The Arabian Context of the Qur’an: Dissertation Highlight

by Süleyman Dost*

He claimed to be an Arab prophet and he was. We shall see him consciously borrowing – he is quite frank about it. But to begin with, the materials which he uses, though they may remind us ever and again of Jewish and Christian phrases and ideas, are in reality Arab materials. (Richard Bell, The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment [London, 1925], 69)

Around all these Koranic narratives there is, and was from the first, the atmosphere of an Arabian revelation, and they form a very characteristic and important part of the prophet’s great achievement. (Charles Cutler Torrey, The Jewish Foundation of Islam [New York, 1933], 126)

Above are the testimonies of two distinguished scholars writing at a time when the debate for anchoring the origins of the Qur’an to one of the two major religious traditions was still hot. The titles of their works do little to hide their standpoints, but they both talk curiously—if scantily—about an Arabian background to the Qur’an. Are they talking about the rich pre-Islamic treasure of mythopoeia that was exemplified in the so-called pre-Islamic poetry? Is it the ever-increasing number of inscriptions that were being located in and around the Arabian Peninsula? Whatever this Arabian background meant for Bell and Torrey, they were both unconvinced about the completely explanatory power of a Judeo-Christian or Biblical context for the Qur’an.

Much has happened since then. Heinrich Speyer almost exhausted the Biblical and extra-Biblical parallels to the Qur’an in his brilliant Die biblischen Erzählungen im Qoran; Margoliouth and Taha Husayn call the authenticity (or rather, pre-Islamicity) of pre-Islamic poetry into question; work on a critical edition of the Qur’an was abandoned due to disastrous events partly related to World War II, only to be revived half a century later; most importantly, Wansbrough’s Qur’ānic Studies bulldozed the whole field.

Now that the dust of the commotion that Wansbrough caused in the field are settling and that manuscript studies of the Qur’an have matured, what is left of this Arabian background? Wansbrough’s argument for a Qur’anic context that was later in time and more distant in location than traditionally assumed is hardly tenable now, and a more accurate contextualization of the Qur’an is needed more than ever. If the Arabian background of the Qur’an cannot be accounted for in Biblical and extra-Biblical material, and can no longer be lumped in with the too-good-to-be-true pre-Islamic poetry and early Muslim historiography, then where is this background to be found?

The "inscription of Abraha;" image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute,

The “inscription of Abraha;” image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute,

My dissertation project attempts to shed light on the Arabian context of the Qur’an by using sources that securely predate the Qur’an from in and immediately around the Arabian Peninsula, aiming to contribute to the traditionsgeschichte of the Qur’an through a focused examination of lexical and thematic continuities from pre-Qur’anic Arabian texts to the Qur’an. The sources that inform my study are necessarily extensive, and I consider a large variety of inscriptional sources in Old South Arabian, Ancient North Arabian, Nabataean, Palmyran, “Sinaitic,” and, in a rather limited fashion, Greek, Latin, and Syriac.

The field of ancient Arabian languages has been particularly lively for some time, but little has been done to align these sources with the Qur’an, with the important exceptions of Hubert Grimme and the more recent attempts of Christian J. Robin, Hani Hayajneh, and Ahmed al-Jallad. The ancient Arabian sources provide crucial information where Biblical tradition falls short or where Muslim sources need correction or corroboration. I use these sources to argue for an Arabian context of the Qur’an.

The first chapter of my dissertation compares Qur’anic divine nomenclature with the divine landscape of the Arabian Peninsula as attested in epigraphy. The aim here is to show not only that the immediate context of the Qur’an purveys a unique pantheon of gods that find their equivalents in the inscriptions from the Peninsula, but also that the names and attributes of the Qur’anic God reflect the regional preferences for divine appellations, with the tension between Allāh and al-Raḥmān particularly residual in the Qur’an.

My second chapter builds on the first by exploring some central concepts in the Qur’an that have to do with the relationship between humans and the divine, showing how the Qur’anic vocabulary that dominates the human-divine axis is informed by its Arabian context.

The third chapter addresses the portrayals in the Qur’an of Biblical history along with what appears to be nearly contemporaneous events in and around the Peninsula. I argue that there is a visible break of temporal perception in the Qur’an concerning the transition from what I call “biblical pseudo-history” to episodes of “Arabian” events that informed the local history surrounding the provenance of the Qur’an. I examine these local events in light of available epigraphic and literary sources.

