New Publication: Communities of the Qur’an (Oneworld, 2019)

Oneworld Publications has just released a new book, Communities of the Qur’an: Dialogue, Debate and Diversity in the 21st Century, edited by IQSA’s own Executive Director, Emran al-Badawi (Associate Professor and Director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at the University of Houston), and Paula Sanders (Professor of History and Director of the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance at Rice University).

On numerous occasions throughout history, believers from different schools and denominations, and at different times and places, have agreed to disagree. The Qur’anic interpreters, jurists and theologians of medieval Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba coexisted peacefully in spite of their diverging beliefs. Seeking to revive this ‘ethics of disagreement’ of Classical Islam, this volume explores the different relationships societies around the world have with the Qur’an and how our understanding of the text can be shaped by studying the interpretations of others. From LGBT groups to urban African American communities, this book aims to represent the true diversity of communities of the Qur’an in the twenty-first century, and the dialogue and debate that can flow among them.

communities

From the Foreword by Reza Aslan:

“From the very beginning there were deep disagreements among Muslims over how to read and interpret the sacred text, to what degree it has been affected by the cultural norms of the society in which it was revealed, and whether historical context and independent reasoning should have a role in its interpretation. It’s just that the unique properties of the Qur’an, and the unique role it has had in the Muslim community, has, for the most part, excluded a large swath of Muslim voices from this fifteen-century debate.

This collection aims to remedy that situation by bringing together a diverse array of textual scholars who are engaging the Qur’an from perspectives that have been sorely lacking in Islamic scholarship for far too long. The inclusion of, for example, African-American, female, LGBTQ, Ahmadi, and even Baha’i voices to the centuries-long conversation about the meaning of the Qur’an is vital to ensuring the viability of this extraordinary text in the twenty-first century. Most importantly, by prioritizing engagement and disagreement, rather than the pretense of forced unity, this book is symbolic of the increasingly diverse Muslim community itself.”

Want to read more? Purchase this book online or find it in your local library!

Emran El-Badawi is Associate Professor and Director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at the University of Houston.

Paula Sanders is Professor of History and Director of the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Text and image accessed and reproduced with kind permission of Emran El-Badawi.

 

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2019. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

Introducing our Inaugural Lifetime Members

Dear friends across the globe,

Today is another proud and historic day for the International Qur’an Studies Association (IQSA). It is with great honor that I welcome IQSA’s inaugural Lifetime Members. They are: Professor Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Director of National and International Outreach, Library of Congress, and President Emeritus, Bryn Mawr College; as well as Professor Reza Aslan, University of California in Riverside, and contributor at CNN, HBO, ABC and other media outlets. Among her many impressive achievements Professor McAuliffe is the editor of the monumental research reference work known to every student and scholar of the Qur’an today, namely the Encyclopedia of the Qur’an (2001-). Likewise, Professor Aslan is known across the world for his television appearances and best-selling books, including No God but God (2005) and Zealot (2013).

Professors McAuliffe and Aslan have already contributed to IQSA’s governance and membership, but they wished to renew their commitment on a permanent basis. And for their generosity and foresight I share with them my deepest gratitude. The caliber of their leadership directly empowers IQSA’s mission and vision, not least because they represent high quality scholarship and a commitment to building bridges across the globe. Their lifetime commitment to IQSA reinforces–ensures even–IQSA’s mandate as the only independent, member controlled, learned society dedicated to critical, cutting edge scholarship on the Qur’an. By becoming Lifetime Members of IQSA Professors McAuliffe and Aslan also send a powerful message to the public, “we support the Humanities and Higher Education.”

As renowned scholars, IQSA’s inaugural Lifetime Members each produced an exciting new book in 2017. These are:

Jane Dammen McAuliffe, The Qur’an (W.W. Norton, 2017) 

9780393927054_300This Norton Critical Edition is based on a thoroughly revised and annotated version of the well-regarded Pickthall translation of the Qur’an. Jane McAuliffe introduces the Qur’an as a living scripture, preparing readers for an informed encounter with the text. Topics include the scholarly traditions of the study of qur’anic origins; the centuries of commentary, analysis, and intellectual dissemination that have created a library of qur’anic literature; the history of translations, particularly those in English; and the many ways the Qur’an informs Muslim life and material culture.

