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The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800

Product Description
Jonathan Berkey surveys the religious history of the peoples of the Near East from approximately 600 to 1800 c.e. After examining the religious scene in the Near East in late antiquity, he investigates Islam’s first century, the “classical” period from the accession of the Abbasids to the rise of the Buyid amirs. He then traces the emergence of new forms of Islam in the middle period, deftly showing how Islam emerged slowly as part of a prolonged process.

The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800


  1. Berkey states that his book is for students and those interested in Islamic history. However, one would need to read a real textbook in order to have the foundation necessary to understand his work.

    His scholarship and attention to detail are above reproach, but the style of writing and content assume that the reader already knows quite a bit about Islamic history. That, and the plethora of words in Arabic, leave his history as very bland and confusing.
    Rating: 3 / 5

  2. Jonathan Berkey’s book describes the social and religious development of Islam from its inception to 1500. Berkey uses an analytical approach rather than a narrative one to portray the religion as being in a state of constant development during these years. His work highlights the diversity contained within Islam. Indeed, the book might have been entitled THE FORMATION OF ISLAMS. In describing Islam’s formation, Berkey divides his book into four broad sections: “The Near East before Islam;” “The Emergence of Islam, 600–750;” “The Consolidation of Islam, 750–1000;” and “Medieval Islam, 1000–1500.”

    In the first section, Berkey describes the late antique milieu that produced Islam. The areas of the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Peninsula were politically unstable because of Byzantine and the Sassanid influences in these areas. Both in politics and religion, Berkey feels that Islam followed patterns of what came before it, while incorporating particularly Arabian elements such as an emphasis on tribal identity.

    In the second section, Berkey analyzes the early years of the Islamic movement. He portrays the new religion’s earliest years as a time of flux, and he asserts that the movement had a long process of maturation. Muhammad did not present the Arabs with a crystalline theology and polity; rather, the Islam developed in relationship to its political and religious context. Berkey portrays Islam as having a high level of religious indeterminacy during this period, while simultaneously being prone to sectarianism.

    In his third section, Berkey explores the crystallizing that occurred in the Islamic traditions. Politically, the Abbasids adopted the trappings of an imperial court, demonstrating continuity with what came before. Berkey asserts, however, that the real force in Islam at the time was the urban middle class and that the Caliph failed to wield real religious power. Shia disappoint concerning the Abbasid caliphs caused that movement to further define itself, but in doing so also caused further fracturing. Berkey explains the fascinating development of Twelver Shiism, as well as the Ismaili Shiism of the Fatimids. During this period of Islamic history, the broader Muslim community began to define what it meant to be Muslim. This form of Islam would become known as Sunniism, based on sunna which means way of life. This branch of Islam relied heavily on the consensus of the community (umma). The Sharia became the manifestation of the community’s will and its traditions, and the jurists (ulama) became the custodians of those traditions. This role of tradition, as well as that of the jurists, became a means to maintain unity in the Islamic world, in spite of the fractious nature of the successive political regimes that arrived in the Middle Period.

    In the fourth section of this book, Berkey investigates what he apologetically calls “Medieval Islam.” During this period, the Islamic areas were ruled by “alien” regimes, many of which were Turkic. Berkey suggests that these regimes relied heavily on the jurists and traditional Sunniism because of the “otherness” of the ruling class. This common bond proved beneficial in light of the area’s political fragmentation.
    Rating: 4 / 5


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