Pre-Islamic Arabia and the first century or more of Islamicate history remain largely unknown even to specialists. Although fully within the period of recorded history of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the profound scarcity of contemporary documents renders our knowledge of early Islam extremely tenuous. Information that is available derives almost entirely from literary compilations that were assembled into their present form more than a century after the death of the Prophet, Muḥammad. It is generally accepted by modern scholars that many of these works preserve data that are considerably older, but they also agree that it is extremely difficult to separate the authentic older material from later accretions, insertions, or glosses, which often weave in anachronistic or tendentious information.
This study makes no claim to break the code of historicity in traditional Islamic literature, nor does it claim originality in regard to sources. The primary sources upon which the study is based are all published and available in the Islamic world or in the West. They were chosen as the sample of study partially for this very reason, for their easy availability points to the fact that they continue to be read and studied in today's Islamic world. The fact that the narratives found in sources dating from the early ninth to the fifteenth centuries continue to be published in the modern era shows that they have spoken and continue to speak to the Islamic community, from earliest times to the present.
This is a study of literature which is both oral and written. Although rendered in written form in our sources at least two centuries after the death of the Prophet Muḥammad, the traditions examined exhibit traits of both orality and literacy that suggest their existence in far earlier periods as well. Yet because of the lack of any kind of confirmed chronology, this work makes no claims to represent a strictly historical study. It is, rather, an attempt to put the issue of cross-cultural communication and religious influence in early Islam into perspective, based upon new approaches to intertextuality in the study of traditional religious narrative texts.