Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Epic Pasts: Pre-Islam through Muslim eyes

How have Muslims imagined the world before Muhammad? Stories about pre-Islamic times feature across all genres and periods of Arabic literature, and while many writers have derided the pre-Islamic past as disorderly paganism, others celebrate its memory as a time of Arab nobility and fine literature. This project interrogates the earliest surviving layers of Muslim Arabic writing to reveal the diverse ways in which Muslims approached memories of pre-Islam, and how they used Islam’s ‘pre-history’ to articulate Islamic identities.

2018 - 2021
Peter Webb

Delacroix’s painting of Arab warring illustrated here is both an icon of Orientalism and a rather precise representation of how many Muslims imagine the world of pre-Islamic Arabia. Influential works of Arabic literature have represented pre-Islam as al-Jāhiliyya: the ‘Age of Ignorance’ or ‘Age of Passion’, and their tales of tribal warfare and revenge killings wraps Arabia’s history before Muhammad in swirls of disorderly violence. As a result, it is commonly presumed that pre-Islamic Arabia was populated by primitive Arab tribes in a state of barbarism, but these impressions overlook a tremendous complexity and nuance in the ways Arabic literature tackles Islam’s pre-history. “Epic Pasts” will critically analyse how Muslims during Islam’s first four centuries conceptualised al-Jāhiliyya and memorialised pre-Islamic history.

By bringing together, for the first time, a wide range of early Arabic sources about pre-Islam, including poetry, eschatology, jurisprudence and history, and by critically examining the contexts in which Muslims recorded their opinions about pre-Islam, this project investigates why pre-Islamic history was recorded in the various ways evidenced in texts, and how narratives of al-Jāhiliyya were built over generations of writing. The results will explain how the ‘barbarism’ resembling Delacroix’s Arab imaginary became dominant, and also how Muslims employed multifarious senses of their pre-history to express competing views about Islam’s origins and identity.

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