New Publication Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires by Juan Cole

New Publication Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires by Juan Cole

Below is an adapted excerpt from Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires by Juan Cole. Copyright © 2018. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. This and the image of the cover are reproduced by kind permission of the author and publishers.


The Companions of the Right Hand, the second group of good but perhaps not beatific people, are a “crowd of ancients and of moderns.”  That is, there are more contemporaries of the Prophet in this group.  The Event (56:90-91) promises, “And if they are among the companions of the right hand, then they will be greeted, ‘Peace be to you,’ by the companions of the right hand.”  They will dress up in fine silk and exotic brocade as though Asian royalty.  Any lingering rancor or grudges in their hearts for others will be removed, and they will all become siblings.  Concord is so central to the Qur’an’s view of the afterlife that it names heaven for it, saying, “God summons all to the Abode of Peace.”  The association of peace with heaven is also made in the New Testament.  In Luke 19:38, when Jesus approached the Mount of Olives after entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the crowds are said to have shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

The chapter of Y.S. 36:52-58 represents paradise as having levels, with enjoyment the most basic, then above that a stage in which you recline on couches facing your spouse, followed by a plane on which you savor luscious fruit.  The pinnacle of paradise, however, comes at the fourth stage, when the voice of God addresses you with “Peace!”  Many readers will immediately think of the Paradiso of Dante Alighieri, which imagines heaven as nine levels.  The Qur’an positions peace at the apex of the delights of heaven.

These images have a moral purpose.  The Meccan sanctuary on earth dimly reflects the spectral asylum of the next world.  The comportment of the Vanguard and the Companions of the Right Hand, the Qur’an implies, exemplifies ideal behavior to be mirrored as well as possible even in this world.  Middle Platonism, the “spiritual commonwealth” of late antiquity, held that the spiritual is real and the material earth only participates in the archetypes of the other world.  In the classical rhetorical tradition that was all around Muhmmad when he journeyed north every year, the aim of a speaker was to use vivid, energetic language that brought the thing described to life before the eyes of the audience, making them feel as though they were witnesses to it.  It was not enough, however, simply to describe.  The speaker sought to whip up hearers emotionally by appealing to their imagination.  The Qur’an uses these literary devices in making paradise present to the believers.

Likewise, Christian sermonizers urged believers to keep the prospect of joining the concourse of heaven in mind.  Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386) preached, “Even now, I beseech you, lift up the eye of your understanding: imagine the angelic choirs, and God, the Lord of all sitting, and his Only-begotten Son sitting with him on his right hand, and the Spirit with them present . . .”

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2018. All rights reserved.

An Apocalyptic Reading of Qur’an 17:1-8

By Mehdy Shaddel*

Modern scholarship on the Qur’an has, since long, pointed out three problems with the 41fcda2ca8a78e46e2760ff1c98c6660traditional interpretation of Q Isrāʾ 17:1 as a scriptural testimonium for Muḥammad’s ‘ascension’ story. The first is that there is nothing in the verse, and not even in the whole pericope, to suggest that the ‘servant’ (ʿabd) mentioned therein must be identified with Muḥammad – although there is nothing against this identification either.[i] Secondly, the verse does not even allude to an ascension; it only speaks of a ‘nocturnal journey’ (isrāʾ).[ii] The third, and most worrying, problem of the ‘miʿrāj verse’ is in its seeming incongruity with the rest of the pericope. This apparent incongruity is so obvious that it has led some scholars to propose that the verse has been interpolated into the text in an attempt to produce a prooftext for Muḥammad’s ascension story.[iii] However, this has been shown to be untenable because of the textual cross-references between the verse and the rest of the pericope.[iv]

Apparently under the influence of the view that the verse stands out from the rest of the sūrah, almost no scholar has so far attempted to read Q 17:1 against the verses immediately following it (vv. 2-8) or vice versa. Some scholars, nevertheless, have granted that v. 1 may be a reference to a miraculous experience of its ʿabd (who they take the liberty of identifying with Muḥammad).[v] Such a miraculous journey, as Uri Rubin observes, is well-known in the Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic tradition.

On the other hand, vv. 4-7 retail a familiar story. It is the account of the destruction of the First Temple in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian invasion of the Kingdom of Judah and the final destruction of the rebuilt Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, two cataclysmic events that for centuries continued to hold sway over the imaginaire of the Jews.[vi] These two events were, accordingly, retold, in the guise of ‘prophecies’, in many Jewish, and occasionally also Christian, apocalypses from the late first century CE onwards.[vii] One wonders, then, whether Q 17:1-8 is not a retelling of one such apocalypse, with v. 1 (the so-called ‘miʿrāj verse’) being the description of its seer’s initiatory experience?

What is more, there could be little doubt that in v. 4 the Qur’an is alluding to an apocalypse. The verse asserts that God had beforehand determined those events to happen “in the book”.[viii] In other words, the Qur’an here is speaking of a book containing ‘prophecies’ of events – historical events – to come. This kind of already-fulfilled (or ex eventu) ‘prophecies’ are amply found in apocalyptic writings.

The possibility that the Qur’an might exhibit knowledge of apocryphal literature and, in particular, apocalypses is almost indisputable. Elsewhere in the Qur’an, we hear of ṣuḥuf (sing.ṣaḥīfah), a term used to describe “ancient compositions” (al-ṣuḥuf al-ūlā) attributed to Abraham and Moses, which, in all likelihood, is an Arabic calque on the Hebrew gilāyōn and the Syriac gelyānā, ‘scroll, apocalypse’.[ix] More to the point, emphasis on the role of divine providence in the unfolding of history is part and parcel of apocalyptic historiography. In apocalyptic historiography, the providential determination of history is to be seen in the phenomenon of translatio imperii according to a preconceived divinely-ordained scheme which, however, is usually said to be a chastisement for human sinfulness – presumably to shed any possible doubts as to the justness of the Almighty.[x] The same themes are evidently present in the qur’anic passage under discussion: a supra-historical view of the Israelite past and future that sees both God’s hand and human action behind all of their turns of fortune. The Qur’an, however, does not deploy this theology of history to convince its audience of the imminence of the eschaton or the inevitability of human suffering, but, rather, of the quickness of divine retribution. Thus the pericope seems to exhibit all formal features of the genre ‘apocalypse’.[xi]

Open questions

Scholars have identified two pseudepigraphic compositions as the apocalypse behind this pericope, the Apocalypse of Abraham, proposed by Geneviève Gobillot,[xii] and Testamentum Mosis (also known as Assumptio Mosis), put forward by Heribert Busse. Of these two, the Apocalypse of Abraham does contain a reference to the Roman sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, but it could hardly be “the book” cited by our pericope, for the allusion to “the book granted to Moses” in v. 2, which is presumably the referent of “the book” of v. 4, renders Abraham an impossible candidate for the ʿabd of v. 1.

Busse fails to connect v. 1 with the rest of the pericope himself and, thus, does not identify its ʿabd with the apocalyptic visionary. But, in the light of the foregoing, the identification of theTestamentum Mosis as the apocalyptic composition quoted here by the Qur’an entails that Moses is the to be identified with the ʿabd. This, however, cannot be maintained either, for although theTestamentum contains references to two desecrations of the Temple, its visionary does not embark on an otherworldly journey. Moreover, Moses’ association with al-masjid al-ḥarām, wherever it was, is not self-evident in the light of the qur’anic data. On the other hand, Abraham seems a suitable candidate in this respect, as, contrary to Moses, he is particularly associated with al-masjid al-ḥarām in the Qur’an and is even said to be its founder. As may be seen, there is evidence for and against both candidates in the text, and, thus, the issue remains open.

