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Islam’s Pre-History: The functions of pre-Islam in Muslim imaginations

Thursday 26 April 2018
Free to visit, drinks after
WHAT's NEW?! Spring Lecture Series
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

Pre-Islam: A time of conflicting codes

Pre-Islamic history is often labelled in Arabic as al-Jāhiliyya, the ‘Age of Ignorance’ or ‘Age of Passion’, that preceded Muhammad’s prophetic mission. Accordingly, it seems logical that Muslims must reject Islam’s pre-history as an era of chaos ignorant of Divine Truth, and therefore, that Muslims must not accord much, if any importance to Islam’s pre-history. This is not the case, however. Pre-Islam in early Muslim imaginations was an era of conflicting codes: Arabic literature presents pre-Islam as honourable yet disorderly, noble yet polytheistic; it is projected as the origin of the Arabs, but also a violent time – a paradoxical mix of bandits and kings, desertscapes and palaces, beautiful poetry and brutal violence, paganism and ancient prophecy. The variations reveal the shortcomings of generalising about one monolithic Muslim notion of ‘pre-Islam’ since not all Muslims thought about the past in the same way.

This lecture will introduce the first findings of a new research project just underway which critically appraises the functions of pre-Islam in Muslim imaginations. The resulting paper will focus on pre-Islam in the formative documents of the Muslim tradition: the Qur’an, Prophetic sayings and Islamic law.

About Peter Webb

Peter Webb specialises in the literature and culture of pre-modern Islam. His research examines community, ethnicity and social identities in the early Islamic world, with particular focus on the origins and development of Arab identity and the stories of pre-Islam recorded in Arabic poetry and prose. In 2017, he received an NWO Veni grant for his project EPIC PASTS: Pre-Islam Through Muslim Eyes. Webb studies 9th and 10th century Arabic texts in order to reevaluate the way Muslims at the time remembered and reconstructed the history of pre-Islam. 

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