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Christian W. Troll {*}

A remarkable new beginning in the study of the Prophet Muhammad


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 1/2010, P. 24-29
translated by Rev. Dr. David Marshall


    Several books on Muhammad have been published recently. In particular the two volume work by Tilman Nagel, a specialist in Islamic Studies, represents a remarkable new beginning in the interpretation of the Prophet. How can we approach the life of Muhammad from the perspectives of religious and social history?


For more or less the last century the whole field of academic writing on Muhammad has been shaped by the biographical study published by Frants Buhl (1850-1932), which appeared first in Danish in 1903 and then subsequently in a slightly revised German translation. The conclusions presented by Buhl had such lasting significance because for some time there has been no scholarly consensus on whether - and if so, how - it is at all possible to write a biography of Muhammad.

Recent studies of Muhammad are very varied, both in terms of the methods they adopt and of the presentation of Muhammad they offer. They range from enthusiastic and uncritical retellings of standard Muslim hagiography (e.g. Karen Armstrong, Muhammad. A Biography of the Prophet, London 1993 and Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, London, 1983) to works denying that Muhammad even existed.



The recently published and highly readable monograph by Hans Jansen, a Dutch scholar of Islam (Mohammed: Eine Biographie, Munich, 2008) resembles the work of Armstrong and Lings in two respects: firstly in his focus on the collection of stories in the classical life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq (c 704-767) and secondly in Jansen's decision to make no attempt to scrutinize the credibility of these stories in the light of modern academic criteria (p. 22). He regards it as more important to know the Islamic traditions about Muhammad as they stand 'than to engage with today's continuously changing views on the question of what is more or less probable in historical terms'. He regards the Muhammad of the sources he uses as rather more like a 'character in a novel' (p. 445) and certainly reckons with the possibility 'that the creativity of the narrators, rather than their memories of historical events, is the source of their stories' (p. 449).

Confronted with this situation, the Göttingen scholar of Islam Tilman Nagel calls for nothing less than 'a new beginning' with his two substantial volumes about the Prophet (I, Mohammed: Leben und Legende [Muhammad: Life and Legend]; II, Allahs Liebling: Ursprung und Erscheinungsformen des Mohammedglaubens [Allah's Favourite: Origins and Manifestations of Belief in Muhammad], R. Oldenbourg Verlag, Munich, 2008). Like the Scottish scholar William Montgomery Watt (1909-2006), who published the most significant studies on Muhammad after Buhl, Nagel identifies the fundamental problem as lying in the incompatibility of the statements of the Qur'an with the hadith, or canonical body of traditions about Muhammad. However, Watt did not make the question of the difference between the Qur'an and the hadith the subject of a serious academic debate.

Nevertheless, in his remarkable studies Watt did make an important contribution to the elucidation of crucial social and economic aspects of the Prophet's life through his evaluation of the classical sources - the biography of the Prophet (sîra) and the accounts of his military campaigns (maghâzî). Watt's achievements in this field have been continued and deepened by research carried out by the Israeli scholars Meir J. Kister, Michael Lecker and Uri Rubin, the main result of whose work has been the insight that far more can be known about Arabia before and during the life of Muhammad than had previously been assumed.

For Nagel it was therefore essential to offer a fundamental reappraisal of the life and achievement of Muhammad, interpreting these within their wider historical context in both its religious and social dimensions. Here two questions are central to Nagel. Firstly, what was the context of Muhammad's message in its 'pagan' environment? Secondly, how can we access the reality behind the standard, uncritical account of his life?

In response to the second of these questions one significant modern school of thought on the question of Islamic origins has argued that there is no reliable way of getting behind the standard account. In studies from this perspective Muhammad fades into a shadowy figure; indeed the historical Muhammad disappears and is no longer recoverable, having been overlaid with the hadith and the piety associated with it.

Nagel is here thinking particularly of the sensational development within Western research on the Qur'an since the late 1970s associated with the work of John Wansbrough (1928-2002). Wansbrough argues that the Qur'an is a corpus of texts of kerygmatic and devotional content which came together through an anonymous editorial process lasting centuries; it is therefore simply no longer possible to explain the origins of Islam in relation to an individual named Muhammad. (See also Michael Cook and Patricia Crone, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, Cambridge, 1977.)

Wansbrough and his followers naturally do not deny the historical reality of the emergence of the political and military power called Islam. Rather, their argument is that, confronted by the rich textual sources of Islam, of both religious and historical content, only two options are possible: either the response of Muslim faith, acknowledging the truth and authority of these texts in their entirety, or the application of the historical-critical method, leading to the conclusion that these texts are fictional in character. It is impossible to establish objective criteria which might allow a researcher to extract genuine historical material from the mass of religious content.

While the views of the Wansbrough school are at least based on serious study of sources, Karl-Heinz Ohlig and his circle argue that 'knowledge of the Arabic source material about Muhammad's life and the early history of Islam is superfluous, indeed even misleading'. Nagel remarks rather sarcastically that this view is probably due to a misinterpretation of the hypotheses of the Wansbrough school (I, p. 838). For Ohlig Islam is in reality no more than a Christian sect. No prophet named Muhammad ever existed, and both the Qur'an and the entire Arabic tradition about Muhammad and early Islam are a giant fabrication from the Abbasid period (from 749 AD).



