Fred M. Donner: Muhammad and the Believers

Posted by sepoy on May 03, 2010 · 1 min read

It is with great pleasure that I link to an interview of my advisor, Prof. Fred M. Donner, at Boston Ideas, Islam's Beginnings, on his new book, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam.

IDEAS: Are your ideas particularly threatening to literalists because you question the Islamic narrative without attacking the faith?

DONNER: It stays within the framework of the Prophet's narrative. What I really suggest has to be revisited is the notion that at the very beginning this community was hard and fast set as a religious community. It could include Jews and Christians. They were monotheists who saw themselves as people trying to live in accordance with God's rules and law. In that sense they were all believers, and they could make common cause with them. Only 75 or 100 years later did they shake out as a separate religion.

IDEAS: When did Muslims start distinguishing themselves from other people of the book, Jews and Christians?

DONNER: Where the divorce takes place — that's an interesting question, because we have always viewed the Muslims as separate people. My sense is that this is beginning 60 to 75 years after the death of the Prophet, in the seventh century. You might have quite a lag between official change and popular change. We don't really understand this change or transformation.

I will post more on this book but for now, please go buy it.


Qalandar | May 03, 2010

Whoa, thanks for the shout -- consider it bought!

David Boyk | May 03, 2010

That sounds fascinating. It reminds me of Daniel Boyarin's excellent book Border Lines, which argues that Jews and Christians also only parted ways in (if I remember right) about the fourth or fifth century, and that up to then there existed every combination of people who were or weren't ethnically Jewish and did or didn't believe in Jesus. The separation took place through a new discourse of heresy which was developed in collaboration between new orthodoxies on both sides; ultimately Judaism but not Christianity would abandon the idea. I'll look forward to reading this book and thinking about comparisons.

omar | May 03, 2010

I have obviously not read the book (yet) but I dont know, this sounds suspicious to me. Its very liberal and all and I agree that the mainstream Sunni version of Islamic history is due for revision, but the interview sounds like the good professor is a little too eager to make history nicer. I dont know, i have to read the book, but based just on the interview, i have some doubts.

Qalandar | May 03, 2010

On the Jews/Christians point David Boyk raises, I thought Eisenman's "James the Brother of Jesus" was a fascinating (if breathless) read too...

Fazal Majid | May 04, 2010

I am not sure how sound this line of reasoning is. The decision to change the destination of the qiblah from Jerusalem to the Kaaba in Mecca was undertaken within a year and half from the Hijra, and is obviously a symbolic separation from Jews who lived in Medina. It should also be noted the Umayyads had a highly tribal vision of Islam, reserved for the Arab elite, until Umar ibn Abdul Aziz ceased their policy of dissuading conversions. That policy that was dictated in no small part by fiscal considerations, the jizya tax being a major fiscal source for the dynasty, which also established a clear in/out divide between the communities less than a century after Muhammad's death.

Matt Gabriele | May 04, 2010

Thanks for this. On my list of things to get (& for our library).

omar | May 04, 2010

Fazal, Obviously Professor Donner has already dumped the entire mainstream seerah story as unreliable. Your objection only holds IF the orthodox seerah story is mostly true. But like the Hagarene hypothesis, this theory has to start from doubting the mainstream orthodox version of Islamic origins. Personally, I think its OK to doubt it and build new theories. My problem (and I have still not read the book) is that once we do that we are in the realm of guessing on the basis of what we know of that society and of human nature in general and thats only as good as our current theories about societies and people...and based on that interview, I have a feeling professor sahib and I are going to disagree.....anyway, hope to read the book and then comment (though its clearly more fun commenting without knowing a thing, makes you feel all Tom Friedmanish)..

qalandar | May 04, 2010

Omar sahab: us aakhree line ke liye aap ko kai Edward Said comments ke liye bakhsha jaa sakta hai :-)

omar | May 04, 2010

qalandar ji, you are a true qalandar. Ordinary mortals would never forgive a slight against Edward Bhai (RH) so easily....

Qalandar | May 04, 2010

I always felt there were 3 1/2, not 2 1/2...