- Before and After Muḥammad: The First Millennium Refocused by Garth Fowden
In this book Garth Fowden develops his earlier work, in From Empire to Commonwealth, on the “long” or “late” late antiquity by essentially making the period both longer and later, as well as redrawing its focus on Muhammad, whose emergence he marks as the central event of this era (for example, 198). As in his previous work, Fowden shows strong influence from Peter Brown, Glen Bower-sock, and other advocates of the “long” Late Antiquity, yet he parts company with them in their decision to define the period in question between the years 200–800 ce. Fowden draws inspiration from their efforts to include the emergence of Islam within the boundaries of Late Antiquity, even as he maintains that once Islam has been introduced, a new periodization is required (12). The main argument of the book is that letting go of the idea of Late Antiquity and focusing instead on the first millennium will provide deeper understanding of both the past and our present situation. One should note, however, that Fowden does not completely reject earlier periodizations focused on the idea of Late Antiquity, but instead advocates the first millennium as a more useful and underutilized vantage point. Fowden also argues for a shift in emphasis to the East, which actually, it would seem, has already taken place: over the past two decades the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East have emerged as a significant center of gravity in late ancient studies.
The book begins with a chapter arguing for the inclusion of Islam within Late Antiquity, again, a change that seems already to have occured. The second chapter is a historiographical excursus that traces the roots of late ancient studies from Gibbon through the present, with an eye toward Islam. Chapter 3 makes the case for refocusing our periodization away from Late Antiquity and instead around the first millennium, and chapter 4 makes the case for a shift to the East as mentioned above. Chapters 5 and 6 explore the themes of Aristotelian philosophy and legal cultures as areas where this new focus can provide new perspectives. The final chapter seems more like an epilogue, reflecting on the first millennium from the perspective of four different medieval centers: Tūs, Baṣra, Baghdad, and Pisa.
The main question, I suppose, is does this alternative perspective deliver? Does [End Page 247] it have much to offer beyond what the long Late Antiquity already provides? I suspect that different readers will come to different conclusions in this regard, but for myself, I must say that I am not persuaded by the argument’s presentation, nor do I see any real advantages for my own work in embracing what essentially amounts to a very long Late Antiquity—even though I frequently work across the traditions and the periods in question. According to Fowden, a turn to the first millennium is important in part because this perspective is particularly “relevant to Europe’s task of assimilating its Muslim populations” (83). Perhaps, then, Europeans will find this construct more useful than Americans. This is, after all, a rather European book: while the footnotes offer a tour de force of European scholarship, a great deal of American scholarship on religion in Late Antiquity is absent, with some notable exceptions (most especially, that emanating from Princeton). A shift from Late Antiquity to the first millennium also has some value in that it moves away from Christianity as the defining element of our historical periodization. Nevertheless, as Fowden himself acknowledges, his alternative simply replaces Christianity with Islam as the definitive cultural force. Accordingly, specialists on early Islam may find this alternative perspective especially useful. Yet during the period in question, one might note, Christians remained in the majority even in western Asia, as Fowden himself occasionally acknowledges. Could one not then just as easily conceive of this era as “the Christian Millennium” instead of “Before and After Muhammad”?
As one would certainly expect from...