The Rise of Islam (2)

24 November 2010

Cover

As I already indicated, I was under the impression that the quest for the historical Muhammad was a cul-de-sac. On the one hand, much criticism of the rationalized legend was fair: the lateness of the sources is indeed a problem and the presence of Christian soldiers in Islamic armies demands an explanation. However, it was obvious, at least to me, that the alternatives were worse, and I did not believe that we would ever come closer to what really happened in Mecca and Medina at the beginning of the seventh century.

But I was too pessimistic. I just read Fred Donner’s recent book Muhammad and the Believers, which may be the equivalent of E.P. Sanders’ book on the historical Jesus, The Historical Figure of Jesus: a common-sense book on a religious innovator that, although not every scholar will agree with every aspect, will be well-respected and will dominate the field for quite some time. I am very impressed. This may be the new synthesis.

According to Donner, Muhammad did not set out to create a new religion. He was a radical monotheist, who accepted in his band of followers all Jews, Christians, and Arabs who believed in one God. To these ecumenical ideas, the Believers added some doctrines of their own, but the main point was that at the end of times, which they believed to be near, only monotheists would be saved. They wanted to prepare the world for this Judgment, cooperating closely with other righteous monotheists.

It was much later, in the early eighth century, that the Muslims became a new, self-consciously different monotheistic religion. Among the factors that contributed to this development was the fact that the Believers and other monotheists recognized that the ideas about God’s uniqueness and oneness, as maintained by the Jews and Muslims, could never be reconciled with the Trinitarian theologies of the Christian churches. Another factor, equally important, was a growing awareness that not all people would accept the Quran as the most important revelation or Muhammad as the seal of the prophets. The end of Islamic expansion may have contributed to this awareness: the conquest of Uzbekistan was extremely difficult and a crisis in Andalusia made it impossible to subject the Frankish kingdom – but this is a point that Donner does not digress upon.

He tells his story well. I really liked his book, not only because of the general thesis, but also because along the road, Donner makes a lot of extremely illuminating remarks. When we discuss the great conquests, he says, we must assume that diplomacy was more important than we can deduce from our sources. He may be right: perhaps, the battles were just violent interruptions of a mostly peaceful process of conversion to ecumenism. The main destructions, at least, seem to belong to the terrible Byzantine-Sassanian War (602-628), and appear to be unrelated to the wars of the Righteous Caliphs.

Donner does not stress it, but people may indeed have become Believers because they were sick of Byzantine and Sassanian violence. They may have regarded the conflict as one of the tribulations of the end time. Apocalyptic ideas, Donner correctly observes, were still very much alive at the end of the seventh century, and he is probably right when he proposes that the Dome of the Rock was meant to be “the locale in which [Caliph] ‘Abd al-Malik (or one of his successors), as leaders of the righteous and God-fearing empire of the Believers, would hand over to God the symbols of sovereignty at the moment the Judgment was to begin”.

The idea that the Believers were originally ecumenical monotheists is simple. Reading the book, I found myself wondering why nobody thought of this before. But now that Muhammad and the Believers has been written, it is hard to think differently. It explains why Christian soldiers joined Arab armies and why, as late as 800, a Zoroastrian could be tax collector in northern Mesopotamia. We need new questions to proceed beyond Donner’s fine book.

Fred M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam (2010)

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The Rise of Islam (1)

24 November 2010

The Byzantine-Sassanian War: Heraclius defeating Khusrau II (Louvre)

What happened when Antiquity came to an end? What marks the beginning of the Middle Ages? It will be hard to enumerate all aspects, but at least it’s certain that the imperial institutions disappeared from western Europe: no Roman state, no Roman taxes, no Roman armies. In the East, the transition was less abrupt. The Byzantine Empire continued to demand taxes, continued to build armies, continued to exist. Yet, it had to give up territories: the Arabs conquered Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. There was also a mental change: for the ancients, ‘us’ and ‘them’ had been identical to ‘Graeco-Roman civilization’ and ‘barbarians’, but after the transition, the basic opposition was ‘Christianity’ versus ‘Islam’.

This makes Muhammad one of the most influential people of Late Antiquity, or the Early Middle Ages. Without him, no Islam and no loss of eastern provinces for the Byzantine Empire. The prophet, his message, and his followers are extremely important subjects to any student of Antiquity, but they are very hard to understand. Our main sources are the Quran, which is not a work of historiography, and the traditions (hadith), which were written down many years after Islam had come into being. Even worse, many traditions have been regarded with suspicion from the outset. Using what he believed to be reliable traditions, Ibn Ishaq wrote the extremely influential Life of the Prophet in the 750s, more than a century after the death of Muhammad.

Until quite recently, modern western scholars have accepted the events mentioned by Ibn Ishaq as essentially historical. Although the miracle stories were ignored, the other anecdotes were considered to be reliable. The result was a more or less rationalized legend; an example is the book by Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad (1960). This approach was not unlike the way Thomas Jefferson dealt with the gospels. Rodinson’s view has become more or less canonical – Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad. A Prophet for Our Time is an example – but we might have expected something more critical than “believing everything in the sources except that which presupposes a suspension of the laws of nature”. Accepting sources in this way, without asking why they were written down in the first place, is called “naïve positivism”.

Because rationalized legends became untenable, there have been new quests for the “historical Muhammad”. There is, for example, the Luxenberg thesis, which implies that the Quran is not written in Arabic, but in a mix of Syriac and Arabic. This is not as far-fetched as it seems, because Syria was certainly important in early Islam and the Quran is written in a “defective script” without vowels and with possible confusion of several consonants (e.g. bt, and th). The Luxenberg thesis indeed helps to expel some minor problems, but also creates one big problem: we have to assume that the Quran was not recited for a sufficiently long time to forget its original language. This seems extremely implausible (more…).

Yet, the Luxenberg thesis is not the worst new idea. There are also a couple of nonsensical theories. Although it is certain that Nestorian and Monophysite Christians left the Byzantine Empire and settled in the Syrian and Arabian Deserts, and although it is certain that many warriors in the early Islamic armies were Christians, it is ridiculous to assume that Islam was created when people no longer understood the Monophysite hymns and prayers. Granted, the name “Muhammad” means “the blessed one”, but it is unlikely that people, after singing a Syriac or Arabic version of “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” asked “who is that Mr Blessed?” and started to invent both the anecdotes about and the person of the Prophet.

I was under the impression that the quest for the historical Muhammad was a cul-de-sac. But I was wrong, as I will show in my next posting.