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Patricia Crone: memoir of a superb Islamic scholar

The great historian of early Islam, Patricia Crone, died peacefully on July 11 after a long battle with cancer. This memoir by her friend and colleague was written earlier this year for a volume of essays in her honour and links to her outstanding essay on Mohammed published by openDemocracy. 

On the floor of Patricia Crone’s grand study that runs the entire depth of her house in Princeton, and looks out on her lovely garden, lies a very striking Persian carpet, most gloriously woven in red with white patterns on it. Her father had it in his office and I always imagined it had been a tribute by him to her brilliance. But no, he thought that all his four daughters should be fluent in at least two international languages and insisted on them going to finishing school in France and England. So after taking the “forprøve” or preliminary exam at Copenhagen University, Patricia had to go to Paris to learn French and then to London where she determined to get into a university as a pleasant and productive way of becoming fluent in English. She was accepted as an occasional student at King’s College London and followed a course in medieval European history, especially church-state relations. And when she discovered SOAS, where they offered exactly the kind of course she wanted and could not do in Denmark (History branch IV), she wrote to her father and asked him if he would pay for three more years in London. His generous agreement thus sponsored her association with Islamic history. At SOAS she learned Arabic, later adding Persian and Syriac, and got a First, which pleased her father, whom she describes as an academic manqué. She then went on to write her PhD on the maw­ālī in the Umayyad period under the supervision of Bernard Lewis, although he left for America before the thesis was examined in 1974. Then she was awarded a Senior Research Fellowship at the Warburg Institute. And that is where we first met in the autumn of 1976.

Patricia had already spent two years at the Warburg and was well established in a nice office on the third floor looking out over Gordon Square. As this was her final year as SRF she was looking for a more permanent university position. The Director, Joe Trapp, had very kindly offered me a small stipend to organize a couple of interdisciplinary seminars, and arranged for a second desk and chair to be installed in her office. When I knocked on the door and went in to take possession of my designated space, we became acquainted. I was immediately struck by her very bright blue eyes and quizzical expression. As I later learned they were the outward signs of an extremely astute intelligence, a highly skeptical approach to problems and a passionate commitment to her research.

Patricia was a heavy smoker, and I was not. At the time the Warburg allowed smoking even in the Reading Room, though not in the stacks, a striking feature of the ubiquity of the habit. I found this unpleasant and Patricia gallantly agreed to smoke out of the window, which made the room very cold in the winter. But by then we had discovered that there was more that united than divided us – and this great compensation for the disagreement over cigarettes was confirmed when Patricia agreed to contribute to the first seminar I organized which was devoted to Iconoclasm (her paper on Islam, Judaeo-Christianity and Byzantine Iconoclasm, 1980, is reprinted in her Variorum volume, Aldershot 2005). She took some persuading but the result is a fascinating exploration of the forces and borders between Islam, Judaism and Christianity that made the Near East such a trembling cauldron of potent explosion between the seventh and the ninth centuries.

She and Michael Cook had already finished their joint study Hagarism, which was due to be published in the spring of 1977. Michael expressed considerable anxiety about its appearance, realizing that it would ruffle more than a few feathers, especially Muslim ones. This was inevitable because the whole purpose of the book was to look beyond the Islamic tradition for contemporary accounts of the Prophet preserved in other languages. They had carefully examined all the records they could find in Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Persian, Aramaic and Coptic for evidence of the movement that forged the Arab tribes into such a mighty military force. Of course many dismissed Muhammad as just another infidel prophet, but others, especially Babylonian Judaism, presented indisputably useful contemporary evidence. While the first section of the book challenged the average reader with detailed analysis of some rather obscure texts, the second put together an account of the Near Eastern provinces before the rise of Islam, while the third offered an exciting new synthesis of all these observations, presenting the idea of Hagarism as a dominant force in the mixed world of the Prophet. On the eve of the book’s publication, Michael took their names off the bell at the door to their flat on Marylebone High Street, but there were no incidents – reviews ranged from the highly appreciative to the extremely negative and beyond. ‘Crone and Cook’ was to become a term for unacceptable “revisionism,” but also, to those who appreciated the result, a touchstone for the wider explanation of the rise of Islam.

