I hadn’t really given it much thought - other than that I’d take Peter Webb to be a good guide to interpreting early Arabic literature independent of later religious or academic assumptions. From your reaction I take it you disagree with him. I’d be interested to read your reasons if you feel like giving them.
Zeca Akhi, sorry for taking long to honour my promise of sharing my thoughts on this.
Like I believe I have told you privately, I don’t know Peter Webb and don’t know of Peter Webb for there to be any suggestion of an axe to grind in what I’ve said. I’m generally keen on clicking and reading up on what you post, so it’s only natural that I went to where the link took me to.
I don’t disagree with Peter Webb per se; I just do not applaud his reasoning process or lack thereof, to be more accurate.
The blog post makes some big claims without the author seeming to even bother to back them up. So, the chief issue I have with the post is its lack of evidence.
One quick example would be that the author seems to be trying, perhaps a little too hard, to see what “classical Arabic literature” has to say about issues he describes as “central to modern militant thinking”. This is in spite of the concept the author uses as particularly relevant -- Al-Jāhiliyya
– being an Islamic one and one on which “classical Arabic literature” does not comment as far as I know. Also Webb lumps ‘Arabic literature’ and Islamic texts together in his references which I find quite problematic because contemporary Islamic militants do not tend to accord these two sources commensurate weight.
And as I read on, a conviction began to steal over me that the sketchy blog post must be relying in terms of evidence & reasoned arguments on an earlier work of the author. So, I looked up Peter Webb online and found his Al-Jāhiliyya: Uncertain Times of Uncertain Meanings
This article seems more appropriate a medium through which to scrutinise the author’s big claims as found in the subsequent blog post. (I find it somewhat deficient, indolent and lacking in rigour for a researcher to casually write on complicated matters without the slightest reference to his sources or fuller arguments elsewhere. In my experience, such a researcher tends to be talking to their in-agreement audience and preaching to the converted. Still, my reasoning went along the lines of ‘it’s only natural for Webb to be building on previous things which he has discussed and exhausted’.) So, I explored the first item in Webb’s article and this is under the banner of “Al-Jahiliyya and Arabic lexicography”. Here are three points which stood out for me:
1. There, Webb accurately notes that the lexicographer Al-Khalil ibn Ahmed Al-Farahidi (d.170 H) defines Jahl
(Arabic: جهل) as the opposite of ‘ilm
(Arabic: “الجهل نقيض العلم”). Webb then comments that this definition doesn’t link it [Jahl
, presumably] to “the era of Al-Jahiliyya
as an age of ignorance per se” as if this finding carries any significance about how Al-Khalil defines concepts in his purported book. As a matter of fact, Al-Khalil in his Al-Ayn
defines what hundreds of concepts mean by referring to their opposites and antonyms (admittedly in a circular fashion which should usually be tolerable in moderation, even in modern dictionaries).
So, it would’ve been more appropriate if Webb referenced what Al-khalil said about Al-Jahiliyya
instead of Webb’s over-reliance on the derivative root ‘Jahl’ as not connoting “the era of Al-Jahiliyya
per se” – this is because no one, as far as I know, argues to the contrary i.e. that Al-Jahl in Arabic necessarily denotes a Pre-Islamic period. In other words, this finding is prematurely made on the linguistic basis of the Arabic root word instead of the Islamic concept itself, and this is what I didn’t find palatable in the blog post either.
2. Webb then cites what Al-Khalil said about Al-Jahiliyya
itself as “the time of Al-Fatra
” and Al-Fatra
for Webb is “.. defined as any period of time between two prophets”. Webb’s definition of Al-Fatra
is referenced in the footnote as mirroring that of Al-Khalil’s in the same book.
However, since Webb’s is an original translation, it did not come across as fantastically rigorous of Webb to not fully translate whilst quoting Al-Khalil’s definition of Al-Jahiliyya
exactly as the definition is found in Al-Ayn
. Al-khalil’s full definition in Al-Ayn
is “the time of Al-Fatra before Islam
” – my own underlining. (Arabic: “الجاهلية الجهلاء: زمان الفترة قبل الإسلام” -- here's the hyperlink to Al-Ayn: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=MjhHCwAAQBAJ&pg=PT269&lpg=PT269&dq=%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%AC%D9%85+%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D9%8A%D9%86+%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D9%87%D9%84&source=bl&ots=RnUq329svz&sig=ABR8yO6UUnc5eWrAwKuoq5AE-Z8&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwim48rTlLTYAhUsCMAKHZYpCF0Q6AEIMTAB#v=onepage&q=%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%AC%D9%85%20%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D9%8A%D9%86%20%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D9%87%D9%84&f=false
Now, it does strike me as rather improper that Webb excludes “before Islam” from the short translated definition he cites; such an omission raises suspicions especially because the left-out part of Al-Khalili’s definition directly contradicts his argument.
That argument, of course, is Webb trying to survey that the term did not periodise a time during what he doesn’t tires of referring to as “early Arabic literature” but that this periodization has taken place later on, so that as far as he is concerned, the term which ‘ought to’ have been referencing a state of being and particular practices had instead been hijacked by later conservative Islam to demarcate its own civilisation from the ‘generalised barbarity’ of the period which conservative Islam claims to have come before its inception.
