Recently, British religious historian Tom Holland presented his research on theorigins of Islam in the form of a documentary titled: Islam: The Untold Story. The documentary was aired on British terrestrial channel, Channel 4. Unfortunately, the entire documentary appeared to be an effort to undermine Islamic belief by way of scepticism. The authenticity of the history of Islam was challenged and conclusions were drawn such as that nothing about Islam, its origins and early history can be said with certainty. Although the aim of the documentary seemed to be to leave viewers with an impression that to believe in Islam is nothing more that believing in myth and folklore, on one level a positive point to come out of the release of the documentary is that it has provided Muslims with an opportunity to develop a serious understanding of the origins of their faith and to answer the following questions posed by the documentary and by other Western historians: Did the Prophet Muhammadsa really exist? Was the Qur’an revealed or was it the Prophet’s monologue recorded by his followers? Is the present day Islam the same as introduced by the Prophet or was it made to measure societies that had to be conquered? This author actually appreciates the fact that the documentary by Tom Holland will lead Muslims to respond to these questions in a more academic and rational manner; which is in fact what this article will attempt to achieve.
Historical Evidence of Islam
Islam has always faced the challenge of proving the authenticity of its historical evidences. The much talked-about recent documentary by Tom Holland1 is not the first attempt of its kind. Western historians have always wanted the origins of Islam to be examined under a strict academic method of research.2 They have tried to do so and have arrived at conclusions not much different to what would be, or rather, is, the case in a study of many of the ancient civilisations. For example, the details of the fact that Julius Caesar carried out his warfare on certain dates and certain times is widely believed, but conclusive and authentic historic evidence may not be as clearly available as it is for the American launch of what is now called the “war on terror” (although some may find this debatable as well.). The case, however, is different with Islam in the sense that historians tend to confuse civilisation with faith. Islam is different from other faiths in the sense that it had such a powerful impact on society that it resulted in the formation of a major civilisation of the world.3 Here, we will deal with this particular issue by attempting to place the right peg in the right hole, in an effort to understand the history of faith and civilisation in their own respective manners. As the occidental mind would first want to look for traces of historical evidence available for the Islamic civilisation, it would be pertinent to study the reasons we have to believe that the epic revolution in the history of civilisation, i.e., the making of the Islamic Civilisation, was all started by an unlettered man of the Arabian desert, named Muhammadsa. To do so, we need to understand the state of the Arabian Peninsula at the time when Prophet Muhammadsa is said to have existed. While millions of followers of Islam have absolute faith in the Qur’an as the Divine Law that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammadsa, this article attempts to satisfy the historian who may be in pursuit of its historic origin.
The Arabian Peninsula, in the 6th Century C.E., was surrounded from all sides by great empires of the world: the Byzantine or the Eastern Roman Empire on the West and the Sassanid or the Persian on the East. This had left Arabia merely a route for the inter-empire trade caravans. It had not developed into an empire, despite being under the influence of its neighbouring empire.s There was no social system which could facilitate its growth into an established state, let alone an empire. The largest group with which an Arab could have allegiance, was a clan or a tribe and this was the tribal system that prevailed the Arab society.4 There were no state forces that could serve as military defence, national solidarity or enforcement agencies; all of this was done at a tribal level.5 A tribe would be responsible for the security of its adherents. The policy of retaliation was the only factor that worked as an invisible enforcement agency, hence making it essential for every individual to initiate allegiance to a tribe. Historians have almost unanimously agreed that it was in this societal backdrop that Islam emerged and brought about the revolution that turned this fragmented population into a civic society. There is ample historical evidence to prove that until the time of the attack of the Abyssinian invaders on Makkah with the intention to capturing the Ka’bah, it was in this strong tribal division that the people of Arabia lived – this was the year 570 C.E. Historians also agree on the fact that by the year 632, the Arabs had turned into a strong, civilised society that had evolved in to an empire, which not only was established in the Arabian Peninsula, but had started to spread to the outskirts too.6 It would, hence, be an overstatement by occidental historians such as Patricia Crone, Tom Holland and others from similar schools of thought, to say that no evidence is available to suggest what happened between the years 570 and 632 C.E.
