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Among the Believers

A new look at the origins of Islam describes a tolerant world that may not have existed

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A pilgrim prays at Mecca. (Reza/Getty Images)

Everyone setting out to reconstruct the rise of Islam has to confront the fact that the first hundred years are short on indisputably authentic information. We have the Quran, some coins, inscriptions, and some non-Muslim statements, but the master narrative dates from some 120 to 150 years after the event. How are we to proceed? Some choose simply to accept the master narrative, suitably modified in places. Others, often called “Revisionists,” reject the master narrative in favor of new reconstructions based on authentic evidence and such information from the master narrative as is compatible with it. Fred M. Donner’s book Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam falls into the second category. Accessibly written and easily read, it elaborates on a theme he broached in a learned article seven years ago: For the first hundred years, he writes, Islam was an ecumenical movement.

Donner notes that a small number of Quranic passages speak of believers from among the People of the Book, i.e., Jews and/or Christians. Thus sura 3:199, one of the two examples given, says that “There are among the People of the Book those who believe in God and what he has sent down to you and was sent down to them.” Since the Quran as a whole is addressed to believers, this suggests to him that Muhammad’s followers did not form a separate confessional community, but rather included monotheists from any community who believed in God and the last day and were prepared to live piously. He also notes that Abraham is singled out as neither a Jew nor a Christian; that Jews are mentioned, in a document Muhammad drew up in Medina, as forming a community of or along with believers; and that every monotheist could agree to the first part of the Muslim profession of faith, “there is no God but God”: It is this phrase alone that appears on coins, papyri, and inscriptions down to about 685. Donner believes fear of imminent judgment drew the believers together, and by the end of Muhammad’s life they had turned militant in their desire to establish the kingdom of God on earth. Even so, the “violent conquest” model does not make sociological sense in Donner’s view, and there is little sign of destruction in the archaeological record. All monotheists will have found a place in the new community, without needing to convert, he suggests. It was not until the reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705) that Islam began to emerge as a separate confessional community of its own.

Donner’s book has already been hailed in a manner showing that its thesis appeals deeply to American liberals: Here they find the nice, tolerant, and open Islam that they hanker for. If the book attains a wide readership and succeeds in persuading the broad American public that Muslims are not the ogres they tend to imagine, it will have done a useful job. As a contribution to scholarship, however, it leaves something to be desired.

The main problem is that the only direct evidence for Donner’s central thesis is the Quranic verses on the believing People of the Book; all the rest is conjecture. The verses in question tell us nothing about events after the death of the Prophet, and it has to be said that the Medinese suras of which they form a part are not suggestive of ecumenicalism. They are full of bitterly hostile polemics against Jews and Christians, both of whom are charged with polytheism, deification of their own leaders, deification of themselves, and more besides. The Jews are faulted for rejecting Jesus, the Christians for deifying him. If there were believers among the People of the Book in Medina, an obvious explanation would be that they were Jewish Christians, a well-known hypothesis that Donner does not consider. The Jacobite, Nestorian, and Melkite Christians that the Muslims encountered in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq were unquestionably polytheists by Quranic standards, and with all due respect to Donner, the fact that they disagreed about Christology does not help, given that their disputes were premised on Christ’s divinity.

Donner is quite right that the first part of the Muslim confession of faith would have been acceptable to all monotheists. “It is not unreasonable to propose, then, that many Christians and Jews of Syria, Iraq, and other areas, as monotheists, could have found a place in the expanding community of Believers,” he writes. Maybe they could have, but did they? People do not usually get together merely because their slogans sound compatible. Was the Muslim confession of faith actually formulated to appeal to the Jews and Christians? Sebeos, writing not long after the 660s, did not think so. According to him, Mu’awiya sent a letter to the Byzantine ruler Constans (641-68) telling him to “abandon that vain cult which you learned from childhood. Deny that Jesus and turn to the great God whom I worship, the God of our father Abraham.” Sebeos was obviously not aware that Islam was an ecumenical movement: From what he had heard, the Muslims regarded worship of the one God as incompatible with belief in the Christian Jesus. Donner nonetheless holds that Sebeos, Isho’yahb (c. 647), and Bar Penkaye (c. 690) all offer evidence that “some Christians and Jews may have been fully integrated, as such, into the early community of Believers.” His evidence is that Sebeos identifies the first governor appointed by the Muslims to Jerusalem as a Jew, that Isho’yahb tells us that the Muslim conquerors of Iraq honored Christianity and gave gifts to monasteries and churches, and that Bar Penkaye says that there were not a few Christians among the Arab conquerors of Iraq. But evidence for warm attitudes and collaborators is not evidence for full integration without conversion.