What about the location of the two mosques mentioned? Van Ess, Neuwirth, and Rubin have compellingly argued for the identification of al-masjid al-aqṣā with the Jerusalem Temple on the basis of the verse’s description of it as being contained in a blessed environment, a description used elsewhere in the Qur’an of the Holy Land.[xiii] The identity of al-masjid al-ḥarām still remains elusive, but it would not be hard to imagine that the Qur’an is indeed referring to its messenger’s hometown here, in keeping with its project of nativising biblical Heilsgeschichte.[xiv]

* Mehdy Shaddel is a scholar of Islamic history specialising in the political history of the early caliphate (AD 632-836), the Arabic historiographical tradition, the historical Muḥammad, the Qurʾān, and late-ancient religion. He has written several articles on such topics as the Second Muslim Civil War, ethno-religious identities in the Qur’an, and Islamic eschatology.

[i] Josef Horovitz, “Muhammeds Himmelfahrt”, Der Islam 9 (1919), 159-183, at 160; A.A. Bevan, “Mohammed’s Ascension to Heaven”, in Karl Marti (ed.), Studien zur semitischen Philologie und Religionsgeschichte: Julius Wellhausen zum Siebzigsten Geburtstag (Giessen: Alfred Töpelmann, 1914), 51-61, at 54; followed by John Wansbrough, Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (Amherst: Prometheus, 2004), 67-9, who sees a better candidate in Moses, apparently in the context of the exodus of the Israelites (adducing, inter alia, Q al-Dukhān 44:23 as a potential parallel).

[ii] For the significance of this term, see Rubin, “Muḥammad’s Night Journey (isrāʾ) to al-Masjid al-Aqṣā: Aspects of the Earliest Origins of the Islamic Sanctity of Jerusalem”, al-Qantara 29 (2008), 151.

[iii] Theodor Nöldeke and Friedrich Schwally, Geschichte des Qorāns, vol. i: Über den Ursprung des Qorāns (Leipzig: Weicher, 1909), 136 (translated into English as The History of the Qurʾān. ed. and trans. Wolfgang Behn [Leiden: Brill, 2013], 111-2); Horovitz, “Muhammeds Himmelfahrt”, 160; more explicitly so in Bevan, “Mohammed’s Ascension”, 53; more recently in Angelika Neuwirth,Studien zur Komposition der mekkanischen Suren (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2007; originally published in 1981), 101, based on stylistic grounds. Neuwirth has since backtracked on her earlier position by contriving a redactional history of the verse in the context of the whole sūrah which integrates it back into the original corpus of the Qur’an; see her “From the Sacred Mosque to the Remote Temple: Sūrat al-Isrāʾ (Q. 17), between Text and Commentary”, in eadem, Scripture, Poetry and the Making of a Community: Reading the Qur’an as a Literary Text (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 216-52, at 225-7 (originally published in J.D. McAuliffe, B. Walfish, and J. Goering [eds], With Reverence for the Word: Medieval Scriptural Exegesis in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003], 376-407).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Rubin, “Muḥammad’s Night Journey”, 152-3; Neuwirth, “From the Sacred Mosque”, passim.

[vi] This identification, which is also advocated by the tradition, has been challenged by Busse, “Destruction of the Temple”, 2-3, on the basis of his own identification of Testamentum Mosis as the ‘source’ of the verse.

[vii] Many such texts are discussed in Kenneth R. Jones, Jewish Reactions to the Destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70: Apocalypses and Related Pseudepigrapha (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[viii] Cf. Busse, “Destruction of the Temple”, 3, who suggests the Testamentum Mosis as a likely candidate.

[ix] Q al-Aʿlā 87:18-9; al-Najm 53:36-7; and Ṭāhā 20:133. Haggai Ben-Shammai, “Ṣuḥuf in the Qurʾān – A Loan Translation for ‘Apocalypses’”, in idem, S. Shaked, and S. Stroumsa (eds), Exchange and Transmission across Cultural Boundaries: Philosophy, Mysticism and Science in the Mediterranean World (Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 2013), 1-15.

[x] On the function of ex eventu prophecies in apocalyptic literature, see Christopher Rowland, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity (London 1982), 136-55; andnow Lorenzo DiTommaso, “Pseudonymity and the Revelation of John”, in J. Ashton (ed.), Revealed Wisdom: Studies in Apocalyptic in Honour of Christopher Rowland (Leiden 2014), 305-315.

[xi] The classic definition of the genre is to be found in John J. Collins, “Introduction: Towards the Morphology of a Genre”, in idem (ed.), Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre (special issue ofSemeia 14 [1979]), 1-20.

[xii] Geneviève Gobillot, “Apocryphes de l’Ancien et du Nouveau Testament”, in Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi (ed.), Dictionnaire du Coran (Paris: Bouquins, 2007), 57-63.

[xiii] Josef van Ess, “Vision and Ascension: Sūrat al-Najm and Its Relationship with Muḥammad’s miʿrāj”, Journal of Qur’anic Studies 1 (1999), 47-62, at 48; Rubin, “Muḥammad’s Night Journey”, 152; also alluded to in Neuwirth, “From the Sacred Mosque”, 225 and 234.

[xiv] For further examples of the Qur’an’s appropriation of Judaeo-Christian folk stories and their situation in an ‘Arabian’ milieu, see Joseph Witztum, “The Foundation of the House (Q 2:127)”,BSOAS 72 (2009), 25-40; and Mehdy Shaddel, “Studia onomastica coranica: al-raqīm, caput Nabataeae”, forthcoming in Journal of Semitic Studies 62 (2017).

Jesus and Islam (Jésus et l’islam) – NEW Documentary

By Emran El-Badawi

Jésus et l'islam (

Jésus et l’islam (

Six hours and thirty minutes is the duration of the new seven part documentary series on Jesus and Islam. The film Jésus et l’islam / Jesus und der Islam is presented in three versions (French, German and English) and features twenty six academic specialists from around the world–including several current and former IQSA members. The specialists include historians, philologists, theologians, archeologists, experts on manuscripts and other subjects. The film was directed by Jérôme Prieur and Gérard Mordillat and is a production of Archipel 33, ARTE and in collaboration with the Centre National du Cinema and the Bibliothèque Nationale.

The documentary film was aired the week of December 8 and has been widely acclaimed in the French and German media. The film itself was in production for years, where directors Prieur and Mordillat methodically crafted a documentary exploring the role of Jesus in shaping Islam. The most important text for consideration, therefore, was the Qur’an–Islam’s holiest scripture and oldest historical document. In doing so the directors have asked the experts questions about the distinctly Islamic theological perspective on Christ and how and why it differs from Christianity. As the film demonstrates answering such questions can be complex and even controversial. Therefore, it also introduces viewers to the different academic schools (traditionalist, revisionist or otherwise) and their perspectives on the Qur’an, Jesus and Muhammad.

Jérôme Prieur and Gérard Mordillat (

Jérôme Prieur and Gérard Mordillat (

Each part of Jesus and Islam explores a major theme. The seven themes are:

  1. The crucifixion according to the Qur’an
  2. The origins of the text
  3. The son of Mary
  4. The prophet’s emigration
  5. The religion of Abraham
  6. The book of Islam
  7. Jesus according to Muhammad
Jésus selon Mahomet (

Jésus selon Mahomet (

The seventh part of the series also inspired a book, Jésus selon Mahomet,in which the directors discuss their own views and perspectives. Prieur and Mordillat are seasoned writers and film directors who, among other things, specialize in documentary films on the history and formation of the Abrahamic religions. Their earlier works include Corpus Christi, L’Origine du Christianisme and L’apocalypse.

