The following text is some kind of experiment. There are philsophical reflections on basically everything, but there is still little compared to the size of the religion reflected here, namely Islam. Since I am not a representative of Islamic Theology (kalām), I neither present any school of Islamic thinking nor school (madhhab) of Islamic law (fiqh). By reflecting on Islam I hope not to hurt anyones feelings and I am fully aware of the fact that the following relatively short text is unable to do Islamic thinking any justice at all. Still, I hope to encourage people to reflect on all the fascinating aspects of the second largest religion in this world and share their ideas.

PART I – the Tawāf around the Ka‘bah

(Although I do not intend to write about the following topic from a scholarly perspective, I guess it is important to provide some information for the reader, since the reader might not be all too familiar with the topic and its context.)

At the center of Sunni Islam there exist five essential concepts one should follow, which are called pillars or arkān. Those pillars are no decrees you have to believe in, but things you are obliged to do. One, to be exact the fifth of those pillars of Islam is the seven days long pilgrimage, in Arabic hajj, in and close to Mecca—the other pillars are the confession (shahādah), the prayer (salāh) five times a day, the alms-giving (zakāh), and the fasting (sawm) during the month of Ramadān. This pilgrimage should be done once in a lifetime by every adult Muslim, no matter the age or gender, who is physically and financially capable of going on this journey to the harām ash-sharīf, the holiest place in Islam. Once you reach the harām, you will find in its center a nearly 50 feet (ca. 15 meters) high building, which looks like a cube and therefore is called “cube” or Ka‘bah. The Ka‘bah is made of volcanic stone and shrouded in a black veil, embroidered with passages from the Qur’ān in gold. Built into its structure on the Ka‘bahs eastern edge one finds a black stone, probably a meteorite—the meteorites frame is made of silver.

In pre-Islamic times, Muslims until today call this era pejoratively jahiliyya, the time of ignorance, the Ka‘bah was the house of many Arabian gods. After Muhammad along with his followers conquered Mecca in 630 CE, the year eight according to the inner-Islamic calculation of times, he emptied the Ka‘bah, which means that he removed all of the 300 pre-Islamic gods or from a Muslim perspective, idols. According to tradition, after the Ka‘bah was emptied and purified, only an icon of Maria (Maryam) with her baby boy Jesus (‘Isā) remained. From the Muslim perspective, the Ka‘bah was ever since the house of Allāh, the Arabic word for God.

Like in pre-Islamic times, the whole complex of hajj’s rituals, starts with the so-called tawāf, a seven times counter clockwise circling around the Ka‘bah, which is a kind physically expressed focus on something particular. If there is something like a local center of Islam—originally Jerusalem until the second half of the 620s—then it is the Ka‘bah and not just once in a lifetime, but in fact five times a day during prayer. This means where ever you as an observant Muslim are on planet earth, Antarctica or Europe, Asia or America, Africa or Oceania, you are directing yourself towards Mecca for prayer. The caput mundi for Muslims, the capital or center of the world, is neither Jerusalem nor Rome as each of them is for Jews and Christians, but the Ka‘bah in Mecca. Interestingly, the Ka‘bah does not loose its gravitational pull the moment the observant Muslim comes as close to the black veiled cube as to be able to touch it. What I mean by this is that the focus on the Ka‘bah remains while circling around it. But at the center of this center, there is nothing, the inside of the Ka‘bah is empty. Of course, according to Muslim tradition, the Ka‘bah is the house of God, but God is neither living inside the Ka‘bah in a literal sense nor condescending right in it. In a strict sense this means, that there is nothing. There is nothing inside, which does not mean that there is nothingness. Following Emmanuel Levinas (Dieu, la Mort et le Temps 1993), nothingness is inevitable bound to being: “All nothingness is the nothingness of something—and this something of which nothingness is nothing remains thought.”

