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Peter Webb’s EPIC PASTS explores how Muslims viewed their pre-history

Peter Webb is one of the four young Leiden Humanities researchers to receive a Veni grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Webb will use the funding for his project EPIC PASTS: PRE-ISLAM THROUGH MUSLIM EYES, to reevaluate the ways in which Muslims in early Islam remembered and reconstructed the history of pre-Islam.

Imagining the Arabs

Webb had already wanted to research how Muslims in the 9th and 10th century reconstructed the history of pre-Islamic Arabs when he started his PhD at SOAS in London in 2010. “But I soon found that it could not be done,” he says, “because the concept of ‘The Arab’ as a specific community of people did not actually exist before Islam. Muslims created a sense of Arab identity in order to strengthen their community in a time of rapid change and instability.” The subsequent research culminated in the book Imagining the Arabs - Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam  and paved the way for EPIC PASTS.

Peter Webb

Working with texts

Webb’s Veni grant now allows him to focus on his project extensively in the next four years. “I will work mainly with 9th and 10th century historical and literary texts from Iraq and will analyze them via narratological and memory studies methodologies, and by paying close attention to the context of the literature’s creation,” he explains.  “Many researchers in this field so far have either dismissed the texts as not providing sufficiently accurate knowledge about the pre-Islamic period, or they have simply combed the books for the specific information they were trying to find.”

Comparative reading

“The question I want to ask is: what are these books trying to do? It is too blunt to just dismiss them as being factually invalid, but at the same time it seems Muslims were quite creative in making ‘new’ pre-Islamic history as time went on. The literature was written in varied and specific contexts which may have influenced the content, and it tells us how Muslims conceptualized their community’s pre-history. So it takes a comparative reading of the texts in their entirety to reveal the ways early Muslims viewed pre-Islam, and to appreciate the functions of the stories in pre-modern Muslim societies.”  

Civilization and barbarism

Currently, there is a widespread belief that early Muslims viewed the pre-Islamic period negatively, rejecting all pre-Islamic heritages as incompatible with Islam. But this view lacks nuance, according to Webb. “We can partially trace it back to Western scholarship in the 19th century when scholars projected the European conceptual pair of civilization/barbarism onto Islamic history. Late 19th and 20th century Muslims developed this further, declaring that Islam itself must mean civilization – thus pre-Islam must be barbarism and savagery. This view is now so well established, that many assume Muslims have always deemed pre-Islam as something crude.”

Conflicting codes

“I want to treat pre-Islam differently, reading it as an era of conflicting codes. Analyzing the early Arabic literature shows that there was no overarching consensus with regards to the period; it was viewed ambiguously and there was great variation of interpretation. For me, pre-Islam is an open-ended concept, opening up a broad project, and hopefully its results will enable us to see pre-Islam through Muslim eyes, and better uncover the true extent of the functions of pre-history in Muslim imaginations.”

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