I personally suspect that this claimed act of codification on the part of the later Muslims might well be the case. But where I insist on taking issue with Webb’s conclusion is the way in which Webb is asserting it via early Arabic lexicography; I’m open to accept the validity of what Webb is saying, though not how Webb is saying it here.
3. Whilst offering to trace what he considers a semantic ‘paradigm shift’ in the lexicographic meaning of Al-Jahiliyya after the time of Al-Khalil bin Ahmed (d. 170 H), Webb appears yet again to be committing the same omitting trick, that of offering a partial translation and thus risking in the process of opening himself to a fair accusation of misquoting early Arabic lexicographers. To wit, Webb seems to do that with Ibn Manẓūr’s (d. 711 H) definition of Al-Jahiliyya
. Here's how Web quotes from Ibn Manẓūr's Lisān al-ʿArab
:“Ibn Manẓūr’s own expanded definition is instructive:
[al-Jāhiliyya] is the condition of the Arabs before Islam, consisting of an ignorance of God Almighty and the religious laws, and [a time] of boasting about genealogy, arrogance, despotism and the like.⁴¹
Ibn Manẓūr’s definition departs from equating al-Jāhiliyya with al-Fatra and suggests a more generalized time “before Islam” without a specific beginning, akin toal-Zamakhsharī’s “old times”. Ibn Manẓūr adds the additional territorial connection to Arabia, which marks the first time a dictionary expressly links al-Jāhiliyya with pre-Islamic Arabs and specific habits of their community. His definition turns Al-Jāhiliyya away from a precise period of years, and by focusing on the activities of the Arabs, he makes the era synonymous with its inhabitants’ undesirable characteristics. Ibn Manẓūr’s al-Jāhiliyya is not about when, but about how the Arabs lived, and, as such, Lisān al-ʿArab is the first classical dictionary that defines al-Jāhiliyya as the colligatory concept expressed in dictionaries today.”
Webb seems to claim that Ibn Manẓūr’s definition of Al-Jahiliyya in the latter’s book, Lisān al-ʿArab, is what Webb quotes it to be above. I dispute the factualness and accuracy of this claim; notwithstanding the fact that Webb uses square-brackets to what I take it to indicate Webb’s own insertion of the term [Al-Jahiliyya] into that of Ibn Manẓūr’s definition. But the fact remains that what Webb puts forward above as constituting Ibn Manẓūr’s own “instructive” contribution or addition (as being above and beyond that of al-Azharī’s, whose work Webb says Ibn Manẓūr copied) is simply taken out of its context by Webb.
Let me back this one up. Here’s the actual entry of Ibn Manẓūr on Al-Jahiliyya in his Lisān al-ʿArab in its original language:
" والجاهِلِيَّة زمن الفَتْرة ولا إِسلامَ؛ وقالوا الجاهِلِيَّة الجَهْلاء، فبالَغوا.
والمَجْهَل: المَفازة لا أَعْلام فيها، يقال: رَكِبْتُها على مَجْهولها؛ قال سويد بن أَبي كاهل: فَرَكِبْناها على مَجْهُولِها، بِصِلابِ الأَرْضِ فيهِنَّ شَجَع وقولهم: كان ذلك في الجاهِلِيَّة الجَهْلاء، هو توكيد للأَول، يشتق له من اسمه ما يؤكد به كما يقال وَتِدٌ واتِدٌ وهَمَجٌ هامِجٌ ولَيْلة لَيْلاء ويَوْمٌ أَيْوَم.
وفي الحديث: إِنك امرؤ فيك جاهِلِيَّة؛ هي الحال التي كانت عليها العرب قبل الإِسلام من الجَهْل بالله سبحانه ورسوله وشرائع الدين والمُفاخَرَة بالأَنساب والكِبْر والتَّجَبُّر وغير ذلك."
The issue I take with what Webb claims to be Ibn Manẓūr’s own definition of “[Al-Jahiliyya]” is that Ibn Manẓūr’s definition in the quotation is of an indefinite “Jahiliyya” (Arabic “جاهِلِيَّة”) and not Al-Jahiliyya (Arabic: الجاهلية) as Webb claims. Further, Ibn Manẓūr’s “Jahiliyya” occurs in a specific hadith, so that what Webb says “is the condition of the Arabs before Islam, consisting of an ignorance of God Almighty and the religious laws, and [a time] of boasting about genealogy, arrogance, despotism and the like” is what the hadith Ibn Manẓūr included as a usage example denotes. Thus, Ibn Manẓūr’s words are commenting on what the word in the particular hadith means. The way Ibn Manẓūr worded it, (“and in the hadith” – Arabic: وفي الحديث) with the addition of a semicolon, does not cohere with the claim of it being the linguistic meaning Peter Webb has attributed to the lexicographer and then went on to injudiciously declare it as “the first classical dictionary etc.”
Again, it seems that one has good reason to wonder whether or not Webb simply made an error of overlooking the significance of the context by partially translating the entry on Al-Jahiliyya and not including a material fact which – incidentally – has the theoretical force to challenging his argument against the lexicohrapher engaging in periodising the term ‘for the first time ever’ in the manner Webb seems to assert. I don’t know about you, but it takes more substantiation than what Webb has shown here to convince me (for little that’s worth).