As I said before, according to the Muslim tradition, the Ka‘bah is—and remains—the house of God, although God is neither living inside the Ka‘bah nor condescending inside of it. To put it simple: God is not there! Therefore, the Muslim, who is focusing him- or herself on the divine during prayer five times a day all year long or by doing the tawāf is doing so by directing him- or herself towards nothing, which is the void inside the Ka‘bah. Again, there is nothing, but there is not nothingness. Hence, by focusing on a locality, which is is fact a space for nothing objectifiable or if you like to personate it, no one objectifiable, one might to come the conclusion that the Muslim focuses on nothing. But since there is also not nothingness, in fact the Muslim directs his focus towards something, namely the Ka‘bah, so there is something, which is the veiled “cube” (Ka‘bah) and there is even more, which is the void of the inside of this unique cube. There is not nothingness, because in the moment of directing the focus towards this particular cube and its interior, the human intentionality is being carried away by something which is not there. This is only possible, if there is something to be inherent in the Ka‘bah, which is the trace of what is not there, or the trace of the one not being there. Or to put it differently, Allah—God—left a trace in a particular empty place, which he, according to tradition, had chosen. And the trace God left behind, leads the Muslim to search for God or to search for the trace of God, maybe not even consciously knowing that he or she is searching for it. Again, God is not being present, no matter what, apart from the trace he left.

Some might think, what kind of outrageous sacrilege is this, but it isn’t. In fact, by making it plain that the Ka‘bah is empty, that there is nothing inside, the Islamic religion immunize itself against every worldview, which assumes that God is a product of man or an object among objects. But in order to not just underline the otherness of God, but also in order to protect his sovereignty as creator, God cannot be a material part of the world he, according to tradition, created. And that is why it is impossible to encounter him somewhere in this world, which includes the most holy sanctuary of Islam—the Ka‘bah.

PART II – Sa’y

Following the tawâf around the Ka‘bah, the second main element of the hajj is called sa‘y, the seven times walk, rather a run, between the hills as-Safā and al-Marwa. It is said that Hājar,the biblical Hagar, the maiden of Sarah, Abrahams first wife, were out there in the desert, struggling to find water for her boy Ismael and herself after being forced to leave Abraham, with whom she had Ismael, and his tribe. Did Hājar walked seven times between those hills? Probably not! Seven is not a number, which should be taken literally—neither in the context of the Bible nor the Qur’ān. Things someone does seven times, or things lasting for an amount of seven aren’t meant to be taken literally. Rather “seven” means that something is to be done relentlessly, incessantly, ongoing, maybe even forever. Seven or a number made of seven, like seventy, means to be numerous.

Hence, the run between those two hills,u is not just a seven times run between two particular hills somewhere in the desert—it is not just to be taken literally, nothing to be done just seven times and then it’s done. The seven times running between those hills in a dry, life threatening, life rejecting environment, is teaching the one doing sa‘y what a huge part of life, especially in the desert, in the homeland of the Prophet, was and is about: Life is a relentless, ruthless and merciless struggle for survival and if you are persuaded that everything there is is governed and judged by the will of the divine creator, God or Allāh, the only way to survive is by the help of him. God either protects man and guides them out of their momentary misery to the well of life-sustaining water or ones life is forever forfeited.

But there is more to it. In a certain sense sa‘y could also be understood as the symbolic walk or rather the run fī sabīli llāh—on the path of God. According to Muslim tradition, there is only one right path in life to be taken, a straight path, given by God to man, so he won’t get astray as myriads of people before. Later this path will be codified, not in the literal sense of the word—there was no real codification. Therefore, we might call it an uncodified codification, which is widely known as the sharī‘ah, the divine law or the will of God for man to live on planet earth. Translating sharī‘ah literally into English is hardly possible. But you can try to convey the sense of it, which is the path to the water hole. Therefore, the Arabic root of the word, namely “sharaa” is to “penetrate into the water hole.” Not a momentary water hole, but a permanent one. Permanent water means to survive, means to live. Walking the straight path, given by God, is what it means to follow the sharī‘ah, following the sharî´ah means to walk the path to life. Walking on the right path, the path to the permanent water hole is meant to be ongoing, nothing to be done for a limited amount of time, but for as long as the time one is given to in dunya, the here and now. Running between as-Safā and al-Marwa is to remind the muhajjirûn, those who are on the pilgrimage, that life is an endless struggle and that following the path to the permanent water hole is a struggle as well, is struggle for ones whole life. But it also holds a promise to the one being on the right path, namely to be rewarded at the end and never be abandoned by God, who not just created man, but who is the only one who sustains man, keeps him alive, like he did for Hājar, and grants eternal life.

