A Reflective Summary Upon
Fred M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam, (Cambridge: First Harvard University Press, 2012)
By Reid S. Monaghan
Summary of Book
Fred Donner has provided us a solid resource in his recent, concise summary of the early years of the religious, social, and political movement which would expand into waves of empire and a major world religion. The book’s ambitions are quite simple and executed with determined focus. He set out to reverse a long tradition in western Islamic studies which presents the movement in mere sociopolitical and nationalistic terms. Donner’s view is that what became the world of Islam and Muslims began as a movement of believers and piety and a desire to stand in the coming and final judgment of God.
Donner sets about his goal by presenting a concise volume with five major chapters. The first presents the pre-Islamic world of the ancient near east ruled by vast and persisting empires with various existing religious visions. First, the Byzantines were to the north and west of the birthplace of Islam and were the heirs of the Roman Empire. This was a Christian realm, though it was divided by inextricable theological disputes. The second, and to the east, was the Sasanian, the extension of the Persian empire that reigned into the times of Muhammad. This initial chapter is important as it gives the social and religious context into which the community of the Believers would expand.
The second chapter introduces us to the basic biography of the Muhammad and gives an introduction to the reader of the difficultly of finding source materials about these early days. There is an abundance of Islamic sources, but the corroborating evidence is scarce. Donner makes it clear here, and in later chapters, that the historian must traverse the traditional sources and try to make sense of the material. Though the tradition is many times contradictory and may be embellished for various reasons, he still sees validity in the traditional writings of Islamic history. Even as corroborative sources are lacking, they are still to be treasured. For example, the excerpt regarding Muhammad by Thomas the Presbyter gives corroboration to the historicity of the prophet. This chapter gives the basic narrative of the prophet’s life, struggles, and claims of receiving revelations from God. We are introduced to the lands of Arabia and the two towns, Mecca and Medina, that loom so large in Islamic history. In addition to the life of Muhammad, this chapter also introduces some of the basic beliefs that the people who became identified as Believers held to with a pious devotion. A strict monotheism, a coming judgement, and adherence to a prophetic, revelatory tradition were all believed by the people who would some day be remembered as Muslims. Their devotion to prayer and obedience was central to the community and would follow them into their future.
Chapter three gives us insight in the the rapid and awesome expansion of the movement in a very short period of time. Donner makes the remarkable observation at the onset of the chapter: “This expansion lasted, with various interruptions, for roughly a century and carried the hegemony of the community of Believers as far as Spain and India—truly an astonishing feat.” (Donner, 90) This chapter begins with the last days of the prophet, the conquest of Mecca, and the political unification of the city under Muhammad. The story continues with period following the death of Muhammad, the succession of leadership of the community to Abu Bakr, and the subsequent title of the leader as the commanders of the believers. The first major conquests were the unification of Arabia in a series of sorties know as the Ridda wars. The continued expansion flowed out of an eschatological vision of the Last Judgment and a unification of the future world under the one God. This was the duty of the community to bring God’s revelation to the world and call all pious monotheists together as one. It is at this point that Donner has an interesting discussion of the Islamic conquest narrative tradition as well as a few corroborative sources from the time. Each of these involves war and battle, yet Donner chooses to follow an argument from the lack of archaeological evidence of destructive warfare to paint a more gentile vision of peoples being assimilated under the rule of the Believers.
Chapter four focused on the struggle for leadership succession in the community following the first few commanders, Abu Bakr and Uthman, after the death of Muhammad. The succession was a challenging thing for the community because neither the Qur’an or the direct teaching of the prophet spelled out who should lead the community after his departure. In light of this, it seems that the piety and close relationship to Muhammad are what held sway. The two periods of civil war following the assassination of Uthman were the bulk of the chapter and the big picture of these divisions was fascinating. The origins of the Shiite and Sunni communities is the result of a people striving for control of what was quickly becoming an imperial power. Though some of the narrative was a bit tedious at times, this chapter in Islamic history cannot be overstated in terms of its importance. These conflicts created a fracture in the community that persists into our times today.
