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Muhammad and the People of the Book

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Muhammad and the


of the


Sahaja Carimokam

Copyright © 2010 by Sahaja Carimokam.

			Library of Congress Control Number: 2010910263

			ISBN: Hardcover 978-1-4535-3784-8

			ISBN: Softcover 978-1-4535-3783-1

			ISBN: Ebook 978-1-4535-3785-5

			All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

			This book was printed in the United States of America.

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			Foreword to Muhammad and the People of the Book: Our Question and Method

			Chapter 1: The Early Life of Muhammad

			Chapter 2: The Early Revelations 609-612 CE

			Chapter 3: The Middle Mecca Period 613-614 CE

			Chapter 4: Late Meccan Period 615-619 CE

			Chapter 5: Muhammad Extends His Appeals CE 619-622

			Chapter 6: The Hijra: Immigration to Yathrib (Medina)

			Chapter 7: The Battle of Badr and Its Aftermath

			Chapter 8: Middle Medina Period (CE 623-624)

			Chapter 9: What Happened to the Banu Qurayza? The Battle of Khandaq and Its Aftermath.

			Chapter 10: The Treaty of Hudaybiya and the Destruction of the Jews of Khaybar

			Chapter 11: The Conquest of Mecca

			Chapter 12: Muhammad’s Conquests, Death, and the Final Two Chapters of the Qur’an

			Chapter 13: The Historical Reliability of the Sources

			Chapter 14: The Rejection of Al ‘Azl in the Proper Treatment of Non-Muslim Captive Women






			This book is an enquiry into the life of one of the most important human beings of world history, Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. Within fifty years, this religion will be the largest world religion not only encompassing the Middle East, but also expanding into regions where Muslims have never been a population factor before. In the face of this worldwide demographic and ideological expansion, it is essential for Westerners to understand this religion in terms of its earliest sources. It is to these sources that Muslims are turning in their search for a true expression of Islam. Malise Ruthven points out that the “sociological reductionism” of present Western analysis, which sees the current crisis as merely a “revolt against national secular elites,” misses the true nature of this revival. He states, “Much of what was happening in the Muslim communities today could only be understood in terms of the unfolding and implementing of theology.”[1]

			Theology is not important in the Western world today. Therefore, Westerners have few tools with which to analyze the thinking of Muslims. The West doesn’t “get it” because the West seems to be able to analyze only within a secular framework. This study is the product of a group of theological students who are looking at Muhammad through the lens of theology. Specifically, we want to understand Muhammad’s vision of the nature of God and how that affected his relations with fellow monotheists. We are studying this chronologically through the life of the Prophet.

			This research is based on some of the early documents on the life of Muhammad. We wanted to understand Muhammad in terms that would be most relevant for a Western reader and Western society in general. The main question we are seeking to answer is this: What was the nature of Muhammad’s relations with non-Muslims from the beginning of his prophetic work, and how did it change during his lifetime? The phrase “People of the Book” is the Qur’an’s (Islam’s holy book) most frequent title for Jews and Christians and therefore relates to how the Muslims regarded other monotheistic communities. However, we have not ignored Muhammad’s relations with other non-Muslims, such as the pagans of Mecca. We have studied this in a chronological fashion to determine what shifts occurred in the Prophet’s view of these communities over time. These shifts have to do primarily with theological conceptions. David Marshall points out that this historical progression is largely a conflict between the “ideal” Christianity (and Judaism) which Muhammad understood as precursors to Islam and the “real” Christianity that he encountered gradually over the course of his work.[2] Marshall does an excellent job of describing this progression in the Prophet’s viewpoint. This study is an attempt to spell out the nature of this progression in the early Islamic historical and Qur’anic context.

			Our primary source for this research has been an early biography of Muhammad. The work is entitled The Life of Muhammad, and was authored by Ibn Ishaq around 750 CE. It is available from Oxford University Press in English translated by Alfred Guillaume. In our opinion, this book should be on the reading list of everyone in the Western world because it presents an early interpretation of Muhammad’s life by a Muslim. Further, it is much more understandable than the Qur’an, as it is written in chronological order with dates, places, and individuals clearly identified. As is true of all the early biographies of Muhammad, the aspect of his relationship to non-Muslims is primary from the very first page. Ibn Ishaq’s work dates from around CE 750 or from about one hundred and twenty years after the events that it describes. It should be noted that the original text is only known from the version edited by Ibn Hisham around 810, 178 years after the death of the Prophet. As we have studied Ibn Ishaq’s biography, we followed two methodological principles. First, we have emphasized the things that Ibn Ishaq emphasizes. We allow the text to set the agenda. Some of the material appears to be eulogy/hagiographic; stories of the miracles of Muhammad or the signs of his appearing. Nevertheless, these stories reflect Muslim opinions of Muhammad and are, therefore, included. We have also consulted three other early biographers of Muhammad, Al-Waqidi, Al-Tabari, and Ibn Kathir.

			When writers, Western or Muslim, have commented directly on the historicity of particular events, we have consulted them, though we do not pretend to be comprehensive. The major issues of the historicity of the texts are considered primarily in chapter 13. It should be kept in mind that all of these “histories” are polemic works intended to demonstrate the superiority of Islam and the perfections of the Prophet. To use an American analogy, they are like a history of the Indian wars written by George Armstrong Custer. The history they present is sanitized and highly slanted. Opponents of the Prophet are generally presented in the worst possible light.

			In this context, when atrocities by heros are admitted, we have every reason to believe that they are historical. These events became foundational to Islamic law (sharia). That is the issue of the twenty-first century; not that such things happened 1,450 years ago, but that those events are now considered canonical as expressions of theology and therefore exemplary for modern Muslims. The Prophet’s sunnah or “practices” are the practical outworkings of Islamic theology and are the primary source of the present ideological struggle between the West and the Muslim world.

			Our second source is the Qur’an itself, the holy book of Islam. While the book contains little in terms of historical information, it is the only source that can reasonably be traced to Muhammad himself. We have read it in chronological order, according to the outline of Theodore Nöldeke, which is generally accepted by Muslims, rather than in its textual order. This is a part of our effort to see the progression of the text’s viewpoint on non-Muslims. Where Muslim commentators have mentioned a specific historical context relating to non-Muslims we have noted that, though this is often inaccurate. Critical issues with regard to the text of the Qur’an are also discussed in the final chapter. An excellent brief summary of the Western chronological views on the progression of the Qur’an is found in Gerhard Bowering’s article, “Recent Research on the Construction of the Qur’an.”[3] The importance of the chronology of the Qur’an lies in the issue of abrogation (naskh), by which Muslims interpreted certain earlier passages in the Qur’an as abrogated or cancelled by later contradictory passages. All of this relates to the unfolding of Muhammad’s relationship with Jews and Christians and with non-Muslims in general.

			Finally, we have read through three of the canonical collections of Sunni Muslim Hadith (traditions of the Prophet) looking specifically at all references to non-Muslims. Practically, this has meant Jews and Christians (the “People of the Book”) as polytheists’ figure in a relatively minor way in the Hadith. Historically, by the time the Hadith were compiled the polytheist community in Arabia had ceased to exist and pragmatically the main non-Muslim religious communities were the Jews and Christians. In the history of Islam, rules that applied to the “People of the Book” also were sometimes applied to other religious groups that were conquered by Muslim armies. This includes Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and Hindus. Historically, “People of the Book” can mean, “non-Muslims,” or even “non-Arabs,” since some Arab Christians were forcibly converted to Islam in spite of being “People of the Book.” We have studied the Hadith of Bukhari, Muslim, and Dawud, all collected during the third century of Islam. It should be noted that Hadith literature relates largely to the Medinan period of the Prophet’s life. The events of this period were analyzed to determine legal principles for the law courts of the Muslim empire. Once again we will consider the historical issues relating to this literature in chapter 13.

			In order to better understand the text of the Qur’an, we have consulted with several collections of commentary literature (tafsir). Primary is the Tafsir Ibn Kathir, a ten volume work translated in Saudi Arabia and available in most mosques and Muslim bookstores across the United States. Ibn Kathir was born in 1302 CE in Syria. He was famous as a “mufassir” or interpreter of the Qur’an and wrote a history of the Prophet that was also consulted for this work. We have also utilized the commentary of Al-Tabari (d. 923 CE) concerning chapter 2 of the Qur’an. These are older traditional commentaries on the Qur’an that form the bedrock of how Muslims interpret the Qur’an today. The modernist viewpoint in commentary is represented by Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s own copious notes on his translation of the Qur’an dating from 1938. This is still the most popular English translation of the Qur’an in the Muslim community in the English speaking world.

			In the course of our study, another aspect of Islam was deemed important enough in light of the texts to give it special emphasis. This is the aspect of Islam as a fusion of religion with political-military policies. During the Medinan period of Muhammad’s life, it becomes clear that the prophet’s main goal was to establish a political state based on the Shahada (confession of faith) as an obligatory oath of allegiance taken by his army. We decided that tracing the evolution and formation of this concept from the earliest times was essential to understanding the nature of Islam as a practical theology of the kingdom of God on earth. It seemed to us that Muhammad formed Islam in the mold of a new theocracy on earth like the early Israelite nation with Muhammad filling the role Moses occupies in the Old Testament. The difference, of course, lay in its universality. While the Jews sought to establish a kingdom only in their “promised land,” the Muslim kingdom was meant to encompass the whole earth. The first hundred years of Islam, which witnessed one of the most rapid series of military conquests in world history, demonstrated the political and military genius of the Prophet. It seems that Westerners have for too long regarded Muhammad primarily as a religious leader. That he was. But religion or perhaps more accurately, theology, in the conception of Muhammad provided the glue and rationale for an empire; the only empire in world history established from the beginning on the basis of religion. This viewpoint is obvious in all of the Muslim texts. Islam, which claims to be a “complete code of life,” as a political and military concept, needs greater illumination and that forms an initial assumption in our study of the Prophet’s life.

			What other assumptions underlie our study? The question of the historicity of the texts is extremely important for Westerners. We are skeptics by nature. However, we would caution that this issue is largely irrelevant for Muslims. Muslims believe these accounts to be historically true. For the purposes of dialogue, this assumption must simply be accepted. There are major historical problems presented by all of our sources; we have nevertheless assumed that there is a historical core to these texts. They are sanitized versions of history meant primarily for propaganda purposes. We will note contradictions and issues of historicity as we move along.

