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Revisionist history of Early Islam
| Party Like It's 632|
|Turning towards Mecca|
| Fiction over fact|
|How it didn't happen|
Since the 1970s or so, many scholars have questioned the accepted narrative of the origin of Islam and the Qur'an. Of course, only Muslims attribute the Qur'an to Allah, but most non-Muslims attribute it to the Prophet Muhammed and the early 7th century. But these scholars questioned the official timeline of Islam, and the biography of the Prophet. There are many revisionist hypotheses.
Patricia Crone and Michael Cook
In 1977, a book named Hagarism : The Making of the Islamic World was written by historians Patricia Crone and Michael Cook. The main theses was that the Islamic sources are not believable. So we must construct the history of Early Islam on the basis of a small story written by some Armenian guy after Muhammad's lifetime. Now, this guy seemed to have written that Prophet Muhammad led the conquest of Palestine. But the official narrative says that he had died two years before the event. So, the authors decided that the first Caliph Abu Bakr extensively documented in Hadiths and other Islamic sources was actually a fabrication. They said that Islam originated as a movement named as Hagarenes to liberate the Judaic homeland from the Byzantine Empire. Also, the belief that Muhammad expelled Jews is actually a misremembering of the Jews of Arabia joining the invasion. But to prevent absorption into Judaism, the Hagarenes absorbed Christ from Christian mythology. On the other hand, they denied Christ as the Son of God. So, the Hagarenes got an independent theology. Some old citations are provided to show that Islam perhaps denied prophets except Moses at some time, and the authors speculate that this position was taken from a now-obscure religion Samaritanism. Then Hagarenes after the death of Muhammad, perhaps at the end of the seventh century, merged and blended various traditions in a haphazard manner to create the Qur'an. However, this has been shown to be wrong, with the discovery of Qur'ans from the mid-seventh century.
In 1987, Patricia Crone wrote another book named Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. She noted that Mecca is known as the center of an empire of commerce at the eve of Islam. She raises two questions: what exactly were the commodities that the Meccans dealt with? Why did an inland town become a commercial center? Sources indicate that the Meccans neither had ships, nor the timber to make them and only a small port. After that Crone does a long examination of the spice trade from Arabia, and concludes that the spice (including incense) products were primarily from Northern Arabia. In the 6th century, much of Southern Arabia had fallen under Ethiopian domination, and Ethiopia had become the key in the trade between Asia and Byzantium. How did Mecca take over the trade? After a long analysis of over two dozen products, including spices, gold, slaves etc. the author comes to the conclusion that Mecca only conducted large-scale exports of leather, clothing, animals and other humble goods. After examining various sources about where Meccan exports went, what their routes were, about Mecca being a 'sanctuary' and Allah's directive regarding the Meccan trade, Crone concludes that the Islamic sources are highly contradictory. Many sources are presented as storytellers, who embroider on general themes. William Watt, the famous historian of Early Islam, provided the thesis that commercial wealth caused social changes in Mecca that caused the Prophet Muhammad's preaching. But Crone rejects it. She claims that the agenda of conquest and power over the temporal world was what inspired Muhammad and his followers. The hypothesis that Islam originated somewhere north of Mecca is also entertained by the author, because in her opinion nothing useful can be known about the environment of origin of Islam from Islamic sources.
