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Book Review: Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam

Fred M. Donner’s history of early Islam, Muhammad and the Believers, is a new, thought provoking work of the Early Islamic movement.

In it, Donner presents a very unorthodox reading of the evidence relating to how Islam originally emerged. It is a well-presented, easily comprehended history of a very turmolous period that encompassed massive changes in the Near East, changes thatchanged theflow of history dramatically. However, the argumentation presented for his new reading into that time is extremely flawed with the neglect of important evidence; evidence which should never pass consideration when writing a history on Islamic origins.

Book Review: Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam

Author: Fred Donner

Cambridge, Massachusetts. London, England, CT, Harvard University Press, 2010 (paperback 2012)

Reviewer: Sayed-Esmail Al-Behbehani

Donner is an acclaimed author in Late-Antique (and sometimes ancient) Arabia. He has spent a lot of his study leaves and research times in universities across the Arab world and has immersed himself in the Arabic language. Donner has written an English translation of Al-Tabari’s History the foremost important medieval book (now mostly used as a primary source) on the early years of Islam. Donner is currently a professor of Islam and a scholar on Near Eastern studies at the University of Chicago.

When writing about early Islam, there are two pieces of evidence that someone can assess; the traditional accounts of the prophet Muhammad’s life and sayings[1] on one hand and the Qur’an on the other. Donner makes it explicitly clear that he regards the Qur’an as a reliablesource for information on early Islam, though he does not take it 100% at face-value; after a summary of debates over it’s authenticity, he states that, “The Qur’an did coalesce very early in the history of Muhammad’s community – within no more than three decades of Muhammad’s death” (P. 55-56). Donner also makes it clear that he is uneasy with the traditional narratives of Muhammad’s life as they contain “so many contradictions and so much dubious story telling” (P. 51). Donner, however, uses, with care, some traditional accounts as general background to his history, though the points he presses out as evidence to his argumentson the early events aremostly from the Qur’an.

In the preface, Donner explains that, starting with Earnst Renan over a century ago, Western scholars leaned towards regarding the Early Islamic movement as starting of with nationalistic and/or socialistic tendencies, with religion playing a secondary role within the movement. The book is set out to counter this view.

The book starts with an overview of the Near East on the eve of Islam and how the Arabs were situatedbetween the two warring titans: the Roman Empire and the Sassanian. Here Donner tries to inform us of the world around which our story starts. An important issue he brings up is that propheticism was an active issue in the region and that this would help us understand how Muhammad’s message would have been received. Another claim Donner makes is that monotheism was slowly taking over paganism; the tide in Arabia has shifted toward the Abrahamic religions.

In chapter two the book zooms into the Hejaz area and how Muhammad came about to teach his new monotheistic religion. The argument Donner starts to present here, and which turns out to be his main argument throughout the book, is that Islam started as a piestic, monotheistic movement that did not draw a definite line between it’s followers and other monotheists of the region, namely the Christians and Jews, so long as they adhere well to their religious teachings and are pious[2].In other words, the early Muslims did not perceive themselves as a new religion at all; Christians and Jews were free to enter into the movement and very probably did.

In Donner’s view, it is only a century later, under the Umayyad caliph Abdul Malik that Islam coalesced into a distinct religion, due to actions taken by the Caliph and his entourage.

It strikes me that Donner when presenting the main argument of his book, namely that Islam started out as a non-distinct religious movement, does not try to counter the verses within the Qur’an that seem, at the very least, to pose the biggest challenge to his argument. Donner, always quoting passages from the Qur’an to aidhim in his ecumenical theory of early Islam, does not quote the verse that reads, “And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him” (Q. 3:85), or the verse starting with, “Indeed, the religion in the sight of Allah is Islam” (Q. 3:19).Those two verses are clearly at odds with his main argument of the book as they clearly state that the teachings of the Qur’an regarded Muhammad’s new preaching as a distinct religion; that salvation cannot be acquired without adhering to it. Yet Donner makes no attempt to either allude to these verses or to counter them. Other flawed assessments of relevant Qur’anic verses relating to his assumptions are also found throughout his book.[3]

In addition to the fact that his primaryargument presented in the book is significantly shaken by themiss assessmentof the relevant Qur’anicverses on the issue, Donnermakes other minor arguments that expressclearly his incompetence with the most important source he uses for his book. In page 214 he states that the Qur’an is quiet on any mention of the Friday Prayer ritual. The reality is that the Qur’an has a whole chapter dedicated to this ritual. The chapter (62) is even called ‘The Friday’!

