If you write today the history of tomorrow, let’s say for the future in 1400 years, then it would be pretty difficult to explain plausibly why we should look for the starting point in 21st century’s US and not perhaps in Europe, Russia, China, Africa, etc. The future historians will have the difficulty, but also the freedom to decide for themselves what from their point of view was the most important place on earth for later historical developments. But if we have to look back approximately 1400 Years, so to speak pretend to be past’s future historians, the 7th century reveals itself not just as a highly fascinating time for historians. It is, especially with regard to the emergence of Islam, crucial to understand the 7th century in order to understand plenty of later world history and especially plenty of present day politics and S.P. Huntington’s so-called “Clash of Civilizations,” which for some is nothing but nonsense. Hence it is pretty easy, if you ask where to start. Of course I cannot and therefore, will not give a total overview of 7th century history. But an introduction into the emergence of Islam (Part I), more precisely in the difficulty to define when Islam actually came into being and the first decisive schism of Islam, which in itself holds not just a lot of potential for reconciliation with oneself and the other monotheistic world religions, especially Judaism, but to understand a little more about the schism might help to bring Sunni and Shiite Muslims closer together.
The Becoming of Islam: When Did the Second Largest World Religion Begin?
Determining the beginning of the history of Islam as religion (din) in a broad sense is not an easy endeavor. Having a closer look upon the topic, three points in time come to mind. Those are the following: 570, 610 and 622 C.E. All three are in one way or the other problematic.
Let’s start with 570 C.E. According to the classic and inner-Islamic understanding, the nabi, prophet, Muhammad, for some the founder for others just the messenger of Islam, was born in 570 C.E. Should the history of the religion of Islam begin along with the birth of the prophet of Islam, then automatically with or because of his birth a change in world history is assumed. The Islamic tradition connects the birth of Muhammad with a historically important event on the Arabian peninsula, namely the so-called “year of the elephant.” The Christian-Axumite king Ella Asbeha is said to have invaded and conquered the Hymarite kingdom, in the area of today’s Yemen, in 525 C.E. In place of the former ruler of Hymar, the Axumite king put the vassal king Sumyafa Ashwa and ended the existence of the first South-Arabian, monotheistic, presumably Jewish kingdom. Abreha, one of the king’s commanders, revolted around 535 C.E. against the vassal king and made himself king in the end (cf. Bobzin 2011: 40). A rock inscription, which is to be dated into the year 547 or rather likely into the year 552, is witnessing a campaign of Abreha in the northern region of Arabia, possibly to Mecca (cf. Bobzin 2011: 40). It is not unlikely that such an event remained in the collective memory and therefore, sura 105, surat al-fil, is to be understood as an innuendo to this event.
If Muhammad is born in the “year of the elefant,” by the time of the first revelation in 610 C.E., he would have been an old man. That’s why the famous Islamic scholar Ibn al-Kalbi, born 819 C.E., dated Muhammad’s birth 23 years after the “year of the elefant” (Bobzin 2011: 41). According to this, Muhammad was born either in 570 or in 575, thus at the time of the first revelation he was 35 or 40 years old. As in the case of Ibn al-Kalbi’s dating, besides late Islamic sources, e.g. from the prophet’s biography (sira) Muhammad ibn Ishaq (704-767 C.E.), which Abd al-Malik ibn Hisham, who died in 834 C.E., revised and later even non-Islamic sources, such as the chronicle (Tarikh mukhtasar ad-duwal) of the Syrian bishop Gregorius Abu l-Faraj ibn al-Ibri or Bar-Hebraeus, died in 1286 (Bobzin 2011: 33, 35f.), no sources in the sense of eyewitnesses for the postulated year of Muhammad’s birth are citable.