			The assumption that a historical core can be demonstrated from the texts underlies our thesis. We believe that some of the information provided is historically true if for no other reason than that many of the stories, though sanitized, are distasteful in the extreme. History demonstrates that when loyalists tell unpleasant stories about their heros, those stories have a strong claim to credibility. The tragedy of modern historical critical writings on Islam in the late twentieth century is that they tend to sanitize the Islamic texts. They produce a sanitized version of an already sanitized version of history. In other words, they produce propaganda. We would invite anyone to compare Karen Armstrong’s Life of Muhammad with Ibn Ishaq’s history (which is supposedly her source) to see how this works. Not surprisingly, her book is sold on Islamist propaganda web sites. For the Western skeptic, we would, again, refer to chapter 13, where this issue is discussed in depth.

			Our third assumption is that the preponderance of certain historical descriptions indicates their relative importance. This seems fairly obvious. The Battle of Badr receives far more attention than the brief uneventful raid of Al-Kadid. This level of focus seems to correspond to a certain degree with the relative historical certainty of the event. All of the biographical literature about Muhammad follows a similar pattern with the same basic events presented. It is possible that we have left some important, but little noted, events out. It remains for the reviewers of this work to identify our areas of neglect and for subsequent researchers to evaluate their importance in relation to our central thesis.

			A final assumption is that this material is relevant for understanding Muslim relations with non-Muslims today. Muhammad is the paradigm for all Muslims. For them, he is the last and the best and the seal of the Prophets. He is the perfect exemplar in all circumstances for the Muslim community. Everything he did is to be imitated. We shall trace his example in the first twelve chapters of this book. Chapter one covers Muhammad’s life before his call as a Prophet. The following eleven chapters divide the remaining twenty-three years of his life in approximately two-year segments. This is not arbitrary. Muslims typically divide the revelations during the Meccan period of Muhammad’s life into three chronological periods, early, middle, and late. This provides a natural division for this period. Because of some complexities, we have further subdivided the late period into two chapters. In a similar way, the Medinan period can be divided into segments corresponding to important historical events leading up to the death of the Prophet. Chapter 13 is concerned with the historical critical, and source critical issues that relate to our documents and their reliability. Chapter 14 concludes the book with a brief study of one controversial area of Qur’anic teaching and its relevance in modern Muslim practice.

			What is the relevance of this study? First, we consider it essential that Westerners have an opportunity to look at a version of the Prophet’s life that includes the elements that early Muslims thought important as expressions of theology. It is to these theological sources that Muslims are returning. It is equally important to hear the Muslim interpretation of these events as they appraise the significance of the Prophet’s life. These materials, particularly the biographies, are polemic in nature and set out to prove that Muhammad was, indeed, the Prophet of God. In light of the Islamic revival sweeping the planet, these texts are growing in importance today as they point the way back to the true path for Muslims.

			In the course of these studies, we have not avoided showing applications of the Prophet’s behavior to the modern world. We have not, overlooked, ignored, or attempted to explain away certain difficult events, as it seems many Western researchers now do, in the name of pluralistic relativism. They sanitize an already sanitized version of history. It is as if they took as their primary rule that any aspect of the Prophet’s life that seems crude to a Westerner will simply be left out of the description or explained away with rationalizations that fly in the face of the canonical, theological nature of the texts. This is merely a reverse form of value judgment, as if certain items must be sanitized for fear they will inspire judgment. These events are clearly emphasized by the Muslim authors themselves. Since the nineteenth century many orientalists have cautioned against judging the Prophet in terms of modern concepts of right and wrong. However, in the interconnected world of today, ideas have direct consequences, and ideals that apply in the Muslim world are now being argued for the West, such as the application of Sharia law. The actions of the Prophet need to be understood in their historical context, and their consequences for the modern world must also be understood. At the very least, it will help us to appreciate the struggle of moderate Muslims to find a tolerant man of peace in a history of warfare and empire building.

			The final chapter will simply discuss an important question that Muslims need to answer for themselves as they ask the question, how is Islam and its theology to relate to the modern world, and even more importantly, how are Muslims to relate to non-Muslims in the modern world?




			A. Introduction to the Issue of Historicity

			The early life of the Prophet of Islam is a paradox. From the early Muslim writings, we would seem to know a great deal. All the early Muslim biographers include extensive stories and descriptions of the period leading up to the Prophet’s birth and his early life to age forty in Mecca. Yet much of this material is patently mythological. It mixes eulogy and polemic with tidbits of possibly historical material. This can be illustrated through the tradition of Muhammad’s birth date, associated with the “Year of the Elephant,” which has been traditionally ascribed to 570 CE. According to Arab traditions recorded in Ibn Ishaq’s biography, in that year an Abyssinian/Axumite Christian King named Abraha, who controlled Yemen, invaded the Hijaz (area of modern Mecca and Medina). He made an attempt to conquer Mecca with his army that included a large war elephant (hence, the name, “Year of the Elephant”). Ibn Ishaq records that the elephant refused to enter the Meccan domains when told that it was “God’s holy land.” The elephant retreated toward Yemen and God, according to Ibn Ishaq, sent birds who pelted the Abyssinians with pebbles and drove them away.[4]

			Just when we are about to dismiss the entire story as fanciful and invented, we discover that Abraha was not only a historical person, but several ancient inscriptions in his name have been discovered.[5] The so-called “dam inscription of Abraha” from Yemen establishes him as an Abyssinian King in Yemen around the year 539 CE.[6] Recent research has shown that the date of the “Year of the Elephant” is more likely around 550 CE. too early for Muhammad’s birth date. Thus the story is a mixture of the mythological (God talking to elephants and birds dropping pebbles)[7] and the historical (there was a king named Abraha who lived about this time in Yemen) and simple inaccuracy (the date of the “Year of the Elephant”). The inaccuracy has a probable explanation. Early Muslim biographers probably tried to associate Muhammad’s birth with this auspicious date in an effort to demonstrate another of the many miraculous signs that supposedly accompanied the birth of the Prophet. The overlays of the mythological find their echoes in many other events both in the early and later life of the Prophet, such as his throwing pebbles at his enemies at the start of the Battle of Badr.[8] All the early biographers affirm that Muhammad was forty years of age when he began his prophetic work around 609/610 CE.,[9] and the assignment of his birth date to around 570 CE is possibly accurate.

			It will be our purpose in this chapter to work our way through the stories of Muhammad’s life up to age forty with our primary thesis in mind. What influence did Jews and Christians have upon him, and what was the nature of his relationship to them? What were the religious, political, and social circumstances during this period, and how might they have influenced Muhammad’s theological views of those followers of other monotheistic religions? Even the mythological elements will teach us a great deal about Muslim borrowings from other religious traditions particularly as it was appropriated to their own veneration of Muhammad.

			B. The Religious, Political, and Economic

Circumstances in Arabia

			By the beginning of the sixth century CE, polytheism was a dying phenomenon in the Middle East. The Eastern Roman empire had made Christianity its official religion. Most of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey had been converted, at least nominally, to the Christian faith. In the north and east of Arabia lay the Persian Empire with its organized Zoroastrian faith, interspersed with communities of Nestorian Christians. Zoroastrian communities also existed in Arabia.[10] Spread among these two empires were large communities of Jews. Abyssinia/Axum (modern Ethiopia/Eritrea) across the Red Sea from Arabia had become Christian. The bordering Nubian kingdoms were converted to the Christian faith during the middle of the sixth century. Sizeable groups of Jews and Christians existed in Yemen.

			Ibn Ishaq tells the story of the conversion of a Yemeni King to Judaism. Hassan b. Tiban, the king of Yemen, came under the influence of two Jewish rabbis in Yathrib (Medina) during an invasion. He was converted to Judaism, and on his return to Yemen, his pagan people opposed him. A trial by fire was arranged between the rabbis and the pagan priests:

			So his people went forth with their idols and sacred objects, and the two rabbis went forth with their sacred books hanging like necklaces from their necks until they halted at the place whence the fires used to blaze out . . . the fire covered them and consumed their idols and sacred objects and the men who bore them. But the two rabbis came out with their sacred books, sweating profusely but otherwise unharmed. Thereupon the Himyarites accepted the king’s religion. Such was the origin of Judaism in the Yaman.[11]

			The story is clearly a fable and bears a strong resemblance to the story of the three young men in the book of Daniel in the Bible. Nevertheless, after extensive review of ancient Arabian inscriptional materials, Smith concludes, “A strong case can be made out for believing that . . . the dynasty (in Yemen) was Jewish in faith, and connected with Yatrib.”[12] Indeed a large Jewish community existed in Yemen until 1948.

			The early Muslim biographers emphasize about the large and influential communities of Jews and Christians in Arabia, and the wars that were fought between them. Ibn Ishaq describes the conversion of Najran in Yemen to Christianity and the killing of a large number of Christians of Najran[13] by the Jewish Yemeni King Dhu Nuwas.[14] There is considerable inscriptional evidence in favor of the veracity of some events although certainly not the details.[15] Virtually, every tribe in Arabia had members who converted to one of the major monotheistic religions or slaves who had come from a monotheistic background. Stories about Christian monks, priests, and Jewish rabbis abound in these early histories. After the suppression of the Jewish Kings of Yemen by the Christian Abyssinians, the gradual trend in Arabia was toward conversion to Christianity.[16] F. E. Peters notes, “In CE 600 an observer might easily have predicted that within three or four decades the Arabs would be as Christian as the Celts or later Slavs.”[17]

			Aside from the religious divisions, Arabia and its northern extension into modern Iraq was a political football passed between the Persian and Roman empires. The tribes were variously aligned with the Byzantines or the Persians, and the wars between these two empires were fought back and forth across these territories. M. J. Kister comments as follows:

			The rivalry between the Persian and Byzantine empires over the control of the reigns of the Arab peninsula at the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh century is reflected in a number of traditions attributed to the Prophet . . . The struggle between the two empires, in which the two vassal kingdoms of al Hira and Gassan took active part, was closely watched by the unbelievers and Muslims in the different stages of their context.[18]

			An example of a Hadith or historical tradition of this type is found in the collection of Sahih Muslim from the third Islamic century:

			I heard the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) say: you will make a secure peace with the Byzantines, then you and they will fight an enemy behind you, and you will be victorious, take booty, and be safe. You will then return and alight in a meadow with mounds and one of the Christians will raise the cross and say: the cross has conquered. One of the Muslims will become angry and smash it, and the Byzantines will act treacherously and prepare for the battle.[19]

