Viewed in the least charitable terms, academia is a small fraternity of ambitious backbiters engaged in the production of work so dense that only other members of the order can hope to understand it. But some scholars arrive on the scene bearing such a combination of intellect, urgency and charisma that their achievements resonate long after the Festschrift is printed and the memorial lecture empties out.
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.