Gibbon on Islam
Wednesday, 2 December 2015 from 17:30 to 19:00 (GMT)
San Francisco, California
London, United Kingdom
By Professor Garth Fowden
A strand in current scholarship examines early Islam and the Caliphate against a late antique backdrop of Sasanid-East Roman tension, dogmatic strife in the Church, and the maturation of rabbinic Judaism.
Gibbon long ago insisted there had been more than one road out of Antiquity, not just the formation of Latin Christendom – Papacy, German Empire and Italian Renaissance – but also Greek Christendom and the rise of Islam. Yet this aspect of Decline and Fall remains unappreciated, especially in John Pocock’s monumental Barbarism and Religion.
This lecture traces the origins of Gibbon’s eastward turn in his reading of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Arabists, historians and travellers, and his decision to follow East Roman history down to 1453. Not only Voltaire but also the Universal History (London, 1736-66) encouraged Gibbon to look beyond Europe and its Christian narrative. While attitudes to Islam had softened in the decades around 1700 thanks to greater familiarity with its literature and the weakening of theological prejudice, Gibbon achieved a powerful, empathetic portrait of Muḥammad as political leader as well as prophet. His account of the Muslim empires from Medinan origins to the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople offers revealing comparisons with ancient Iran and Rome. Although his classical Greek and Roman criterion of cultural and historical value forced him to conclude that Islam too was, in the end, tyranny and imposture, nevertheless the weight Gibbon accorded the Muslim world anticipates the more inclusive methods of global historians in our day.
Professor Garth Fowden is Sultan Qaboos Professor of Abrahamic Faiths and holds the position of Senior Research Associate, Peterhouse College in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. He read Modern History at Merton College, Oxford, and there also wrote his doctoral thesis, under the supervision of Henry Chadwick, on Pagan philosophers in late antique society, with special reference to Iamblichus and his followers (1979). Between 1978 and 1983 Professor Fowden held research fellowships at Peterhouse and at Darwin College, Cambridge. From 1983 to 1985 he taught Byzantine and Modern Greek History at Groningen University in the Netherlands,moving to a position at the National Research Foundation, Athens, and then to the Sultan Qaboos Chair in 2013. He has held visiting appointments at Princeton University; the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; the Institute for the Humanities, University of Michigan; the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris; and most recently (2012-13) the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.
When & Where
Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations
AKU-ISMC provides a multifaceted approach to the study of Muslim civilisations - within a framework of world cultures and through the humanities and social sciences - allowing for a wider analytical and comparative perspective. This approach is reflected in a post-graduate master's programme, professional programmes and through quality research and publications. It is reinforced by a unique bibliographical project, the Muslim Civilisations Abstracts.