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21.09.29 Anthony, Muhammad and the Empires of Faith

21.09.29 Anthony, Muhammad and the Empires of Faith

Muhammad and the Empires of Faith is a highly learned book about the formation of an important genre in Arabic Islamic literature, the sira-maghazi literature, centered on the life and conduct (sira) and the expeditions (maghazi) of the Prophet Muhammad. The book reviews and moves beyond some broad debates as well as specific discussions regarding early Islamic sources. It includes beautiful images of early documents (such as papyri in the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute) and some delightful translations from Arabic texts. Its key contention is that the sira-maghaziliterature constitutes an indispensable source for writing early Islamic history. This literature poses specific limits to historical analysis and it coalesced into a discrete written tradition much later than Muhammad's lifetime. However, it may illuminate historians on many topics besides the exegetical concerns of early Muslim scholars; in Anthony's words, it "should neither be understood as merely arising from historicizing exegesis of the Qur'an nor as arising sui generis as a closed, self-sustaining textual universe that curates the earliest memories of Muhammad's followers" (230). Instead, Anthony argues, this literature emerged from a cauldron of various materials within the "epistemic fabric" of late antiquity (236), through interaction with late-antique sources, and by the impulse of caliphal courts, first as a discrete corpus of reports committed to writing, after a long period of oral transmission, and then as a literary genre, in ways that will shape the image of Muhammad for future generations.

It should be noted from the start that, despite its title and presentation, substantially this is not a work about Muhammad's life based on the earliest known sources. Readers wishing to become acquainted with the historical context in which Muhammad lived and with the story of his life might find this book confusing (two complex pictures of the emergence of Islam may be found in the recent works of Aziz al-Azmeh and Angelika Neuwirth; an introduction to Muhammad has been given by Jonathan Brown) [1]. Nor does this work fall into the same tradition as research on "the historical Jesus," an important topic in scholarship on early Christianity which is evoked in the book's Introduction but not explored in the main chapters. While the Introduction repeatedly refers to "the historical Muhammad," the rest of the book does not attempt a reconstruction of Muhammad's life on the model of the quest for the historical Jesus (on which see the work by, among others, Helen Bond and John Dominic Crossan) [2]. It does not engage with the debates raised by studies of "the historical" vs. "the historic" Jesus, from questions of method to theological criticisms and to poststructuralist analyses; these might be relevant also for the historical Muhammad, in addition to another set of problems which would require substantial discussion when translating criteria elaborated in Western-based Biblical and Neo-Testament scholarship onto other religious and scholarly traditions. In short, it does not seem fair to describe this book as a work on the historical Muhammad. However, by providing a more rounded picture of how the sira-maghaziliterature came to be, it might set the ground for future studies in that tradition of research.

In this respect, there seems to be a disjuncture between what this book programmatically aims to do and what it concretely achieves. The goal of obtaining a "higher-resolution" view of Muhammad's life based on extrapolation of "raw data" (238) from the sira-maghazi literature, mentioned in the Epilogue, remains a desideratum of the author. Rather, Anthony masterfully maps out the making of Arabic sources centered on Muhammad, discussing the development of a genre and a form of knowledge production among Muslim scholarly and courtly circles in the Marwanid and the early Abbasid empires.

The book is arranged in three parts: "Before the sira-maghazi literature" (Ch. 1-2), "The beginnings of the sira-maghazi literature" (Ch. 3-5), and "Locating the sira-maghazi literature in late antiquity" (Ch. 6-7). In each section, the reader is led through case-studies and excursuses. This winding path, though rich with learned interventions and references to previous studies, makes the main argument sometimes difficult to follow. Part I ends with an affirmation of the importance of deducing "the barest factual data" (82) for producing a historical assessment of Muhammad's life. However, this is not clearly achieved by this section of the book. More precisely, Part I highlights the importance of studying different corpora of sources together, bearing in mind the literary and cultural framework of late antiquity. Ch. 1 underlines that some of the earliest mentions of Muhammad are found in non-Muslim sources (a point that has been made many times before) through the example of a Christian text probably composed in Palestine in Greek in the seventh century CE, known as "Doctrina Iacobi." This chapter surveys various types of early sources that either mention or imply Muhammad's role as Prophet or as leader of the Muslim community: papyri, inscriptions, coins, and non-Muslim sources. Mostly, though, the chapter discusses the exact dating of the "Doctrina Iacobi" and its relationship with late-antique Christian and early Islamic texts through the analysis of a shared motif, the "keys to Paradise." Ch. 2 discusses the representation of Muhammad as a merchant or a shepherd in Christian and early Islamic texts, tracing those two competing literary themes in sources from the seventh and the eighth century CE. It suggests that the image of "Muhammad the merchant," whether realistically reflecting Muhammad's profession or not, might derive from Christian polemical texts about the rise of Islam.

