Islamic History, Part 7: Alternative theories of the early Islamic community

Islamic History Series

When you combine a major world-changing historical event with a near-total dearth of reliable primary sources, you inevitably get a lot of revisionist attempts to reconstruct the “real” history. For the origins of Islam and the nature of its earliest community, we have arguably the most world-changing event of the past 1500 years and really no sources that aren’t compromised in some way, so alternate theories–some only slight variations on the traditional story, others quite different–abound.

What we know, really know, about the first century of the Islamic calendar (the year 1 AH corresponds with Muhammad’s move to Medina in 622 CE) is that armies marched out of Arabia in the mid-630s and utterly defeated the forces of the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires (destroying the latter empire altogether), and that at some point around the end of the seventh century a text called the Qur’an is in circulation, and that text would become the focal point of a new monotheistic faith in the Abrahamic tradition. If I’m being totally frank, we’re not even sure how much work those Arabian armies had to do to defeat the empires; a couple of major battles can be attested, but a lot of the Arab conquest may have been welcomed, or at least not very strenuously resisted, by the people they were conquering. There are, for example, accounts of great resistance to the Arabs on the part of the Persians, but these are later nationalistic accounts and unreliable as history; meanwhile, it’s entirely possible that the Byzantine Empire’s Jewish and schismatic Christian populations were happy to be free of Constantinople, or at least saw no difference between Constantinople and Medina in terms of how badly either one might treat them.

Apart from those very basic and obvious facts, little else about the story of Islam’s beginnings can be known to a certainty. Many, many questions remain, chief among them how the Arabian environment, so decentralized, so much on the fringes of the world to that point, basically overnight gave rise to a unified polity with an army so impressive that it thoroughly defeated two massive empires. I’ve written about the mainstream, traditional story and gone over the problems with the sources behind that story, and now as a last look at this problem I’d like to take a look at two alternative theories of Islamic origins. These are not the only two, but they are both important contributions to the field in their own ways and are illustrative of the range of possible revisionist takes on this event.

Patricia Crone and Michael Cook co-authored a book called Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, published in 1977. Crone and Cook believed that the field of Islamic studies was stagnating on the subject of Islamic origins because its attempt to apply the techniques of source criticism (adapted from Biblical scholarship) to the traditional Islamic sources had never been done critically enough, so they proposed an exercise: first, they would re-evaluate the entire body of sources for the origins of Islam with a hyper-critical eye and no sentimentality for tradition, then they would attempt to reconstruct Islamic origins using only the evidence that made it through their strict criteria for authenticity. They made a compelling argument for the failure of the field in general to look critically at the story of Islam’s beginnings and laid out several reasonable critiques of the sources that have reverberated through the field to the present day. But then they kind of went off the rails by proposing to rewrite Islamic origins using what they saw as the only legitimate sources: non-Islamic accounts that were contemporaneous with Muhammad or the period immediately following his death.

How they came to this determination was basically via a process of elimination: after they’d ruled out all the Islamic sources as being too flawed in one way or another, all that was left was the body of non-Islamic sources; in fact, though, Crone and Cook really failed to look at these sources as critically as they’d looked at the Islamic sources, and reviewers rightly criticized them for it. But even assuming they were right to ignore Islamic sources while treating non-Islamic sources as evidently accurate, reconstructing Islamic history without Islamic sources is essentially impossible. There are only a handful of external mid-7th century sources that talk about Islam at all, and those that do only touch on it briefly either to chronicle events in the region or to offer some sort of prayer that the tide of conquest might be turned back. Building a narrative by relying on only a few scant references to events means that basically anything goes; there’s no limit to how far out your reconstruction can go because there’s nothing to anchor it.

And Crone and Cook went pretty far out, arguing that Islam began as an Arabian Jewish messianic movement based on the idea of conquering Jerusalem from the Romans. Muhammad, if he existed at all, was only a precursor to the real (Jewish) messiah, the caliph Umar (we’ll get to him very shortly, but it was under his leadership that Jerusalem was captured). They reckon this to be the case because one Greek text in 634 refers to the “false prophet” of the Arabs in the present tense, and Muhammad was already dead by then. Why Crone and Cook would treat this as a major revelation and not (as is far more likely) a mistake on the part of one Greek writer, far removed from events, escapes me. “Hagarism” refers to the Arabs’ supposed descent from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, and also to the fact that some early external sources call the Arabs “Hagarenes,” which they accept as the name of the movement despite the fact that distant Greek or Syriac writers wouldn’t have had any idea what the members of this Arabian movement were calling themselves. At some point in the 690s, the Arabs got sick of being treated as second-class servants by the Jews and began to craft a new, Arabia-centric story that eventually became the basis of its own faith, Islam (complete with their own newly-written text, the Qur’an, because in this story Muhammad didn’t reveal it). At this point they weave a tale of the falsified origins of Islam that conjures up notions of sinister groups of Muslim leaders meeting in backrooms to craft more mythology or to cannibalize more Jewish, Christian, and/or Samaritan beliefs into their hodge-podge cult. Somehow they decide that their invented origins should center on an obscure prophet in a tiny western or southwestern Arabian town called Mecca, when the direction of prayer in the earliest mosques suggests that the religion’s roots were actually in northwestern Arabia (Crone makes a similar argument in her Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, that the merchant activity attested in the sources actually places the origins of Islam in northwest Arabia, nowhere near Mecca or Medina). They never get around to explaining why, if Islam didn’t actually develop in and around Mecca, later mythographers would have chosen this isolated, tiny, impoverished backwater of a desert town as their new faith’s holiest site. As a former professor of mine liked to say, there’s no apparent reason for selecting Mecca as the birthplace of Islam unless it actually was the birthplace of Islam.

