New Book: Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts

Islamic Cultures Islamic Contexts_coverReaders interested in the social and intellectual history of Islamic civilization will find an exciting array of studies in Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts: Essays in Honor of Professor Patricia Crone (Brill, 2014). This volume brings together articles on various aspects of Islamic societies and the intellectual traditions and social contexts that contributed to their formation and evolution. Written by leading scholars who span three generations and who cover such diverse fields as Late Antique Studies, Islamic Studies, Classics, and Jewish Studies, the volume is a testament to the breadth and sustained, deep impact of the scholarship of its honoree, Patricia Crone. While researchers in Qur’anic studies may be initially drawn to articles on “intra-qur’anic parallels” (Witztum) and “Jewish Christianity and Islamic origins” (Stroumsa), the entire volume promises to stimulate critical reflections on theory and method in the study of texts and their cultural contexts, and to help situate such reflections from a Qur’anic-studies perspective in broader scholarly discourses on Islamic civilization.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

The Qur’an – A Humanistic or Political Discourse? | القرآن – من أجل الإنسان أم من أجل السلطان؟

By Dr. Ali Mabrouk | للدكتور علي مبروك *

The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to Ali Mabrouk, Nusūs ḥawl al-qur’ān: fī al-sa’y warā’ al-qur’ān al-ḥayy, (Texts about the Qur’an: In Search of the Living Qur’an; 2014).  In it, Dr. Mabrouk discusses the clash between mobilizing the Qur’an for political purposes (min ajl al-sulṭān), and a humanistic reading of the text (min ajl al-insān). He finds the former more widespread due to the work of classical Islamic jurists, and especially in the wake of the recent Arab revolutions, and proposes the latter as an alternative. He asserts that not only does this humanistic approach better preserve the rights of people, but it also gives us a better understanding of both the qur’anic text and God. (E. El-Badawi)

Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar with two princes in attendance, receiving Mirza Riza Quli Munshi al-Mamalik. From the Shahanshah namah by Fath ʻAli Khan Saba. Qajar, dated 1225/1810 (BL IO Islamic 3442, f 64v) - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/persian-digital-manuscripts/page/2/#sthash.2J13YOq0.dpuf (http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk)

Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar with two princes in attendance, receiving Mirza Riza Quli Munshi al-Mamalik. From the Shahanshah namah by Fath ʻAli Khan Saba. Qajar, dated 1225/1810 (BL IO Islamic 3442, f 64v) (http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk)

من أجل الإنسان

(نبذة من كتاب نصوص حول القرآن في السعي وراء القرآن الحي)

تتأتى ضرورة قولٍ جدَّيٍ في القرآن الآن، من حقيقة أن العالم الواقعي لم يكن، في الأغلب، هو ساحة المعركة التي اندلعت، في الإسلام، حول ما إذا كان الإنسان قادراً وفاعلاً أو أنه محض كيانٍ عاجزٍ، لا قدرة له ولا تأثير. بل إن هذه المعركة قد اتخذت- وللغرابة- ساحاتها الرئيسة على امتداد فضاءات “الميتافيزيقي” والمفارق؛ وأعني من الله والقرآن بالذات. فالذين تصارعوا حول صفات الله، مثلاً؛ وكان منهم من أثبتها “قديمة وزائدة على الذات” في مقابل من نفى عنها أن تكون هكذا، وأثبتها، فقط، بوصفها “اعتبارات في النظر إلى الذات”، كانوا- في الحقيقة- يتخذون من الصفات ساحة يحسمون عليها معركتهم حول الإنسان بالأساس. ويترتب ذلك على حقيقة أن القول في الله بأن صفاته “قديمة وزائدة على ذاته “قد اقترن- وكان ذلك لازماً- بالقول في الإنسان “أنه لا تأثير لقدرته في مقدوره (أو فعله) أصلاً، بل القدرة والمقدور واقعان بقدرة الله تعالى”[1]. ويرتبط ذلك بأن قول هؤلاء بالقيام الأولاني القديم للصفة بالذات[2]، لابد أن يحيل إلى الدور التابع للوعي في مسألة، أو فعل، الوصف؛ وعلى النحو الذي ينتهي إلى تثبيت الحضور التابع أو الخاضع للإنسان، على العموم. ولعل هذا المعنى يتأكد حين يدرك المرء أن من تصوروا الصفات- في المقابل- على أنها اعتباراتٍ في النظر إلى الذات، قد عملوا على تثبيت الحضور الفاعل للإنسان؛ بسبب ما انتهوا إليه من “إن الخلقَ هم الذين يجعلون لله الأسماء والصفات”[3]؛ ويعني بما هي اعتباراتهم في النظر إلى جلال ذاته.

