Historians, it is true, have become increasingly uncomfortable with narratives of decline and fall. Few now would accept that the conquest of Roman territory by foreign invaders was a guillotine brought down on the neck of classical civilisation. The transformation from the ancient world to the medieval is recognised as something far more protracted. Roman power may have collapsed, but the various cultures of the Roman empire mutated and evolved. Yet it is a curious feature of the transformation of the Roman world into something recognisably medieval that it bred extraordinary tales even as it impoverished the ability of contemporaries to keep a record of them.
He was hardly exaggerating: the decline and fall of the Roman empire was a convulsion so momentous that even today its influence on stories with an abiding popular purchase remains greater, perhaps, than that of any other episode in history. It can take an effort, though, to recognise this. In most of the narratives informed by the world of late antiquity, from world religions to recent science-fiction and fantasy novels, the context provided by the fall of Rome's empire has tended to be disguised or occluded. Consider a single sheet of papyrus bearing the decidedly unromantic sobriquet of PERF It was uncovered back in the 19th century at the Egyptian city of Herakleopolis , a faded ruin 80 miles south of Cairo.
Herakleopolis itself had passed most of its existence in a condition of somnolent provincialism: first as an Egyptian city, and then, following the conquest of the country by Alexander the Great, as a colony run by and largely for Greeks. The makeover given to it by this new elite was to prove an enduring one. A thousand years on — and some years after its absorption into the Roman empire — Herakleopolis still sported a name that provided, on the banks of the Nile, a little touch of far-off Greece: "the city of Heracles". PERF too, in its own humble way, also bore witness to the impact on Egypt of an entire millennium of foreign rule.
It was a receipt, issued for 65 sheep, presented to two officials bearing impeccably Hellenic names Christophoros and Theodorakios and written in Greek. But not in Greek alone.
The papyrus sheet also featured a second language, one never before seen in Egypt. What was it doing there, on an official council receipt? The sheep, according to a note added in Greek on the back, had been requisitioned by "Magaritai" — but who or what were they? The answer was to be found on the front of the papyrus sheet, within the text of the receipt itself. The "Magaritai", it appeared, were none other than the people known as "Saracens": nomads from Arabia, long dismissed by the Romans as "despised and insignificant".
Clearly, that these barbarians were now in a position to extort sheep from city councillors suggested a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Nor was that all. The most bizarre revelation of the receipt, perhaps, lay in the fact that a race of shiftless nomads, bandits who for as long as anyone could remember had been lost to an unvarying barbarism, appeared to have developed their own calendar. But it was also, so the receipt declared in the Saracens' own language, "the year twenty two": 22 years since what?
Some momentous occurance, no doubt, of evidently great significance to the Saracens themselves. But what precisely, and whether it might have contributed to the arrival of the newcomers in Egypt, and how it was to be linked to that enigmatic title "Magaritai", PERF does not say. We can now recognise the document as the marker of something seismic.
The Magaritai were destined to implant themselves in the country far more enduringly than the Greeks or the Romans had ever done. Arabic, the language they had brought with them, and that appears as such a novelty on PERF , is nowadays so native to Egypt that the country has come to rank as the power-house of Arab culture.
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Yet even a transformation of that order barely touches on the full scale of the changes which are hinted at so prosaically. A new age, of which that tax receipt issued in Herakleopolis in "the year 22" ranks as the oldest surviving dateable document, had been brought into being. This, to almost one in four people alive today, is a matter of more than mere historical interest. Infinitely more — for it touches, in their opinion, on the very nature of the Divine.
It was the prompting hand of God, not a mere wanton desire to extort sheep, that had first motivated the Arabs to leave their desert homeland. Such, at any rate, was the conviction of Ibn Hisham, a scholar based in Egypt who wrote a century and a half after the first appearance of the Magaritai in Herakleopolis, but whose fascination with the period, and with the remarkable events that had stamped it, was all-consuming. No longer, by AD , were the Magaritai to be reckoned a novelty.
Instead — known now as "Muslims", or "those who submit to God" — they had succeeded in winning for themselves a vast agglomeration of territories: an authentically global empire. Ibn Hisham, looking back at the age which had first seen the Arabs grow conscious of themselves as a chosen people, and surrounded as he was by the ruins of superceded civilisations, certainly had no lack of pages to fill. What was it that had brought the Arabs as conquerors to cities such as Herakleopolis, and far beyond?