There will be an exclusive, members only screening of Jesus and Islam at the next IQSA annual meeting on November 18-21, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas, USA. CLICK HERE  to renew your IQSA membership for 2016 NOW!

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015.

Debating Monotheistic Pluralism

by Reza Aslan*

cropped-67450_10150308353980065_3395794_n.jpgBefore I address Professor Hughes’ criticism of my earlier blog post on monotheistic pluralism, I suppose I should begin as he does by addressing something that has absolutely nothing to do with my blog post: that is, my biography of the historical Jesus. I am not sure if it comes as surprise to Professor Hughes that scholars disagree with each other, but the fact that Professor Richard Horsley or Professor Dale Martin have taken issue with some of my conclusions—just as I in my book have taken issue with some of theirs—does not delegitimize my scholarship any more than the fact that both of them agree with other conclusions of mine legitimizes it. Perhaps the distinction between agreement and legitimation is too subtle for an academic who, in disagreeing with another academic’s conclusion, denounces the latter as a “lie,” as Professor Hughes does at the conclusion of his post. The implication that I am a liar is a thinly veiled ad hominem argument that is only convincing if one were to deny that disagreement could be genuine.

Between his tangent about Jesus and his attack on my character, Professor Hughes does bring up one interesting point worth addressing: “what the term ‘Jew’ might have signified in the seventh century.” Unfortunately, that point is muddled with his confused charge that I “assume . . . that Jews then were like Jews now.” In fact, I make the exact opposite point, which is why I speak exclusively of seventh-century Arabian Jewish identity and mysticism.

As I note in my book No god but God (of which Professor Hughes could dig up some critiques if he likes), the consensus of most scholars is that the Jewish clans in Medina—the Jews I referenced in my post—were likely Arab converts and barely distinguishable from their pagan counterparts, either culturally or religiously. What is more, they were not a particularly literate group. The Arabic sources describe Medina’s Jewish clans as speaking a language of their own called ratan, which al-Tabari claims was Persian but which may have been a hybrid of Arabic and Aramaic. There is no evidence that they either spoke or understood Hebrew. Indeed, their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures was likely limited to just a few scrolls of law, some prayer books, and a handful of fragmentary Arabic translations of the Torah—what S. W. Baron refers to as a “garbled, oral tradition.”

So limited was the knowledge of Judaism among Arabia’s Jews that some scholars do not believe them to have been genuinely Jewish. D. S. Margoliouth considers the Jews of Medina to have been little more than a loose band of monotheists who should more properly be termed “Rahmanists” (Rahman being an alternative title for Allah). While many disagree with Margoliouth’s analysis, there are other reasons to question the degree to which Medina’s Jewish clans would have identified themselves with the Jewish faith. Consider, for example, that by the sixth century C.E., there was, as H. G. Reissener noted, a fair measure of agreement among Diaspora Jewish communities that a Jew could be defined as “a follower of the Mosaic Law . . . in accordance with the principles laid down in the Talmud.” Such a restriction would immediately have ruled out Medina’s Jewish clans who neither strictly observed Mosaic Law nor seemed to have any real knowledge of the Babylonian Talmud that Professor Hughes references in his critique.

Moreover, there is a conspicuous absence in Medina of what should be easily identifiable archeological evidence of a significant Jewish presence. According to Jonathan Reed, certain archeological indicators—such as the remnants of stone vessels, the ruins of immersion pools (miqva’ot), and the interment of ossuaries— should be present at a site in order to confirm the existence there of an established Jewish religious identity. As far as we know, none of these indicators have been unearthed in Medina. Naturally, there are those who continue to assert the religious identity of Medina’s Jewish clans. Gordon Newby, for example, thinks that Medina’s Jews may have comprised distinct communities with their own schools and books, though no archeological evidence exists to confirm this hypothesis. In any case, even Newby admits that with regard to their culture, ethics, and even their religion, Medina’s Jews were practically identical to Medina’s pagan community, with whom they freely interacted and (against Mosaic law) frequently intermarried.

Simply put, the Jewish clans of Medina were in no way a religiously observant group; if Margoliouth and others are correct, they may not even have been Jews. This is why I argued that they would not necessarily have found anything that Muhammad said or did to be against their norms, values, or beliefs.

Professor Hughes likely disagrees with me on this topic. I would be happy to hear a rebuttal, and I promise to try my hardest not to refer to any disagreement as a “lie.”

* Reza Aslan is Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside and Trustee at the Chicago Theological Seminary

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

A Literary Portrait of Qur’anic Origins

by Aaron W. Hughes*

I would like to consider Reza Aslan’s recent IQSA blog post in light of his best-selling book Zealot, because his blog post appears like his book to be essentially a creative literary piece. In a recent review of Zealot published in Critical Research in Religion (2.2 [2014]: 195-221), Richard Horsely, a leading scholar of Christian origins, argues that

the lack of critical analysis of sources and the periodic historical confusions in his narrative, however, suggest that Zealot is not a historical investigation. The biography at the end of the book explains that his formative training was in fiction and that his academic position is in the teaching of creative writing. His presentation of Jesus’ ‘life and times’ (a modern genre) appears to flow out of just this literary experience. (195)

This was by no means a singular charge. Many scholars, not to mention reviewers such as those in the New York Times, were very critical of his book. ArtAslan leaves the intellectual heavy lifting to others and instead reproduces a host of assumptions that are reminiscent of a previous generation of New Testament scholars. He conflates gospel accounts, takes poetic license to embellish stories, and devotes most of his focus on Jesus the individual as opposed to the various social actors that made the many Jesus movements possible. He also assumes that the texts of the New Testament explain how “Christianity’’ broke away from “Judaism,” when many scholars of this period (from Neusner to Boyarin to Horsely himself) have shown, with evidence, that such a separation is much more complicated and much later than this.

Aslan imports this basic methodology into his blog post with the aim of offering us insights into the “Qur’anic Clues to the Identity of Muhammad’s Community in Mecca.” In it he makes the rather unremarkable point that “there is no reason to believe that this term was used to designate a distinct religious movement until many years into the Medinan period or perhaps after Muhammad’s death.” Indeed, why stop there? Why not go further and say that the term may not designate a “distinct religious movement” until the eighth, ninth, or even tenth century? Instead of Muslims, Aslan encourages us to consider using the term that the Qur’an uses, ummah. The Constitution of Medina, not to mention the Qur’an, is simply and unproblematically assumed to date to the time of Muhammad.

Aslan then projects our modern understandings of such terms as “ethnicity,” “religion,” “experience,” and “ethics” onto the seventh century. He never entertains, for example, what the term “Jew” might have signified in the seventh century, especially in Arabia following the codification of the Babylonian Talmud roughly a century earlier. Instead, he assumes that what is meant by “Jew” then is the same as now. He brings in Newby’s irenic reading of the situation—that the Jews would have nothing to object to Muhammad’s prophecy. It could be argued, if we assume as Aslan does, that Jews then were like Jews now, that they would have objected to everything from Muhammad’s still inchoate message to the charge that their scripture had been tampered with. Why not assume, for example, that Muhammad, at least initially, thought he was a “Jew”?

