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Islam's Origins: Where Mystery Meets History

The same spotlight of historical enquiry that scholars have long been shedding on the biblical past is now starting to illumine the origins of Islam, as Tom Holland explains.

Midway through the eighth century a monk living in the monastery of Beth Hale in Iraq recorded the arrival there of an eminent visitor. A ‘Son of Ishmael’ – one of the Arab dignitaries who served at the court of the caliph – had fallen ill. Naturally enough, since Christian holy men were renowned for effecting miracle cures, he had turned to the monks to help him with his convalescence. The Arab stayed ten days in the monastery and in that time he and his hosts argued freely about their respective religions. The monk, of course, portrayed himself as emphatically the winner. Nevertheless it is clear that the Arab had managed to land the odd blow. ‘Is not our faith better than any faith that is on the earth?’ he had demanded to know. ‘And is this not the sign that God loves us and is pleased with our faith – namely, that he has given us dominion over all religions and all peoples?’

The terms of this argument, it is true, were hardly original to Islam. Back in the early fourth century Eusebius, a Palestinian bishop, had written a biography of Constantine (r. 306-37), the emperor who had stunned the Roman world by converting to Christianity. God had blessed him for bowing his head before Christ with any number of rewards. Eusebius, who combined the talents of a polemicist with a profound streak of hero-worship, had sheltered no doubts on that score: ‘So dear was Constantine to God, and so blessed, so pious and so fortunate in all he undertook that with the greatest facility he obtained authority over more nations than any who had preceded him – and yet retained his power, undisturbed, to the very close of his life.’

This core equation – that worldly greatness was bestowed by God upon those who pleased Him – was one that reached back to the origins of human belief in the supernatural. Rarely had a society existed that did not see itself as somehow blessed by divine approval. Empires had invariably cast themselves as the favourites of the gods. So it was, some 300 years before Constantine, that Virgil had defined the Romans as a people entrusted by the heavens with a sacred charge: to spare the vanquished and to overthrow the haughty. A potent sentiment and an enduring one. Muslims as well as Christians had proven to be its heirs. The Qu’ran, composed though it was on the margins of the Roman world during the seventh century, bore witness to a conception of imperial mission that was not so different from the pretensions of Virgil’s day: ‘When you encounter the unbelievers, blows to necks it shall be until, once you have routed them, you are to tighten their fetters.’ So Muhammad, serving as the mouthpiece of God, had informed his followers. ‘Thereafter, it is either gracious bestowal of freedom or holding them to ransom, until war has laid down its burdens.’

The baptism of Christ depicted in 'The Chronology of Ancient Nations' by Al-Biruni, Islamic school, 14th century.

Yet by the time of Muhammad (570-632) much had changed from the heyday of the pagan empire and to seismic effect. The revolutionary notion that the universe was governed by a single, all-powerful god had decisively transformed people’s understanding of what the sanction of the heavens might mean. Just as Constantine had discovered in Christ an infinitely more potent patron than Apollo or Sol Invictus had ever been, so those who turned to the pages of the Qu’ran found revealed there a celestial monarch of such limitless and terrifying power that there could certainly be no question of portraying Him – as the Christians did with their god – in human form. Nothing, literally nothing, was beyond Him. ‘If He wishes, O mankind, He can make you disappear and bring others in your stead.’ To a deity capable of such a prodigious feat of annihilation what was the overthrow of an empire or two? Remarkable though it was that the previously despised and marginal Arabs had managed to trample down both Roman and Persian power, no explanation was needed for this, so Muslims came to believe, that did not derive from an even more awesome and heart-stopping miracle: the revelation to the Prophet of the Qu’ran. What surprise that a fire lit far beyond the reach of the ancient superpowers should have spread to illuminate the entire world when that fire was the Word of God?


So it was, across a vast sweep of Eurasia, stretching from the Atlantic coast to the frontiers of China, that a distinctive understanding of history came to be taken for granted. Whether in Christendom or in the House of Islam, the past was understood as the tracing of patterns upon the centuries by the forefinger of God. The divine had intruded into the sweep of earthly events and everything had changed as a result. The very fabric of time had been rent. Quite how a deity who transcended eternity and space might actually have descended from heaven to earth was, of course, a tricky problem for Christians and Muslims alike to solve and it took bitter and occasionally murderous argument to arrive at anything like a consensus. Only centuries after the birth of Christ did Christians come definitively to accept that their saviour had been both perfect man and perfect God; only centuries after the emigration of Muhammad from Mecca did Muslims come definitively to accept that the Qu’ran was eternal, not created. Such wrangling had been inevitable. Fathoming the purposes of an omnipotent and omniscient deity was no simple matter. As a ninth-century Muslim scholar, in a tone of awed defeatism, confessed: ‘Imagination does not reach Him, and thinking does not comprehend Him.’