This Norton Critical Edition also includes:

• Seven illustrations.

• Fifty judiciously selected texts representing the full spectrum of Islamic religious thought that demonstrate the Qur’an’s intellectual impact while those from related Near Eastern literatures, including biblical and extra-biblical sources, elucidate the comparative contexts of qur’anic themes and narratives. A concluding section presents the Qur’an as an American book, with a long history and significant influence in the United States.

•A Selected Bibliography.

Reza Aslan, God: A Human History (Penguin Random House, 2017)

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The bestselling author of Zealot and host of Believer explores humanity’s quest to make sense of the divine in this concise and fascinating history of our understanding of God.9780553394726

In Zealot, Reza Aslan replaced the staid, well-worn portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth with a startling new image of the man in all his contradictions. In his new book, Aslan takes on a subject even more immense: God, writ large.

In layered prose and with thoughtful, accessible scholarship, Aslan narrates the history of religion as a remarkably cohesive attempt to understand the divine by giving it human traits and emotions. According to Aslan, this innate desire to humanize God is hardwired in our brains, making it a central feature of nearly every religious tradition. As Aslan writes, “Whether we are aware of it or not, and regardless of whether we’re believers or not, what the vast majority of us think about when we think about God is a divine version of ourselves.”

But this projection is not without consequences. We bestow upon God not just all that is good in human nature—our compassion, our thirst for justice—but all that is bad in it: our greed, our bigotry, our penchant for violence. All these qualities inform our religions, cultures, and governments.

More than just a history of our understanding of God, this book is an attempt to get to the root of this humanizing impulse in order to develop a more universal spirituality. Whether you believe in one God, many gods, or no god at all, God: A Human History will challenge the way you think about the divine and its role in our everyday lives.

As a reward for their investment, lifetime members enjoy benefits in perpetuity. To accommodate the different levels of our members, IQSA offers five membership tiers starting 2018. We encourage all scholars and students in the field to consider renewing their membership or to become IQSA MEMBERS NOW.

On behalf of the Board of Directors and Standing Committees, I offer a warm welcome to Professors McAuliffe, Aslan and all incoming 2018 IQSA members.

Sincerely,

Emran El-Badawi, Executive Director

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. All rights reserved.

Growing Pains of Qur’anic Studies

by Devin Stewart*

libraryOn the one hand, the explosion of interest in the Qur’an over the past several decades is a blessing, as it has produced a sharp rise in the rate at which scholarship in Qur’anic studies is being produced, as well as in the number of different approaches. Entire fields of inquiry that had been moribund for the latter half of the twentieth century have now come alive, including study of the manuscript traditions of the Qur’an and the relationship between the Qur’an and Jewish and Christian texts. On the other hand, such burgeoning interest means that, as with Biblical scholarship, the number of people writing on the topic is large, the number of studies is huge, and one must wade through a morass of published material presenting rehashed versions of old theses in order to find significant advances.

There is nothing wrong with a professor of creative writing, like Reza Aslan—or even the local motel night-clerk for that matter—publishing on the Qur’an, as long as the individual in question has something worth saying. To cast doubt on the person’s right to do so is indeed to make an ad hominem argument, and if one wanted to waste time, one could trump up a case and characterize Aaron Hughes as an expert in Jewish philosophy who is less than ideally qualified to issue judgments about the Qur’an or early Islamic history. Indeed, there are few doctoral programs in Qur’anic studies per se, so we could probably whittle down the category of professional scholars of Qur’anic studies to nearly nil. But, as a medieval Arabic adage has it, lā taʿrif al-ḥaqq bi’l-rijāl fa-taqaʿ fī mahāwī al-ḍalāl (“Do not know truth by the man, lest you fall into the abyss of error”). The issue is not whether the proponent of an idea is an amateur or a professional. Amateurs are capable of producing important results as long as they do their homework; conversely, professionals are capable of error if they don’t do theirs. The proof is in the pudding. After all, Michael Ventris, the architect who deciphered Linear B—to my mind one of the most brilliant achievements in the humanities in the twentieth century—was by all accounts an amateur. The problem with Aslan’s posts on this blog is that they do not present anything new and interesting about the Qur’an, and so fall into that benign but unfortunate category of scholarship-lite™, which, as the Qur’an becomes increasingly popular, will not go away anytime soon. The appropriate response is probably silence, or perhaps a disgruntled yawn in the privacy of one’s living room.

