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Routledge Handbook on Early Islam

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 Routledge Handbook On Early Islam
  • Book Author:
Herbert Berg
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Leopold von Ranke charged historians with the task of discovering and presenting the past wie es eigentlich gewesen (“as it actually occurred”). This modern source- based historical approach is the primary focus of scholars of Islamic origins and early Islam. That is to say, scholars of early Islam focus very much on determining what historical facts can be extracted or gleaned from

the extant sources such as the Qurʾān, Sunna, sīra, and other materials in hopes of determining how Islam emerged. Not only are there competing presentations of early Islam, but there is also considerable disagreement about what these sources can tell us about Muḥammad, the origin, canonization, and interpretation of the Qurʾān, and the formation of the identities, communities, polities, and so forth that are traditionally described as “Islamic” or “Muslim.”

A few scholars are so skeptical so as to doubt the historical value of all these sources (at least when it comes to the “wie es eigentlich gewesen”- goal).

For many Muslims, in contrast, the Qurʾān is believed to be the eternal word of God, though revealed to Muḥammad from 610 CE to his death in 11/ 632. As such, it is eternal, but also rooted in temporality and locality. As the vast asbāb al- nuzūl (occasions of revelations) material suggests, its verses were revealed at specific times and in specific circumstances that reflect the historical events of Muḥammad and his community. Thus when Q 3:123– 125 speaks of Badr, it refers to the Muslim victory over the Meccan forces at Battle of Badr in 2/ 624 or when Q 33:37 mentions Zayd, it means Zayd b. Ḥāritha, Muḥammad’s adopted son whose divorced wife he married.

This construction of early Islamic history is confirmed by the sīra (the biography of the Prophet) that purports to detail the major events of Muḥammad’s life. Moreover, the reports about the actions and words of Muḥammad (ḥadīths), particularly those that were largely fully vetted using the chains of transmitters (isnāds) attached to the reports and compiled within the canonical col-lections of the Sunna, confirm the same basic historical picture.

Thus, it seems that there is little need to do much more than reproduce the traditional account: Muḥammad was born in 570 CE, and starting at the age of 40 and for the next 22 years he receiving revelations that called on the pagans of Mecca and later the Arabian Peninsula to worship the one true God (Allāh). Most of his interlocutors at least initially did not accept his message or recognize him as a Messenger of God.

They opposed Muḥammad, so that he and his followers were forced to emigrate to Yathrib (later Medina), where Muḥammad was recognized as both a prophet and leader. In the next decade in a series of battles with the Meccans, Muḥammad and his followers eventually triumphed over the …

Islamic origins and the genetic fallacy

The nature of the sources for reconstructing early Islam –  that is, the relative lateness of their extant forms, the theological and sometimes sectarian motivations that produced them, and so forth –  invites skepticism for some scholars and presents methodological issues for all scholars of early Islam. But just as important are the theoretical issues.

Because the use of “Islamic origins” is a calque of “Christian origins” and because the lat-ter term was meant to replace the confessional, anachronistic, and misleading “New Testament Studies,” this Handbook has preferred the term “early Islam” or the “formative period of Islam.” Many modern scholars of early Islam whether Muslim or not, were not approaching the texts of early Islam in an overtly confessional manner. The advantage of “Islamic origins” is that it provides merely a convenient term for those of us in Religious Studies who focus on the formative period of Islam (1) to convey to our colleagues what it is that we do in terms they would understand, and (2) to unite into one enterprise the disparate but overlapping activities of scholars of the Qurʾān and early Islamic history, law, Sunna, and exegesis –  a fact highlighted by the diverse disciplines of the contributors to this volume.

That being said, both “Islamic” and “origins” are problematic. As for the former, it encour-ages us to read later understandings of classical Islam into early “Islam,” possibly obscuring what really happened.2 Moreover, if one sees Islam as rooted almost solely in the Qurʾān and or Muḥammad (via the portrayals of him in the Sunna and sīra), one cannot help but recap-itulate the basic position of Muslim theology. But since it is disguised in a scholarly voice, it is a form of crypto- theology.

Yet as the chapters in the second and particularly the third part of this Handbook make clear, Muslims themselves continue to focus very much on this early period. It is not surprising that scholarly interest continues in how the movement that came to be known as Islam was formulated. It is a valid, and I would say intriguing, avenue for scholarly exploration.

But without an awareness of the often tacitly theological perspective at the heart of such explorations, it is not surprising that the methodologies used to investigate Islamic origins can be problematic. The chapters in Parts III and IV demonstrate how theo-logical agendas shape the understanding and use of early Islam. It would be naïve to assume the competing scholarly perspectives discussed in the chapters of the first two parts are not similarly influenced.

In fact, the very focus on “origins” in general is problematic. Tomoko Masuzawa points out that if one means “origin” in the strong sense, in the sense of absolute beginning, “it eradicates any possibility of precedent, preexisting condition or prototype – in fact, anything other than…

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