‘An Arab identity was an unintended result of the believers movement.’


The following book review is the third in a series originally published in the Journal of the Oasis Foundation. The six books selected highlight aspects of aspects of Christianity and Islamic history and culture in the Middle East and their bearing on the situation in the region today.

Oasis was founded in 2004 in Venice to encourage mutual understanding and opportunities for encounter between the Western world and the Muslim majority world. According to Oasis, “interreligious dialogue involves intercultural dialogue because religious experience is always lived and expressed through the medium of culture: not merely at the theological and spiritual level, but also at the political, economic, and social ones.” 

* * * * *

What did early Islam look like? Fred Donner, professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago, has no doubt: it was an intensely religious movement. Breaking with an interpretative paradigm that stresses the primacy of social and/or national motivations, Donner focuses on the centrality of piety and faith to Muhammad’s preaching: “An Arab identity was an unintended result of the Believers’ movement, not its cause” (p. 219).

Donner advances three main theses in his book. The first, which is not self-evident, is that the movement arose in seventh century central Arabia, still partly a pagan land. The renunciation of the hypercritical approach that also recently has inspired many academic works, does not imply an unquestioning acceptance of traditional Islamic historiography. Indeed, capitalising on the latest archaeological and numismatic discoveries as well as the fragmentary testimonies of the conquered peoples, Donner manages the difficult task of balancing the various sources, painting a convincing and compelling picture of what Early Islam looked like.

 Notably, it was not called Islam.

This second argument is based on a careful reading of the Qur’an, in which, as is well known, the followers of Muhammad are generally referred to as “Believers” (Mu’minūn). In the Qur’an, the term muslimūn, from which the English “Muslim”, refers to a spiritual attitude of submission to God, and is used in reference also to figures such as Abraham or the Apostles. This linguistic usage continued under the first successors of Muhammad, who were known as “Commanders of the Believers” and not caliphs, while the transition from “Believers” to “Muslims” would not occur until the end of the seventh century.

Donner’s third thesis is that the semantic shift from one term to another is evidence of a conceptual revolution. Under Muhammad and the first caliphs, the Believers formed “a strongly monotheistic, intensely pietistic, and ecumenical or confessional open religious movement” (p. 75); that is to say, “A monotheistic reform movement, rather than […] a new and distinct religious confession” (p. 87). In other words, what would later become Islam used to embrace many Jews and Christians who, as long as they were willing to adhere to the form of monotheism preached by Muhammad, could continue to live according to their own laws. Only pagan Arabs were required not only to profess their faith in the oneness of God, but also to observe the Law that the Qur’an was gradually spelling out.

An ecumenical movement

According to Donner, it was the “ecumenical” nature of the movement that helped it conquer the Near East, which had been exhausted by nearly a century of struggle between Byzantines and Persians. Although Arab sources tend to insist on a number of pitched battles, archaeological excavations of recent decades suggest that, the military dimension notwithstanding, the relationship with Late Antiquity was one of continuity rather than discontinuity. As Donner argues, “By the end of Muhammad’s life, the Believers were to be not merely a pietist movement with an emphasis on ethics and devotion to God, but a movement of militant piety” (p. 85).

In the era of the conquests, of which Donner offers a remarkably precise and effective summary, the choice to keep the conquering Arab tribes in fortified encampments (amsār) rather than allowing them to disperse throughout the newly conquered lands was probably decisive for the fate of the movement. By avoiding acculturation, it quickly marked itself out as a distinct reality, independent of other religious communities. This move in an exclusivist direction culminated around the caliphate of ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705), when the empire was re-founded after the traumatic experience of the two civil wars. Yet traces of the older ecumenical position are still clearly visible in the sources, above all in the Qur’an.

Written in lively and elegant prose and tailored to the non-specialist reader, Donner’s book is already an indispensable tool for understanding Muhammad’s movement and how it developed into Islam. Its implications to the present day are enormous.

Martino Diez is the scientific director of the Oasis International Foundation and the author of many books. He has a PhD in Oriental Studies and is a lecturer in Arabic Language at the Catholic University of Milan. This review is republished with permission from Oasis. 

Martino Diez is scientific director of the Oasis International Foundation and researcher in Arabic Language and Literature at the Catholic University of Milan. After graduating in Oriental Languages and...