IQSA might serve to raise the average quality of publications on the Qur’an by continuing to do what it has set out to do: holding conferences, publishing a journal, fostering global scholarly exchange, and so on. By guiding interested parties to what has been done in scholarship to date, we may avoid reinventing the wheel, which in my view is a major problem in Qur’anic studies, because many writers on the Qur’an have only limited knowledge of Arabic and maybe one or two other languages and so do not take adequate account of what has been done in medieval and modern scholarship in many different languages—especially modern German scholarship. The publication of the Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an (not to mention its translation into Persian, currently in progress) was a major step in remedying this situation, as were the publications of English and Arabic translations of Goldziher’s Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung and Nöldeke’s Geschichte des Korans, but additional guidance would be useful in the form of bibliographical guides (such as Karimi-Nia’s Bibliography of Qur’anic Studies in European Languages) for neophytes of all stripes.

​One quick way for investigators to orient themselves to existing scholarship before proposing what they think is a novel interpretation of a Qur’anic passage is to look at Rudi Paret’s Der Koran: Kommentar und Konkordanz, which gives parallel verses for passages in question and also brief reports on much of the previous scholarship on the passage. Like Brockelmann’s Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur, Paret’s book may be used to some effect even by those without a profound knowledge of German, although some familiarity with German certainly helps.  I have often found that our Qur’an seminar sessions benefit from an initial look at Paret to avoid reinventing the wheel.

* Devin Stewart is Associate Professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies at Emory University.

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

Debating Monotheistic Pluralism

by Reza Aslan*

cropped-67450_10150308353980065_3395794_n.jpgBefore I address Professor Hughes’ criticism of my earlier blog post on monotheistic pluralism, I suppose I should begin as he does by addressing something that has absolutely nothing to do with my blog post: that is, my biography of the historical Jesus. I am not sure if it comes as surprise to Professor Hughes that scholars disagree with each other, but the fact that Professor Richard Horsley or Professor Dale Martin have taken issue with some of my conclusions—just as I in my book have taken issue with some of theirs—does not delegitimize my scholarship any more than the fact that both of them agree with other conclusions of mine legitimizes it. Perhaps the distinction between agreement and legitimation is too subtle for an academic who, in disagreeing with another academic’s conclusion, denounces the latter as a “lie,” as Professor Hughes does at the conclusion of his post. The implication that I am a liar is a thinly veiled ad hominem argument that is only convincing if one were to deny that disagreement could be genuine.

Between his tangent about Jesus and his attack on my character, Professor Hughes does bring up one interesting point worth addressing: “what the term ‘Jew’ might have signified in the seventh century.” Unfortunately, that point is muddled with his confused charge that I “assume . . . that Jews then were like Jews now.” In fact, I make the exact opposite point, which is why I speak exclusively of seventh-century Arabian Jewish identity and mysticism.

As I note in my book No god but God (of which Professor Hughes could dig up some critiques if he likes), the consensus of most scholars is that the Jewish clans in Medina—the Jews I referenced in my post—were likely Arab converts and barely distinguishable from their pagan counterparts, either culturally or religiously. What is more, they were not a particularly literate group. The Arabic sources describe Medina’s Jewish clans as speaking a language of their own called ratan, which al-Tabari claims was Persian but which may have been a hybrid of Arabic and Aramaic. There is no evidence that they either spoke or understood Hebrew. Indeed, their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures was likely limited to just a few scrolls of law, some prayer books, and a handful of fragmentary Arabic translations of the Torah—what S. W. Baron refers to as a “garbled, oral tradition.”

So limited was the knowledge of Judaism among Arabia’s Jews that some scholars do not believe them to have been genuinely Jewish. D. S. Margoliouth considers the Jews of Medina to have been little more than a loose band of monotheists who should more properly be termed “Rahmanists” (Rahman being an alternative title for Allah). While many disagree with Margoliouth’s analysis, there are other reasons to question the degree to which Medina’s Jewish clans would have identified themselves with the Jewish faith. Consider, for example, that by the sixth century C.E., there was, as H. G. Reissener noted, a fair measure of agreement among Diaspora Jewish communities that a Jew could be defined as “a follower of the Mosaic Law . . . in accordance with the principles laid down in the Talmud.” Such a restriction would immediately have ruled out Medina’s Jewish clans who neither strictly observed Mosaic Law nor seemed to have any real knowledge of the Babylonian Talmud that Professor Hughes references in his critique.

