Among the Believers
A new look at the origins of Islam describes a tolerant world that may not have existed
By Patricia Crone
Danish translation: Blandt de troende
Source: Tablet, August 10, 2010
Published on October 5, 2017

A pilgrim prays at Mecca. (Reza/Getty Images)

Everyone setting out to reconstruct the rise of Islam has to confront the fact that the first hundred years are short on indisputably authentic information. We have the Quran, some coins, inscriptions, and some non-Muslim statements, but the master narrative dates from some 120 to 150 years after the event. How are we to proceed? Some choose simply to accept the master narrative, suitably modified in places. Others, often called “Revisionists,” reject the master narrative in favor of new reconstructions based on authentic evidence and such information from the master narrative as is compatible with it. Fred M. Donner’s book Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam falls into the second category. Accessibly written and easily read, it elaborates on a theme he broached in a learned article seven years ago: For the first hundred years, he writes, Islam was an ecumenical movement.

Donner notes that a small number of Quranic passages speak of believers from among the People of the Book, i.e., Jews and/or Christians. Thus sura 3:199, one of the two examples given, says that “There are among the People of the Book those who believe in God and what he has sent down to you and was sent down to them.” Since the Quran as a whole is addressed to believers, this suggests to him that Muhammad’s followers did not form a separate confessional community, but rather included monotheists from any community who believed in God and the last day and were prepared to live piously. He also notes that Abraham is singled out as neither a Jew nor a Christian; that Jews are mentioned, in a document Muhammad drew up in Medina, as forming a community of or along with believers; and that every monotheist could agree to the first part of the Muslim profession of faith, “there is no God but God”: It is this phrase alone that appears on coins, papyri, and inscriptions down to about 685. Donner believes fear of imminent judgment drew the believers together, and by the end of Muhammad’s life they had turned militant in their desire to establish the kingdom of God on earth. Even so, the “violent conquest” model does not make sociological sense in Donner’s view, and there is little sign of destruction in the archaeological record. All monotheists will have found a place in the new community, without needing to convert, he suggests. It was not until the reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705) that Islam began to emerge as a separate confessional community of its own.

Donner’s book has already been hailed in a manner showing that its thesis appeals deeply to American liberals: Here they find the nice, tolerant, and open Islam that they hanker for. If the book attains a wide readership and succeeds in persuading the broad American public that Muslims are not the ogres they tend to imagine, it will have done a useful job. As a contribution to scholarship, however, it leaves something to be desired.

The main problem is that the only direct evidence for Donner’s central thesis is the Quranic verses on the believing People of the Book; all the rest is conjecture. The verses in question tell us nothing about events after the death of the Prophet, and it has to be said that the Medinese suras of which they form a part are not suggestive of ecumenicalism. They are full of bitterly hostile polemics against Jews and Christians, both of whom are charged with polytheism, deification of their own leaders, deification of themselves, and more besides. The Jews are faulted for rejecting Jesus, the Christians for deifying him. If there were believers among the People of the Book in Medina, an obvious explanation would be that they were Jewish Christians, a well-known hypothesis that Donner does not consider. The Jacobite, Nestorian, and Melkite Christians that the Muslims encountered in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq were unquestionably polytheists by Quranic standards, and with all due respect to Donner, the fact that they disagreed about Christology does not help, given that their disputes were premised on Christ’s divinity.

Donner is quite right that the first part of the Muslim confession of faith would have been acceptable to all monotheists. “It is not unreasonable to propose, then, that many Christians and Jews of Syria, Iraq, and other areas, as monotheists, could have found a place in the expanding community of Believers,” he writes. Maybe they could have, but did they? People do not usually get together merely because their slogans sound compatible. Was the Muslim confession of faith actually formulated to appeal to the Jews and Christians? Sebeos, writing not long after the 660s, did not think so. According to him, Mu’awiya sent a letter to the Byzantine ruler Constans (641-68) telling him to “abandon that vain cult which you learned from childhood. Deny that Jesus and turn to the great God whom I worship, the God of our father Abraham.” Sebeos was obviously not aware that Islam was an ecumenical movement: From what he had heard, the Muslims regarded worship of the one God as incompatible with belief in the Christian Jesus. Donner nonetheless holds that Sebeos, Isho’yahb (c. 647), and Bar Penkaye (c. 690) all offer evidence that “some Christians and Jews may have been fully integrated, as such, into the early community of Believers.” His evidence is that Sebeos identifies the first governor appointed by the Muslims to Jerusalem as a Jew, that Isho’yahb tells us that the Muslim conquerors of Iraq honored Christianity and gave gifts to monasteries and churches, and that Bar Penkaye says that there were not a few Christians among the Arab conquerors of Iraq. But evidence for warm attitudes and collaborators is not evidence for full integration without conversion.

