The success of revelations is scandalous. Why should a prophet’s message attacking prevalent convictions and institutions find support? Why would any self-respecting community follow a single man’s call to convert and mend its ways? Religious and cultural change isn’t self-evident, on the contrary. The advent of Islam is a striking example: God’s revelation calling for an Abrahamitic monotheism in Mecca was ignored and rejected by a vast majority of its addressees. His messenger’s tribe was definitively not prepared to renounce worship of its many deities for a single God. After six years of preaching, Muhammad’s failure to mobilize more than a few young men for his cause was complete. That’s exactly what one would expect. Success came only after the movement’s famous exodus when the prophet and his seventy followers migrated to Medina in 622 CE. That could and should be the key to understanding this turning-point in history. But researchers disagree more than ever. One type of reconstructions tries to prove the historical necessity of the Islamic revelation in Mecca, of all places, where it was met with disbelief, making fantastic claims of religious decline and social crisis for a prospering sanctuary and commonwealth of traders. Another type of very different bent denies on principle that Islam could have been born on the pagan Arabian peninsula, postulating despite a lasting lack of evidence that it must have emerged in Syria and Iraq as off-shoot from some monotheist sect. Our sources contradict these efforts of imaginative historiography. But radical revisionists such as Patricia Crone and Gerald Hawting feel justified, on purely theoretical grounds, to dismiss the whole body of historical traditions as forgery, assuming total amnesia of the Arabs. This is misleading. Qur’an, poetry, traditions and archaeology certainly all pose specific problems as sources for the early history of Islam. But in the end the sheer amount of traditions striving for scholarly accuracy supports Ernest Renan’s assessment: In comparison with Christianity, Islam was born in the full light of history. We even learn of such delicate matters as the necklace affair of Muhammad’s favourite wife. This is new in the history of prophetic reformers.
I’d like to suggest a reconstruction that appreciates Muhammad as reformer and explores worldy sources of revelation. The controversial claim for an ultimate other-worldly source of inspiration will be put aside – believers and unbelievers will not and need not agree on this. Let’s imagine Muhammad as curious lay intellectual trying to make sense of the world, searching for new answers in a highly pluralist context of competing religions and world-views. To complement the prevailing histories of adaptive borrowing, a line of investigation reeking of copy-right claims when revamped the revisionist way, we’ll highlight the initial endogenous dynamic of religious change. Thus the autochthonous context of folk religion and pagan secularism will take centre stage. Instead of stressing external monotheist stimuli of change, a supply-side approach, we will search for potentials of self-critique: What could trigger an additional demand for meaning in a given symbolic universe, reaching beyond its time-tested supplies and ultimately transforming the entire religious landscape? Foreign resources of meaning obviously contributed a lot to answering this demand, notably after the prophet’s arrival in Medina, but this need not be recapitulated here. Insisting on the path dependency of cultural change, our demand-side approach could be suited to explain why the Arabs didn’t convert to one of the existing monotheisms, but founded a highly successful third monotheism through Muhammad as their lead actor.
