Few can claim to have produced a wealth of scholarship and achieved mastery over Middle Eastern history, but Roy Mottahedeh's insatiable curiosity for the past has left us with a treasure trove of works. Reading essays that he has written over the past fifty years and collected together in his new book In the Shadow of the Prophet: Essays in Islamic History, you get a sense of the past whispering to you in more ways than one. Mottahedeh not only dissects the past, but also reflects the concerns of certain periods in essays that are themselves now historical artefacts. For me, this is what made this volume a pleasure to read.
Mottahedeh has gained many admirers over his career as a professor of history at Harvard University. His most famous work, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics of Iran, became a must read for anyone interested in Iranian history. Written a few years after the 1979 Iranian revolution when serious questions about Iran were being asked, Mottahedeh took up the challenge and produced a unique book; unusually it was organised thematically rather than chronologically. His writing demonstrated a creative flare in a bold telling of history in such a way that would interest many people. It was The Mantle of the Prophet that got me curious about his other work.
As I both hoped and expected, the essays in the book under review cover a wide range of topics including the formation of Islamic law, the idea of Jihad and friendship in Islamic philosophy. What comes across in the essays is the sense that Mottahedeh is not merely teaching us; he is also trying to learn something along the way.
BOOK REVIEW: Unknowing and the Everyday: Sufism and Knowledge in Iran
I particularly enjoyed his essay on medieval Kashan, which enabled me to think more about the role of smaller cities within empires and civilisations. They are often overlooked by historians, but as Mottahedeh points out, "although smaller cities did not always escape sack and pillage, such settlements survived as alternative centres towards which displaced people could move. They could also serve as sites for refuge of minority beliefs, as is the case for Shi'ism in Kashan." In other words, although Kashan is not a major city in Iran, it is still important for making sense of the ebb and flow of Iranian history.
Tracing the medieval history of Kashan is not easy as there are no surviving manuscripts about the city. Thus, a degree of detective work was needed to build up a picture of what it was like. Mottahedeh explains that the city grew in importance as the Mongols sacked the country, and became an important centre of textile and artisan products, as well as a place where Shi'ism grew before Iran officially became a Shia-majority country. "Kashan was considerably smaller than Isfahan and somewhat smaller than its Shi'ite neighbour, Qom," he writes. "However, diverse sources indicate that Kashan maintained a relatively robust civic and regional life from the 4th/10th century through the 9th/15th century."
BOOK REVIEW: Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in the People's Republic
The essay on friendship in Islamic philosophy was particularly illuminating. Summarising medieval authors' friendship can be thought of as a kind of "cardinal love".
"It is through friendship that association of people is turned into community," Mottahedeh points out. "In its deepest form friendship is the strongest bond that can exist between human beings. It is also a human capacity that can be focused on God and God welcomes that focus. Without friendship we would have no society and no spiritually deep relation [sic] with the Divine."
This chapter in the book not only gets us to think about the past, but also to think about the present and something that has an impact on our daily lives.
In the Shadow of the Prophet… offers a wide range of thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating engagement with Middle Eastern, Iranian and Islamic history. It provides anyone who has a passion for history with new horizons to explore and a renewed sense of purpose.
OPINION: The Neoconservatives who paved the road to invading Iraq