PART III – ‘Arafāt

As the nearly life-long struggle on the path to the permanent water hole is not the end of the human being, so isn’t sa‘y, the running between the hills as-Safā and al-Marwa, during the hajj. After someone passes away, a new path unfolds for him. According to Islam, death is not the end of everything related to the one, who passed away. Instead, the mu’min, the believer’s goal is to achieve jannatu llāh, the garden of God. But now he has to stand trial and is in dire need of God’s forgiveness. If divine judgement is in his favor, he will proceed to heaven, otherwise he has to endure punishment for earthly sins in jahannam—hell.

BThis passing from dunyā, the here and now, to al-‘âkhirah, the hereafter, is resembled by walking from Minā, nearly 5 miles in the east of Mecca, to a place called ‘Arafāt through the valley of Muzdalifah—another 9.3 miles away. The mu’minūn’s, the believer’s, goal is a particular mount called Jabal ar-Rahmah—the mount of mercy. On that very mount, the believers are standing, dwelling (wuqūf), waiting for the divine mercy to unfold. To enter paradise, the garden of God, one is in need of God’s forgiveness. The heavenly reflection of the longed for forgiveness of God in the hereafter is to be found on earth on the Jabal ar-Rahmah. Since every able Muslim should go on hajj once in life, every Muslim is at least once in life able to achieve God’s forgiveness. This is an important relict of a distant past. The entanglement of a pilgrimage and divine forgiveness was already existent in Ancient Israel, when the people traveled to the temple on a mountain in Jerusalem, spending the “Day of Atonement”, self-flagellating by fasting and praying for forgiveness, watching the high priest sacrificing animals, an element also being part of the hajj, and sprinkling its blood in the Holy of Holies—ritually atoning for the peoples’ transgressions. Achieving atonement or God’s forgiveness was the only possible option to get back into the order of life, once commanded by God in form of the Torah, in Arabic Tawrah, which was transgressed by man’s sins.

Once man intentionally or just by accident left the straight path to the permanent water hole, all he can do is to beg for God’s forgiveness. Hence, willingly dwelling in absolute passivity on the mount of mercy, waiting for God to grant forgiveness, reveals man’s absolute dependence on the divine and its judgement. Or in other words, it reveals man’s inability to buy himself a permanent residence permit for heaven. While waiting on the mount of mercy, for man time and space become meaningless. In that sense, the event on Jabal ar-Rahmah reveals the fundamental structure of the relation between the (human) creature, waiting for forgiveness and its creator, able to forgive because of his mercy. This structure is one of an ontological hostage-ness.


As promised a few days ago, the second part of my journey into early Islamic history will be about its first inner-Islamic and until today most decisive schism. Both parties, if Sunnis and Shiites can be considered parties in the first place—both of them lack leadership or widely accepted representatives—, have neither reconciled with each other nor at least acknowledged the other parties narrative(s).

Part II
The Division of Islam or “the days, which won’t be future past”

Even with the death of Muhammad in 632 C.E., Islam as a religion was undoubtedly still in the process of becoming. Not even the Koran as scriptural corpus was written down, nor compiled, let alone canonized (cf. Aslan 2011: 113). (Note: The other uses of the term Koran or Quran (Arabic qurʾān) in the Koran (al-qurʾān) as scriptural body, namely, “a) the presentation of a revelatory text to Muhammad himself, b) the public presentation of this text by Muhammad, c) the text itself, which is presented,” (Bobzin 2015: 20) were known, however, need not be considered further.)

