Dr Vaidehi Nathan
Founding Gods, Inventing Nations – Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam, William F Mccants, Princeton University Press, Pp 179 (HB), $35
Hebrew, Islam and Christianity all three had the same origins. They shared their myths and forefathers. To begin with they all contested for the same geographic piece – the Near East the region lying beyond West Asia, for us. And they mutually fought pitched and gruesome battles, a war today Islam seems to be winning.
Islam, by all accounts is an invading religion. Its spread, right from the beginning, has been by the sword. And early on, when it established itself, the founders culled out accounts from the shared, common myth to modify it to give it a distinct twist as it were. This phenomenon of invented heritage lies at the core of William F Mccants’ Founding Gods, Inventing Nations – Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam.
The Near East has been the conflict zone for centuries. Three major invasions can be sighted namely Greek, Roman and Arab. The conquerors and the conquered always reshaped their myths of civilisation’s origins to suit their positions. “The Greeks and Romans came to the Near East with a learned high culture, and native elites contested it, adopted it, or did something in between. But the conquering Arabs had no such comparable learned culture; consequently, the conquerors and conquered argued over the next three centuries about the content of not only “Islamic” but also “Arab” identity and scholarship.”
Says Mccants, “Although Qur’an is a “biblical” text in the sense that it draws heavily on the stories of the Bible, the Qur’anic conception of cultural origins is similar to that of the ancient Near Eastern authors: a beneficent sky god, Allah, gives culture—even ironsmithing—to humans. However this is not a revival of ancient mythology but the confluence of two Hellenistic developments.” Mccants fine-combs through the religious texts of the three religions, to describe the various theories presented by them on what all god gave. Magic, art, and science were all gifted. There are minor variations in each account to sound original.
Civilisation started, according to the Bible after the fall of Adam. However, “Mohammad draws on some version of these texts (perhaps oral) to prove his argument that God is the source of all civilization, an argument influenced by late-antique thought on divine providence. He makes this argument to justify either proselytizing among or conquest of non-Muslims, who have forgotten the source of civilization and thus deserve to lose it.” Mccants makes minute comparisons between the texts and makes several such observations on points of similarity and points of divergence. Then there is the eternal question ‘Who was First?’
Mccants says that the Iranians, a century after they were conquered by the Arabs started writing the histories of their pre-Islamic kings in Arabic. The kings were portrayed as inventors of arts and science of civilisation. Something similar happened in Greek and Roman conquests too. These, the author sees as an attempt to reiterate their national pride, though they accepted the conquerors. “Early Iranian Muslims preserved their culture myths in an Islamic frame-work to assimilate to the new order or to encourage the new order to assimilate to them… No matter what the framework, the culture myths were generally the same, underscoring the ambiguity of boasting about ancient cultural achievements…Later premodern conquests of the region did not lead to the same level of interest in culture myths.”
The book is an academic discussion on the way religions developed their “sources” to be passed on to the later generations. While they almost adopted the same material, shaping them to their convenience and need, the religionists themselves have squabbled over them. Who imposed what on who was decided by the shifting political power in the region. William F Mccants has delved deep into the subject, and analysed it scientifically. He does not pronounce conclusions, but presents the case. Serious, scholastic and heavy, the book has some of the translations of works the first time. Mccants is in the adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University.
(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540)