وإذا كان الله قد تبدى، هكذا، كساحة للتصارع حول الإنسان، فإنه لن يكون غريباً أن يستحيل القرآن، بدوره، إلى ساحة لنفس هذا الصراع أيضاً؛ وأعني من حيث ما ينطوي عليه من إغراء التعالي به إلى عالم الميتافيزيقي والمفارق. وهكذا فإن من تصوروا القرآن “صفة قديمة لله”، كانوا مشغولين بتثبيت وضعٍ بعينه للإنسان، يكون فيه مُستلباً وعاجزاً، وذلك بمثل ما إن من سيتصورونه- في المقابل- “خطاباً يخص الإنسان” كانوا مشغولين بتثبيت تصورٍ للإنسان يكون فيه قادراً على الفعل في العالم.

وإذ يبدو، هكذا، أن الخطاب النافي للإنسان يعلق نفسه على قولٍ في الصفات والقرآن، لا يرى إليهما إلا في تعلقهما بالله فحسب، بل ويلح على طمس حقيقة دخول الإنسان والعالم في بنائهما؛ فإنه يلزم التأكيد على أن كلاً من الله والقرآن إنما يحضران، وفقط، كمحض قناعين لمن يُراد إخفاءه وراءهما (وهو السلطان)؛ وبصرف النظر عما تؤدي إليه هذه الممارسة من التشويش على جلال الله وفاعلية القرآن. وبالطبع فإن ذلك يعني أن الأمر يتعلق، في العمق، بمواجهة بين “الإنسان” و”السلطان”؛ وفقط فإن “السلطان”- أو بالأحرى فقهاؤه- يستدعون “الله”، ومعه القرآن، ليكسبون به معركتهم، على نحو حاسم. فالسلطان حاضرٌ حضوراً جوهرياً في قلب “القول في الصفات”، وإلى حد استحالته إلى “أصلٍ” يجري القياس عليه في تأويل بعض الصفات التي يصف الله بها نفسه في نص التنزيل؛ وكان ذلك إلى الحد الذي مضى معه الغزالي إلى أن “الحضرة الإلهية لا تُفهم إلا بالتمثيل إلى الحضرة السلطانية”[4]. وبالمثل فإنه حاضرٌ في ما يمكن القول أنه فعل التعالي بالقرآن من “خطابٍ يخص الإنسان” إلى كونه “صفة قديمة من صفات الله”؛ حيث إن ما سيقوم به السلطان، من خلال فقهائه، من وضع نفسه موازياً أو مكمِّلاً للقرآن، (وذلك من خلال المأثور المعروف “إن الله يزع بالسلطان ما لا يزع بالقرآن”)، كان لابد أن ينعكس عليه تعالياً بسلطته إلى الوضع الذي تكون فيه مطلقة، وخارج أي إمكانية للسيطرة عليها. وإذن فإن كلاً من الله والقرآن إنما يجري استدعاءهما للدخول في المواجهة مع الإنسان، من أجل مجرد التعالي بالسلطان. وإذا كانت هذه المواجهة قد انتهت إلى الانتقاص من جلال الله[5]، ومن فاعلية وحيوية القرآن، فإن السعي إلى تحريرهما من قبضة السلطان- الذي يمسك بهما بوساطة خدمه من الفقهاء- لن يكون فقط من أجل الإنسان.

