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Mohammed on the "straight path"

Tilman Nagel looks at the beginnings of Islam and the rise of Mohammed from prophet to power-conscious religious politician

"These are the verses of the lucent book. We" (meaning Allah) "have sent them down in Arabic; that you will understand them! We" (and no one else) "reveal to you" (meaning Mohammed) "one of the most beautiful stories, although you disregarded (it) earlier." These are the three introductory verses to the Joseph Suras (Sura 12). They are said to have been revealed in Medina, likewise Verse 7: "In (the story of) Joseph and his brothers lie signs awaiting those who seek them." The actual text of Sura 12, on the other hand, is said to go back to Mecca.

Tilman Nagel's "Mohammed: Life and Legend"

As I browsed through the Qur'an during an interminable conference, absorbed in thought, my gaze remained fixated on this passage, and suddenly I was wide awake. Taken literally, it states that the suras of the Qur'an were fixed in written form in a "lucent book" already during Mohammed's lifetime. Sura 12, whose text originates from the Mecca period, the one preceding the Hijra, when Mohammed resettled in Medina (622 AD), was entered into the written corpus as coming into existence during Mohammed's years in Medina (622–632), and moreover, as stated in Verse 7, for the sake of its edifying contents.

All of this contradicts the traditional theory according to which the textual fixation of the suras was carried out only after Mohammed's death, with highly disparate fragments being more-or-less violently forced together on one or another occasion. Source references to Mohammed's scribe in Medina were not taken terribly seriously. The art of writing was not, it was assumed, encountered often back then in Arabia, generally imagined to have been a civilisational tabula rasa. Overlooked is the fact that after the victory at Badr, Mohammed granted a number of prisoners from Mecca their freedom in exchange for teaching the art of writing to the people of Medina. In any event, there is a tendency to dismiss as inconsequential fantasy a wealth of reports concerning the Arabic-Islamic historiography of Mohammad, his impact, and the origins of the Qur'an. The same verdict was suffered by the traditional Muslim chronology of revelation, traceable back to the period around 700, from which the above entries were drawn. It was deemed baseless by the Orientalist Theodor Nöldeke (1836–1930) in his standard work on the history of the Qur'an, which has yet to be supplanted.

I continued to deepen my reading of the Qur'an according to the criteria of Muslim chronology, arriving at the following conclusions, among others: during the 13 years of Mohammed's activities in Mecca (directed, he was convinced, by Allah), the significance of the word "text" ("kitab"), which he used frequently, experienced a remarkable expansion. Up until the middle of the period, around circa 617, the word had two meanings. First, it referred to the catalogue of creative acts performed by Allah, said to have been ongoing for as long as this world had existed: "There is no creature on the earth whose nourishment is not the work of Allah! He knows when each begins growing in its mother's womb, and when each is brought into the world. Everything has been written down in a lucent text." (Sura 11, 6). Secondly, "kitab" referred to the list of deeds performed by the human individual, which would be weighed by Allah on the day of the Last Judgment (Sura 78, 29).

Both meanings survived into the Medina period. But already during the final years preceding Mohammed's move from Mecca, a third meaning emerges alongside them: a codex, endowed by Allah, specifying the norms of behaviour to be followed in this world. Such a "text" had been received by Moses; the Israelites (as we read already in Sura 17, verse 2, a text assigned to the mid-Meccan period) are said to have acknowledged the rules imposed upon them by Allah. In Sura 6 of the later Meccan period, Mohammed lists pre-Islamic divine emissaries, among which he ranges himself: "It was to them that We (Allah) granted the text and the powers of judgment and prophecy!" The objections of the heathen of Mecca, who claimed that Allah had never made revelations to any mortal, was again countered by Mohammed through a reference to Moses: from whom, then, had Moses received the "text" which, like a beacon, had shown his people the righteous path? (Sura 6, Verse 89–91)

Sura 6, moreover, reveals to us that emerging along with this additional meaning of the word "text" was a novel content in Mohammed's prophecies. Beginning with Verse 142, he refers to a number of heathen-Arab dietary restrictions, and briefly mentions several Jewish ones, before calling on the heathen to substantiate the validity of their rules. Mockingly, he accuses them of indulging in mere speculation, lacking any secure knowledge, which means: knowledge issuing from Allah (up to Verse 150). The "text" said to have been delivered to Moses had set everything down with the greatest precision, and that which he (Mohammed) prophesied was held to be a blessed "text"; it would be mistaken to assume that only two groups of people – Jews and Christians – had ever been endowed by Allah with a "text" (Verse 154 f.). The reader, consequently, becomes a witness to the way in which Mohammed defends the novel character of his prophecies towards the end of his activities in Mecca.

