Islam’s origins have been scrutinised for a long time. Not that you’d know it. Every now and then, a controversy flares up in the headlines such as Tom Holland’s Channel Four documentary Islam: the Untold Story (2012), but temporary fires get ring-fenced, damage controlled and Islam’s edifice; its traditional origin narrative somehow remains in place, at least in the mainstream.
Yet many scholars – defying political correctness – persist in highlighting issues with the faith’s historicity. These warriors of historiography have their own history that stretches back to Gustav Weil (1843), who managed to get his hands on the oldest extant biography of Mohammad by Ibn Hisham (d. 833). Weil, examining the hadiths, observed that:
“Al-Bukhari [received] 600,000 traditions and deemed only 4,000 authentic. And of this number, the European critic is compelled without hesitation to reject at least one-half.”
Later the Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher noted that the hadith’s:
“Meticulous isnads [chains]… were utterly fictitious.”
Yet for decades, despite their scepticism, historians ultimately believed that they could brush away the chaff of Islam’s traditions via an apparatus classicus that would leave an authentic core.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that the faith’s foundational structures were examined with Soviet scholars questioning whether early Islam was distinguishable from Judaism. L. Klimovich even asked if Mohammad had really existed (1930) given the relative lateness of the sources.
Add another couple of decades and Joseph Schacht felt able to claim Islam’s roots were obscured by later revisionism, noting that Goldziher had proven that:
“The great majority of traditions from the Prophet are documents not of the time to which they claim to belong, but of the successive stages of development of doctrines.”
And his own work showed that not only did the isnads tend to grow backwards, claiming contradictory (and ever grander) lineages – yet rarely deployed in the relevant debates during periods in which they purported to have existed – but that:
“A great many traditions in the classical Islamic collections [of law] were put into circulation only after Shafi’i’s time (d. 820).”
It’s tempting to write off the hadith attacks as easy pickings. Popular perception records them as Islam’s Achilles heel; addenda to the real content of the faith, the Qur’an. But in reality, the Qur’an began in the same way i.e. as compilations of utterances, many of which predate Islam.1
Indeed, almost all formative aspects of the faith seem illusory. Schacht, for instance, informed his readers that early Islamic law developed from the administrative practices of the Umayyads, which often diverged from Quranic observances i.e. highlighting the fact that injunctions from the Islamic holy book were added at a later stage, raising big questions about what exactly happened in the first two centuries of the faith between AD 650-850; in other words, what constituted Islam in its earliest stages.
So, if the sole contemporary (Arabic) source for Mohammad gives us only sibylline and fragmentary hints about him then what sort of position are we left in?
The sira literature is almost useless. None of it dates to the first century of Islam. All of it shows discrepancies in chronology and contents; the later the account, the more they are likely to claim to know more about the prophet, and they often contradict non-Islamic sources.2 In the same vein, only in the 9th century was it claimed that the Qur’an was brought together by a commission of three Meccans under the leadership of Zayd ibn Thabit from Medina.
The most honest answer might be partial ignorance. To go further would be, in the words of the French arabist Regis Blachere, to fall into the “trap of hagiography or romanticisation.”
With such extremes positing themselves as the logical conclusions, emotions run high. A Druze Arab scholar, Suliman Bashear, was flung out a second-storey window for his theories on the history of early Islam. One of the main thrusts of which was that the faith roiled in a crucible of contradictory legitimising myths and that it wasn’t until the second [Muslim] century that the assertions of its Hijazi origins began to gain ground, and even then found itself contested by other locations. In this free-for-all, Arabs floundered for prestigious names to back-up their views. Tidbits from figures like Ibn Zayd were used to erase traditions that had “failed” flexibility-wise to have the legend of Mohammad’s life read backwards into them, and other names fulfilled similar purposes.
Bashear’s picture is close to that which Crone & Cook painted when they framed Arabs as conquering their civilizational superiors and developing their own culture and religion post hoc. But it leaves Islam in an awkward position. One in which it looks like the entire Muslim tradition about its early history appears little better than a pious forgery.
Yet fabrications, like the best lies, contain kernels of truth. And this is where scholars get to play in the mud. While later Islamic traditions may have exaggerated certitudes, homogeneity and antiquity, it’s indisputable that Mu’awiya turned Mohammad’s minbar into a symbol of authority; that Abd al-Malik made sophisticated use of quotations from the Ur-Qur’an on coinage and public monuments; that Al-Walid gave monumental form to the Muslim house of worship etc.
