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The Birth of Islam: A Different View

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 ce 570 until his death in ce 632, during which time he received and transmitted the revelations from God contained in the Qur’an, 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 Qur’an. 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 ce 644 to 656.

There are, however, a number of sceptics, mainly in Western universities, who question the Muslim narrative. Even when accepting that the text of the Qur’an 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 Qur’anic 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 ce 833, contains parts of the missing work of an earlier scholar, Ibn Ishaq, who lived from about ce 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 St 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 rigours of formal 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’. 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 (SOAS) in London. In Qur’anic 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.’ Far from being finalised under the Caliph Uthman, the text of the Qur’an 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, endeavoured to put historical flesh on the bones of his literary analysis in their highly speculative and controversial book Hagarism. Setting aside the Islamic accounts, they examined a number of the earliest non-Muslim sources dealing with 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 hypothesised that the original Islam was a messianic movement of Jewish refugees from Palestine who went to the Arabian desert 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 towards a position equidistant 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 Qur’an is a record of his utterances. Andrew Rippin, a Canadian scholar and leading Wansbrough disciple, argues that while Cook and Crone draw attention successfully 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 important, all are treatises based in polemic.

Nevertheless, while 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 Qur’anic 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 Gunter Luling, and elaborated more recently by the pseudonymous scholar Christoph Luxenberg, suggests that the Qur’an may have originated in the strophic hymns of Aramaic-speaking Christianised tribes. These may have been adapted by Muhammad, or projected retrospectively on to him, after the original messianic movement collapsed. 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 Qur’anic texts, dating from the ce 690s), may in fact 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 sceptical scholars in The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History, edited by Karl-Heinz Ohlig and Gerd R. Puin.

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 Qur’an’ theorists such as Luling, Popp and Luxenberg, including Wansbrough’s former student, John Burton, who regards the whole Qur’an as contemporaneous with Muhammad, and ‘late Qur’an’ 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 scepticism 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 labelled ‘Revisionism Lite’. Unlike the more radical sceptics, Donner accepts the main outlines of the traditional Muslim narrative while questioning many of its details. So, after providing an exemplary resume 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 Qur’an’ 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 crystallised later.

Donner argues that the Qur’an 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’ Qur’an 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 75 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.

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 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 neo-conservatives, 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 proof form when the 9/11 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’. Within a year of its appearance, was listing it as one of the world’s most popular books - and near the top of the poll in several American states and campuses, number 13 in Denmark and number 19 in Italy.

While disclaiming that ‘Islam’ as such was responsible for the attacks on America, Lewis’ 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 19 September, eight days after the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, 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 decade of the 2000s, Lewis dwells on the themes that feature prominently in his more recent publications - the ‘clash of civilisations’ between seemingly incompatible entities known as ‘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’ ‘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 rather 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’ 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, industrialisation and urbanisation, mirrors the views of fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden. Lewis, while finding bin Laden’s 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 on the study of written texts, as distinct from the anthropological observation of actual human behaviour, Lewis arrives at the sorts of judgement that - when enacted into policy - have led to disaster in Iraq and possibly also in Afghanistan. He takes textual knowledge at face value, without probing beneath the surface, risking generalisations that would be difficult to defend, for example, in the case of India and Sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam takes on the colouring of numerous local traditions. Lewis’ 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 organisation 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’ textual knowledge may be flawed by his failure, or perhaps his refusal, to take into account 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 favourite neo-conservative theme), he ignores crucial texts by Michel Aflaq, co-founder of the Baath party, expressing admiration for the ‘solid conviction that informs ... the Jewish people with courage and a spirit of sacrifice’, as well as Aflaq’s efforts to eliminate from the party’s constitution the ‘stupid ideas’ he associated with Nazism.

Lewis’ insights are sometimes penetrating, but frustratingly he often displays his penchant for the telling anecdote and aphoristic generalisation 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 Shari‘a 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 in Egypt, while 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 probably 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 civilisations’ thesis originally promulgated by Lewis, and popularised 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 generalisation? Is there perhaps a connection between the serene dogmatism of Lewis’ approach, with its tendency to accept the ‘traditional’ view of Islamic origins, and his failure to scrutinise 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 judgements are sometimes flawed, and dangerously so in the case of America’s adventure in Iraq.

Published in The New York Review of Books, 7 April 2011.

The books reviewed were:_

Fred M. Donner (2010) Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Bernard Lewis (2010) Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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