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  • The Crucible of Islam by G. W. Bowersock
  • Khaled M. G. Keshk
The Crucible of Islam. By G. W. Bowersock (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2017) 220 pp. $25.00

This work purports to fill a lacuna that Muslim scholars have not been able to fill (at least adequately, in Bowersock’s view) with regard to the origins of Islam. Bowersock utilizes a variety of sources. In nine chapters, plus a prologue, he spells out his thesis, looking at Islamic and non-Islamic sources, archeological findings, and inscriptions. The book can be divided into three, disparate, sections: Chapters 1 to 3 lay out, to borrow Wansbrough’s phrase, the “sectarian milieu” of sixth-century Arabia in a compelling manner.1 Chapters 6 to 8 (clearly not Bowersock’s area of expertise) purport to provide the early history of Islam. Chapters 5 and 9 (ostensibly containing the main point) examine Jerusalem under the Persians and the Muslims, respectively.

The book lacks cohesion; it reads like a series of disjointed essays/lectures (the majority of which are poor scholarship) hastily assembled. The reader is left constantly wondering where all the information is leading. The disappointing answer comes in the second-to-last page, in the form of the old and tired formula, “Islam is an intolerant religion,” unlike Christianity and Zoroastrianism, and the evidence is the Dome of the Rock: “‘Abd al-Malik’s Dome of the Rock arose on ground that was shared by the three great monotheisms, but it proclaimed only one of them and offered no path to coexistence with the other two” (158).

This poorly constructed conclusion comes as something of a surprise. According to Bowersock, his conclusion “does not depend upon any single methodology, but . . . invokes as often as possible critical reasoning in confrontation with whatever is transmitted, rightly or wrongly, as fact: ratio et res ipsa” (13). But the evidence that he advances for it, as given in the preceding eight chapters, hardly entails it. Had he confined himself to the first section (Chapters 1–3), the book would have been recommended as a necessary supplement to our knowledge about pre-Islamic Arabia, especially southern Arabia and its relationship with Ethiopia. Bowersock effectively shows the long history of commercial, political, and even religious ties across the Red Sea between Arabia and Ethiopia (the Kingdom of Axum). Unfortunately, he does not demonstrate the same rigor or insight in sections two or three.

Most, if not all, of Bowersock’s mistakes concern Islamic history, which clearly is not his forte. Nor can these mistakes be ignored; the [End Page 178] premise of his whole theory rests on understanding the origins of Islam. He repeatedly calls the Sasanian Empire’s capital “Baghdad,” which did not come into existence until more than 100 years after the fall of the Sassanians (75, 105, 108, 120, 129). He alludes to Sura 85 as commemorating the battle of the Trench (Khandaq), though it actually refers to another incident that, interestingly, he mentions extensively in earlier sections (113). His understanding of the development of Shi’ism and Sunnism has no basis in history (126–127 and 135, respectively). At one point, he refers to “the short revival of Mecca as a capital” (136), but since Mecca was never a capital, no revival ever occurred. There are many more examples.

The book has its merits, but unfortunately, its problems not only overshadow them; they also call into question Bowersock’s authority regarding the subjects of late antique Ethiopia and Arabia.

Khaled M. G. Keshk
DePaul University


1. See John Wansbrough, The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (Amherst, N.Y., 1978).



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