			Muslim biographical and traditional literature reflects this sense of conflict between the surrounding empires and the religions they represented. When the Jews suppressed the Christians in Najran, the Abyssinian Christians invaded Yemen to suppress the Jews. The aforementioned attack of Abraha was probably turned back by an outbreak of smallpox.[20] The occasion of Abraha’s invasion of Mecca arose according to Ibn Ishaq out of his desire to destroy the temple of the Ka’ba established by Abraham. Abdu’l-Muttalib, the grandfather of the Prophet prays “O God, a man protects his dwelling, so protect Thy dwellings. Let not their cross and their craft overcome Thy craft.”[21] Monologues of this type are polemic inventions and the story contains many elements that anticipate Islam and Islamic conceptions such as the “religion of Abraham.” But it also reflects the attitude of the Arabs toward outside domination, whether by Christians or Zoroastrians. Muhammad was aware of these events and mentioned them in the Qur’an. Surah Al Fil (the Elephant), one of the early Meccan surahs states the following:

			Seest thou not how thy Lord dealt with the people of the Elephant? did he not make their treacherous plan go astray? And he sent against them flights of birds striking them with stones of baked clay.[22]

			Later, the Persians invaded Yemen and captured Sana’a from the Abyssinians. Arabia had become a neutral zone between the great Roman and Persian empires. Conflicts between these two empires were often settled in battle in this neutral zone. Each empire had its client states that it supported as surrogates in the ongoing struggle. Arab soldiers fought on opposite sides, and religious conversion as a sign of loyalty was often expected. The movement from one foreign domination to another is summarized by Ibn Ishaq as follows:

			The period of Abyssinian domination from the entry of Aryat to the death of Masruq ibn Abraha at the hands of the Persians and the expulsion of the Abyssinians was seventy-two years.[23]

			There is an interpretive element in these stories. It is possible that the expression of empire associated with monotheistic religion, in the early Muslim writings, is meant as a precursor to Islam, the last and the “best” of the empires based on religion. The Muslim biographers include citations from the Qur’an, concerning these events and thus use their “history” in the task of exegesis, explaining the Qur’an. When Dhu Nuwas the Jewish king of Yemen slaughtered the Christians of Najran, Ibn Ishaq notes, “Concerning Dhu Nuwas and that army of his, God revealed to his apostle . . .” and Ishaq goes on to cite surah 85:4-8. The Christians mentioned are presented as “Muslims” of the previous revelation also fitting Islamic conceptions that all true believers of history were actually Muslims.[24] These events seem to provide the backdrop illustrating the Muslim view of history and their idea of the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. It is a political kingdom associated with empires.

			The Jewish presence in Arabia is also quite significant. A tombstone at Al-Hijr from as early as 45 BCE mentions the occupant as “Yehudaya.” Samuel Kurinsky notes that Jewish traders in Arabia of this period were able to keep Roman historians and traders in the dark about their sources of cinnamon and East Indies spices. Jewish agents and scouts were involved in the Roman invasion of Arabia in 24-25 BCE. Jewish settlers apparently established many of the communities of Arabia such as Yathrib and Khaybar, and their very names may be etymologically related to Hebrew.[25]

			The economic circumstances of the period are not what they appear. Until recently, Western scholars followed the lead of the early Muslim historians in describing Mecca as the center of thriving overland trade routes.[26] These historians also described Mecca as a bustling urban center. Modern scholarship has shown that Mecca was not the important economic center that Arab tradition claimed. Patricia Crone’s in-depth discussion of the trade routes of the time indicates that Arabia was a declining economic backwater and certainly not the center of any major spice trade in the period of Muhammad’s life. Greek and Roman geographers show no indication of Arabia containing significant urban centers either. Peters mentions this as follows:

			There is no notice by Procopius of the fugitive “Makoraba” sited in Arabia by the Greek geographer Ptolemy, and neither mentions nor even has space for the Quays who are as invisible as Mecca itself in subsequent Byzantine interest in the region.[27]

			Crone notes that perfume was possibly one of the few significant trade items moving though Arabia, probably because it was popular locally. Ibn Ishaq describes an event that seems to confirm this as follows:

			The B. ‘Abdu Manaf brought out a bowl full of scent (they assert that some of the women of the tribe brought it out to them) and they put it for their allies in the mosque beside the Ka’ba and they dipped their hands into it and they and their allies took a solemn oath. Then they rubbed their hands on the Ka’ba strengthening the solemnity of the oath. For this reason they were called the Scented Ones.[28]

			Crone also notes that trade had long since bypassed Arabia in favor of sea routes through the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. This is obliquely confirmed by the early Muslim writers. Both Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Kathir mention a Byzantine merchant ship wrecked off the coast of Arabia whose wood was used in the reconstruction of the Ka’ba prior to Islam, a work supervised by a Coptic Christian.[29] We can see no reason to invent a story like this and it seems to confirm the economic circumstances of the time. Arabia was declining and economically depressed as well as a political football. The trade carried on from Arabia was largely in food and leather products on a subsistence level.

			The Nessan papyri show us a group of Ismaelites who were active at Nessana, some sixty kilometers from Gaza, and who traded in wool, camels, donkeys, grain, and the like, that is, in commodities similar to those handled by Quraysh at very much the same place and time. For what it is worth, the evidence does not suggest that the Meccans dominated the exchange of goods between north Arabia and south Syria, let alone that they enjoyed a monopoly of it.[30]

			These would be factors that could have encouraged a nativist movement of the type that Crone suggests, a movement to elevate Arabia from its intermediary position on the political stage, and to provide new opportunities for economic gain to the impoverished Arab tribes. Muir posited a similar thought in the nineteenth century.[31]

			One final element in the economic structure of Arabia is worthy of note, the intertribal cooperative confederation of hums. Hums was a cooperative system between the tribes that reduced tribal raiding by enlisting the Bedouin in the process of trade.

			F. E. Peters says that the tribe to which Muhammad belonged, Hashim, invented the hums to activate the Meccan economy in reaction to the limitation created by Persian and Byzantine monopoly of trade.

			The Hums, as we shall see, was a confederation of tribes pledged to guarantee the security of Mecca, its House, and the Holy Quraysh. And because trade on any scale in Arabia was rendered difficult by the presence everywhere of predatory bedouin tribes, the agreements (ilaf) negotiated by Hashim with the bedouin provided the final link in the chain of commercial opportunity . . . He managed it (hostile bedouin), according to this same source by engaging the bedouin in the commerce, using their camels, and taking their goods on consignment in return for a share in the profits.[32]

			Ibn Ishaq describes the hums largely as an exploitative system of taxation utilized by the major tribe in Mecca, the Quraysh.[33] Nevertheless, there are striking similarities between this system and the pattern that Muhammad utilized in creating the ummah or congregation of the faithful.[34] The ummah functioned as a supratribal confederation for both military and economic cooperation bound together by the common bond of Islam. This was a confederacy motivated by theology. The harsh Arab environment precluded mutual plunder, and so the idea of ummah (hums) became one of important economic innovation and set the stage, through intertribal unity, for the Islamic wars of expansion during the seventh and eighth centuries. The military element also followed a pattern that already existed among northern Arab tribes. These tribes established military and economic treaties with the Byzantines to circumvent the decline in Arabian trade. These treaties were often facilitated by the tribes converting to the Christian faith. Peters notes the following:

			Arab units were incorporated into the Roman army, and in the fourth century CE the Romans (after this period often called Byzantines in modern scholarship) began to conclude formal treaties (spondai, faedera) with the leaders of various tribal groups, probably those already converted to Christianity, to serve where the needs of the empire dictated.[35]

			As the power of the Byzantines faded around the time of the Prophet, economic problems triggered by the breakdown of established tribal alliances perhaps inspired Muhammad to advance the idea of a uniquely Arab monotheism as a new basis for tribal unity as well as economic and military advance.

			In 575, when Muhammad was small boy . . . the Byzantines had lost control of the eastern Maritimes and were carrying Indian goods only to Sassanian ports. The overland spice trade through Arabia was dead. International trade through Mecca was even less likely in the lifetime of Muhammad than in the time of Hashim.[36]

			The division of Arab society with its different tribal units, each with its own tribal idols, precluded the creation of a unified economic and military power. It seems possible that Muhammad conceived Islam, faith in “One God,” as the glue to hold together this new hums; this new military confederation of Arabian tribes.

			C. Elements in the Biographical Tradition on the

Early Life of the Prophet

			1. The Religion of Abraham as Distinct from

Judaism and Christianity

			The early life of Muhammad in the biographical literature is a product of a thoroughly polemic tradition. Its purpose is to demonstrate that Muhammad is the last Prophet, and that Islam is the final revelation. It arose largely out of a need to define Islam as something different, better, and yet somehow primeval with regard to the other monotheistic traditions. This is accomplished in a number of ways. The Muslim writers defined Islam as the primeval monotheistic religion, the “religion of Abraham.” The Qur’an, of course, was the foundation of this conception. In Muhammad’s theology, all true believers are Muslims, whether they are called Christians or Jews or not. There is an implicit syncretistic element in this meant to appeal to Jews and Christians while yet exalting Islam as both final and primeval. Ibn Ishaq describes how the Arabs had fallen away from their primeval monotheism.

			They say that the beginning of stone worship among the sons of Ismail was when Mecca became too small for them and they wanted more room in the country. Everyone who left the town took with him a stone from the sacred area to do honor to it. Wherever they settled they set it up and walked round it as they went round the Ka’ba. This led them to worship what stones they pleased and those which made an impression on them. Thus as generations passed they forgot their primitive faith and adopted another religion for that of Abraham and Ismail. They worshipped idols and adopted the same errors as the peoples before them.[37]

			This is a backreading into history, a myth created to connect Arabia and Abraham, while at the same time side stepping Judaism and Christianity. This enabled the early Muslim biographers to deny influence of other religions upon Islam by claiming that Islam was the original monotheism restored by revelation from Allah through Muhammad. Ibn Ishaq’s work begins with a genealogy of Muhammad through Abraham back to Adam which, from Abraham, is an exact copy of the Gospel of Luke 3:34-38 with the exception that the name Cainan, mentioned twice in Luke, is only mentioned once by Ibn Ishaq.[38] Muhammad established a pedigree for Arab primitive monotheism based on ideas already widely circulated in the Middle East.

