The Crucible of Islam
GW Bowersock
Harvard University Press
220pp, three black-and-white illustrations, two maps
Hardback, £18.95

A quarter of the world's population is Muslim, and the crisis of Islam resounds in global and local politics, yet little is known of Islam's origins in the chaotic Arabia of the 7th century. There are no contemporary Muslim accounts of the most dynamic period in Muslim history: the earliest date from two centuries after Muhammad's death. For obvious reasons, contemporary Christian and Jewish accounts are not sympathetic. And the inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, once believed to be the oldest Quranic inscriptions and datable to AD 691–92, vary from the canonical Quranic text.

In The Crucible of Islam, Glen Bowersock describes what can be known and inferred about the Arabian 'dark age' in which Islam originated. The Emeritus Professor of Ancient History at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, is an ideal guide. An expert on the complex inter-actions of Late Antiquity and the post-Classical world, his recent books include studies of the Roman mosaics at Lod, Israel, and the mixing of Jews, Christians and pagans in the ancient city of Dura-Europos. Arabia in the early 6th century was a different kind of mosaic, an arid crossroads between empires and religions. Mecca, where Muhammad, according to tradition, was born in AD 570, belonged to an area of Arabia recently conquered by the Ethiopian Christian king Abraha, and ruled by Abraha's descendants. But circa AD 570, the Persian Sassanids invaded and took Mecca and western Arabia from Abraha's heirs. In AD 602, the region was further destabilised by the death of Maurice, the emperor of Byzantium. In AD 614, the Persians had taken Jerusalem.

Arabia was no less complex in religion. The Ethiopians had arrived in the 3rd century AD as pagans, but had converted to Christianity in the late 4th century. At the same time, the Ethiopians' partial withdrawal had allowed Arab pagans to build the kingdom of Hinyar. These tribes converted to Judaism, perhaps due to 'an all but invisible spread of monotheism earlier in the fourth century from Jewish settlements in the peninsula', and then converted again to Ethiopian Christianity when Abraha invaded in AD 525.

In this zone of imperial competition, the Zoroastrian Persians supported a tribal confederation called Nasrids; as the name suggests, they were Christians, probably descended from earlier Jewish settlers. The Byzantines tried to revive the Roman system of client kings, and backed the Hellenised Christians of the Ghassanid confederation. And while the 'state-sponsored monotheism' of Hinjar swung between dispensations, the pre-monotheistic cults survived. Bowersock prefers 'polytheistic' to 'pagan'; the Latin paganus evokes a rustic person, but the Greek equivalent, ethnikos, denotes only ethnic or national differences. The names of pre-Islamic gods are recorded in the Quran, and in the later account of Ibn al-Khalid. One name, Allah, went back 'at least to the 5th century BC, when Herodotus mentioned a feminine form of the name, Alilat', later contracted to Allat and probably the consort of Allah. A statue of Allat from Palmyra suggests that Allat was worshipped as 'an Arab Athena'; a remarkable blending of Greek and Arab polytheism.

The Quran describes the suppression of the Arabian goddesses, and Muhammad's campaigns of conquest between his revelations (AD 610) and his death (AD 632). After AD 632 and the beginning of the four wars of ridda (apostasy), the murk returns, with a moment of clarity in AD 661, when the Ummayads establish the first Islamic dynasty at Damascus.

Though the absence of evidence cannot fill the 'disquieting emptiness' from which Islam originates, The Crucible of Islam is a clear and lucid guide to the arena and context into which Muhammad was born, and the 'volatile components' from which Islam developed.

Crucially, Bowersock writes, Islam 'arose on ground shared by the three great monotheists', but 'offered no path to coexistence with the other two'.
Dominic Green