorities about proper behavior and rituals. Such talab, or quest for knowledge of Islam, is the main cause of the booming migration to cities seen in the 9th century. The reigns of the caliphate could never explain how Islam affected these people so drastically who were so far from the political center and so ignorant of the caliph in their lives.
Once Muslim cities were booming, “life in the cities, the true locus of Islam’s civilizational greatness, inexorably molded society more forcefully than any caliph or philosopher” (99). Religious authorities in the cities had more influence over the Muslim population than the government, for they were the ones to answer the population’s questions about Islam. Such powerful religious authorities included travelers who shared hadith from abroad, Sufis who claimed to have had direct contact with God, and faqis who were religious jurists. As cities expanded, the number of these essential religious authorities also rose to answer the everincreasing questions of the public. These religious authorities fall under the general category of ulama, or religious scholars. The uluma “provide[d] a locus of local stability and religious authority” (113) and were some of the most powerful individuals and leaders around. “Destined . . . to be the instrument of drawing Islam together and . . . helping to guide it” (9), the uluma had far more influence over the shaping of Muslim society than any political ruler. The lopsided migration of converts to cities expanded the population of cities so drastically that cities outgrew their food sources. The agricultural foundation was far too thin to support the mushrooming cities because of the shortage in labor and the inability to increase the rate at which water flows through the qanats to irrigate farm fields. Because importing food and supplies from abroad into a landlocked city was extremely slow and difficult, cities such as Nishapur were dangerously vulnerable to a food crisis. Famine and epidemic disease ensued, and contributed in large part to the decline of many great Iranian cities. Cities such as Nishapur were abandoned as many people migrated outward to other countries. As many of the learned uluma emigrated abroad, to Northern India and Anatolia especially, they brought along with them their knowledge and became visiting scholars. The Iranian emigrant scholars thus helped to initiate the foundations of Islam abroad and create a homogenous concept of Islam throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Such uniformity in “normative Islam” was evident throughout the 12th to 14th centuries in how the number of Madrasas (places of study of Iranian origin) increased
throughout the Middle East. Books in the Madrasas became standardized, so deviations in the Islamic faith were reduced still more. The “Theological consensus came not from the political institutions of the center, but form the scholarly milieu of the new madrasas” (153). In addition, Sufi brotherhoods and young men’s organization (futuwwa) spread in the 12th century, showing the Iranian influence on the new global definition of “normative Islam.” Although local practices still continued, such as worshipping at local shrines, and new “edge societies” of Muslim converts were already forming in India, Anatolia and West Africa, there still was a new homogenous Islam that had emerged by the 12th century throughout the Middle East. Such a uniform understanding of “normative Islam”, as demonstrated by worldwide pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina (known as the hajj), was due in large part to newly founded madrasas and mosque teachers all over the Middle East. The “view from the edge” is based on the fact that “for two hundred years [there was] lack of a central authority officially prescribing social practices and structures” (125). Instead of a centralized religious authority, the uluma dominated the Iranian urban society and defined social norms. They had a unique relationship with the state and caliph in which they both kept each other in check. The uluma regulated the caliph by granting him religious authority while the caliph regulated the uluma by justice and law. An “edge” view of Islamic history recognizes the immense power and authority the uluma had over the people as well as the caliph. Bulliet even argues that the uluma had far more influence in the evolution of Islamic society than the constantly changing political rulers and empires. The Muslim’s veneration of these local religious authorities is best shown when alMa’muns tried to enforce orthodoxy in Islam by expanding the government’s power into religious affairs. Such “an intrusion of the caliphate into what had developed over the preceding century as local constellations of religious authority” (119) created tension throughout the Islamic community and eventually “provoke[d] resistance” (119). Bulliet criticizes the typical Islamic historian for emphasizing the rise and fall of caliphs as the main contributor to the evolution of Islamic society. He convincingly argues that individuals who are considered “insignificant” in the large scheme of history are the main driving force behind the evolution of Islam. Such people are ultimately responsible for drastic changes in political forces and “epic conquests and tragic defeats” (7) that saturate our current history books. Thus, “the history of Islam as commonly narrated leads in the wrong direction” (4). As Bulliet laments, “The view form the center follows [the ruler’s] dynastic trajectories without reading into them the larger meanings ascribed to the vicissitudes of the caliphs” (7). These “larger meanings” behind the political scene constitute the “view from the edge”. Historians should, according to
Bulliet, change their perspective on Islamic history and “look with different historical eyes” (4) to fully understand how Islam became rooted in the lives and social structure of people all around the globe.