The Christian secretaries that Donner also adduces are not evidence either, since they were a permanent feature of the medieval Muslim world, and besides the Muslims also used Zoroastrian secretaries, though they were well aware that Zoroastrians were not monotheists. Isho’yahb, moreover, says of the Christians of Oman that they only had to part with half their property in order to remain Christians, while Bar Penkaye says that “of each person they required only tribute, allowing him to remain in whatever faith he wished.” In other words, both sources confirm the conventional view that non-Muslims had to pay taxes in order to retain their faith. Indeed, Donner himself later speaks of cities peacefully absorbed in exchange for a tax. If it was by incorporating monotheist communities as tributaries into their domains that the Believers worked toward their goal of establishing the hegemony of God’s law, Donner’s seemingly revisionist view is simply the conventional one. On the other hand, if he means that some Jews and Christians became full members of the community in the sense of not having to pay the taxes imposed on “protected people,” he has not produced any evidence.

How are we to envisage Christians and Jews “fully integrated, as such, into the early community of Believers”? The Believers, according to Donner, were all those who accepted belief in God and the last day, and who were prepared to live piously; and pious living meant following Quranic law: engaging in regular prayer, paying alms, fasting during the daytime hours of Ramadan, and going on pilgrimage to Mecca. But how could a community endowed with its own law and pilgrimage center be lacking in confessional identity? And how could Christians and Jews who followed Quranic law remain Jews and Christians? Donner has no answer to the first question and two contradictory answers, both implicit, to the second. The first implicit answer is that Jews and Christians who joined the movement did not actually have to follow Quranic law: The ecumenical quality of the Believers’ movement allowed it “to accommodate within itself, in addition to those Arabians who followed Qur’anic law, many Jews and especially (it seems) Christians who shared a commitment to righteous living.” One takes it that Arabians followed Quranic law while Jews and Christians practiced righteous living in other ways, presumably by following their own law. In line with this, Donner says that the terms “Muslim” and “Believer” eventually came to mean those who lived by Quranic law as opposed to Jews and Christians: Previously, one infers, the terms had included both those who practiced Quranic law and those who lived piously without doing so. But if Jews and Christians did not follow Quranic law, in what sense were they fully integrated as members of the community of Believers? Are we to imagine a community in which salvation was possible by three different laws (and indeed three different theologies)? The conception may not be impossible, but it is not exactly effortless either, least of all in a situation in which one party has established its supremacy over the other two by conquest.

The other implicit solution is that all the Believers did follow identical laws, just not Quranic ones, or this at least is what the Arabian Believers and the Christians did in connection with prayer. The early tradition describes a qibla musharriqa, an east-facing prayer-orientation, Donner says, suggesting that we may have here the memory of a stage when the Muslims faced eastward in prayer like the Christians. Indeed, he adds, the “vague” reports of how Muhammad himself changed the direction of prayer to Mecca should perhaps be seen as a retouched, vestigial memory of the later change whereby the Muslims began to differentiate themselves from their erstwhile Christian co-believers. This can hardly be right, given that it is the Jewish prayer-orientation to Jerusalem, not the Christian orientation to the east, that Muhammad is said to have abandoned in favor of Mecca. But even if we let that pass, what are we to do with the Jews who prayed in a different direction from the other two? And quite apart from that, if Muhammad did not himself institute the qibla to Mecca, how can the pilgrimage prescribed in the Quran have been to Mecca? Nothing quite seems to fit. If all Donner wants to say is that the Muslim conquerors were happy to extend favors to Jewish and Christian collaborators, he is perfectly right, but this is neither new nor connected with monotheism, since they were happy to collaborate with Zoroastrians too.