The fourth and the fifth chapters bring the discussion back to the Judeo-Christian plane that has been familiar to Qur’anic studies for two centuries, but this time with an eye toward identifying a trend in the Qur’an’s employment of Biblical figures. These two chapters problematize the indebtedness of the Qur’an to the central Biblical discourse of the time and try to explain the oddities in the Qur’an’s portrayal of Judeo-Christian material through sources that remained peripheral at best to the main centers of Judaism and Christianity. Here I use South Arabian texts of Jewish and Christian provenance as well as those sources that primarily circulated in the Ethiopic language like the Book of Jubilees and the Book of Enoch.

My dissertation is an attempt to historicize the Qur’an in a post-Wansbrough and post-Ṣanʿāʾ-manuscripts world by treating it as a primary source rather than as a text with unwanted exegetical baggage. I believe that narrowing down the context of the Qur’an to a workable and meaningful scale of time and space, with philological commonsense and sensitivity to intra-Qur’anic diachrony, can do wonders for our understanding of the Qur’an.

* Süleyman Dost is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

Rethinking Late Antiquity—A Review of Garth Fowden, Before and After Muḥammad: The First Millennium Refocused

By Michael Pregill

Beginning in the 1970s, the work of Peter Brown revolutionized the way scholars approach the “fall of Rome,” the decline of Roman and Sasanian power in the Middle East, and the rise of Islam in Late Antiquity. In his classic The World of Late Antiquity, AD 150-750 and other works, Brown argued that the emergence of Islam and the establishment of the caliphal empire was not a radical disruption of the course of history, but rather represented the continuity of older cultural, political, social, and religious patterns. Despite the wide influence of Brown’s work and the general recognition of Islam’s importance in the overall trajectory of Mediterranean and even European history, substantial obstacles to a full integration of ancient, early Christian, Jewish, and Islamic phenomena into a general history of the civilization of Western Asia remain.

Although an outdated, isolationist approach to Late Antiquity primarily focusing on late Roman culture and society still dominates some quarters of the academy, many scholars have worked towards a more integrated and comparative approach to the period. The shifts have been gradual and partial. Today there are numerous scholars of rabbinics who explore the wider context of the Babylonian Talmud in Sasanian society; there has lately been a resurgence of interest in the history of the Red Sea region, including Ethiopia and the Yemen, in the centuries leading up to the rise of Islam; and over the last ten years or so, we have seen significant interest in the literary and religious parallels to the Qur’an found in Syriac Christian literature in particular. (Many of the scholars who have been responsible for the last development have generously assisted in the foundation and growth of IQSA, so this is really nothing new to readers of this blog, though developments in late ancient or Jewish historiography may be less familiar.)

Before and After Muhammad: The First Millennium Refocused

Before and After Muhammad: The First Millennium Refocused

All of these developments point to a recognition that the various cultures and literatures of Late Antiquity cannot be viewed in isolation, but rather must be approached in the wider context of the dynamic exchanges between various communities in the period, the imperial competition between the Romans and the Sasanians, and the spread and consolidation of the monotheistic or “Abrahamic” traditions.

Among the scholars who sought to adopt, refine, and develop Brown’s approach to the period, it was Garth Fowden—currently Sultan Qaboos Professor of Abrahamic Faiths at Cambridge—who produced what was perhaps the most important work in this area in the 1990s: From Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity. When I was a graduate student, Fowden’s work impacted me profoundly. The book is ambitious in scope, wildly imaginative, willing to explore the period in terrifyingly broad terms, but in pursuit of a single cogent thesis: that the entire history of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean from the second through the ninth century CE can be understood in terms of a sequence of imperial projects aiming to establish God’s rule on earth. That is, the unifying theme of the era, one that distinguishes it from the civilization of the ancient world and sets the stage for the medieval cultures of Byzantium, Western Christendom, and the Dār al-Islām, is the use of monotheism as the primary justification for statebuilding, for literally global dominion (as far as that was possible in the pre-modern world). In Fowden’s work, the use of religion to justify imperial authority becomes the thread that links Christian Rome, Sasanian Iran, and the caliphates and that allows us to see the significant continuities between them with clarity.

(Perhaps not coincidentally, the only other books I read during my Ph.D. training that exerted a similarly enduring influence on my imagination were Wansbrough’s The Sectarian Milieu (1978)—no doubt familiar to every reader of this blog—and Bulliet’s The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (2004), which, like Fowden’s Empire to Commonwealth, is another eloquent call for historical thinking on the global scale, for transcending the narrow and artificial boundaries between the culture of “the West” and Islam.)