The ambition of Ibn Hisham was to provide an answer. The story he told was that of an Arab who had lived almost two centuries previously, and been chosen by God as the seal of His prophets: Muhammad.
Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History | Yale University Press
Although Ibn Hisham was himself certainly drawing on earlier material, his is the oldest biography to have survived, in the form we have it, into the present day. The details it provided would become fundamental to the way that Muslims have interpreted their faith ever since. That Muhammad had received a series of divine revelations; that he had grown up in the depths of Arabia, in a pagan metropolis, Mecca; that he had fled it for another city, Yathrib, where he had established the primal Muslim state; that this flight, or hijra , had transformed the entire order of time, and come to provide Muslims with their Year One: all this was enshrined to momentous effect by Ibn Hisham.
The contrast between Islam and the age that had preceded it was rendered in his biography as clear as that between midday and the dead of night. The white radiance of Muhammad's revelations, blazing first across Arabia and then to the limits of the world, had served to bring all humanity into a new age of light.
The effect of this belief was to prove incalculable. To this day, even among non-Muslims, it continues to inform the way in which the history of the Middle East is interpreted and understood. Whether in books, museums or universities, the ancient world is imagined to have ended with the coming of Muhammad.
Yet even on the presumption that what Islam teaches is correct, and that the revelations of Muhammad did indeed descend from heaven, it is still pushing things to imagine that the theatre of its conquests was suddenly conjured, over the span of a single generation, into a set from The Arabian Nights. That the Arab conquests were part of a much vaster and more protracted drama, the decline and fall of the Roman empire, has been too readily forgotten. Place these conquests in their proper context and a different narrative emerges. Heeding the lesson taught by Gibbon back in the 18th century, that the barbarian invasions of Europe and the victories of the Saracens were different aspects of the same phenomenon, serves to open up vistas of drama unhinted at by the traditional Muslim narratives.
The landscape through which the Magaritai rode was certainly not unique to Egypt. In the west too, there were provinces that had witnessed the retreat and collapse of a superpower, the depredations of foreign invaders, and the desperate struggle of locals to fashion a new security for themselves. Only in the past few decades has this perspective been restored to its proper place in the academic spotlight. It was the last half-century in which that could be said. First published in , it portrayed a galactic imperium on the verge of collapse, and the attempt by an enlightened band of scientists to insure that eventual renaissance would follow its fall.
The teachings of Darwin on evolution, for example, are allowed everywhere but Saudi Arabia. Seldom has the debate over reconciling Islam and science addressed the Qur'an itself and the claims made for its infallibility. A work of exalted and unadulterated monotheism, the Qur'an presents God as the Creator bringing into being all material objects and all life.
God's will is responsible for earthquakes and other natural events; Nature is a oneness derived from Him. Some scholars find in the Qur'an the prototype of environmental sciences, such as ecology and biology. But finding "proto-science" in a holy book dating from the seventh century A. One verse 19 reads, "He created the heavens and the earth in six days, and then mounted his throne. But Muslims have neither interpreted the verse as have most Christians and Jews to understand that a "day" means some length of time to God other than twenty-four earth hours, nor have they given it a metaphorical meaning.
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For their part, Muslim geologists practice their profession without trying to reconcile the Qur'an with the assumptions of their profession. Science is curiously missing from the passionate and ongoing debate over Islam and the West. Religious extremists have attacked the social order, corruption, and immorality, but not the minor heresies, of science.
No Islamic theological splits or fractures have occurred comparable to that between evolutionists and Christian creationists. Instead, Islamic intellectual history is characterized by loosely grouped individual thinkers attempting single-handedly in their writings to achieve a reconciliation. Technology benefits from often unqualified approval. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan , for example, devoted much of his life to convincing Muslims in India "that western scientific thought was not antithetical to Islam.
He argued that "religion must be accounted as a friend to science, pushing man to investigate the secrets of existence, summoning him to respect the established truths and to depend on them in his moral life and conduct. Similarly, Ziauddin Sardar, a Pakistani science-policy specialist, envisions an "Islamic science" rooted in humanistic values.