Moreover, there is a conspicuous absence in Medina of what should be easily identifiable archeological evidence of a significant Jewish presence. According to Jonathan Reed, certain archeological indicators—such as the remnants of stone vessels, the ruins of immersion pools (miqva’ot), and the interment of ossuaries— should be present at a site in order to confirm the existence there of an established Jewish religious identity. As far as we know, none of these indicators have been unearthed in Medina. Naturally, there are those who continue to assert the religious identity of Medina’s Jewish clans. Gordon Newby, for example, thinks that Medina’s Jews may have comprised distinct communities with their own schools and books, though no archeological evidence exists to confirm this hypothesis. In any case, even Newby admits that with regard to their culture, ethics, and even their religion, Medina’s Jews were practically identical to Medina’s pagan community, with whom they freely interacted and (against Mosaic law) frequently intermarried.

Simply put, the Jewish clans of Medina were in no way a religiously observant group; if Margoliouth and others are correct, they may not even have been Jews. This is why I argued that they would not necessarily have found anything that Muhammad said or did to be against their norms, values, or beliefs.

Professor Hughes likely disagrees with me on this topic. I would be happy to hear a rebuttal, and I promise to try my hardest not to refer to any disagreement as a “lie.”

* Reza Aslan is Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside and Trustee at the Chicago Theological Seminary

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

A Literary Portrait of Qur’anic Origins

by Aaron W. Hughes*

I would like to consider Reza Aslan’s recent IQSA blog post in light of his best-selling book Zealot, because his blog post appears like his book to be essentially a creative literary piece. In a recent review of Zealot published in Critical Research in Religion (2.2 [2014]: 195-221), Richard Horsely, a leading scholar of Christian origins, argues that

the lack of critical analysis of sources and the periodic historical confusions in his narrative, however, suggest that Zealot is not a historical investigation. The biography at the end of the book explains that his formative training was in fiction and that his academic position is in the teaching of creative writing. His presentation of Jesus’ ‘life and times’ (a modern genre) appears to flow out of just this literary experience. (195)

This was by no means a singular charge. Many scholars, not to mention reviewers such as those in the New York Times, were very critical of his book. ArtAslan leaves the intellectual heavy lifting to others and instead reproduces a host of assumptions that are reminiscent of a previous generation of New Testament scholars. He conflates gospel accounts, takes poetic license to embellish stories, and devotes most of his focus on Jesus the individual as opposed to the various social actors that made the many Jesus movements possible. He also assumes that the texts of the New Testament explain how “Christianity’’ broke away from “Judaism,” when many scholars of this period (from Neusner to Boyarin to Horsely himself) have shown, with evidence, that such a separation is much more complicated and much later than this.

Aslan imports this basic methodology into his blog post with the aim of offering us insights into the “Qur’anic Clues to the Identity of Muhammad’s Community in Mecca.” In it he makes the rather unremarkable point that “there is no reason to believe that this term was used to designate a distinct religious movement until many years into the Medinan period or perhaps after Muhammad’s death.” Indeed, why stop there? Why not go further and say that the term may not designate a “distinct religious movement” until the eighth, ninth, or even tenth century? Instead of Muslims, Aslan encourages us to consider using the term that the Qur’an uses, ummah. The Constitution of Medina, not to mention the Qur’an, is simply and unproblematically assumed to date to the time of Muhammad.

Aslan then projects our modern understandings of such terms as “ethnicity,” “religion,” “experience,” and “ethics” onto the seventh century. He never entertains, for example, what the term “Jew” might have signified in the seventh century, especially in Arabia following the codification of the Babylonian Talmud roughly a century earlier. Instead, he assumes that what is meant by “Jew” then is the same as now. He brings in Newby’s irenic reading of the situation—that the Jews would have nothing to object to Muhammad’s prophecy. It could be argued, if we assume as Aslan does, that Jews then were like Jews now, that they would have objected to everything from Muhammad’s still inchoate message to the charge that their scripture had been tampered with. Why not assume, for example, that Muhammad, at least initially, thought he was a “Jew”?