Western academics further agree that in 632 C.E., the Arabian empire was following a lunar calendar by the name of hijri and that 632 was the 10th year of this hijri calendar. No other suggestion, or even assumption, has been made by Western academia as to what could have marked the start of this unique lunar calendar. It is almost unanimously agreed upon that it was the migration of the Prophet Muhammadsa from Makkah to Madinah that marks the starting of the hijri calendar. Historians have no qualms in calling the Arabia before the year 570 C.E. the “pre-Islamic” Arabia and refer to the Arabia of this era as the “homeland of the Arabs and the cradle of Islam.”7 It is taken without doubt that it was the emergence of Islam in this period that played a decisive role in changing the religious character of the Arabs, which led to the change in its national character by “launch[ing] [them] on the paths of World conquest.”8 The Bedouins seem to have undergone a collective psychological experience by the Ayyamul Arab (literally meaning ‘the times of the Arabs’, consist of poems written to arouse Arab nationalistic sentiment) which gave way to Classical Arabic literature and a feeling of being united as a people with common interests, constraints and problems, hence the development of a loose sense of national sentiment. Meanwhile, Makkah had also come into focus by gradually turning into a caravan city for the trade that was carried out between the two neighbouring empires via the spice route of Western Arabia. This gave Makkah an advantageous position, which drew the attention of the Jews of Yathrib and the Christians of Najran, who would travel through, leaving the inhabitants of the commercial and holy city of Makkah more aware of their beliefs. Its transformation into a place of commercial and religious attention is owed to Qusayy, who undoubtedly is accepted by Western historians as an historical figure. It cannot be said with certainty, but experts on Arab history agree to the fact that it was at the start of the sixth century that Qusayy and his tribe, the Quraysh, gave Makkah its religio-economic prosperity.9 The credit of laying foundations of a monotheistic tendency in the religious life of Makkah, is also attributed by historians to the Quraish—the tribe to which Prophet Muhammadsa was born. We know as a historical fact that the Quraish had firm belief on being the descendants of Ishmaelas, (and Abrahamas), which made them possessive about the Ka’aba and gave them the conviction that they were its custodians. With all the historical evidence pointing to this detailed portrait of sixth century Arabia, an unbiased enquiry clearly points to the birth of a child called Muhammadsa, whose name too has a Quraishite origin, being born to the son of Abdul Muttalib. The Cambridge History of Islam records this historic event:
“It was in the prosperous metropolis of sixth-century Arabia that a prophet, a lineal descendant of Qusayy, was born c. AD 570. With the birth of Muhammadsa, Arabia became ‘the Cradle of Islam.’”10
“The extraordinary events of seventh century completely reversed the role of the Arabs and changed the nature of their contribution. From a peninsular people who had played a marginal and subordinate role in history, they develop into an imperial race, and succeed in terminating the Indo-European interregnum in the Near East, reasserting Semitic political presence in the region, and carrying the Semitic political factor into the medieval world by the foundation of a universal state. After and with the winding caravans of ancient trade-routes, all of which stamped their contribution as one related to material culture, the Arabs now ride out of their peninsula as Muslim, inspired and animated by the ideals of the new faith, and establish a theocratic state within which develops a civilisation, religious in spirit and manifestation, that of medieval Islam.”11
The teachings of Prophet Muhammadsa, even if we were to leave Tradition12 aside and only base them on Qur’an, by no means appear to have been alien to his contemporary Makkans. Established historians of Islam, like Sir Montgomery Watt, agree that;
“He [Muhammadsa] was responding not merely to what the occidental would call the religious and intellectual aspects of the situation, but also to the economic, social and political pressures to which contemporary Makkah was subject. Because he was great as a leader his influence was important in all these spheres and it is impossible for any occidental to distinguish within his achievement between what is religious and what is non-religious or secular.”13
Another factor that cannot be ignored is the fact that the Muslim civilisation that started off with the emergence of Islam in the late 6th century was not based on any existing, earlier or traditional model of civilisation nor did it emerge as a continuation of a civilisation;14 rather, it was a unique form of civilisation that was erected on the foundation of a faith. The Prophet Muhammadsa and the expansion of the Islamic Empire can by no means be taken out of a genuine historical enquiry of the late sixth century and the early seventh century as this would leave a biased historian without any substitute to offer as the shaper of the Arab, or more rightly, the Islamic Empire. Arguing on the fact that the exact birth year or early childhood of the Founder of Islam is unknown or debatable, does by no means, refute the fact that the founder ever existed. Such an approach would endanger the whole course of historiography, leaving all ancient empires and societies nothing more than a jumble of myth and legend.
