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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

Abbas/Magnum Photos
Pilgrims from all over the world praying during the Hajj, Mount Rahma, Saudi Arabia, 1992
centered on the ideas of monotheism, preparation for the Last Day, belief in prophecy and revealed scripture, and observance of righteous behavior, including frequent prayer, expiation for sins committed, periodic fasting, and a charitable and humble demeanor toward others.

All of these ideas and practices, he observes, were well known in the Near East by the seventh century, although the Koran provided them with a unique formulation in the new literary idiom of Arabic.

Donner argues that there is no reason to think that these Believers originally thought of themselves as a new or separate religious confession. The movement was open and inclusive enough to include Christians and Jews of similarly pietistic tendencies. “Because many, if not most, people of the Near East were already monotheists, the original Believers’ movement can best be characterized as a monotheistic reform movement, rather than as a new and distinct religious confession.” The Koran’s apocalyptic and eschatological temper, especially pronounced in passages that exegetes attributed to Muhammad’s sojourn in Mecca in the early seventh century, reflects the widespread conviction among the Believers that the Last Hour was imminent. (This same belief, centered on apocalyptic scenarios surrounding Jerusalem, has been ascribed to early Christians and remains strongly entrenched among fundamentalist Jews and Christians at the present time, as well as many Muslims.)

Donner also has an interesting take on the Koranic attitude toward violence, which ranges from pacifistic quietism to outright aggression. Traditional historiography explains this as reflecting the growing confidence of the community as it developed from being a persecuted sect in Mecca to the triumphant “super-tribe” of Muhammad’s final years. Donner, however, drawing on recent research, suggests that these differing injunctions may reflect “the divergent attitudes of different subgroups…of believers.”

In subsequent chapters he pieces together a plausible narrative of early Islam following Muhammad’s death, drawing on the conventional story while interpreting it in the light of his “moderate revisionist” thesis. For a considerable period, he argues, the arrival of the Believers in the lands of the Fertile Crescent running from Palestine to Iraq did not involve violent confrontations, because a majority of the population was already monotheist. There are no significant Christian or other polemics against the Believers’ doctrines for almost a century, i.e., until the early 800s. By the same logic, he suggests, there are few archaeological traces of the battles by Muslims against the Byzantine and Sassanid empires that feature in the Muslim sources. When the written sources of polemics against the Believers do appear, in the eighth century, “Islam” has already crystallized as a religion in contradistinction to what he has described as the earlier ecumenical movement of Believers.

Donner argues that the battles that feature in the accounts of early Muslim chroniclers and exegetes who fleshed out Koranic allusions with references to “historical” events were introduced retroactively, aimed at demonstrating divine approval for a conquest, now defined retrospectively as “Islamic.” (Volker Popp makes a similar point: victory in battle is a topos, or theme, of the historical literature of the time, indicating divine approval of conquest.) By now, Donner writes, the historians were paying “much less attention to the way the early Believers integrated themselves into the fabric of local life in various localities and the nature of their relations with the ‘conquered’ populations.”

Boundaries between Believers and other religious groups were set by establishing different cultic practices (the congregational Friday prayer and the elevated pulpit from which the Friday sermon is delivered, neither of which is mentioned in the Koran). The civil wars that resulted in Islam’s three main sectarian divisions—Sunnis, Shias, and Kharijites—reflected the classic struggle over leadership and forms of authority, and between piety and pragmatism, that one finds in other religious movements, with the Kharijites the ultimate pietists, the Sunnis focused on Muhammad as a moral exemplar, and the Shias oriented toward his family’s spiritual legacy.

Donner’s position of “moderate revisionism” has already been attacked by Patricia Crone, who argues, in a devastating review in Tablet magazine (the American Jewish, not the British Catholic, journal), that in some matters his “seemingly revisionist view is simply the conventional one” while he fails to produce evidence of his more controversial claims. How, she asks, “could a community endowed with its own law and pilgrimage center be lacking in confessional identity?” Given the holy book’s many detailed legal prescriptions, how could the ecumenically minded Jews and Christians be expected to follow it if the text had not already been stabilized? The implication—not fully spelled out in Crone’s review—is that the evidence Donner deploys to support his “ecumenical Believers” thesis points toward a conclusion that he rejects from the start: that the Koran was compiled considerably later than the early and mid-seventh century.

While Crone’s critique raises serious questions, it does not supply all the answers. To my mind the most important question it raises is: Can Donner’s moderate revisionist approach be used to defend the orthodox position that the Koran reached its final form under the Caliph Uthman before the end of his reign in 656, meaning—in effect—that the ideas of the Believers’ movement were incorporated into the text now accepted by Muslims? There are obvious difficulties in reconciling a Believers’ movement in Palestine with the Arabian prophet’s biography.