The Christian secretaries that Donner also adduces are not evidence either, since they were a permanent feature of the medieval Muslim world, and besides the Muslims also used Zoroastrian secretaries, though they were well aware that Zoroastrians were not monotheists. Isho’yahb, moreover, says of the Christians of Oman that they only had to part with half their property in order to remain Christians, while Bar Penkaye says that “of each person they required only tribute, allowing him to remain in whatever faith he wished.” In other words, both sources confirm the conventional view that non-Muslims had to pay taxes in order to retain their faith. Indeed, Donner himself later speaks of cities peacefully absorbed in exchange for a tax. If it was by incorporating monotheist communities as tributaries into their domains that the Believers worked toward their goal of establishing the hegemony of God’s law, Donner’s seemingly revisionist view is simply the conventional one. On the other hand, if he means that some Jews and Christians became full members of the community in the sense of not having to pay the taxes imposed on “protected people,” he has not produced any evidence.

How are we to envisage Christians and Jews “fully integrated, as such, into the early community of Believers”? The Believers, according to Donner, were all those who accepted belief in God and the last day, and who were prepared to live piously; and pious living meant following Quranic law: engaging in regular prayer, paying alms, fasting during the daytime hours of Ramadan, and going on pilgrimage to Mecca. But how could a community endowed with its own law and pilgrimage center be lacking in confessional identity? And how could Christians and Jews who followed Quranic law remain Jews and Christians? Donner has no answer to the first question and two contradictory answers, both implicit, to the second. The first implicit answer is that Jews and Christians who joined the movement did not actually have to follow Quranic law: The ecumenical quality of the Believers’ movement allowed it “to accommodate within itself, in addition to those Arabians who followed Qur’anic law, many Jews and especially (it seems) Christians who shared a commitment to righteous living.” One takes it that Arabians followed Quranic law while Jews and Christians practiced righteous living in other ways, presumably by following their own law. In line with this, Donner says that the terms “Muslim” and “Believer” eventually came to mean those who lived by Quranic law as opposed to Jews and Christians: Previously, one infers, the terms had included both those who practiced Quranic law and those who lived piously without doing so. But if Jews and Christians did not follow Quranic law, in what sense were they fully integrated as members of the community of Believers? Are we to imagine a community in which salvation was possible by three different laws (and indeed three different theologies)? The conception may not be impossible, but it is not exactly effortless either, least of all in a situation in which one party has established its supremacy over the other two by conquest.

The other implicit solution is that all the Believers did follow identical laws, just not Quranic ones, or this at least is what the Arabian Believers and the Christians did in connection with prayer. The early tradition describes a qibla musharriqa, an east-facing prayer-orientation, Donner says, suggesting that we may have here the memory of a stage when the Muslims faced eastward in prayer like the Christians. Indeed, he adds, the “vague” reports of how Muhammad himself changed the direction of prayer to Mecca should perhaps be seen as a retouched, vestigial memory of the later change whereby the Muslims began to differentiate themselves from their erstwhile Christian co-believers. This can hardly be right, given that it is the Jewish prayer-orientation to Jerusalem, not the Christian orientation to the east, that Muhammad is said to have abandoned in favor of Mecca. But even if we let that pass, what are we to do with the Jews who prayed in a different direction from the other two? And quite apart from that, if Muhammad did not himself institute the qibla to Mecca, how can the pilgrimage prescribed in the Quran have been to Mecca? Nothing quite seems to fit. If all Donner wants to say is that the Muslim conquerors were happy to extend favors to Jewish and Christian collaborators, he is perfectly right, but this is neither new nor connected with monotheism, since they were happy to collaborate with Zoroastrians too.