“The religious ideals that would become the foundation of Islamic theology existed only in the most rudimentary form. The questions of proper ritual activity or correct legal and moral behavior were, at this point, barely regulated; they did not have to be. Whatever questions one had—whatever issue was raised either through internal conflict or as a result of foreign contact—any confusion whatsoever could simply be brought before the Prophet for a solution. But without Muhammad around to elucidate the will of God, the Ummah was left with the nearly impossible task of figuring out what the Prophet would have said about an issue or a problem” (Aslan 2011: 113).

Here it is not necessary to get deeper into the debate back then between the ansar, the “helpers” after the hijrah, the Banu Hashim or Ahl al-Bayt, the closer family of the prophet and the Quraysh, in particular the muhajirun among them, those who in 622 moved from Mecca to Yathrib, present-day Medina. The individual groups had their own ideas of who should succeed Muhammad. While the ansar assumed that they had virtually earned the leadership for their former actions, the Quraysh sought, above all, for continuity, since they had ruled over Mecca for generations—Muhammad himself belonged to the tribe of the Quraysh. The conflict between the Quraysh and Muhammad, before the latter conquered Mecca in 630 C.E. and subjugated the Quraysh, may therefore also be considered as family quarrels (cf. Aslan 2011: 114).

According to Sunni understanding, the first of the four so-called “righteous caliphs” (al-khulafa ar-rashidun), thus the first of those who ruled Muhammad’s young and rapidly expanding empire, was Abu Bakr, who died in 634 C.E. Abu Bakr was chosen among a group of high-ranking followers of Muhammad, who formed a shura, a council of elders. Probably the only serious competitor for Abu Bakr was Ali bin Abi Talib. Born around 598 C.E., Ali ibn Abi Talib was the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet (Halm 2015: 13). But in fact he was not even invited to the shura.

“Muhammad’s clan, the Banu Hashim, fumed, claiming that without Ali, the shura was not representative of the entire Ummah. Likewise, the Ansar from Medina, who considered both Ali and Muhammad to be as much Medinan as Meccan—in other words, ‘one of their own’—complained bitterly about Ali’s exclusion. Both groups publicly refused to swear allegiance to the new Caliph” (Aslan 2011:117).

Even before his death, Abu Bakr decided that Umar ibn al-Khattab will be his successor and thus ignored the new meeting of the shura, which might had chosen Ali as caliph. Umar ibn al-Khattab ruled until 644 C.E. He was followed by the third caliph Uthman ibn Affan of the clan of the Banu Umayyah, the Umayyads, the former political establishment of Mecca. Although the first two caliphs tried to compile the Koran, it was probably first achieved not earlier than in the early 650s under the reign of Uthman ibn Affan (cf. Neuwirth 2013: 243ff.; Bobzin 2015: 110).

As the forth caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib follows on Uthman ibn Affan, who lost his life due to a power struggle in 656. According to later Shiite tradition Ali was also Imam, that is, chief of the umma. Finally, Ali had the position in the steadily expanding Islamic empire, which according to tradition should have been his since Muhammad’s death. According to this tradition, on his last pilgrimage on the way to Yathrib (Medina), close to a place called Khumm, Muhammad is said to have designated Ali as his successor: “To all, who I (i.e. Muhammad) command, Ali should also command” (Halm 2015: 11; Aslan 2011: 114). In fact, Ali’s rule was anything but uncontroversial and was characterized from the beginning by internal conflicts. In 660 C.E., during the lifetime of Ali, a schism within the umma took place, for Muawiyah, the son of Muhammad’s former main opponent Abu Sufyan, was “worshiped as caliph in Jerusalem” (Halm 2015: 14). In January 661, two days after an assassination attempt occurred in Kufa, Ali succumbs to his injuries. According to later Shiite interpretation, Ali is considered the first of a multitude of (Shiite) martyrs. While al-Hasan, the eldest son from the marriage of Ali with Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and according to Shiite understanding the second Imam, renounced the office of the caliph, Ali’s second son al-Husayn did not renounced it. Therefore, al-Husayn opposed the new caliph Yazid in 680, who was designated by his father Muawiyah to succeed him as caliph (Berger 2016: 242).