Inserted into this passage only in Medina (according to Muslim chronology) were verses (151 to 153) in which Mohammed emphasizes the novelty which had antagonized the people of Mecca: the commandments and prohibitions whose observation was required by Allah. And precisely such acts of observation were said to constitute Mohammed's "straight path." Thus during the final years in Mecca this emissary of Allah, who called for gratitude towards a tirelessly active creator, also became a prophet among the gentiles and imposed on them the commandments which were said to be formulated by Allah himself, and which the Jews and Christians had long possessed.
Sura 7, originating just before the Hijra, refers to Mohammed for the first time explicitly as a gentile prophet, at the same time demanding recognition for his mission from the Jews and Christians: "People! I am the emissary of Allah sent to all of you, Allah, who rules over heaven and earth and who is the only God, Allah, who brings life and death! Believe in Allah and in His emissaries, the gentile prophets, who believe in Allah and His word and follow Him! Perhaps you too will be led to righteousness." (Verse 158, cf. also Verse 157)

The prophesying of concrete norms said to rest on Allah's authority led to a break with the people of Mecca, to his expulsion, as Mohammed himself referred to it (Sura 47, 13). These regulations also pertained to the pilgrim cults, and had they been adhered to, they would have brought the sensitive religio-political power structure (without which the people of Mecca could never have survived) to the point of collapse. Based on the results (summarized here only briefly) of the analysis of the Qur'an carried out according to the methods sketched here, we can gain new insights into the rivalries of the clans of Mecca, and in turn a plausible assessment of Mohammed's position within this configuration.

The question – posed so often in the historiographic research – of how Mohammed, who had been subject to various oppressions in Mecca, suddenly became a coolly calculating military leader and power politician after the Hijra, is misleading. It presupposes a break in Mohammed's evolution which never actually occurred. It is possible to clarify the source of this question, which expresses a perspective remote from reality, and the function it fulfils in the Muslim understanding of Mohammed. Suffice it to say that in truth, the Hijra – singled out as the symbolically-charged commencement of Islamic historical reckoning, and thereby elevated to a world-historical turning point only after Mohammed's death – can only be grasped as a retarding element within a sequence of events, a sequence whose inception was marked by the extension of the prophecies of Muhammad, and one which led, so to speak, on the way to Medina, to the reshaping of gentile cult practices in Mecca, and hence to a far-reaching transformation of power relations in Arabia.

For the moment, let us leave this sequence of events and their echo in the Qur'an. These events, incidentally, are intimately related to the highly eventful struggle of Sassanid Iran and the Byzantine Empire for dominance over Arabia. More important are the consequences of the above for the hotly-contested problem concerning the religio-historical roots of Islam. In recent decades, it has often been asserted that an archaic form of Christianity survives in Islam, one rejected by the dogmatic developments which followed the Council of Nicea. This view can be rejected out of hand.

As is already evident, the "gentile prophet" delimited himself strictly from the Jews and Christians, confronting both brusquely with his claims to truth. These claims were formulated in greater detail by Mohammed in the initial year-and-a-half after his arrival in Medina, specifically in Sura 2, the "Cow Sura". This sura was immediately seen as the basis for a new community which, as often attested, was drawn into combat with the war cry "People of the Cow Sura!" The strange title refers to something that, to Mohammed's followers, represented the heart of this long completed Qur'anic text: Moses told his people that it would please Allah for them to sacrifice a cow with certain characteristics; at first, the Israelites refused to obey, and nearly failed to perform the sacrifice at all (Verse 71); afterwards, they turned completely against the will of Allah – they took no heed of Allah's words, and were made to feel his wrath. (Verse 61).

The background is as follows: Mohammed brought to the Arab gentiles Allah's authentic law, which included the sacrifice of animals during pilgrimage ceremonies. Prevailing among the Arab gentiles of the time, to which Mohammed refers, was the conviction that the Christians and Jews were subject to wrath of Allah because they had arbitrarily altered his laws, for example by neglecting animal sacrifice, which could be traced back to Abraham, and was hence pre-Mosaic. The true Abrahamic practice of the faith recognized no such sublimation of sacrifice. Mohammed, who believed he was continuing Abrahamic practice, returned to a time prior to this impermissible sublimation. He and his followers allowed themselves to be led by Allah onto the "straight path", the path of those who enjoy Allah's grace and avoid his wrath, as explained in Sura 1.

Because it stands at the beginning of the Qur'an, this confessional-style summary of Islam is classified by Muslim chronology as being among the earliest revelations. But it was known as late as the early 8th century that in truth, it had been "revealed" only in Medina. The fact that it was set at the beginning in disregard of the ordering schema of the Qur'an (the series of Sura following one another from shortest to longest) indicates how, shortly after the death of Mohammed, the specific contents were brought into alignment with the shape his message took in the later Mecca period: they were the authentic commandments of Allah, in clear delimitation from the Jews and Christians.

Only amidst numerous errors and confusions was it clarified during the decades following Mohammed's death just what the "straight path" consisted of in the midst of all of life's vicissitudes: the deceased Mohammed then began a second life, so to speak, with authoritative statements on all and sundry being attributed to him. Here is the origin of the Muslim image of the Prophet as the all-knowing and all-competent conveyor of divine, eternally valid law. This image brought about a certain biographical stylisation, one regarded by Muslims as being the historical "truth". Scholars need to distinguish this image as clearly as possible from the image resulting from the source analysis referred to here on the basis of several examples; they must examine the question of how and under which historical circumstances this stylisation was formed. There is certainly no shortage of source materials to which we can turn in pursuing this task.


Tilman Nagel is a professor for Arab and Islamic studies at Göttingen University. He has just published two relevant volumes: "Mohammed. Leben und Legende" (Mohammed: Life and Legend, 1052 pp., 178 eur) and "Allahs Liebling. Ursprung und Erscheinungsformen des Mohammedglaubens" (Allah's Favourite: Origin and Forms of Appearance of the Faith of Mohammed, 430 pp.,79.80 eur) (both from Oldenbourg Verlag).

This article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on March 29, 2008

Translation: Ian Pepper - let's talk european