Revisionism as an honorary title: On the death of Patricia Crone, historian and Islamicist
Her academic career began with a bang. Having just been awarded her doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, but not yet released her dissertation, in 1977 Patricia Crone published Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World with Michael Cook. In this work, the authors took a hatchet to what until then had been the closely guarded tabernacle of Oriental Studies: namely, belief in the reliability of the Muslim sources for early Islamic history.
They were not the first to raise doubts about this, but they were perhaps the most radical. According to their core thesis, parts of which would be developed later on, Muhammad was not the prophet of a new religion at all, but rather the leader of a Jewish messianic movement, which traced itself back to Abraham’s wife Hagar. It was only in the late seventh century that an origins myth was formed out of this, stepping into the full light of history as Arab Islam. Further controversial works followed, such as Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987), in which Patricia Crone did away with the notion that late-antique Mecca had been an international centre for trade.
The response was critical, to put it mildly. She was often made out to be a revisionist. But thirty years later, even the harshest polemicist will concede that these books opened the door for a comprehensive historical-critical investigation of the sources. That and the inclusion of non-Islamic witnesses have made the study of early Islamic history one of the most hotly discussed branches of Islamic Studies.
In later works the provocative content waned, but not the erudition. Medieval Islamic Political Thought (1994), for example, is an analytically brilliant, scintillatingly written account of the religio-political thought of the first century of Islam. In 2013 Patricia Crone was given the Levi Della Vida Award: the highest honour granted in Oriental Studies. Honorary doctorates also came her way. For her last book alone, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran (2012), she won four international prizes.
Born in Denmark in 1945, Patricia Crone spent almost her entire academic life in the Anglo-American milieu. After Oxford (1977-90) and Cambridge (1990-97), she transferred to her last workplace, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Whoever encountered her there met a relentless scholar of the field – and a humorous and unpretentious host. Last Saturday, shortly after her seventieth birthday and following a long and difficult illness, Patricia Crone died in Princeton.