This collection of essays on the obscure early history of Islam and the Quran is not the outcome of a conference or colloquium but of invitations to selected scholars to contribute. Ohlig says in his introduction that the 2 editors only had a general idea of the themes of some of the contributions and no knowledge of their detailed contents. As might be expected, therefore, there are a variety of topics, approaches and methodologies evident in the eleven essays even though they can all be characterised as representing, to different extents, a revisionist point of view on the first two centuries or so of Islam.
In terms of its organisation and editorial voice, the volume predominantly reflects the ideas of a group of 3 German scholars: Ohlig, Christoph Luxenberg, and Volker Popp (whose contribution of more than 100 pages is the longest in the book). Luxenberg is, as most readers of this journal will already know, a pseudonym (and so too is the name of another contributor, Ibn Warraq). These 3 share the argument that what became Islam, began as a form of Christianity and was recognisable as such, as late as the end of the 1-st century of the Hijra. Popp argues that the epigraphic and numismatic evidence from the first 2 Hijri centuries provides evidence that the Arab rulers, at least, were Christian until things began to change in the 2-nd century, while Luxenberg interprets Abd al-Malik's Dome of the Rock inscription as a polemic in favour of an Arab tradition of Christianity against Byzantine Orthodoxy.
Those are the first 2 essays in the book, and the last is Ohlig's argument that in the Quran we find substantial evidence of a pre-Nicene eastern form of Christianity maintained by the Arabs, and a polemic against other forms of eastern Christianity that had developed by the 1-st/7-th and 2-nd/8-th centuries.
These chapters challenge some long established ideas, but I do not feel that it is simply conservatism that made me often find the interpretation of the evidence unpersuasive. For example, Popp holds that a new Arab era indeed began in AD 622, but that it was initiated by the Byzantine defeat of the Persians in that year (allowing the development of an independent Arab polity in Mesopotamia) rather than by the Hijra. Furthermore, until some time in its 2-nd century, the calendar of this era (as befitting a Christian one) was solar rather than lunar. While the evidence relating to the institution of the Hijri era is certainly susceptible of different interpretations, so far as I can see there is little concrete evidence to support Popp on this issue. His argument here refers mainly to the Greek inscription from the baths at Gader and to a coin minted at Darabjird. The former, beginning with a cross, commemorates the restoration of the baths in the days of Muawiya (Maavia) and is dated 'year 42 of the Arabs', as well as giving the indiction date (December of the 6-th year of the indiction), and the date since the foundation of the town. Popp stresses the fact that it talks of the era 'of the Arabs' rather than of the Hijra, but makes nothing of the fact that the Hijri year 42, reckoned on a lunar calendar, would indeed correspond with the sixth year of the indiction, whereas, if it were reckoned on a solar calendar beginning in 622 AD (622 + 42 = 664), it would not. The coin, in the name of Abd al-Malik, is dated to the year 60. According to the Muslim literary sources, Abd al Malik did not become caliph until 65 AH, and if the date on the coin was a Hijri one, therefore, either it or that given in the literary sources must be wrong. An alternative is that it refers to year 60 of a different era, and most scholars have accepted that it in fact refers to a post-Sasanid 'era of Yazdagird'. Popp, however, rejects that, reads the date 60 as referring to the (solar) era of the Arabs, and accordingly dates the accession of Abd al-Malik to 682 AD (622 + 60). In all of this I cannot find anything to justify his idea that the era was a solar one initiated by the Byzantine defeat of the Persians in 622 AD, or his subsequent revision of the chronology of the first century.
Another prominent item in the arguments of Popp and Luxenberg is that the phrase (on the inner side of the Dome of the Rock inscription) “muhammad abd Allah wa rasuluhu" should be translated as something like 'Praised be the servant of God and His Messenger' and understood as referring to Jesus. Again, while there is no reason why one should not question whether the word muhammad in early material (for example on coins and in the Quran) is necessarily a reference to the Prophet Muhammad, little evidence is offered here to support the understanding argued for. The parallel with the modern Christian Arabic version of Benedictus qui venit (mubarak al-ati bi-ism al-rabb) seems too far removed in time and context to be persuasive in itself, and why should Jesus be mentioned subsequently four times in the Dome of the Rock inscription by either his name ('Isa ibn Maryam') or his title (al-Masih) but at this first (supposed) mention be kept anonymous?