Is he really being revisionist or just perfectly conventional? One is never quite sure. The claim that the “violent conquest” model should be discarded is ultra-revisionist: It goes against the testimony of both contemporary sources (as Donner acknowledges) and the later tradition, about which he himself has written a well-known book. Now he speaks of the “conquerors” and “conquered” people in quotation marks. But at the same time he still grants that there were campaigns and battles; he even gives us a summary based on his 1981 book, The Early Islamic Conquests. He also admits that there was some pillaging and taking of captives, though (once more going against the contemporary sources) he does his best to belittle both activities. But if you occupy a country by means of battles, in what sense have you not engaged in “violent conquest”? The expression is surely a tautology. What Donner turns out to mean is simply the well-known fact that the Muslims did not engage in systematic destruction of towns, churches, and other religious buildings, and that they were not out to impose their religion by force. The “violent conquest” model is wrong, he tells us, because it is predicated on the mistaken notion that the “conquerors” (his quotation marks) came with the intention of imposing a new religion by force on local populations. How seriously is one meant to take this? No scholar believes that the Muslim conquerors were out to impose their religion by force; even going back a century or more I cannot think of any who has espoused this view. Yet all scholars apart from Donner and (in a different vein) Yehuda D. Nevo and Judith Koren accept that the Muslims engaged in “violent conquest.” Laymen may still need to be reminded that the Muslims were not out to impose their beliefs by force, but to present lay misconceptions as the basis of a scholarly consensus is not playing it straight.

If all Donner means to affirm is that the Muslim conquests were relatively swift and surgical operations that left urban life, religious communities, and complex organization intact, then he is simply affirming the conventional view. But what has that got to do with ecumenicalism? The Muslims did not engage in systematic destruction of towns or religious buildings, regardless of whether they were monotheist, Zoroastrian, or (in Harran) pagan. Later he tones down the revisionist claim to the innocuous point that the sources’ emphasis on the military dimension of the expansion has obscured its nature as a monotheistic reform movement that many local communities “may have seen little reason to oppose.” At another point he seems implicitly to abandon his thesis, for he tells us that the early Kharijites “represented the survival in its purest form of the original pietistic impetus of the Believers’ movement.” Are we to see the Kharijites as the bearers of ecumenicalism, then? In the contemporary Middle East, militant fundamentalists are often dubbed “Kharijites,” with considerable justice. But it is hard to get one’s mind around Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as representatives of ecumenicalism.

Donner says so many strange things in this book that one wonders what is going on. In the preface he tells us that in his view Islam began as a religious movement, not as a social, economic, or “national” one, and affirms that all his predecessors from Hubert Grimme (1892) until today, including Montgomery Watt, myself, and my classicist colleague Glen Bowersock, have argued that the movement was “really” a kind of nationalist or nativist political adventure to which religion was secondary and, by implication, a mere pretext for the real objectives. This is bizarre. Is Donner really saying that a movement has to be either religious or political, economic or social? Does he really think that Osama bin Laden and his like are using Islam as a mere pretext, or alternatively that we are all mistaken in seeing their aim as political? Was religion mere eyewash when Moses used it to organize a revolt in Egypt? Was Vittorio Lanternari implying the same when he wrote his book on nativism in the Americas, India, Africa, and Asia under the title The Religions of the Oppressed? Surely Donner has lived long enough to know that religion can articulate concerns of any kind and that the nature of the concern has no bearing on the sincerity of the conviction. Many people have sincerely believed in God and the last day without taking to arms in order to establish the kingdom of God on earth. The early Christians were among them. Muhammad’s followers in Arabia sincerely believed the same, yet set out to conquer. Why this difference? Presumably, it has something to do with Arabia. Yet Donner speaks of the historical accident that Islam arose in Arabia. He cannot possibly mean that there was nothing in Arabia that made the rise of Islam more likely there than in Siberia or India, or that if it had not arisen in Arabia, it would have done so somewhere else. Or can he? He seems to think of religion as individual convictions regarding matters spiritual and moral that are formed independently of external circumstances (“God-given,” as the believers themselves experience it) and that cannot articulate political aims without being a mere pretext. And yet at the same time he seems to think that religion can indeed cause sincere believers to form a state and take to arms against those who hold opposing convictions. It is hard to avoid the sense that he is arguing for incompatible positions.