Is he really being revisionist or just perfectly conventional? One is never quite sure. The claim that the “violent conquest” model should be discarded is ultra-revisionist: It goes against the testimony of both contemporary sources (as Donner acknowledges) and the later tradition, about which he himself has written a well-known book. Now he speaks of the “conquerors” and “conquered” people in quotation marks. But at the same time he still grants that there were campaigns and battles; he even gives us a summary based on his 1981 book, The Early Islamic Conquests. He also admits that there was some pillaging and taking of captives, though (once more going against the contemporary sources) he does his best to belittle both activities. But if you occupy a country by means of battles, in what sense have you not engaged in “violent conquest”? The expression is surely a tautology. What Donner turns out to mean is simply the well-known fact that the Muslims did not engage in systematic destruction of towns, churches, and other religious buildings, and that they were not out to impose their religion by force. The “violent conquest” model is wrong, he tells us, because it is predicated on the mistaken notion that the “conquerors” (his quotation marks) came with the intention of imposing a new religion by force on local populations. How seriously is one meant to take this? No scholar believes that the Muslim conquerors were out to impose their religion by force; even going back a century or more I cannot think of any who has espoused this view. Yet all scholars apart from Donner and (in a different vein) Yehuda D. Nevo and Judith Koren accept that the Muslims engaged in “violent conquest.” Laymen may still need to be reminded that the Muslims were not out to impose their beliefs by force, but to present lay misconceptions as the basis of a scholarly consensus is not playing it straight.

If all Donner means to affirm is that the Muslim conquests were relatively swift and surgical operations that left urban life, religious communities, and complex organization intact, then he is simply affirming the conventional view. But what has that got to do with ecumenicalism? The Muslims did not engage in systematic destruction of towns or religious buildings, regardless of whether they were monotheist, Zoroastrian, or (in Harran) pagan. Later he tones down the revisionist claim to the innocuous point that the sources’ emphasis on the military dimension of the expansion has obscured its nature as a monotheistic reform movement that many local communities “may have seen little reason to oppose.” At another point he seems implicitly to abandon his thesis, for he tells us that the early Kharijites “represented the survival in its purest form of the original pietistic impetus of the Believers’ movement.” Are we to see the Kharijites as the bearers of ecumenicalism, then? In the contemporary Middle East, militant fundamentalists are often dubbed “Kharijites,” with considerable justice. But it is hard to get one’s mind around Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as representatives of ecumenicalism.

Donner says so many strange things in this book that one wonders what is going on. In the preface he tells us that in his view Islam began as a religious movement, not as a social, economic, or “national” one, and affirms that all his predecessors from Hubert Grimme (1892) until today, including Montgomery Watt, myself, and my classicist colleague Glen Bowersock, have argued that the movement was “really” a kind of nationalist or nativist political adventure to which religion was secondary and, by implication, a mere pretext for the real objectives. This is bizarre. Is Donner really saying that a movement has to be either religious or political, economic or social? Does he really think that Osama bin Laden and his like are using Islam as a mere pretext, or alternatively that we are all mistaken in seeing their aim as political? Was religion mere eyewash when Moses used it to organize a revolt in Egypt? Was Vittorio Lanternari implying the same when he wrote his book on nativism in the Americas, India, Africa, and Asia under the title The Religions of the Oppressed? Surely Donner has lived long enough to know that religion can articulate concerns of any kind and that the nature of the concern has no bearing on the sincerity of the conviction. Many people have sincerely believed in God and the last day without taking to arms in order to establish the kingdom of God on earth. The early Christians were among them. Muhammad’s followers in Arabia sincerely believed the same, yet set out to conquer. Why this difference? Presumably, it has something to do with Arabia. Yet Donner speaks of the historical accident that Islam arose in Arabia. He cannot possibly mean that there was nothing in Arabia that made the rise of Islam more likely there than in Siberia or India, or that if it had not arisen in Arabia, it would have done so somewhere else. Or can he? He seems to think of religion as individual convictions regarding matters spiritual and moral that are formed independently of external circumstances (“God-given,” as the believers themselves experience it) and that cannot articulate political aims without being a mere pretext. And yet at the same time he seems to think that religion can indeed cause sincere believers to form a state and take to arms against those who hold opposing convictions. It is hard to avoid the sense that he is arguing for incompatible positions.