The Anthropological Aspect
The anthropological study of pre-Islamic Arabia has been briefly touched at the start of this article when we discussed the tribal culture that prevailed. We now aim at a deeper, anthropological study of the situation where a community with hard and fast tribal divisions15 is seen evolving into a nation. Anthropologists and sociologists unanimously agree that pre-Islamic Arabia was a tribal society. An individual belonged to a group by means of kinship in the paternal line16 and the group was taken to be responsible for providing support on various social levels. The immediate blood relations worked as the basic unit of one’s loyalty and the sense of solidarity, moving on to the greater families which further joined hands to make a chain that might well be called a tribe.17 All those comprising a tribe were meant to be from the same bloodline of a male ancestor, who the tribe would be named after: thus Banu Hashim were the descendants of Hashim. The tribe was the largest group that an individual would claim allegiance to, which resulted in the loyalty and solidarity that made tribesmen unite for common interests. Any invasion by outsiders would be dealt with at the tribal level. Where two or more tribes had to unite for broader interests or concerns, they would find the bond to do so by tracing back to a common ancestor.18 However, the strongest sense of solidarity would always be within the family, then the greater family, then the clan and then the tribe. The feelings of solidarity grew weaker as tribes combined to form a greater tribe for the obvious reason that the tribes would have joined hands to deal with a temporary situation and demanded no permanent loyalty anyway.19
From the different lineages and sub-lineages that existed within a tribe would be one that was classed as the Ahl al-Bayt, or the ruling house. This status was much sought after by various lineages within the tribe, but would go to the more dominant one. The nobler the lineage, the better chance it had to win this status and the more time a lineage spent in the status, the higher chance to stay or return to it if lost at some stage. It was from this dominant lineage that the chief or the ruling group was drawn.20 It was this tribal system that kept pre-Islamic Arabia from coalescing into a unified nation. The tribe would provide protection to its members and the lextalionis, or the law of retaliation, was the only way for law and order. There was however, no higher authority to judge between disputes that would arise amongst tribes from time to time. What one could call an alliance was next to impossible amongst the tribes any situations in which they joined together were merely short-term tactics to tackle a common situation. This societal set up allowed no centralised direction to gain momentum, hence the absence of centralised institutions.21
Islam emerged as a faith and drew people from the existing tribes to join Islam. It was something unique and without precedence in the Arabian society for an individual to quit his tribal loyalty and membership to join a group that was founded on no prevalent grounds, but only a matter of faith.22 It is noticed in accounts describing early conversions how the tribesmen would be astonished as to why one of their fellow men would give up the security offered to him by the tribe and join a completely new group (i.e. Islam), which was still in its infancy, without any precedence and which was with no support from any major tribe or clan. What added more to the astonishment was that the tribesmen would quit the tribe to follow a man who, although from a noble lineage, was unlettered and had no established identity as a leader of even a tribe or a social group, let alone an autonomous religion. Moreover, the religion they were opting to follow was seen as blasphemous to the traditional Arab gods and religious tradition. Not only was it unacceptable to the polytheist Nomads of Arabia, but the existing Monotheistic faiths such as Christianity and Judaism too showed no acceptance for it at all. For this newly born religion to start, for its roots to start growing, for its stem to strengthen and for it to flourish in such a dramatic manner23 that it changed the whole Arab society into a nation that was to evolve into a major civilisation of the world; all this was on the basis of a faith that acknowledged all previous faiths, but with an inherent code of political, economic, social and spiritual code of life. It leaves historians, Muslim and Western scholarship alike, amazed and astonished at how this epic transformation of a centuries-old fragmented society could happen and that too in a matter of years.24.
