- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (May 7, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674064143
- ISBN-13: 978-0674064140
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 28 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #142,114 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam Reprint Edition
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“Donner is one of the leading scholars of early Islam in the world. No other book I know of distills the often highly arcane and dispersed stuff of scholarship on the first century of Islamic history into such an accessible narrative account that, in addition, offers a compelling new interpretation on the formation of Islamic confessional identity. A tremendous achievement.”―Ahmet Karamustafa, Washington University in St. Louis
“This is an invaluable book. Not only does it provide a sane and lucid guide to the origins of Islam, a topic that is currently more mired in controversy than any other in the entire field of ancient history, but it is also a stimulating and original work of scholarship in its own right.”―Tom Holland, author of Millennium
“Donner presents the intriguing view that the early Islamic movement, as presided over by Muhammad, actively included Jews and Christians in the flock as part of a general monotheistic community. It was only later, after Muhammad's death, that a new generation of Muslims began ritualizing Islam with its own distinctive practices, such as the hajj (pilgrimage) and the five daily prayers...He raises many original points, gleaning evidence from everything from coinage to original source documents. Questioning longstanding stereotypes, he argues (and proves) that Muslims are not, by nature, anti-Jewish and also that, based on archeological evidence, Muslims did not routinely tear down churches. The early Muslims, though brutal in war, created a sophisticated and organized civil system. For those curious about Islam's beginnings, no book is as original and as evenhanded as this succinct read.”―Publishers Weekly
“In Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam, Donner takes a fresh look at the heart and soul of Islamic history.”―Joseph Richard Preville, Saudi Gazette
“A learned and brilliantly original, yet concise and accessible study of Islam's formative first century...Donner's explanation of the process by which Muslims came to define themselves is both fascinating and enlightening.”―Max Rodenbeck, New York Times
“It is an excellent introduction to how and why the faith was born, and explains its proliferation in the Middle East and beyond...Donner uses the original text of the Qur'an and other source materials dating from the same period to piece together the history of the faith. What quickly becomes clear is that Islam, and what it means to be a "Muslim," have both changed dramatically since the early days...Muhammad and the Believers is full...of intriguing questions and challenges readers to reconsider what they think they know about Islam...[It's] a rewarding read.”―Dan Sampson, culturemob.com
“Donner is to be commended for posing questions that many mainstream scholars have chosen to leave aside.”―Malise Ruthven, New York Review of Books
“Provocative and accessible...Donner's vision of an "ecumenical Islam" is thought-provoking...Donner's overarching thesis in Muhammad and the Believers is convincing. It sheds light on a world far more fluid and confused than the one we have come to expect from the usual storyline.”―Christian C. Sahner, Times Literary Supplement
About the Author
Fred M. Donner is Professor of Near Eastern History in the Oriental Institute and Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.
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In addition to citing several passages from the Qur’an, Donner adduces a variety of archeological evidence (deriving from documents, buildings, coins, etc.) to support his thesis. However, his assessment of the evidence is highly questionable. As regards the Qur’an, Donner neglects to consider many passages in the text – which Donner conservatively dates to the time of Muhammad – that seem to draw a sharp distinction between the true religion of Islam and the false religions of Judaism and Christianity. Moreover, the passages from the Qur’an that Donner does consider are difficult to interpret; and, while Donner claims that they reflect a fluid conception of Islam’s boundaries with Judaism and Christianity, it far from obvious that he has understood them correctly. Given the rigor of his previous work, I was surprised by how fast and loose he plays with the text of the Qur’an in this book. (For a more sophisticated – though still introductory – treatment of the relevant passages, see Carl W. Ernst’s "How to Read the Qur’an.") Donner’s handling of the archeological evidence isn’t much better. While some of the evidence is consistent with his thesis, none of it provides strong support for that thesis, and some supports no conclusions whatsoever.
