‘Founding Gods, Inventing Nations’ – The Role of the Culture Myth in Defining Social Legitimacy

WHAT ROLE DO culture myths – the stories civilizations tell about the beginning of law, medicine, arts and sciences, and civilization itself – have in defining a group’s legitimacy within society? In Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam, Will McCants, a Middle East expert at CNA’s Center for Strategic Students and adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University, addresses this issue with an emphasis on explaining the unique development of Muslim cultural beliefs and traditions in the wake of the Arab conquest.

Rather than a dry, linear history, the author presents his study in a comparative format, contrasting the competition for social relevance through control of cultural heritage in three periods of Ancient Near Eastern history: the Hellenistic period following the Alexandrian conquest; the hegemony of imperial Rome; and, of course, the Arab conquest and subsequent Islamic period.

THE CORE COMPARISON that drives Founding Gods is the difference between the existing “high culture” possessed by Greeks and Romans alike from the beginning of their hegemony and the lack of such a culture on the part of the conquering Arabs, and how that difference influenced the cultural actions of conquered elites seeking their role in the new post-conquest society.  At the time of Alexander’s conquest, the Greeks had a centuries-long history of philosophical, medicinal, legal, and other cultural knowledge, which was well-known and well-respected in the Near East (in no small part because of the centuries of close communication and exchange between the Near East and the Aegean, which took place during the period of – and played a significant role in – that culture’s development, as Greek protographers acknowledged).  Because of this, the local reaction to the Greek conquest consisted in part of the composition of etiologies which, while necessarily crediting the Greeks with the high culture they were known to possess, attributed the origin of key elements of that ‘Greek’ culture to predecessors of the indigenous elites themselves.  The coming of the Romans, who in many respects also adopted Hellenic cultural heritage as their own, spurred a similar response on the part of indigenous elites who needed once again to secure their place in the new order created by the latest conquering power.

The indigenous response to the Arab conquest, on the other hand, was very different from that sparked by the Alexandrian conquest and by the advent of post-Hellenistic (but still largely Hellenized) Roman domination that preceded it.  Unlike the Greeks, McCants writes, the conquering Arabs were not associated by native Near Easterners with any specific, respected culture prior to their arrival.  As a result, when seeking to solidify their cultural place the new order that followed the Arab conquest, native elites did not concern themselves with who was responsible for the high culture brought by the conquerors (there was none, so responding to the Arab conquest in the same way that their forebears responded to the Greek conquest would have been very cart-before-horse).  Instead, they concerned themselves with that which would constitute the new culture that had to be developed in the wake of the conquest – a process that took four centuries to complete.

IN FOUNDING GODS, McCants stresses the value to a conquered people of both an umbilical cord to the past and an understanding of the audience to whom cultural connections most need to be communicated.  As might be imagined, that value is greatest during periods in which a culture’s legitimacy and status as an accepted part of society was being called into question.  One specific example of this (out of the many provided in the book) can be seen in the Alexandrian Jewish population living under Roman rule, whose combination of peculiar religious beliefs and success at converting Roman citizens to Judaism led some in the intellectual and legal hierarchy to lash out in an effort to drive a wedge between the Jewish population and the rest of Roman society.  “Since their new overlords had adopted the cultural history and sensitivities of the Greeks,” McCants writes, “the response to these charges by Jews living under Roman rule was similar to that of their earlier coreligionists: stress the antiquity of biblical heroes; emphasize the dependence of the Greeks on these heroes for scientific and philosophical knowledge; and downplay the cultural contributions of the Egyptians, their primary cultural competitors” (pp. 130-31).

The utility of such a defense, and the vehemence with which it needed to be conducted, varied with audience, situation, and desperation, of course. In the case of the 1st century Alexandrian Jews, the defense employed was “sharper because of the denigration of their cultural contribution to humanity, the depiction of them as outsiders, and the suspicion that their doctrines were undermining the state” (p. 131) by authors like Lysimachus and Apion of Alexandria, who cast the Jews as “misanthropic lepers” who were “foreign and seditious” (p. 130).  The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo lashed out at the Greeks in response, accusing philosophers, scientists, and lawmakers alike – including Plato and Pythagoras – of “copying” and taking “like a thief” principles, concepts, and rules that had originated with Moses, who obviously antedated classical Greek civilization, and whose gifts to society had been handed down through generations unchanged and still in their perfect original form (p. 131).

