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The Birth of Islam: A Different View

Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos
Man reading, Sanaa, Yemen, 1997; photograph by Steve McCurry from his recent book The Unguarded Moment. A collector’s edition of his work, Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs, will be published by Phaidon this June.


What do we know of Muhammad? Can we even be sure that such a historical personage existed? For the vast majority of believing Muslims the question simply does not arise. The Prophet lived in Arabia from the time of his birth in approximately 570 CE till his death in 632, during which time he received and transmitted the revelations from God contained in the Koran, while forging the warring tribes of that region into an all-powerful movement under the banner of Islam.

Building on this formidable religious and political achievement, his immediate successors, the Rightly Guided Caliphs, led the triumphant tribes beyond the bounds of Arabia, inflicting almost simultaneous defeats on the two most powerful Near Eastern empires, the Persian Sassanids, who collapsed completely, and the Byzantines, who lost two of their richest provinces—Syria-Palestine and Egypt. Despite having reservations about the reliability of the oral traditions underpinning the Muslim narrative, most Western scholars have tended to accept its basic premises. There was such a person as Muhammad and it is his utterances—divinely dictated or otherwise—that make up the 114 “suras,” or chapters, of the Koran. According to the generally accepted Muslim account, the holy text acquired its present form under the Caliph Uthman, Muhammad’s son-in-law and the third of his successors as leader of the Islamic community; he reigned from 644 to 656.

There are, however, a number of skeptics, mostly in Western universities, who question the Muslim narrative. Even when accepting that the text of the Koran represents the authentic utterances of Muhammad, they have cast doubt on the details of the Prophet’s life, as recorded in the oral literature known as Hadiths (“traditions” or reports) passed down by the generations following his death. Many of these details, based on stories conveyed through “chains of transmission” of varying reliability, were intended to elucidate the meaning of Koranic passages by reference to “occasions of revelation” in the life of the Prophet.

The earliest written biography of Muhammad, by Ibn Hisham, who died in 833, contains parts of the missing work of an earlier scholar, Ibn Ishaq, who lived from about 707 to 767. The dating of Ibn Hisham’s work, composed nearly two centuries after the Prophet’s death, may be contrasted with that of Mark’s gospel, considered by most New Testament scholars to be the earliest of the three synoptic gospels and to have been written some four decades after the death of Jesus. The story of Jesus has long been subjected to the rigors of form criticism, with scholars such as Rudolph Bultmann claiming that almost nothing can be known about his life or personality, as distinct from the “message of the early Christian community, which for the most part the Church freely attributed to Jesus.”1 Yet despite widespread recognition of the unreliability of oral traditions, most scholars have tended to accept the Muslim narrative.

A startling exception to this record of scholarly complacency appeared with two landmark studies by the American linguist John Wansbrough (1928–2002), who taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In Quranic Studies (1977) and The Sectarian Milieu (1978) Wansbrough trawled through a substantial body of the earliest manuscript sources and concluded that “Islam” may not have arisen in western Arabia, as the traditional narrative holds, but in a “sectarian milieu” of Christians, Jews, and monotheistic Arabs in the same lands of the Fertile Crescent (modern Israel-Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq) that saw the emergence of Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity. “Both the quantity and quality of source materials,” he cautiously suggested, “would seem to support the proposition that the elaboration of Islam was not contemporary with but posterior to the Arab occupation of the Fertile Crescent and beyond.”2 Far from being finalized under the Caliph Uthman, the text of the Koran as we now have it, in Wansbrough’s view, may have emerged over some two centuries in the course of religious polemics with the older traditions of Judaism and Christianity.

Wansbrough was careful to avoid drawing firm historical conclusions from his studies: his method was strictly textual and literary. But two young scholars influenced by him, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, endeavored to put historical flesh on the bones of his literary analysis in their highly speculative and controversial book Hagarism.3 Setting aside the Islamic accounts, they examined a number of the earliest non-Muslim sources that treat of the Arab invasion with a view to constructing an alternative version of Islamic origins. On the basis of what they admitted was rather thin evidence, they hypothesized that the original Islam was a messianic movement of Jewish refugees from Palestine who went to the Arabian deserts and joined forces with Arab tribesmen to recover the Holy Land.

The messianic union of Jews and Arabs was short-lived and afterward the Arabs—known in these sources as Hagarenes from the Arabic muhajirun, or emigrants—contrived to preserve their distinctive identity by adopting Samaritan scriptural positions (rejecting prophetic writings outside the Pentateuch) and moving toward a position of equidistance between Judaism and Christianity. For Crone and Cook, Muhammad emerges as an Arabian Moses recapitulating the Mosaic themes of exile and the dispensing of laws received from God on a holy mountain.

The Crone-Cook theory has been generally rejected, and Patricia Crone has since refined her views, accepting that Muhammad definitely existed as a historical personage, and that most of the Koran is a record of his utterances. Andrew Rippin, a Canadian scholar and leading Wansbrough disciple, argues that although Cook and Crone

successfully draw attention to the problems involved in the study of Islam, they have not been able to get beyond the limitations inherent in the sources, for they are all of questionable historical authenticity and, more importantly, all are treatises based in polemic.