Audio: Tom Holland discusses his research on the History Today Podcast

Nevertheless, while Muslims and Christians had faced similar knots their respective attempts to unravel these had set them on radically different courses. The word, so it was claimed in St John’s gospel, had become flesh. The record of Christ’s life, for all that it lay at the heart of the Christian faith, was not itself considered divine, unlike Christ himself. Although Christians believed the Bible to be the word of God, they also knew that it had been mediated through fallible mortals. Not only were there four different accounts of Christ’s life in the Bible, but it contained a whole host of other books, written over a vast expanse of time, demanding to be sifted, compared and weighed against one other. As a result the contextualising of ancient texts came to be second nature to biblical scholars, and not just to believers.

By the 18th century the Church had ceased to hold the monopoly on subjecting its holy texts to scholarly enquiry. The model of history promoted by Eusebius, which traced in the past the working of the purposes of God, had started to become a thing of mockery. In his massive account of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon subjected some of the most venerated compositions of late antiquity to a pathologist’s scalpel: ‘The only defect of these pleasing compositions is the want of truth and common sense.’ So he dismissed, with his customary solemn sneer, the biographical writings of St Jerome. Yet Gibbon’s tone of irony was to prove a mere presentiment of the far more naked scepticism that, from the 19th century onwards, would increasingly see almost every tenet of the Christian faith subjected to merciless dissection. The shock, to a still devout European public, was profound. When in 1863 a lapsed seminarian by the name of Ernest Renan presumed to publish a biography of Jesus that treated its subject not as a god but as a man like any other it was condemned in horrified terms by one critic as nothing less than a ‘new crucifixion of Our Lord’. The book, Life of Jesus, promptly became a runaway bestseller. Scandalous it may have been, but the European public was not averse to being scandalised.

Moses receives the law of God on Mount Sinai, an illustration from the Moutier-Grandval Bible, Tours, ninth century.
Moses receives the law of God on Mount Sinai, an illustration from the Moutier-Grandval Bible, Tours, ninth century.

Time would demonstrate that there was to be no going back, in the Christian West, on the habit of subjecting to scientific enquiry what had for millennia been regarded as the sacrosanct word of God. Throughout the 19th century, in the hushed and sombre libraries of German theology departments, scholars would crawl over the pages of the Bible, gnawing away at the sacred text like termites. The Pentateuch, they demonstrated, far from having been written by Moses, as had traditionally been taught, seemed instead to have been stitched together from multiple sources. Not only that, but these same sources had almost certainly been written centuries after the events that they purported to describe. Moses, it appeared, had been made into a mouthpiece for laws that he might very well never have pronounced – if he had even existed in the first place. Here was an unravelling of the scriptural tapestry so devastating that even some scholars themselves began to fret over the implications: ‘It is to suspend the beginnings of Hebrew history,’ as one German theologian noted grimly, ‘not upon the grand creations of Moses, but upon airy nothings.’

Yet the achievements of biblical scholarship, nihilistic though they seemed to many, remained recognisably bred of the marrow of Christian culture. Debate about the authorship of the Pentateuch, after all, reached back at least to the time of Origen, the third century Alexandrian scholar. The methodology that historians in the West nowadays bring to bear on ancient sources owes far more to the traditions of Christian textual analysis than it does to Herodotus or Thucydides. Historicism, like so many intellectual off-shoots of the Enlightenment, is perhaps best considered as a bastard child of Christianity that then set about devouring its parent. Not that it has confined itself to questioning the verities of its own ancestral faith. Other religions, too, and the stories told to explain their origins have likewise been put under its microscope. Sensitivities here, however, are much more raw. If the scepticism of the West can often seem bleak even to those raised in its own traditions, then it can seem downright ravening to others. Offensive though modes of scholarship honed on the Bible may be to Jews or Christians, they can be vastly more so to people from a different religious background. And especially so to Muslims.