In other words, the ingredients of Islam definitely existed, they just probably didn’t unfold in the way or the timescale later Islamic orthodoxy would insist upon.
The issue is that the three main referents are useless from a critical perspective. First, Mohammad has almost no contemporary information about him. Second, the hadith are severely compromised. Third, the Qur’an is too opaque when it comes to history; the shifting sands of its contexts and designata are conceptual muddles. Indeed, G. R. Hawting (1999) noted two decades ago that the Islamic tools brought to bear on the Qur’an effect lots of heat but little light. Instead:
“One often feels that the meaning and context supplied for a particular verse or passage is not based on any historical memory or upon a secure knowledge of the circumstances of its revelation, but rather reflects attempts at establishing a meaning.”
Which is a very academic way of asking “What the hell is this text?!” Or “Why is it so incomprehensible?”3 It is perhaps because western scholarship cannot articulate what Islam’s origins are definitively that it has not opposed the traditional Islamic narrative more obstinately or loudly. Though the cause doubtless includes feelings of postcolonial guilt and political correctness, which have acted as useful silencers on the opposition, too.
So, it is worth applauding the intellectual acrobatics and courage of anybody who is willing to try to scout behind the enemy lines of later retrospective ideological projection. These centuries form a shadowland where almost no original texts are to be found and even fewer witnesses. A mysterious phenomenon given the explosion of one of the world’s biggest empires and faiths, especially when the scepticism evinced above precludes the possibility of reconstructing any truths on the basis of the source materials of the Islamic tradition.
THE POPP THEORY
Enter: Volker Popp. In Popp’s view, traditional historiography has insisted on ironing out key aspects of late antiquity as anomalies because the real hybrid picture doesn’t fit with later homogeneous-bloc narratives.
For Popp, the truth of Islam’s origins hides (with the devil) in the detail. So while, today, we are used to the chess-pieces of the Middle East pulling off violent manoeuvres, we nevertheless expect them to be predictable if not stable. If we fling ourselves back to Heraklios’ reign, however, every actor was inconstant and precarious; the region was a mosaic in flux.
This means we must ditch the idea of Arabs living solely in Arabia Felix. Instead, Arabians from the Lakhmid clan – connected to the Persian Nestorians – were the kings of al-Hira in modern-day south-central Iraq. While to their west, the Ghassanids formed (despite their Monophysite leanings) a Roman client-state and, more to the point, a buffer zone to the Empire, with their leader bearing the title Bitriq (from the Latin patricius).
The image of a cool, calm and collected Byzantium conquering the west, collecting solidi in the east and holding conferences to settle intermittent theological controversies must also be dispelled.
Persia was on the warpath. Most of Heraklios’ closest neighbours (western Armenians, Laz and Georgians) followed him out of fear rather than shared interests. And the Near East’s main players formed Monophysite alliances, with eastern Armenians binding themselves to the east Syrians (against Nestorians) at the 541 synod of Dwin, and the Arabs, Copts and Ethiopians forming a united front against all on-comers.
Indeed, perhaps the only real coup for Byzantium occurred in a theatre so far away as to be irrelevant. In Iberia, Visigoths took the hint from the destruction of their Ostrogothic brethren in AD 562 and understood that the only way to avoid the same fate was converting to orthodoxy.
These dynamics mattered because today most are used to seeing maps of the empire with vast swathes of the Near East painted purple; a Roman empire sans West. The reality was very different, however.
First, the Byzantine-Ghassanid alliance collapsed in the reign of Maurikios (who could no longer tolerate the formation of a parallel, ecclesiastically independent Monophysite church). The Emperor accused their phylarchs of treason during a battle against Persia in AD 581, which resulted in the federation losing its major backer and dissolving into 15 tribes.
Second, the dissolution of this alliance was one of the few remaining props supporting a rather fragile Byzantine status quo. Heraklios had withdrawn its military presence from Syria in most cities after Justinian’s disastrous over-extension – the only exceptions being the religiously symbolic locations such as Jerusalem and Rasafa. There was, therefore, with the dissolution of the Ghassanids, a giant vacuum in the Near East. With no standing army or vassals to stand for Byzantium’s interests it becomes unsurprising to see Sassanian armies at the gates of Antioch two decades after Maurikios’ tantrums.