So what happened on the Arabian peninsula at the time? Not too much – until Muhammad started to preach. Major religious and political changes one might have expected failed to happen. Neither the Sassanian Empire nor the Byzantine Empire at its borders conquered the peninsula and both lost influence around 600 CE. Stray Jewish and Christian individuals and communities existed but did not impress their pagan neighbours in Central and Western Arabia: They did not become Christians or Jews but stayed loyal to the polytheist and secular traditions of their ancestors. The Arabs were tribes of pastoral nomads roaming the desert in exchange with tribes of farming oasis dwellers. They formed a cultural nation but failed to found a state, on the contrary: Regular raids and tribal feuds confirmed their self-ideal as warriors. Believers served family and clan idols, their own tribal god and other tribal gods at their respective local sanctuaries and once a year went on pilgrimage to worship their common high god and creator Allâh at his sanctuary in Mecca. Allâh’s so-called daughters Allât, Manât and al-‘Uzzâ, the major goddesses of Western Arabia, were also transtribal as they were used by many tribes and not just their principle owners. The formula “one tribe – one god” is much too reductive. “Worship” indeed meant “use”: Asking gods for their support in exchange for sacrifices was what folk religion was about. A verse by the poet Labîd put it like this: God’s praise is the “most profitable deal” in emergency. For Bedouins, religion was not a comprehensive system of orientation, its purpose was much more limited. This may be attributed to their nomadic life style since roaming far from sanctuaries occasions a shortage in religious supply that is overcome with profane substitutes – traditional customs and poetry lead the way. Labîd: “I belong to a group for which their fathers paved the way (sannat lahum); for each people has a custom (sunna) and its leader (imâm).” The Arabs did not believe in life after death. “They say: ‘There is just our life on this world. We die and we live and only time destroys us.’” (Q 45:25, cf. 6:29 & 44:34) There were no priests that could have explained the meaning of life. This was done by poets instead. Their explicit reflection often resorted to the concept of destructive time. But Bedouin poetry also supplied an implicit answer embodied in its structure. The qasîda is a highly standardized poem in three parts celebrating the Bedouin way of life. At the sight of what’s left from former camps it ritually evokes the transitoriness of being in its first part and asks what this means. Labîd, a contemporary of Muhammad: “I stopped and asked the ruins – but how can we ask the deaf and everlasting whose speech is not clear?” Stones won’t answer. But man does – when he continues his poem to praise his own deeds of warfare and thus immortalizes himself; an answer that is less philosophical than practical, and quite efficient. This is the “Helden-Ersatzreligion” or hero’s substitute religion of the qasîda, as Julius Wellhausen called it, a solidly anthropocentric world view. Secularism in the sense of limited functions of religion – “weakness” would be judging it from the point of view of monotheisms believing in a hereafter! – is not an invention of modernity, as both the Greek and Chinese examples show. True, we may interprete the secularity of life in Western and Central Arabia as Bedouin loss of an originally more intensive sedentary religiosity: Religious phrases speaking of god as lord and his servants recall an attitude subsequently derided by proud Bedouin manners forbiddding prostration before god. But nomadic secularity certainly wasn’t the kind of decline that – as has been argued ever since Wellhausen’s seminal “Remnants of Arabian Paganism” – would have called for a prophet. After all, the shortage had been compensated! Decline is not the point, rather the potential for reversal present in remnant terms such as rabb (lord), ‘abd (slave), masjid (place of prostration, that is of worship) and dîn (cult, religion, probably derived from the roots double meaning “rule/obey”, possibly also “custom”) as well as the most common type of theophoric name, ‘Abd + name of god. All these words could stimulate self-critique in case someone should observe and dislike the contradiction between what the phrases demand and what people do instead. He might then attack their faith as mere lip-service and call for an intensified cult in an attempt at cyclical reform. So this actually could be a nucleus of endogenous change – if folks only ever listened to such remonstrations.
Apart from sloppy standards of coherence in folk religion, the un/answered quest for meaning must always have stirred certain individuals. Given the answers offered at the time, dissatisfied pagans usually either became Jews, Christians or hanîfs, as independent monotheists were called; the poet Umayya b. Abî s-Salt in Mecca’s neighbouring town at-Tâ’if is a famous example. But they never became prophets spreading their new faith, although they might tell its defining stories as Umayya did. Muhammad made history when he of all Arabs eventually did turn prophet – under pressure. He was born in 570 CE in Mecca, the budding Western Arabian trading town and supra-regional cult centre teeming with gods. His lineage was not pre-eminent in the tribe of the Quraish. Being an orphan, he had ample reason to contemplate the transitoriness of life more than others, and he might also have pondered his absent father’s name – “‘Abdallâh” or “slave of god”. We don’t know if he did, but we do know that later on when he had become a successful caravan trader he regularly went into seclusion for periods of worship, an unusual habit. It was during one of those retreats when around 610 CE first a vision and then auditions overwhelmed him. God revealed himself through the angel Gabriel who forced the frightened listener to repeat God’s word after him: “Recite in the name of your lord that created man from a blood clot!” (Q 96) Fortunately his wife Khadîja, an experienced entrepreneur, encouraged him as she believed in his mission; the first Muslim is a woman. In the following two decades the Qur’an meant for “recital” (qur’ân) in service was sent down in small pieces. The dialogical text of this public address mirrors the debates of a charismatic lay intellectual with his community and his pagan and later on Jewish adversaries in Mecca and Medina. In this text the polytheist folk religion of the Arabs entered the stage of systematic reflection with an attempt to transform the limited rule of many gods into absolute rule of just one god, the supreme deity Allâh. The name of the reformed religion eventually summed up the programme: Islâm is submission – to God’s rule.
