Book review: Dark Beginnings

Prof. Dr. Christine Schirrmacher

Karl-Heinz Ohlig; Gerd-R. Puin (Eds.) Dark Beginnings. Results of Recent Research into Islam’s Origins and Early History. [in German only: Die Dunklen Anfänge. Neue Forschungen zur Entstehung und frühen Geschichte des Islam] Verlag Hans Schiler: Berlin, 2005, 406 pp., € 58.00.

For several decades now few radically new insights into the period of Islam’s origins have emerged in Oriental studies, and this despite the fact that many fundamental questions remain unanswered. One awaits, for instance, a critical investigation filling in crucial gaps in our knowledge of the background to the 1924 standard edition of the Qur’an, which is still currently in universal use. On the present state of research it is possible to affirm there have been several redactions, textual variants or even, as some suppose, various authors of the text of the Qur’an, as yet however there is no comprehensive research into such eminently vital questions. The ground for Muslim scholars’ reticence is the presumption that the divine origin of the Qur’an renders historical investigation superfluous. Research by non-Muslim scholars would seem indispensable at this point, yet Islamic studies have tended almost unanimously to adopt the Muslim view of an unadulterated text stemming from a process of a unique revelation. In the opinion of several of the contributors to the present work the disinclination to question or even investigate this presumption means Islamic studies have capitulated to political correctness and accommodated the Muslim perspective.

Christoph Luxenberg’s publication “A Syriac-Aramaic Reading of the Qur’an” (3rd ed. 2007) brought the first stirrings into this long stagnant debate. His overriding thesis is that the key to the Qur’an is to be found not in the Arabic but in Arabic-Syriac-Aramaic, reading for instance “white grapes” instead of “virgins of Paradise.” The present volume continues this questioning of long familiar assumptions more radically and on a greater scale, starting from the indisputable paucity of sources for the early period of Islam and the life of Muhammad. Oriental studies are essentially reliant on a few sparse biographies all written by Muhammad’s followers and dating from the 9th and 10th centuries, hundreds of years after the events.

These essays by noted Oriental scholars present not simply fresh variants of the biography of Muhammad and early Islam but a completely new approach taking into account numismatic evidence and inscriptions, such as those found in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Their fundamental thesis is that written material previously ascribed to Muhammad is in fact composed of Christian texts and symbols of a Syrian-Arabic Christianity and that ‘Muhammad’, literally “the praiseworthy”, is not a personal name at all but an ascription referring to Jesus. The authors come to the conclusion that a historical person called Muhammad, the preacher of Islam, never actually existed and that the phenomenon of Islam dates back at the earliest to the mid-8th century. This means the Qur’an, if it originated in this period, must have been a Christian liturgical document. This view had already been put forward in similar terms by Günter Lüling in 1974 but was largely ignored by scholars. This implies an early Christian version of Islam under the Umayyads, influenced according to the authors by Christianity, as the immediate forerunner of classical Islam which originated from 750 AD under the Abbasids. It hardly needs to be emphasized that this calls in question the whole of early Islamic history and theology – a fascinating debate.