The book's most original and central argument is found in Part II. Ch. 3 and 4 situate the beginnings of the sira-maghazi literature against the background of the political and military conflict between Marwanids and Zubayrids, who fought for control of the caliphatein the late seventh century CE. That conflict is posited as the context for the earliest circulation of sira-maghazi materials. Two case-studies support this argument: first, accounts about the Marwanid caliph 'Abd al-Malik's opposition to the publication of a book on Muhammad's expeditions (maghazi) by the scholar Aban b. 'Uthman; and second, a corpus of letters attributed to 'Urwa b. Zubayr -- a renowned Medinan scholar from a notable family, and the brother of 'Abd Allah b. Zubayr, the Marwanids' main political opponent -- containing reports about Muhammad's life (sira). The same reports narrated in 'Urwa’s letters will become part of the sira-maghazi literature. A translation of these letters is given in Ch. 4.

In Ch. 5, focusing on the biography of the two scholars Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri and Muhammad b. Ishaq, Anthony traces two critical moments in the formation of the sira-maghazi tradition. The first is the compilation of pre-existing materials about Muhammad's life and expeditions in the form of written records and books. As Anthony argues, this shift had started earlier but was accomplished by the intervention of the Marwanid caliph Hisham b. 'Abd al-Malik and his court in the 720s CE, and through the work of al-Zuhri and his students, in a climate in which the older generation was still hesitant to commit that kind of knowledge to writing. The second critical moment is the transformation of those records into a veritable genre. Under the leadership of Muhammad b. Ishaq, and thanks to the patronage of the early Abbasid court in Hira and Baghdad, the sira-maghaziliterature exploded "beyond a depiction of Muhammad's life story through a series of choice anecdotal narratives attributed to the authorities of the past." With Ibn Ishaq and his students, this material turned into "a literary genre of historical writing" framing Muhammad's prophethood at the center of a divinely ordered human history (170).

Part III focuses on the interplay between the sira-maghazi works and late-antique texts and motifs transmitted by non-Muslim authors. Ch. 6 takes as a case-study a particular narrative theme, the story of the Roman emperor Heraclius' vision, which is found in several Christian texts (including a Merovingian chronicle) and in the sira-maghazi literature, in order to show that that theme probably originated in Christian sources composed in Syria-Palestine. Conversely, Ch. 7 discusses in detail a narrative theme transmitted in the "Ecclesiastical History" of the Venerable Bede, the story of Caedmon's call, to show its dependence on the Islamic account of Muhammad's call (the iqra' narrative) as transmitted in influential sira-maghazi works. This account reached Bede possibly via the mediation of pilgrims from Syria and Palestine. Through these two case-studies the author highlights the significance of the broader context in which the narratives belonging to the sira-maghazi tradition were shaped, shared, and reworked, in conversation with late-antique texts, especially Christian ones.