			As regards history, they took up an idea that had circulated at least since the time of the Jewish historian Josephus (d. c. CE 110), that the Arabs were descendants of Ishmael (Ant. 1.214, 2210). With it, they fashioned a religious pedigree for themselves, narrating how Ishmael and his father Abraham had gone to Mecca together and founded the original Muslim sanctuary.[39]

			Various aspects of Arab culture were preserved and glorified by this means. The Meccan sanctuary that had been protected and preserved by the Quraysh is now seen as the creation of Abraham. Quraysh were the purest descendants of Ishmael. As a device for “Arabism,” it was exquisite. It is possible that Muhammad was aided in this device by pre-Islamic notions of monotheism not directly connected to the monotheistic religions. Watt comments on a group referred to as the “Hanafiya” that was defined by the biographers as “the religion of Abraham.”

			It has been recognized by various writers from Julius Wellhausen onward that there is evidence in the Quran that some persons in Mecca, while continuing to recognize the pagan deities and to worship them, regarded Allah or God as creator of the world and a “high god” superior to the other deities (29:61-65; 39:38-39 . . . even though God is acknowledged as creator, some men set up “peers” (andad) or “partners” (shuraka) for him (sura 40:12).[40]

			Wensinck pointed out that this term, hanif, is closely related to the term ummah, referring to the community of believers. He considers that it was originally a derogatory term used by the Jews of Medina to refer to Muhammad and his group. Muhammad adopted the term as an epithet for Abraham and those of his community.[41]The Muslim biographers paint this in much clearer terms. Ibn Kathir relates a pre-Islamic tradition of the Arab search for a (monotheistic) religion.

			Waraqa b. Nawfal told them, ‘By God, you all know that your people have no religion. They have made an enormous mistake and abandoned Abraham’s religion . . . O my people, adopt a religion!’ And so thereupon they left, traveling all over asking about the Hanifiyya, the religion of Abraham.[42]

			In a similar way, the sanctuary at Mecca was appropriated to this primeval religion of Abraham. As a member of the Quraysh tribe, Muhammad must have been well prepared to serve the sanctuary at Mecca, for he had experienced paganism first hand.[43] Rubin notes that the Prophet’s daughters were married to pagans with the approval of the Prophet, and his sons were given pagan names according to Ibn Qutayba (d. AH 276) in his Tawil Mukhtalif al-Hadith.[44] Peters also recognizes Muhammad’s early life in paganism of the Quraysh tribe. “Muhammad was immersed in the same cult practices in which the Quraysh persisted even after God had sent the Guidance ‘to them as well.’”[45] The incident later in Mecca of the “satanic verses”[46] is a further indication of the internal struggle that went on inside Muhammad concerning how much of the cultic practices of Mecca he would adopt to his new faith. We shall return to that particular event later. Hawting notes the following:

			It seems that the Muslim sanctuary at Mecca is the result of a sort of compromise between a preexisting pagan sanctuary ideas that had developed first in a Jewish milieu. I envisage that Muslim sanctuary ideas originated first in a Jewish matrix, as did Islam itself. At a certain stage in the development of the new religion, the need arose to assert its independence, and one of the most obvious ways in which this could be done was by establishing a specifically Muslim sanctuary.[47]

			Muhammad had frequent contact with Jews in his family and with people whom he possibly encountered in the city of Mecca. Lecker shows the evidence of a Jewish heritage in his family line.

			The book of Muhammad b. Habib (d. 245/860) has a special section on “the Qurashis who were sons of Jewish women” (pp. 506-7) . . . The first names on the list of Qurashis who were born to Jewish women in Ibn Habib’s Kitab al munammaq are Safi and Abu Sayfi, the sons of Hashim b. Abd Manaf. Firstly, no one would dare invent such a story concerning the prophet’s great grandfather. Secondly, there is some corroborative evidence to this effect . . . Hashim and al-Muttalib, sons of Abd Manaf, had children from the same woman.[48]

			Muhammad was thus distantly related to the Jewish community in Yathrib (Medina)! This may have been one of the factors that influenced the Hijra “migration” to Yathrib. This also accounts for the preponderance of Jewish oral traditions in the earlier chapters of the Qur’an. In a similar way, Montgomery Watt mentions Muhammad’s possible encounters with Christians in Mecca and on his business trips.

			There were a few Christians in Mecca, of whom one, Khadijah’s cousin, Waraqah b. Nawfal, may have influenced Muhammad considerably; but the majority were probably Abyssinian slaves and not well instructed in the faith. Muhammad would also have seen something of Christianity while trading in Syria.[49]

			This is testified to in the early Muslim biographers. They, however, give this influence a different interpretation. All of the early mentions of Jews and Christians in the life of Muhammad are meant to demonstrate that they recognized Muhammad was the true Prophet of God. They are a polemic device meant to show that Islam is the true fulfillment of the previous revelations and to demonstrate the perniciousness of those believers, particularly Jews, who despite what they knew, refused to follow Muhammad.

			2. Muhammad as the Prophet Predicted by

Jewish and Christian Sources

			The birth and early life of Muhammad is deeply embellished with hagiographic and miraculous stories derived from Jewish and Christian sources. The Jewish rabbis of the tribe of Banu Qurayza, who effected the conversion of the Yemeni King previously mentioned, are made in Ibn Ishaq’s history into sentinels of the coming Prophet.

			When lo from Qurayza came a rabbi wise, among the Jews respected. ‘Stand back from a city preserved;’ he said, ‘for Mecca’s prophet of Quraysh true-guided.’ . . . ‘I hope thereby for a reward from Muhammad’s Lord. I knew not that there was a pure temple devoted to God in Mecca’s vale.[50]

			Thus the Jews, according to this account, were aware long before Muhammad’s birth of his name, his birth city, his hijra (migration) to Medina, and that the true temple would be in Mecca. The Qur’an, as we shall see later, constantly accuses the Jews of ignoring what was already present in their scriptures, namely, predictions of the coming of Muhammad. This is a polemic device putting words in the mouths of the Jews.[51] Banu Qurayza is the Jewish tribal group that Muhammad had destroyed in Medina after the Battle of the Trench. So the passage also serves as anticipatory indictment of the Jews who knew who Muhammad was and yet conspired against him. These polemic “prophesies” often serve multiple purposes. Ibn Kathir tells the story of the “appearance of a star at the birth of the messenger of God.” A Jew living among the Banu Qurayza named Ibn al-Hayyiban predicted the coming of the Prophet based on this, but then said as follows:

			His time is near for you but don’t hasten to him, O Jews, for he is sent to shed blood and capture the women and children of those who oppose him.[52]

			Ibn Kathir goes on to mention two young men of Banu Qurayza who had heard this prophecy and saved their lives by converting to Islam at the time of the execution of the males of the tribe. Ibn Ishaq tells a similar tale of a star interpreted by a Jew as announcing the birth of Muhammad: “Tonight has risen a star under which Ahmad is to be born.”[53]

			These are thinly veiled borrowings of the star of Bethlehem story that serve the dual purpose of demonstrating signs of the Prophet in keeping with the story of Jesus and showing the culpability of the Jews. It anticipates that which the early Muslims felt needed explaining.

			The early biographers affirm that all the previous holy books foretold the coming of Muhammad. Ibn Kathir states the following:

			The rabbis and the priests found in their books descriptions of him and of his time along with inferences relating to him from their prophets.[54]

			Kathir also notes from the book of Daniel that Muhammad is regarded as final conqueror through the faith of Islam.

			He relays an Arab tradition about Daniel’s response to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream concerning the gold, silver, brass, iron, and clay statue. The stone which struck down this idol is God’s final prophet who will strike down all other religions and nations.[55]

			Islam now supersedes the Christian faith in that the final world ruler, a Messianic role, is attributed to the Prophet. To connect the prophetic lineage it is claimed that Muhammad shared the role of shepherd with two main biblical figures, Jesus from the New Testament and Moses from the Old Testament. “The apostle of God used to say, There is no prophet but has shepherded a flock. When they said, ‘You, too, apostle of God?’ He said, ‘Yes.’.” Muhammad states that he is “what Abraham my father prayed for and the good news of Jesus.”[56]

			Ibn Kathir goes on to quote several verses from the Qur’an that asserts the Bible predicts the coming of Muhammad:

			And remember, Jesus, the son of Mary, said, ‘O Children of Israel! I am the messenger of Allah (sent) to you confirming the Law (which came) before me, and giving glad tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad. But when he came to them with clear signs, they said, ‘this is evident sorcery!’ Who doth greater wrong than the one who invents falsehood against Allah, even as he is being invited to Islam.[57]

			Ibn Ishaq is the first Muslim writer to cite John’s gospel concerning the coming of the “comforter” or paraclete as referring to Muhammad.

			But when the comforter has come whom God will send to you from the Lord’s presence, and the spirit of truth which will have gone forth from the Lord’s presence . . . The Munahhemana (God bless and preserve him!) in Syriac is Muhammad; in Greek he is the paraclete.[58]

			These additions to the text are probably in response to early Muslim debates and discussions with the Christians of the Middle East. These debates provided them with the information required to write back into history what was needed to respond to Christian criticisms. This interpretation of the “paraclete” has remained a stock-in-trade of Muslim apologists down to the present day even though Muhammad patently does not fit the figure described as the paraclete,[59] and the interpretation requires an impossible alteration of the Greek word. History is written as anticipating the content of the Qur’an and to demonstrate its veracity. It is history written as exegesis of the Qur’an.