Although it cannot be proven that the Islamic tradition regarding the dating of Muhammad’s year of birth is historically completely unreliable, it seems that these statements are more likely to be theological constructs. If Muhammad was born in 570, he was forty years old at the time of the first revelation in 610. The number “forty” is associated with important events both in the Ancient Israelite and in the Christian tradition. According to Ex 24:18, Moses was forty days and nights up on Mount Sinai, when he received the Torah. And the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness (cf. Num 31:13) before they could enter the promised land. Jesus in turn spent forty days and nights fasting in the wilderness (cf. Mt 4:1f.) before he became a preacher, prophet or messiah to some. Allegedly, the 23 years, which are according to Ibn al-Kalbi between the “year of the elephant” and the Muhammad’s birth, reflect the 23 years of the revelation, that is the time between 610 and 632 C.E.:
547-570 C.E. the negative of the revelation period;
570-610 C.E. ripening/becoming of the prophet;
610-632 C.E. period of revelation.
If the birth of the Islamic prophet is emphasized so much, one could justifiably question his role in Islam, that is whether Muhammad is the center of Islamic religion and not just its found. If Muhammad himself were the central object of Islam, then it would be obvious to start Islamic history with his birth. This could be compared to late antique Christian theology, which saw in the birth of Jesus an event of world historical significance. Henceforth, people no longer dated years according to the reign of senators and kings, as it was customary in antiquity, but after the birth of its redeemer, the God incarnate on earth. Although the Islamic tradition constructed a rich mythical-legendary substructure for Muhammad’s birth and childhood—take the names of his parents, Abdullah and Amina, the narrative of his procreation (Aslan 2011: 19), the prophesy of the monk Bahira, the “seal of prophethood” (khatam an-nubuwa)—and in some folkloristic excrescence Muhammad truly seemed to be the center of Islam, even attained divine status, but Islam remained largely resistent to such developments. Thus, if the Islamic religion does not begin with his birth and is not even inextricably linked to his existence, it does not seem very plausible to let Islamic history begin in 570 C.E.
Our second option is the before mentioned 610 C.E. From a religious studies perspective it seems quite plausible to let Islamic religion begin in 610 C.E. After all, this year, more precisely on one of the last odd-numbered days of the month of Ramadan in 610, in the so-called “laylat al-qadr,” the night of destiny, Muhammad received his first revelation while in a cave on Mount Hira. According to Islamic tradition, these are the first five verses of the 96th sura: “Read! In the name of the Lord, who created. Created man, out of a leech-like clot of congealed blood. Read! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful. He Who taught (The us of) the Pen. Taught man that which he knew not” (cf. Abdullah Yusuf Ali 2009: 1672f.). It should be mentioned that modern historical-critical research on the Koran differs from this postulate of Islamic tradition. But whatever sura or aya, the verse of a sura, was the first, a period of reoccurring revelations begins in form of either tanzil, which is what comes as a message from above and wahy (cf. Neuwirth 2013: 120-130), inspiration, so to speak what is put into Muhammad’s mind until his death in 632 C.E. To let Islamic religion begin in 610 seems to be problematic precisely because the sudden existence of a new religion is postulated. But this is exactly what precludes a continuous process of revelation, insofar as it is not be postulated that the first revelation essentially defines Islam as religion. Which it obviously does not! Neither the traditional nor the historical-critical perspective offers even the slightest possibility of determining Islam as a religion. The Koran, not the whole scripture of course, but the Koran as speech, that is a spoken verse or a few, can be ascribed exclusively to the “night of destiny,” similar to the Christian conviction that God revealed himself in one particular night, namely Christmas Eve (Tworuschka 2008: 17).
It should also be noted that the content of the Koran cannot possibly be equated with religion of Islam insofar as one disregards certain manifestations of modern Islam like the Quraniya. The abandonment of the sunna, the so-called prophetic tradition, which in turn is based on the ahadith, the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, would, in effect, make Islamic law as an integral part of Islam impossible. “Fiqh is the result of human efforts to fathom the sharia” (Lohlker 2012: 15). The sharia, the “path to the (permanent) watering place,” the quasi-normative way (to go), must again be understood as “the totality of the divine judgments of human actions” (Lohlker 2012: 101). It goes without saying that the sharia, that is, the judgment of man by God, must at least partially dispossess itself from man. Thus, the Koran, as it has materialized on earth, that is, in its popular textual form, can not be congruent with the sharia. The (inner-Islamic) connection between sunna, fiqh and sharia shows that Islam, as a religion in its classical form, cannot simply be reduced to the Koran.
