Shelomo Dov Goitein’s selection of studies dealing with Islamic history, religion, and institutions offers a wide-ranging, sensitive, and highly original introduction to a civilization by one who lived all his life studying and observing Islam.
Eschewing simplistic notions, Goitein poses fundamental questions vis-à-vis Muslim religious thought and practice, the evolution of the Islamic state in the early Middle Ages, the characteristic facets of the civilization, and the periodization of its history. Although all but one of the essays deal with the first seven centuries of Islamic history, Goitein frequently draws important connections between the past and the present.
The articles presented here have been selected with an eye to their possible usefulness for university teaching. On one hand, they provide a general introduction to Islamic civilization by one who, so to speak, has lived all his life with Islam. On the other hand, most of them are the fruit of specialized research. Thus, while adding up, it is hoped, to a rounded view of important aspects of Islamic civilization, they provide the student with an opportunity to acquaint himself not only with the results of research, but also with the methods by which they were obtained. With the exception of chapters I and III, the studies included in this volume have previously appeared in print in one form or another and in four different languages. None, however, was incorporated without revision and many were worked over in their entirety and greatly expanded. Such changes were necessary, for scientific papers are responses to momentary challenges, while chapters of a book form, or should form, parts of an enduring contribution. Only those articles which were written in recent years with a view to being integrated in a general book on Islam are rendered here more or less as they were originally published.
The image of Islamic history formed by the author in the course of forty years of research is summarized in the introductory essay (Chapter I). It contains a considerable number of viewpoints which appear here in print for the first time. In general, the studies assembled in this book approach Islam from three different directions. By thorough perusal and a new appraisal of the vast literary sources they try to get at the origin and true character of things. This applies to both religious and political institutions, as well as to social phenomena (Chapters I, III-VI, VIII-IX, XI). Through the study of documentary evidence (Ch. XIV) and fieldwork with genuine oriental communities (see Ch. XIX) they strive to understand “the man in the street” within Islamic civilization, his economic and social, as well as his spiritual life (XII-XIX). Finally, Islam is approached through comparison with Judaism. This has been done because Islam and Judaism, even from the mere typological point of view, betray an amazing degree of affinity. The question of how far the former is “indebted” to the latter is of secondary or no importance and partly outside the reaches of exact research. On the other hand, a study of parallel developments is highly conducive to a better understanding of both religions. Chapter X is a case in point, but similar considerations guided the argument also in other chapters—expressly or implicitly.
Islam is understood in this book as a human experience of divine things. How far this experience represents a real or imaginary encounter is left to the intellectual and spiritual perceptiveness of the individual reader. The author is aware of the fact that he is addressing a mixed audience. He has adopted the same attitude in his biblical studies. To those who, like himself, believe in the possibility of a real encounter, he owes an apology for letting his sources everywhere speak in their own language, the unmistakable language of human imperfection. By doing so, he hopes to serve not only the cause of truth, but that of religion as well.
At the risk of being labeled a pedant, the writer has attached summaries to studies with more involved argumentation. This was done for the benefit of both the busy scholar and the fledgling student.
The latter is advised to read the summary before the chapter to which it is attached. With a few exceptions such as j instead of dj and q for k, Arabic words are spelled as in the new edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam.
About the Author
Title: Studies in Islamic History and Institutions
Author(s): Shelomo Dov Goitein
Length: 418 pages
Pub. Date: October 21, 2009