وبالطبع، فإنه لا يمكن تصور أن تكون هذه الممارسة- التي يمكن اختزالها في “الأطلقة”- هي محض تاريخٍ فات وانقضى، وبات مدفوناً في تراث القدماء. إذ الحق أنها كانت هناك؛ حاضرةً وفاعلةً طوال الوقت. وفقط، فإنها إذا كانت قد تخفَّت على مدى عقودٍ ماضية (تحت برقع الحداثة الذي ظل يشفُّ- رغم ثقله- عن كل ما يرقد تحته من البنيات البالية العتيقة)، فإنها- ومع احتلال تيارات الإسلام السياسي لصدارة المشهد في دول الربيع العربي- قد عادت للاشتغال الصريح، من دون أي تخفٍّ أو مواربة[6]. وإذ عادت للاشتغال، فإنها راحت تضع أمام الأعين حقيقة “أن ما يتهدد الإنسان، إنما يتهدد- بالمثل- الله والقرآن”. وللآن، فإن تعرية هذه الحقيقة يبدو وكأنه الإنجاز الأوحد لثورات العرب الأخيرة؛ وهو من نوع الإنجاز الثمين، على أي حال. إذ هو القادر- لا سواه- على البلوغ بخطاب “الأطلقة” السلطوي- الذي يجعل الله والقرآن محض قناعين يشتغل بهما- إلى نهايته؛ وبما يفتح الباب أمام إنضاج شروط نمطٍ من التطور مغايرٍ لذلك النمط المشوَّه الذي عرفته مصر، والعالم العربي. ولعل ذلك يحيل إلى أن خطاب “الأطلقة”- وليس الله أو القرآن أو الدين على العموم- هو ما يتهدد مسار التحول الديمقراطي في العالم العربي؛ وبما يعنيه ذلك من خطورة اختزال التحول الديمقراطي في مجرد العملية السياسية فحسب. بل إنه يبدو أن اكتمال هذا المسار مشروطٌ ببناء خطابٍ للأنسنة؛ يتحرر فيه الله والقرآن من التصورات التي تجعلهما يحضران كمجرد قناعين لسلطة مستبدة. إذ الحق أن متانة الارتباط بين الله والقرآن والإنسان تبلغ حداً من الجوهرية يكون معه تحرير التصور الخاص بالواحد منها شرطاً في تحرير التصور المتعلق بالحدين الأخرين. ومن هنا إمكان اعتبار السعي وراء القرآن الحي- في هذا الكتاب- بمثابة خطوة على طريق استكمال الشروط التي تجعل من الميسور إنجاز التحول الديمقراطي المأمول.

وإذن فالأمر- في الختام- لا يتعلق بأي سعيٍ إلى طرد الدين من واقع الناس- بحسب ما قد يتقوَّل البعض عن عمدٍ وسوء قصد- بقدر ما يتعلق بالسعي إلى تحرير الدين، نفسه، من قبضة خطابٍ لا يكتفي بالحط من شأن “الإنسان”، بل ويضطر- في سعيه إلى تثبيت هذا الحط- إلى التنقيص من جلال الله، وضرب أسوار الجمود والصمت حول القرآن. ومن هنا إمكان القول بأن ما يكون من أجل الإنسان، إنما هو- أيضاً- من أجل الله والقرآن، والعكس.

[1] – الرازي: محصل أفكار المتقدمين والمتأخرين، تحقيق: طه عبد الرؤوف سعد (مكتبة الكليات الأزهرية) القاهرة، دون تاريخ، ص 194.

[2] – فالصفة- حسب هؤلاء- هي “الشيئ الذي يوجد بالموصوف أو يكون له، ويكسبه الوصف الذي هو النعت…وهذا الوصف (هو) غير الصفة القائمة بالله تعالى”. أنظر: الباقلاني: التمهيد في الرد على الملحدة والمعطِلة والرافضة والخوارج والمعتزلة، تحقيق: يوسف مكارثي (المكتبة الشرقية) بيروت 1957، ص 213- 214.

[3] – المصدر السابق، ص 217.

[4] – الغزالي: إلجام العوام عن علم الكلام، تحقيق: محمد المعتصم بالله البغدادي (دار الكتاب العربي) بيروت، ط 1، 1985، ص 52، وراجع أيضاً: الرازي: أساس التقديس في علم الكلام (شركة مكتبة ومطبعة مصطفى البابي الحلبي وأولاده بمصر) القاهرة، 1935، ص 82- 131.