			In a similar way, various Christian figures from the early life of the Prophet function as foretellers and confirmers. In Ibn Kathir’s biography Abdul Muttalib, the grandfather of the Prophet is made to say as follows:

			O Baraka, do not neglect my son. I found him with some boys close to the lote tree; and the people of the book (i.e., Christians and Jews) claim that my boy will be the Prophet of this nation.[60]

			Muhammad’s earliest contact with Christians, according to Ibn Kathir occurs when his wet-nurse Halima passed a caravan of Christians. They wanted to take him with them to be their king as he was “a person of great importance.”[61] Ibn Ishaq spends four pages telling the story of the Christian monk Bahira who receives a vision that the promised Prophet of God is coming in a caravan to him. Muhammad is left watching the baggage so that Bahira must summon him specifically to see the marks of apostleship “which he knew and found in his books.” Having examined Muhammad Bahira says to Abu Talib:

			Take your nephew back to his country and guard him carefully against the Jews, for by Allah! If they see him and know about him what I know, they will do him evil; a great future lies before this nephew of yours, so take him home quickly.[62]

			Ali Dashti, commenting on these prophecies notes:

			Muhammad’s protector and guardian Abu Talib, who died without embracing Islam, must certainly have heard nothing and seen nothing. Muhammad himself did not know before his appointment that he was going to be a prophet, as verse 17 of sura 10 (yunos) eloquently attests as follows: “Had God so willed, I should not have recited it to you, and He would not have made it known to you. I dwelt among you for a lifetime before it.”[63]

			This is a reflection of the kind of contradictions that polemic literature of this type often falls into. Ibn Kathir tells a similar story of an unnamed Christian monk who meets Muhammad while he is leading a caravan for Khadija and he affirms that Muhammad is a Prophet. Khadija’s cousin Waraqa bin Nawfal is a Christian, and he also affirms that Muhammad is the promised Prophet. Another story concerns Salman, the Persian, who was converted to Christianity, but was sold into slavery in Arabia to the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza.[64] He recognized Muhammad as the Prophet predicted by the Christian bishop who had cared for him. He was manumitted from his slavery after his conversion to Islam with help from the Prophet and fought at the Battle of the Trench. Salman also claimed to have met Jesus.[65] Though formerly a Zoroastrian, he becomes a Christian, and then later, converts to Islam on the remembered advice of his Christian mentor. He asks of his bishop “But what if he tells me to abandon your faith and practices.” The Bishop replies “no matter what he orders you, he brings the truth with him.”[66] These stories reflect Muhammad as the last Prophet who would always be recognized by true Christians. The polemic purpose is amusingly obvious. Both Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Kathir include a lengthy poem by Waraqa in praise of the Prophet and what he would accomplish. Ibn Ishaq concludes his section on the prophecies of Jews and Christians with this eulogy:

			The apostle of God grew up, God protecting him and keeping him from the vileness of heathenism because he wished to honor him with apostleship, until he grew up to be the finest of his people in manliness, the best in character, most noble in lineage, the best neighbor, the most kind, truthful, reliable, the furthest removed from filthiness and corrupt morals, through loftiness and nobility, so that he was known among his people as ‘The Trustworthy’ because of the good qualities which God had implanted in him.[67]

			The Qur’an contains numerous references to the perfections of the Prophet, and the necessity of Muslims to imitate his behavior.[68] It is also true that the Qur’an mentions the sins of Muhammad, and these passages are largely ignored by the Muslim commentators or explained away.

			There is probably little in these stories that is historical. These accounts were written, at the earliest, one hundred and thirty years after the time of Muhammad and only exist in editions dating from far later than that. They are a backreading into history designed to anticipate certain verses in the Qur’an, to demonstrate the superiority of that faith over others and to indict those, particularly Jews, who refused to believe in Muhammad. They are formed from a position of hindsight to create in the “history” of Muhammad those elements that were by then understood to be lacking in the story. In a backhanded way, they do demonstrate the reality of the Jewish presence in Arabia and the Jewish rejection of Muhammad as the Prophet of God.

			3. Miraculous Signs of Prophethood

			Miraculous signs are a common feature of all the hagiographic material of this period, whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic. In the Islamic tradition, some of these elements are clearly borrowings from Jewish and Christian literature while others seem unique to Arab traditions. An example of the latter is the stories of shooting stars that are one of the significant signs of Muhammad’s prophethood in Arab tradition.

			As to the Arab soothsayers they had been visited by satans from the jinn with reports which they had secretly overheard before they were prevented from hearing by being pelted with stars . . . When the prophet’s mission came the satans were prevented from listening and they could not occupy the seats in which they used to sit and steal the heavenly tidings for they were pelted with stars, and the jinn knew that that was due to an order which God had commanded concerning mankind.[69]

			The story of the shooting stars anticipates Muhammad’s ministry that would bring about Satan’s fall. The shooting stars tradition was associated with supernatural signs for the collapse of the old order and the emergence of a new one. In Sunni tradition, it was related to the prophetic mission.[70] This tradition initially conceived of Muhammad as a mere man, who is elevated to the prophetic ministry. Thus, the stars appeared at the time the prophetic revelations began, around 610 CE. As time went on, Muhammad’s role was augmented by the concept of ontological prophethood. The shooting stars described in the biographies of Muhammad focused more on emerging preexistent attributes of Muhammad. Consequently, the time of the shooting stars moves back to the time of Muhammad’s birth, some forty years earlier.

			The combined evidence of Ibn Ishaq’s report, Al Waqidi’s two reports, Ibn Sa’d’s report and that of Ibn Abi Shayba shows that the association of the shooting stars tradition with the beginning of the prophetic mission existed at an early stage of Sunni tradition. On the other hand, the occurrence of the Ibn Kharrabudh report in Ibn Bakkar shows, in view of the reconstruction just indicated, that the association of the view of the shooting stars tradition with the birth of Muhammad was integrated into Sunni tradition by the turn of the second/eight century.[71]

			Thus, the initially human Prophet of the earliest Muslim writings is replaced by a superhuman Prophet who is the firstborn of creation. Ibn Sa’d quotes Muhammad as saying, “I was the first at the creation, and I was already a prophet while Adam was still between spirit and body.” The Muhammad of Islam, over time, gradually bifurcates into two separate entities, the Muhammad of devotion and the Muhammad of history. Wensinck notes that “Muslim teachings emerge directly from Christian concepts at this point.”[72] Adam himself asks for forgiveness for his sins for Muhammad’s sake. Allah asks him how he knew of Muhammad, and he responded with the Shahada that is written on God’s throne. God forgives Adam because of his confession of Muhammad as the final Prophet and states as follows:

			Adam was created in Muhammad’s likeness . . . Were it not for Muhammad I would not have created you . . . This is a recognition and affirmation of his honor and high stature among all religions and upon the tongues of all the Prophets.[73]

			Thus, during in the first one hundred years of Islam, the human prophet is superceded by the glorified Prophet as Muhammad is successively glorified into a superhuman figure. He has become a Christ-figure for the Muslim world. This is ironic given that Muhammad emphatically denies such a role for himself in the Qur’an.[74]

			There is an exegetical purpose as well. The Qur’an mentions shooting stars and explains them as missiles launched by angels at the satans in the heavenly realm who were trying to eavesdrop on the revelations being sent down by God to Muhammad.

			And we have (from of old) adorned the lowest heaven with lamps, and we have Made such (lamps) as missiles to drive away the evil ones, and have prepared for them the penalty of the blazing fire.[75]

			This literature thus explains the content of the Qur’an.

			Many other signs are mentioned in the biographical literature. At the time of Muhammad’s birth, the fires go out in the Zoroastrian fire temples. Idols among the pagans fell over or announced the coming of Muhammad. An exhausted donkey becomes lively at the mere touch of the baby Muhammad. There is a miraculous lactation of an aged camel and Muhammad’s wet nurse Halima during a famine.[76] Trees and rocks bow down before Muhammad as he travels in Khadija’s caravan.[77] The Arab soothsayers receive anguished messages from their familiar spirits that the time of idolatry is coming to an end. When a calf is sacrificed at the Ka’ba just before Muhammad begins his ministry:

			. . . a voice more penetrating than I have ever heard coming out of the belly of the calf (this was a month or so before Islam), saying, “O blood red one, the deed is done, a man will cry beside God none.”[78]

			There is also the story of the cleansing of Muhammad’s heart. This, like the shooting star story, is found both in the early life of Muhammad and at the time of his Miraj, or night journey to Jerusalem and heaven. Ibn Kathir records fully four different versions of the event. In each, his chest is opened and a black clot of blood is removed representing sin. In one, two men dressed in white carry out the operation, in another two birds, in a third two angels, and in the fourth Gabriel himself.[79]

			The borrowing of prophetic or Messianic images from the Jews or Christians is also augmented by designed Messianic motifs that may have a Jewish or Christian source or may simply indicate events in Muhammad’s background that have been interpreted in a messianic light. The story of discovering the well of Zamzam by Muhammad’s grandfather seems like a prelude of the life of Muhammad. It is the well of Zamzam that God provided water to Ishmael through Hagar’s prayer in the wilderness. Somehow this well was lost later by the Arab tribes as they fell back into idolatry. Therefore, finding the lost well in the holy sanctuary implies the character of the coming ministry of Muhammad. Muhammad was to restore the Meccan Sanctuary that had been lost since the time of Ishmael. The story is designed to emphasize Muhammad’s divine ministry and his outstanding position. Hawting suspects that

			The tradition about the finding of Zamzam is a reworking of a tradition found in Judaism about the loss and rediscovery of certain sanctuary vessels or treasures. In its Jewish versions the story has Messianic overtones . . . Zamzam does function as a symbol for the sanctuary as a whole note how, in the Muslim versions of the story of Hagar and Ismael, the appearance of Zamzam in effect begins the history of the Meccan sanctuary.[80]

			Abu al Muttalib’s vow before the Ka’ba is a similar story.

			The story of Abu al-Muttalib’s vow is linked in the Sira with the story of the discovery of Zamzam. The vow was made because at the time when he was digging Zamzam, and Quraysh contested his right to it, Abu al-Muttalib had only one son and felt that he needed more to support him; he, therefore, vowed to God that he would sacrifice one of them if He would give him ten. This does not make obvious sense, and the story of the son selected for sacrifice, and subsequently freed, is the father of the Prophet himself.[81]

			The story seems to borrow the motif of the sacrifice of Isaac as applying to the father of the Prophet. Many more examples exalting the Meccan sanctuary could be cited. Muhammad wanders away from his family and is discovered in Mecca circumambulating the Ka’ba, which seems a borrowing of Jesus in the temple at age of twelve. During the rebuilding of the Ka’ba, a syriac inscription is found that a Jew translates. There God declares, “Mecca is God’s holy house.”[82] Wensinck has traced the extensive borrowings from Christian notions of Christ. Muhammad will cleanse his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21), Jews are murdered at the birth of Muhammad (Matt. 2:16-18). Waraqa explains that he can now die because he has seen the promised one (Luke 2:29-31). Abd al-Muttalib blesses the newborn in the Ka’ba (Luke 2:28). The miracle of the feeding of the multitudes (Mark 6:30-44), which imitates the NT passage down “to the smallest details.” Muhammad’s teaching on the signs of the end of the age (Matt. 24). Muhammad riding a donkey (Matt. 21:1-5), Muhammad as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20), number of disciples, 12 and 70 (Matt. 10:1 and Luke 10:1), the similarity of Umar and Peter and many more examples.[83]

			4. Stories Created in Anticipation of Later Events in

Muhammad’s Life

			In the Muslim historical tradition, Muhammad is proved to be the last prophet promised by God both through the Qur’an and through the previous revelations. If one who knows the older revelations denies the prophethood of Muhammad, he is, in a sense, more sinful than polytheists who have never had access to the earlier revelations.

