The fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Islam

Saturday, April 21st, 2012

Long before historian Peter Brown wrote The World of Late Antiquity — which traced patterns through the half millennium between Marcus Aurelius and the founding of Baghdad — a number of bestselling novelists got there first:

What their work served to demonstrate was that the fall of the Roman empire, even a millennium and a half on, had lost none of its power to inspire gripping narratives.

“There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said.” So begins Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, a self-conscious attempt to relocate Gibbon’s magnum opus to outer space. First published in 1951, it portrayed a galactic imperium on the verge of collapse, and the attempt by an enlightened band of scientists to insure that eventual renaissance would follow its fall. The influence of the novel, and its two sequels, has been huge, and can be seen in every subsequent sci-fi epic that portrays sprawling empires set among the stars — from Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica. Unlike most of his epigoni, however, Asimov drew direct sustenance from his historical model. The parabola of Asimov’s narrative closely follows that of Gibbon. Plenipotentiaries visit imperial outposts for the last time; interstellar equivalents of Frankish or Ostrogothic kingdoms sprout on the edge of the Milky Way; the empire, just as its Roman precursor had done under Justinian, attempts a comeback. Most intriguingly of all, in the second novel of the series, we are introduced to an enigmatic character named the Mule, who emerges seemingly from nowhere to transform the patterns of thought of billions, and conquer much of the galaxy. The context makes it fairly clear that he is intended to echo Muhammad. In an unflattering homage to Muslim tradition, Asimov even casts the Mule as a mutant, a freak of nature so unexpected that nothing in human science could possibly have explained or anticipated him.

Parallels with the tales told of Muhammad are self-evident in a second great epic of interstellar empire, Frank Herbert’s Dune. A prophet arises from the depths of a desert world to humiliate an empire and launch a holy war — a jihad. Herbert’s hero, Paul Atreides, is a man whose sense of supernatural mission is shadowed by self-doubt. “I cannot do the simplest thing,” he reflects, “without its becoming a legend.” Time will prove him correct. Without ever quite intending it, he founds a new religion, and launches a wave of conquest that ends up convulsing the galaxy. In the end, we know, there will be “only legend, and nothing to stop the jihad”.

There is an irony in this, an echo not only of the spectacular growth of the historical caliphate, but of how the traditions told about Muhammad evolved as well. Ibn Hisham’s biography may have been the first to survive — but it was not the last. As the years went by, and ever more lives of the Prophet came to be written, so the details grew ever more miraculous. Fresh evidence — wholly unsuspected by Muhammad’s earliest biographers — would see him revered as a man able to foretell the future, to receive messages from camels, and to pick up a soldier’s eyeball, reinsert it, and make it work better than before. The result was yet one more miracle: the further in time from the Prophet a biographer, the more extensive his biography was likely to be.

Herbert’s novel counterpoints snatches of unreliable biography — in which Paul has become “Muad’Dib”, the legendary “Dune Messiah” — with the main body of the narrative, which reveals a more secular truth. Such, of course, is the prerogative of fiction. Nevertheless, it does suggest, for the historian, an unsettling question: to what extent might the traditions told by Muslims about their prophet contradict the actual reality of the historical Muhammad? Nor is it only western scholars who are prone to asking this — so too, for instance, are Salafists, keen as they are to strip away the accretions of centuries, and reveal to the faithful the full unspotted purity of the primal Muslim state. But what if, after all the cladding has been torn down, there is nothing much left, beyond the odd receipt for sheep? That Muhammad existed is evident from the scattered testimony of Christian near-contemporaries, and that the Magaritai themselves believed a new order of time to have been ushered in is clear from their mention of a “Year 22″. But do we see in the mirror held up by Ibn Hisham, and the biographers who followed him, an authentic reflection of Muhammad’s life — or something distorted out of recognition by a combination of awe and the passage of time?

There may be a lack of early Muslim sources for Muhammad’s life, but in other regions of the former Roman empire there are even more haunting silences. The deepest of all, perhaps, is the one that settled over the one-time province of Britannia. Around 800AD, at the same time as Ibn Hisham was drawing up a list of nine engagements in which Muhammad was said personally to have fought, a monk in the far distant wilds of Wales was compiling a very similar record of victories, 12 in total, all of them attributable to a single leader, and cast by their historian as indubitable proof of the blessings of God. The name of the monk was Nennius; and the name of his hero — who was supposed to have lived long before — was Arthur. The British warlord, like the Arab prophet, was destined to have an enduring afterlife. The same centuries which would see Muslim historians fashion ever more detailed and loving histories of Muhammad and his companions would also witness, far beyond the frontiers of the caliphate, the gradual transformation of the mysterious Arthur and his henchmen into the model of a Christian court. The battles listed by Nennius would come largely to be forgotten: in their place, haunting the imaginings of all Christendom, would be the conviction that there had once existed a realm where the strong had protected the weak, where the bravest warriors had been the purest in heart, and where a sense of Christian fellowship had bound everyone to the upholding of a common order. The ideal was to prove a precious one — so much so that to this day, there remains a mystique attached to the name of Camelot.

Nor was the world of Arthur the only dimension of magic and mystery to have emerged out of the shattered landscape of the one-time Roman empire. The English, the invaders against whom Arthur was supposed to have fought, told their own extraordinary tales. Gawping at the crumbling masonry of Roman towns, they saw in it “the work of giants”. Gazing into the shadows beyond their halls, they imagined ylfe ond orcnéas, and orthanc enta geweorc — “elves and orcs”, and “the skilful work of giants”. These stories, in turn, were only a part of the great swirl of epic, Gothic and Frankish and Norse, which preserved in their verses the memory of terrible battles, and mighty kings, and the rise and fall of empires: trace-elements of the death-agony of Roman greatness. Most of these poems, though, like the kingdoms that were so often their themes, no longer exist. They are fragments, or mere rumours of fragments. The wonder-haunted fantasies of post-Roman Europe have themselves become spectres and phantasms. “Alas for the lost lore, the annals and old poets.”

So wrote JRR Tolkien, philologist, scholar of Old English, and a man so convinced of the abiding potency of the vanished world of epic that he devoted his life to conjuring it back into being. The Lord of the Rings may not be an allegory of the fall of the Roman empire, but it is shot through with echoes of the sound and fury of that “awful scene”. What happened and what might have happened swirl, and meet, and merge. An elf quotes a poem on an abandoned Roman town. Horsemen with Old English names ride to the rescue of a city that is vast and beautiful, and yet, like Constantinople in the wake of the Arab conquests, “falling year by year into decay”. Armies of a Dark Lord repeat the strategy of Attila in the battle of the Catalaunian plains — and suffer a similar fate. Tolkien’s ambition, so Tom Shippey has written, “was to give back to his own country the legends that had been taken from it”. In the event, his achievement was something even more startling. Such was the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, and such its influence on an entire genre of fiction, that it breathed new life into what for centuries had been the merest bones of an entire but forgotten worldscape.

It would seem, then, that when an empire as great as Rome’s declines and falls, the reverberations can be made to echo even in outer space, even in a mythical Middle Earth. In the east as in the west, in the Fertile Crescent as in Britain, what emerged from the empire’s collapse, forged over many centuries, were new identities, new values, new presumptions. Indeed, many of these would end up taking on such a life of their own that the very circumstances of their birth would come to be obscured — and on occasion forgotten completely. The age that had witnessed the collapse of Roman power, refashioned by those looking back to it centuries later in the image of their own times, was cast by them as one of wonders and miracles, irradiated by the supernatural, and by the bravery of heroes. The potency of that vision is one that still blazes today.

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