By the summer of 1977 as these notices began to arrive, Anthony Barnett and I had had our first child, who was rapidly introduced to the Warburg. Patricia enjoyed putting up the notice that read, “Quiet please, baby sleeping,” outside our office. Tamara soon became too active to be put to sleep on a cushion but it was typical of Patricia’s generosity that she encouraged me to bring her in, leave her and rush around the stacks checking footnotes. She even offered to look after the 18-month old when I was invited to give a paper to a Middle Eastern History Group in Edinburgh, interested in the role of medieval women. When I protested that I couldn’t go, she simply told me to deliver Tamara to her flat for the day with all the necessary equipment. It was cold that November and Patricia got completely exhausted continuously pushing Tamara. She had discovered that the moment she stopped Tamara started wailing, and as motion in the pushchair seemed the only way to stop the noise, Patricia carried on walking around, up and down the pavements of central London until I got back! And that paper was the first of many efforts to present the power and unusual authority of Byzantine women to a mixed audience, which became a major preoccupation of my later scholarship.

In 1977 Patricia took up an appointment at Oxford University and was rewriting the first part of her thesis as the book entitled Slaves on Horses. Her exploration of the evolution of the Islamic polity followed on from Hagarism with a sophisticated analysis of the role of tribes and tribal culture in early Islam, which she compared with Turkish tribes in the conquest of Central Asia. The two conquests by tribal peoples on horseback form the starting point and cross-fertilize the argument. At first she commuted from London to the Oriental Institute in Oxford, and we continued to see each other, but later she moved to Cambridge and began work on Roman, provincial and Islamic law, based on the second part of her thesis, exploring the inter-connected features of Near Eastern legal systems – Roman, Jewish, Islamic – as well as the promotion of slaves to positions of high authority that set Islamic society apart from traditional late antique and medieval societies. This was followed by Meccan Trade which had a rather different perspective in settling the issue of Muhammad’s rather humble mercantile activity that influenced the early years of Islam. She argued that the spice trade was an Orientalist invention and that the trade depicted in the Muslim sources couldn’t account for the supposed wealth and power of Quraysh. It has proved equally definitive. 

These three immensely erudite studies of the role of slaves, law and trade in early Islam are supported by many pages of references and appendices, more footnotes than text, and are rooted in comparative analysis. They do not lack lighter moments. Patricia’s example of how Islamic lawyers tackled the Roman legal dilemma of what happens when a slave girl, who has been promised her freedom if she gives birth to a son, has twins, forms an appendix that makes you laugh out loud. 

While still teaching in Oxford, she and Martin Hinds began working together on the earliest conception of religious authority in Islam, which became God’s Caliph. It was a great pleasure to visit them during his visits to Oxford, to see how happy she was, and this made his premature death all the more difficult to bear. She also kept in touch with us as our family expanded and we have photos of Patricia with our younger daughter Portia.

From 1985 onwards I was often in Princeton so we kept in touch by letters, the exchange of offprints and Christmas cards – hers often displayed her puppets during a performance. In these Patricia revealed a talent for making and costuming puppets, which she then controlled to create a performance in the theatre also constructed for the purpose. She invited local children to make up the audience and gave extraordinary pleasure – another unexpected achievement. She also gave extravagant New Year’s Eve parties, which always involved elaborate decorations, with streamers, colored baskets of gifts and much delicious food and drink. I think it was one of the Danish customs she imported with her. 

In Cambridge her house was conveniently close to the station so that she could make a quick dash to London or the airport, and within easy bicycling of Gonville and Caius, the Faculty of Oriental Studies and the University Library. Patricia always arranged her life to maximize the time she could spend at work – her efficiency in this respect is clear from the number of books and articles that resulted. She is utterly single-minded manner in the way she pursues intellectual problems.