The fifth and final chapter is appropriately named in order to match Donner’s presentation of the history of the movement: “The Emergence of Islam.” In this chapter Donner presents the story of how a movement that began in broad monotheistic piety became the religious empire of Islam. After the civil wars, the imperial project of expansion engaged with ferocity. The building of the the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, according to Donner, was placed to be a focal point of the coming Last Judgment to take place in the holy city. The chapter then focuses on the community seeing itself re-defined as Muslims and not simply Believers. The Muslim is a Believer who holds to Quranic laws and was to to be seen as different that Believers of Christian and Jewish monotheism, who held to their own holy books. It was also during this period of history, roughly the end of the 7th century AD, that the hadiths, or writings of Muhammad, began to be written down. These writings gave legitimacy to various practices of the community. The Qur’an is also given primacy over the Torah (Jewish law) and the Injil (the Christians gospel). Donner’s final comments on this transitionary period are related to the rejection of trinitarian ideas by the Islamic elite, the centralization of Arabic identity, and a clarification and codification of pious Islamic practice. Donner seems to write of a loss of an early monotheistic unity into the fully credal Islam, which is now distinct and at odds with the rest of the Abrahmic faiths.
Strengths of the Work
I personally found many strengths in Donner’s work. First, the focus on the Pre-Islamic monotheistic faiths present in the near east was helpful to see the context of early montheism of the Believers. Second, I thought Donner’s focus on the clarity and focus of the early community was very helpful. The unity of the people around religious devotion, the oneness of God, and the last judgment were themes that helped make sense of a world coming out from paganism and polytheism. Furthermore, the prevalence of world-unifying (dominating?) ideas permeating the world surrounding Arabia shows that Islamic expansion was less miraculous aggression and more of the same type of movement albeit from a different source and ideology. A third strength of the work was his willingness to use Islamic tradition, and even the Qur’an, as main parts of the narrative without giving way to a full historical skepticism. As a Christian, I have seen the discounting of Christian sources by historians time and time again simply because they are, well, Christian. Allowing a community to speak its own history, while seeking corroboration and without theological acquiescence is a noble project. This lead to Donner’s treasuring of extant sources which could provide some guidance or alignment to the tradition. A word from a Presbyter, a homily of a bishop, an inscription on a coin as wonderful collaborative, thought scarce, jewels for the historian were clearly seen.
Overall, the main weakness I found in the work was the ponderous style of the civil war narratives. I found reading these to be a bit cumbersome, though his concluding summary did provide some help. I’m not sure if this was just a preference of style or the burden of reading so many transliterated names, but I just wanted these civil wars to end.
A second critique was Donner’s overall project. He seems to present a “Proto-Islamic period” as a state that could have persisted in the assimilation of and the welcoming of Christians. This is an endearing feeling I get from reading Donner, but one of which I am personally a bit skeptical. The seeds of the full Islamic flower were already present in the nascent community and the coming subjugation can be seen in the taxation systems and the examples of the roles taken on by Christians in this age. The seeds of the ascendancy of Quranic, Arab-centric Islam is present from the beginning and perhaps it only needed time and power to stretch out its legs into its more mature form. Even Donner’s interpretation of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is very charitable while others have taken its erection, inscriptions, and dominance to mean other, more ominous things.
Though he makes an interesting argument, his presentation of a Pre-Islamic, Islam as something welcoming to Christians and others seems tendentiously stretched. I sensed a move by Donner to over-realize certain facts into a full-blown community of equality among monotheism(s). This unity Donner desires to see is either a modern, western fantasy or something quickly evaporated once the Believers had sufficient power to implement their project of conquest.
Appraisals and Appropriation of the Work
As I leave Donner’s work, I am taking with me one major appraisal and appropriation. Though I struggled a bit to see the early Believers community as optimistically, I do think seeking the things we have in common with our Muslim friends is a wise and fruitful posture. The commonalities between the faith of Muslims and Christians are are real, historical, and a starting place for discussion with Islamic friends. The question I am taking with me is which common ground to start with in our practical witness to our Muslim friends. Historically speaking, Christians, the Believers, and Jews have endured so many centuries of conflict and atrocities on all sides that it can be difficult to begin conversations with history. I have found this can quickly devolve into debates about modern geopolitical concerns or more ancient ones involving Frankish knights.
In terms of commonality I think I can take great solace in two primary moves. First, I think all Christians can initially speak of the historical Muhammad with some respect. This is not only practical in avoiding conflict, but also sincere in terms of historical appreciation. I am not saying we should feign any sort of false allegiance or acknowledgement of propheticity, but rather a conversational respect for such an influential man who is honored and highly respected by the Muslim community. Second, I think we can start with an acknowledgement of the seeds of the Islamic theological movement. As Jesus and monotheism are both held in high regard I think we should speak openly and freely about Jesus’s saving work, the grace of God, and the unity, yes even, trinity of God. Donner’s tone is one of respect for the Community of Believers which I think ought to encourage the Christian witness and apologist to approach Islam in the same posture. After all, we have our own holy book that teaches us:
…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
1 Peter 3:15–16 (ESV)