Notes on the lecture: Uncommon core - how Islam began

Fred Donner
Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
June 3 2011, University of Chicago

John Perkins' notes on latter part of lecture, about what really happened.

What was so new about the Koran that could lead to a new Empire? The Koran is addressed to "believers" rather than to Muslims. About 1000 passages addressed to believers, Islam or Muslim mentioned only 60-70 times. There is sparse documentary evidence until 20-40 years after the death of the Prophet. The leader referred to as 'commander of believers' on papyri, coins.

Later, in the 670s dates refer to "in the era of believers". A ‘believers movement' was basic concept. But who were the believers? Koran defines them in terms of those who practice belief according to the Koran, as people who need to observe piety and the revealed law. Some "people of the book" were included as believers. At beginning it was a revivalist movement that could include Christians and Jews.

A document called the Constitution of Medina purports to be between Muhammad and people of Yatrib. This must be a transcription of something really old, early - if not, would not be transcribed in this way. It has too many contradictions with later texts. The community includes Jewish clans of Medina as part of the ummah. This alters our view of the revivalist expansion – it was not in opposition to Christians and Jews. It was a monotheistic revival movement - people could join movement but not change faith.

Reports of the Umayyad dynasty, beginning 660 till 700, show that Christians were important in the movement. Its centre is in Syria, Damascus. Christians served in military of new empire. St John of Damascus was adviser to the Caliphs. The original believers movement was not a distinct religion.

Recent archaeological evidence concerns a church in Jerusalem rebuilt several times, and rebuilt in the early 8th C. Has apse in east, but in its south wall is prayer niche for Muslims. Was it used by Muslims to pray towards Mecca?

Muslims now say that when they arrived in Damascus they took over the church of St John, divided in half - half Christian, half Muslim. Is it an excuse to say why they took over the Umayyad mosque in Damascus?

Muslim prayer involved bowing and prostrations according to Koran. This may have been influenced by how Christians and Jews prayed at that time. Christian prayer at that time also involved bowing and prostrations. There appears to be ecumenical co-operation.

Conquests by new state are recorded in Muslim and non-Muslin sources. Towns appeared to have acquiesced peacefully. There is no evidence of destruction in archaeological record to mark "Islamic" conquest. Our only example is siege of Caesarea. The conquest is invisible: there is no change of pottery, culture and no demands to convert. There is a requirement just pay tax to new government. If you were pagan then would be hard, but not if you were already monotheist.

When does Islam really appear? It is in the 690s or early 700s and is associated with Abd al Malik. At this time there is then emphasis on person of Muhammad, and emphasis on Koran as text.

Arab rulers start to question whether Christians and Jews are really believers. Jesus not a god: there is a redefinition of believers. At this is time there is also focus on term "Islam". They start talking about era of "hijra", not "era of believers". They start relabelling things to make them look distinct. This is led by official decrees and official policy.

The Dome of Rock was constructed by Abd al-Malik. Inside are mosaics with inscriptional texts: selected passages of Koran that emphasise that the Trinity not acceptable. This may not have entirely been led by official policy. It may have been response to popular movement. When we look at Islam and how it was constructed, it is quite different to traditional narrative.

This creates problems for Muslims, but also opens up opportunities for reinterpretation of how Muslims should behave today. Islam has no doctrinal authority. There is no single Islam today or has been for centuries. Knowing of Islam’s origin provides hope for flexible new interpretations.

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