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.


40 responses to “Fred Donner and the Early Days of Islam”

  1. Islam didn’t form in Jerusalem.

    1. Gande Moses Avatar
      Gande Moses

      Good observation!

    2. Jerusalem was a Muslim city it was belonging to Muslim

  2. Omar Khattab Abwana Avatar
    Omar Khattab Abwana

    Jerusalem was amuslim city.

    1. Adebola Akande Avatar
      Adebola Akande

      No. Jerusalem was a Jewish city. The Jews don’t practice Islam but Judaism.

      1. Adebola Akande Avatar
        Adebola Akande

        Jerusalem has always been a Jewish city

    2. Jerusalem was and is a Jewish city. Though over the centuries it has had many different rulers.

  3. Joseph G. Emond Avatar
    Joseph G. Emond

    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

    1. the actual word Shariah is mentioned once in the Quran. It means literally path or the way. surah 45 verse 18 reads “Then We set you on a clear path so follow it and do not yield to the desires of those who have no knowledge.”


      1. Adebola Akande Avatar
        Adebola Akande

        No. Islam is submission to Allah.

      2. Adebola Akande Avatar
        Adebola Akande

        Islam began in Mecca and not Jerusalem

        1. Adebola thanks.@saif Nigeria

  4. iaslam is peace

  5. Nuruddeen Avatar

    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.

    1. True undiniable fact

  6. 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.

    1. Georgiana Avatar

      This is a standard Islamic position.

      Have you ever wondered why Christians find it unconvincing? Because they have solid reasons to think Christianity is ethically better, more rational and intellectually larger than Islam.

      Islam, being the youngest monotheism, claims to be the oldest, but it’s obviously preposterous. Before the 8th or 9th century, when Islam took shape, nobody prayed towards Mekka, or venerated Muhammad as the greatest prophet. Islam is simply a simplified Arabic version of earlier religions.

      1. Agamjot Avatar

        Actually , Sikh dharma is usually considered the youngest monotheism. Not to get technical like that means anything special.

      2. akram juuko Avatar
        akram juuko

        A thing for a fact is that no religion is ethically better than Islam,socially, economically or even politically.. For it prescribes every of the above aspects unlike other religions where people feed in their opinions and choose what’s more appropriate according to their capabilities or capacities. For I don’t know what you base on to say that Christianity is intellectually larger than Islam.
        And if you read the bible,people used to worship facing the temple…and afterwards it remained a wall but still faced in its direction,in this manner, there has to b a focal point.
        And its God’s command, He’s not asked why…but on this issue in question,certainly there are rrasons

    2. Kamal El Mikh Avatar
      Kamal El Mikh

      Thanks for your answer. It’s rational and meets the origanility of human kind. We are all Muslims but we have dwelled with different understandings due to the backgrounds we have been growing up in.

    3. Matthews Avatar

      Was Adam a Prophet? Who is a Prophet?

    4. Well said, Ashri.

  7. 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.

  8. Islam means peace

    1. peace?, yet they murder people?

      1. Salif Avatar

        Have you never in your life make a decision which is inappropriate..or a sin?
        Those who kill as you say called themselves muslims or islams but are really not you know why.?
        Because they dont really know islam means and secondly they are not true believers of islam..
        They only carry the religion name to sin in order to tarnish the image of islam ..
        They always have the impression of beinga God themselves by judging …
        Islam is simple..
        Islam is free …
        Islam is peace.

      2. Islam doesn’t murder people.

        Murderers do.
        Murderers are white, brown, black…all colours, from all creeds, all walks of life…

  9. Abd Hakeem Lateefat Avatar
    Abd Hakeem Lateefat

    Nice observation

  10. Well, as for me due to a supernatural crisis, I have stopped practicing as a Muslim. But Islam truly means; submission to the will of Allah. Allah is the ONLY Arabic word meaning the Supreme Creator. Ella on the other hand means, lesser deities worthless of being worshiped. Islam sees this as the unthinkably biggest sin including the Christian view of Jesus as “God”. I thought too that Christians were insane to attribute certain appellations to Jesus until I became a believer in Christ myself through no effort of mine.

    Now, let us do unbiased analysis. Based on the literary style of the Qur’an, it is not possible to say a man invented it. Much of it, if not all, was actually revealed. However, the source of its revelation can only be accepted by faith. By truth, its description of God gives superlative literary work incomparable to human works. Its description of life after death is much detailed than the mind can conceive and its support for Jesus’ teachings rarely contradicts the Bible.

    Nevertheless, the Qur’an differs in spirit from the Bible because; the belief that gives eternal life in the Bible is exactly what leads to eternal death in the Qur’an. This is the central conflict. Another most important factor is that; Islam units all the Messengers of God including the Christ into one family with Muhammad being the last but the most important for this generation for whose sake previous generations also benefit on the Judgment Day. This unity of purpose is now a matter of spiritual refute since many individuals have testified about dreams in which both Jesus and Muhammad are seen fighting souls for their ways. These could still be trials anyway if and ONLY if both religions lead to the same God. But God forgive me, I think this would be the most dangerous test for God’s own servants and I besiege Him to show us mercy and grace.

    Dreams and near-death experiences therefore refute the claims that the Muslim way and the Christian one are the same. It WOULD BE a failure on the part of Satan to confuse a believer from one truth into embracing another truth. However, there is still one plausible explanation.

    Islam believes that the true Jesus shall appear at the end time and be among the Muslims in fighting the disbelievers who include Christians for believing in the False Christ believed to have died on the cross. Quran recites that; death occurred on the cross as a physical image but that was not the true Jesus. He was lifted into heaven and never died on the cross. Instead, “God also plotted against the sinners who conceived this heinous crime against Jesus. So, We made it appear to them as being crucified but of certainty, they killed him not.”

