The Origins of Islam

The Origins of Islam

Long ago, in 1851 CE, the French orientalist Ernest Renan, when speaking about the origins of Islam, stated:

One can say without exaggeration that the problem of the origins of Islam has definitely now been completely resolved.

Over a century and half since, the phrase origins of Islam remains somewhat popular. I am one of many among the historians of early Islam who have at some stage in their career used it to describe the new religious dispensation inaugurated by the Prophet Muḥammad in Arabia in the early decades of the seventh century CE. I must confess, however, that the phrase origins of Islam irritates me greatly—at least of late when I decided to ponder over it with some thoughtful reflections. No matter how I looked at it, the formulation lacks finesse and does not sit well with me, as I imagine it does not with others.

The vexing nature of the problem has much to do with the fact that the origins of Islam paradigm is hitherto for the most part under-theorised and rarely interrogated by a proper methodological assessment. Systematic and intelligent reflections on Islamic origins are few and far in between among historians and religionists. Despite Renan’s optimistic take, we have yet to cross the Rubicon. A great many questions and problems remain unsolved. For example, how did Islam—as a new faith and religious movement—mark its presence in the religious-philosophical and social-economic landscape of Late Antiquity? Are the origins of Islam—whatever that means—a discernible singular point in space and time? Was the beginning of Islam a gradual and incremental process that ossified later, or did the origins of Islam mark a sharp break from a state of no-Islam to Islam? And, perhaps most significantly, who decides when Islam began?

A close reading of the literary Muslim accounts does little to obviate the problem. The traditional narrative marks the Call to Prophecy as the “origin” of the new faith. What this means, according to our medieval Muslim writers, is Islam began when the Prophet Muḥammad received revelations from God. The narrative, however, is compounded when those same accounts tell us that, long before the supposed encounter with the Archangel Gabriel in 610 CE, Muḥammad practiced some form of meditative seclusion and spiritual devotions that predisposed him, it seems, to receive the divine revelations. Ibn Isḥāq (d. 768), one of the earliest biographers of Muḥammad, recounts the details, informing us that before the Call to Prophecy, Muḥammad used to sojourn to Mount Ḥirāʾ for a period of thirty days every year, for the purposes of holding nocturnal vigils and to keep ascetic seclusion. Naturally, we are obliged to ask: if these accounts are true, should not the “origins” of Islam trace back to those epochal and spiritually propaedeutic exercises that took place before the sending down of the revelations? In other words, the spiritual vistas that prepared Muḥammad for revelation happened before the Call to Prophecy by a lapse of time that spanned months and possibly years. This makes one wonder why the Muslim sources deem them less significant than the Call to Prophecy and why the origins of Islam does not trace back to them?

Surely, then, the origins of Islam—if we think of the new faith in its barest spiritual and religious dimensions—predates the precise moment the heavens opened for Muḥammad in the year 610 CE. Without entering the feared terrains of early Islamic studies and the ebullient debates surrounding the veracity and the efficacy of the literary sources, it is to be noted that biographical information about the life of Muḥammad before the Call to Prophecy is seriously lacking—even in the literary imaginations of later Muslim sources. Yet still, that Muḥammad turned to devotional practices and nocturnal vigils of some kind betray a pre-revelation religiosity that, when all things considered, ought to revise the chronological parameters of the origins of Islam narrative.

The modern academic take is mutatis mutandis unclear and conflicting. It suffers, in my view, from ill methodological reflections. When we speak of the “origins of Islam”, we rarely ask: what is it that we seek precisely? A big-bang moment of multiple, and probably exogenous, contingencies? Are we searching for that one or many external factors that facilitated the birth of Islam? The late Josef Van Ess once described the “origins of Islam” as consisting of a multiplicity of religiosities that converged towards a unity only later, after the early formative period. For Van Ess, we should instead speak of early Islams that later fused or coalesced into one singular Islam, perhaps without ignoring the role of social and religious coercion during the processes and constructions of later orthodoxies. In light of Van Ess’ timely intervention, I find the search for a singular big-bang moment odd and incongruent with the historian’s craft. Ironically, the view that Islamic origins is reducible to a singular episodic moment in the seventh century is shared by both the orientalists of old and traditional Muslims.

Should we labour to locate the origins of Islam in the text of the Qurʾan and ḥadīth collections? While these textual sources are undoubtedly the earliest and most authoritative intellectual and religious windows into the first manifestations of Islam, they are not without problems.