[5] – فقد اضطر هذا الخطاب، من أجل تثبيت وضع “العاجز” غير الفاعل للإنسان، إلى أن ينسب إلى الله أفعالاً يستحيل إلا أن تكون من فعل الإنسان؛ بسبب ما تنطوي عليه من المثالب والنواقص. وبالرغم من أنها تكون- والحال كذلك- من قبيل الأفعال التي يأنف حتى الإنسان من نسبتها إلى نفسه؛ من مثل الاحتكار وغلاء الأسعار والغصب وغيرها، فإن الخطاب قد نسبها إلى الله لكي يجرد الإنسان من أي قدرة على الفعل، غير عابئٍ بما تؤدي إليه هذه النسبة إلى الله من التنقيص من جلاله سبحانه. وبالطبع فإن ذلك مما يؤكد على حقيقة أن كليَّة القدرة الإلهية لم تكن هي القصد من وراء نفي الحضور الفاعل للإنسان، بقدر ما هو الحرص على التعالي بالسلطان؛ على النحو الذي تنتفي معه مسؤوليته عن أفعال بطشه (كالاحتكار والسلب والغصب والقتل وغيرها)، وذلك عبر نسبتها إلى الله باعتباره الفاعل الأوحد. ومن هنا ما قاله أحدهم للحسن البصري عن ملوك بني أمية: “يا أبا سعيد: هؤلاء الملوك يسفكون دماء المسلمين ويأكلون أموالهم، ويقولون: إنما أعمالنا تجري على قَدَرِ الله”؛ كاشفاً عن الحقيقة المتخفية وراء نسبة أفعال البشر إلى الله. أنظر: علي مبروك: النبوة؛ من علم العقائد إلى فلسفة التاريخ (دار التنوير للطباعة والنشر)، بيروت، ط 1، 1993، ص 178- 180.

[6] – حين يصف أحدهم المتمردين على سلطة رئيسه المصري (الإسلاموي)، بأنهم يكررون فعل إبليس عندما تمرد وعصى أمر الله، فإنه ينسى أنه يرتفع برئيسه- والحال كذلك- إلى مقام “الله”. فإذ يجعل من المتمرد “إبليساً”، فإنه يجعل ممن يتمرد عليه هؤلاء الناس/الأبالسة “إلهاً”.

* Dr. Ali Mabrouk is Professor of Philosophy in the College of Humanities at Cairo University | د. علي مبروك أستاذ للفلسفة بكلية الآداب بجامعة القاهرة

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

IQSA, SBL and AAR in the News

The success of IQSA’s annual meetings in San Diego, CA (2014) and Baltimore, MD (2013) have contributed positively to the tremendous work done every year by both the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) as well as the American Academy of Religion (AAR). For more information, please see the excerpts below from two articles in Publishers Weekly.

Topics being buzzed about by the religion academy included Islam, once again at the top of the list. The International Qur’anic Studies Association, which meets in conjunction with AAR/SBL and was established in 2012 as a group related to SBL, earlier this year became an independent learned society and has grown to 450 members. (2014)  

 

SEE FULL STORY HERE

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One of the most significant developments at this year’s AAR/SBL conference was the debut of the International Quranic Studies Association, which had its inaugural gathering as an affiliate scholars group and is co-directed by Emran El-Badawi, director of Arab studies at the University of Houston, and Gabriel Said Reynolds, professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame. It’s an idea whose time clearly has come, and publishing about Islam LINK in general continues to flourish. (2013)

SEE FULL STORY HERE

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

A Letter of Thanks to IQSA Members

Dear IQSA members and friends,

I hope this message reaches you well, and that you found our time together in San Diego, both enlightening as well as enjoyable. Like many of you, I had the pleasure of meeting old friends and making new ones. I speak for myself, council and all IQSA officers when I say that we are quite pleased with how the conference went. Our sessions were well attended, and the papers were engaging and thought provoking. Our current membership numbers over 450 from all around the world, and we had the pleasure of having over one hundred of them represented during the Friday sessions, especially the keynote lecture and reception. 50 people attended our first business meeting, at which prof. Farid Esack was unanimously voted president elect for 2015.