Destroying the Holy Sepulchre and giving Jerusalem over to the Jews in 614, shipping off the True Cross to his Nestorian compatriots, and depicting himself as a Christian ruler on coins minted in Egypt, Chosroes II – in one fell swoop – de-legitimised the orthodox Emperor as custodian of Christianity’s holiest sites and set himself up in his stead.
More importantly for Popp’s narrative, the Arabs suffered under Persian rule. Especially after Chosroes II shunted his satellite rulers, the Lakhmids, to one side. In reaction, the tribes began to envisage the Romans as potential saviours. Sura 30 “ar-Rum” (The Romans) almost certainly has its roots in this period:
“II. The Romans have been defeated III. In the nearer land, and they, after their defeat will be victorious IV. Within 10 years… and in that day believers will rejoice.”
Such was the apocalyptic fervour of the times that when Heraklios won his extraordinary victories in AD 622, the Christian Arabs decided to start a new reckoning of time; one that reflected a new period of self-government. Retrospectively, fully-developed Islam placed the Hegira at this junction as a religious event of the equivalent magnitude to the political caesura of 622 when the millennium-old division of the Near East into Persian and Roman portions had finally ended.
The war still had to play out. Heraklios had his revenge for Jerusalem by razing Ganzak’s fire-temple to the ground, and the Virgin Mary helped him defend Constantinople from the predictable counter-attack. Soon after AD 627, Chosroes II was murdered.
But the Byzantines didn’t have it all their own way. Looking to restore the status quo ante with soft power (thanks to Constantinople’s lack of harder variants), the Arabs were no longer willing to passively play along. Indeed, by the time Heraklios published his ekthesis (as a compromise that sought to bring the divergent churches back on board with the imperial project) in 638, the Monophysite and Nestorian churches had developed a common anti-Byzantine front.
The only portion of the region to remain in Roman hands was Egypt, or more specifically Alexandria, thanks to its important trade and tolls, which filled Constantinople’s depleted coffers and could be held with relatively few troops. Even this financial boon, however, was taken away when Heraklios’ widow, Martina, was forced to negotiate an orderly retreat from the city.
Leaving in AD 642 for Rhodes, with the deposition of Martina policy changed again and the troops were sent back only to find their swords were useless when pitted against a Monophysite population that preferred an Arabian Christian yoke to its Roman counterpart.
From this point onwards – with both Byzantium and Persia out of the picture – the Arabians were left masters of the Near East in a bloodless coup. Neither of the superpowers’ vassals had been ordered to withdraw from Syria or Egypt, yet neither did they possess a legitimate claim to empire.
In this vacuum, the Arabs’ tools of governance were not Islamic but Arabic. Coins invoked institutions like amana (“certainty” or “security”), which dated back to pre-Islamic notions such as the jiwar or “right of asylum”. This was useful for extending protection to foreigners i.e. people outside of tribes, in a society accruing imperial dimensions.
But in this society the boundaries between tribal and religious loyalties were blurred. The Ibad, for example, were tribes composed of several different tribes who all professed Christianity. They had Christian “sections” from Arabic tribes who were entirely Christian themselves such as the Tamim. All, however, tended to be proud of their presence in the Bible, from numerous Old Testament references to Acts 2:11 (which refers to the presence of Arabs at the Pentecost), and saw al-Hira as their Christian homeland. A fact that Popp splices with the Islamic fact that Muslims later connected Mohammad’s revelation with a cave called Hira i.e. both were centres of communicated Revelation and traditions.
Constantinople’s rather anticlimactic exit left the Arabs unafraid to mimic them. Hence why a life-size statue of an Arabian leader was found in the vicinity of Jereicho in Khirbat al-Mafjar, and why inscriptions such as the one below, dating to AD 662 – written in Greek and almost entirely classical in nature – can be found in Palestine:
“The clibanus [hot baths] were preserved and renovated by the symboulos [councillor] ‘Abdallah, son of Abuasemos… in the year 726 from the founding of the city, in the year 42 in the Era of the Arabas [Arabians], for the healing of the sick, under the supervision of Iohannes, magistrate of Gadara.”