Last but not least, we should have a look upon the year 622 C.E. Linking the beginning of Islamic history with the year 622 is quite plausible. After more than a decade of suppression and persecution of the followers of Muhammad by the Quraysh in their hometown Mecca, Muhammad decided to emigrate (hijrah) to Yathrib, an oasis approximately 211 miles North-West, later only referred to as Medina, the city of the prophet (madinat an-nabi). The hijrah “represents, according to the conviction of the Muslim tradition as well as modern research, the decisive turning point in the fate of his community. So far he and his followers had been fully integrated into the society of his native city and its norms. They had tried to change them from the inside. This was now over. Muhammad had de facto given up membership of his tribe. […] He created […] a new community, which in the following years became the decisive power factor first in the Arabian Peninsula and then in the entire Old World west of China” (Berger 2016: 120) If the followers of this new umma, Arabic for ‘community,’ can be described already as Muslims in the sense of a distinctive religious movement, is disputed controversially among researchers (cf. Aslan 2011: 57). After 625, the term umma is replaced by the term qawm. Literally, qawm means those who are able to stand up or rise, that is to say people. But in the time of Muhammad, qawm also designates the tribe (cf. Aslan 2011: 57). Although structurally based on the ancient Arabian tribal system, the umma or qawm has undergone radical changes, and has therefore been called “neo-tribe” by researchers (Aslan 2011: 59). It is not surprising that a new, as it were newly constructed community is in need of an ‘order of life’ or a directive for everyday life. In the Medinan period, unlike in the Meccan period, i.e. the time until the hijrah of the prophet and his followers in 622 C.E., Muhammad is given instructions, so to speak a third law, a new Torah for being within the community and on earth as well as for the survival of the umma itself (cf. Schmitz 2009: 341).
But to let Islamic history begin with the hijrah, the emigration of the prophet and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622 C.E., negates the multitude of revelations made in Mecca, which are i.a. for the Islamic concept(s) of ἔσχατον, the end time, are crucial—an undoubtedly important complex for Islamic theology and for the Muslims in the past 1400 years. It should be also obvious that the emigration in 622 was not more than the beginning of a development. Consequently, in 622 Islam as a religion is anything but complete.
All three dates as possible beginnings of Islamic history adheres the flaw that they suggest a kind of creatio ex nihilo, the creation out of nothing of Islam and thus not only negate the genesis of Islam, but also the desolve of Islam’s genesis from its historical context. Of course, such a position is completely unscientific, but at the same time the consideration of the religious-historical context seems to make it impossible to establish a temporally tangible moment as the beginning of the Islamic religion.
(To be continued…)
ALI, Abdullah Yusuf, The Meaning of The Holy Qur’ân/Tarjamatu Ma´ânî al-Qur’âni l-Karîm, 11th edition, Beltsville 2009.
ASLAN, Reza, No god but God. The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, New York 2011.
BERGER, Lutz, Die Entstehung des Islam. Die ersten Jahre – Von Mohammed bis zum Weltreich der Kalifen, München 2016.
BOBZIN, Mohammed, 4. Aufl., München 2011.
LOHLKER, Rüdiger, Islamisches Recht, Wien 2012.
NEUWIRTH, Angelika, Der Koran als Text der Spätantike. Ein europäischer Zugang, 3. Aufl., Berlin 2013.
SCHMITZ, Bertram, Der Koran: Sure 2 „Die Kuh“. Ein religionshistorischer Kommentar, Stuttgart 2009.
TWORUSCHKA, Udo, Vom Umgang mit Heiligen Schriften, in: Udo Tworuschka (Hg.), Heilige Schriften. Eine Einführung, Frankfurt a.M. 2008, S. 11-49.