August 26, 2015 By Simi Alwa

Death of a Provocation


An easy way to mourn the demise of a controversial author is to write a review of her not so controversial book, if her oeuvre is extensive and large and if she is not someone like Taslima Nasrin, a factory of tilts. I am not saying that an author’s controversial work should be left unscathed, merely because of the fact that she died. But, to write a review of a problematic work following the death of the author-especially when the death does not immediately follow the work-is not politic. The reason why a book becomes controversial is a large amount of criticism and negative reviews the work elicited. Her death, in my opinion, is not the occasion for casting on her life the shadow of that negativity. Having said this, I don’t forget the Barthesean notion of death of the author. The end of what we call life, in that sense, need not occur for the author to die; when the book exists the reader declares her primacy. In that sense, Patricia Crone had died many times before she actually died last month (July 2015).

In 1977 Patricia came up with Hagarism, which according to Edward Said, the redoubtable critic of Orientalism, was “informed, consciously or otherwise, by the anti-Arab spirit of the 1970s in the wake of the Seven Day War of 1967 and the Arab oil embargo during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.” (Citation Andrew Hammod). Ten years later, it was Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam that shocked both Islmaicists and Muslims. The book, which questions traditional Muslim scholarship that places Prophet Muhammad’s Mission and the preaching of Islam in the context of an unjust, ethically unsound Meccan mercantile community, argues that such a mercantile prosperity, the sanctification and relevance of the sanctuary and the subsequent career of Islam is fictitious. In the words of RB Seargent, a Scathing critic of the book,  Crone was “neither over-careful in interpreting the historical sources, nor with any scruples at twisting what has already been said, to make it fit her argument.” Attacking the main contention of the book, Seargent adds: it is simply perverse and absurd to attempt to argue the Meccan sanctuary out of any significance prior to the advent of Islam. The negation of these are but two of the many unconvincing contentions in the book.” Her insistence that Islam should be studied out of its own innate resources comes up as an academic arrogance, when we consider the point that she takes the tools and methodology of the western academia as too self-sufficient to be in need of any systems of thought outside its ambit.

Crone’s book God’s Rule: Government and Islam might be the least controversial of all her books.  But what makes the work really admiring is its sheer breadth and extensiveness in analyzing the history of political authority in Islam. Though she does not abhor the revisionist and neo-orientalist western academic arrogance in the book, she employs the salutary feature of the academia quite meritoriously-exploring the rich and diverse resources on politics and state in Islamic scholarship and brings its gist in six extensive parts. We can argue that in terms of depth and diversity, the book is a disappointment and through easy, lucid conclusions exerted on the rich corpus of Islamic classical studies the book mockingly exposes its translucence.

However, when we read about political authority in Islam in classical sources, they appear to be placating the standards of divisiveness in the Muslim society. Sunni sources can be seen as reiterating their primacy over Shi sources and vice versa. The problem does not seem to be absent in the works of the neo-classical Muslim thinkers like Maududi and modern writers like Hamid Enayat and Hamid Dabashi (while the former wants to skirt around the differences in a utopian promise of ideal Islamic state in the Sunni worldview, the latter writers don’t hide their fascination with Shiism). Here lies the relevance of Crone’s work, with its sharp focus on diverse formulations of authority in Muslim groups ranging from Kharijites and Mutazilites to Zayids, Islamilis and Ikhwan al Saffa. In the context of political resurgence in countries like Yemen, the book can be taken as a resourceful guide to the history of politics of the faction.  However, when one sees the conspicuous absence of streams of thought like gnostic mysticism, the book can’t be admired for even its comprehensiveness.  It is simply a much better guide in modern scholarship, though it lacks the depth of traditional Muslim works and smacks of orientalism unlike in the scholarship of Enayat and Dabashi.

What the book aims to achieve is to remind its Muslim readers of the fact that the end of history is fact to reckon with. Crone argues that “secularization is what many Muslims would like to bring about today, not by rejection of the Prophet, but rather by peaceful reform resulting in privatization of religion.” But, in the light of her veiled attack of Kemal Ataturk in the conclusion, we have to say that the above cited argument is Kemalist in its implication. Born with no institutionalized Papacy, a neat administration of polity has been possible in pre-modern Muslim societies by diverging and reconstituting the sacred and secular as Prof Crone avers in her discussion of several school of classical Islamic thought, especially the Mutaziltes and Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al Saffa).  The emerging Muslim spring the world over, by which is meant educated, forward-looking Muslim young middle class, desires to march towards such an ideal polity in their own tradition. The stumbling blocks they face are of two kinds: the ossified Muslim organizations, institutions and ulema on the one hand; the clamour for modernization and secularization in the Kemalist vein on the other, which accompanies the oppressive military interventions of the west in many Muslim lands.

Whatever it be, Patricia Crone’s life was a provocation, a nonchalant motivation for Muslims to go back, explore and enunciate their own discursive tradition.


Posted in: Books