Husayn encamped in Karbala with his followers, the “Shiat Ali,” the party of Ali, on the 2nd Muharram, that is the 2nd day of the first month of the Islamic year, approximately 43.5 miles north of Kufa. There he waited in vain for the promised thousands of followers from Kufa. Shortly before Husayn’s arrival in Karbala, the governor of Basra, Kufa and Khurasan called Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad executed the rebels. Among them someone called Muslim, a cousin al-Husay’s.

Subsequently, according to Shiite tradition, a chain of martyrdoms is following, which the grandson of the prophet and his faithful ones are said to have suffered, and which are much later performed in the form of passion plays whose prototype dates back to the fifteenth century (Halm 2015: 45). Scenic elements were given as early as the 10th century to the rites related to ashura, the tenth day in the month of Muharram (cf. Halm 2015: 47). The following presentation gives an overview of the martyrdoms of the ten days of Muharram, which according to the Shiite tradition is to be solemnly commemorated (cf. Halm 2015: 46f.):

Days Events according to the Shiite tradition during the first ten days of Muharram
1st-3rd Husayns journey and arrival in Karbala and the fearless negotiation with the Yazid’s representative.
4th The celebration of the martyrdom of al-Hurr ibn Yazid at-Tamimi, who repented his sins and defected to from the enemies of al-Husayn to the latter.
5th The weeping of the martyrdoms of Awn and Muhammad, the children of al-Husayn’s sister Zaynab.
6th Ali al-Akbar (Ali the Older) dies in his fathers (i.e. al-Husayn) lap after being hit by arrows. The baby Ali al-Asghar (Ali the Younger) is killed by an arrow, which pierced his throat.
7th Husayn’s nephew al-Qasim ibn al-Hasan was killed on the day of his wedding with the former’s daughter.
8th Commemoration of the martyrdom of al-Abbas, the half-brother of al-Husayn. Both of al-Abbas’s arms are cut off, when he tries to get water from the Eurphrat for the thirsty martyrs.
9th (tashua) The siege of al-Husayn’s encampment.
10th (ashura) The escalade of al-Husayn’s encampment. Al-Husayn and most of his warriors are killed in the fighting, 72 men in total.

The events of the first ten days of Muharram, which found their gruesome climax with ashura, can hardly be overestimated for the religious history of Islam, at least for the Shiite part of it. With Halm it can be correctly stated that “before 680 a Shiite religiousness did not exist” (2015: 21). And “only the death of the third Imam and his companions,” continues Halm, “is the big bang that creates and sets in motion the rapidly expanding cosmos of Shiism. For the Shiites, Kerbelâ is the linchpin of their faith, the culmination of a divine plan of salvation whose promises are given to those who take sides with the martyred Imam” (Halm 2015: 21).

What happened in the following four years is hardly reconstructable and therefore remains in the realm of speculation. The only thing that is clear is the who, namely the Arabs and the where, the already mentioned city of Kufa. It was not until the 16th century that ancient Iranian religious traditions invaded the Shia. Whatever happened in the immediate aftermath of the Karbala massacre, the terminus a quo for the verifiable existence of a religious movement is the year 684 C.E. Those who put in promising Ali’s son al-Husayn to help him in the battle of Karbala or the intended conquering of Kufa, but in fact let him down, obviously regretted their behavior. “The catastrophe of the prophet’s grandson provoked a grave crisis of conscience among its Kufic partisans” (Halm 2015: 22). Because of an exegesis of sura 2:54 attributed to themselves as a group, they now understood themselves as tawwabun, the “repentants”, or more literally “those who turn back.” This verse explains the consequences of the production and worship of the Golden Calf cited in the Torah, namely the god-ordained killing of the fallen of the righteous or divinely ordained path. So it says in Ex 32,27:

ויאמר להם כה אמר יהוה אלהי ישראל שימו איש חרבו על ירכו עברו ושובו משער לשער במחנה
והרגו איש את אחיו ואיש את רעהו ואיש את קרבו

And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor (literally he, who is close).’”