Aslan then speaks of “Arabian Jewish mysticism,” as if that term actually denotes something real in the world. What sources does he have for this pre-kabbalistic mysticism? What were its contours? He then speaks of “theological differences between Islam and the other People of the Book” at the time of Muhammad as if Islam had somehow fallen to the earth theologically complete, as opposed to examining the historical controversies that made theology possible only much later. If “Muslim” only took on its religio-semantic valences much later, then surely the same could be said for “Islam.”

As with Zealot, Aslan concludes his blog post on a very modern note: “The point is that although Muhammad recognized the irreconcilable differences that existed among the People of the Book, he never called for a partitioning of the faiths.” Instead, this partitioning was the product of later jurists. If we want to get to the authentic message, Aslan concludes, then we need to “understand Muhammad’s actual beliefs regarding the Jews and Christians of his time.”

This confusion of myth and history, the conflation of fact and fiction, is dangerous for the historical study of Qur’anic origins. Aslan’s goal is not historical scholarship, but to produce a literary portrait designed to make us feel good about ourselves—and about Islam in the league of religions. But what happens when a modern virtue gets in the way of history? Unfortunately, as irenic terms like “convivencia,” “multicultural,” “symbiosis,” “Abrahamic,” and “tolerant” increasingly litter our intellectual landscape, it is history that ultimately gives way. As the late Chief Rabbi of Israel once said about The Bible Code (1997), “If you have to lie to people to get them to believe, what’s the point?”

* Aaron W. Hughes is Philip S. Bernstein Chair of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

Qur’anic Clues to the Identity of Muhammad’s Community in Medina

by Reza Aslan*

It may have been in Mecca where the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelations of the Qur’an and began his prophetic mission, but it was in Medina where his community of followers was forged. It is tempting to call the members of Muhammad’s community “Muslims,” but there is no reason to believe that this term was used to designate a distinct religious movement until many years into the Medinan period or perhaps after Muhammad’s death. It would be more accurate to refer to Muhammad’s community in Medina by the term that the Qur’an uses: umma.

Ceramic panel depicting the Mosque in Medina; 17th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Ceramic panel depicting the Mosque in Medina; 17th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The problem is that no one is certain what the term umma meant or where it came from. It may be derived from Arabic, Hebrew, or Aramaic; it may have meant “community,” “nation,” or “people.” A few scholars have suggested that umma may be derived from the Arabic word for mother (umm); while this idea may be aesthetically pleasing, there is no linguistic evidence for it. To complicate matters further, umma inexplicably ceases to be used in the Qur’an after 625 C.E., when, as Montgomery Watt has noted, it is replaced with the word qawm, Arabic for “tribe.”

But there may be something to this change in terminology. Despite its ingenuity, Muhammad’s community was still an Arab institution based on Arab notions of tribal society. There was simply no alternative model of social organization in seventh-century Arabia, save for monarchy. Indeed, there are so many parallels between the early Muslim community and traditional tribal societies that one is left with the distinct impression that, at least in Muhammad’s mind, the umma was indeed a tribe, though a new and radically innovative one.

For one thing, reference in the Constitution of Medina to Muhammad’s role as “shaykh” of his “clan” of Meccan emigrants indicates that despite the Prophet’s elevated status, his secular authority would have fallen well within the traditional model of pre-Islamic tribal society. What is more, just as membership in the tribe obliged participation in the rituals and activities of the tribal cult, so did membership in Muhammad’s community require ritual involvement in what could be termed its “tribal cult,” in this case, the nascent religion of Islam. Public rituals like communal prayer, almsgiving, and collective fasting — the first three activities mandated by Muhammad — when combined with shared dietary regulations and purity requirements, functioned in the umma in much the same way that the activities of the tribal cult did in pagan societies. They provided a common social and religious identity that allowed one group to distinguish itself from another.

The point is that one can refer to Muhammad’s community in Medina as the umma, but only insofar as that term is understood to designate what the Orientalist explorer Bertram Thomas has called a “super-tribe,” or what the historian Marshall Hodgson more accurately describes as a “neo-tribe,” that is, a radically new kind of social organization but one nevertheless based on the traditional Arab tribal model.

There is, however, one great difference between the traditional tribal model and Muhammad’s super-tribe. While the only way to become a member of a tribe was to be born into it, membership in the umma was based neither on kinship nor on ethnicity. Instead, membership was predicated firstly on the recognition of Muhammad’s authority as prophet and lawgiver, and secondly on the acceptance of his revelations from God.

Here we must pause and examine those revelations – the Qur’an – for a clue about what Muhammad may have intended for the radically new kind of social organization he was building in Medina.

Folio with portions of Qur'an 5:14-15; North Africa, 13th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Folio with portions of Qur’an 5:14-15; North Africa, 13th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Qur’an repeatedly claims to be not a new scripture but the “confirmation of previous scriptures” (12:111). In fact, the Qur’an proposes the remarkable idea that all revealed scriptures are derived from a single divine source called umm al-kitab, “Mother of Books” (13:39). That means that as far as Muhammad understood, the Torah, the Gospels, and the Qur’an must be read as a single cohesive narrative about humanity’s relationship to God, in which the prophetic consciousness of one prophet is passed spiritually to the next: from Adam to Muhammad. For this reason, the Qur’an advises Muslims to say to the Jews and Christians: “We believe in God, and in that which has been revealed to us, which is that which was revealed to Abraham and Ismail and Jacob and the tribes [of Israel], as well as that which the Lord revealed to Moses and to Jesus and to all the other Prophets. We make no distinction between any of them; we submit ourselves to God” (3:84).

The Qur’an sets itself up as the final revelation in this sequence of scriptures, but it never claims to annul the previous scriptures, only to complete them. While one scripture giving authenticity to others is an extraordinary event in the history of religions, the concept of umm al-kitab may indicate an even more profound principle, namely that the Jews, Christians, and Muslims not only share a single scripture but constitute a single umma – a single super-tribe.

According to the Qur’an, Jews and Christians are “People of the Book” (ahl al-kitab), spiritual cousins who, as opposed to the pagans and polytheists of Arabia, worship the same God, read the same scriptures, and share the same moral values as the Muslim community. Although each faith comprised its own distinct religious community (its own individual umma), together they formed one united umma, a concept that Mohammed Bamyeh calls “monotheistic pluralism.” Thus the Qur’an promises that “all those who believe — the Jews, the Sabians, the Christians — anyone who believes in God and the Last Days and who does good deeds, will have nothing to fear or regret” (5:69).

The connection in Muhammad’s mind between umm al-kitab and ahl al-kitab can be seen in the Constitution of Medina. This document, which Moshe Gil aptly calls “an act of preparation for war,” makes clear that the defense of Medina was the common responsibility of every inhabitant regardless of kin, ethnicity, or religion. And while the Constitution clarified the absolute religious and social freedom of Medina’s Jewish clans, stating “to the Jews their religion and to the Muslims their religion,” it nevertheless fully expected them to provide aid to “whoever wars against the people of this document.” In short, the Constitution of Medina provided the means through which to discern who was and who was not a member of the community.

It was this belief in a unified, monotheistic umma that led Muhammad to link his community to the Jews when he first entered Medina. Thus, he made Jerusalem — the site of the Temple (long since destroyed) and the direction in which the Diaspora Jews turned during worship — the direction of prayer or qibla for all Muslims. He imposed a fast on his community, to take place annually on the tenth day of the first month of the Jewish calendar, the day more commonly known as Yom Kippur. He set the day of Muslim congregation at noon on Friday so that it would coincide with, but not disrupt, Jewish preparations for the Sabbath. He adopted many of the Jewish dietary laws and purity requirements, and encouraged his followers to marry Jews, as he himself did.