We are, furthermore, heartened and impressed by the enthusiasm for IQSA–both within North American and internationally. Participants and audience members came from around the globe, including Indonesia, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Australia, Europe and North America. This all bodes well for IQSA, not least because this is just our second annual meeting. The task of IQSA’s executive office is now to keep up with this growth and accommodate our members for many future meetings.

I am also happy to share with you that our success in San Diego played a significant role within the larger SBL / AAR conference, for the second year in a row. More on this and several other matters of business soon.

scholars in library_maqamat hariri

Please do not forget to tell your friends, colleagues and peers about us. IQSA members come from an incredibly diverse range of academic backgrounds, including Qur’anic Studies, Islamic Studies, Biblical Studies, Middle East Studies, textual studies, inter-religious studies, hermeneutics, studies on manuscripts or material culture, the hard sciences, and so on. There are numerous ways to stay connected with IQSA throughout the year, namely by:

* Becoming a member (http://membership.iqsaweb.org/Join.aspx)

* Subscribing to our blog (IQSAWEB.ORG)

* Joining the private IQSA Discussion Group

* Liking the “International Qur’anic Studies Association” on Facebook

* Following “@IQSAWEB” on Twitter

* Publishing with us!

   (a) If you have an outstanding article or book length manuscript

        (English, Arabic), please contact JIQSA@iqsaweb.org

See also our call for papers HERE

(https://iqsaweb.wordpress.com/publications/call-for-papers-jiqsa/)

   (b) If you have a minor project you would like to share over our blog

        (any language), please contact vdegifis@wayne.edu

        (As many as one thousand people may read your post in one

         week)

Next, you may anticipate getting full access to the keynote paper by prof. Angelika Neuwirth and response by prof. Andrew Rippin. in December 2014. Soon after the New Year you should also receive news about Membership and Member Benefits for 2015. Current and past papers published by IQSA are available HERE (https://iqsaweb.wordpress.com/publications/papers/) and program books are available HERE (https://iqsaweb.wordpress.com/meetings/).

On behalf of us all, I wish to thank our 2014 acting president Andrew Rippin, 2015 president Reuven Firestone, and congratulate as well as thank our 2015 president elect Farid Esack. Also special thanks go to Nicolai Sinai, Gabriel Reynolds, John Kutsko, Irfana Hussain, Vanessa DeGifis, Ryann Craig, Hakaya Productions and our friends at both SBL and AAR. I very much look forward to our meetings next year in Yogyakarta Indonesia (Aug, 2015) and Atlanta, GA (Nov, 2015).

Finally, thank you all for making IQSA a success!

Sincerely,

Emran El-Badawi, Executive Director

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

New Book: Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation

by Raymond Farrin*

Farrin_SQI_book coverStructure and Qur’anic Interpretation: A Study of Symmetry and Coherence in Islam’s Holy Text (Ashland, OR: White Cloud, 2014) is a groundbreaking literary approach to the Qur’an that draws on classical Arab sources and contemporary literary theory. Farrin demonstrates how the Qur’an, often regarded as unsystematic, in fact features a comprehensive design, one characterized by a network of symmetries. He asserts that the Qur’an possesses “a magnificent design” and an impressive coherence. Specifically, Farrin’s analysis of the Qur’an discloses how the principle of symmetry—manifesting in parallel, chiastic, and concentric constructions—holds the text together.

This principle of symmetry obtains on the level of the chapter, the chapter pair, the chapter group, the group system (each system containing numerous chapter groups), and the Qur’an as a whole. Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation, aimed both at readers familiar with the Qur’an and at those opening it for the first time, differs from other books on the Qur’an in that it reveals the text’s fundamental, symmetrical organization. Moreover, through readings of key Qur’an chapters, Farrin shows how structure serves as a guide to interpretation. Indeed, one finds that the Qur’an’s structure again and again points to universal messages of an ethical nature, rather than to messages whose application may be limited to a specific context. In addition, the book makes a contribution to Qur’anic studies by highlighting literary evidence indicating that the Qur’an was compiled by one author (in all probability, the Prophet Muhammad) and not by an official committee.