Patricia Crone is a professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

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Shaina says:

I think that it is reasonable to argue that Islam’s early adherents were not intent on religious domination but rather on changing the social fabric of the Middle East, creating a society that cared for the widows and orphans in their midst. I think we should encourage reconstructionist views of islam rather than criticizing them as it will pave the way for Islam’s modern-day adherents to embrace both their religious roots and a post-modern world. We must remember that history is written by the winners and often the winners did not cleave to the origins of social movements but rather subverted the movements to their own ends. One of the best historical narratives I’ve read about Islams origins was “No God But God” by Reza Aslan. I recommend it highly as a careful study of the beginnings of Islam and the perversions of what was a very important and progressive religious narrative by those in power. Christianity has similarly struggled with a religious narrative of peace and love but a history of the powerful using the Christian religion to justify bloodshed and domination.

marcus oliver says:

In my witness to Muslims, they will call me brother, but when I quote the Bible the same muslims will say the Bible is corrupted. When I say the God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ they will tell me Allah had no son. Yet My God did have a Son- For God so loved the world that He gave his onl;y begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16.
I one of my first encounters with a Muslim from Pakistan, he said “I have come to destroy the Bible and you have come to destroy the Quran”
Ecumenical? Fallacy!

A revisionist narrative by definition is false. It is not a matter of finding new truths. To propose a false history is dishonest and in the long run will not be productive of harmony.
It is true that there was a degree of tolerance over time in the Muslim lands. This tolerance would be considered intolerance by today’s standards. For example, permitting Jews to live in your country as long as they paid a special tax, did not marry “your people” and build synagogues as long as it was no higher than the mosque or church would not be considered tolerant in America today.

Yaakov Hillel says:

Patricia Crone and Donner are very good at fairy tales. Mohammed today has been completely exposed for what he really was. There Is no Islam without Muhammed, the way he acted throughout his life spilling blood, lying, pedophiling, it is all part of his religion with out shame, with out remorse. He and his followers were all perfect by the scriptures, he left for humanity. The Christians were all saints they could not ever err the were not humans but super humans whose suffering caused more spilling of innocent blood through the generations, if somebody does not accept your religion it is enough of a reason to burn him at the stake or chop off his head. these are the histories of christianity and Islam. Funny the Jews in the bible were the most imperfect people all sinners, some murder and some rape, but then even the kings whom acted in this way were punished seven times the amount that they sinned because they were supposed to be on a higher level than most people. The plan was that the Jews would sin and for their sin they would be punished and be sent into exile. Jews do not force their religion on other people. Others are not even accepted to the Judaism. If somebody wants to become jewish he is sent away atleast three times, because the whole idea of judaism is not to convert people as opposed to Islam and christianity , The Jews are supposed to set an example, If they are sinners they will pay very heavily for their sins. If a religious Jew sins it is far more a greater crime than a nonreligios or a non Jew. In Judaism if you do not take care of your fellow man you are doomed. If you murder steal sleep with your friends wife or even covet his material goods you have sinned against man and God. If you do not keep the sabbath or honor your parents youve cooked your goose. Do not think that the way a person is dressed makes him a more religious Jew than a Doctor who never prays and saves lives seven days a week which is the highest level of being a good Jew.

Mark K. says:

Dan says: “A revisionist narrative by definition is false.”

No it is not.

Revisionism is a technical term used by historians to refer to (most often schools of scholars, as opposed to isolated individuals, who find) new ways of organizing, explaining and reassessing the available evidence regarding historic phenomena. It is, in a nutshell, the work that historians do, when they neither have new types of evidence to work from, nor wish to simply parrot the findings of earlier generations of historians.

You may believe that revisionist accounts of the rise of Islam are false. Holocaust revisionism is a misappropriation of the term revisionism, and most certainly is false. But one very bad apple, and another argument that you don’t like, is not sufficient grounds to dismiss the fundamental enterprise of historical research.

Ian K. says:

Crone’s piece deftly illustrates the deep pitfalls of the historian with an agenda. Motives of any kind distort the historian’s perception of history thereby forcing the facts to conform to a preconceived conclusion. Croner brilliantly exposes Donner’s nit-picking of the record, displaying that is helpful only in uncovering the biases of the historian.

Those who have responded to this article by attempting to refute Donner’s ecumenical theory with modern iterations of Islam miss the point. Regardless of the precise nature of redirection that took place under ‘Abd al-Malik or Mu’awiyyah, Islam, like its monotheistic sister-faiths, is rooted in the will of a powerful clerical class that necessarily has the power to shape the faith. To disagree with the morality of Islam as it has evolved is one thing. But, to call any development illegitimate is just silly. We may debate the origins of Islam, but in no way does that change anything about Islam today. Those who want to be believe this kumbaya ecumenicism may do so, but they cannot delude themselves into believing that it will have any impact on Islam as we know it.