In its critique of the religious state of affairs, the revelation always argued from what people already believed. It stressed the omnipotence of the distant high god, deducted the “new creation” or resurrection from his status as creator (Q 50:3-16), thus answered the quest for meaning in a new way with belief in a next world, and for all of this demanded service, that is daily ritual prayers to God. It is above all the prevalent concept of Allâh as high god that held important potentials for independent self-critique and a reformation of meaning. Allâh ranked as creator, provider of rain, steerer of destinies and guardian of morals. But he was only invoked for important oaths and in extreme emergency. When fearing death at sea the Meccans, so we are told in the Qur’an, “purified their faith for him alone” (Q 31:32, Q 29:66; cp. Q 17:67); that is in mortal danger they prayed to him and none else – and turned away to other gods, “ascribing partners” to Allâh, when safe back on shore. In everyday life, lesser gods were closer to the believers and their ordinary needs. Upon interrogation, they would describe these partners as intercessors bringing them near their distant high god (Q 38:3, Q 10:18). Supernatural power was thus shared in a way that held the supreme deity responsible formost for the creation and preservation of life – the core business of the religious mode of coming to terms with contingency. This practice can be termed a situational and therefore temporary monotheism. It seems to point to an alternative religious system. But we must recall that henotheist prayer to a single god in emergency is not unusual in polytheist settings. Therefore the Arabian belief in a high god cannot be judged to be a sign that the religious system was already heading towards monotheism. It is the Qur’anic revelation that never tired of contemplating this and similar phenomena of folk religion in a way that is bent on tightening coherence. “A-fa lâ ta’qilûna?” is how the argument often ends: “Don’t you understand?” Meaning that upon reflection one would certainly have to conclude the sole rule of Allâh from the evidence presented. The recommended use of reason can thus result in a dynamic of rationalization that ends up transforming the whole system.
This is how something new can come into existence. But what was new for the Arabs obviously and according to the Qur’an itself was in line with Abrahamitic traditions: “Speak: ‘I am not an innovator amongst the messengers!’” (Q 46:10) Monotheist concepts – a singular god, belief in resurrection and a last judgement etc. – had evidently been present on the Western and Central Arabian religious market for a long time. After all, Arabs lived with Jews in cities like Yathrib/Medina and traded with Christian empires and their Christianized Arab vassels on the border of the Arabian peninsula. Bedouin poets might even give god a Christian look in panegyrical poems addressing Christian sponsors – so that pagan opinion leaders actually helped to spread at least the knowledge of monotheist ideas. All the same, these remained stray and unconnected concepts either explicitly refuted or a long way from forming a coherent system on a par with the established worldview. Meccans remained sceptical. They judged the messages of prophets as being empty promises and “fables of former peoples” (Q 28:83 on resurrection) that other men dictated to Muhammad (Q 25:6). Above all the monotheist moralization of religion through divine law and a last judgement were flatly denied: The customs of their fathers lead the way, there was no better guidance, “we don’t believe in what you (prophets) are sent with!” (Q 43:23f.) And worse still, the Quraish didn’t believe that Muhammad was God’s messenger as he and later the Muslim profession of faith asserted. “‘He is only a human being like you, hoping to be something better'” (Q 23:25), possibly inspired by other people or by jinn as poets were, but not by God. In vain the revelation challenged the Meccans to enter a contest of rhetoric: “Even if men and jinn united to come up with something similar to this Qur’an, they wouldn’t come up with anything similar, despite their joint forces!” (Q 17:89)
In fact the Qur’an is singular as poetic work of art. From a religious point of view this suggests divine inspiration. That’s why for Muslims the Qur’an by virtue of its creative inimitability is the miracle attesting to Muhammad’s mission. But none of this could convince the Meccans. Only a few young men followed Muhammad’s call, most of them from good families. This is not a movement of the poor and oppressed: The origin of the revolutionary revelation is intellectual, not social – whether social science likes it or not. Materialists tried to diagnose Mecca with a social crisis. This is grotesque – Mecca was a prospering oasis of peace. If anything favoured the revelation in Mecca, it was the possibility of cult intensification through for example regular prayers that it offered as cultic centre, and of course the possibility of cult concentration on the local high god – at the cost of al-‘Uzzâ, the tribal deity of the Quraish who was venerated at a nearby arbor sanctuary, and at the cost of all other idols at home in Mecca. Cult intensification and cult concentration were potentials of sedentary religiosity not yet realized and hardly reflected in Mecca. But in Mecca Bedouin virtues such as raiding and overspending were outdated and a self-ideal canonized in textual form that would substitute them with something more conducive to trading was overdue. So structurally there was a window of opportunity for replacing the secular “hero’s substitute religion” of the Arabian qasîda as basic text of a Bedouin way of life – certainly an anachronism in Mecca! – with a “substitute poem of the pious” as basic text of an urban way of life.