In a world where Arabic names have Islamic connotations it’s hard to read names like Abdallah and think of anybody but a Muslim. But Abdallah means “Servant of God” i.e. its meaning is monotheistic, not Islamic.
Indeed, Damascus stops being such a random location for an Arabic capital once it is understood that the Holy Sepulchre was tainted as a Byzantine beast and Sergios in Rusafa known as a Ghassanid HQ. The only major Christian shrine left of the first order was the tomb of St John the Baptist. Historically, there could have been no Jesus without John’s baptism, and theologically, he formed an important figure in the canon of prophets that was key to the Arabian Church.
Opposing Constantinople’s claim to be a new Jerusalem, the Arabians claimed to be a “true Israel.” Against Byzantium’s heavy taxes, Mu’awiya posed as the benefactor willing to rebuild public buildings. Against the Hellenistic Christianity of the West (whose members had become mushrikun or servants of idols), the defiant opposition Semitic Christianity is announced, literally in the case of the Dome of the Rock, which, setting its face against Heraklios’ capacious ekthesis addresses:
“Ya ahla al-kitab” (Oh, you people of the Book [Bible]!)
Slowly, however, the Arabs came to the realisation that Byzantium would destroy them as it had destroyed Persia if a devastating blow was not struck first. And so they took up the mantle of the Sassanian’s revenge. As much of a failure as the Persian’s 626 siege, 674-8 completely undermined Mu’awiya’s legitimacy as a leader.
It is in this period, according to Popp, that Islam’s true roots can be discerned. ‘Abd al-Malik provoked opposition (mostly notably ibn al-Zubayr) by insisting on a pre-Nicaean conservatism that less trumped the divisions scuppering the Christian factions than turned its back on them. This stance posited Jesus as Abd Allah (the Servant of God); the one who was to be understood as the muhammadun (chosen or praised one); a position articulated on the Dome of the Rock (a place that should be understood as the first monument of Arabian theology against Hellenistic varieties), which in the third line on the inside of the octagon on its south-east side reads:
“Muhammadun ‘Abdu Ilahi wa-rasuluhu” (The Servant of God and his apostle be praised)
The “Mohammad” title slowly spread with al-Malik’s followers from the east to west of the Levant, operating like the da’wa battle call. In many ways, it formed an ad fontes movement against Mu’awiya’s unedifying scenes of imitatio imperii. Instead of aping the Hellenistic dualism of Nestorianism vs Monophysitism, it set up an older Syrian theology (more dependent on Jewish accounts such as Toldot Yeshu than Christian competitors) that taught Jesus was no God but another prophet and that the Godhead was indivisible.
This didn’t make them feel different from Christians. The Ethiopians, for instance, saw tawahedo (or the unity of the godhead) as central to their Christian faith, just as the proto-Muslims valued tawhid. The Arabian focus on the prophets or messengers appeared an issue that amounted to more a difference in emphasis than type, just as the Ethiopian reliance on Mosaic law was eccentric but not un-Christian.
To the Arab mind, these saviours stood in a long line that included Noah, Lot, Ishmael, Moses, Shu’ayb, Hud, Salih and Jesus – each rescuing mankind from a natural or moral disaster. But instead of adopting the Pauline line that each operated on behalf of a revelation for all humanity, the Arabs saw themselves as the new Jews, the new chosen ones; as relatives of Jesus who’d fulfilled the briefs of the prophets. Everybody else had broken the din (religious contract) God made with the chosen, and each saviour had tried to restore. Only the Arabs had kept their legal claim intact.4
In this new environment, every title given to a ruler or Christ became highly politically and theologically charged. As Justinian II placed a portrait of Christ on his coins and called himself servus Christi (“servant of Christ”), so al-Malik responded by replacing the cross with the Stone of Genesis 31:47 (a cromlech in the form of the Yegar Sahaduta [“the stone of witness”]) calling himself Khalifat Allah or “speaker for God.”
In effect, the Arabs nationalised Jesus. Christ was the Muhammad (praised one) who as rasul (messenger) played apostle to the Arabs. What’s more the Arabs refused to see that victory could ever be achieved in a divine manoeuvre that involved death and slid into Docetism (the archetype of every future “Hidden” Imam).