There is not room here to mention any of the many other pieces of evidence that are presented, but it is hard to avoid the impression that, as in the cases described above, their interpretation is forced in order to support a predetermined argument rather than the argument arising naturally from the evidence.
Puin's essay is rather different from those of the other three German scholars. He is concerned with the toponyms and peoples referred to in some of the Quran's Straflegenden, the ashab al-ayka or ashab layka, the ashab al-rass and others. He revives the idea that al-Ayka/Layka should be identified with the ancient Leuke Kome, and generally argues that many of the names of places and people given in the Quran can be connected with those situated by Ptolemy in the second century AD in an area of northwest Arabia extending from Yanbu/Iambia north to the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. One would have liked a more explicit discussion of the implications of this for our understanding of the origins of the Quran, and it remains unclear why Leuke Kome should be referred to by a corruption of its Greek name, which seems otherwise to be unknown for some time before the rise of Islam.
There are, in addition, four articles from scholars who normally write in French, three of them associated with the University of Aix-en-Provence. Claude Gilliot (here writing in German) revisits the question of the sources of Muhammad's information about Biblical and monotheist lore and again suggests the importance of Syriac Christianity, although he expresses reservations about Luxenberg's theory. Alfred-Louis de Premare, in a useful and balanced essay, discusses the evidence linking the cUthmanic Quran with the activity of Abd al-Malik and al-Hajjaj.
Pierre Larcher argues persuasively for a lack of continuity between pre-Islamic, Quranic, and classical Arabic, seeing the last as a scholarly construction, 'not a point of departure but of arrival'. Mondher Sfar presents a modernist Muslim argument that, for reasons to do with their own claims to authority, medieval caliphs and culama0 developed a doctrine of the Quran that is far removed from what the Book says about itself. In particular, he argues that in the Quran there is a general distinction between Quran and kitab, the latter referring to the perfect and unchanging Book of God in Heaven, the former to imperfect and changing versions of it on Earth.
2 Italian scholars associated with the Amari project for the publication of early manuscripts and fragments of the Quran contribute essays in English. The Director of that project, Sergio Noja Noseda, in a contribution that gives too much credence to certain anecdotes found in the Muslim literary sources, envisages the creation of the Arabic script by a conscious adaptation of that in which Syriac was written in the Sasanid territories. Alba Fideli discusses two early manuscripts that contain substantial segments of the Quran but with significant variants in words, word order, and orthography, as well as omissions, when compared with the standard text. She is, rightly, cautious as to the significance of these variants, only a few of which are reported in the Islamic masahif literature. The other contribution in English is an attempt by Ibn Warraq to summarise the development of academic scholarship on the Quran since the nineteenth century, from a critical, revisionist perspective. Particular attention is devoted to Suliman Bashear, John Wansbrough and Christoph Luxenberg.
This is a collection, then, that contains some useful, informative and thoughtful work. While the thesis argued in what might be called its core chapters remains unpersuasive, they nevertheless refer to sometimes puzzling evidence, that must be taken into account by anyone concerned with a period that is, indeed, in many ways obscure.
G.R. Hawting: review of the book “Die dunklen Anfänge: neue Forschungen zur Entstehung und frühen Geschichte des Islam” by Karl-Heinz Ohlig & Gerd-R. Puin (editors)
Reviewed Book: Birkach: Verlag Hans Sehiler, 2005, - 406 p., € 58.00.
Review published: Journal of Quranic Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2 (2006), pp. 134 – 137.
- Норберт Зонкер, "Мухаммад, как титул Иисуса" - http://hojja-nusreddin.livejournal.com/2990099.html
- "Коран - один большой хадис" - http://hojja-nusreddin.livejournal.com/2265033.html
- "A Comparison between Jesus and Muhammad" - http://intheheavens.org/Matt-Slick.html