Muhammad vigorously pointed out the possibilities of cult intensification and concentration. His listeners could choose as they liked: Participation at cults was not a duty, there was full religious freedom, anarchic pluralism reigned supreme. Believers could swear by both the “Lord of Mecca and the Crucified” as the Christian court poet ‘Adi b. Zaid did in al-Hîra – a good example of how mono- and polytheism could actually coexist at the time. This recalls Far Eastern customs, the coexistence, whether competitive or indifferent, of traditional ancestor cults and new high religions, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. But Arabian folk religion was forced to compete with exclusivist Abrahamitic One-Truth-Traditions, and so the freedom to choose one’s religion cultivated in the Sinic world didn’t last in the Iranian-Semitic circle of prophetic cultures. Instead of gaining pluralism through superimposition of religions, the polytheist Arabs were doomed to suffer a loss of pluralism that was finished off with violence; it was not for nothing that their folk religion became dynamic in the context of an already developed monotheist tradition of Jews and Christians, an atheist creed by antique standards as it denied the gods of others.
So Muhammad became a prophet demanding cult intensification and concentration – so far no more than an individual option – from all Meccans. In the course of time his programme of reform reached its most extreme conclusion, claiming the sole rule of Allâh: The revelation declared ascribing partners to God a sin – “There is no god but God” says the first half of the later profession of faith. This made breaking with the Quraish inevitable: Mecca could only prosper if all gods were respected – including those of other tribes; the system of tribal alliances protecting its trade wouldn’t have survived attacks on their deities. The town council decided to fight against the movement and the prophet confirmed the rupture: “I do not venerate what you venerate and you do not venerate what I venerate; I am not a worshipper of what you worship and you are not worshippers of what I worship. You have your religion and I have mine!” (Q 109:7) Around 622 CE he was defeated and had to migrate with his small community to distant Yathrib – a much bigger town than Mecca.
This was the turning point. Here three Jewish and two Arabian tribes lived in conflict. In the intact world of Mecca Muhammad’s message of salvation actually meant harm: The revelation was not preceded by a crisis, it caused a crisis. Whereas in the dysfunctional society of Yathrib/Medina its collective uses could be discovered – the potential for transtribal sociation inherent in a panarabian high god, in other words: a revolutionary potential for socio-political integration. The process started with faith-based brotherhoods pairing migrants with inhabitants of Yathrib on an individual basis, and when conversions increased it led to a treaty of alliance between the migrants and the Medinese on a collective basis. This treaty founded the political community of believers, the famous Islamic umma expected to obey God and his messenger. So is it a crisis, after all, though not in Mecca, but in Medina, that was decisive for the transindividual success – as opposed to origin – of the revelation? Yes and no. There was certainly no crisis in the true sense of the word in Medina, that is no worsening of the situation leading to an acute crisis, no fighting or famine that would have encouraged a prophet to turn up with a message of salvation at this particular moment in time. But the experience of previous violent crises could have prompted people to sense the structural deficiency of their aggregate state. Bloody clan feuds in which the inhabitants of this town had fallen apart just a few years ago can be judged a symptom of not coming to terms with social change: It is in Medina that a full five tribes and two faiths permanently lived together as farmers with very limited space at their disposal. Compared to the roaming way of life of Bedouins as well as the politics of tribal alliances mastered by the sedentary Quraish this implied a much higher need for transtribal integration. So in Medina – and only here! – urban growth beyond the largest political unit of action, the tribe, raised an unsolved question of order concerning all the community in addition to the usually suspended quest for meaning, a dissatisfaction with the given explanations of the world that concerned only individuals. Only that could stir collective demand for the prophet’s supply of innovative meaning!
