Faridah Zaman, Somerville Fellow and tutor in history, writes about a 17th century Oxford scholar’s bold reappraisal of Islam, and its impact on 20th century Muslim intellectuals.

Faridah Zaman, Fellow and Tutor in History

In 1911, the Indian linguist, philologist, and manuscript collector Hafiz Mahmud Khan Shairani (1881–1946) published the first printed edition of An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism, with the Life of Mahomet. The text was attributed to the seventeenth-century physician, Unitarian polemicist, and sometime second keeper of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Henry Stubbe (1632–76).

With Stubbe’s original manuscript, penned c.1672, already long lost, Shairani’s printed edition was based on the earliest surviving copy of which he knew. That this early-modern English account of the origins of Islam should have entered the world of print through the efforts of a young man born in the princely state of Tonk in north India, who is best remembered for his research into the origins of Urdu, is something of a curiosity. The world of Henry Stubbe was in many ways unrecognizable to the world that Hafiz Shairani would come to occupy some two and a half centuries later. And yet, in this article I suggest that we might use Rise and Progress as a bridge between these distant worlds in order to say something about the nature of historical scholarship.

Stubbe’s was a text unusual in its own time. In prevailing depictions of Muhammad written by both medieval and early modern European writers, the Prophet was variously a heretic, an impostor or false prophet, a popish ally, or even the Antichrist. Stubbe’s own estimations of both the Prophet and Islam were diametrically opposed. Stubbe found “little integrity in the Christian narratives,” which had transformed “the Wisest Legislator that ever was” into “the vilest Imposter.”

What drove Stubbe towards such a bold reappraisal? Two key phenomena were at work. First, a new strand of scholarship in seventeenth-century Europe focusing on the Hebrew Bible, on early Christianity, and on recently collected “Oriental” manuscripts had led to fresh possibilities for thinking about the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam in this period. Secondly, Stubbe was writing in the particular context of the Restoration, when debates about the nature of monarchy, government, and civil religion, and particularly religious toleration, were of pressing significance.

Through writing about the just and wise government of the Prophet, Stubbe’s work carried challenging implications about the form of government and religion best-suited for the future of England. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the manuscript and its various early copies circulated only in clandestine circles in the decades thereafter, with little wider renown.

What, then, drew Shairani to Stubbe in the early 1900s? I suggest, again, two main ways of thinking about this question. First, that this was part of a wider intervention that Muslim scholars, activists, and public intellectuals were making from the late nineteenth century onwards in order to rescue Islam from the negative stereotypes that abounded in the contemporary European histories of Islam.

Secondly, and relatedly, that such figures were reappraising Islamic history in the context of feverish debate surrounding “pan-Islamism” and the political future of Islam in this period. The appeal of Stubbe was that he made Islam not only less fearsome but also comprehensible as a civil religion. But it only went so far.

In this article I also look beyond Stubbe’s text to examine the constellation of Muslim figures who financially supported the 1911 publication. This group included several authors who wrote their own revisionist histories of Islam around this time. Their works dismissed accusations that Islam was a theocracy propagated by violence and instead took up the vocabulary of modern politics, using concepts such as constitutionalism, republicanism, and even socialism to describe early Islamic government.

We see, therefore, that in both periods the medium of history allowed writers to address issues of contemporary salience and produce what I suggest was a religion keenly attuned to the political present and future.

Dr Zaman’s journal article is published here.

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