* Raymond Farrin is associate professor of Arabic and chair of the Department of Arabic and Foreign Languages at American University of Kuwait.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

NOW ONLINE – Program Book for San Diego, Nov 21-24

Dear Friends,

We are now days away from the second Annual Meeting of the International Qur’anic Studies Association taking place in San Diego, November 21-24. We are looking forward to another exciting meeting of scholars an friends. For a complete showcase of our events, participants and sponsors we are proud to present the official AM 2014 PROGRAM BOOK (PDF). Viewers are encouraged to further circulate the program book. (Viewers may alternately access the program book by visiting IQSAWEB.ORG >> Meetings >> Program Book AM 2014)

Please do not forget our first Panel, Keynote Lecture and Reception all taking place on Friday, Nov 21 (one day before the official start of AAR or SBL). Our Keynote Lecture is on “Qur’anic Studies and Historical-Critical Philology. The Qur’an’s Staging, Penetrating, and Eclipsing Biblical tradition,” and will be delivered by prof. Angelika Neuwirth, with a Response by IQSA president, prof. Andrew Rippin  at 4:00-5:15 pm in San Diego Convention Center (CC), Room 23 C (Upper level). All Friday events are FREE & OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. Furthermore, I invite all IQSA members to fulfill their duty as members by attending our first ever Business Meeting, Sunday, Nov 23 at noon in the San Diego Convention Center (CC),  Room 24 C (Upper Level). Finally, if you have not already please visit IQSAWEB.ORG in order to become a Member for 2014, subscribe to our Blog and join the private IQSA Discussion Group.

On behalf of the Board of Directors, Standing Committees and our partners we would like to express our deepest gratitude to all friends of IQSA, and we look forward to seeing you this Friday.

Sincerely,

Emran El-Badawi, Executive Director

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.

Qur’anic Clues to the Identity of Muhammad’s Community in Medina

by Reza Aslan*

It may have been in Mecca where the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelations of the Qur’an and began his prophetic mission, but it was in Medina where his community of followers was forged. It is tempting to call the members of Muhammad’s community “Muslims,” but there is no reason to believe that this term was used to designate a distinct religious movement until many years into the Medinan period or perhaps after Muhammad’s death. It would be more accurate to refer to Muhammad’s community in Medina by the term that the Qur’an uses: umma.

Ceramic panel depicting the Mosque in Medina; 17th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Ceramic panel depicting the Mosque in Medina; 17th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The problem is that no one is certain what the term umma meant or where it came from. It may be derived from Arabic, Hebrew, or Aramaic; it may have meant “community,” “nation,” or “people.” A few scholars have suggested that umma may be derived from the Arabic word for mother (umm); while this idea may be aesthetically pleasing, there is no linguistic evidence for it. To complicate matters further, umma inexplicably ceases to be used in the Qur’an after 625 C.E., when, as Montgomery Watt has noted, it is replaced with the word qawm, Arabic for “tribe.”

But there may be something to this change in terminology. Despite its ingenuity, Muhammad’s community was still an Arab institution based on Arab notions of tribal society. There was simply no alternative model of social organization in seventh-century Arabia, save for monarchy. Indeed, there are so many parallels between the early Muslim community and traditional tribal societies that one is left with the distinct impression that, at least in Muhammad’s mind, the umma was indeed a tribe, though a new and radically innovative one.

For one thing, reference in the Constitution of Medina to Muhammad’s role as “shaykh” of his “clan” of Meccan emigrants indicates that despite the Prophet’s elevated status, his secular authority would have fallen well within the traditional model of pre-Islamic tribal society. What is more, just as membership in the tribe obliged participation in the rituals and activities of the tribal cult, so did membership in Muhammad’s community require ritual involvement in what could be termed its “tribal cult,” in this case, the nascent religion of Islam. Public rituals like communal prayer, almsgiving, and collective fasting — the first three activities mandated by Muhammad — when combined with shared dietary regulations and purity requirements, functioned in the umma in much the same way that the activities of the tribal cult did in pagan societies. They provided a common social and religious identity that allowed one group to distinguish itself from another.

The point is that one can refer to Muhammad’s community in Medina as the umma, but only insofar as that term is understood to designate what the Orientalist explorer Bertram Thomas has called a “super-tribe,” or what the historian Marshall Hodgson more accurately describes as a “neo-tribe,” that is, a radically new kind of social organization but one nevertheless based on the traditional Arab tribal model.

