Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Creating God is an attempt to recreate the worlds in which the founders of several major religions lived and laboured. The result is a book rich in detail, consummate in its scholarship, and revelatory in exposing for modern eyes the conditions that allowed religious movements to flourish. Derricourt’s approach is to work backwards chronologically through Mormonism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism to Zoroastrianism. The outcome of all this work is one of the most exciting books of modern times.
Whether Derricourt is a scientist I have no way of knowing. That he has a thorough understanding of scientific methodology is beyond doubt. Wise enough to know that danger is abroad when discussing people’s belief systems, he lays out clearly in the chapter beginnings just what assumptions he intends to make and what rules he will work by. His selection of material comes from history and archaeology, geography and linguistics. The authenticity and role of his source material is discussed, reference being given to the very different categories of historical texts from the ancient and mediaeval worlds. Many texts were intended to establish authority, either of the state a or a religious leadership. “The contents of such texts are rarely unbiased accounts of historical processes and events produced by a dispassionate scribe. Any document has to be interrogated on its purpose, not just its contents” (9).
Derricourt accepts the need to establish the authenticity of a particular document and relies heavily on the archaeological record. “Historical documents tell us what people think; archaeological data show us what people do” (10). This is fine within limits. At times there is an ‘absence of archaeology’ to contend with. Was Mecca an important trading town of the 6th century or does it receive emphasis in Arabic accounts because it had been the home of Muhammad? Excavation is not permitted. Derricourt distinguishes an ‘archaeology of absence’ and instances Christianity, whose earliest documents are ascribed to authors in the first two centuries CE but is otherwise archaeologically invisible throughout that period.
Balancing the archaeological record against a set of beliefs is a tricky business. Early Christianity provides an excellent exemplar. By the later 1st century, a set of traditions had been recorded about Yeshua, including birth to a virgin mother, a performance on several occasions of miracles, and his death and resurrection. To counter these claims or to find evidence to support them is difficult as there is no archaeological record before the late 2nd century. Christian communities at that time were scattered, suggesting that the faith was gradual and undriven.
Problems of interpretation make the emergence of Islam difficult to comprehend. “While we know much about the archaeology of developed Islamic civilisation and increasing amounts about the early background of parts of Arabia, the archaeological record for the time and place in which Islam emerged is limited” (48). While a scholarly approach has developed within the cultural traditions of Islam (and Jewry), the fear of charges of apostasy has had the effect of guiding the scholarship of Islamic researchers to not venture outside of the framework defined by religion. It is known that the military in the middle decades of the 7th century conquered large parts of territory extending from Afghanistan to the north of Africa, and introduced their religion, Islam, but made little difference to the material culture, economic and social patterns of the local inhabitants. Attitudes hardened following squabbles between Muhammad’s family and others. Just as Christianity has no written record, created at the time that the leader was on earth, so Muhammad’s revelations were not recorded until some six generations after the Prophet’s death. Strict adherence to the beliefs whose core statement is ‘there is no god but God (Allah) and Muhammad is the Messenger of God’ grew among the military and allowed no divergence of opinion.
Derricourt’s book covers a number of religions, each influential in various parts of the world, most notwithstanding intense scrutiny of the beliefs they foster for diverse reasons. The book is too vast to allow comment on other than a couple of representative samples. It is difficult to remain dispassionate when readers learn of the lack of solidity on which these religions are founded, but that is an issue for another day.
By Robin Derricourt
$34.99; 304 pp