The explanation for this lies in the awe, exceptional even by the standards of other faiths, with which Muslims have always regarded their founding scripture. The nearest analogy in Islam to the role played by Jesus in Christianity is not Muhammad but the Qu’ran. Not merely the word of God, it is itself divine. That being so, its text must inevitably defy all attempts at rational analysis. Even to contemplate such a project is blasphemy. Devout Muslims are no more likely to question the origins of the Qu’ran than devout Christians are to start ransacking Jerusalem for the skeleton of a man with holes in his hands and feet. To treat it like any other text from antiquity, something to be prodded and taken to pieces and explained by the historical context in which it appeared, is to dabble one’s fingers in the very stuff of other people’s souls. Revelation, so it was said, had come upon Muhammad ‘like the ringing of a bell’ and had brought sweat to drip from his forehead. All who then heard him repeat what he had heard knew themselves to be in the authentic presence of the divine. The proof of that lay in the fact that those who had listened to him went on to dismember the two greatest empires in the world. ‘We went to meet them with small abilities and weak forces, and God made us triumph, and gave us possession of their territories.’ Such was what it had meant for the eternal to meet with the diurnal. The Qu’ran was a lightning strike from heaven, owing nothing to what had gone before.

A folio from a Qu'ran of gold leaf, silver and ink on indigo-coloured parchment. Probably Tunisian, c. 10th century

It is here, in any interpretation of Islam as a divinely-sponsored bolt from the blue, that history must needs meet and merge with faith. Almost 14 centuries on from the lifetime of Muhammad, the conviction that he was truly a prophet of God continues to move and inspire millions upon millions of people around the globe. As a solution to the mystery of what might actually have taken place in the early seventh century Near East, however, it is unlikely to strike those historians raised in the traditions of secular scholarship as entirely satisfactory. By explaining everything, it runs the risk of explaining nothing much at all. Nevertheless it is a measure of how potently an aura of the supernatural has always clung to the Qu’ran and to the story of its genesis that historians have found it so difficult to rationalise its origins. Mecca, so the biographies of the Prophet teach us, was a pagan city, devoid of any Jewish or Christian presence, situated in the midst of a vast, untenanted desert: how else, then, are we to account for the sudden appearance there of a fully fledged monotheism, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, if not as an authentic miracle?

In a sense, the entire history of secular enquiry into the origins of Islam has been an attempt to arrive at a plausible answer to this question. Muslims, understandably sensitive to any hint that their prophet might have been a plagiarist, have always tended to resent the inevitable implications of such a project. And yet, if God is discounted as an informant, it is surely not unreasonable to wonder just how it came to be that so many characters from the Bible feature in the Qu’ran. Perhaps, it has been suggested, Muhammad absorbed Jewish and Christian influences during his business trips to Syria. Or perhaps, despite what the Muslim sources tell us, there were thriving colonies of Jews, or Christians, or both, in Mecca. Or perhaps the Meccan economy was afflicted by a crisis of capitalism, one that saw successful merchants and financiers growing ever richer, even as those on the breadline were left, in the historian Karen’s Armstrong’s words, ‘searching for a new spiritual and political solution to the malaise and disquiet in the city’ and finding it, somehow, in some unspecified manner, in the spirit of the age.

Yet all these explanations run up against an awkward stumbling block. Back in the 19th century, Ernest Renan – a brilliant Arabist when not putting the cat among Christian pigeons – had contrasted the presumed excellence of the sources for the life of Muhammad with the murk surrounding the founders of other faiths. ‘Islam,’ he declared, ‘was born, not amid the mystery which cradles the origins of other religions, but rather in the full light of history.’ Over the past 40 years, however, this proposition has come under brutal and escalating attack – so much so, indeed, that Islam’s birth, to an increasing number of scholars, now appears shrouded in an almost impenetrable darkness. Although the fact that Muhammad existed is generally accepted by specialists, one Christian source, written just two years after the traditional date of his death, describes a ‘false prophet’ leading the Arabs in an invasion of Palestine, while another, six years later, refers to him by name. Yet the allusions in scattered Christian sources of the seventh century to an enigmatic figure whom they describe variously as ‘the general’, ‘the instructor’, or ‘the king’ of the Arabs merely serves to highlight an astounding lacuna: the complete lack of reference to Muhammad in any early Muslim records. Only in the 690s did a caliph finally get around to inscribing his name on a public monument; only decades after that did the first tentative references to him start to appear in private inscriptions; and only around 800 did biographies finally come to be written of him that Muslims took care to preserve. What might have happened to earlier versions of his life we cannot know for certain. One possibility is hinted at by Ibn Hisham, whose biography of Muhammad is the earliest one to have survived in the form in which we now have it. Much that previous generations had recorded of the Prophet, so this biographer commented sternly, was either bogus, or irrelevant, or sacrilegious. ‘Things which it is disgraceful to discuss; matters which would distress certain people; and such reports as I have been told are not to be accepted as trustworthy – all these things have I omitted.’