			We were at that time polytheists and worshipped idols, while they, the Jews, were people with scriptures who had knowledge we did not. There was always enmity between us and them. They predicted the coming of a prophet and even prayed for victory in battle over their enemies by the name of the prophet, yet later when Muhammad came they rejected him. These words were revealed. They formerly prayed for victory against those who disbelieved.[84]

			Similar anticipatory hostility is noticed in the following story. Abu Karib, as we noted earlier, was a Yemeni King who embraced Judaism through two rabbis in Medina from the tribe of Banu Qurayza. These rabbis predicted the emigration of Muhammad, the Prophet, and persuaded the king not to destroy Yathrib (Medina) to avenge the killing of his son. They also predicted that the coming prophet would demolish the two tribes that killed Abu Karib’s son. “In rage against two Jewish tribes who live in Yathrib who richly deserve the punishment of a fateful day.”[85] This story seems to originate in a later event in Muhammad’s life: the Prophet’s revenge on two Jewish tribes in Yathrib, the Al-Nadir and the Banu Qurayza. In Ibn Ishaq’s writing, through the mouth of Jewish rabbis, Muhammad’s judgments on the Jews are legitimized while demonstrating that the Jewish rejection of Muhammad’s prophethood was without excuse. This concern to create a matrix of justification is a strong sign of the historicity of the later events.

			G. R. Hawting makes an even more novel thesis in his book The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam. He sees the passages in the Qur’an that purportedly deal with idolaters as actually referring to other monotheists. His thesis is that the primary arguments of the Qur’an against disbelief and associating others with God were directed not at polytheists, but against Jews and Christians. He states the following:

			This book questions how far Islam arose in arguments with real polytheists and idolaters, and suggests that it was concerned rather with other monotheists whose monotheism it saw as inadequate and attacked polemically as the equivalent of idolatry.[86]

			Hawting’s point is an interesting one. He calls Islam the “result of an intra-monotheist polemic.”[87] The stories of the early life of Muhammad do seem to contain far more material directed at the Jews as the enemies of the Prophet than against the Meccan “idolaters.” Perhaps the real struggle of early Islam was against other competing forms of monotheism that were non-Arab. This study is not attempting to answer that question, but perhaps it will generate material that relates to it.

			5. Possible Historical Points in These Narratives

			Other than a probable birth date around 570 CE, very little in these narratives has any sort of a historical basis. Their main interest lies in how they indicate the historicity of some later events in the life of the Prophet, as well as showing us the mentality of backreading into history. There are a few points that have merit as possible historical events.

			One of these are the many stories told about Muhammad’s wet-nurses. This seems a trivial point, but the respect shown by Muhammad for certain tribes he conquered due to having been suckled by a member of that tribe (he had several wet-nurses according to traditions) would seem to indicate the reality of this. Also the fact that at least one wet-nurse declined to suckle Muhammad because he was an orphan, and there was little economic benefit. It is hard to imagine something like that being made up. Also, the idea that Muhammad suffered from epilepsy has emerged from the stories of his fits told by the wet-nurses. This could be hagiography at work, but it may also explain the stories of Muhammad’s trance-like states on some occasions when he received revelation in the later traditions. There could be some kernel of truth to this.

			It is also likely that Muhammad was an orphan as this is described in the early histories (and they are quite consistent on this point), and this is also inferred in the Qur’an (surah 93:6). The names and roles of the pagan relatives who cared for Muhammad as an orphan, his grandfather Abdul Muttalib, and uncle Abu Talib, seem likely historical as neither converted to Islam and yet retain a high standing in the Muslim writings albeit with interpolations we have noted earlier.

			Some of the stories of Muhammad’s travels with Arab caravans seem likely historical though without the fantastic interpolations of meetings with monks and priests. Even a cursory reading of the Qur’an shows the heavy influence of apocryphal stories that circulated in the Jewish and Christian communities of that time so we must posit that the Prophet was meeting people and hearing stories from those communities. Muhammad may have been an Arabian Jew who, because of his later political involvements and their rejection of him as Prophet, broke with the Jewish community. This would explain his much higher level of hostility to Jews than to Christians. No backreading into history could explain something like this, since the Jews after the time of Muhammad were not a significant obstacle for Islam.

			Having thus set the stage for the emergence of Islam, the biographers now begin to tell the story of the first revelations of the Qur’an. We shall begin with a study of the Qur’anic content from the earliest chapters of the Qur’an.



609-612 CE

			This chapter concerns the first two years of Muhammad’s prophetic activity. The period is approximately dated from 609/610 to 612 CE. It includes Muhammad’s initial call to transmit the “recitations” of the Qur’an and some notion of the response he received. Since the Qur’an is the only document dating from the period, we begin with an analysis of its earliest chapters.

			A. The Content of the Qur’an, Early Meccan Period

			1. Hellfire, Judgment, and the Bliss of Paradise

			There is some debate as to the exact order of the earliest chapters of the Qur’an. We are following the order established by Nöldeke, which, though debated at certain points, is generally based on a system accepted by Muslims.[88] Forty-eight chapters of the Qur’an were revealed during this period, close to half the total number of chapters though less than 10 percent of the total volume of the Qur’an because both the verses and the chapters are much shorter on average than later chapters.[89] These early chapters comprise a total of 1,197 verses or about 19 percent of the total 6,236 verses in the Qur’an.

			What is striking about the early verses of the Qur’an is their preoccupation with the subject of hellfire and judgment. Of the 1,197 verses of these initial forty-eight chapters, four hundred and thirty nine concern descriptions of the coming judgment and the punishments of hell. There is also a limited variation in the literary forms used to express this. “Soon I will cast him into hell-fire!” (74:26), “Burnt soon will he be in a fire of blazing flame” (111:3), “Ye shall certainly see hellfire!” (102:6), “Therefore do I warn you of a fire blazing fiercely” (92:14), “On them will be a fire vaulted over (all round)” (90:20), “Who will enter the great fire, in which they will then neither die nor live” (87:12-13). “Those who persecute the believers . . . will have the penalty of hell, they will have the penalty of the burning fire” (85:10).

			Accompanying these verses on hell are apocalyptic descriptions of the destruction of creation. “The day of noise and clamor . . . it is a day whereon men will be like moths scattered about and the mountains will be carded like wool” (101:1, 4-5). “When the earth is shaken to its (utmost) convulsion” (99:1). “When the sky is cleft asunder; when the stars are scattered” (82:1-2). “When the sun . . . is folded up, when the stars fall . . . when the mountains vanish” (81:1-3). “When the sky is rent asunder, . . . when the earth is flattened out” (84:1, 3).

			A further strong association is the concept of the weighing of good and bad deeds; “He bears witness (by his deeds)” (100:7), “separate them one from another . . . for the day of sorting out (77:4, 13). “He whose balance (of good deeds) will be (found) heavy, will be in a life of good pleasure and satisfaction. But he whose balance (of good deeds) will be found light will have his home in a (bottomless) pit . . . a fire blazing fiercely” (101:6-9, 11). Angels are appointed “kind and honorable writing down (your deeds): . . . the righteous . . . will be in bliss . . . the wicked . . . in the fire” (82:10-14), “verily the day of sorting out is a thing appointed” (78:17). The idea of two angels recording one’s deeds is reminiscent of the earlier Christian work “The Shepherd” by Hermas.[90]

			God’s judgment in these early chapters is based upon human moral decisions. Primary among the moral failings of man is his self-sufficiency and lack of humility toward God; “man doth transgress all bounds, in that he looketh upon himself as self-sufficient” (96:6-7); “man is to his Lord ungrateful” (100:6); man is condemned as a “scandalmonger and backbiter, who pileth up wealth and layeth it by” (104:1-2); he “repulses the orphan (with harshness) and encourages not the feeding of the indigent” (107:2-3); man is enjoined to “freeing the bondman; or the giving of food in a day of privation to the orphan,” (90:13-15). Muhammad himself is encouraged to care for orphans, “Did he not find thee an orphan and give thee shelter (and care)?” (93:6). The day of judgment will come “when the female (infant) buried alive, is questioned—for what crime she was killed” (81:8-9). The Qur’an reflects at this point a deep concern for orphans and the economically oppressed, perhaps as a reflection of Muhammad’s own background as an orphan. The Qur’an calls for the reform of Arab society, the forbidding of female infanticide, and, most importantly, the exalted view of Allah as the one true God.

			In another segment of these early chapters, man is condemned for rejecting the truth, “Ah woe, that day, to the rejecters of truth” (77:45); those who “treated our signs as false,” (78:28); “he gave nothing in charity, nor did he pray!—But on the contrary, he rejected truth and turned away,” (75:31-31). The “truth” in this sense refers primarily to the message of the Qur’an. This kind of concern about rejection of the truth would seem to indicate a longer process than seems possible from these early chapters. This is reinforced by the mention of the persecution of believers mentioned above. The fact that the Qur’an seems to open to a conflict already in progress indicates that the Prophet had already been involved in religious dialogue and teaching for some time, to which the Qur’an was really the beginning of the second stage of the conflict. It seems hard to imagine the Prophet threatening people with hell-fire for rejecting the truth, when according to the traditions of Islam he had not even begun preaching Islam publicly.

			Accompanying these passages are a number of descriptions of the heavenly bliss which awaits the true believers; “the companions of the right hand (they will be) in gardens (of delight)” (74:39-40). “For those who believe and do righteous deeds, will be gardens, beneath which rivers flow: That is the great salvation (the fulfillment of all desires)” (85:11); “As for the righteous they will be in bliss” (82:14). “Their abode will be the garden” (79:41); a little later the descriptions of the garden become more elaborate. “As to the righteous, they shall be amidst (cool) shades and springs (of water), and (they shall have) fruits—all they desire. Eat ye and drink ye to your heart’s content” (77:41-41). “Gardens enclosed and grapevines; companions (feminine) of “equal age” (Ali mistranslates at this point, the phrase means ‘round breasts’[91]).” (78:33). “We will join them to companions with beautiful, big and lustrous eyes” (52:20). “We have created (their companions) of special creation, and made them virgin-pure (and undefiled)—beloved (by nature), equal in age for the companions of the right hand,” (56:35-38). The word “beloved” Ibn Kathir points out is “urub” meaning desirous of their husbands “like a she-camel in heat.”[92] “In them will be (maidens), chaste, restraining their glances, whom no man or jinn before them has touched” (55:56).[93] The phrase uses the Arabic verb “tamatha” that means “to deflower” or “expand the hymen through intercourse.”[94] Ibn Kathir in his commentary on the Qur’an describes these young women as being “delightfully passionate with their husbands.” When asked about the men’s staying power, At-Tirmidhi records the following: “O Allah’s Messenger. Will we have sexual intercourse with our wives in paradise?” He said, “The man will be able to have sexual intercourse with a hundred virgins in one day.”[95] While these descriptions are clearly addendums to the text, the point of the text itself is clear.

