I was honored to be asked to address a seminar of the AIME organization on the biography of the Prophet Muhammad on November 6, 2021. It was a wonderful audience and they were very kind to listen to me talking about how academics approach he sources for the Prophet’s life. Here is the video:
“Mercy to All Nations” AIME Seminar – Dr. Juan Cole on Biography of the Prophet Muhammad
The audience read my book
They also read my blog posting, “New Historicism: A Manifesto for Writing the History of the Qur’an:”
Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – In borrowing the term “the New Historicism” from literary studies, I do not mean to take over all its theses. Rather, I am making an analogy. Just as Stephen Greenblatt came to require a historical context for studies of Shakespeare, rebelling against the contextless New Criticism at Yale in the 1950s, so Qur’anic studies desperately needs academic history along with the philology.
The planks below are intended to provoke historians of very early Islam to rethink how our discipline can be applied to the origins of the religion preached by Muhammad. I apologize for presenting them here as simple assertions, but it is after all a manifesto. I can make strong arguments for each of them, but will leave that sort of footnoting to later postings. In the meantime, I’m glad to argue them through. Many of these theses are not original with me, but represent what I believe to be current best practice. I think many of them are evident in the work of Angelika Neuwirth, Fred Donner, Nicolai Sinai, Glen Bowersock, Aziz al-Azmeh, and others now working in the field. Admittedly, some of these theses are in fact original with me, and may take some time to become accepted.
The reason that a New Historicist Manifesto is necessary is that the school known as Revisionism has, I think, discouraged the search for the historical Muhammad and has even discouraged the academic study of the Qur’an. By displacing the origins of Islam from western Arabia, by projecting the development of the Qur’an decades and even centuries after the death of Muhammad in 632, by mysteriously rejecting the entirety of the later Muslim tradition about the religion as undifferentiated and unusable, Revisionism paralyzed the field. Worse, all of these theses are incorrect. However, it is important to underline that New Historicist approaches do not condemn Revisionism across the board and in fact benefit from the breakthroughs of scholars working in that paradigm, especially querying the fallacy of authority when it comes to the late Umayyad and Abbasid authors.
So here is the manifesto
1. Historians in their analyses should attend to context, change over time, causality, and comparison to explore primary sources (eyewitness accounts– documents, memoirs, chronicles, sermons, collected oral accounts) while avoiding the fallacies of anachronism and appeal to authority. Those trained in philology or theology may find these methodologies troubling, and may perceive them to produce arbitrary choices, since a concentration on primary sources shapes how secondary sources are used and disallows the over-all authority of the latter. Nevertheless, sound historical methodology can resolve some of the conundrums that have beset Qur’anic Studies since the 1970s. This emphasis on historical methodology is not meant to be positivist or to suggest that textual and historical ambiguities can easily be overcome. Phenomenology, ethnography, thick description and other non-positivist approaches are compatible with the tools mentioned above.
2. The traditional Muslim dates for the Qur’an of 610-632 are largely correct. Neither the Syriac tradition seeing Muhammad as alive after 632 nor the Iranian regal tradition that has him die in 628 are convincing. The text of the Qur’an has no reference to hostilities with Byzantines or Christians and so, with some small possible exceptions, pre-634.
3. Muhammad ibn Abdullah was a historical person and a long-distance merchant as well as belonging to the Banu Hashim clan of the shrine city of Mecca, which gave hospitality to pilgrims and kept the peace in the sanctuary city. The religion of Muhammad grew up in western Arabia, though with a wrinkle mentioned below.
4. The Qur’an can be studied for the intellectual biography of the Prophet Muhammad just as the authentic epistles of Paul can be studied for his. Academic scholarship is agnostic, and there is for scholarly purposes no difference between an inspired or revealed text and any other sort of text, since even believers would have to admit that inspiration works through human beings and has a human audience and context. Stylometic studies of the Qur’an tell against seeing it as having more than one “author;” we may conclude that Muhammad was the vehicle for it.
5. Historians should read connected passages of the Qur’an (e.g. 9:1-29 or 48) as a continuous unit and as revealing a historical narrative, in contrast to the Abbasid tendency to atomize exegesis and attach tendentious meanings to verses out of context.
6. A key context for the Qur’an is the 603-629 war between the eastern Roman Empire and the Iranian Sasanian Empire, to some of the major events of which it refers, and the politics of which informed struggles in the Hejaz. The Qur’an sides heavily with the Roman Empire in this struggle and evinces positive views of Christians throughout, while criticizing some aspects of Christian theology (the harshest criticisms likely come in 630-32 and concern a Collyridian heresy rather than the mainstream).