Again, according to Popp, the spread of Islam was not achieved by the sword. But by spreading like any other religion, mainly from eastern Sassanian lands westwards. But because Mecca had won formative Islam’s kulturkampf, claiming to form its locus classicus, it sought to rewrite history as one which fanned out from the south outwards towards Abraham’s highly symbolic hotspots, from his homeland in Chaldea to Arran, the end point of Abraham’s migration, and so on.
The Dome of the Rock stood at the heart of the Arabs’ universe, keeping a kind of proto-Syrian anti-theology (an orthopraxy) alive against the highfalutin theorising of the Roman’s orthodoxy. Its cupola warned the Christian competition that the Trinity was nonsensical; that Mary could not possibly bear God; and that the Holy Spirit’s importance was exaggerated. Hence John of Damascus’ view that this faith was a heresy influenced by Arianism rather than a separate religion.
If Islam’s origins lurk in the dark recesses of a repressed history (and can only be recovered by restoring inconvenient details that puncture the faith’s later gloss), Popp’s radical stance, too, suffers death by a dozen razor-edged details.
The author appears to have taken C. Luxenberg’s thesis of a heterodox Arabic Christianity (seen through the philological prism of a Syro-Aramaic reading of the Qur’an) and stretched it like a cloth across the table of late antiquity.5 It’s not immediately obvious that his negationist narrative fits, however.
Firstly, Popp claims the Dome of the Rock’s inscription is a direct competitor to Heraklios’ “inscription” in Hagia Sophia. Yet the ekthesis (statement/declaration) was a document issued by the chancellery and “posted,” “published,” “promulgated” or “issued” in the narthex of the Great Church, not inscribed. It’s also dubious that (given Constans II removed it after a decade in AD 648), the Dome of the Rock is direct riposte written 50 years later. These may seem slightly petty points but they alert readers to the prospect that facts may be being bent to make historical parallels fit a narrative.
Other claims register on the radar as tendentious, too. The campaign of AD 622, for instance, was momentous less for Arab independence than reversing what appeared to be the inevitable capture of Roman Anatolia. Heraklios even offered peace in AD 624. And though his counter-attack took the Zoroastrian fire temple at Adur Gushnasp, surely Arabian independence could just as easily be pinned to bigger climaxes: the failed siege of Constantinople in AD 626, the victory at Nineveh a year later, or the death of Khosroe II (628). 622, once placed in context, is an odd and arbitrary date to pick by Muslims equipped with the benefit of two centuries of hindsight.
Thirdly, something sticks in the craw about the idea of Arabs being proxies for Byzantines in Syria in the 6th century. It pushes the client-state model too far. Theophanes the Confessor admittedly preferred to call the Roman opposition “Arabs,” or “God’s enemies,” i.e. not “Muslims”, but Popp seems again to put a disproportionate amount of emphasis on what could easily have been the arbitrary choice of an ethnonym. Indeed, in some places the history of Nikephoros (a contemporary of Theophanes) describes the Arabs as “Hagarenes” – a term that the Syriac Christians often used to label Muslims.
The entire argument rests on what we ultimately do not know. If traditional historiography has been careless at grafting “Muslims” and “Islam” on to terms far more nebulous and complex, Popp seems too slapdash in insisting that the same terminology excludes completely any associations with a nascent Islam.6 The reality is that it’s not clear what Ishmaelites, Hagarenes, Saracens or Tayyaye mean because they were fluid and dependent on authors, places and contexts.
Moreover, the transfer of Byzantium’s baton – its formal administration – is a little too slick for this reader’s liking. While Arabs certainly occupied the areas of a ghost state in some locations, Popp has a tendency to mute the violence that shows Arabs as invading aliens rather than opportunistic co-religionists. It’s a little too convenient, for instance, to paint translatio imperii in Egypt as a PR operation, when the Bishop of Nikiou, John, talked of nothing but the slaughter of everybody (including civilians) at Behnasa, Fayum, Alexandria etc. Or to claim these battles were marginal affairs when Yarmouk involved 100,000 troops on the Roman side according to Ibn Ishaq (a battle that Nevo & Koren (2003) far too conveniently reduce to a mythological confrontation full of topoi that render it more caricature than event).