After a number of years dedicated to other projects, including a fascinating study on the iconography of the late Umayyad palace of Quṣayr ʿAmra, Fowden has now returned to history on the grand scale with Before and After Muḥammad: The First Millennium Refocused. Stunningly, this work is even more ambitious in scope than Empire to Commonwealth. Here Fowden once again seeks to explore the overarching continuities between Christian Rome, Sasanian Iran, and Islam but with even more attention paid to the intertwining discourses that link Greco-Roman, Syrian Christian, Jewish, Arab, Iranian, and European cultures over the course of a thousand years, centering on what he now calls the “Eurasian hinge” of southwest Asia linking the civilizations of the region. Fowden anchors his work in a rigorous interrogation of older conceptions of Late Antiquity, criticizing older scholars’ poor integration of Islam into the period, as well as the common approach of only including the Umayyad caliphate as a late antique empire. This serves to truncate the early medieval period from older trajectories of development that arguably only reached their full fruition around the year 1000. It also artificially severs the Abbasids and Iranian Islam from the prevailing cultural patterns of the Arab-Islamic world, though they are equally rooted in the legacies of biblical monotheism and Hellenism.



Fowden also locates his work in the context of contemporary debates over the relationship between Islam and the West, stating quite bluntly that “My purpose here is not to join this debate directly, but to overhaul its foundations” (2). His approach in Before and After Muḥammad builds on his earlier work, in that the cultures of the Islamic Middle East and Christian Europe are seen as halves of a larger whole. (Here I was a bit disappointed that Fowden does not engage with Bulliet’s aforementioned work The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, which eloquently argues for an approach to Islam and the West as two halves or wings of a unified civilizational complex that only decisively split in the later medieval period. This is a perspective that is obviously quite compatible with and complementary to Fowden’s.)

Periodization, methods, and labels occupy much of Fowden’s attention here, and he spends significant time critiquing other contemporary attempts to advance beyond traditional frameworks and paradigms (82-91), adopting the new periodization of a unified “First Millennium” as his preferred heuristic lens on the period. This approach has the distinct benefit of locating Augustus at one end of the period and the emergence of the mature scriptural communities of Europe and Western Asia at the other, without privileging Europe over the Islamic world as the “true” heir to Greco-Roman antiquity or reifying anachronistic communalist boundaries between “pagans,” Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Several aspects of Fowden’s approach here depart from that of From Empire to Commonwealth. There is a particular emphasis here on various textual lineages as the foundation of cross-cultural continuity. Thus, he sees the transmission of specific canons of material as one of the primary drivers of cultural development, each moving through an initial phase of revelation to subsequent phases marked by canonization and then interpretation, with the resultant exegetical cultures dominating the cultural landscape from western Europe to eastern Iran by the year 1000. As a student of comparative exegesis (in my case, midrash and tafsir) I found the emphasis on the exegetical here particularly fascinating, though notably, Fowden is not concerned solely with scriptural canons (Tanakh, Bible, and Qur’an) but also philosophical and legal canons, placing particular emphasis on Aristotelianism as a major current of cultural continuity in the First Millennium.

Fowden’s two chapters on “Exegetical Cultures” are thus exhilarating and dizzying—charting Aristotelianism’s movement from Greek to Syriac to Arabic educational institutions, the evolution of law from the Justinianic Code to the Babylonian Talmud to the emergence of Islamic fiqh, and touching on patristic, Karaite, and Muʿtazilite scriptural exegesis for good measure. The final chapter is likewise a tour de force, surveying the culmination of the First Millennium by showing us “Viewpoints Around 1000: Ṭūs, Baṣra, Baghdād, Pisa.” The cities visited in this grand perspective symbolize, respectively, the resurgence of Iranian national consciousness with the Shāh-Nāmeh of Firdowsī; the maturation of gnostic-philosophical-spiritual currents in early medieval Islam with the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ; the emergence not just of the mature Sunni and Shii traditions but of sophisticated and distinctively Islamic modes of apprehending and engaging different faiths; and the reemergence of Europe as a meaningful center of cultural production.

Astonishingly, this work is not the culmination of Fowden’s work in rethinking Late Antiquity. Rather, he advertises this book as a prolegomenon to a new, more comprehensive project on the First Millennium. It is also the companion piece to a forthcoming work charting the evolution of philosophy from Aristotle to Avicenna. Specialists will inevitably find much to quibble with here, especially given Fowden’s propensity to working in broad swathes rather than drilling down to wrestle with thorny details. Moreover, one can imagine assigning this only to the most intrepid undergraduates, despite the major pedagogical implications of Fowden’s reflections on periodization in particular. But overall, this is synthetic historiographic work of great sophistication and lasting value, and Before and After Muḥammad deserves to provoke discussion throughout many scholarly quarters.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved