One of these was Marshall Hodgson, a great American scholar of Islam who died in 1968 while jogging on the University of Chicago campus. He was 46, and he left behind a manuscript that would become a magisterial three-volume book, “The Venture of Islam,” published posthumously through the efforts of his widow and colleagues. Before “The Venture,” there was no English-language textbook, no unified history, about the many linked empires that emerged out of the revelation received by the Prophet Muhammad in 610 A.D.
Before 1957, when Hodgson founded his yearlong course on Islamic civilizations at Chicago, there was no course like it. Islamic studies in America was an outgrowth of European Orientalist thought, which focused on Arabic language and literature and the core Arab lands of Islam. Persianate and Turkic dynasties were considered backwaters: Persians were important for their pre-Islamic achievements, Ottomans for their role in European diplomatic history. Sufism — the vast mystical current of Islam — was a blip in European and American historiography. A roughly 500-year period was glossed as a time of “Oriental decline,” wherein Muslim empires were said to languish under ineffectual despots.
Hodgson devoted his professional life to correcting the errors of the Orientalists. He was interested in Islam as a global creative force that propelled numerous achievements in science, art and politics. He was influenced by Marx; he believed in the realities of material conditions, of objective social relations in determining historical outcomes. But he also believed in human genius and creativity and set very high, very moving stakes for their study. He sought “what it is that makes for creativity, or for power … for sensitivity, or saintliness, in societies.”
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To read more about The Venture of Islam, click here.