The facts are clear. Some Israelites, more precisely some of the “sons of Levi” (see Ex 32,28) have created themselves an idol, worshiped it and were subsequently condemned with death sentence, which is to be executed by their own relatives, whether near or far. At the end of the day, according to the biblical account, the fallen ones lost their lives, three thousand men in total (שלשת אלפי איש).

The Koran interprets the consequences of the creation and worship of the Golden Calf in a pretty original way. Thus, not the faithful men among the Israelites or a specific tribe are charged with killing the apostates, but the apostates, according to sura 2:54 have to kill themselves: “So turn to your Maker, And slay yourself (literally: kill your souls, which are yours)” (fa-tūbū ʾilā bāriʾikum fa-qtulū ʾanfusakum ḏālikum). The reflexive construction resumes the frivolous or unlawful act of the Israelites, for the deed, as sura 2:54 (grammatically-semantically) points out, is directed against the apostate Israelites (cf. Schmitz 2009: 80).

The promised consequence of the repentance made by the apostates is, according to the Koranic account (see the end of 2:54), God’s turning back to them, because of his compassionate nature: “Then He turned towards you: For He is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful” (fa-tāba ʿalaykum ʾinnahū huwa t-tawwābu r-raḥīmu).

From the order to turn back, expressed in the construction fa-tūbū, which is formed from the root t-w-b, follows the very specific self-designation the followers of Ali are using until today, namely tawwabun (Hawting 2006: 174). Consequently, they identified themselves with the Israelites. Perhaps because of the severity of their guilt, namely because of their turning away from Ali, thus, ultimately deviated from the divine directive, since it was the messenger and prophet of God, Muhammad, who had designated Ali as his successor at Khumm.

The essential difference is obviously to be found in the way turning back. While according to sura 2:54, the apostate Israelites had to kill themselves, so that God in turn (mercifully) turns back to them, the in-the-end-repentant followers of Ali had not to commit a collective atoning suicide. Unlike for the Israelites, suicide was strictly forbidden to them; that’s what sura 4:29 is explicitly saying: “And do not kill yourselves (literally: souls); for verily, God is merciful to you” (wa-lā taqtulū ʾanfusakum ʾinna llāha kāna bikum raḥīman).

The severity of guilt is not to be compensated by a single act of repentance or in the form of an animal sacrifice. Only the surrender of one’s own life is able to do it, e.g. on the battlefield against the enemy. Thus, also the offspring, until today, inherited the order to bear this guilt and to compensate it “with their own blood” (Halm 2015: 23).

“The movement of the Tawwābūn, therefore, appears as a gigantic self-sacrifice performed in expiation of or atonement for what they saw as their great sin” (Hawting 2006: 174).

However, as Halm points out, the “‘sin’ of the Shiites is not an original sin, not an existential flaw, which clings to humanity from the beginning and makes it in need of salvation, but a historical failure of the entire ‘party’ in a concrete situation” (Halm 2015: 23). This inalienable debt can only be atoned year after year in the first ten days of the first month of the Islamic calendar, which finds its culmination on ashura, that is the Shiite form of the Jewish “Day of Atonement” Yom Kippur, the tenth day after New Year in the Jewish calendar.