And while Muhammad much later changed the qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca, and set the annual fast at Ramadan (the month in which the Qur’an was first revealed) instead of Yom Kippur, these decisions should not be interpreted as “a break with the Jews,” but as the maturing of Islam as an independent religion. Muhammad continued to encourage his followers to fast on Yom Kippur, and he never ceased to venerate Jerusalem as a holy city. Moreover, the Prophet maintained most of the dietary, purity, and marriage restrictions that he had adopted from the Jews. And as Nabia Abbott has shown, throughout the first two centuries of Islam, Muslims regularly read the Torah alongside the Qur’an.

The fact is that nothing Muhammad either said or did would necessarily have been objectionable to Medina’s Jews. As Newby writes in A History of the Jews of Arabia, Islam and Judaism in seventh-century Arabia operated within “the same sphere of religious discourse,” in that both shared the same religious characters, stories, and anecdotes, both discussed the same fundamental questions from similar perspectives, and both had nearly identical moral and ethical values. Where there was disagreement between the two faiths, Newby suggests it was “over interpretation of shared topics, not over two mutually exclusive views of the world.”

Even Muhammad’s claim to be the Prophet and Apostle of God, on the model of the great Jewish patriarchs, would not necessarily have been unacceptable to Medina’s Jews. Not only did his words and actions correspond perfectly to the widely accepted pattern of Arabian Jewish mysticism, but Muhammad was not even the only person in Medina making these kinds of prophetic claims. Medina was also the home of a Jewish mystic and Kohen named Ibn Sayyad, who, like Muhammad, wrapped himself in a prophetic mantle, recited divinely inspired messages from heaven, and called himself “the Apostle of God.” Remarkably, not only did most of Medina’s Jewish clans accept Ibn Sayyad’s prophetic claims, but the sources depict Ibn Sayyad as openly acknowledging Muhammad as a fellow apostle and prophet.

That is not to say that there were no theological differences between Islam and the other People of the Book. But according to the Qur’an, these differences were part of the divine plan, for God could have created a single umma if he so wished, but instead preferred that “every umma have its own Messenger” (10:47). Hence, the differences among the People of the Book are explained as showing God’s desire to give each people its own “law and path and way of life” (5:42–48).

There were some differences that Muhammad found to be intolerable heresies created by ignorance and error. Chief among these was the idea of the Trinity. “God is one,” the Quran states definitively. “God is eternal. He has neither begotten anyone, nor is he begotten of anyone” (112:1–3). However, this verse – like many similar verses in the Qur’an – is in no way a condemnation of Christianity but of Imperial Byzantine (Trinitarian) Orthodoxy, which was neither the sole nor the dominant Christian position in the Hijaz.

At the same time, Muhammad lashed out at those Jews in Arabia who had “forsaken the community of Abraham” (2:130) and “who were trusted with the laws of the Torah, but who fail to observe them” (62:5). Again, this was not a condemnation of Judaism. Rather, Muhammad was addressing those Jews in the Arabian Peninsula, and only there, who had in both belief and practice “breached their covenant with God” (5:13). His complaints in the Qur’an were not about Judaism and Christianity, but about those Jews and Christians in Arabia who, in his opinion, had forsaken their covenant with God and perverted the teachings of the Torah and Gospels. These were not believers but apostates, with whom the Qur’an warns Muslims not to ally themselves: “O believers, do not make friends with those who mock you and make fun of your faith . . . Instead say to them: ‘O People of the Book, why do you dislike us? Is it because we believe in God and in what has been sent down to us [the Qur’an], and what was sent down before that [the Torah and Gospels], while most of you are disobedient?’” (5:57–59).

The point is that although Muhammad recognized the irreconcilable differences that existed among the People of the Book, he never called for a partitioning of the faiths. On the contrary, the evidence from the Qur’an and the Constitution of Medina indicate that his conception of the umma was as a “super-tribe” composed of monotheists of different religions bound together by a simple compromise: “Let us come to an agreement on the things we hold in common: that we worship none but God; that we make none God’s equal; and that we take no other as lord except God” (3:64).

Of course, the Muslim scriptural and legal scholars of the following centuries rejected the idea that Jews and Christians were part of the umma, and instead marked both groups as unbelievers. These scholars read the revelations to say that the Qur’an had superseded, rather than added to, the Torah and the Gospels, and called on Muslims to distinguish themselves from the People of the Book. But to understand Muhammad’s actual beliefs regarding the Jews and Christians of his time, one must look not to the words that chroniclers put into his mouth hundreds of years after his death, but rather to the words that legend says God put into his mouth while he was alive.

* Reza Aslan is Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside and Trustee at the Chicago Theological Seminary.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

New Book on the Prophet Muhammad’s Adopted Son Zayd

by David S. Powers*

Muhammad may not have had any natural sons who reached the age of maturity, but Islamic sources report that he did adopt a young man named Zayd shortly before receiving his first revelation. The adoption had two important consequences: Zayd’s name changed to Zayd b. Muhammad and mutual rights of inheritance were created between father and son. Zayd was the first adult male to become a Muslim and he was known as the Beloved of the Messenger of God. He was the only Muslim apart from Muhammad whose name is mentioned in the Qur’an, where he is identified as “the one upon whom God and you yourself have bestowed favor” (Q. 33:37). Eventually, Muhammad would repudiate Zayd as his son, abolish the institution of adoption, and send Zayd to certain death on a battlefield in southern Jordan.

Powers_Zayd_cover from publ pgCuriously, Zayd has remained a marginal and little-known figure in both Islamic and Western scholarship. In Zayd—the first scholarly biography of this Companion in a Western language—I attempt to restore Zayd to his rightful place at the very center of the Islamic foundation narrative. To do so, I mine traces left behind in Qur’an commentaries, in biographical dictionaries, and in historical chronicles, reading these sources against analogues in biblical and post-biblical sources. In the Islamic narratives, I argue, Zayd’s character is modeled on those of biblical figures such as Isaac, Ishmael, Joseph, and Uriah the Hittite. He is each one of these men individually and all of them combined. One examines his life as one peers through a kaleidoscope: With each turn of the dial, a new and different image comes into focus.

This powerful modeling process was deployed by early Muslim storytellers to address two important issues: first, the bitter conflict over succession to Muhammad and, second, the key theological doctrine of the finality of prophecy. Zayd’s leadership credentials arguably were as strong—if not stronger—than those of either Abu Bakr, `Umar, `Ali or `Uthman. In a tradition related on the authority of `A’isha, the Prophet’s widow is reported to have said, “Had Zayd outlived the Prophet, he would have appointed him as his successor.” And in his commentary on Q. 33:40—a verse that contains the sole Qur’anic reference to Muhammad’s status as khatam al-nabiyyin or the Seal of Prophets, Muqatil b. Sulayman (d. 150/767) states, “Had Zayd [continued to be] Muhammad’s son, he would have been a prophet.” Both Zayd’s death on a battlefield and Muhammad’s repudiation of his adopted son and heir, I argue, were after-the-fact constructions driven by political and theological imperatives.