The statement; “If the book attains a wide readership and succeeds in persuading the broad American public that Muslims are not the ogres they tend to imagine, it will have done a useful job,” particularly in the context of an article pointing out the historical fallacies of this book, is unfathomable. Useful how? Adherents of Islam have shown us, time and again, that they, as a result of their detestation of Western society, are willing to murder innocent people until Shariah is the law of the land. It is akin to (and I know that this is cliche at this point)a similar situation in which “Muslim” is replaced by “Nazi”. When will people wake up and understand that a Neville Chamberlain like, ostrich in the sand, attitude can literally be our undoing? How many 9/11s, Achille Lauros, Daniel Pearls z”l, stonings, beatings etc. etc. etc. will it take to make people understand that true evil exists and for those of us in the West it is called “Islam”? Yes, there are a handful of “exceptions,” but we all know, that at this point, they carry the most minimal meaning of that word.

Where are the world renowned Islamic hospitals, universities, philanthropists?

Philo-Semite says:

“This tolerance would be considered intolerance by today’s standards.”

Indeed. See: “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise”

Joe Spoerl says:

I just finished Donner’s book and Crone’s critique is right on the money. Donner’s argument is that the Koran, not the later sira or hadith, is the only reliable guide to the history of early Islam. However, he ignores the extremely harsh rhetoric in the Koran against Jews and Christians. Sura 2 is largely a long and bitter anti-Jewish diatribe, for instance. Most amazingly, Donner never even mentions the jizya verse, 9:29, which commands Muslims to conquer “people of the book” and impose tribute payments on them. The immediately following verses — 9:30 and 9:31 — give the alleged religious perversity of Jews and Christians as the reasons for targeting them for conquest. Not very ecumenical. Donner thus cherry-picks his evidence from the Koran and simply ignores the counter-evidence.

rezanno says:

Starting right from the days of the Crusades till today who have been the most bloodthirsty murderous people? We all know the answers. One only has to read William Blum,Howard Zinn,David Stannard to know how ‘civilized’ the Christians have been. The annihilation of some 100 million native peoples of America by the European Christians who call themselves ‘proud Americans’ today live in a land that is not their own. With alarming racist beliefs these white Europeans in the name of Christianity uprooted some ten million black Africans from their native lands only to bring them chained like animals to build the ‘newly found land of America’.
Not so long ago a Catholic named Adolf Hitler annihilated six million Jews of Europe just because he thought they were not ‘real’ Europeans.
Not so long ago the great Christian country of the US did not hesitate to drop the first atomic weapon on another race sending into oblivion some 4 million odd civilians the radioactive impact of which is seen even till today. The first country to use chemical weapons were the Christian government of America. During this unfair and cruel war on another race it is estimated that 3000 civilians mostly women and children were slaughtered with the world’s deadliest weapons including chemical ones. This trend continued during the Gulf war where laser bombs were used to slaughter Iraqi soldiers even after they agreed for a cease fire. A million people were slaughtered with the deadliest of weapons in Iraq the reason being a ‘war’ that was based on lies.The same trend is being followed in Afghanistan since ten years. Drone attacks have illegally killed 2000 innocent peasants in the northern areas of Pakistan.In Libya today depleted uranium,dime bombs,cluster bombs and mini atomic weapons,cruise missiles,helicopter gunships are being used to ‘save’ the Libyan people. Such hypocrisy,such lies,such brutality,such racism and inhuman behaviour is seen from ‘civilized’western Christians today. Reflect!

forsythe says:

Blowing smoke to disguise the bomb under the burqa. More Moslem ‘tu quoque’ fallacies from ‘rezanno’.

We are discussing what motivated Arabs to ride horses from Medina into central France and the to the borders of China within 100 years of Mohammed’s death…it was not ‘peace, love and ecumenism’ as Fred Donner suggests preposterously.

The Sira’s version of events rings true: Arabs had a vision of their divine calling to dominate through violence. It was what all the Moslem generals have said themselves down to Bin Laden. They fight for the supremacism of Islam as a political power.

Moslems simply can’t accept the validity of anyone objecting to being dominated and enslaved by a 7th century desert DEATH CULT.

Is it your post or maybe somebody else wrote it? Because i`m thinking about this situation and i don`t know what to think about it. I`m really confused that.

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world traveller says:

Patricia Crone always offers incisive analysis of the nebulous origins of Islam. Thanks for publishing this article!


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Among the Believers

A new look at the origins of Islam describes a tolerant world that may not have existed

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