Fred M. Donner’s Muhammad and the Believers: at the Origins of Islam is a novel interpretation of early Islamic history that attempts to strike a balance between the position defended by those historians who accept the traditional Muslim narrative in its general outline and the various revisionist scholars who reject that narrative as a form of salvation history that cannot be used by a modern historian, or at least, must be approached with a high degree of skepticism. Donner’s main thesis is that the early community of Muhammad was not “Muslim,” in the sense of its members being followers of an exclusivist religion called Islam. Rather, Muhammad’s early followers must simply be called believers (mu’minūn). They constituted an ecumenical movement of monotheist believers that included former pagans as well as Jews and Christians. Based on this premise, Donner also argues that the so-called conquests should neither be considered Arab conquests nor Muslim ones. Instead, they represent the mostly peaceful expansion of an ecumenical group of believers driven by religious piety. Importantly, this expansion was successful because the communities of the larger Near East had no problem identifying with al-Mu’minūn and additionally saw them as a better alternative to their former political rulers. It would take a long time, namely up to the time of the Umayyad Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān (d.705), for Islam to develop into a distinct religion, separate from Judaism and Christianity.
The book consists of five chapters. The first chapter, entitled “The Near East on the Eve of Islam,” introduces the reader to the world of the Near East before the career of Muhammad. Here, the author provides the usual presentation of the two competing powers that were the Byzantine and Sassanian empires, as well as the world of Arabia. A particularly important point for the rest of the author’s argument is the presence of strong pietistic tendencies in the Near Eastern environment of that period.
“Muhammad and the Believers’ Movement” is the title of the second chapter. Donner starts the chapter by giving a summary of the traditional sīra narrative (“biography” of Muhammad). He then highlights the historical shortcomings of this narrative, including the late date of the available sources, the many contradictions contained in them, their concern with numerological symbolism, their suspicious attempts to give a context to Qur’ānic verses after the fact, their generating of elements that fit the contemporary expectations of a true prophet, and the many questions about Muhammad that they leave unanswered. The author stresses how the lack of early Muslim sources makes the historian’s task very difficult. However, it is not a hopeless task either.
Donner cites the existence of a few non-Muslim sources from the seventh century that at least make reference to Muhammad and his followers, thus confirming the existence of a historical Muhammad and the occurrence of an expansion process. Importantly, Donner considers the Qur’ān to be the most reliable Muslim source on the early community. Therefore, it is primarily based on the Qur’ān and secondarily of what Donner calls the “Umma Document” (known elsewhere as the Charter of Medina or Constitution of Medina) that the author builds his argument about what the Believers’ movement stood for. Donner focuses on the Qur’ānic use of the terms al-mu’minūn/alladhīna āmanū which is much more extensive than and used differently from the term muslim. He also highlights the inclusive character of many Qur’ānic verses and of the Umma Document to show the ecumenical character of the movement. Furthermore, the author argues that a close reading of the Qur’ān allows one to know the most important characteristics of the religious worldview and practice of the Believers. Among these are the insistence on living a pious existence that includes a strong ritualistic element, in addition to the centrality of the concepts of one God, God’s messengers, Judgment Day, the Book, and the angels.
Chapter three bears the title, “The Expansion of the Community of Believers.” In this chapter, Donner seeks to show that the so-called conquests did not occur in the triumphalist way presented in Muslim sources. This is strengthened by the striking absence of archeological evidence of any large-scale confrontations, particularly in well-excavated areas. For the author, the reason is that the expansion occurred much more smoothly, with the ecumenical Believers’ movement welcoming other monotheists into its fold along the way. He also sees evidence of this phenomenon in the fact that Christians were part of the administration of the forming empire and that many tribes were friendly to the Believers. Donner does not reject that violent interactions occurred, including bloody raids, but he does not see those conflicts as representative of the general pattern of the expansion. Importantly, he is adamant that the main motivation of the expansion was religious fervor.
In chapter four, “The Struggle for Leadership of the Community,” Donner discusses the serious challenges that the forming community faced in the First and Second Civil Wars. In order to strengthen his overall claims, Donner insists that it is clear from the arguments of the different camps involved in the struggle for leadership that religious piety was the central locus of the definition of authority and legitimacy. In addition, the title chosen for the leader of the community was amīr al-mu’minīn, as attested by contemporary inscriptions. But, Donner notes a shift that occurs in this period towards more structured forms of military and political organization which signals the start of the transition of the movement into a Near Eastern empire.
Chapter five is an attempt to trace the process of this transition. As highlighted by the chapter’s title, “The Emergence of Islam,” Donner identifies a religious shift to “Islam.” He locates the rise of an exclusivist community and a separate religion in the period following the death of Umayyad ruler Mu`āwiyya (r. 661-680) and the struggle for power between Ibn al-Zubayr (d. 692) and the rising Marwanid branch of the Umayyads. With the coming to power of ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān (r. 685-705), who was successful in crashing the opposition, strong steps were taken to solidify this new religious framework. This can be seen in the building of the Dome of the Rock, in the appearance of the full shahāda on the coins (showing a new focus on Muhammad), and in the move towards the use of the terms “Muslim” and “Islam,” as a way to exclude Jews and Christians from the community.
