Revisionist history of Early Islam

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Party Like It's 632
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Turning towards Mecca
Fiction over fact
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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 CE. 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[edit]

In 1977, a book named Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World was written by historians Patricia Crone and Michael Cook. The main thesis was that the Islamic sources are not believable. So one must construct the history of early Islam on the basis of a small story written by an unnamed Armenian guy after Muhammad's lifetime.[1] 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 developed 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 7th 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-7th century.[2]

In 1987, Patricia Crone wrote another book titled, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam.[3] She noted that Mecca is known as the center of an empire of commerce at the eve of Islam. She raises two questions:

  1. What exactly were the commodities that the Meccans dealt with?
  2. 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 wrote a long examination of the spice trade from Arabia, and concluded 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 came 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 rejected this thesis. She claimed 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.[3]

Fred Donner[edit]

In 2010, Fred Donner wrote a mildly revisionist work Muhammad and the Believers.[4] About the timeline of early Islamic expansion, and the identity of the Prophet and his companions, the author raises few 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 noted the existence of two words: muminin and muslim, and speculates that mumini" 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 disagreed. He believed that the invasion had been largely peaceful, and there is no archaeological evidence of extensive damage to infrastructure. He similarly doubted that churches were destroyed because evidence of many pre-conquest churches continuing in use and the construction of more churches by Christians were found. 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 until decades after the conquest. He noted that in coins and inscriptions before 685 CE, 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 noted 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 speculated 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 was said to have happened during the reign of Abd al-Malik.

Karl-Heinz Olig[edit]

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 book chapter titled "From muhammad Jesus to Prophet of the Arabs".[5] At the start, he dismissed 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 regarded 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, not as a personal name but as a title/honorific referring to Jesus. Olig went into some linguistic analysis and determined 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 (an 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-8th century wrote a book attacking Islam, The Heresy of the Ishmaelites, so it was still regarded as a heresy. Even up 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 CE in Medina wrote Abdallah right after Muhammad. Ibn which 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 criticized by both non-Muslim and Muslim scholars. Hagarism has been criticized for its outright rejection of Islamic sources, and has been called 'Anti-Arabian'. Given the scarcity of evidence for their theses, the authors of Hagarism no longer consider their theses as correct.[6] 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. Some of these accounts are as follows:

The 7th century Chronicle of 640Wikipedia references the Arab campaigns, and is also the earliest non-Islamic source to mention Muhammad by name:

AG 945, indiction VII: On Friday, 4 February, [i.e., 634 CE / Dhul Qa'dah 12 AH] at the ninth hour, there was a battle between the Romans and the Arabs of Muḥammad [Syr. tayyāyē d-Mḥmt] in Palestine twelve miles east of Gaza. The Romans fled, leaving behind the patrician YRDN (Syr. BRYRDN), whom the Arabs killed. Some 4000 poor villagers of Palestine were killed there, Christians, Jews and Samaritans. The Arabs ravaged the whole region.

AG 947, indiction IX: The Arabs invaded the whole of Syria and went down to Persia and conquered it; the Arabs climbed mountain of Mardin and killed many monks there in [the monasteries of] Kedar and Benōthō. There died the blessed man Simon, doorkeeper of Qedar, brother of Thomas the priest.[7][8]

Another source is the aforementioned Armenian bishop SebeosWikipedia, who said that Muhammad was a merchant, and implies that Muhammad's life was change by a divine revelation:

At that time a certain man from along those same sons of Ismael, whose name was Mahmet [i.e., Mụhammad], a merchant, as if by God's command appeared to them as a preacher [and] the path of truth. He taught them to recognize the God of Abraham, especially because he was learnt and informed in the history of Moses. Now because the command was from on high, at a single order they all came together in unity of religion. Abandoning their vain cults, they turned to the living God who had appeared to their father Abraham. So, Mahmet legislated for them: not to eat carrion, not to drink wine, not to speak falsely, and not to engage in fornication. He said: 'With an oath God promised this land to Abraham and his seed after him for ever. And he brought about as he promised during that time while he loved Israel. But now you are the sons of Abraham and God is accomplishing his promise to Abraham and his seed for you. Love sincerely only the God of Abraham, and go and seize the land which God gave to your father Abraham. No one will be able to resist you in battle, because God is with you.[9][10][11][12]

These sources make no sense if Muhammad was ahistorical. Keeping Occam in mind, the most parsimonious explanation is that Muhammad was a real historical personage and that the Islamic chronicles are at least somewhat historically accurate.[notes 1]

See also[edit]


  1. Granted, to what degree the hadiths are accurate cannot be reliably stated.


  1. Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook (1980) Cambridge University Press. ISBN Cambridge University Press.
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Early Quranic manuscripts.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam by Patricia Crone (1987) Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691054800.
  4. Muhammad and the Believers by Fred M. Donner (2010) The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674050975.
  5. "From muhammad Jesus to Prophet of the Arabs" by Karl-Heinz Olig. In: [ Early Islam: A Critical Reconstruction Based on Contemporary Sources, edited by Karl-Heinz Olig (2013) Prometheus Books. ISBN 161614825X. Pages 251-307.
  6. Reviews of Hagarism by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook (September 2, 2012) Islamic Studies for the Academic Study of Islam.
  7. A. Palmer (with contributions from S. Brock and R. G. Hoyland), The Seventh Century In The West-Syrian Chronicles Including Two Seventh-Century Syriac Apocalyptic Texts, 1993, op. cit., pp. 18–19
  8. R. G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian, Jewish And Zoroastrian Writings On Early Islam, 1997, op. cit., p. 119 and p. 120
  9. R. W. Thomson (with contributions from J. Howard-Johnson & T. Greenwood), The Armenian History Attributed To Sebeos Part - I: Translation and Notes, 1999, Translated Texts For Historians - Volume 31, Liverpool University Press, pp. 95-96.
  10. P. Crone & M. Cook, Hagarism: The Making Of The Islamic World, 1977, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, pp. 6-7
  11. R. G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian, Jewish And Zoroastrian Writings On Early Islam, 1997, op. cit., p. 129
  12. idem., "Sebeos, The Jews And The Rise Of Islam" in R. L. Nettler (Ed.), Medieval And Modern Perspectives On Muslim-Jewish Relations, 1995, Harwood Academic Publishers GmbH in cooperation with the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, p. 89