7. Despite the silence on this matter of later Muslim sources, Muhammad continued to travel after 610 when he believed God began conferring the Qur’an on him. He journeyed regularly to Yemen and up to Roman Arabia and the three Palestines all through his life. A corollary of this thesis is that Muhammad knew Aramaic, and likely knew the koine Greek spoken as the urban standard in Roman Petra, Bostra and Damascus. A further corollary is that the Qur’an is sometimes addressing audiences in the Sasanian-ruled Near East or Yemen. The work of Paula Fredriksen and Laura Nasrallah on the acknowledged epistles of the equally peripatetic Paul thus offers methodological insights for studying Muhammad and the Qur’an.
8. The Qur’an has commonalities with Neoplatonic texts of Late Antiquity, though it departs in some instances from Neoplatonic precepts. The technical terms for “Word” (milla, kalima) are used in the sense of the Greek Logos.
9. Illumination can be thrown on passages of the Qur’an by comparing and contrasting them to other works of Late Antiquity, especially sixth- and seventh-century works. These include John Moschus’s The Spiritual Meadow, the History of Theophylact Simocatta, the History of Agathias, the Easter Chronicle, the poetry of George of Pisidia, and the sermon of Theodore Syncellus, among others. Comparison and contrast do not imply influence, only an exploration of late Antique ‘mentalities’ and intertextuality.
10. The later Muslim biographical and chronicle tradition of the 760s through the 800s and 900s is often anachronistic and of varying degrees of reliability, developing after “a hundred years of silence” during which tales about the Prophet and his community circulated only in fluid and shifting oral folk accounts. These authors lost touch with the Greek and Aramaic context of the Qur’an and tendentiously represent it as a purely inner-Arabian tradition.
11. Because the Qur’an is early, it is our only primary source for the life of the Prophet. Where it does not mention a major incident narrated by the later sources, we should be suspicious of that alleged event. Where its attitudes and values starkly contradict a later tale, we should firmly reject the latter. In particular, the later Imperial tradition is much more martial and militant than the Qur’an itself.
12. Elements of the later tradition occasionally can be recovered for use as historical sources. Gregor Schoeler and Andreas Gorke have shown that 8 episodes in the Prophet’s life narrated by `Urwa b. al-Zubayr came down to us through very thick chains of transmission. While these eight texts show some signs of anachronism, they generally accord with the Qur’an and provide some historical context. They are useful if controlled by the Qur’an as a primary source.
13. Using some late texts is ordinary historical practice, especially in Medieval history. Using a text embedded in a work because it seems to accord with the Qur’an does not entail an obligation to use everything in the work and is not a form of “cherry-picking”, as long as a primary text continues to be the controlling one. Abbasid narratives were often somewhat atomistic, sweeping up accounts from various previous sources, many of them oral. Nuggets of gold subsist amid mounds of dross.
14. The Qur’an has several civilizational backgrounds. A key such background is Greco-Nabataean, which stretched from the Transjordan into the northern Hejaz. The Arabic script evolved from the Nabataean. The Qur’an mentions sites of Nabataean culture such as southern Transjordan and the Hejazi city of Hijr (Hegra). The goddesses denounced in the Qur’an were worshiped in Nabataea. After 106, the Roman Empire ruled Transjordan and Greek became the urban standard. Local deities were identified with Olympian gods. After Constantine’s conversion in 312, Christianity made rapid strides in Transjordan. This mix of Hellenism, North Arabian religious themes, Nabataean traditions, and Roman Christianity gives context to the Qur’an. Yemen is another such context.
15. The theological vocabulary of the Qur’an is underlain on the one hand by the indigenous monotheistic tradition of post 380 CE Himyar in Yemen and on the other by the Eastern Roman and, later, Christian Arabic spoken in Syria, Transjordan and Palestine. Some Sasanian terms are also evident. Loanshifts and calques on terminology in Greek, Aramaic and Middle Persian are a feature of Qur’anic theological vocabulary.
16. Syriac Christian accounts of the seventh century after 636 that mention Islam may be primary for the year of their composition but are not reliable as primary sources for the life of the prophet except where what they report accords with the Qur’an. They are outsider accounts showing no familiarity with the internalities of the tradition and are not primary for 610-632. Used judiciously, however, and where they do not contradict the Qur’an, they can sometimes be useful.
17. The “Muslim Conquests” of the Near East after Muhammad’s death in 632 are a Foucauldian historical rupture, not a continuation of the life and teachings of the Prophet. It is anachronistic to project back into the period 610-632 principles, practices and attitudes of the later seventh century, more especially as presented in eighth- and ninth-century texts.