Muhammad and the Believers is well-written and very accessible. As explained by the author himself, the book is geared towards a non-specialist audience. Thus, it eschews providing detailed notes. While this makes the reading smooth for the lay person, it is at times frustrating for the informed reader. Donner makes many strong and interesting claims and yet the reader is not guided to where exactly the author found his evidence. One might argue that scholars have access to Donner’s other writings in specialized journals and publications. However, it remains that, given the popularity and accessibility of this particular book and given that Donner develops here some themes that he mentioned in passing elsewhere, it would have been useful to provide more notes and references.
I would suggest that many of the author’s arguments would stand critical inquiry and would be used and developed by scholars for years to come. For instance, his claim that it took decades for Islam to emerge as a complete religion is commonsensical and is corroborated by how other religious traditions have developed. This is particularly clear in the case of Christianity and Judaism. Historians of both religious traditions have long established the long gestation period of each. It is also evident that the term Islam is not prominent in the Qur’ān and that the early community of Muhammad perceived itself in terms that are different from those presented in the later full-fledged tradition. Moreover, most historians of Islam would agree that the rule of ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān is a turning point in pushing forward a better defined and triumphalist religious identity.
However, a number of other elements in the book are not as convincing. First, methodologically, Donner is not consistent. If one is going to be skeptical about traditional Muslim literature, one must also admit that it is not self-evident that the Qur’ān is representative of the life of the early community. As highlighted by the work of different scholars, there are many ways to approach the development of the Qur’ān. This does not only concern the possible longer gestation period of the musḥaf (Qur’ānic codex), but also the possibility of archaic materials having been tied to Muhammad and incorporated into the Qur’ānic texts. The lack of historical evidence makes the situation far from ideal for the historian to be able to confidently speak about the Qur’ān’s exact relation to the early community. Of course, from the perspective of the traditional Muslim believer, this discussion is irrelevant, given the way that Muslims came to view their scripture’s divine origin and God’s protection of its content. But the author is certainly not presenting the believers’ perspective, having seriously challenged some key elements in the latter. The question becomes even more pressing in the case of the other document that Donner utilizes, namely the “Umma Document,” which is only attested in much later sources.
Significantly, although Donner only bases his historical reading on the Qur’ān and the Umma Document, the picture he draws of the early Believers is colored by the later Muslim interpretive traditions that are familiar to us. In other words, if one were to read the Qur’ānic text in a vacuum, the picture that one would draw might not necessarily be as coherent and as “Islamic” as Donner presents. Furthermore, within the Qur’ān there are tensions that challenge the ecumenical picture that the author proposes. It is true that many verses of the Qur’ān are very inclusive, others however are harshly critical of Jews and Christians. And in the latter verses, one will have difficulty locating the spirit of the ecumenical Believers’ movement that is supposed to have lasted for long decades. To deal with these tensions, traditional Muslim readings generally preferred the interpretive tool of naskh (abrogation of earlier verses by later ones) and some modern Muslims have utilized thematic readings of the Qur’ān to differentiate the universal from the contextual in Qur’ānic teachings. In the case of the frame of “the Believers’ Movement,” it is not apparent how the tensions are to be reconciled.
Surprisingly, Donner draws heavily on later Muslim traditions to discuss the expansion period and the Civil Wars. Why then does he reject the use of Muslim traditions and accounts about Muhammad and his contemporaries? It is not clear what makes the sources of this period more trustworthy. The literature on both periods comes from later times and contains what one could term, following Mohammed Arkoun, mytho-history. This does not mean that they cannot be used, but Donner’s utilization of some sources and not others strikes this reader as somewhat arbitrary.
The other element that might not be convincing is the claim that the conquests ought not to be described as Arab. Donner explains that this category of Arab is a nationalist perspective that did not exist at this historical juncture. I agree that approaching the historical materials anachronistically through the lens of nationalism as understood in later historical contexts would be problematic. But, one cannot ignore that there was a common language in the area and that the Qur’ān itself, a text that Donner privileges, proudly describes itself as an Arabic Qur’ān (qur’ānan ʿarabiyyan). I would even suggest that a viable alternative to Donner’s thesis of an ecumenical movement that included Christians and Jews is that the community that grew around the Qur’ān saw itself as being parallel to the other communities of the people of the Book. The Qur’ān itself seems to be presenting itself as an embodiment of a celestial Book in an Arabic idiom for a people that hitherto were “ummiyyūn” i.e. without a revealed scripture. In this sense, the Qur’ān then raised Arabic-speaking tribes to the level of a people of the Book. Therefore, one can at some level speak of Arab conquests. More importantly, these conquests were likely driven by a variety of socio-economic factors. Religion played a particular role in the process, but it was one factor amongst many. One can argue that it is within the frame of expansion into the larger Near East and beyond and within the political transformation into empire/empires that the rudimentary religious framework of the Arabs slowly developed into Islam, as a more complex and sophisticated religious tradition in which participated, in very rich ways, people of many ethnicities and backgrounds.
It remains that Professor Donner’s contribution is as always highly valuable. Not only is the book accessible to all kinds of readers, it is also full of insights that will inspire research in all kinds of directions. Read it!