This anthropological study shows how the fragmented society of Arabia lived in a situation where conflict was the main theme of life. With this complexity of conflicts “came the potentiality for revolutionary change, a potentiality realised through the inspiration and leadership of the Prophet Muhammad.”25 Based on what the Prophet Muhammadsa claimed and all Muslims accept to be divinely revealed—the Qur’an—the Prophetsa laid the foundations of a society that contained all the positive aspects of the prevalent systems in and around Arabia, and actually, in all the major civilisations of the world at the time. These elements were not alien to the Arab people; this Islamic society accepted tribal identity26 only for identification purposes, but associated nobility with piety.27 Monotheistic, religious sentiment that had been passed down to the Arab society by Abrahamic religions became pivotal in the whole structure28; trade, which was at the heart of major civilisations and affected the economic atmosphere of Arabia, was given rules based on notions of faith like honesty, piety, mutual agreement, forgiveness, kindness etc.29 Above all, the fragmented people of Arabia were given the political vision that they lacked to become a nation and to prosper as a nation united in faith.30 All these elements were not alien, but those of the Arabic society—the cradle of Islam. This religion that we know as Islam, and what some would call an empire or merely a civilisation, was initiated by a man called Muhammadsa, who was born in Arabia in the late 6th century. He claimed to be a prophet of God; whether one accepts this claim or not is a totally different issue. Similar disagreements can and do exists regarding his motives behind “building” this “empire”; many believe it was to spread the Word of God, others assert it was his interest in the Christian tribes in and around Arabia; some might see it as merely a power hungry political ambition. Such difference of opinion can exist, but to argue that the Prophet Muhammadsa never existed and that the sources and origins of Islam are unknown is, permit this author to say, a display of intellectual dishonesty by sceptic historians of Islam.
The Historical Aspect
Historians’ interest in the pre-Islamic Arabia has reached certain conclusions that none would contest, as enough historical evidence seems to be in place for them to be unanimously agreed upon. One such historical fact is the destruction of the Abyssinian invader Abraha, who invaded Makkah with the intention to conquer the Ka’aba. It is agreed by historians of ancient Arabia that this was the year 570 C.E. This epoch in Arabian history is known and agreed upon by historians, Western and Islamic alike, as the “Era of the Elephants” on account of the huge number of elephants that Abraha and his armies brought with them.31 This attack on Makkah had come along the line of his ambition to conquer the Sassanid Empire, after having conquered Southern Arabia. It was on his way to achieve this goal that he attacked Makkah, but was destroyed.32 This epoch of Arabian history is described in the Qur’an in Chapter 105 (Surah Al-Fil). The fact that the Prophet Muhammadsa existed between the years of 570 and 632C.E. is proven by the research carried out by Western historians on the birth time of the Prophetsa. Thomas P. Hugh, in his Dictionary of Islam, brings together some works on this topic, suggesting that “Muhammadsa is said to have been born fifty-five days after the attack of Abraha, or on the 12th day of Rabiul Awwal of the first year of the Era of Elephants, which M. Caussin de Perceval believes this to have been the 40th year of the reign of Chosroes the Great (Kasra Anushirwan) and calculates the date to have been August 20th, 570 AD.”33 Spengler calculates the birthdate to be April 12th, 571 AD. Again, there can be a difference of opinion on the date, month or year of birth of the Prophet Muhammadsa, but there is absolutely no doubt, historically speaking, about his existence and his epic, revolutionary achievements, ranging from faith to polity, that changed the face of the world. It is also generally agreed upon that Makkah was under the rule of the Quraysh at the time of Abraha’s invasion, in 570C.E.. Similarly, no one would challenge the fact that in the 8th year after Hijra (629C.E.), the Makkan Quraish had given in and Muslims, led by the Prophetsa, had won back the town of Makkah. That it was a bloodless conquest is the proof of the general pardon that the Prophetsa had granted to the Makkans, otherwise, there seems no reason why the conquest, or taking over of Makkah by Muslims, should have been nonviolent, contrary to Arabian warfare culture. The general pardon from the Muslim side could not have come from anybody else but the sovereign leader of the Muslims, who, in the year 630C.E., was none other than the Prophet Muhammadsa.