Her research takes off from a very close reading of the sources, questioning their reliability, credibility and purpose with a general distrust of the common interpretation and received wisdom. She constantly challenges opinions expressed by both medieval and modern experts with a profound skepticism that characterizes her work. Along with this commitment to her chosen field went a determination to make it understandable to those who wanted to know, an example I found inspiring. 

This concern with making Islam comprehensible is evident from her contributions to more contemporary issues. When Anthony suggested that she should write something about Muhammad for openDemocracy, she produced two very widely read articles. “What do we actually know about Muhammad” (with nearly 100,000 readers), “Jihad, Idea and History” which answers questions such as “What is Jihad?” and “Was Islam spread by force?”, as well as a reflection on religious freedom in Islam. This direct engagement with problems of today in an unprejudiced fashion balances Patricia’s dedicated research into the much earlier history of Islam. To both spheres she brings a deep sense of involvement based on fearless honesty and very good judgment. 

Similarly, when approached by Novin Doostdar of Oneworld Press for a book she did not want to write, she persuaded him to undertake a series of small biographies of Muslim figures modeled on the Oxford Past Masters and the modern equivalent. Together they planned what has become a most successful and informative range of short introductory volumes to key players in the Muslim world, from late antiquity to the present day, which provide a perfect entry point to periods of Islamic history when individual rulers, generals, religious leaders, poets and philosophers helped to create new conditions. Figures as different as Caliph Abd al-Malik, Mehmed Ali, Nazira Zeineddine, Abu Nuwas and Chinggis Khan come to life in brief biographies commissioned, edited and occasionally re-written by Patricia. 30 volumes in her series, Makers of the Muslim World, are already available and two more will be published this autumn.

As she realized how difficult it was for students of the late twentieth century to grasp the restrictions of the pre-industrial world, she began to introduce her lectures on Islamic history with one on the main features of pre-industrial societies. John Davey, an editor with Blackwells, suggested that she expand this into a book without footnotes designed for the general reader, something of a departure from her previous work. In Pre-Industrial Societies she emphasized a broad comparative approach to clarify the gap that separates us moderns from the non-industrialized world, and the huge differences wrought by the industrial revolution. Evidence from the Far East (China, Japan), the Indian sub-continent and Islamic societies of the Near East and North Africa, was employed to highlight the specific character of such communities prior to industrialization, drawing parallels between imperial structures (of the Byzantine, Chinese, Japanese and the Muslim Caliphate), and the looser, less organized small units that dominated Northern Europe. In an imaginary island setting, she sets out the options for people who suddenly find themselves without a government and traces how they might react. Above all, she elucidates the underlying significance embedded in systems of land tenure, the role of cities and most important of religion in such pre-modern societies, whether Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian or Christian. 

Her delight in identifying structural inversions is captured in vivid terms: “there was nothing shameful about patronage as such: it benefitted employed and employee alike. Wherever trust mattered as much as or more than skills, nepotism was a virtue, not a sign of corruption.” (33) And after exploring these features across a very wide spectrum of such societies Patricia then looked at the particularly distinctive nature of Europe, ‘First or freak?’ and the concept of modernity. She asks what constitutes the modern and her reply encapsulates a great deal of thought, how to present Marxism, totalitarianism and democracy, in a commanding survey of what industrialization brought in its wake. And what a basic shift this involved: “ideologically we are all identical, however different we may seem, not, as in pre-industrial societies, different regardless of our fundamental similarities.” (194) It is a book whose depth of insight grows with re-rereading.

Much to my regret, in 1995 when I returned to England to take up the Chair of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King’s College London, Patricia was already being courted by the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. So we swapped continents and remained on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Before she left, however, Patricia gave one of her most extravagant parties, taking over the Hall of Gonville and Caius College for a feast, a real feast, preceded by champagne on the lawn. Anthony helped light fireworks to mark the event. Every table was packed with friends and colleagues who had been carefully placed to provoke interesting conversations, and after the great dinner college staff cleared away the long tables and benches so that we could dance to her favorite Strauss waltzes and polkas. This is so much harder to do than you imagine – we needed more rock and roll as well – but everyone enjoyed celebrating her and wishing her all the best for her move to the States. 