			It may be worthwhile to briefly mention the theory of Christoph Luxenberg concerning Aramaic words in the Qur’anic text where he claims that houris, the celestial virgins are really “white grapes.” As can be seen from the context above, the interpretation requires many other transformations in order to make sense. Devin Stewart does an excellent job of demonstrating the implausibility of this interpretation, and how it requires a mass of other emendations in the text. We might point out how difficult it is to explain, among other things, what sort of hymens white grapes have? Stewart also points out that the text has a parallel concept of the young men and servants who will also be available in the garden (ghilman, wildan) that makes the grapevine analogy far-fetched.[96]

			It is worth noting some other textual problems in the Qur’an that Stewart discusses in regard to the garden concept. In chapter 56, verse 29, we are introduced to the “talha” trees in the garden, which Ali transliterates “talh,” but the noble Qur’an calls “banana trees.” These are certainly not typical of the Arabian context. Stewart points out that the text is probably a corruption of the word tal’in meaning “date clusters” and that this parallels the Qur’an at 50:10. As to why such simple changes are not discussed more Stewart notes, “one senses that this topic confronts in a tangible fashion widely held Muslim beliefs about the Qur’an, and so produces a certain unease with taking up a line of criticism that potentially questions the basic assumptions of Muslims.”[97] We shall note other problems like this as we go along.

			When these three categories are put together, descriptions of hell, judgment, and heavenly bliss, they account for the majority of the early verses of the Qur’an. Muhammad was deeply affected by this apocalyptic vision. It supersedes all other aspects in the early revelations.

			2. Muhammad’s Self-Conception

			The second emphasis in the early Qur’an concerns Muhammad’s view of himself. This moves clearly through stages that reflect self-doubt gradually giving way to increased confidence in the prophetic call. God plays a direct role in this as he addresses the Prophet directly, either to give him instructions or to encourage, defend or even rebuke him. God initially is the one to define the role of the Prophet as he addresses him directly. “Arise and deliver thy warning! And thy Lord do thou glorify and thy garments keep free from stain! And all abominations shun!” (wa ar rujza fahjur) (74:2-5). This seems to be a direct command to the Prophet to abstain from idolatry. It is apparent again that Muhammad had conflicts early on, at least with members of his own clan. God, in one of the earliest chapters, seems to quote the attitude of those rejecting Muhammad saying, “This is nothing but the word of a mortal” (74:25) in reference to Muhammad’s recitation. God defends the Prophet saying, “Soon will I cast him into hell-fire” (74:26).[98] The third chapter to be revealed (111) is supposedly a reference to Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Lahab, who opposed Muhammad’s teaching. The title and first verse is actually a play on the uncle’s name that means “flame”; “Perish the hands of the father of flame! Perish him! . . . Burnt soon will he be in a fire of blazing flame! His wife shall carry the (crackling) wood as fuel!” (111:1, 3-4). It is hard to imagine that such a level of conflict would emerge from just the first two chapters of the Qur’an.

			Is it possible that Muhammad had been teaching in this way for some time, and had already attracted the ire of his relatives? Perhaps the Qur’an represents a new effort at self-identification in which Muhammad begins to borrow patterns familiar to him from the other religions present in Arabia. Ibn Kathir’s explanation of the event is that Muhammad called the Quraysh out to a mountain where he would declare God’s Word to them. After gathering the people Muhammad said, “I am a warner sent to you before the coming of a severe torment.” To which Abu Lahab dusted himself off with his hands and said, “Have you gathered us for this? May you perish!”[99] God’s response is to declare that the hands of Abu Lahab will perish instead. The story has a strong resemblance to Moses at Sinai.[100] These background explanatory stories are the inventions of a later age. Nevertheless, Allah functions for Muhammad as a defender and even mouthpiece in expressing the Prophet’s feelings toward his enemies. Clearly, conflict was present from before the beginnings of the Qur’an.

			Some of these earliest revelations do not follow the pattern typical in most of the Qur’an. Muhammad acting as a mouthpiece for Allah is less evident here. Muir, as early as the 1860s, asserted that surahs 91, 100, 102, and 103, “do not seem to be intended as revelations at all.”[101] These early surahs show evidence of Muhammad developing his approach to revelation perhaps in response to an already ongoing conflict. Some of the material is initial responses to his enemies and some of it seems to be for personal encouragement.

			A similar passage regarding conflict with the members of Muhammad’s tribe of Hashim is chapter 108. This chapter is thought to be the fifth revealed and it records God’s comfort to Muhammad at some insult he had suffered.

			To thee have we granted the fount (of abundance).

			Therefore to thy Lord turn in prayer and sacrifice.

			For he that hateth thee—he will be cut off (from future hope). (Chapter 108)

			Yusuf Ali interprets this verse as referring to Abu Jahl, Muhammad’s greatest opponent in the tribe. According to Ali, Abu Jahl had mocked Muhammad at the death of two of his infant sons.[102] The implication was that Muhammad lacked the “life-force” to bring male children to adulthood, and thus preserve his family line. It is clear that Muhammad had enemies from the very beginning of his work for these boys were actually given pagan names, a clue to how little Islam was defined at the time they died. It is interesting to note the disagreements of Muslim interpreters on this text. Ibn Kathir makes the passage much later, revealed at Medina, and claims, based on Tabari, that it refers to a later enemy of the Prophet, Al-As bin Wa’il.[103] Another interpreter mentions the passage as referring to Uqbah bin Abi Mu’ayt[104] whom Muhammad had killed after he was captured at the Battle of Badr.[105] These conflicts show just how opaque the Qur’anic text remains for Muslim commentators. This also argues for the age and originality of the text.

			In some of the early chapters, God addresses the Prophet directly to provide encouragement. “Have we not expanded thee thy breast? And removed from thee thy burden . . . Verily with every difficulty there is relief” (94:1-2, 6). This entire chapter seems to be addressed to Muhammad himself.[106] The chapter 93 is similar, “Thy guardian Lord hath not forsaken thee, nor is He displeased” (93:3). In later passages, God extols the virtues of his Prophet, “verily this is the word of a most honorable Messenger, endued with power, with rank before the Lord of the throne with authority there and faithful to his trust” (81:19-21).

			Occasionally, God seems to correct the Prophet. In early chapter 86, he tells Muhammad to tone down his rhetoric and be patient while God plots schemes on his behalf, “As for them, they are but plotting a scheme, and I am planning a scheme. Therefore, grant a delay to the unbelievers: Give respite to them gently (for a while)” (86:15-17). The interpreters of the Qur’an do not see this, however, as calling for respite on the unbelievers. Ibn Kathir states, “This means that you will see what befalls them of torment, punishment, and destruction.”[107] The later commentators do seek to radicalize the text at times. Elsewhere God directs the Prophet concerning the speed of revelation; “Move not thy tongue concerning the (Qur’an) to make haste therewith. It is for us to collect it and to recite it: But when we have recited it, follow thou its recital” (75:16-18). Ibn Kathir makes this into a description of the process of revelation. The Prophet is instructed to be patient as God collects the Word into his “chest.”[108] After this, Muhammad was to recite the verses and then interpret what they mean. Al-Bukhari interpreted this to mean that Jibrail would first recite the verses to Muhammad, who was to remain silent, and then, when he left, Muhammad was to first recite the verses and then interpret their meaning.[109]

			Sometimes the correction seems a clear rebuke as in chapter 80 that is entitled “He frowned.” The background to the passage is that Muhammad, according to Yusuf Ali,[110] was presenting the Qur’an to the larger tribe of Quraysh, when a blind man came asking questions. The Prophet apparently frowned and turned away. God rebukes him for showing preference to the powerful men of the tribe over a blind man. “(The Prophet) frowned and turned away because there came to him the blind man (interrupting) . . . But as to him who came to thee striving earnestly and with fear (in his heart), of him wast thou unmindful” (80:1-2, 8-10). Yusuf Ali is at pains to explain that this does not imply any sin on the Prophet’s part even though “they seemed to reprove him . . .”[111] Ibn Kathir mentions the event without explanation. Perhaps even more astonishing is God’s command to the Prophet in chapter 74:9 “And all abomination shun.” Ibn Kathir interprets this as, “Verily it is the idols.”[112] God is calling the Prophet to leave behind idolatrous practices.[113] Hawtings thesis that God was only addressing monotheists seems to be inaccurate, for why would God rebuke the Prophet for monotheistic practices?

			That Muhammad came from a background of polytheism is simply ignored by the Muslim commentators. Clearly, Muslim interpreters are at pains to find no sin in the Prophet’s character, even when the Qur’an itself mentions this. The passage also indicates a wider level of discussion of the Prophet beyond his immediate tribe. It does not seem that Muhammad’s teaching was particularly secretive at this stage as the early Muslim historians indicate.[114]

			3. Muhammad and the Holy Book

			Muhammad’s self-conception seems to have experienced considerable turmoil in these early stages of his work. In surah 68, God addresses the Prophet concerning who he is, “Thou art not, by the grace of thy Lord, mad or possessed” (68:2). This is in reference to accusations made against the Prophet by his detractors. God responds to the detractors saying, “(oh people)! Your companion is not one possessed” (81:22). The Arab soothsayers (Kahin) of this time were believed to be possessed by spirits whose inspiration led to poetic utterances. God says, “What is the matter with you? How judge ye? Or have ye a book through which ye learn?” (68:36-37). The implied answer is “yes,” Muhammad is different from the soothsayers because he is receiving a holy book. This first mention of the holy book concept perhaps marks a new point in the progression of Muhammad’s self-conception. His words are not merely the poetic utterances of a Kahin possessed by a familiar spirit, but a holy book in the process of being revealed. God encourages Muhammad throughout this chapter and concludes, “So wait with patience for the command of thy Lord, and be not like the companion of the fish—when he cried out in agony” (68:48).[115] This message God says, “is nothing less than a message to all the worlds” (68:52). This idea is developed further in chapter 85 where God declares, “Nay this is a glorious Qur’an (inscribed) in a tablet preserved” (85:21-22). Ali’s translation at this point is inaccurate, “a tablet preserved” should be translated “high and guarded from error.”[116] Ali’s translation indicates the later Muslim conceptions of the nature of the holy book as coeternal with God and preserved on golden tablets. The concept of a unique new holy book seems to have emerged out of a need to distinguish Muhammad’s revelations from the polytheistic utterances of the soothsayers. Later, this need to deny the influence of spirits in the generation of the Qur’an leads to God’s most emphatic defense of the Prophet.