Historians have found from historical investigations that when Abraha made his way from Abyssinia and conquered the South of Arabia, the region was inhabited and ruled by established Jews. This left the Jews having to flee and seek refuge with the tribes of Aus and Khazrajites. However, when civil unrest arose amongst the two tribes, the Aus succumbed to the Khazrajites, and it was these Khazrajites of Yathrib that started accepting Islam.34 That the Khazrajites had come in contact with Jews to know of an awaited Messiah and subsequently converted to Islam by the year 622C.E., is a historical fact, as is the fact that it was in this year that the Prophetsa migrated from Makkah to Yathrib—the land of the Khazrejites—and so is the fact that it was this city, thence known as Madinatun Nabi or Madinatur RasulUllah, that was the capital of the early Muslims who spread the message of Islam.
The very fact that the name of a town in the fertile land of Northern Hijaz, near the borderline of Najd and Tihamah, changed from centuries old name of Yathrib to Madinatur Rasulullah or Maditnatun Nabi (the city of the Apostle of God) is itself a major indicator of the transformation that the city went through on the basis of not only mass conversions to Islam—the religion of Muhammadsa—but also having been its capital in early Islam.
The Islamic Calendar, known as the hijri calendar, commences from the year when the Prophet Muhammadsa migrated from Makkah to Madinah. That year corresponds to the latter part of 622 and early 623C.E..35 When the Islamic emirates began to grow in number in the time of Umarra —the second Khalifah (Successor) of the Prophet Muhammadsa—he established the Islamic state on more organised grounds. Letters had to be written and deeds signed for various agreements and this required dates to be recorded on the documents, hence an Islamic Calendar had to be brought into use and was made to commence from the year of the migration (Hijrah) of the Prophet.sa 36 Since this happened in the time of Umarra, it would have happened sometime between the second and twelfth year of the Prophetsa’s death (years of Umar’sra succession and demise respectively). This was the time when a great number of Companions of the Prophetsa were alive and were there to advise Umarra. The year of the Hijra and the calendar based thereupon does not seem to have appeared alien to any of the Muslims as no disagreement of any kind is recorded in history. The time to follow the Khulafa-e Rashideen—the Rightly Guided Successors to the Prophet Muhammadsa (of which much historical record is available)—always endorsed the calendar which dated back to the migration of Prophet Muhammadsa. This is clear proof of the fact that Muhammadsa did exist, had major impact on the history of mankind, and that he existed in the time and age that is attributed to him by Muslim historiographers. Quoting a passage from Donner helps in understanding this landmark of Islamic history:
“The transition to state organisation was, of course, a gradual process; one cannot isolate any specific moment at which the Islamic state can be said have come into existence. But it is clear that Muhammad, by the end of his career, controlled a polity that had in some measure acquired the main characteristics of a state: a relatively high degree of centralisation, a concept of the primacy of law or centralised higher authority in the settlement of disputes, and institutions to perform administrative functions for the state existing independent of particular incumbents. For want of a precise moment, we can select the hijra in AD 622 and the start of Muhammad’ssa political consolidation in Medina as the point at which the rise of the Islamic state begins.”37
The evidence available from the seminaries of other religions that existed around Arabia at that time, points to the existence of Islam in the time that it is said to have existed by its adherents. Monophysite chronicles dating back to the seventh century mention the Caliphs of the Prophet who lived within the first three decades of the Prophet’ssa death. A mention of Abu Bakrra, who succeeded the Prophetsa immediately after his death, is made where he is recorded advising his generals on what care to be taken in case they had to defend themselves in Syria.38 The same chronicle mentions Umar’sra building of the Dome of Rock on the site of the temple of Solomon and describes it as the rebuilding of the temple.39 Comments are to be found made on Uthmanra, the third Caliph of the Prophetsa, alleging him of “perversion of the law and modest manner of the kings who preceded him.”40
Thus, while all events surrounding the time of the Prophet Muhammadsa have had academic acceptance, what can one say about the shadows of doubt forcefully cast upon the person, the times, events and achievements of the Prophet Muhammadsa?
