Academic journal article The Historian

Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam

Academic journal article The Historian

Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam

Article excerpt

Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam. By Fred M. Donner. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 2010. Pp. xviii, 280. $25.95.)

One of the ongoing debates about early Islamic history concerns the factors that led to the Arab conquest of the Middle East in the late seventh century. In a 1981 book, Fred Donner minimized the economic, political, demographic, and environmental factors, which had received much attention in the mid-twentieth century, and argued that the conquests made sense only in the light of the new religious dispensation preached by Muhammad [d. 632] and the enthusiasm it inspired in his Arabic-speaking followers. Donner's research had an enormous impact by putting the question of religion at the center of the burgeoning field of early Islamic studies.

In the present book, Donner provides a convenient and convincing summary of much subsequent scholarship on the subject. Much of the debate has centered on the historicity of the surviving sources, and, on this subject, Donner takes a respectful but appropriately cautious approach. He rejects the arguments of more radical critics that the Qur'an represents less what Muhammad took to be revelations from God than a late collection of religious meditations and pronouncements culled from a variety of sources. The Qur'an, in his view, is a fairly early document and, indeed, provides him with some of the most important evidence for what early Muslims believed (and what they did not). He recognizes, however, that most other narrative sources, at least those in Arabic and from within the Islamic tradition, were written decades, even centuries, after the events they purport to describe and so reflect later ideas and concerns rather than those of the earliest Muslims. He follows some of the most innovative recent scholarship in paying considerable attention to non-Arabic and non-Muslim sources, to archaeological remains, and also to a growing body of documentary evidence from coins, papyri, and inscriptions. …

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