The tawwabun had not invented ashura, but rather gave him back a part of its original coinage. According to a Hadith of Bukhari, Muhammad himself celebrated this day as a memorial or holiday:

“Ibn Abbas (ra) reports: When the Prophet (pbuh) came to Medina, he saw that the Jews were fasting on the day of ashura. He asked them, ‘Why are you fasting today?’ They said, ‘Today is an important memorial day for us! It is the day when God delivered the children of Israel from their enemy! Therefore Moses (Musa) fasted that day!’ The Prophet (pbuh) said, ‘I have a greater right to Moses than you!’ Then he fasted on the day of ashura and also admonished the Muslims to do it” (Ferchl (ed.), Ṣaḥīḥ al-Buḫārī 2006: 241).

Goitein in turn, refers to Bukhari (30:69), who passed down a Hadith of Aisha, according to which Muḥammad and the Quraysh fasted already at the time of the jahiliyya, the so-called “time of ignorance.” Put in other words, according to this Hadith, Muhammad fasted long before he came to Yathrib/Medina with its strong Jewish community in 622 C.E. (Goitein 1966: 96; cf. Gil 1999: 145-166). The instruction to fast on the tenth day after the Israelite and later Rabbinic-Jewish New Year is found in Lev. 23:27.29 and Num. 29:7 (s.a. bT Taan 30b and bT BB 129a)—fasting must be understood as a form of self-humiliation and/or self-denial.

At some point in the 620s, most likely after the break with the Jewish tribes in Yathrib/Medina, via divine revelation, the fasting of ashura is transfered onto the entire month of Ramadan. Thus, ashura loses massively in importance within the Sunni form of Islam, but was never be completely forgotten (Hawting 2006: 173). The “party of Ali” (Shiat Ali), however, somehow rediscovered this Old Israelite and Jewish heritage of self-humiliation and/or self-denial as part of a highly complex atoning/reconciling rite between 680 and 684 C.E., because as the sole source for revitalizing the concept of atonement or reconciliation on the Old Israelite and Rabbinic-Jewish Day of Atonement, sura 2:54 is not enough.


FERCHL, Dieter (Hg.), Ṣaḥīḥ al-Buḫārī. Nachrichten von Taten und Aussprüchen des Propheten Muhammad, Stuttgart 2006.
GIL, Moshe, The Origin of the Jews of Yathrib, in: Frank E. Peters (Ed.), The Arabs and Arabia on the Eve of Islam, in: Lawrence I. Conrad (Ed.), The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, Vol. 3, Aldershot/Brookfield 1999, p. 145-166.
GOITEIN, Shlomo Dov, Studies in Islamic History and Institutions, Leiden 1966.
HALM, Heinz, Die Schiiten, 2. Aufl., München 2015.
HAWTING, Gerald R., The Tawwābūn, Atonement and ʿĀshūrāʾ, in: Gerald Hawting (Ed.), The Development of Islamic Ritual, in: Lawrence I. Conrad, The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, Vol. 26, Aldershot/Burlington 2006, p. 173-188.
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.


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.

Part I
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.


Reformation related to Islam is a term strongly despised by many. While non-Muslims sometimes demand a reformation of Islam and some liberal Muslims strongly reflect on how such a reformation could look like. Others, non-Muslims and also rather conservative Muslims, reject this idea totally. Those non-Muslims consider Islam irreformable, while conservative Muslims consider Islam as the final and therefore immaculate revealed religion by God, Allah. Therefore, a reformation of Islam is understood as a human approach to better something which is already perfect—a sign of human ignorance and hubris. In the following I want to argue for the rehabilitation of the term reformation in the context of Islam.

The fundamental problem in the relation of reformation and Islam is twofold. First of all, reformation is seen as a Christian—in a certain sense western—concept being forced upon Islam as a neo-colonial and orientalist attempt not just to reign Muslim land, politics and economy, but also their hearts and minds. Secondly, what is understood by reformation applied to Islam? It is mostly understood as to correct or improve and ultimately change Islam, which also means to change the perception of Islam’s fundamental scripture—the Koran. Let’s start directly there, with the Koran. Reformation from within a religion does not change its text, rather reformation from within changes the approach of the people towards the text. But why talking about the Koran as a text in the first place? If the Koran is a text, then it is an ancient one, namely from the early 7th century and will basically remain there. Why not approaching the Koran as what it is, namely a “dialogue” like Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010) had convincingly argued for?

