Fred Donner and the Early Days of Islam

Dr. Fred Donner

One of the pleasures I’ve discovered in time 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 IslamMy 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.

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16 Comments

  1. Mr Donner,

    As a scholar of the Islamic faith, can you say how many times Sharia or Sharia law is mentioned in the Qu’ran?

    Thank you,

    Joseph G. Emond
    Calgary, AB. Canada

  2. Whoever want to go against Islam is only going against himself. The truth will remain forever the truth even in your own heart you cannot change it, you can ONLY go against it and, that is your business alone.

  3. Please note that there Islam wasnt exactly founded in 627 Makkah. Yes the Islam we know of today was revealed beginning in Makkah. But it goes further than that. Allow me to explain.

    Islam, according to our belief, is essentially believing in God, the one and only creator, & we have a duty to worship him and be the best kind of person possible, honorable and compassionate.

    Islam is the same religion of Prophet Adam, of Prophet Noah, of Prophet Moses, of Prophet Jesus, of Prophet Muhammad. A total of 124,000 prophets, 1 sent to each generation/nation of whom 25 are elevated to status of messengers, the highest most honourable men including Prophet Moses, Prophet David and Prophet Jesus.
    The message of each prophet catered to the people of their time while still retaining the same message, one God and compassion for one another.

    Islam as we know of today, is simply the Final Message. The completion of religion.

    Indeed, as mentioned in the article, there is no need to differentiate the religions. Because it is essentially the same message. In fact, on my side, we dont really differentiate ourselves from christians and jews or any other faith that much because we all believe in God, just in a different way.

    Islam is simply the final message for our generation/our time.
    But at the same time, it is here to remind the people, the Jews, the christians, the sabians, to come back to the original message in which prophet Moses and prophet Jesus had originally revealed.

    For example, for Christians, it says in the quran 4:171 “Do not say “three” – desist for it is better for you. Indeed, God is one God.” & Mark 12:29 “The most important commandment, Jesus said,’Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God is one’ “.

    In summary, Islam has been since the beginning of mankind, and the Islam revealed at 627 to prophet muhammad is simply the final message, and the worship of the one single creator in its most perfect and refined form revealed for humanity.

    The differences in religion or treatment from one religion to another is just due to the fact that the people are imperfect.

  4. Islam, according to our belief, is essentially believing in God, the one and only creator, & we have a duty to worship him (Allah) and be the best kind of person possible, honorable and compassionate.

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