One of the pleasures I’ve discovered in the six months I’ve spent so far on my current project is meeting interesting people, and also discovering how generous some people can be with their time and expertise. This was brought home to me most recently when I met Fred Donner, a distinguished scholar of Islam and of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago, who is currently the Marta Sutton Weeks Fellow at nearby Stanford.
Fred Donner is an eminent scholar on the formative years of Islam, and came to my attention when I read his informative and highly accessible book, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam. My interest was to explore the formative years of Islam in Jerusalem, and what it might say about the monuments and traditions in the city today. Fred was very helpful in guiding me through the complexities of making sense of the earliest days of Islam – what is known, what is speculative, and what still sparks debate among scholars. These distinctions are critical especially today when there seems a rush to make sweeping statements about the nature of Islam.
Dr. Donner, in his books and in our discussion, was quick to point out that, though Muhammad lived in what seems to be “historical times” when compared to the distant patriarchs and prophets of Judaism or the time of Jesus and the Apostles, it is much more difficult to extract a historical Muhammad from the sources and the evidence than it may at first appear. The simple fact was that though the events of Muhammad’s life and immediately thereafter were obviously pivotal to later history, their significance at the time was unclear and events were only recorded later by people with their own problems and agendas, so that the textual records we have today (the Quran, hadith traditions, the sira) that evolved after Muhammad’s death in the seventh century are impossible for the objective historian to interpret with certainty.
Dr. Donner’s theme in Muhammad and the Believers is that a fresh reading of the evidence offers intriguing suggestions that in the early days of Islam, the new faith did not sharply distinguish itself from the faith of the Jews and the Christians it encountered, and was much more focused on promoting the general tenets of monotheism. It was also, he writes, very focused on the prospect of the eminent End of Days and what People of the Book should be doing in the limited time remaining before Judgement Day. He makes the case that the early days of Islam were characterized by an almost ecumenical openness to other faiths, especially as evidenced by the early preference for the Quranic term “Believer”, which could in theory include members of other faiths, over “Muslim”, which came to predominate in usage a short time later. Donner is able to tie this evolution to the needs of the first imperial Islamic dynasty, the Umayyads, and show how the evolution of later Islam – its sharp elevation of Muhammad above other Abrahamic prophets, and its standardization of rituals and traditions – corresponded with the political priorities of the Umayyad caliphs.
These days it is not so hard to find speculation by unknown angry people on the internet about the history of Islam. The reality is that, as far as the earliest formative years are concerned, much is just not known. Not a bad time to turn off the laptop and pick up a book of disciplined scholarship like Dr. Donner and his colleagues have been doing for years. Or if you can’t bring yourself to turn off the laptop, listen to this lecture he gave to University of Chicago Alumni on the topic How Islam Began.