From Abu Zayd’s point of view living with the Koran in the 21st century is possible as it was or could have been in any century without following the orthodox or fundamentalist literal reading of the Koran. From the orthodox or fundamentalist point of view, the Koran is a fixed text, which they consider perfect, while at the same time invented and applied theological concepts like „abrogation“ on the Koran – the so to speak written dialogue – in order to choose one passage of it over the other, if those two contradict each other. Taking the divinely-human origin of the Koran serious, Abu Zayd’s approach doesn’t need such an arrogant approach to the Koran, because he was able to see the Koran as what it always was and what it is for the faithful Muslims, even if those Muslims aren’t totally aware of it, namely a dialogue on different levels. Its most important of course the dialogue between God and man, but also between men. Dialogue and the ability to get into one, to lay down your arguments, to respectfully dissent and being able to let yourself being persuaded by reasonable arguments, is a core asset not just in modern-day life.

Connecting Abu Zayd’s approach directly to Islamic law, Islamic philosophy and Islamic culture, has surely the potential to once again lead Islam into a ‘golden age’. Scholars of today wouldn’t speak about this age as a golden one, if back then everything would have been like a solid hard rock, without any internal, relational movement or motion, which is in fact what dialogue is all about. Therefore, only a status quo as constant dynamism in the man-oneself, man-man and God-man relationship is required. The so-called ‘golden age of Islam’ was possible because of the dialogical essence of the Koran which shaped the thinking and approach to the world of early Muslim scholars and lay-persons until the Middle Ages.

Everywhere where else, where the Koran was understood as eternally fixed by the divine, being therefore unchangeable like a solid hard rock, hence, from being understood from the literary perspective “just” as a text and totally reduced to its letter, the dialogical essence of the Koran vanished. The Koran became a mere shell of its original self. Consequently, the richness of Islamic law, Islamic philosophy and Islamic culture was reduced to one or just a few positions, which were not rarely connected to violence, led finally to the breakdown of those amazing achievements Islam stood for and for some still stands for. Those achievements aren’t lost. They are preserved by scholars of today, also by Muslim people who are aware of their heritage and cherish every bit of it and also by historical evidence found here and there. A lot of Islamic intellectual and cultural achievements were destroyed or not preserved, thus, is unfortunately lost today. But luckily not everything. Therefore, it is not too late to revive this culture. If Muslims once again realize what a treasure they possess, actually the essence of their religion, sitting and waiting to be rediscovered, they could revive a ‘golden age of Islam’ in our time and our ancestors time. Islam once again will be understood as a gift to mankind.

Thus, reformation mustn’t mean a change of Islam being forced on it by western non-Muslim people. Reformation is not a Christian invention. In general, being in a (constant) dialogue with (living) subjects and objects means to constantly reform yourself and others peacefully. Hence, reformation is a necessity every people and every culture need in every age. In order to rediscover the dialogical essence of Islam, namely the Koran, Muslims and non-Muslims alike have to reread the transmitted text we call today Koran and other written Muslim sources, and we also have to rethink and reinterpret its message and meaning in every age. According to my understanding, the necessary reformation of Islam is therefore not an intended recreation of Islam based on a Christian model, but to become aware of the fundamental structure of early Islam, especially the Koran as its primary source and the Sunna, the traditions attributed to the prophet Muhammad. An inner-Muslim reformation is therefore a rediscovery of what was always there. Reforming Islam by Muslims is to come to terms with Islam’s and their own essence. Reforming Islam is nothing else than reconciling themselves with themselves, with their fellows, with non-Muslims and foreigners and ultimately with the divine—Allah.