This line of attack demonstrates the power of a direct line to antiquity and the importance of being able to lay claim to the past when seeking to secure one’s place in a social order run by those who have an existing respected high culture.  Philo’s specific goal was to cut off the Roman writers at the proverbial knees by eliminating the legitimacy they derived from being the cultural heirs of the inventors of law, philosophy, and science: the Greeks – something he sought to accomplish by claiming, in McCants’s words, “that Greek knowledge was built on the teachings of Moses, who was the first lawgiver,” and that “the Greeks were just mimics” (pp. 130-133). This defense, that the Jewish people and their philosophical heritage were more ancient than the Greeks, and that the pagan latter “had stolen philosophy from the Jews,” was also used by early Christians, who “were stigmatized as outsiders who had embraced an alien religious tradition of no account or achievement compared with Greco-Roman civilization” (p. 133-136).

In keeping with their focus on other concerns within the various debates over etiology, and in contrast to the Alexandrian Jews from the example above,  early Muslims did not need to search for a way to credit their forefathers with the initial gifts of the sciences either “to instill a sense of national pride in past accomplishments after being conquered by a foreign power [or] to remind the conquerors of their dependence on the conquered people” (p. 85).  Some, in fact – like the Muslim protographer Ibn Qutayba – actually “encouraged [their] coreligionists to create a parallel cultural system” for the invading Arabs to “supplant” the existing Iranian system [pp. 81-84]).  Instead, McCants writes, they were free to engage in a debate that was less about which culture was responsible for the origin of the sciences and more about whether the knowledge of philosophy, metallurgy, law, medicine, and the hard sciences had been developed by humans (be they Greek, Persian, Babylonian, Jewish, or others) or whether they had been divinely revealed – and in what measure each.

The input into this effort to define the new Islamic culture and connect it to different native intellectual and religious traditions was widespread.  As McCants notes, “at the same time that authors living in Baghdad, Basra, and Kufa were creating genealogies and first that connected the Islamic empire to the Bible and Arabia, Iranians in the same cities were translating histories that connected it to Iran” (p. 108).  The central role played by those whom the Arabs conquered in helping debate and define the culture and culture myths that would, in turn, define Islamic culture itself is unique, and it sets this fascinating period apart from the aftermaths of the major Near Eastern conquests that preceded it.

THOUGH DESCRIBED AS a work that “traces four thousand years of speculation on the origins of civilization,” the text itself is more focused and methodically presented than the jacket summary might lead one to believe.  Founding Gods, Inventing Nations is divided into five chapters, most of which begin with a relatively brief discussion of ancient etiologies and culture myths, with an emphasis on the use and revision of these myths for their own ends by those living under Greek and Roman domination. Following this, the remainder of each chapter is dedicated to presenting key figures and positions in the post-Arab-conquest discussion about what aspects of existing culture myths and etiologies should and should not be a part of the new high culture going forward.  Copious footnotes and a comprehensive bibliography are provided, as is a useful index.

At under 200 pages including bibliography and index, Founding Gods, Inventing Nations is a short but dense work, though it would be incorrect to assume that necessary detail and argumentation have been sacrificed for the sake of brevity. Rather, McCants limits his discussion to only that which is directly relevant to the topic at hand.  In doing so, he wisely avoids a pitfall many others encounter, particularly when it comes to transforming dissertations into initial book-length publications: needlessly filling additional pages with comprehensive (and repetitious) translations of ancient material, much of which is already available elsewhere, and much of which is often only tangentially related to the core subject of the work.  McCants does quote from some ancient cultural myths – as might be expected, given the centrality of that genre to his work – but each translation is relevant to the discussion surrounding it.

Founding Gods, Inventing Nations is a solidly-researched and well-presented book that holds value for students, scholars, and other individuals who are interested in cultural history, culture myths, and the role of the conquered elites in their development.  Additionally, its comparative format gives it particular value for individuals who are seeking a compact introduction to the development of culture myths in the Hellenistic, Roman, and Islamic periods in the Near East.

Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths from Antiquity to Islam by William F. McCants (ISBN 9780691151489; $35) is published by Princeton University Press.


Get Alerts