Mar 24, 2021
Depiction of the Battle of Nineva, Piero della Francesca, c. 1452
Can those working in the field of modern academic historical method contribute to new ways of viewing an ancient tradition? We certainly think so. In this engaging conversation between world-renowned author and historian Dr. Juan Cole and President Hamza Yusuf of Zaytuna College, President Yusuf describes his eye-opening experience reading Dr. Cole’s recent work, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires, as an unveiling that contextualized the prophetic biography amid an unfolding battle between two regional superpowers, the Eastern Roman and Sassanid empires. Their conversation elucidates not only the implications for the prophetic biography (sīrah) by viewing the historical accounts of it through the lens of what Dr. Cole refers to as “a world war” but also represents a hopeful encounter between two (at times adversarial) traditions of scholarship—one that limits evidence to confirmed written records and the other that also finds it in revelation, authenticated oral transmission, and unbroken chains of authority. Their conversation has been edited for clarity.
Hamza Yusuf: Well, let’s start off. I read your book, and I’ve spent a lot of time in sīrah literature, which I love; there’s a vast amount of it. Much of it, actually, is quite problematic, as you well know. The sīrah was the least rigorous of all the Islamic sciences, and so a lot of things crept into sīrah that people with an animus towards Islam have mined very well to present the religion with a darker side. But there is a normative sīrah that I have loved and taught. And when I read your book, it really was like an unveiling. I had looked at sīrah in a certain way, but when I read your book, I felt like you brought a fascinating scope to it that I hadn’t really thought about before. And I think the most significant part of your book was how you contextualize the prophetic biography in the extraordinary global scene that was unfolding at that time. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that.
Juan Cole: Sure. Well, the sīrah literature, the literature of the biography of the Prophet, was produced in extenso in the Abbasid period a long time after the Prophet’s death—the classic works were produced 132 to 300 years after his death. But they are unanimous that the Prophet Muĥammad made trade journeys, especially as a younger man, up into the Eastern Roman Empire. And we know from history that the Iranian Empire (the Sassanid Empire) occupied Yemen starting probably in the early 570s, when Muĥammad was a toddler. Mecca and Medina, the Hejaz, where he grew up and had his prophetic career, was surrounded by these two empires, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) and the Iranian.
And the big thing that happened was that in 603, when the Prophet would have been probably in his thirties, the two went to war. It was a brutal war that lasted for twenty-six years; I call it a “world war.” It took place in central Asia, in the Balkans, in the Near East, and in Syria and Palestine. And Egypt was swept up in it. And the Iranians, for much of that period, won victory after victory against the Eastern Romans, whose capital was in Constantinople but who had much of what we now call the Middle East under their rule. They had Syria, Palestine, Transjordan, Egypt, Tunisia, but much of that was taken away from them by the Iranians.
All that was happening while the Qur’an was being recited by the Prophet to his contemporaries. And Surah al-Rūm, the chapter of Rome, is explicit in mentioning these events, saying that Rome has been vanquished in a nearby province, but that after a few years, it will come back, and it predicts a victory ultimately of the Roman emperor against the Iranians, which it characterizes as “God’s victory.” So, I think of this a little like the verse in the Old Testament where the Iranian king Cyrus has saved the Jews from their exile, and so the God of the Bible approves of Cyrus. And I think of this verse in the Qur’an as a little bit similar, that God will be happy and the believers will rejoice at the victory of the Roman king.
HY: Right. Cyrus was a man who did not know God, according to the Bible, but God used him. One of the things that fascinated me about that contextualization and the war was the fact that the Prophet ﷺ was deeply affected by the war in the same way that the whole world was affected when World War I and World War II happened, despite the fact that most of it occurred in the European theater: the Middle East was affected by it, India was affected by it, as was North Africa. I don’t think our tradition has taken that as seriously as it should, as becomes very clear in reading your book.
One of the fascinating things to me was the idea of Heraclius, Hercules, who’s brought in from Libya to kind of “clean up.” He’s like a General Grant who comes in after several incompetent Byzantine generals, one after another, were unable to stop this assault. But he’s brought in with Libyan mercenaries, and it’s fascinating how he then becomes such an important figure in the Levantine area, or Sham.
JC: Yes. Heraclius’s family may have been originally Armenian, but they rose high in the late Roman bureaucracy. His father was sent to be consul of Carthage, today’s Tunisia. Heraclius was there with his father.
And things weren’t going well in the Empire at all. An adventurous general, Phocas, had made a coup and taken over. His coup was one of the reasons that the Iranians invaded, because they had been friendly with the old emperor that Phocas killed—and he killed his family, too—and the Iranians posed as defenders of the old Roman dynasty.
I think it was one of Phocas’s relatives who became disgusted with him and wrote to Heraclius’s father in Carthage saying, “Would you please come and make a coup and take over?” And the old man didn’t want to do it, so he sent his thirty-five-year-old son with ships. And since they were in North Africa, they did have Amazigh soldiers, and so he took Constantinople. It’s one of the few times that Constantinople was taken after it became a major city under the Romans— the next time would be probably the Ottoman conquest in 1453. But he took it and established himself as the new emperor. However, he didn’t have any more luck against the Iranians, for about fifteen years, than his predecessor had.
And so, as you say, if you were in Mecca and Medina in this era, what would you see? As the Iranians were in Yemen, they could come north at any time. The Iranians were also in Transjordan and Syria, so they could come south at any time. And people in the Hejaz, from all accounts, valued their independence. They said they were acephalous: they didn’t have a king or a central government. So they were probably pretty afraid that the “King of Kings,” the Iranian emperor, would take their territory. And of course, trade was disrupted during this war. If you used to travel up to Damascus for trade, well, all of a sudden Damascus is in Iranian hands; it’s not the same people you’d be dealing with. Are they still going to let you come in for trade?
So I think that things were very much up in the air. I believe some of the more apocalyptic chapters of the Qur’an were from this period. When it was talking about how the stars will fall and the seas will rise and the wild animals will congregate, I think these are all ways of speaking about how the world was in such turbulence.
HY: Yes. And the other thing you brought out that I found really fascinating, and which, again, put something into a light that I really hadn’t considered before, was the fact that the Jews were very supportive of the Persians. Because the Byzantines had desecrated their synagogues, had prevented them from visiting what they considered their sanctuary, and had not been very kind to them as coreligionists within the Abrahamic fold, but rather saw them as Christ-killers, which was a common trope in European history. There was a lot of Jewish persecution. So the Jews saw the Iranians, despite the fact they were pagans, as a Cyrus who was going to come in and once again save them from these brutal tyrants.
I think the Prophet ﷺ saw the Jews as people of the book and monotheists. (If I ever translated the Qur’an, I would translate ahl al-kitāb as “the people of the biblios” because, as you know, Bible is “book” in Greek—biblios—and they were the people of “the Bible.”) I think he saw them very much as natural allies against the pagans in Mecca who had been persecuting him. So, I found it really fascinating that the animus that some of the Jews in Medina had against him had to do with this war, and I’d never considered that.