			This is verily the word of an honored messenger; it is not the word of a poet: Little it is ye believe! Nor is it the word of a soothsayer: Little admonition it is ye receive. (This is) a message sent down from the Lord of the worlds. And if the messenger were to invent any sayings in Our name, we should certainly then cut off the artery of his heart.[117]

			This thinly veiled aspect of Muhammad speaking in his own defense through the mouthpiece of Allah is highly idiosyncratic and argues for the integrity of this text as a product of the Prophet. Chapter 51 is even more exemplary of this tendency. God illustrates the reality of the day of judgment through those prophets who had come before. Suddenly, at verse 51, Muhammad begins speaking in the first person, “Hasten ye then (at once) to Allah: I am from him a warner to you, clear and open! And make not another an object of worship with Allah: I am from him a warner to you, clear and open!” (51:50-51). Just as suddenly God is once again speaking in verse 55, “But teach (thy message): For teaching benefits the believers. I have only created jinns and men that they may serve me.” The passage is unified and follows a distinct theme, culminating in Muhammad’s defense of his prophethood. It is also complicated involving several switchbacks concerning who is speaking. It is hard to imagine that this is a product of an editorial process as Wansbrough, Crone, and Cook have maintained.

			God functions as Muhammad’s mouthpiece at times. On other occasions, Muhammad speaks himself to explain the nature of his revelations. After developing the earlier arguments of holy books revealed from heaven and the line of the Prophets, in surah 53, Muhammad describes the actual process of revelation. Here again, God is his very thinly veiled mouthpiece:

			Your companion is neither astray nor being misled, nor does he say (aught) of (his own) desire. It is no less than inspiration sent down to him: He was taught by one mighty in power, endued with wisdom: For he appeared (in stately form) while he was in the highest part of the horizon: Then he approached and came closer, and was at a distance of but two bow-lengths or (even) nearer; so did Allah convey the inspiration to his servant—(conveyed) what he (meant) to convey. The (Prophet’s) (mind and) heart in no way falsified that which he saw. Will ye then dispute with him concerning what he saw? For indeed he saw him at a second descent, near the lote-tree beyond which none may pass. (53:2-14)

			This is the closest we have in the Qur’an to an actual description of the process of revelation. The Qur’an argues that Muhammad reveals nothing of his own will. Later commentators interpret this to mean that “every word that comes out of me is the truth,”[118] that is, God is speaking the Qur’an. These sayings are accompanied with stories about scribes sitting around Muhammad recording his every word. These stories are an invention of later Islam. In the context of the passage, God seemingly tries to explain what had happened to Muhammad when some kind of heavenly being conveyed the message. Ibn Kathir states that Muhammad only saw Gabriel twice, although some claim his vision was only of “light.” The traditional literature (Hadith) goes on to describe spectacular scenes, including Jibrail having “six hundred wings.”[119] There are quainter stories as well such as the one when Muhammad sees Gabriel, but Khadija does not so she puts the angel to the test. Muhammad sits on the right and then on the left of Khadija, and each time she asks if he can still see the angel. Muhammad says “yes”. Then when she asks him to sit in her lap, the angel disappears. By this she knows “he is an angel and not a satan.”[120]

			The nature of these revelations and how they took place remains a topic about which Muhammad is highly defensive. In this very passage, Muhammad is led to make a conciliatory concession to the Meccan tribes. He states the following, “for truly did he see of the signs of his Lord, the greatest! Have you seen Lat and Uzzah, and another, the third (goddess), Manat?” (53:18-19). It seems clear that Muhammad is directly appealing for acceptance to the Meccans and concludes his appeal with recognition of three deities of the Ka’ba, “These are the gharaniq (high flying cranes) whose intercession is approved.”[121] These are the so-called “satanic verses” that we will return to later. What is evident is that Muhammad is under some kind of pressure to explain his revelations, and this leads him to make a concession to the polytheists, which is later revoked.[122]

			It is worth noting that one passage of the Qur’an often cited by Muslims as describing the “descent” of the first chapter of the Qur’an, may well be a Christian hymn concerning the birth of Christ. This is chapter 97, and the use of the word “peace” in verse 5 is different from most usual functions of this word, and very similar to the announcement of peace by the angels at the birth of Christ.[123]

			Toward the end of the early Meccan period, Muhammad’s conception of the Qur’an as a holy book, pure and perfect in its text and preserved with God has become clear, “this is indeed a Qur’an most honorable, in a book well-guarded, which none shall touch but those who are clean: A revelation from the Lord of the worlds” (56:77-80).

			4. The Prophet’s Mission

			In the early stages of the Qur’an, Muhammad did not conceive of his mission as having a political element. God encourages Muhammad to “keep in remembrance the name of thy Lord and devote thyself to him wholeheartedly . . . have patience with what they say, and leave them with noble (dignity). And leave me (alone to deal with) those in possession of the good things of this life who (yet) deny the truth” (73:8, 10-11). At this stage of Islam, it is God who deals with the rebellious, not the Islamic state. This viewpoint of the role of the Prophet is most clearly expressed in chapter 88.

			Therefore do thou give admonition, for thou art one to admonish. Thou art not one to manage (men’s) affairs. But if anyone turns away and rejects Allah—Allah will punish him with a mighty punishment. (88:21-24)

			This passage is a startling contrast to Medinan revelations such as 4:89:

			They would have you disbelieve as they themselves have disbelieved, so that you may be all like alike. Do not befriend them until they have fled their homes for the cause of God. If they desert you seize them and put them to death wherever you find them. Look for neither friends nor helpers among them . . . [124]

			The progressive nature of the Qur’anic revelation with its deep contradictions engendered in a short period of twenty-three years is one of the most problematic aspects of studies of the Qur’an. Equally disturbing is the fact that many early verses that contain fairly innocuous concepts take on a distinctly more militant meaning in later commentaries. One of these is chapter 70 that initiates Muhammad’s legal pronouncements. There is a section on sexual purity which states as follows:

			Those who fear the displeasure of their Lord—for their Lord’s displeasure is the opposite of peace and tranquility—and those who guard their chastity, except with their wives and the (captives) whom their right hand possess—for (then) they are not to be blamed. (70:27-30).

			This passage is meant to condone sexual intercourse with women captured in tribal raiding, a not uncommon practice. Ibn Kathir, however, refers the reader to the much later Medinan passage from chapter 23:6-7. In the later conception of Islam, this was taken to justify the rape of women prisoners captured in war. “Do not approach anyone except the wives whom Allah has made permissible for them or their right hand possessions from the captives.” One common Hadith concerns the rape of the women captives of war where Muhammad gives this reaction to his questioners:

			“O Allah’s apostle! We get female captives as our share of booty, and we are interested in their prices, what is your opinion about coitus interruptus?” The Prophet said, “Do you really do that? It is better for you not to do it. No soul that which Allah has destined to exist, but will surely come into existence.”[125]

			Yusuf Ali tries to doctor this up as “marriage” even though the early sources record many instances where women so “consummated” refused to marry their rapists.[126] The best-known case is Raihana bint Amr, the Prophet’s concubine captured from the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayzah, who refused to marry the Prophet after being “consummated.” The injunction mentioned against al-azl or coitus interruptus should not be thought of as forbidding rape. Rather it indicates that when one rapes, one should also try to impregnate the victim in order to make her a “mother of a believer.” This will be dealt with further in the final chapter.

			5. Textual Emendations and the Satanic Verses

			Contradictions in the text were recognized even in the lifetime of the Prophet. Occasionally, this led to efforts at emending the older textual materials with interpolations clearly from the Medinan period. It is interesting that some verses are interpolated at the end of chapter 73 that Yusuf Ali admits were an addition to the passage from the Medinan period. This passage mentions those “fighting (jihad) in Allah’s cause.”[127] This is an obvious attempt to downplay the earlier self-concept of the Prophet and to read back into history a more militant interpretation of Islam. What is significant is that this backreading interpolation is done by the writer of the Qur’an, we are not dealing with later interpretation. The accompanying verses also read back into history many of the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which did not exist at this stage in Islam’s development.

			It is fairly easy to spot the interpolations in these early texts of the Qur’an. They are stylistically very different. The verses from the early chapters are usually very short, usually no more than three to eight words, and highly poetic. The interpolations are versified prose, sometimes fifteen to twenty lines long and showing a much later conception of Islam. The earliest interpolation is in the second chronological chapter 74, verse 31. The previous verse made obscure mention of nineteen (angels), and verse 31 seems to be an answer to Jews who disputed over the number and nature of these angels; “we have fixed their number only as a trial for the unbelievers—in order that the People of the Book may arrive at certainty, and the believers may increase in faith—and that no doubts may be left for the People of the Book and the Believers.” This is, therefore, not the earliest mention of the People of the Book in the Qur’an. It is, however, indicative of the kinds of debates that must have been going on in Medina between Muhammad and the Jews, over the meanings of the early verses in the Qur’an. We shall return to this subject.

			The most important interpolation in the early passages of the Qur’an is in chapter 53 just after verse 20. This is the location of the so-called satanic verses. Verses 19 and 20 state, “have ye seen Lat and Uzza, and another, the third goddess, Manat.” We know from Ibn Sa’d that this passage originally was completed in verse 21 as, “these are the gharaniq whose intercession is approved.”[128] A gharaniq is a kind of high-flying migratory bird (commonly called the Hopoe) that was a symbol of these Arab goddesses. Muhammad was allowing for intercession to the three primary idols of the Ka’ba. He made a compromise at this point with Meccan paganism in an effort to gain acceptance. Al-Tabari gives an extensive description of these so-called “Satanic verses.”

			When he came to the words: “have you though upon al-Lat and al-Uzzah and Manat, the third, the other?” Satan cast upon his tongue, because of his inner debates and what he desired to bring to his people: “These are the high flying cranes; verily their intercession is accepted with approval.” When Quraysh heard this, they rejoiced and were happy and delighted at the way in which he spoke of their Gods.[129]

			The text of the present Qur’an has been extensively tampered with at this point. In place of and following verse 21, eleven verses of entirely different prose-like style have been substituted which declare concerning the goddesses, “these are nothing but names which ye have devised—ye and your fathers—for which Allah has sent down no authority (whatever)” (53:23). So the text of the Qu