Here, then, is terra firma. What we can know with absolute confidence is that by the early ninth century the precise details of what Muhammad might have said and done some 200 years previously had come to provide, for vast numbers of people, a roadmap that they believed led straight to heaven. God had seized personal control of human events. The world had been set upon a novel course. To doubt this conviction was to risk hellfire. Given this perspective it is scarcely surprising that any ambition to write history or biography as we might understand it should have paled into nothingness compared with the infinitely more pressing obligation to trace in the pattern of the Prophet’s life the wishes and purposes of the almighty. That is why, in leaving the ninth century behind and venturing back into the heaving ocean of uncertainty and conjecture that is the early history of Islam, today’s historians can find it such a struggle to identify reliable charts. Adrift amid the shadowy vastness, what prospect of finding landfall?

A detail from a ninth-century Qu'ran, which belonged to Sultan Osman III (r. 1754-57), showing a view of Mecca

Of course, there is always the Qu’ran and yet the holy text itself, once stripped of all its cladding, all the elaborate scaffolding of commentaries built up around it with such labour and devotion from the ninth century onwards, can seem only to add to the voyager’s sense of being lost upon a darkling ocean. If it did not come from God, then what might its origins have been? Answers to this, over the past few decades, have become increasingly various – nor as yet, among western scholars, is there any sign of a consensus. ‘Qu’ranic studies, as a field of academic research, appears today to be in a state of disarray’: such is the frank admission of Fred Donner, Professor of Near Eastern History at Chicago and the doyen of early Islamic studies. ‘Those of us who study Islam’s origins’, he has confessed, ‘have to admit collectively that we simply do not know some very basic things about the Qu’ran – things so basic that the knowledge of them is usually taken for granted by scholars dealing with other texts.’ Its place of origin, its original form, its initial audience – all are mysteries. That being so, it is certainly no longer possible to presume that there is anything remotely self-evident about the birth of Islam. Forty years ago any querying what Muslim tradition taught about its own origins might have been dismissed as mere crankish troublemaking of a kind that no more merited a response from heavyweight experts than did, say, the attempt to ascribe Shakespeare’s plays to Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford. All that has changed. Indeed it is hard to think of any other field of history so currently riven by disagreement as is that of early Islam.

Fortunately, amid all the confusion and obscurity, of one thing at least we can be confident: Islam did not originate in a total vacuum. Of the world into which Muhammad was born, with its rival superpowers and its formidable array of monotheisms, we are most decidedly not ignorant. To compare the would-be universal dominions of Persia and Rome with the empire that the caliphate became, or to trace echoes of Jewish and Christian writings in the Qu’ran, is to recognise that Islam, far from spelling the end of what had gone before, seems in many ways to have been its culmination. ‘What is the reason that God has delivered you into our hands?’ So the convalescing ‘Son of Ishmael’ demanded of the monk of Beth Hale. The question was one that Christians in turn, in the centuries before Muhammad, had demanded of Jews and pagans. The story of how Islam came to define itself and to invent a model of the past that would sanction such a definition, is only part of a much broader story: one that is ultimately about how Jews, Christians and Muslims all came by their understanding of their respective religions. Whether any of them truly derived from the intervention within human history of a god is not for the historian to say. But look at the brilliance and inventiveness of the civilisations into which they were born and it is certainly possible to recognise in all of them the authentic stamp of mortal agency.

The vision of God to which both rabbis and bishops subscribed and that Muhammad’s followers inherited did not emerge from nowhere. The monotheisms that became state religions from the Atlantic to central Asia had ancient, unexpected, roots. To trace them is to cast a searchlight across the entire civilisation of antiquity.

Tom Holland is the author of In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (Little, Brown, 2012).

Islam's Origins: Where Mystery Meets History

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