Over the past forty years, two realizations have transformed the ways in which scholars study Islamic origins. First, they have learned to approach the vast patrimony of Arabic Muslim sources with a dose of scepticism.  This is because most of the central texts historians use to reconstruct the life of the Prophet and the early caliphs were written centuries after the events they purport to describe. Thus, what survives today is not necessarily an accurate snapshot of the way things were in the seventh and eighth centuries, but rather a Heilsgeschichte, retouched to fit the expectations of latter-day Muslims.
Second, this realization has sent scholars scrambling to consult more "trustworthy" bodies of evidence from the early Islamic period itself. Among the most important are non-Muslim sources written in languages other than Arabic. Although larded with their own prejudices and misunderstandings, these Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian texts have the advantage of being "eyewitnesses" to the earliest stages of Islamic history. Therefore, they give us a relatively unvarnished perspective on the deepest past, like a live camera trained on a major historical event while it is unfolding.
Michael Penn's new book, Envisioning Islam: Syriac Christians and the Early Muslim World, is the latest attempt to grapple with these two realizations head-on. In clear, accessible prose, Penn investigates the largest and most consequential body of non-Muslim sources from the early Islamic period, those written in Syriac between the seventh and ninth centuries. Here, Penn covers ground first tilled by Gerrit Reinink, Sidney Griffith, Robert Hoyland, Barbara Roggema, and others.  But what he does for the first time is to distil these sources into an exceptionally readable and systematic narrative. What is more, he sheds fresh light on a great many old texts while also introducing a not insignificant number of new texts, even to specialists in the field. Envisioning Islam promises to be an essential reference for anyone interested in Syriac or Middle Eastern Christianity. But its greatest impact may be felt among historians of Islam, who will find in its pages a vivid and sometimes arresting portrait of the early Muslims, one that occasionally challenges the traditional storyline we know from Arabic texts.
Chapter 1 investigates Syriac narratives of the Arab conquests. We begin with a laconic account of the tumult written by an anonymous clergyman in 637 on a spare leaf of a Bible, the first reference to the conquests in a Syriac source. In those early years, Syriac speakers carried on living much as they had during Byzantine and Sasanian times, so light was the footprint of the Muslim conquerors. But under the famous Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik b. Marwān (r. 685-705), the state launched a campaign of Islamizing public spaces, coinage, and the bureaucracy, and Syriac Christians at last took notice. At this moment, we find Syriac apocalyptic literature portraying the conquests as a form of divine punishment for the sin of Christians. Decades later, when it was clear that the apocalypse would not materialize--and furthermore, that God had no plans to depose the new infidel rulers--Christians began to domesticate the conquests by depicting them as simply another quotidian disaster, like a hailstorm or an earthquake.
Chapter 2 turns to the complicated and hotly debated question of nomenclature: how and why did Syriac speakers use so many different words to describe the early Muslims, and what do these terms, in turn, reveal about their changing understandings of Islam? The earliest and most widespread label for "Arabs" in Syriac was ṭayyāyē. The label probably goes back to the Banū Ṭayy--a major tribal confederation of the pre-Islamic period-- whose name eventually became a shorthand for Arabs more generally (much as the term "Ionian" came to denote all Greeks in earlier antiquity). Throughout his book, Penn leaves the term ṭayyāyē untranslated, arguing that its definition was too fluid during the early Islamic period to assign to it any one meaning. At first, he notes, it was primarily an ethnonym, as Syriac speakers initially saw the conquerors in racial as opposed to religious terms. Eventually, however, as these ṭayyāyē came to a more robust understanding of their beliefs, and Syriac speakers, in turn, came to grasp the nature of these beliefs, as well, the term acquired a religious valence. The same goes for a host of other slippery words which were applied to Muslims in the seventh and eighth centuries, including ḥanpē ("pagans"), mhaggrāyē ("Hagarenes"), and ishmaʿelāyē ("Ishmaelites").
In chapter 3, Penn investigates how Syriac writers portrayed Muslim rulers, beginning with the Prophet Muḥammad himself. Neutral--sometimes even positive--depictions of the Prophet in the immediate post-conquest period gave way to more subtle attacks, in which Muḥammad was accused of receiving help from heretical monks, of fabricating miracles, and of secretly encoding knowledge of the Trinity into the Qurʾān. The same goes for Christian portrayals of Muslim rulers generally, including caliphs, governors, and judges. Here, Penn emphasizes how Muslim potentates became dramatis personae in medieval Syriac literature. Christian authors used these characters to make theological critiques of Islam, but also to assert their place in a shared political and social cosmos. Thus, it was not only the Muslim tyrant who featured in Christian accounts of the period, but also the benevolent Muslim caliph who upheld Christians' legal privileges and the Muslim nobleman who recognized the truth of the Bible above that of the Qurʾān.