One solution may lie in applying Wansbrough’s methods without adopting his, admittedly tentative, conclusions. If Wansbrough’s “sectarian milieu”—including Jews and Christians—was located in Arabia, before the Prophet’s time, the thesis can be salvaged of a “gradual accumulation” of monotheistic beliefs that influenced Muhammad and Uthman and made their way into the Koran. As the German academic Marco Schöller argues in the Encyclopedia of the Qur’an,

There is some rumor…among contemporary scholars of early Islam, that Wansbrough’s hypothesis of a cumulative creation of the Qur’an and its gradual evolution into scripture in a sectarian setting of broadly Near Eastern monotheistic stamp might still be safeguarded if the period of the Qur’an’s origin is no longer placed in the first Islamic centuries but ante-dated to the time of the Prophet’s mission

—i.e., no later than the first part of the seventh century.5

Such an approach may rescue key elements of the traditional narrative by locating it in western Arabia, a region more subject to monotheistic influences than the earliest sources admit. Surprisingly Donner, with his emphasis on the contributions to the Koran from Believers in Palestine and the Fertile Crescent, does not seem to have considered this option, which could harmonize with his view of a “Muhammadan” Koran. Donner is to be commended for posing questions that many mainstream scholars have chosen to leave aside. But much remains to be shown.


Readers bemused by Donner’s argument—and sharing Crone’s impression that he might be “arguing for incompatible positions”—will find relief in Faith and Power, the latest offering by Bernard Lewis, the prolific Princeton Orientalist born in 1916, whose pathbreaking first book, The Origins of Ismailism, appeared seventy years ago, in 1940. Lewis is the best-known Middle East specialist in America, if not in the whole Western world. While making only passing references to debates about Islamic origins, he espouses the traditionalist view wholeheartedly.

Lauded by the neoconservatives, he was the recipient in 2007 of the American Enterprise Institute’s prestigious Irving Kristol Award. An unapologetic foreign policy hawk, his best-selling book What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (2002) was already in proofs when the September 11 attacks took place; and while he explained in his preface that the book did not deal with the attacks themselves, it clearly struck a chord with readers in the aftershock of those dreadful events. As Lewis explained, his book was related to the attacks, “examining not what happened and what followed, but what went before—the longer sequence and larger pattern of events, ideas, and attitudes that preceded and in some measure produced them.”6 Within a year of its appearance Amazon.com was listing it as one of the world’s most popular books—in the single figures in several American states and campuses, number 13 in Denmark, number 19 in Italy.

While disclaiming that “Islam” as such was responsible for the attacks on America, Lewis’s analysis focused on the failure of Muslims to adapt their religious tradition to present requirements, unlike their age-old Christian rivals, who embraced modernity in its entirety. Lewis lent the enormous prestige he had acquired over many decades to the US invasion of Iraq, the most disastrous Western intervention in the region since the Suez Crisis of 1956. On September 19, eight days after the attacks on New York and Washington, he was invited by Richard Perle to address the US Defense Policy Board, which Perle then headed. Lewis and his friend the prominent Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi reportedly argued for a military takeover of Iraq in order to prevent worse terrorist attacks in the future.

In his latest book, consisting mainly of recycled articles and lectures produced over the last decade, Lewis dwells on the themes that feature prominently in his more recent publications—the “clash of civilizations” between seemingly incompatible entities called “Islam” and the “West,” and the all-embracing totalitarian temptations of Islam, manifested by the failure of Muslim societies to produce vibrant democratic institutions. Here Lewis’s “Islam” is conflated with the Arab-Muslim world: there is no recognition that functioning democracies and successful industrial economies have established themselves in Malaysia and Indonesia, two of the most populous Muslim countries. Islam, Lewis tells his audiences, is not just a religion, but a “complete system of identity, loyalty, and authority” that provides Muslims with the most appealing and convincing answer to their problems. Unlike Jesus, who distinguished between the duties owed to God and to Caesar, Muhammad established a state. In Islam “there was no need for a church since the establishment, so to speak, of a community and polity in the lifetime of the founder, who ruled as both prophet and sovereign.”

In certain respects Lewis’s analysis of Islam, unencumbered by doubts about origins, issues of ethnicity, the impact of climate and geography, or the dynamic changes effected by modern education, industrialization, and urbanization, mirrors the views of fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden. Lewis, while finding his actions abhorrent, admires the Saudi dissident for his command of classical Arabic, writing that he “is very articulate, very lucid, and I think on the whole very honest in the way he explains things.”