* Powers is Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, and author of Muhammad Is Not the Father of Any of Your Men: The Making of the Last Prophet, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

Rethinking Late Antiquity—A Review of Garth Fowden, Before and After Muḥammad: The First Millennium Refocused

By Michael Pregill

Beginning in the 1970s, the work of Peter Brown revolutionized the way scholars approach the “fall of Rome,” the decline of Roman and Sasanian power in the Middle East, and the rise of Islam in Late Antiquity. In his classic The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150-750 and other works, Brown argued that the emergence of Islam and the establishment of the caliphal empire was not a radical disruption of the course of history, but rather represented the continuity of older cultural, political, social, and religious patterns. Despite the wide influence of Brown’s work and the general recognition of Islam’s importance in the overall trajectory of Mediterranean and even European history, substantial obstacles to a full integration of ancient, early Christian, Jewish, and Islamic phenomena into a general history of the civilization of Western Asia remain.

Although an outdated, isolationist approach to Late Antiquity primarily focusing on late Roman culture and society still dominates some quarters of the academy, many scholars have worked towards a more integrated and comparative approach to the period. The shifts have been gradual and partial. Today there are numerous scholars of rabbinics who explore the wider context of the Babylonian Talmud in Sasanian society; there has lately been a resurgence of interest in the history of the Red Sea region, including Ethiopia and the Yemen, in the centuries leading up to the rise of Islam; and over the last ten years or so, we have seen significant interest in the literary and religious parallels to the Qur’an found in Syriac Christian literature in particular. (Many of the scholars who have been responsible for the last development have generously assisted in the foundation and growth of IQSA, so this is really nothing new to readers of this blog, though developments in late ancient or Jewish historiography may be less familiar.)

Before and After Muhammad: The First Millennium Refocused

Before and After Muhammad: The First Millennium Refocused

All of these developments point to a recognition that the various cultures and literatures of Late Antiquity cannot be viewed in isolation, but rather must be approached in the wider context of the dynamic exchanges between various communities in the period, the imperial competition between the Romans and the Sasanians, and the spread and consolidation of the monotheistic or “Abrahamic” traditions.

Among the scholars who sought to adopt, refine, and develop Brown’s approach to the period, it was Garth Fowden—currently Sultan Qaboos Professor of Abrahamic Faiths at Cambridge—who produced what was perhaps the most important work in this area in the 1990s: From Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity. When I was a graduate student, Fowden’s work impacted me profoundly. The book is ambitious in scope, wildly imaginative, willing to explore the period in terrifyingly broad terms, but in pursuit of a single cogent thesis: that the entire history of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean from the second through the ninth century CE can be understood in terms of a sequence of imperial projects aiming to establish God’s rule on earth. That is, the unifying theme of the era, one that distinguishes it from the civilization of the ancient world and sets the stage for the medieval cultures of Byzantium, Western Christendom, and the Dār al-Islām, is the use of monotheism as the primary justification for statebuilding, for literally global dominion (as far as that was possible in the pre-modern world). In Fowden’s work, the use of religion to justify imperial authority becomes the thread that links Christian Rome, Sasanian Iran, and the caliphates and that allows us to see the significant continuities between them with clarity.

(Perhaps not coincidentally, the only other books I read during my Ph.D. training that exerted a similarly enduring influence on my imagination were Wansbrough’s The Sectarian Milieu (1978)—no doubt familiar to every reader of this blog—and Bulliet’s The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (2004), which, like Fowden’s Empire to Commonwealth, is another eloquent call for historical thinking on the global scale, for transcending the narrow and artificial boundaries between the culture of “the West” and Islam.)

After a number of years dedicated to other projects, including a fascinating study on the iconography of the late Umayyad palace of Quṣayr ʿAmra, Fowden has now returned to history on the grand scale with Before and After Muḥammad: The First Millennium Refocused. Stunningly, this work is even more ambitious in scope than Empire to Commonwealth. Here Fowden once again seeks to explore the overarching continuities between Christian Rome, Sasanian Iran, and Islam but with even more attention paid to the intertwining discourses that link Greco-Roman, Syrian Christian, Jewish, Arab, Iranian, and European cultures over the course of a thousand years, centering on what he now calls the “Eurasian hinge” of southwest Asia linking the civilizations of the region. Fowden anchors his work in a rigorous interrogation of older conceptions of Late Antiquity, criticizing older scholars’ poor integration of Islam into the period, as well as the common approach of only including the Umayyad caliphate as a late antique empire. This serves to truncate the early medieval period from older trajectories of development that arguably only reached their full fruition around the year 1000. It also artificially severs the Abbasids and Iranian Islam from the prevailing cultural patterns of the Arab-Islamic world, though they are equally rooted in the legacies of biblical monotheism and Hellenism.



Fowden also locates his work in the context of contemporary debates over the relationship between Islam and the West, stating quite bluntly that “My purpose here is not to join this debate directly, but to overhaul its foundations” (2). His approach in Before and After Muḥammad builds on his earlier work, in that the cultures of the Islamic Middle East and Christian Europe are seen as halves of a larger whole. (Here I was a bit disappointed that Fowden does not engage with Bulliet’s aforementioned work The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, which eloquently argues for an approach to Islam and the West as two halves or wings of a unified civilizational complex that only decisively split in the later medieval period. This is a perspective that is obviously quite compatible with and complementary to Fowden’s.)

Periodization, methods, and labels occupy much of Fowden’s attention here, and he spends significant time critiquing other contemporary attempts to advance beyond traditional frameworks and paradigms (82-91), adopting the new periodization of a unified “First Millennium” as his preferred heuristic lens on the period. This approach has the distinct benefit of locating Augustus at one end of the period and the emergence of the mature scriptural communities of Europe and Western Asia at the other, without privileging Europe over the Islamic world as the “true” heir to Greco-Roman antiquity or reifying anachronistic communalist boundaries between “pagans,” Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Several aspects of Fowden’s approach here depart from that of From Empire to Commonwealth. There is a particular emphasis here on various textual lineages as the foundation of cross-cultural continuity. Thus, he sees the transmission of specific canons of material as one of the primary drivers of cultural development, each moving through an initial phase of revelation to subsequent phases marked by canonization and then interpretation, with the resultant exegetical cultures dominating the cultural landscape from western Europe to eastern Iran by the year 1000. As a student of comparative exegesis (in my case, midrash and tafsir) I found the emphasis on the exegetical here particularly fascinating, though notably, Fowden is not concerned solely with scriptural canons (Tanakh, Bible, and Qur’an) but also philosophical and legal canons, placing particular emphasis on Aristotelianism as a major current of cultural continuity in the First Millennium.

Fowden’s two chapters on “Exegetical Cultures” are thus exhilarating and dizzying—charting Aristotelianism’s movement from Greek to Syriac to Arabic educational institutions, the evolution of law from the Justinianic Code to the Babylonian Talmud to the emergence of Islamic fiqh, and touching on patristic, Karaite, and Muʿtazilite scriptural exegesis for good measure. The final chapter is likewise a tour de force, surveying the culmination of the First Millennium by showing us “Viewpoints Around 1000: Ṭūs, Baṣra, Baghdād, Pisa.” The cities visited in this grand perspective symbolize, respectively, the resurgence of Iranian national consciousness with the Shāh-Nāmeh of Firdowsī; the maturation of gnostic-philosophical-spiritual currents in early medieval Islam with the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ; the emergence not just of the mature Sunni and Shii traditions but of sophisticated and distinctively Islamic modes of apprehending and engaging different faiths; and the reemergence of Europe as a meaningful center of cultural production.