Chapter 4, perhaps the best in the book, paints a rich portrait of Muslim-Christian relations from the ground up. Here, the payoff of privileging Syriac sources is at its most obvious, as Penn offers a revisionist take on the fuzzy frontier between the two religions at a crucial moment in their common history. Following the lead of scholars like Jack Tannous, Penn presents us with a world of "Christian-like Muslims" and "Muslim-like Christians," whose boundary-crossing provoked the ire and attention of clerical elites.  For example, in the Book of Governors of Thomas of Marga (fl. mid-ninth c.), we meet a Muslim from northern Iraq whose faith was said to be "close to" Christianity, who endowed monasteries, who received visions from a Christian holy man, who sought the advice of a bishop, and whose son was healed by a monk's cross. Of him Penn rightly asks: "Does this man fit comfortably within our definition of a Muslim?" The answer is obviously, "No." Likewise, Penn introduces us to groups of Christians who regarded Christ as simply one of the prophets, who described Muḥammad as God's messenger, who included the Muslim shahada in their profession of faith, who took part in Muslim festivals, and who underwent circumcision like Muslims. Again, Penn asks whether such individuals fit our modern definition of "Christians," and again, our answer must be a resounding, "No." It is through these liminal characters--caught betwixt and between Christianity and Islam--that we see the formation of Islamic civilization at its messiest and most vivid. For historians of Islam--steeped in Arabic sources that strive to make order of this messiness, or which ignore the religious diversity of the early medieval Middle East altogether--Penn's book offers a fresh take on Muslim society at a moment of great instability.
Throughout his book, Penn is content to focus on what Syriac authors said about Islam. He is more hesitant, however, to infer much about the development of Islam itself. Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence, this caution is probably prudent. At the same time, by the book's end, one has the feeling of having stared at a looking glass (the Syriac sources) but not having peered through it to the world beyond (that is, early Muslim society). What do the Syriac sources have to say about Islam that we do not gain from their Arabic Muslim counterparts? How do these texts revise, challenge, or undermine commonly held scholarly beliefs about the earliest Muslims? In my opinion, these are the most exciting, substantive questions to emerge from Penn's book, but their answers remain tantalizingly elusive.
Part of the problem is that Envisioning Islam does not consult comparative evidence from Arabic Muslim sources (here, Penn relies extensively on good secondary literature). This is unfortunate not only because the book ends up reporting one side of a two-way conversation, but also because it overlooks so much corroborating evidence on the Muslim side that could help strengthen and nuance the arguments made from the Syriac material. In chapter 4, for instance, Penn might have considered pairing his Syriac sources with Muslim texts like the Muṣannaf of ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 827), a very early ḥadīth collection, or the Aḥkām ahl al-milal of Abū Bakr al-Khallāl (d. 923), a compilation of legal responsa, both of which have surprising and fascinating things to say about Muslim-Christian interaction in the early period. These portray the same messy world as Penn's Syriac sources, albeit from the vantage-point of the rulers, not the ruled.
One of the best parts of Penn's book is that it occasionally looks outside the canon of Syriac authors to compare their views of Islam with those of contemporary Greek- and Latin-speakers. Penn portrays these non-Syriac authors as hostile, ill-informed, and prone to stereotypes about the new religion. When it comes to writers like Niketas of Byzantium (fl. ninth c.) or the Venerable Bede (d. 735), to whom Penn often refers, this is indeed true. But the comparison worth chasing may not be among Syriac, Greek, and Latin writers, but among different Christian authors living inside the caliphate who--like Syriac Christians--knew Muslims up close. How do portrayals of Islam vary among Syriac, Arabic Christian, Coptic, Armenian, and Georgian texts, for instance? Are they different than the views of Greek and Latin sources produced outside Muslim territory? Such comparisons would be the stuff of a separate book, of course. But such comparisons might serve to contextualize and temper Penn's central argument that Syriac-speakers were better informed, more nuanced, and more tolerant of Islam than their coreligionists in different geographic areas.
Penn's book is a mighty achievement. In Envisioning Islam, scholars at last have a one-stop survey of some of the richest but most poorly understood Syriac sources for the early Islamic period, paired with clear-headed analysis and sober conclusions. Through Penn's work, we see the ambiguity of the post-conquest Middle East in striking Technicolor--but a Technicolor which does not obscure the fuzzy lines that separated Muslims and Christians at this time. Penn's book succeeds in defamiliarizing the early history of Muslim-Christian relations and will undoubtedly set the stage for future research on the topic.
1. See especially Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (Cambridge 1977).
2. Gerrit J. Reinink. "The Beginnings of Syriac Apologetic Literature in Response to Islam," Oriens Christianus 77 (1993): 165-187, among many other articles; Sidney H. Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam (Princeton 2008); Robert G. Hoyland. Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian Writings on Islam (Princeton 1997); Barbara Roggema, The Legend of Sergius-Baḥīrā: Eastern Christian Apologetics and Apocalyptic in Response to Islam (Leiden 2009).
3. Jack B.V. Tannous, "Syria Between Byzantium and Islam: Making Incommensurables Speak," Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 2010.