There is, however, one great difference between the traditional tribal model and Muhammad’s super-tribe. While the only way to become a member of a tribe was to be born into it, membership in the umma was based neither on kinship nor on ethnicity. Instead, membership was predicated firstly on the recognition of Muhammad’s authority as prophet and lawgiver, and secondly on the acceptance of his revelations from God.

Here we must pause and examine those revelations – the Qur’an – for a clue about what Muhammad may have intended for the radically new kind of social organization he was building in Medina.

Folio with portions of Qur'an 5:14-15; North Africa, 13th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Folio with portions of Qur’an 5:14-15; North Africa, 13th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Qur’an repeatedly claims to be not a new scripture but the “confirmation of previous scriptures” (12:111). In fact, the Qur’an proposes the remarkable idea that all revealed scriptures are derived from a single divine source called umm al-kitab, “Mother of Books” (13:39). That means that as far as Muhammad understood, the Torah, the Gospels, and the Qur’an must be read as a single cohesive narrative about humanity’s relationship to God, in which the prophetic consciousness of one prophet is passed spiritually to the next: from Adam to Muhammad. For this reason, the Qur’an advises Muslims to say to the Jews and Christians: “We believe in God, and in that which has been revealed to us, which is that which was revealed to Abraham and Ismail and Jacob and the tribes [of Israel], as well as that which the Lord revealed to Moses and to Jesus and to all the other Prophets. We make no distinction between any of them; we submit ourselves to God” (3:84).

The Qur’an sets itself up as the final revelation in this sequence of scriptures, but it never claims to annul the previous scriptures, only to complete them. While one scripture giving authenticity to others is an extraordinary event in the history of religions, the concept of umm al-kitab may indicate an even more profound principle, namely that the Jews, Christians, and Muslims not only share a single scripture but constitute a single umma – a single super-tribe.

According to the Qur’an, Jews and Christians are “People of the Book” (ahl al-kitab), spiritual cousins who, as opposed to the pagans and polytheists of Arabia, worship the same God, read the same scriptures, and share the same moral values as the Muslim community. Although each faith comprised its own distinct religious community (its own individual umma), together they formed one united umma, a concept that Mohammed Bamyeh calls “monotheistic pluralism.” Thus the Qur’an promises that “all those who believe — the Jews, the Sabians, the Christians — anyone who believes in God and the Last Days and who does good deeds, will have nothing to fear or regret” (5:69).

The connection in Muhammad’s mind between umm al-kitab and ahl al-kitab can be seen in the Constitution of Medina. This document, which Moshe Gil aptly calls “an act of preparation for war,” makes clear that the defense of Medina was the common responsibility of every inhabitant regardless of kin, ethnicity, or religion. And while the Constitution clarified the absolute religious and social freedom of Medina’s Jewish clans, stating “to the Jews their religion and to the Muslims their religion,” it nevertheless fully expected them to provide aid to “whoever wars against the people of this document.” In short, the Constitution of Medina provided the means through which to discern who was and who was not a member of the community.

It was this belief in a unified, monotheistic umma that led Muhammad to link his community to the Jews when he first entered Medina. Thus, he made Jerusalem — the site of the Temple (long since destroyed) and the direction in which the Diaspora Jews turned during worship — the direction of prayer or qibla for all Muslims. He imposed a fast on his community, to take place annually on the tenth day of the first month of the Jewish calendar, the day more commonly known as Yom Kippur. He set the day of Muslim congregation at noon on Friday so that it would coincide with, but not disrupt, Jewish preparations for the Sabbath. He adopted many of the Jewish dietary laws and purity requirements, and encouraged his followers to marry Jews, as he himself did.

And while Muhammad much later changed the qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca, and set the annual fast at Ramadan (the month in which the Qur’an was first revealed) instead of Yom Kippur, these decisions should not be interpreted as “a break with the Jews,” but as the maturing of Islam as an independent religion. Muhammad continued to encourage his followers to fast on Yom Kippur, and he never ceased to venerate Jerusalem as a holy city. Moreover, the Prophet maintained most of the dietary, purity, and marriage restrictions that he had adopted from the Jews. And as Nabia Abbott has shown, throughout the first two centuries of Islam, Muslims regularly read the Torah alongside the Qur’an.