Nevertheless, although Wansbrough’s studies are far from being conclusive, they do address some of the difficulties facing the traditional view of Islamic origins, including the fragmentary and allusive character of the Koranic discourse—with its assumption of prior knowledge of many of the stories to which it alludes—as well as some archaeological and numismatic issues, such as the fact that the qibla (direction of prayer) in some of the earliest mosques points not toward Mecca but to a shrine much further north, and the appearance of Christian and other figurative images on coinage with Arab inscriptions. (The consensus of modern scholarship, however, attributes the wrong orientation of early qiblas to simple miscalculation.)

One of the most contentious theories, originally advanced by the Protestant theologian Günter Lüling, and elaborated more recently by the pseudonymous scholar Christoph Luxenberg, suggests that the Koran may have originated in the strophic hymns of Aramaic-speaking Christianized tribes. These may have been adapted by Muhammad, or retrospectively projected onto him, after the original messianic movement fell apart. Volker Popp, a numismatist working in Germany, argues—with Luxenberg—that the name Muhammad, which appears on coins and on the interior of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (alongside some of the earliest written examples of Koranic texts, dating from the 690s), may actually refer to Jesus: the word “muhammad” can be read as a passive participle meaning the “praised” or “chosen one,” raising the possibility that the original Arab conquerors might have been Arian Christians opposed to Byzantine rule. Readers interested in exploring these issues will find articles by Popp, Luxenberg, and other skeptical scholars in The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History, edited by Karl-Heinz Ohlig and Gerd R. Puin.4

It may be a long time before revisionist theories gain the acceptance that higher criticism has obtained in the field of biblical studies, not least because of differences between the perspectives of “early Koran” theorists such as Lüling, Popp, and Luxenberg, including Wansbrough’s former student John Burton, who regards the whole Koran as contemporaneous with Muhammad, and “late Koran” theorists who follow Wansbrough in suggesting that some if not most of the material was compiled after Muhammad’s death. Nevertheless the seeds of doubt about the version adopted by nearly all Muslim and most Western scholars have been firmly planted. The green shoots of skepticism concerning Islam’s account of its own origins are unlikely to disappear.

Fred Donner’s new book, Muhammad and the Believers, is written in an accessible style and is mercifully free from the daunting obscurities, scholarly allusions, and technical apparatus that make Wansbrough’s books almost impenetrable. Aimed at a much broader readership of students and interested observers than Wansbrough’s work, its approach might be labeled “Revisionism Lite.” Unlike the more radical skeptics, Donner accepts the main outlines of the traditional Muslim narrative while questioning many of its details. So after providing an exemplary résumé of the orthodox story, he acknowledges that “the vast ocean of traditional accounts…contains so many contradictions and so much dubious storytelling that many historians have become reluctant to accept any of it at face value.” He insists, however, that rejecting everything in the conventional accounts would be going too far and would involve “as uncritical an approach as unquestioning acceptance of everything in the traditional accounts. The truth,” he argues quite sensibly, “must lie somewhere in between.”

To the student of religious history Donner’s middle path is likely to seem plausible, not least because it replicates the gradual process of separation between parent and daughter religions that scholars such as Geza Vermes see as having occurred between Judaism and Christianity. One problem it poses, however, is that Donner rejects the theories of the “late Koran” revisionists. If the text had not acquired its final form during Muhammad’s lifetime and in the decades immediately after he died, he says, we would be surely aware of this; yet “meticulous study of the text by generations of scholars has failed to turn up any plausible hint of anachronistic references.” He argues that such anachronisms would certainly be the case if the text had crystallized later.

Donner argues that the Koran is not only free from such anachronisms, but that its style and vocabulary reflect its origins in western Arabia in the last part of the sixth century CE and the first part of the seventh. His acceptance of an early “Muhammadan” Koran allows him to use it, cautiously, as a source for Muhammad’s life and the earliest Muslim community. He points out that many more of its messages are addressed to “Believers” than to “Muslims”: the word “Believers” occurs almost a thousand times, compared with fewer than seventy-five instances of “Muslim.” The terms are not interchangeable: “islam” and “muslim” refer to submission or surrender, as in the case of the Bedouin tribes who are said to have submitted to Muhammad in Arabia. “Belief obviously means something different (and better) than ‘submission’ (islam), and so we cannot simply equate the Believer with the Muslim, though some Muslims may qualify as Believers.”

By factoring in some of the themes and insights selectively culled from the same stockpile of sources deployed by more radical revisionists, Donner concludes that the original movement that came to be known as “Islam” was actually an ecumenical pietistic movement

  1. 1

    Rudolph Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (1926; Scribner, 1934, 1958), p. 12. 

  2. 2

    The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 99. 

  3. 3

    Cambridge University Press, 1977, 1980. 

  4. 4

    Prometheus Books, 2010. 

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