Astonishingly, this work is not the culmination of Fowden’s work in rethinking Late Antiquity. Rather, he advertises this book as a prolegomenon to a new, more comprehensive project on the First Millennium. It is also the companion piece to a forthcoming work charting the evolution of philosophy from Aristotle to Avicenna. Specialists will inevitably find much to quibble with here, especially given Fowden’s propensity to working in broad swathes rather than drilling down to wrestle with thorny details. Moreover, one can imagine assigning this only to the most intrepid undergraduates, despite the major pedagogical implications of Fowden’s reflections on periodization in particular. But overall, this is synthetic historiographic work of great sophistication and lasting value, and Before and After Muḥammad deserves to provoke discussion throughout many scholarly quarters.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved

The Inapplicability of Non-Muslim Rule, a Qur’anic Perspective | عدم جواز ولاية غير المسلمين….التوجيه القرائي للقرآن

By Ali Mabrouk

Professor Mabrouk examines the broad, semantic use of the terms islām/muslim in the Qur’an (eg. 3:19; 31:22) and argues that they apply to followers of all prophets and no one particular prophet. He also distinguishes it from the narrower, popular use of those terms in subsequent history to include only followers of Muhammad alone. Favoring the latter over the former, as is the case today, abandons the Qur’an’s original intent behind the terms, and it has created serious political problems. (EE)



إذا كان المقال السابق قد كشف عن الحضور الطاغي لفعل القراءة، حتى في حال إكتفاء المرء بمجرد ترديد آياتالقرآن، فإنه يلزم التأكيد على أن القرآن يصبح، عبر هذا الفعل، موضوعاً لضروبٍ من التوجيه (الناعمة والغليظة) التي لا تكونفي غالب الأحوالموضوعاً لوعي الممارسين لها. ويتحقق هذا التوجيه ليس فقط عبر إنطاق وإسكات دلالات بعينها ينطوي عليها القرآن، بل وعبر ما يبدو وكأنه إبدال الدلالات التي فرضها التاريخبتلك التي يتضمنها القرآن“. ولعل مثالاً على هذا الضرب الأخير من التوجيه، الذي يجري فيه إستبدال دلالة التاريخ بدلالة القرآن، يأتي من قراءة آية قرآنية تنشغل بتعيين معنى المسلم والإسلام، وبما لذلك من تعلُّقٍ مباشر بمسألة عدم جواز ولاية غير المسلمين؛ وأعني بها قوله تعالى: “إن الدين عند الله الإسلام“. فالدلالة المستقرة، في وعي الجمهور، للآية تنبني على أن معنى الإسلامينصرف إلى ذلك الدين الذي إبتُعِثَ به النبي الكريم (محمد عليه السلام)؛ وبما لابد أن يترتب على ذلك من أن المسلمين هموفقطأتباع هذا النبي الكريم. ولسوء الحظ، فإن هذه الدلالة التي إستقرت، في وعي الجمهور، للفظتي إسلام/مسلمين، تمثل تضييقاً أو حتى نكوصاً عن الدلالة التي يقصد إليها القرآن خلال إستخدامه لكلتا اللفظتين. بل إن إختباراً لهذا الإستخدام القرآني يكشف عن أن هذه الدلالة المستقرة للفظتي إسلام/مسلمينتكاد أن تكون قد تبلورتوتطورتخارج القرآن، على نحو شبه كامل. وإذن، فإنها تبدو أقرب ما تكون إلى الدلالة الإصطلاحية، التي تمتزج فيها المقاصد الواعية وغير الواعية لمن إصطلحوا عليها؛ وعلى النحو الذي تعكس فيه عناصر تجربتهم التاريخية، ولو كان ذلك على حساب القرآن ذاته. وضمن هذا السياق بالذات، فإن التمييز يبدو ملحوظاً، لا تخطئه عين القارئ المدقق، بين هذه الدلالة الإصطلاحية، وبين الدلالة السيمانطقية التي تغلب على التداول القرآني لكلتا اللفظتين.

فإذ تنبني الدلالة الإصطلاحية على صرف معنى لفظة مسلمين، مثلاً، إلى أتباع النبي محمد (صلعم) فحسب، فإن الدلالة السيمانطقية، الغالبة على الإستخدام القرآني لتلك اللفظة ذاتها، لا تقصر المعنى على هؤلاء فقط، بل تتسع به ليشمل غيرهم من أتباع الأنبياء السابقين أيضاً. وهكذا، فإن اللفظة مسلمون/مسلمينقد وردت، في القرآن، حوالي ستٍ وثلاثين مرة، إنطوت فيها، في الأغلب، على دلالة تسليم المرء وجهه لله، من دون أن يكون ذلك مقروناً بإتباع نبيٍ من الأنبياء بعينه. بل إن بعض الآيات يستخدم لفظة مسلمون/مسلمين، صراحة، للإشارة إلى من هم من غير أتباع النبي محمد (صلعم). ومن ذلك، مثلاً، إشارته إلى بني يعقوب بإعتبارهم من المسلمين؛ وذلك في قوله تعالى: “أم كنتم شهداء إذ حضر يعقوب الموت، إذ قال لبنيه: ما تعبدون من بعدي، قالوا نعبد إلهك وإله آبائك إبراهيم وإسماعيل وإسحق إلهاً واحداً ونحن له مسلمونالبقرة: 133. والحق أن المرء يكاد يلحظ أن القرآن يكاد، على العموم، أن يصرف دلالة اللفظة إلى فعل التسليم لله، وذلك فيما تلح الدلالة الإصطلاحية على صرف الدلالة إلى فعل الإتباع لنبيٍمن أنبياء الله بالذات. وتبعاً لذلك، فإنه إذا كان غير المسلم هوبحسب دلالة الإصطلاح المستقرة، في وعي الجمهوركل من لا يتبع دين النبي محمد (صلعم)، فإنه، وبحسب الدلالة المتداولة في القرآن، هو كل من لا يُسلِم وجهه لله؛ وبما لابد أن يترتب على ذلك من أن كل من يُسلِم وجهه لله حقاً، هو من المسلمين، حتى ولو لم يكن متبعاً لدين النبي الخاتم. وإذ يفتح ذلك الباب أمام إدخال البعض ممن يُقال أنهم من غير المسلمين إلى دين الإسلام، إبتداءاً من تسليمهم الوجه لله، فإنه سوف يفتحه بالمثل أمام إخراج الكثيرين ممن يُقال أنهم من المسلمين، من دين الإسلام، لأنهم لا يعرفون الإسلام بما تسليم الوجه لله، بل بما هو قناعٌ لتسليم الناسأو حتى إستسلامهملهم، بدلاً من الله. فإنه إذا كان القصد من تسليم الناس وجوههم لله وحده، هو تحريرهم من الخضوع لكل آلهة الأرض الزائفة، فإن ما يجري من تحويل الدين إلى قناعٍ لإستعباد الناس وتيسير السيطرة عليهم لا يمكن أن يكون من قبيل الإسلام أبداً. إن ذلك يعني أن التحول من الدلالة القرآنية للفظة مسلمين، التي يعني فيها الإسلام تسليم الوجه لله، إلى الدلالة التاريخية التي تقصر المعنى على أتباع النبي محمد عليه السلام، فحسب، يؤشر على تزايد التعامل مع الإسلام كآداة للسيطرة على العباد، وذلك على حساب ما أراده الله له من أن يكون طريقاً لتحريرهم جميعاً من كل ضروب الطغيان والإستعباد. ولعل ذلك يكشف عن عدم إنضباط مفهوم غير المسلم؛ وأعني من حيث تبقى المسافة قائمة بين المعنى الذي يصرفه إليه القرآنمن أنه من لا يُسلِم وجهه لله، وبين المعنى الذي فرضه عليه التاريخمن أنه من لا يتبع نبوة محمد عليه السلام“. وبالطبع فإنه لا مجال للإحتجاج بأن معنى الإسلام، بما هو تسليم الوجه لله، قد تحقق على الوجه الأكمل مع نبوة النبي الخاتم (محمد عليه السلام)، فإن القرآن يتضمن بين جنباته ما يزحزح هذا الإعتقاد؛ وذلك حين يمضي إلى أن ثمة من اليهود والنصارى والصابئة من يتشارك مع المؤمنين بنبوة محمد عليه السلام في تسليم الوجه لله حقاً، وأنهملذلك– “لهم أجرهم عند ربهمولا خوفٌ عليهم ولا هم يحزنون“. إذ يقول تعالى: “إن الذين آمنوا (يعني بمحمد) والذين هادوا والنصارى والصابئين من آمن بالله واليوم الآخر وعمل صالحاً فلهم أجرهم عند ربهمالبقرة: 62″. وهكذا فإن القرآن لا يقصر معنى الإسلام بما هو تسليم الوجه لله“- حتى بعد إبتعاث النبي محمد عليه السلامعلى المؤمنين بنبوته فحسب، بل إنه يتسع به ليشمل غيرهم أيضاً. وغنيٌّ عن البيان أن ذلك يرتبط بحقيقة أن مدار تركيز القرآن هو على فعل تسليم الوجه لله وحده، وليس على الباب الذي يتحقق من خلاله هذا الفعل، وحتى على فرض أن القرآن يمضي إلى أن الباب الأكمل لتحقق هذا الفعل هو باب النبي محمد عليه السلام، فإنه لم يدحض إمكان تحققه من غير هذا الباب أيضاً.