When moving towards the emergence of Islam, Donner presents a summary of Muhammad through the traditional narratives, which the author does take caution with accepting. Then he represents an overview of the early movement and its character. It was piestic, in his view;piestic, in the sense that piety was central to early community’s character. It was also apocalyptic in nature, and thought the end of days, and hence the Last Judgment, were near. The early community had a strong sense that they were living in a very sinful world.

 Donner starts pressing a point of immenseimportance to his overall argument. In his view, during the early days Muhammad’s followers called themselvesBelievers and not Muslims – as Islam was not yet a fully developed religion (Christians and Jews were welcome to join the movement). He makes the argument that the Qur’an calls them by this name (Believers)much more than the other name, Muslims. It is only a century later when – under Abdul Malik’s reign – that a boundary was placed to separatebetween Muslims and other monotheists;the adherents of the Qur’an were only then called Muslim.

Chapter 3 moves on tothe final years of Muhammad, his death and how the question of succession was dealt with early on. It also gives a narrative of the events of the Ridda Wars, inner strife within Arabia between the Muslims and the tribes that refused to continue giving their allegiance to the Islamic capital, Medina, after the prophet’s death.

Donner then goes on toexplain the expansion movement of the, now united, Arab tribes outside of the Arabian peninsula, conquering the Near East, North Africa, and Transoxania. This is explained in a very clear manner, which, although summarized, does give a good overall understand to this monumental and complicatedevent. Donner is very good at summarizing huge events into a few pages, without damaging the overall flow of the argumentations within the book. He, again, achieves this admirablywhen narrating the civil strife events that tarnished the early Muslims’ unity later on in the book.

The motivation for the expansion was to spread the sovereignty of God over the whole world, according to Donner; the Believers thought the Judgment was near, and their early success made them even more assured that God was on their side. Donner makes a point that the traditional view of the expansions by scholars is that it was of a violent kind, yet he assesses some texts originating from the era to prove the contrary. He also points to the fact that churches were still being built after the conquests. This he uses to further aid his original idea, namely that Islam at this early stage welcomed with open arms the Christians and Jews to join in the movement; if they were pious enough, they were looked at as equal Believers. Donner also stretches this point to the extreme,postulating that some Christians and Jews welcomed the conquests as they only had to pay an extra tax and not be forced to convert.

After describing how the Muslims settled in the new lands and the new institutions they developed, Donner moves on to the civil strifesthat astounded the early Muslims. Again, Donner shows his prowessinnarrating very troublesome and complicatedevents in a clear and flowing manner – surprisingly, he achieves very in very few pages. The strifes, he explains, were to do with the question of leading the community – each emerging sect had it’s own ideas about what attributes were needed for someone to lead the community.

The last chapter of the book explains how Islam, in Donner’s view, emerged out of the early movement; the religion we know today coalesced nearly a century after Muhammad started preaching. The way it emerged was complicated but can be summarized in that the now caliph, Abdul Malik, and his entourage redefined critical terms, shifted the emphasis from piety and general monotheism to Muhammad and the Qur’an, and started to polemicize the Christian belief. What also emerged from this period was a sort of Aristocratic Arab identity, which ruled over a vast non-Arab world.

Donner again shows his carelessness in analyzingaccurately his main piece of evidence. In trying to explain that Abdul Malik elaborated the cultic practices of Muslims into the rigid system we have today, he astonishingly says that we have only “vague” evidence of the change of Qibla, or the direction of prayer, from Jerusalem to Mecca until Abdul Malik’s reign. The Qur’anicevidence, evidence which Donner relies on, makes it clear thatthe change of Qibla in facthappened during Muhammad’s time -or within three decades of his time, as Donner believes- at the very latest (Q. 2:144). Donner shows his incompetence with the main source of evidence for his arguments again.

The book has been described as “thought-provoking” and posing “questions that many mainstream scholars have chosen to leave aside”. It certainly does have a completely revolutionary way of explaining events that had many unanswered questions within them. Donner writes history in a concise and delicately clear, fluid manner. Yet for anacademic so immersed in Late Antique Arabia, it is very perplexing how he articulates massive arguments in clear negligence of the main source in hand.

This is a fine book for those in search of a concise overall narrative of the changes that occurred in the Near East at the birth of Islam.However, the main argument of the work is fundamentally flawed,rendered so by poor assessment of key evidence.



[1] Collectively known as the Hadith (translated into the Sayings).

[2] The Qur’an follows in the same traditions of the Abrahamic religion, regarding Abraham and all Old Testament prophets as truly sent from God.

[3] It is also very atypical of an established scholar not to present the clearest piece of evidence that would aid his view. Verse 2:62 is a verse that would have leant him much help in his assumption had he wanted evidence to point our that the Qur’an in some verses seems to learn towards the idea that non-Muslims can be regarded as believers. Though, as I have mentioned in this essay, that other verses strongly counter this view.

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