Now two more things were missing that would make God’s rule total: the world and the law. New revelations asked the believers to fight against unbelievers. This is the jihad, the duty to engage in a military “effort on the path of God” for the sake of spoils and a place in paradise; good words alone did not suffice to convert the Meccans. After six years of battles the Muslims conquered Mecca in 630 CE und then subjected one Arabian tribe after the other to God’s will. Beyond Arabia, expanding the empire became the primary objective of war, despite the call to convert, as Christians and Jews could choose humbly to pay tribute instead (Q 9:29). The decision not to mission with the sword was a key to success. The foundation of a faith-based state in stateless Arabia, the unification of all Arabs through a project of world conquest – that’s the real innovation of Islam in comparison with Judaism that failed politically and apolitical early Christianity. The exodus to Medina made it possible. So there was indeed reason to declare the hijra a turning point starting a new, an Islamic chronology. No state without law – and so the Meccan suras of devotional guidance were complemented in Medina with revelations regulating social life: family law, criminal law, war law and more.
Muhammed never intended to be an innovating messenger. Monotheism, the solitary rule of one god as presented in the Qur’an means one truth for all people – from the beginning of time; one god, one mankind, one covenant. The actual division of mankind into different religious communities was explained thus: On the one hand, the new revelation taught the Arabs what they did not know, and on the other hand, it confirmed the scriptures of the Jews and Christians. Jews and Christians did not agree with this. So Muhammad’s hope to be accepted by them as prophet was disappointed. The Jews of Medina regarded the Qur’an as fraught with mistakes, and besides only the chosen people was capable of producing prophets. Their religious and political resistance prompted the decisive turn in the way the revelation understood itself: It doesn’t only confirm foreign precedents but renews the Abrahamitic original monotheism, the “religion of Abraham”, who is supposed to have built the Ka’ba in Mecca (Q 2:16f.); and neither can Muhammad be topped as he is the “seal of prophecy” (Q 33:41). This was the declaration that Islam had come of age (Tor Andrae). Reorientation of the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca powerfully expressed this new self-confidence.
As for the stubborn Jews, they must have adultered their scripture; their burdensome law – historically the late product of exile! – was now seen as penalty for their sins. The Jews were expelled from Medina, and when conflicts intensified, the men of one Jewish tribe were killed and the women were made slaves. As for the Christians, the revelation spoke against the tendency to give Jesus and Maria divine status in the folk piety of oriental Christianity by confirming that Jesus is Maria’s son, but not the son of God. As a matter of fact, that’s also how Christians could and often would see it until the councils of Nicäa (325 CE) and Constantinople (381 CE) outruling this view. Christ’s death on the cross is denied. This touches upon a fundamental difference: In Christianity, the messenger himself brought salvation as saviour, in Islam it was the Qur’an as the law-making word of God.