Aslan then speaks of “Arabian Jewish mysticism,” as if that term actually denotes something real in the world. What sources does he have for this pre-kabbalistic mysticism? What were its contours? He then speaks of “theological differences between Islam and the other People of the Book” at the time of Muhammad as if Islam had somehow fallen to the earth theologically complete, as opposed to examining the historical controversies that made theology possible only much later. If “Muslim” only took on its religio-semantic valences much later, then surely the same could be said for “Islam.”

As with Zealot, Aslan concludes his blog post on a very modern note: “The point is that although Muhammad recognized the irreconcilable differences that existed among the People of the Book, he never called for a partitioning of the faiths.” Instead, this partitioning was the product of later jurists. If we want to get to the authentic message, Aslan concludes, then we need to “understand Muhammad’s actual beliefs regarding the Jews and Christians of his time.”

This confusion of myth and history, the conflation of fact and fiction, is dangerous for the historical study of Qur’anic origins. Aslan’s goal is not historical scholarship, but to produce a literary portrait designed to make us feel good about ourselves—and about Islam in the league of religions. But what happens when a modern virtue gets in the way of history? Unfortunately, as irenic terms like “convivencia,” “multicultural,” “symbiosis,” “Abrahamic,” and “tolerant” increasingly litter our intellectual landscape, it is history that ultimately gives way. As the late Chief Rabbi of Israel once said about The Bible Code (1997), “If you have to lie to people to get them to believe, what’s the point?”

* Aaron W. Hughes is Philip S. Bernstein Chair of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester.

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

Qur’anic Clues to the Identity of Muhammad’s Community in Medina

by Reza Aslan*

It may have been in Mecca where the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelations of the Qur’an and began his prophetic mission, but it was in Medina where his community of followers was forged. It is tempting to call the members of Muhammad’s community “Muslims,” but there is no reason to believe that this term was used to designate a distinct religious movement until many years into the Medinan period or perhaps after Muhammad’s death. It would be more accurate to refer to Muhammad’s community in Medina by the term that the Qur’an uses: umma.

Ceramic panel depicting the Mosque in Medina; 17th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Ceramic panel depicting the Mosque in Medina; 17th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The problem is that no one is certain what the term umma meant or where it came from. It may be derived from Arabic, Hebrew, or Aramaic; it may have meant “community,” “nation,” or “people.” A few scholars have suggested that umma may be derived from the Arabic word for mother (umm); while this idea may be aesthetically pleasing, there is no linguistic evidence for it. To complicate matters further, umma inexplicably ceases to be used in the Qur’an after 625 C.E., when, as Montgomery Watt has noted, it is replaced with the word qawm, Arabic for “tribe.”

But there may be something to this change in terminology. Despite its ingenuity, Muhammad’s community was still an Arab institution based on Arab notions of tribal society. There was simply no alternative model of social organization in seventh-century Arabia, save for monarchy. Indeed, there are so many parallels between the early Muslim community and traditional tribal societies that one is left with the distinct impression that, at least in Muhammad’s mind, the umma was indeed a tribe, though a new and radically innovative one.

For one thing, reference in the Constitution of Medina to Muhammad’s role as “shaykh” of his “clan” of Meccan emigrants indicates that despite the Prophet’s elevated status, his secular authority would have fallen well within the traditional model of pre-Islamic tribal society. What is more, just as membership in the tribe obliged participation in the rituals and activities of the tribal cult, so did membership in Muhammad’s community require ritual involvement in what could be termed its “tribal cult,” in this case, the nascent religion of Islam. Public rituals like communal prayer, almsgiving, and collective fasting — the first three activities mandated by Muhammad — when combined with shared dietary regulations and purity requirements, functioned in the umma in much the same way that the activities of the tribal cult did in pagan societies. They provided a common social and religious identity that allowed one group to distinguish itself from another.

The point is that one can refer to Muhammad’s community in Medina as the umma, but only insofar as that term is understood to designate what the Orientalist explorer Bertram Thomas has called a “super-tribe,” or what the historian Marshall Hodgson more accurately describes as a “neo-tribe,” that is, a radically new kind of social organization but one nevertheless based on the traditional Arab tribal model.

