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Social Origins Of Islam

Mind, Economy, Discourse

Mohammed Bamyeh

Publication Year: 1999

The story of the origins of Islam provides a rich and suggestive example of sweeping cultural transformation. Incorporating both innovation and continuity, Islam built upon the existing cultural patterns among the peoples of the Arabian peninsula even as it threatened to eradicate these same patterns. In this provocative interdisciplinary study, Mohammed A. Bamyeh combines perspectives from sociology, literary studies, anthropology, and economic history to examine the cultural ecology that fostered Islam. Highlighting the pivotal connections in pre-Islamic society between the emergence of certain economic practices (such as trade and money-based exchange), worldview (as rendered in pre-Islamic literature and theology), and the reconfiguration of transtribal patterns of solidarity and settlement, Bamyeh finds in the genesis of Islam a sophisticated model for examining ideological transformation in general. At the heart of Bamyeh’s enterprise are close readings of both the Qur’an and the pre-Islamic poetry that preceded it. Bamyeh uncovers in these texts narrative and pedagogical content, poetic structure, use of metaphor, and historical references that are suggestive of societies in transition. He also explores the expressive limits of the pre-Islamic literature and its transmutation into Qur’anic speech in the wake of social transformation. Emphasizing the organic connections between belief structures, economic formations, and modes of discourse in pre-Islamic Arabia, The Social Origins of Islam explains how various material and discursive changes made the idea of Islam possible at a particular point in history. More broadly, it persuasively demonstrates how grand cultural shifts give rise to new systems of faith.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xiv

The story examined in this work has thus far been largely confined to an area of specialized scholarship that, as Edward Said has effectively demonstrated, consciously resists theoretical accounts. “Regional Studies,” as they are often called, are regularly restrained to “factual” narrative.1 ...

Part I: The Ground

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One. The Ideology of the Horizons

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pp. 3-16

We are speaking of a terrain in which life repeats itself both endlessly and precariously. Here, the eyes of the inhabitant open daily to a topography of solemn solitude, far more imposing to the soul than the minuscule islets of social life encountered thereupon. The desert is a sphere of absolute speechlessness. ...

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Two. Socioeconomy and the Horizon of Thought

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pp. 17-52

Nomadic (badawah) and sedentary (hadarah) lifestyles—along with some important subdivisions—constituted the two recognizable forms of social organization before and after the coming of Islam. Ibn Khaldun situated the badawah lifestyle historically before the hadarah, arguing that the formation of a sedentary society comes about only after an accumulation of nomadic wealth motivates a settlement.1 ...

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Three. Social Time, Death, and the Ideal

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pp. 53-78

Eternal subsistence nomadism and the similitude of past and present seemed to the Bedouin to be normative destiny. Austere as it was, Bedouin life seemed inescapable. Western and northern Arabia offered only a few alternatives, mostly around small-scale agriculture and trade, which in turn could only be practiced by a small number of sedentaries. ...

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Four. Pre-Islamic Ontotheology and the Method of Knowledge

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pp. 79-114

Spiritual life in the immediate pre-Islamic era consisted of paganism, book religions, and Hanifism. None of these could be confidently thought of as a “finished product” in its own right. Such movements and practices are best conceived of as trends of belief, open to diversity, amendment, and experimentation. ...

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Five. The Discourse and the Path

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pp. 115-140

Ilm al-Kalam, or scholasticism (literarlly, “the science of speech”) was one of the most foundational components of early Islamic philosophy, as it began to take form a little less than a century after the death of the prophet.1 The centrality of language analysis to many Islamic systems of thought is one of the most striking historical features of the intellectual offshoots of the faith. ...

Part II: The Faith

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Six. Prophetic Constitution

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pp. 143-178

The pre-Islamic epoch witnessed a profusion of prophets and sages. Reports abound of mystics and diviners preaching doctrines and even sayings not far removed from what Muhammad was to articulate with more decisive impact. ...

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Seven. The House of the Umma and the Spider Web of the Tribe

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pp. 179-230

The beginning of open proselytization by Muhammad in Mecca, after three years of reclusive confinement within the small network of the early faithful, was reportedly instigated by the Qur’anic instruction:“Admonish your nearest kinsfolk and show kindness to those of the believers who follow you.”1 ...

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Eight. Austerity, Power, and Worldly Exchange

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pp. 231-256

The Qur’an words, amid the heat of the war against Mecca, revealed a sense of torment about the raison d’être of the war: “They have hearts they cannot comprehend with; they have eyes they cannot see with; and they have ears they cannot hear with. They are like beasts—indeed, they are more misguided.”1 ...

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Nine. In Lieu of a Conclusion: The Origins, the System, and the Accident

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pp. 257-270

Successive events, understood in terms of continually changing microcontexts, may show the grand historical narrative that they collectively construct to be simply the product of a series of accidents, whose ultimate outcome could not have been predicted from the outset. ...


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pp. 271-298


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pp. 299-304


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pp. 305-316

E-ISBN-13: 9780816689842
E-ISBN-10: 0816689849
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816632640

Page Count: 332
Publication Year: 1999

Edition: First edition

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Islam -- Origin.
  • Arabian Peninsula -- Social conditions.
  • Arabian Peninsula -- Civilization.
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