Today Hagarism is appreciated for shaking up the stagnant scholarly consensus and making some good, stinging critiques of the way Islamic origins were being studied to that point, but its attempt to rewrite Islamic history is either ignored or downright ridiculed, and has even been disavowed by the authors. Most modern scholarship tends to accept a basic validity of the traditional sources, maybe not on the details but certainly at the level of major events, unless and until new hard evidence is introduced that contradicts them.

Another alternative view of Islamic origins belongs to Fred Donner, whose recent Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam posits a skeptical, but not aggressively critical, approach to the sources. Donner, and other modern scholars like him, rely on a reading of the biographical literature that is filtered through what we know of the way the community developed in the period between Muhammad’s death and the writing of the biographies (at least a century for the earliest ones and two centuries for most of the ones that have survived to the present day). Scholars know a great deal more about what happened in that period and can make judgments about, for example, how inter-tribal conflict or sectarian disputes might have colored a particular author’s account, and (they think) they can read the biographical literature and filter out elements that are shaded or outright invented in response to developments that took place after Muhammad’s death.

Donner’s theory is worth looking at alongside Hagarism because it’s not nearly so revisionist as Hagarism was, but it is an alternative version of how the community may have developed that employs a careful but particular reading of the sources. Donner contends that “Islam,” as a formal confessional religious identity, did not exist until at least a century after Muhammad’s death, but that the community he founded developed around the idea of islam, “submission,” to the law of the one Abrahamic God, and that confessional identity was irrelevant (i.e., individuals could come submit to God’s law through any of its successive revelations, from the Torah to the Gospels to the Qur’an). Any “believer” (mu’min) in the unity of God and the imminent approach of Judgment Day (yawm al-din), and who accepted Muhammad’s leadership, could be a part of the Believers’ Movement, whether he or she were a Jew, a Christian, or neither (like the hanifs we talked about a couple of chapters ago).

There are several bits of evidence that can be interpreted to support Donner’s hypothesis. The Qur’anic verses that have been identified as his earliest Meccan preachings are highly eschatological in tone, suggesting a belief that the Last Days were upon mankind, and anyway such beliefs were common enough around the Near East in this period. The use of words like islam and muslim in the Qur’an do not necessarily reflect a separate confessional identity so much as they reflect the general idea of submission to God’s law, and the Qur’an can be read to allow for the possibility that Jews and Christians could be either “believers” or “unbelievers,” suggesting that their particular confessional allegiance was separate from and irrelevant to whether or not they were truly part of the community. The Constitution of Medina makes no separation between Jews and Muhammad’s followers, calling them all part of the same community (ummah) as long as they followed Muhammad, even though they have a separate din (which today means “religion” but which Donner argues originally meant something closer to law, so Jews are identified here as having a separate legal system but not as being part of a separate religion). This supposed conflation of “law” or “divine law” with “religion” by later writers may explain why early Islam is seen as a separate confessional community when in actuality it may only have been a community living under a distinct legal system. Early successors to Muhammad styled themselves “commander of the believers” (‘amir al-mu’minin), not as anything having to do with Islam or Muslims. The ease of the Arab conquests themselves suggests that the invading armies did not act, and were not perceived, as conquerors practicing an alien or even heretical faith, but that they found support or at least quick acquiescence among the Jewish and Christian populations they conquered; perhaps the invaders promised more freedom of worship to breakaway Christian sects than Constantinople had provided, or maybe the disaffected and impoverished of all religious affiliations appreciated the movement’s egalitarianism.

One problem with Donner’s theory involves the inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which date to 691-692 and include unambiguous statements denying the divinity of Jesus; if the nascent Islamic community was still transitioning from an ecumenical monotheistic movement to a separate confessional faith in the 690s, then these clear attacks on Christian dogma are hard to explain. Donner argues that the inscriptions represent the early signs of the move away from ecumenicism and toward separation, but similar language about Jesus’ divinity also appears in the Quran, which Donner argues, and the preponderance of the evidence suggests, is probably of a fairly early (pre-690s) origin. Another problem is that, it seems to me, there’s simply no way to prove it, at least not yet. He believes that Islamic historians, writing after Islam had stopped being an ecumenical monotheistic movement and had become its own separate faith, wrote their histories to convey, whether consciously or unconsciously, the idea that Islam had always been separate, always distinct from Judaism and Christianity. He may very well be correct, but how can we be sure? For that matter, how can we be sure that the theory of Muhammad’s Community of Believers, welcoming of all faiths, isn’t itself guilty of trying to write ecumenicism and 21st-century ideals of tolerance into the history? I don’t think we can be sure of any of it, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to learn more and debating what we think we already know.

Next time: Muhammad’s first successor, Abu Bakr, and war in Arabia

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One thought on “Islamic History, Part 7: Alternative theories of the early Islamic community

  1. Just a quick response, Muhammad SAW’s mission was the Quran, it’s here today fully preserved, mission accomplished, the true history of exactly what went on or who did what is difficult to know but not impossible however suffice to say it’s irrelevant to us today except from a purely research point of view. Those who dream of emulating his character has a job to do in decoding the huge amount of data often conflicting on him, good luck to them it’s a worthy goal but the message he was given i.e./ the Quran is the only thing he wanted us to hold on to and the Quran reveals it self to those who understand it as none other than the word of the God of all creation, including all those who refute it or accepts it, he is still the Lord of the worlds.

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