There is, however, one great difference between the traditional tribal model and Muhammad’s super-tribe. While the only way to become a member of a tribe was to be born into it, membership in the umma was based neither on kinship nor on ethnicity. Instead, membership was predicated firstly on the recognition of Muhammad’s authority as prophet and lawgiver, and secondly on the acceptance of his revelations from God.

Here we must pause and examine those revelations – the Qur’an – for a clue about what Muhammad may have intended for the radically new kind of social organization he was building in Medina.

Folio with portions of Qur'an 5:14-15; North Africa, 13th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Folio with portions of Qur’an 5:14-15; North Africa, 13th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Qur’an repeatedly claims to be not a new scripture but the “confirmation of previous scriptures” (12:111). In fact, the Qur’an proposes the remarkable idea that all revealed scriptures are derived from a single divine source called umm al-kitab, “Mother of Books” (13:39). That means that as far as Muhammad understood, the Torah, the Gospels, and the Qur’an must be read as a single cohesive narrative about humanity’s relationship to God, in which the prophetic consciousness of one prophet is passed spiritually to the next: from Adam to Muhammad. For this reason, the Qur’an advises Muslims to say to the Jews and Christians: “We believe in God, and in that which has been revealed to us, which is that which was revealed to Abraham and Ismail and Jacob and the tribes [of Israel], as well as that which the Lord revealed to Moses and to Jesus and to all the other Prophets. We make no distinction between any of them; we submit ourselves to God” (3:84).

The Qur’an sets itself up as the final revelation in this sequence of scriptures, but it never claims to annul the previous scriptures, only to complete them. While one scripture giving authenticity to others is an extraordinary event in the history of religions, the concept of umm al-kitab may indicate an even more profound principle, namely that the Jews, Christians, and Muslims not only share a single scripture but constitute a single umma – a single super-tribe.

According to the Qur’an, Jews and Christians are “People of the Book” (ahl al-kitab), spiritual cousins who, as opposed to the pagans and polytheists of Arabia, worship the same God, read the same scriptures, and share the same moral values as the Muslim community. Although each faith comprised its own distinct religious community (its own individual umma), together they formed one united umma, a concept that Mohammed Bamyeh calls “monotheistic pluralism.” Thus the Qur’an promises that “all those who believe — the Jews, the Sabians, the Christians — anyone who believes in God and the Last Days and who does good deeds, will have nothing to fear or regret” (5:69).

The connection in Muhammad’s mind between umm al-kitab and ahl al-kitab can be seen in the Constitution of Medina. This document, which Moshe Gil aptly calls “an act of preparation for war,” makes clear that the defense of Medina was the common responsibility of every inhabitant regardless of kin, ethnicity, or religion. And while the Constitution clarified the absolute religious and social freedom of Medina’s Jewish clans, stating “to the Jews their religion and to the Muslims their religion,” it nevertheless fully expected them to provide aid to “whoever wars against the people of this document.” In short, the Constitution of Medina provided the means through which to discern who was and who was not a member of the community.

It was this belief in a unified, monotheistic umma that led Muhammad to link his community to the Jews when he first entered Medina. Thus, he made Jerusalem — the site of the Temple (long since destroyed) and the direction in which the Diaspora Jews turned during worship — the direction of prayer or qibla for all Muslims. He imposed a fast on his community, to take place annually on the tenth day of the first month of the Jewish calendar, the day more commonly known as Yom Kippur. He set the day of Muslim congregation at noon on Friday so that it would coincide with, but not disrupt, Jewish preparations for the Sabbath. He adopted many of the Jewish dietary laws and purity requirements, and encouraged his followers to marry Jews, as he himself did.

And while Muhammad much later changed the qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca, and set the annual fast at Ramadan (the month in which the Qur’an was first revealed) instead of Yom Kippur, these decisions should not be interpreted as “a break with the Jews,” but as the maturing of Islam as an independent religion. Muhammad continued to encourage his followers to fast on Yom Kippur, and he never ceased to venerate Jerusalem as a holy city. Moreover, the Prophet maintained most of the dietary, purity, and marriage restrictions that he had adopted from the Jews. And as Nabia Abbott has shown, throughout the first two centuries of Islam, Muslims regularly read the Torah alongside the Qur’an.

