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Muhammad the Ecumenist? Fred Donner’s “Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam”

Islam is an ever-fascinating subject of study, especially for Westerners. I studied Islamic history as an undergraduate, as such, I was exposed to various schools of scholarship concerning the origins of Islam. The most mainstream is what I would term the ecumenical school, in contrast to the conquest school, wherein Muhammad and the early community of believers (the “believers’ movement”) was essentially a conglomerate ecumenical movement that united disparate groups of people on the periphery of Byzantine and Persian (Sassanid) civilization. Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam, by the eminent Near Eastern scholar Fred Donner, was one book we read and arguably the best introductory text to this school of scholarship.

Interest in Islam is as ancient as the religion itself. After bursting onto the scene and conquering much of the Byzantine Levant and North Africa, Saint John of Damascus labeled the Islamic religion heretical (more on this later). Islam as a heresy was a common outlook among medieval Christians. They had many reasons to think this given the inclusion of many of the Old Testament and New Testament stories, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and the expected Second Coming of Jesus. At the same time, Islam diverges from what we now call orthodox Christianity, or post-Chalcedonian Christianity, in its rejection of the divinity of Christ and assertion that Jesus did not die from Crucifixion. Islamic Christology, if we can call it that, shares similarities with early heretical Christian sects that were pushed out of the core civilizational regions of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Entering the eighteenth century, the European Enlightenment took an interest in Islam another step further. Historians like Edward Gibbon declared that Islam was born with the full weight of history behind it (unlike Christianity according to these men) and that we knew, or could know, much about the origins of Islam. European incursion into the Middle East, both adventurous and political, during the nadir of the Ottoman Empire then fueled the rise of “Orientalism” in Western scholarship during the late nineteenth century.

More recently, the September 11 Attacks, the War on Terror, and high levels of Muslim migration into Europe has once again brought Islam into the eyes of Westerners and Western scholars. Muslims, as a perceived victim group, generally garner sympathy from Western elites in academia, NGO, and politics. Muslims as a perceived threat, generally garner scorn and contempt from “revisionist” scholars and writers who supposedly whip up xenophobic frenzy against a victimized other.

It might be hard, then, to tease out political winds from contemporary scholarship. Fred Donner’s work suffers from this problem. Donner’s thesis is, as mentioned, part of the broader ecumenical school of Islamic scholarship. Donner lays out his case through a combination of archeology, historical sources, and selective interpretations of key passages in the Qur’an. Donner’s thesis assumes the regular history of Muhammad and the formation of early Islam: Muhammad was an illiterate merchantman in Arabia, centered in Mecca, where he had troubles with the local Quraysh tribe that dominated inland Arabian trade and the Ka’ba shrine in Mecca. Muhammad was perceived as a threat to Quraysh dominance and was chased out and he and his followers fled to Medina. Eventually Muhammad returned to Mecca and the Quraysh ended up supporting him. Muhammad then led the believers out of Arabia, died, and that’s when the “Islamic Conquest” truly began. This is generally accepted as the de facto history of Muhammad. (The revisionist school has a different interpretation of Muhammad, one that places him on the periphery of the Jordanian floodplain, but that’s for another discussion.)

Given that Donner accepts this as a given, he then utilizes a combination of early archeology, historical sources (scarce as they are), and Qur’anic passages to advance the thesis that Muhammad and the believers were a largely egalitarian and ecumenical movement that united Jews, Christians, possibly Zoroastrians, and pagan “converts” under the banner of One True God. This early movement was inclusionary, non-discriminate, and advanced religious freedom (the Constitution of Medina being one of the focal historical sources as well as the conglomerate nature of the early believers’ movement which is well testified). It wasn’t until Muhammad’s death and the in-fighting of Umayyad politics that Islam, as we know it today, was born.

During the Umayyad era, the need to distinguish the early believers from their newly conquered subjects in the Levant and Iraq and Persia led to the formation of a distinctive and confessional Islam. Thus the birth of the Islamic historical narrative, centered around the Hadith, came into being. Anti-Jewish and anti-Christian polemics began to appear (like on the Dome of the Rock) which enhanced the emergence of a confessional Islam under Umayyad stewardship. Though this constitutes as evidence, Donner asserts that their late arrival represents a later novelty that is distinct from the original movement founded by Muhammad and is best served as evidence for the novelty and innovation thesis distinct from the early movement thesis. As Donner’s book entails with its title, the work is an attempt to return to the “origins” of Islam. And the origins of Islam is a comparatively egalitarian, progressive, and ecumenical movement. So Donner’s thesis asserts.

This returns us to the problem of politicization in historical scholarship. The earliest encounters with Islam by Christians pegged them as heretical. Donner, in fact, uses John of Damascus as evidence for how this advances the thesis of an ecumenical Islam: Islam took in sects deemed heretical by imperial Christianity. The problem with this outlook is that Christian sources deemed pagans and Jews as heresies too, not just internal Christian sects whose theologies and Christologies were condemned by the ecumenical councils. (Donner, though a Near Eastern scholar, is woefully undereducated in early Christianity; a subject that I hold a grad degree in from Yale.) Early Christian encounters with Islam, however, were informed by the ongoing political and theological debates in their own time. It is unsurprising that Christianity asserted Islam was heretical; Christianity asserted that any movement outside of its own with comparable outlooks on God, humanity, and Jesus were heretical. It frankly doesn’t prove much. Certainly not as much as Donner attempts to utilize it as.

