Source: the guardian
Whenever modern civilisations contemplate their own mortality, there is one ghost that will invariably rise up from its grave to haunt their imaginings. In February 1776, a few months after the publication of the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon commented gloomily on the news from America, where rebellion against Britain appeared imminent. “The decline of the two empires, Roman and British, proceeds at an equal pace.” Now, with the west mired in recession and glancing nervously over its shoulder at China, the same parallel is being dusted down. Last summer, when the Guardian’s Larry Elliott wrote an article on the woes of the US economy, the headline almost wrote itself: “Decline and fall of the American empire”.
Historians, it is true, have become increasingly uncomfortable with narratives of decline and fall. Few now would accept that the conquest of Roman territory by foreign invaders was a guillotine brought down on the neck of classical civilisation. The transformation from the ancient world to the medieval is recognised as something far more protracted. “Late antiquity” is the term scholars use for the centuries that witnessed its course. Roman power may have collapsed, but the various cultures of the Roman empire mutated and evolved. “We see in late antiquity,” so Averil Cameron, one of its leading historians, has observed, “a mass of experimentation, new ways being tried and new adjustments made.”
What was it that had brought the Arabs as conquerors to cities such as Herakleopolis, and far beyond? The ambition of Ibn Hisham was to provide an answer. The story he told was that of an Arab who had lived almost two centuries previously, and been chosen by God as the seal of His prophets: Muhammad. Although Ibn Hisham was himself certainly drawing on earlier material, his is the oldest biography to have survived, in the form we have it, into the present day. The details it provided would become fundamental to the way that Muslims have interpreted their faith ever since. That Muhammad had received a series of divine revelations; that he had grown up in the depths of Arabia, in a pagan metropolis, Mecca; that he had fled it for another city, Yathrib, where he had established the primal Muslim state; that this flight, or hijra, had transformed the entire order of time, and come to provide Muslims with their Year One: all this was enshrined to momentous effect by Ibn Hisham. The contrast between Islam and the age that had preceded it was rendered in his biography as clear as that between midday and the dead of night. The white radiance of Muhammad’s revelations, blazing first across Arabia and then to the limits of the world, had served to bring all humanity into a new age of light.