Early Islam

The IHEU Newsletter reports on a Conference on the Early History of Islam and the Koran in Germany this March.

There’s some fascinating research going on about very early Islam. Now, among those in the field, it’s well known that the historical sources concerning the early phases of Islam are few, late, and tendentious. In other words, we have very little good information, and there are reasons to distrust the orthodox salvation-history Muslims think is what happened. This leaves room for some radical scenarios, particularly concerning how Islam may have arisen as a Christian sectarian offshoot.

This is all very interesting, though I naturally can’t be very confident in interpreting what’s happening. A lot of the new research is attractive; it promises to make sense of a lot that is obscure or dubious under the orthodox account. But I’m not sure that in conditions of poor evidence, radical scenarios are all that better than more established ideas. I think of parallels in the study of early Christian history. There too, evidence is very sparse and tendentious. You can put out ideas such as that Jesus never existed, and it has to be a possibility. But in the end, I figure Jesus-myth scenarios are improbable, and there is a danger that nonbelievers can get caught up in the attractions of such a deliciously ironic possibility and give too much weight to such ideas.

I think our main emphasis when looking at Islamic history also should be on how much we don’t know, and how the orthodox scenario is almost certainly not the full story about what actually happened. The really radical scenarios are useful mainly as a way to highlight this uncertainty: our evidence is so poor that even ideas such as Muhammad never existing have to be taken to be possibilities.