يبدو، إذن، أن التاريخ، وليس القرآن، هو ما يقف وراء تثبيت الدلالة المستقرة للآية القرآنية إن الدين عند الله الإسلام، وهو ما يدرك من يستدعي هذه الآية أنه سيلعب دوراً حاسماً في توجيه المُتلقين لها إلى إنتاج ذات الدلالة المستقرة. وهو يدرك أيضاً أن إثارة المعنى السيمانطيقي المتداول في القرآن للفظة إسلامسيؤدي، لا محالة، إلى زحزحة الدلالة التي قام التاريخ بترسيخها، ومن هنا أنه يسكت عنه تماماً، رغم ما يبدو من ظهوره الجلي في القرآن. فهل يدرك المتلاعبون سياسياً بالإسلام أنهم ينحازون للتاريخ على حساب القرآن؟

* This blog post was first published in Al-Ahram, September 20, 2012. It can also be found on Professor Mabrouk’s website here.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

The Search for Heretics: Christianity and the Qurʾan

By Gabriel Reynolds

The tradition of western scholarship on the “sources” of the Qurʾan is usually traced to Abraham Geiger’s 1833 work, Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen (“What did Muhammad Take up from Judaism?”).  While Geiger’s work is focused on the Jewish sources of the Qurʾan, others would soon write works focused on the Christian sources of the Qurʾan.  Yet there was something different about works devoted to Christianity and the Qurʾan.  While neither Geiger nor others interested in Judaism showed any particular concern for Jewish heresies or heterodox Jewish doctrine, scholars who wrote on Christianity and the Qurʾan were often fascinated with Christian heresies.

Arius (d. 336) (

Arius (d. 336)

This fascination seems to be connected with a phrase that is (falsely) attributed to Theodoret of Cyrrhus (d. 458 or 466), in which Arabia is described as haeresium ferax, the “bearer” (or “mother”) of heresies.  Scholars, inspired in part by this phrase, often seem to imagine that in the Prophet Muhammad’s day the deserts of Arabia were teeming with Christian heretics who had fled the merciless enforcers of Chalcedonian orthodoxy in Byzantium.  In 1900, for instance, the Protestant missionary Samuel Zwemer wrote:

Not only was religious life at a low level in all parts of Christendom but heresies were continually springing up to disturb the peace or to introduce gigantic errors. Arabia was at one time called “the mother of heresies.”  The most flagrant example was that of the Collyridians, in the fourth century, which consisted in a heathenish distortion of Mariolatry. Cakes were offered to the Holy Virgin, as in heathen times to Ceres. (The Cradle of Islam, 306–7)

Richard Bell, writing in 1925, felt that Arabs were particularly susceptible to heresies:

Arabia (by which probably is meant the Roman province of Arabia, not the land of the nomads) had a reputation in the early Church as a source of heresies. That is perhaps not to be wondered at if we remember that in these regions the Greek and the Semitic mind were in contact, and in a manner in conflict. For the Semitic elements of the Church all along had difficulty in following the subtleties of the Greek intellect. . . . It is possible, however, that some of the heretical movements persecuted in the Empire may have sought refuge in Arabia and helped to form the soil out of which Islam grew. (The Origin of Islam in Its Christian Environment, 20)

In this sort of historical context it seems that, wherever he turned, Muhammad couldn’t have helped bumping into a heretic.  Robert Speer, speaking at the 1911 Lucknow missionary conference, blamed the influence of Christian heretics for Muhammad’s failure to convert to Christianity:

The view of Christianity which lies at the base of Islam and which led Muhammad to repudiate it was a false view.  He had never met the Christianity of Christ and the Apostles. The Qur’an shows what a travesty of the Gospel had come to him. (“The Attitude of the Evangelist toward the Muslim and His Religion,” 233-34)

It is rare to find this sort of fanciful speculation in scholarship these days, but scholars continue to have recourse to Christian heresies in their efforts to explain the Qurʾan.  Geoffery Parrinder wonders whether the manner in which the Qurʾan insists that God would not “take” a son (Q 2:116; 10:68; 17:111; 18:4; 19:35; 19:88, 91, 92; 21:26; 23:91; 25:2; 39:4; 72:3) is a rejection of “Adoptionist and Arian heretics” (Jesus in the Qurʾan, 127).  Scholars regularly refer to al-Nisaʾ (4) 157, the Qurʾanic verse on the Crucifixion, as “Docetist”—even if Docetists were long gone by the seventh century.  Francois de Blois argues that al-Maʾida (5)116—which has Jesus deny ever telling people to worship him and his mother—takes us on a path “which leads directly to the Nazoraeans of Christian heresiographers”  (“Nasrani and Hanif,” BSOAS 65 [2004], 14).

Yet all of this begs the question of whether there is truly any need to follow a path to Christian heretics.  Other passages suggest that the Qurʾan intentionally employs rhetorical tools such as irony and hyperbole.  When the Qurʾan announces to the Prophet, “Give the good news of a painful punishment” to the unbelievers (Q 44:49), it is employing irony (and to good effect).

How are we to understand al-Tawba (9) 31, where the Qurʾan says of the Jews and Christians, “They have taken their rabbis and monks as Lords”? We could take this verse as a sign that Muhammad met some mysterious clergy-worshipping heretical sect in the Arabian desert—we might call them “Sacerdolaters.”  Or instead we might recognize that the Qurʾan is here using hyperbole. So too for other verses, such as al-Nisaʾ (4) 157 or al-Maʾida (5) 116.

Indeed, perhaps in general we should be less concerned with heretics, and more concerned with rhetoric.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.