PART II FOLLOWS IN THE NEXT EDITION
Asif M. Basit, a regular contributor to The Review of Religions, is on the Board of Directors of Muslim Television Ahmadiyya International where he is a producer of several programmes including, the bi-weekly ‘Beacon of Truth’, a contemporary religious discussion programme in English focussing on Islam. Email: email@example.com
1. “Islam: The Untold Story”, n.d., www.youtube.com/watch?v=dm8xKh8eQqU.
2. Please refer to works by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook carried out in the 1970s.
3. Julius Wellhausen, The Arab Kingdom and Its Fall: Orientalism (Taylor & Francis, 1927); Irfan Shahid, “Pre-Islamic Arabia,” in The Cambridge History of Islam, Vol. 1A: The Central Islamic Lands from Pre-Islamic Times to the First World War, ed. P. M. Holt, Ann K. S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis (Cambridge University Press, 1977).
4. Fred McGraw Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1981), 20.
5. Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests, 31.
6. Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Volume 1: The Classical Age of Islam (University Of Chicago Press, 1977), 187.
7. Irfan Shahid, “Pre-Islamic Arabia,” 3.
8. Irfan Shahid, “Pre-Islamic Arabia,” 3.
9. Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests, 51.
10. Irfan Shahid, “Pre-Islamic Arabia.”
11. Irfan Shahid, “Pre-Islamic Arabia.”
12. Tradition is the translation of Hadith which, in Islamic terminology, means the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad sasa as reported by people by means of tradition.
13. Montgomery Watt, “Muhammad sa,” in The Cambridge History of Islam: Volume 2, ed. P. M. Holt, Ann K. S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis (Cambridge University Press, 1977).
14. Ernest Gellner, Muslim Society (Cambridge University Press, 1983), 4.
15. Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests, 20.
16. W. Robertson Smith, Kinship And Marriage In Early Arabia, ed. Stanley A. Cook (Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2007).
17. Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests; Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the 6th to the 11th Century, 2nd ed. (Longman, 2004).
18. Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates; Donald Powell Cole, Nomads of the Nomads: The Al Murrah Bedouin of the Empty Quarter (Aldine Pub. Co, 1975).
19. Marshall D. Sahlins, “The Segmentary Lineage: An Organization of Predatory Expansion1,” American Anthropologist 63, no. 2 (1961): 322–345; Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests, 33.
20. Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests, 33.
21. Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests, 33.
22. Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests, 23.
23. Al Quran 48:30 mentions this miraculous growth of the newly founded faith in to a fully grown, strong tree which leaves the rest of the society astonished.
24. I.M. Lapidus, “The Arab Conquests and the Transformation of the Islamic Society,” in Studies on the First Century of Islamic Society, ed. G. H. A. Juynboll (Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 49.
25. I.M. Lapidus, “The Arab Conquests and the Transformation of the Islamic Society,” 66.
26. Al Quran 49:14
27. Al Quran 49:14 ‘Verily, the most honourable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you.’
28. Al Quran 2:164 is the first occasion that asserts that God is One, but occurs on a number of other occasions.
29. Al Quran 2:283; 4:30; 6:153 to mention just a few
30. Al Quran 3:104
31. Patrick Hughes and Thomas Patrick Hughes, A Dictionary of Islam: Being a Cyclopaedia of the Doctrines, Rites, Ceremonies, and Customs, Together With the Technical and Theological Terms, of the Muhammad saan Religion (Asian Educational Services, 1995), 367.
32. Carl Brockelmann, History of the Islamic People (Routledge Kegan & Paul, 1980), 3.
33. Hughes and Hughes, A Dictionary of Islam, 367.
34. Brockelmann, History of the Islamic People, 16.
35. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Volume 1, 20.
36. Franz Rosenthal, A History of Muslim Historiography (E. J. Brill, 1952), 309; Sir William Muir, Annals Of The Early Caliphate: From Original Sources (Smith, Elder & Co., 1883), 271.
37. Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests, 54–55.
38. I.M. Lapidus, “The Arab Conquests and the Transformation of the Islamic Society,” 20.
39. I.M. Lapidus, “The Arab Conquests and the Transformation of the Islamic Society,” 20.
40. I.M. Lapidus, “The Arab Conquests and the Transformation of the Islamic Society,” 20.