Let us take a look at the ḥadīth. The quest to recover the origins of Islam while working exclusively with the ḥadīth corpora is well-nigh impossible and counterintuitive. While the ḥadīth-cum-matn method has shown us that the ḥadīth carry a good deal of ancient material, it is at best traceable back to the multiple proto-orthodoxies of the generation of the Followers (al-tābiʿīn) and, though highly unlikely, the era of the Companions (al-ṣaḥābah). Stated differently, the ḥadīth do not really converge back to Muḥammad, the putative founder of Islam, rather they emerge from the tumultuous and fractious milieu that was early Islam. Too often, those narrating and transmission the so-called ḥadīths of Muḥammad were heavily invested in the charged political and theological rents that polarised the early Muslim community and divided it into theological camps and sectarian factions. Moreover, the ḥadīths circulated in oral transmission and possibly through informal written notes for more than a century before they were collected and codified. It is most certainly the case that mutations took place before the rules of codification and veracity criteria were applied to them—again, by ninth century authorities who did so to champion their sectarian and theological worldview at the expense of their rivals. The studious efforts of academic ḥadīth studies will probably tell us more about the memories and pious inventions of the Muslim community in the many decades after the death of Muḥammad in 632 than they will about the teachings of Muḥammad himself.

Similarly, to locate the origins of Islam in the text of the Qurʾan is to lapse into unbridled positivism of the worst kind. The Qurʾan is a rich and multifaceted text that touches on themes ranging from recent historical and distant ancient pasts to theological and philosophical dispensations, to political, ethical, and social mores, and to linguistic and polemical disputations. It is a treasure-trove of information that, when coupled with contemporaneous non-Muslim sources and read through the lens of scientific detachment and the critical distance of the academic historian, brings us close to the little-studied seventh century world of Meccan paganism before Islam. But that is just it. The Qurʾan does not mark a sharp break from the pagan past the later Muslim tradition loathes. Julius Wellhausen, for instance, showed that a good deal of ancient Arabian pagan locutions and ideas became constitutive of the Qurʾan, when he wrote:

In dem Umgange um die Kaʿba und dem Küssen des schwarzen Steines, in dem Laufe zwischen al-Safa and al-Marwa, und in der Feste von Arafa hat sich der altarabische Cultutus an einer seiner Haupstätten, wenn nicht an der Haupstätte, bis in die Gegenwart lebendig erhalten. Muhammad hat dies klotzige Stück Heidentum zu einem Teil des Islam gemacht, nachdem er es zuvor umgedeutet, gereinigt und verschnitten hatte. Die Überzeugung, dass die Kaʿba der Sitz Allahs sei, hat er, wie es scheint, niemals aufgegeben, sondern aus dem altern in den neuen Glauben mit herübergenommen; er hat den einen und wahren Gott, den er verkündigte, mit dem Herrn de Kaʿba gelichgesetzt, wenn er auch nicht mit allen Gebrauchen des dortigen Cultus einverstanden gewesen sein wird.

The cosmology of the Qurʾan is permissive it seems of both monotheism and henotheism (that is, paganism of some kind). This in mind, how do we, then, demarcate the “pristine” Islamic credentials of the Qurʾan in order to locate the origins of Islam? The pursuit of Islamic origins in the Qurʾan are, it seems, not so easy.

Another issue related to the antiquity of the Qurʾan is that of Hellenism, which is giant boulder under which lurks many fascinating and yet to be explored research avenues. However, a word of caution is in order. Finding parallels in doctrines between the ancient world and early Islam is indeed quite fascinating, but historical inquiry should draw a line between parallels and linear influences. Intellectual genealogies are great fun, but they do not decisively demonstrate causal and active influences. A pertinent example is the quranic concept of fatalism (al-dahr). For the pagans of the Mecca, the mushrikūn, the idea of al-dahr was a personal hierophany designating fate and eschatology. In the Hellenistic period in the Near East, tens of thousands of Greeks flocked to the big new cities like Alexandria, Antioch, and Seleucia-on-the-Tigris—some contacts were possibly established with the Arabian Peninsula. Homoeric deities were criticised in the Near East. There, personal religious experience was preferred to the Olympian gods. By the time we reach the quranic milieu more and more people came to lose interest in the Olympian pantheon. Instead, there was a rising trend of personalised worship of the goddesses Fate and Fortune. The goddess Fate has remarkable arbitrary power over which even the gods had no control. Closely related was the emergence and popularity of Stoicism. The Stoics, founded by Zeno (d. 263 BC), maintained that the cosmos was governed by a divine power which permeated every aspect of the world. This power controlled everything. All things had their own purpose and their own place in the natural order. Humans had to therefore accept whatever happened to them in life with equanimity. In Babylonia, the Stoic doctrines were particularly popular and were blended with Babylonian astrology, based on the assumption that the cosmos and life on earth linked directly through a sense of Fatalism.