In 2010, Fred Donner wrote a mildly revisionist work Muhammad and the Believers. About the timeline of Early Islamic expansion, and the identity of the Prophet and his companions, the author raises little questions. The core thesis is that the community of the followers of Muhammad, which the author calls Believers, did not revolve around obedience to the Qur'anic law. The Qur'anic monotheists were members of the community, along with some pious members of other Abrahamic monotheisms i.e. Judaism and Christianity. He notes the existence of two words: "muminin" and "muslim", and speculates that "muminin" refers to the Community in general, and "muslim" to the Qur'anic followers. The stories of Jews converting to Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet is actually a future misremembering of pious Jews joining the community. While some records seem to indicate that the conquest of Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine were violent, the author disagrees. He believes that the invasion had been largely peaceful, and there is no archaeological evidence of extensive damage to infrastructure. He similarly doubts that churches were destroyed because we find evidence of many pre-conquest churches continuing in use and the construction of more churches by Christians. Donner doubts, on the basis of non-Islam sources calling Muhammad 'king' or 'leader', that Muhammad's claim of revelation was known in many conquered areas till decades after the conquest. He notes that in coins and inscriptions before 685, only the first part of the "shahada" (Islamic declaration of faith), 'There is no god but God' is used. The second part 'Muhammad is the Messenger of God' was added later. A bishop said of the Arabs, "Not only do they not oppose Christianity, but they praise our faith, honour the priests and saints of our Lord, and give aid to the churches and monasteries." In many places, the Believers prayed in churches. Later on, Donner notes how two Christians had served as the chief financial administrators for the early Umayyads. It was reported that in the First Islamic Civil War, Muawiya I sent a Christian tribe to Medina against Ali.
The militant nature of the Believers' movement is explained by their eschatological belief. In the Qur'an, belief in the coming 'Day of Judgement' is cited. When the Prophet died, Umar refused to believe for some time because he thought that the end times would come in Muhammad's lifetime. So the Believers tried to conquer as much land as possible, so as to be able to hand over authority on Earth to God. This doctrine had a Byzantine root. This might be the reason why Palestine was one of the first areas to be captured by Believers, for the religion of the Jews, Christians and Muslims emphasize Jerusalem to be the place where the events of the End Times happen. Similarly, Donner speculates that the construction of the "Dome of the Rock" on the Temple Mount by Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik in the early 8th century was done to provide a grand background for the End Times. Gradually, the emphasis on the Prophethood of Muhammad became the chief marker of being a Believer. Then a sharp boundary was drawn between the Muslims and other communities. This is said to have happened during the reign of Abd al-Malik.
Another noted historian in this school is Karl-Heinz Olig, who has presented the thesis that there was no character named 'Muhammad' at all. He wrote a long article named "From Muhammad Jesus to Prophet of the Arabs". At the start, he dismisses the conventional account of the collection of Qur'an into one book during the reign of Caliph Uthman, in the third decade after Muhammad. Olig regards these accounts as attempts to put the Qur'an's emergence into a period close to the supposed Prophet. In Olig's theory Islam started as a Christological sect (there were many in the Middle East then like Nestorians, Monophysites etc.) The word 'muhammad' appears on coins and inscriptions starting from 690 CE but is not a personal name but actually a title/honorific referring to Jesus. Olig goes into some linguistic analysis and determines that 'muhammad' or MHMT (as it was in the vowel-less Aramaic languages) meant 'the praised one'. A few early coins of the Caliphate bore Christian symbolism. The inscription on the Dome of the Rock (Islamic building on the Temple Mount or Second Temple land) primarily expresses the belief that Jesus was not the Son of God but a Prophet. The sentence 'muhammad is the messenger of God' represents the confession of faith for the Christological sect. John of Damascus in the mid-eighth century wrote a book attacking Islam, The Heresy of the Ishmaelites, so it was still regarded as a heresy. Even to the Medieval and Renaissance periods the common Christian view was that Muhammad began as the leader of a heretical sect before he started a new faith. An inscription from 756 in Medina writes 'abdallah' right after 'muhammad'. 'Ibn' that means 'Son of' does not connect them. Abdallah most likely means 'Servant of God' and also refers to Jesus. According to Olig's theory, the process by which 'muhammad' shifted from a title to a separate historical person is that gradually the original name "Isa" (for Jesus) fell into disuse. After a few generations, people began to misinterpret the title as an actual name. Another title 'abdallah' became the name of his father.
The Revisionist school has been responded to by both non-Muslim scholars and Muslims. Hagarism for criticized for outright rejection of Islamic sources, and called 'Anti-Arabian'. Given the scarcity of evidence for their theses, the authors of Hagarism no longer consider the theses as correct.  Patricia Crone has said that the existence of Muhammad is definite, because of near-contemporary sources from non-Muslims that refer to Muhammad as the leader of Arabs.
- See the Wikipedia article on Early Quranic manuscripts.