Fourthly, much of Popp’s evidence is numismatic. Yet numismatic messages didn’t occur in a vacuum. If rulers toyed with one another’s symbols of legitimacy, their immortalisation, it didn’t necessarily mean that they truly believed in them. It was simply a power game; a gestural politics in which one attempted to show strength via the ability to appropriate.
Few would be so naïve as to take the 14th century BC Amarna Letters literally, so why interpret the Arab coins as evidence of Islam’s absence – especially when so many readings are dependent on overly complex etymologies that feel less like acts of genius than precarious prayers – and the fundamental fact that, beneath all the Mohammad-as-a-title games, he also appears as a proper name on Arabo-Sassanian coins minted in AD 686 and 701.
Fifthly, to have Christians fighting Christians, Popp argues that the Arabs kept the Sassanians on board by adopting a revenge project against Byzantium. This feels, however, like a major case of the tail wagging the dog. Isn’t Islam, with its messianic idea that those who had kept God’s legal pact were destined to rule over Jews who’d failed to proselytise, Christians who’d become mushrikeen and world-wide jahiliyya, a more obvious cause?
Many of these criticisms might amount to shots across Popp’s boughs, but some must rate as broadsides. Perhaps his most important contribution to the re-orientation of Islamic historiography is his emphasis on the fact that the faith is, in many ways, the revenge of the unreformed Syro-Arab Christians (Arabs brought up in the Syro-Aramaic cultural environment of greater Syria) who favoured an aggressive pre-Nicaean theology against a faith that chose Hellenistic philosophy and its perplexing categories at every controversial junction. It certainly explains why Islam has Christ, not Mohammad, at the centre of its eschatological vision.7
Even this point is potentially vexing, however, as the debates of late antiquity cover a huge amount of monophysite versus diophysite material but hardly mention proto-Islamic views such as the fact Christ was another simply another prophet at all.
In simple terms, it appears as though Popp only respects fully developed, simply defined and totally refined concepts, which is a bafflingly autistic way to look at history. The Trinity, for instance, was a latent notion for centuries. Does this mean that it did not exist; that ideological nut-jobs wrote in its development after it had become doctrine? No.
1 A third of the Qur’an was originally Christian hymnody according to Gunter Luling.
2 The extant literature dates to the ninth and tenth centuries. These include the sira of Ibn Hisham (d. 834), a history of military campaigns by al-Waqidi (d. 822), Generations by Ibn Sa’d (d. 845) and Annals by al-Tabari (d. 922), as well as nine hadith from the late ninth century.
3 Paul Casanova (1921) reckoned its enigmatic nature was due to the fact Mohammad had predicted an imminent end of the world and when it had failed to materialise, the early followers had been forced to rework the text.
4 It’s worth noting that the Byzantines were not immune to this trend and had gone from a default ideology that placed themselves as the centre of a world-state; a Church whose natural boundaries were the oikoumene i.e. known world, to the chosen people ringed and besieged by barbarians; an ark in a tempest.
5 Both are members of Inarah (Institute on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an), which includes scholars such as Karl-Heinz Ohlig, Gerd-Rudiger Puin, Markus Gross, Ibn Warraq (pseudonym) and Claude Gillot. The institute can’t claim all the revisionist glory, however, as two Israeli archaeologists working in the Negev desert, Yehuda D. Nevo and Judith Koren, published similar theories (revolving around a jump from paganism to a back-to-basics form of Christianity that orientated itself around the figure of Abraham and slowly evolved into Islam) in 2003.
6 The canon of texts referenced includes John of Damascus’ Liber Haeresorum, Sebeos’ History of Heraclius, Jacob of Edessa’s Chronicles, Iso’yahh III’s letters, Maximos the Confessor’s letters, Sophronios’ sermons, Ps. Ephraem’s sermons, Ps. Methodios’ Apocalypse and Germanos I’s writings.
7 This results in particularly odd outcomes. Take a hadith narrated by Abu Huraira, for instance, who noted that Jesus will descend (in the Second Coming) and judge mankind by the Law of the Qur’an, then will break the cross and kill the pig…” (al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari: The Translation of the Meanings, trans. Muhammad M. Khan [Riyadh: Darussalam, 1997], vol. 3, book 34, no. 2222).