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Islam and Research

Islam is described as having been born more in the full light of history than the religion that is said to have come to life with Jesus of Nazareth. Islam was born in 7th century Arabia and its cultural connections with the Judaism and Christianity that by then had migrated to Arabia are well known. There are primary materials for historians to study, but not as much as they would like. There is never enough.

Non-Muslim scholars and Muslim scholars are aware of the available documents, with Muslim scholars hostile toward the narratives that disagree with their point-of-view just as devoted Christians are hostile toward those who contradict their worldview. There is the complaint, moreover, that some non-Muslim scholars of Islamic origins continue to operate in a Muslim theological framework and in so doing jeopardize their status as scholars.

To exercise scholarship one must investigate. And investigation is not much of an investigation without questioning, and believers have less interest in questioning than they do in confirming. I own a biased work titled The History of the World in Christian Perspective. I don't count on it as having sufficient skepticism or telling the whole story. Neither do I rely on devout Muslims to tell me more than a glossed-over version of the history of Islam. The ideal in scholarship regarding Islam rises from an investigation that is motivated neither by a wish to promote or to malign the religion. The proper motivation, as I see it, is to just tell it like it is – with reality and tough-minded investigation rather than the wishful thinking that often coasts along with religious conviction.

I began my research on Islam and Muhammad the Prophet in the 1980s by going to what for me was the most immediate source: established scholars who had contributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica. I found articles of surprising length and extensive detail. I cannot attest to the quality of the articles then or to Britannica articles of more recent years.

I do not pretend to be an Islamic specialist. I don't have time for it. I've read many secondary sources and have tried to form a detailed picture, accepting what fits into that picture. And I've welcomed factual refutations of any point I've made.

Below are a few of the scholarly works I've read.

The History of Medieval Islam, by J.J. Saunders, 1965. This book can be found online in its entirety, free. Sanders (1910-72) was a British medieval historian. His work focused on Islamic and Asian history. He was lecturer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. The book has three customer reviews at Amazon.com. The lowest ranking of the three was two stars, with the reviewer complaining merely about the title. The book's dust jacket reads,

The author expressly concentrates on general trends and patterns of evolution, but has nevertheless managed to convey a great deal of factual information as well as evaluation and interpretation. A distinctly clearer picture of the period as a whole and its significance in world history emerges from this book than from larger and more detailed works.

Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East, by Bernard Lewis, 1993. Lewis is Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. This book has four reviews at Amazon.com, all five stars and the accolade "true scholarship." Lewis is the best known scholar on Islam and has had his critics, the best known of whom was the late Edward Said. The disagreement as far as I know is more about modern rather than medieval Islam. Lewis argues that Muslims have themselves to blame for at least some of their backwardness and this upsets those who want to put the entire blame on colonialism. It does not detract from Lewis as a good source of learning about medieval Islam, and I'd like to hear from his critics refutations with details on specific points.

In Search of Muhammad, by Clinton Bennet, 1998. Bennet is a British scholar of religions. He acknowledges the influence of Edward Said, Clifford Geertz and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Bishop Kenneth Cragg and others. According to Ahmad Schaffat, Bennett "repeatedly shows concerns about how conclusions are influenced by our assumptions and backgrounds and gives some thought to the ways of avoiding this influence."

Quest for the Historical Muhammad, edited by Ibn Warraq, 2000. Ibn Warraq is a pseudonym. I merely skimmed this book. It has 41 reviews at Amazon, and one writes:

Thanks Ibn Warraq for writing a great "Reference" work for us (Muslims). His books: Why I am not a Muslim, Origins of Koran and Quest for the Historical Muhammad are the books which should be read and appreciated by all Muslims.

A reviewer who gave Warraq one star writes:

A hilarious hate fiction mindbelch.

Another one-star review writes:

Ibn Warraq is known Islam basher, which is evident in a quote from his new book – "Muslims do not need patronizing liberals to meet them 'half way'! Muslims need to write an honest biography of the prophet that does not shun the truth, least of all cover it up with the dishonest subterfuge of condescending Western scholars." Amazingly he uses the same 'dishonest traditions' to paint a different picture of Muhammad (pbuh). Note: pbuh stands for "peace be upon him."

A History of Islamic Societies, by Ira M. Lapidus, 2002. Lapidus is an Emeritus Professor of History, Islamic Social History at the University of California at Berkeley. One reviewer at Amazon.com describes Lapidus as doing Islam justice "in portraying it objectively; not as an evil or superior religion, but as a historical religion." The book is more than 900 pages.

The Monotheists: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conflict and Competition, volume one, by FE Peters, 2003. Peters is Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and History at New York University and winner of the 2003 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Religion. Peters has a comment that appears on the dust jacket of Warraq's book, which reads,

History's view of the birth of Islam, it turned out, was neither full nor particularly clear.

Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, by Karen Armstrong, 2007. I skimmed through this book as I did Karen Armstrong's Islam, A Short History. I am fond of Armstrong as a person, but I agree with the reviewers at Amazon who describe Armstrong's bias and poor scholarship. A two-star review at Amazon by Edward P. Trimnell gives a balanced discription of Armstrong's book.


I confess adherence to a methodology common among academically trained historians. I read the past as a product of human behavior and write about what people believe. I don't include the intentions of gods or devils – the supernatural – as among history's forces. I can't do otherwise because I don't claim the powers of knowing what gods and devils are thinking or doing or their actual connection to events. Instead, I look at the connection between people and the earthly situation they are in. And this, I'm sorry to say, puts me at odds with Muslim scholars and all Muslims straight away. It puts me at odds also with some Christians, the few Orthodox Jews, Sikhs and Hindus – perhaps not devout Buddhists because of their indifference. It's not that I want to belittle any faith. As a child I experienced people belittling my mother's religious denomination, and it bothered me and set me against bigotry. I respect fortitude in standing by one's beliefs if the believer is sincere and has at least a little humility.

As I see it, Islam developed out of increased contacts between Arabian people and cultures that originated outside Arabia. The mind of Muhammad appears to me as a collection of cultural and geographic diffusions and common impulses. In other words, Islam was part import modified locally as were some religious cults long before Islam. Obviously it has drawn from some of Judaism and Christianity, and Muhammad turned a pagan ritual into what became Islam's pilgramage to the Kaaba at Mecca. Muhammad created for the world something that was not entirely new, but like everything else it had its distinctive shades of difference. It spread through old-fashioned warfare.

What Islam became after Muhammad's death was a continuation of human impulses, and, as history moved on, Muslims made of their religion what they pleased – as have Christians with their faith, despite scripture – a process that I expect Muslims to continue. Read the history of any major religion and you will find change.

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