    I will not be surprised if this interpretation was not well-made because there is another verse in the Quran that warns from saying to those believers who die in battles as “killed or dead”: “Say not to the believers killed in jihad that they are dead. Nay, they are not dead but alive….” So, as you can see, though the jihadists were physically killed in battles, Allah says desist from saying they are killed. This is because, the physical death of a believer is not considered death by God. For Allah, what is considered death is dying as a disbeliever which leads to hellfire. I am tempted to interpret the Quranic denial of Jesus’ death on the cross by this second meaning of death despite the indisputable narrations in Islam that Jesus did neither physically nor spiritually died. Recall that the Quran mocks at their ignorance when they said “in a boast; we killed the Christ, son of Mariam… but nay they killed him not”

    These are the verses that have mislead many souls being either Muslims or Christians. In one breath, it can be argued that if the Quran is more reliable and cannot be changed, then its message may sound more truthful than a scripture that can be manipulated or has been changed, as asserted. However, Biblical narration about the salvation mission of Christ has been found to remain consistent with lost books and supernatural testimonies. In contrast, Islam also do enjoys strength infrequently from these testimonies. For example, the Dead Sea Scrolls support both Jesus’ salvation mission and his death as they do back basic Islamic moral and Sharia teachings.

    In conclusion, Islam and Christianity do not have the same salvation message. Jesus in the Bible differs from Jesus in the Quran in mission and status. I testify from my knowledge that the Quran was not the product of a man’s diction. It was revealed by a force. Whoever that power might be is only a matter of divine guidance because no man can know or claim who this force is by just reading. Its profound description of matter points to a divine knowledge. So, if the Quran did come from the Father(God), then indeed Jesus shall join the Muslims in his second coming making the Christian Faith a tool of the Anti-Christ. If Satan tricked Muhammad, then Jesus really gave Muslims the biggest test because it will only take the love of God to make a Muslim doubt the Quran before he even begins a search on the Bible in the first place. The opposite is true for Islam. In this confusion therefore, the best way to be guided is to stop unnecessary arguments and calling of names to pray for God’s guidance to His true path.

    1. A good guidance on this topic and hope by the grace of God, you will be bold to make a conclusion. As this is end time and we have to be told the bitter truth brother

    2. Kindly sent the verses quoted in Quran,will appreciate

    3. Adil Khan Avatar
      Adil Khan

      Mind blowing words

    4. Kamal El Mikh Avatar
      Kamal El Mikh

      Which version of the many bibles are you relying on? How come you contradict Quran that has one unique vision and you support bible that exists in thousand faces.

  11. syed muhammad akram shah gillani Avatar
    syed muhammad akram shah gillani

    excellent efforts

  12. Ridwan Dede Janu Avatar
    Ridwan Dede Janu

    Excuse me to share this 3 links
    My own critiq to religion to prevent terorism (new from me)
    Any 12nd add, B content paragraph 2, 28, D. NOTE, 22
    1. about them who acquiesce in and brave to tortured till dead on each religion… paragraph 1a and 1b
    2. god did torturing and not holy because crime potention he made… paragraph 2
    3. unfair between moslem since birth, infidel since birth, and muhammad… paragraph 5
    4. seven layer of sky and other is very small than the whole universe and can be just devil misleading after devil know some, but only on believe thing…paragraph 12
    5. same question to bible and quran, why bible like not guarded by god (on islam teaching), etc. So then can concluded that god is improper … paragraph 12
    6. if normal, self function working good, and life test never too hard so no one of human will failed … paragraph 19-21
    7. god can finish that with better. human is not the leader on earth …paragraph 22
    8. torture meaning … paragraph 24
    9. god also has a share on crime and torturing because he is the creator of all being include potention … paragraph 27
    10. if anyone wants to critique this wrote by nil anything … paragraph 28
    The Universe is Constant not extended. Cant Back to Past Even God, God not almighty
    1. Universe is Constant, not keep extended … par 1
    2. Cant back to past even God, God not Almighty … par 2
    Most Critic, The Only God, Allknow, Most first, most end, etc
    1. God depends on his ability as same as creatures … par 1
    2. God no the only god because learning process … par 2
    3. Something has same as god and god not most first and most end because primary period … par 3
    4. God not Allknow and the only god can be doubted because universe is unlimited … par 4
    5. God not the only god because space … par 5

    excuse me again to share this 2 links
    God Did Useless Things
    English version is under Indonesian version
    List Content
    1. Useless angel … par 1
    2. Useless human … par 2
    3. Useless devil … par 3
    4. Useless universe … par 4
    5. Useless pray … par 5
    6. Reference
    Don’t Erase Unbeliever Right to Repent with Terorism. The Fair God will not punish somebody because a sin which not he really did. Just Unbelieve is not worth punished, here are the reasons. Etc

    English version is under Indonesian version
    List Content
    1. Don’t erase unbeliever right to repent with terorism. The fair God will not punish somebody because a sin which not he really did … par 1
    2. My opinion about terorism reasons … par 2
    3. Just unbelieve is not worth punished, one of the reason is it is not a crime and another reasons … par 3
    4. Unclear reason about why sholat is obligated … par 4
    5. If God do not need human, and He is Almighty, so we just need relax in whole life … par 5

  13. williams Avatar

    what is the meaning of jihad?

    1. ABDULKARIM Avatar

      It means “struggle or strive” in the name of Allah. And nothing more

      1. So jihad can be anything from loving yourself, loving your neighbours….striving to be a better human being…then daily life is jihad….right?

  14. The early days of Islam were the golden period in the history of Islam.

  15. In God we trust, others pls pay cash

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