Likewise, the early Orientalist interpretations of Islam were influenced by anti-Christian and pro-historicist sentiments (best represented by the likes of Gibbon) wherein a more ancient Christianity was clouded in the shroud of mystery while the relatively recent Islam had the greater light and evidence of history on its side. (Hence, rationalist men of the Enlightenment could look more fondly upon Islam while holding Christianity in more contempt for its mysterious origins.) In fact, many historians of what we know call Late Antiquity have the exact opposite view. Though the emergence of Christianity was earlier than Islam, we know much more about Christianity through archeology and historical sources than we do about Islam. This, however, shouldn’t be surprising given where the religions emerged. Christianity emerged, contrary to New Atheist polemics, in a very civilized, cultivated, and literate region of the Near East. Christianity then spread to principal urban centers with highly educated populations (Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, etc.). A combination of Christian sources and Roman/pagan sources make it comparatively easy to reconstruct the emergence of early Christianity. Islam, by contrast, emerged in the peripheral regions of Near Eastern civilization. Muhammad, himself, was illiterate. And whereas the Pauline epistles and the Synoptic Gospels were written within 40 years of Jesus’s death, the compilation of the Hadith and the eventual Qur’an were more than a century after Muhammad’s death. Non-Muslim sources are comparably few in nature, and those that exist are very limited in their discussion of Islam (John of Damascus, for instance, in writing about his encounters with Islam is only a few pages in a larger text addressing religious controversies).

Today’s scholarship is often not without the influence of contemporary socio-political debates. One element of the revisionist school of scholarship depicts an aggressively militant Islam in its origins and expansion not all dissimilar from some perceptions of Islam today. Likewise, the ecumenical school seems easy to critique as an attempt to portray Islam as superior to Western xenophobia and that its original egalitarian and progressive ethos makes it compatible with contemporary liberal sentiments favoring inclusion, religious toleration, and anti-racism. Again, not all dissimilar from those influenced by liberal politics who consider Western aggression as a grave sin. (Though this glosses over the fact that Islam did, in fact, conquer much territory that had been Western for nearly a thousand years going back to Alexander the Great, Hellenization, and Roman colonization.)

Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam, is an important, if flawed, book. It is important because it is, now going on almost ten years old, still the best cursory introduction to the ecumenical school of scholarship. It is a flawed book because Donner’s thesis and the evidence he uses to back it up is often wanting and, to those also educated in philosophy (like myself), often guilty of various logical fallacies and false equivalencies. The most obvious problem being cherry-picking evidence. There is also the glaring problem of limited evidence to make strong claims. Even for those who may be sympathetic to Donner’s thesis, a semi-educated and critical thinking reader will ask for more. And more Donner cannot give.

At its heart, Donner’s work agrees, ironically, with Gibbon’s assertion that early Islam was born under the full gaze of history. Donner and other Near Eastern scholars of early Islam like him continue to assert that we have plenty of evidence to reconstruct an early and authoritative account of Muhammad and the movement he founded. In reality, the evidence remains scant. What can we say, then, about the origins of Islam? Pretty much what most scholars and people know: There was a charismatic figured named Muhammad who claimed visitation by the angel Gabriel; Muhammad began preaching something that disturbed the Quraysh authorities which caused him and his followers to flee to Medina; after arriving in Medina and gathering their strength, Muhammad and his followers returned to Mecca, defeated the Quraysh, brought the Quraysh into the movement, then began to move northward toward the Levant; Muhammad subsequently died and the movement he founded eventually splintered into Sunnis and Shia, and the Umayyads, who were descendants of the Quraysh, began to codify their rule and the Islam we know today seems to be a product of Umayyad innovation and likely altered the early story to enhance their legitimacy. The revisionists have counter arguments for all of the above, but, again, that’s neither here nor there. (Yet soft-revisionists also largely agree with a large part of the above story, especially the notion of Umayyad innovation.)

In this respect, Donner’s work largely follows what is generally accepted as historical fact. His representation of early Muhammad is the story that Muslims largely tell. His assertion that modern Islam is the byproduct of Umayyad codification is also not controversial (at least in academic circles). His thesis about an ecumenicist Muhammad, remains in doubt. Personally, though, I find the mysterious and unsubstantiated origins of Islam as what makes it so fascinating. It drew me to its study as an undergrad, and remains a serious interest of mine almost a decade later. Those seeking a definitive account of the origins of history under the gaze of history will likely never be satisfied. But for those seeking a good introductory account of one of the prominent historiographic schools on Islam, Donner’s book suffices.

Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam
By Fred Donner
Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2012; 304pp.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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