The book includes reviews of specialized studies of the sources, and it builds on previous historiography on the formation of Islamic historical writing. References to male authors predominate in the footnotes (a citation pattern in Islamic studies publications that is currently being researched by Kecia Ali). With this work Anthony partly aims to overcome a major fault-line in the study of early Islamic history, regarding the limits of Islamic literary sources, by showing some of the untapped potential of the sira-maghazi literature. The author distinguishes between "first-order" and "second-order" sources about Muhammad (17, 237). The core of this book is devoted to "second-order" sources, consisting in the sira-maghazi literature from the Umayyad and the Abbasid period, but throughout the book this corpus is made to dialogue with the "first-order" type. This seems to coincide with the most ancient sources: the Qur'an, non-Muslim texts datable to the seventh century CE, and documentary sources such as inscriptions and archaeological remains. In this book Anthony does not treat material culture in any substantial way, but he repeatedly points to the importance of documentary sources for early Islamic history, especially in Part I. Anthony makes a case that, in combination with the Qur'an, documentary texts, and texts authored by non-Muslim writers in Syriac, Armenian, and other languages, the sira-maghazi literature may be used to study the origins of Islam and Muhammad's life.

This concern for establishing the reliability of sira-maghazi works based on source criticism might require some preliminary understanding of the debate at hand, the so-called rift with the "skeptics" which since the 1970s has divided the field of Islamic history. The debate centers on the possibility of relying on the historicity of accounts transmitted in Islamic literary texts regarding Muhammad and the earliest Muslim community (a comprehensive overview is given by Fred Donner and Hayat Amamou) [3]. Anthony's intervention remains somewhat internal to the author's academic field, insofar as historians of other societies or working primarily with non-textual sources might not follow these same approaches to the sources. The debate might also seem out of synch if coming from fields that have long engaged with the literary turn, interdisciplinarity, and critical theory, while early Islamic history seems to be still barely grappling with the extent of their impact. Anthony's book stands in opposition to methodological skepticism about the use of certain Arabic sources, particularly the sira-maghazi and exegetical works, for studying the rise of Islam in seventh-century Arabia, as opposed to other centuries, regions, or topics. While paving the way for different approaches to the texts (e.g., memory studies), it is worth mentioning that such a criticism has not been centered on epistemic skepticism; in fact, it has been primarily expressed by scholars who still followed the same historical-critical method and who turned to other types of seventh-century sources -- famously, non-Muslim texts and documentary evidence, which in this book are referred to as "first-order." In other words, the "rift" has divided scholars who mostly share the same methods and premises. On the other hand, the discussion presented in this book is not inclusive of approaches to history writing that depart from those methods as a positionality choice (and not because of pessimism or hopelessness; cf. the Introduction). Some fundamental questions are not touched upon in this book, for instance about the historicization of religious texts such as the Qu'ran (on which see Monica Ringer's recent work) [4] or about the very goal of finding the origins of Islam as a historical phenomenon (discussed by Wael Hallaq, among others) [5]. Overall, in this book the historian's craft and duties are defined somewhat rigidly, and little space is left for different ideas of history writing or for affirming other "axioms" (82) than the author's.

In conclusion, Muhammad and the Empires of Faith is an important work on the origins of the sira-maghazi literature in the courtly environments of the Umayyad and the early Abbasid empires. It is rich with detailed discussions of late-antique and early Islamic sources and includes enjoyable English translations from Arabic texts. Readers interested in the formation of early Islamic Arabic literature within the framework of late antiquity will enjoy and learn many things from this book. However, because it builds on discussions and premises arising from the twentieth-century history of Islamic studies, and because it includes many excursuses on specialized topics, the book might require some preliminary knowledge of the academic field and of its traditional source material on the part of the readers.



1. A. al-Azmeh, The Emergence of Islam in Late Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, 2014); A. Neuwirth, The Qur'an and Late Antiquity: A Shared Heritage (Oxford University Press, 2019); J. Brown, Muhammad. A very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011).

2. H. Bond, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2012); J. D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (Harper, 1991).

3. F. Donner, Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing (Darwin Press, 1998); Hayat Amamou, "The Nature of Early Islamic Sources and the Debate Over Their Historical Significance," AlMuntaqa 1.2 (2018), 68-79.

4. M. Ringer, Islamic Modernism and the Re-Enchantment of the Sacred in the Age of History(Edinburgh University Press, 2020).

5. W. Hallaq, "The Quest for Origins or Doctrine? Islamic Legal Studies as Colonialist Discourse",UCLA Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law 2/1 (2002), 1-31.