Rooted in the classical Orientalist tradition of scholarship based in the study of written texts, as distinct from the anthropological observation of actual human behavior, Lewis arrives at the sorts of judgment that—when enacted into policy—have led to disasters in Iraq and possibly in Afghanistan. He takes textual knowledge at face value, without probing beneath the surface, risking generalizations that would be difficult to defend, for example, in the case of India and sub-Saharan Africa where Islam takes on the coloring of numerous local traditions.

Lewis’s disdain for the social sciences, and his reliance on textual knowledge derived from classical texts as well as newspapers or government propaganda, can mislead. Thus in stating baldly that two Middle East countries, Iraq and Syria, “went all the way in adopting and applying the continental European model of the totalitarian dictatorship,” he takes their own propaganda at face value, seeming to take no account of studies—such as that of the distinguished Dutch scholar and diplomat Nikolaos van Dam—that demonstrate how an East European–style party organization can be infiltrated and taken over by a sectarian kinship group (in the case of Syria by the Alawite minority).

In some cases, however, even Lewis’s textual knowledge may be flawed by his failure, or perhaps his refusal, to take account of written materials that do not fit his preconceptions or his firm pro-Israeli commitment. Thus in stating that Baathism involved the “adaptation of Nazi ideas and methods to the Middle Eastern situation” (a favorite neoconservative theme), he ignores crucial texts by Michel Aflaq, cofounder of the Baath party, expressing admiration for the “solid conviction that informs…the Jewish people with courage and a spirit of sacrifice,”7 as well as Aflaq’s efforts to eliminate from the party’s constitution the “stupid ideas” he associated with Nazism.

Lewis’s insights are sometimes penetrating, but frustratingly, he often displays his penchant for the telling anecdote and aphoristic generalization at the expense of analytical coherence. Thus in a powerful passage on democracy in the Middle East, he makes a telling point (rarely noted by other commentators) about its distinctive political culture:

What is entirely lacking in the Middle Eastern political tradition is representation and what goes with it—the idea that people elect others to represent them, that these others meet in some sort of corporate body, and that that corporate body deliberates, conducts discussions, and, most important of all, reaches decisions that have binding force…. In Roman law and in most of the European systems derived from it or influenced by it, there is such a thing as a legal person, a corporation, an abstraction that nevertheless functions as a legal person.

I have suggested in my Islam in the World (2006) that this absence, derived from a feature of the Islamic Sharia law, which has no concept of legal personality, goes to the heart of the “democratic deficit” of many Middle East polities, where family, tribe, coterie, or sect tends to subvert the authority of public institutions at the expense of civil society. Under these conditions real power almost invariably accrues to the armed forces whose command and control systems and institutional boundaries are determined by the exigencies of military logic rather than by structures responsive to the ebb and flow of political ideas and social needs. In the long term the participants in mass demonstrations that brought down the Mubarak regime, although responsible for a hugely impressive expression of public feeling, will need to overcome the inertia of military governance—with its networks of properties and other vested interests—in a country where the institutions of civil society have been weakened by decades of top-down, kleptocratic rule by the mukhabarat (“intelligence”) state.

If, as Lewis rightly argues, democratic representation is rooted in institutional structures and forms of accountability that are absent from many Muslim and Middle Eastern societies, how can he have blandly endorsed a policy driven by the belief that successful, functioning democracies could be imposed using outside force? Tunisia and Egypt and, likely, other countries in the region are demonstrating that it is internal forces facilitated by information technologies outside the control of the mukhabarat state that are setting the democratic agenda. The Islamist threat—which the regimes used to blackmail Western governments into supporting them—has so far been conspicuously absent. The battle cry “Islam is the Solution” was not to be heard in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

At its heart the “clash of civilizations” thesis originally promulgated by Lewis, and popularized by Samuel Huntington, rests on shaky intellectual foundations. Would the more modest scholars who wrestle critically with the obscure and controversial origins of one of the world’s great religions have dared to produce such a facile generalization? Is there perhaps a connection between the serene dogmatism of Lewis’s approach, with its tendency to accept the “traditional” view of Islamic origins, and his failure to scrutinize the propositions put forward by the advocates of intervention, whether these be other hawkish scholars, administration officials, or prominent exiles? Lewis is an always entertaining and highly readable commentator on the Muslim world. But for all his brilliance, his judgments are sometimes flawed, and dangerously so in the case of America’s adventure in Iraq.

  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. 

  5. 5

    Post-Enlightenment Academic Study of the Qur’an ” in Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an (Brill, six volumes, 2001–2004), Volume 4, p. 203. 

  6. 6

    Preface dated October 15, 2001, to What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2002). 

  7. 7

    Cited by Gilbert Achcar in The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, translated by G.M. Goshgarian (Metropolitan, 2010), p. 74. 

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