Here are ask the following: were the Arabian pagans—where precisely they lived in Arabia is not known, but we have hints—a vestige of Babylonian Stoics? Is the quranic notion of al-dahr a Babylonian borrowing? The parallels are striking—but that is it, at least at this stage. The parallels should not necessarily translate to linear influences. Finding a parallel between an early Islamic doctrine and some antecedent in the world of Late Antiquity, while engaging in less than spectacular Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic philological comparisons, is hardly becoming of the serious historian who should know better. Investigating the antiquity of Islam is one thing, finding the origins of Islam in a singular point while falling back on lazy comparisons and parallels is another. Granted, Carl Becker, writing almost a century ago, presciently underscored the antiquity of Islam when he said,

Er ist die Weiterbildung und Konservierung des christlich-antiken Hellenismus … Es wird eine Zeit kommen, in der man rückwartsschauend aus der islamischen Tradition heraus den spaten Hellenismus wird verstehen lernern.

However, for Becker Islam preserves and appropriates the old in novel ways. Even if we conclusively demonstrate the ancient Arabian pagan influences on the Qurʾan and early ḥadīth, we need to pause and intelligently problematise the idea of “influences”. If not done properly, it leads to something akin to epistemic violence. That is because claiming unjustly that B was influence by A reduces or undermines the agency of B. It ignores efforts to acclimate and appropriate the old to make the new. And, it is often the case that inherited ideas in new garb are often better. Take the example of William Shakespeare who is known to have borrowed from Greek and Latin authors; truth be told, who really cares about the writers that influenced Shakespeare? His genius lies in the creative agency of literary assimilation and conceptual appropriation. People often drew on ideas outside of their milieu. Is an inspired idea necessarily less authentic than the source of influence? The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer reminded us that the search for originality is overrated and perhaps naïve, when he said:

The historian of ideas knows that the water which the river carries with it changes only very slowly. The same ideas are always appearing again and again and are maintained for centuries. The force and the tenacity of tradition can hardly be over-estimated. From this point of view, we must acknowledge over and over again that there is nothing new under the sun.

And lastly, a word about the politics of the origins of Islam subfield. Let us not fool ourselves. All history is presentist. Gone are the days when scholars can claim unchallenged that scholarship is purely objective. The quest for the origins of Islam in the academy is nothing short of secular theologising. The secular historian rejects the historical theologies of traditional Islam only to propose new secular alternatives. The academic has merely replaced traditional theology with a secular attempt to interpret the words of the scripture in language no less dogmatic and polarising than the religious wrangling and political ideologies of today. That is not to say all historical studies of Islamic origins are colonial endeavours or ideological projects. Far from it. What is improper, however, is when secular historians deny that the quests to discover the origins of Islam are too often motivated by factors outside of academia, typically epitomised by the dispensing of the critical distance historians are expected to keep in relation to their subjects of study.

To return to the question posed earlier. When historians investigate the origins of Islam, what is it that they look for? The origins of A or B, or A and B? Do we search for the first ever conception of A? The first utterance of A? How do we locate origins? Is it spatial or temporal? And is the point of this exercise is to show that Islam lacks the originality and the creative agency of its ancient predecessors? To pinpoint ideas or concepts to a singular moment in space and time is to do a disservice to conceptual and intellectual history. Ideas are in constant flux. And antecedents are not necessarily causative. The origins of Islam movement in the academy need a series of methodological interventions and deliberations with the help of established theories in the humanities—without necessarily falling prey to the excesses of religious studies, that is. It is not a big ask. Our nineteenth and twentieth century predecessors rarely shied away from levelling critiques that call for the reconsideration and revaluation of the field’s epistemic foundations and the methodological concerns that undergird its modus operandi. Perhaps we could learn a lesson or two from their self-criticisms.

Ahab Bdaiwi, Leiden University