The fact is that nothing Muhammad either said or did would necessarily have been objectionable to Medina’s Jews. As Newby writes in A History of the Jews of Arabia, Islam and Judaism in seventh-century Arabia operated within “the same sphere of religious discourse,” in that both shared the same religious characters, stories, and anecdotes, both discussed the same fundamental questions from similar perspectives, and both had nearly identical moral and ethical values. Where there was disagreement between the two faiths, Newby suggests it was “over interpretation of shared topics, not over two mutually exclusive views of the world.”

Even Muhammad’s claim to be the Prophet and Apostle of God, on the model of the great Jewish patriarchs, would not necessarily have been unacceptable to Medina’s Jews. Not only did his words and actions correspond perfectly to the widely accepted pattern of Arabian Jewish mysticism, but Muhammad was not even the only person in Medina making these kinds of prophetic claims. Medina was also the home of a Jewish mystic and Kohen named Ibn Sayyad, who, like Muhammad, wrapped himself in a prophetic mantle, recited divinely inspired messages from heaven, and called himself “the Apostle of God.” Remarkably, not only did most of Medina’s Jewish clans accept Ibn Sayyad’s prophetic claims, but the sources depict Ibn Sayyad as openly acknowledging Muhammad as a fellow apostle and prophet.

That is not to say that there were no theological differences between Islam and the other People of the Book. But according to the Qur’an, these differences were part of the divine plan, for God could have created a single umma if he so wished, but instead preferred that “every umma have its own Messenger” (10:47). Hence, the differences among the People of the Book are explained as showing God’s desire to give each people its own “law and path and way of life” (5:42–48).

There were some differences that Muhammad found to be intolerable heresies created by ignorance and error. Chief among these was the idea of the Trinity. “God is one,” the Quran states definitively. “God is eternal. He has neither begotten anyone, nor is he begotten of anyone” (112:1–3). However, this verse – like many similar verses in the Qur’an – is in no way a condemnation of Christianity but of Imperial Byzantine (Trinitarian) Orthodoxy, which was neither the sole nor the dominant Christian position in the Hijaz.

At the same time, Muhammad lashed out at those Jews in Arabia who had “forsaken the community of Abraham” (2:130) and “who were trusted with the laws of the Torah, but who fail to observe them” (62:5). Again, this was not a condemnation of Judaism. Rather, Muhammad was addressing those Jews in the Arabian Peninsula, and only there, who had in both belief and practice “breached their covenant with God” (5:13). His complaints in the Qur’an were not about Judaism and Christianity, but about those Jews and Christians in Arabia who, in his opinion, had forsaken their covenant with God and perverted the teachings of the Torah and Gospels. These were not believers but apostates, with whom the Qur’an warns Muslims not to ally themselves: “O believers, do not make friends with those who mock you and make fun of your faith . . . Instead say to them: ‘O People of the Book, why do you dislike us? Is it because we believe in God and in what has been sent down to us [the Qur’an], and what was sent down before that [the Torah and Gospels], while most of you are disobedient?’” (5:57–59).

The point is that although Muhammad recognized the irreconcilable differences that existed among the People of the Book, he never called for a partitioning of the faiths. On the contrary, the evidence from the Qur’an and the Constitution of Medina indicate that his conception of the umma was as a “super-tribe” composed of monotheists of different religions bound together by a simple compromise: “Let us come to an agreement on the things we hold in common: that we worship none but God; that we make none God’s equal; and that we take no other as lord except God” (3:64).

Of course, the Muslim scriptural and legal scholars of the following centuries rejected the idea that Jews and Christians were part of the umma, and instead marked both groups as unbelievers. These scholars read the revelations to say that the Qur’an had superseded, rather than added to, the Torah and the Gospels, and called on Muslims to distinguish themselves from the People of the Book. But to understand Muhammad’s actual beliefs regarding the Jews and Christians of his time, one must look not to the words that chroniclers put into his mouth hundreds of years after his death, but rather to the words that legend says God put into his mouth while he was alive.

* Reza Aslan is Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside and Trustee at the Chicago Theological Seminary.

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