The existence of Christian and Jewish owners of scriptures that would not listen raised the question of what could possibly be the meaning of multiple revelations. In the middle of classical ethnocentric statements, the Qur’an answers with the following verses: “For each of you, we have laid down statutes and a way. If God had wished to do so, he would have created you as one community. But he wants to test you with what he prescribed to you. So compete to do good! All of you will return to God, and then he will settle your disagreement.” (Q 5:48) This can be read as competition on different roads to salvation, on equal par, suspending judgement, but also as competition between different roads to salvation in so far as every road taken for granted is actually based on human interpretation of what was revealed – and interpretations can be mistaken and call for revision if others take the lead. This is a reading that enables believers to learn from each other on the road to God’s final word of wisdom. So the Iranian-Semitic concept of monotheism, the dangerous claim of a singular truth to rule without partners, allows for more than just condescending tolerance of the kind that was traditionally granted to Jews and Christians in Islamdom. A supreme example in pre-modern times is given by the Sufi philosopher Ibn ‘Arabî in his thoughts on religious pluralism. The loss of pluralism through singularization is therefore neither absolute nor irreversible: The revelation holds a potential for respecting foreign roads to salvation in which the religious pluralism of the polytheist system survives in weaker form. “Compete to do good!” implies that the message of the Meccan caravan trader, though certainly striving for market leadership, did appreciate religious pluralism as a given beyond judgement and pious competition as a means of updating and refining moral and other truths. So it could well happen that Muslims – foremost in the multireligious secular states of the West – are stimulated by increased religious competition to rediscover the pluralistic potential of their revelation from the point of view of a minority and develop it as fundamental Islamic value in a way not yet known.
Muhammad died on June 8 in the year 632, one year after his “farewell pilgrimage” and ten years after the hijra. He changed the world as few others did. In only two decades he gave Arahamitic monotheism its strictest shape and laid the foundation for a world empire. He did so as God’s creative prophet and statesman. All of this started with a revelation – a vision. Its grand request designed a new life that premiered in Medina. It was a long way from this historical model to the manifold cultures that count as Islamic today. But they all have one thing in common: unending change through reinterpretation of the first design.
(Unpublished summary of DIE GEBURT DES ISLAM)
Ammann, Ludwig, 2001: Die Geburt des Islam: Historische Innovation durch Offenbarung. Göttingen (includes all footnotes and comprehensive bibliography; what follows are mostly books and essays published since after 2001).
Ammann, Ludwig, 2003: Islamwissenschaften. In: Klaus E. Müller (Hg.), Phänomen Kultur: Perspektiven und Aufgaben der Kulturwissenschaften. Bielefeld: 71-96.
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Chittick, William C., 1994: Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al-‘Arabî and the Problem of Religious Diversity. New York.
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Norris, Pippa & Inglehart, Ronald, 2004: Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge.
Retsö, Jan, 2003: The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Umayyads. London/New York.
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Seidensticker, Tilman, 1996: The Authenticity of the Poems ascribed to Umayya Ibn Abî al-Salt. In: J. R. Smart (Hg.), Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Language and Literature. Richmond: 87-101. See Ammann 2001 (includes comprehensive bibliography).  See also Seidensticker 2003.  Schoeler 1996.  See the outline of supply-side and demand-side theories of secularization in Norris & Inglehart 2004: 7ff. as well as Graf 2004: 19ff. for religious economics and the market model of religious pluralism.  Retsö 2003.  As early as 1887 this great biblical scholar and orientalist thought in terms of functional equivalents.  See Seidensticker 2003 for a critical review of the reported pre-Islamic formulas of invocation: The often suspect formulas tend to present the Arabs as a “rather homogenic people of ‘model believers in a high god'” (899).  See Gladigow 2002: Developed polytheist systems could usually integrate “insular monotheisms” without effort, the problems start when theological speculation declares the henotheist situation to be absolute; “private and temporary monotheisms probably belong to a kind of religious behaviour in polytheist religions that isn’t necessarily ‘conspicuous’.”(12, 14; the Hanific option could well be comprehended as such a private monotheism.) “The possibility of a co-presence of monotheisms of all kinds with polytheisms can thus be regarded as the “norm” of religion in complex cultures.” (9)  See Izutsu 1964, 2002: 91ff., 99f. – the basic text on the semantic changes introduced by the revelation.  At least the cultic alliance of the hums tribes, led by the Quraish, distinguished itself ritually from the Bedouins and focussed on the Meccan sacred precinct, see Ammann 2001: 24f. and 89f.  Seidensticker 2003: 895.  Bauschke 2001: 69f. and 77ff.  Ammann 2003: 91.  Chittick 1994.