The fact is that nothing Muhammad either said or did would necessarily have been objectionable to Medina’s Jews. As Newby writes in A History of the Jews of Arabia, Islam and Judaism in seventh-century Arabia operated within “the same sphere of religious discourse,” in that both shared the same religious characters, stories, and anecdotes, both discussed the same fundamental questions from similar perspectives, and both had nearly identical moral and ethical values. Where there was disagreement between the two faiths, Newby suggests it was “over interpretation of shared topics, not over two mutually exclusive views of the world.”

Even Muhammad’s claim to be the Prophet and Apostle of God, on the model of the great Jewish patriarchs, would not necessarily have been unacceptable to Medina’s Jews. Not only did his words and actions correspond perfectly to the widely accepted pattern of Arabian Jewish mysticism, but Muhammad was not even the only person in Medina making these kinds of prophetic claims. Medina was also the home of a Jewish mystic and Kohen named Ibn Sayyad, who, like Muhammad, wrapped himself in a prophetic mantle, recited divinely inspired messages from heaven, and called himself “the Apostle of God.” Remarkably, not only did most of Medina’s Jewish clans accept Ibn Sayyad’s prophetic claims, but the sources depict Ibn Sayyad as openly acknowledging Muhammad as a fellow apostle and prophet.

That is not to say that there were no theological differences between Islam and the other People of the Book. But according to the Qur’an, these differences were part of the divine plan, for God could have created a single umma if he so wished, but instead preferred that “every umma have its own Messenger” (10:47). Hence, the differences among the People of the Book are explained as showing God’s desire to give each people its own “law and path and way of life” (5:42–48).

There were some differences that Muhammad found to be intolerable heresies created by ignorance and error. Chief among these was the idea of the Trinity. “God is one,” the Quran states definitively. “God is eternal. He has neither begotten anyone, nor is he begotten of anyone” (112:1–3). However, this verse – like many similar verses in the Qur’an – is in no way a condemnation of Christianity but of Imperial Byzantine (Trinitarian) Orthodoxy, which was neither the sole nor the dominant Christian position in the Hijaz.

At the same time, Muhammad lashed out at those Jews in Arabia who had “forsaken the community of Abraham” (2:130) and “who were trusted with the laws of the Torah, but who fail to observe them” (62:5). Again, this was not a condemnation of Judaism. Rather, Muhammad was addressing those Jews in the Arabian Peninsula, and only there, who had in both belief and practice “breached their covenant with God” (5:13). His complaints in the Qur’an were not about Judaism and Christianity, but about those Jews and Christians in Arabia who, in his opinion, had forsaken their covenant with God and perverted the teachings of the Torah and Gospels. These were not believers but apostates, with whom the Qur’an warns Muslims not to ally themselves: “O believers, do not make friends with those who mock you and make fun of your faith . . . Instead say to them: ‘O People of the Book, why do you dislike us? Is it because we believe in God and in what has been sent down to us [the Qur’an], and what was sent down before that [the Torah and Gospels], while most of you are disobedient?’” (5:57–59).

The point is that although Muhammad recognized the irreconcilable differences that existed among the People of the Book, he never called for a partitioning of the faiths. On the contrary, the evidence from the Qur’an and the Constitution of Medina indicate that his conception of the umma was as a “super-tribe” composed of monotheists of different religions bound together by a simple compromise: “Let us come to an agreement on the things we hold in common: that we worship none but God; that we make none God’s equal; and that we take no other as lord except God” (3:64).

Of course, the Muslim scriptural and legal scholars of the following centuries rejected the idea that Jews and Christians were part of the umma, and instead marked both groups as unbelievers. These scholars read the revelations to say that the Qur’an had superseded, rather than added to, the Torah and the Gospels, and called on Muslims to distinguish themselves from the People of the Book. But to understand Muhammad’s actual beliefs regarding the Jews and Christians of his time, one must look not to the words that chroniclers put into his mouth hundreds of years after his death, but rather to the words that legend says God put into his mouth while he was alive.

* Reza Aslan is Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside and Trustee at the Chicago Theological Seminary.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.