Some of Donner’s arguments are especially bad. For example, on p. 222-23 he cites the fact that John of Damascus (ca. 676-749 CE) described Islam as a “heresy” as evidence in favor of his thesis. But the fact that John of Damascus described Islam as a “heresy” doesn’t show that he viewed Islam as a genuine – albeit flawed – sect of Christianity, and it certainly doesn’t reveal anything about the views of contemporary Muslims on the issue. After all, Christian writers like Irenaeus commonly applied the term “heresy” to religious sects that they regarded as non-Christian, and many Jewish writers in late antiquity continued to describe Christianity as a Jewish heresy long after Christians began viewing themselves as a separate faith. Actually, when one turns to John of Damascus’s writings, one sees that he applied the term “heresy” to both paganism and Judaism, and it’s quite clear that he didn’t regard either as a (deviant) branch of Christianity. Unfortunately, many of the archeological arguments that Donner employs are no more persuasive than this one, and the archeological evidence as a whole is unconvincing.
I want to be clear on the following point: I do not see any strong evidence – whether archeological or otherwise – that contradicts Donner’s thesis except for several passages in the Qur’an. If I am wrong about the interpretation of the Qur’an, Donner’s thesis would not be vindicated, as the archeological evidence would still be too weak to support his thesis. However, the archeological evidence is (as far as I can tell) consistent with his thesis, and if the Qur’an were silent on the issue then I would say that Donner has done the field of Islamic studies a great service in identifying an important hypothesis about the origins of Islam which, though not strongly supported by the available evidence, is nonetheless consistent with it – a weaker result than Donner intends, to be sure, but a significant one all the same. So then, how confident am I about my interpretation of the Qur’an? Pretty confident, I would say, but I won’t run through the relevant passages here. I admit that the Qur’an can be exceedingly – if not impossibly – difficult to interpret in places, and that it may not be entirely consistent in its attitudes toward Jews and Christians. Still, I think that the bulk of the relevant passages exhibit a strong differentiation between Islam on the one hand and Judaism and Christianity on the other, and that this is the position of the Qur’an on the whole. I suppose that Donner might want to argue at this point that Muhammad and the early Muslims interpreted these passages differently or simply disregarded them, but there is no reason to take these suggestions seriously. He also might want to argue that the existence of passages in the Qur’an that are critical of Judaism and Christianity need not constitute decisive evidence that the Qur’an views those religions as distinct confessions from Islam, but again I think that the Qur’an speaks rather clearly on this point.
Incidentally, it is worth pointing out that Donner agrees that the inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock (c. 691 CE) express anti-Jewish and anti-Christian polemic, and that they were produced by Muslims who viewed Judaism and Christianity as religious confessions distinct from Islam. But these inscriptions consist almost entirely of paraphrases of the Qur’an, and while there is no logical absurdity in the idea that the Qur’anic passages were interpreted in a much more ecumenical spirit by the first Muslims than they were by the Muslims who built the Dome of the Rock – such changes in interpretation are commonplace in the history of religion – in this case I think that the Muslims who built the Dome of the Rock understood the passages in precisely the way that they were originally intended.
I should say a quick word about the hadith, sira, and early Islamic historical narratives. These works reflect the traditional Islamic view that Muslims sharply distinguished themselves from Jews and Christians since the beginning of Islam, and so they might seem to contain rather strong evidence against Donner’s thesis. However, these works are relatively late, and their accuracy on this issue cannot be assumed. Thus, Donner sets them aside, as I believe he is justified in doing. Still, given the failure of Donner’s arguments to establish his thesis, I think it is natural to assume that these texts, though relatively late, present an accurate portrait of how the earliest Muslims understood Judaism and Christianity.
Despite these problems, Donner’s book has several virtues, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Islam. For example, it contains a lively and critical (though perhaps a bit too trusting in places) presentation of the origins of Islam as found in the early Islamic sources. Moreover, while Donner has failed to present a strong case for his thesis, the book is full of interesting insights about early Islamic history. Finally, the book contains an eighteen page guide to scholarly publications on early Islamic history and related subjects that is full of useful recommendations.
 This thesis was adumbrated but not developed in the former book.