Fortunately, it didn’t mean that we saw each other less, as we made more effort to keep in touch. After discovering that we shared a passion for opera, we planned our visits to Glyndebourne and London operas to be sure that we could go together, and in this way enjoyed several memorable performances and splendid picnics every summer. I also return to America frequently and take every opportunity to visit her in Princeton, in the elegant double house she converted on Humbert Street. Typical of Patricia, she decided against living in the grand accommodation provided by the Institute down Olden Lane, and purchased this plot in central Princeton, which was near the shops and the University library. As usual she ensured that she could bicycle to work. 

Ensconced at the Institute, Patricia devoted herself to further detailed studies of Islamic government, the Muslim dynasties, the nativist prophets and pagan opponents of the Prophet – and yet more work in progress. All this is only achieved by maintaining a rigorous working schedule, never relaxing her concentration until the evening, passed as often as not watching old films and favorite BBC series. Yet hers has never been an ascetic existence. An extraordinarily welcoming manner and generous hospitality means any number of parties for students and colleagues, delicious dinners and a range of Californian red wines to accompany her excellent cooking. She has always travelled most adventurously – all over the Near East, further afield to Vietnam and more recently to Uzbekistan. For my part I only persuaded her to travel from London to Lewes, though once we went as far as Aberystwyth for a seminar on comparative medieval social structures (we thoroughly enjoyed the single track railway through the Welsh hills and the sea front on the coast). But I can confirm what a cheerful travelling companion she is, and what an enormous pleasure it is to count her as the best of friends.

Patricia has an extraordinary capacity to adapt to change and appears equally at home in London, Princeton and surely in Denmark at family reunions with her siblings. Yet she is very rooted, taking immense care over the planting of her garden (and her neighbors’), and joyfully celebrating their flowering. Her devotion to the roses which bloom so briefly in Princeton blocks any effort to lure her away at that time. She is also unusually responsive to changes in other parts of the world today, foreseeing with great distress and her acerbic tongue the agonizing conflicts across the Middle East today. 

Any lasting solution to these deep social clefts will need to respect and understand their history. The rise of Islam brought to an end what is now called Late Antiquity and precipitated the formation of eastern and western Christendom in what remained of the Roman Empire north of the Arab conquests. This makes Islam the most recent historically of all the world’s great monotheistic religions. Perhaps for this reason, its insistence on being the only vehicle of the true prophet is amongst the most vehement, and its claims are the most vulnerable to research. The historian of the extraordinary rise of Islam, therefore, has to be especially scrupulous, exacting and meticulous, both in order to be sensitive and if possible unimpeachable in her reconstruction of what happened, as well as to glimpse the previously existing context through the all-encompassing stamp of the conquests. It is Patricia's accomplishment to have achieved this. Acutely conscious of the human realities (of all kinds) she remains utterly intransigent in her own approach as a secular historian par excellance. What makes it doubly awesome is that she carried this through both for what became the Arab world and for the pre-Islamic history of Persia, to which she dedicated her most recent years resulting in yet another magnum opus, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran, which has now garnered four prestigious prizes, including the Albert Hourani book award, the Houshang Pourshariati Iranian Studies book award, the Central Eurasian Studies Society award, and the James Henry Breasted Prize of the American Historical Society for the best book in English in any field of history prior to 1000CE. Together with her major works on Medieval Islamic Political Theory and God’s Rule, she has transformed our understanding of this critical period of history that is so relevant today.

This essay is the introduction to Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts, Essays in Honor of Professor Patricia Crone, eds. B. Sadeghi, A. Q. Ahmed, A. Silverstein, and R. Hoyland (Brill 2015), xiv-xx, and is republished with thanks.

About the author

Judith Herrin is emeritus professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King's College, London. Her books include The Formation of Christendom, Women in Purple and Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire


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