The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity: Allah and His People.

Author:Judd, Steven C.
Position::Book review
 
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The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity: Allah and His People. By AZIZ AL-AZMEH. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xxi + 634. $180.

Aziz al-Azmeh's latest work is an important addition to the burgeoning body of recent research on the origins of Islam. The book's thesis, supported by the exhaustive and wide-ranging research that characterizes al-Azmeh's earlier works, distinguishes itself from other studies on the period in several ways. Like Fred Donner's Muhammad and the Believers (Harvard Univ. Press, 2010), the book under review draws parallels between the beginnings of Islam and the formation of earlier monotheistic religious traditions. In contrast to Donner's assertion that Islam developed out of a melange of broader pietistic, monotheistic trends, however, al-Azmeh places Islam's origins squarely in the Arabian pagan tradition, arguing that references to Jewish and Christian figures were later accretions, Islamized as the new faith assimilated and subjugated elements of earlier religions. Al-Azmeh also asserts that piety was not the focal point of early Islam, but was secondary to cultic and ritual elements that defined the community vis-a-vis its rivals. He argues that Islam followed essentially the same trajectory as other transitions from paganism to monotheism, focusing especially on Rome's transition from a complex polytheistic system to an official monotheism in which Christianity served as the imperial faith of the empire and the emperor as its protector.

In his first two chapters, al-Azmeh describes how monotheism emerged victorious in the Roman empire, the process that serves as his paradigm for the rise of Islam. He explains in great detail the syncretic dynamics of polytheistic cults, emphasizing their ability to assimilate gods from conquered societies and to consolidate gods with similar qualities. Through this process, the dominant god eventually acquired the powers and names of other, now lesser gods, reducing them to mere manifestations of the dominant god, or demoting them to the status of lesser supernatural beings (angels, demons, jinn, etc.). All of this occurs in an imperial setting in which rulers associate themselves with the dominant god and in which subservience to the dominant god and obedience to the ruler go hand in hand. Al-Azmeh emphasizes the connection between religion and empire in late antiquity, a theme to which he returns. He also argues that the imperial center of Rome shifted eastward over time and that the Muslim empire was a natural successor to Rome. This analysis covers...

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