In Nagel's view, however, this 'elimination of Muhammad from world history' raises more questions than it claims to solve. As he puts it, 'It is probably only possible for someone who does not know pre- and early Islamic Arabic literature to come up with the idea that a few people sat down together and invented a good 150 years of past history, involving thousands of actors, together with conflicting religious and political movements, different interpretations of one and the same event etc.' (I, p. 839) For Nagel there is thus no alternative but to engage in a new, thorough and comprehensive study of the Arabic Islamic sources. A breakthrough is only possible within a framework of interpretation which can bring into focus the whole complex of Muhammad and the rise of Islam.

Building on his earlier detailed studies of the Qur'an (Der Koran, Munich, 1983), Nagel comes to the following fundamental positions in response to Wansbrough and his school. The Qur'an genuinely bears witness to an experience of God, an experience which develops both with an inner consistency and also in relation to the external stages of historical events. The bracketing out of the religious element advocated by Patricia Crone (a follower of Wansbrough) prevents these facts from being noted. It is also significant that the Qur'anic experience of God, which is the basis of Muslim monotheism, differs from the Jewish and Christian experience; the same is true of the Qur'anic concept of prophecy and its Jewish and Christian equivalents. Yet Wansbrough and his supporters are unable to explain plausibly how the distinctive Islamic corpus emerged from the initially unconnected assortment of kerygmatic and edifying texts postulated by their theory.

Furthermore, Nagel's study of Medinan insertions into Meccan suras (Medinensische Einschübe in mekkanischen Suren, Göttingen, 1995), together with his research on relevant sîra material, led to a number of additional findings, notably that in the Meccan period Muhammad had already developed political ambitions. This contradicts the approach, popular both in Muslim writing on Muhammad and in Western historical research, which emphasizes the patient suffering of the Prophet in Mecca and sees him as having become a political actor only in Medina. This latter idea, incidentally, is linked to an understanding of the Hijra as marking the foundation of the distinctive Muslim community, whose core purpose is seen as the military enforcement of Muhammad's interests. This can be seen as a deliberately shaped perspective on Islam, particularly emphasizing Muhammad's radical break with the Mecca dominated by the Quraysh tribe.

In his own study of Muhammad an important aspect of Nagel's method is to distinguish clearly, when examining a certain episode, between the probable event itself and the interpretation which came to be applied to that event early on and with a recognisable purpose. He is convinced that the Qur'an and the traditions about the Prophet's life can be brought into a fruitful dialogue with each other. Nagel's account of Muhammad thus involves an evaluation of this literature in the widest sense; he also analyses all sources for the history of the city of Mecca. Detailed study of the highly complicated sources relating to history of the Quraysh opened Nagel's eyes to the ties of loyalty and the fault lines within Muhammad's tribe, making many details in the sira and numerous passages in the Qur'an understandable for the first time.


A substantially modified picture of events

Nagel's biography is fundamentally characterized by its closeness to the sources and their style of expression. Late 6th century Meccan history - the period of Muhammad's youth - was marked on the one hand by the overlapping interests of the great powers (the Byzantine and Sassanid empires) and on the other hand by clan rivalries among the Quraysh.

When Muhammad first began preaching he was initially seen as a follower of a sect of presumably Palestinian and Gnostic character. In this earlier period his dominant idea was of the individual's responsibility for his or her own purification. 'However, the contents of Muhammad's preaching soon changed. That Allah is the only God and tolerates no rivals came to the fore' (I, p. 850), along with an emphasis on attaining salvation. Salvation is to be attained through ritualized expression of gratitude to this Allah, the Creator, focused in two practices both denoted by terms of Syriac origin: regular prayers (al-salat) and the prescribed almsgiving (al-zakat), which has a purifying effect and atones for one's selfish transgressions against Allah's providential care. The term al-islam, a metaphor for the wholehearted turning of the face (and so of the whole person) towards the one Allah, was used by Muhammad from the middle of the Meccan period to convey both the existential and also the practical implications of the teachings which he proclaimed.

Muhammad refined and reinforced these basic themes of his preaching by making use of 'a stock of narratives, circulating in the form of Syriac hymns and Arabic revisions, whose origins lay in the Old and New Testaments but which had been reworked in the Justinian era to meet the needs of admonitory sermons' (I, p. 851).

As the messenger of Allah Muhammad saw himself as facing the task of 'giving concrete form to the messages being revealed to him by God'. It is apparent in middle and late Meccan suras that he was se eking to meet this challenge, for at this stage the writing down of his proclamations had already begun. He was by no means the first or only figure to struggle for the implementation of monotheism and its integration into Mecca's existing pilgrimage rites. Others in Mecca, Taif and elsewhere in the region professed 'a monotheism conscious of its distinctiveness over against Judaism and Christianity'. In the last years of the Meccan period Muhammad turned to these so called 'hanifs' (from the Syriac hanpa, meaning 'heathen').



Sura 2, recited by Muhammad at Medina 18 months after the expulsion from Mecca, fulfils the promise he had made by claiming the title 'Prophet'. It contains ritual regulations - by no means complete - for the community which traces its origins to Abraham and regards itself as the true followers of Allah, who is neither angry with them nor curses them. In contrast, the hanifs were convinced that the Jews and Christians had brought the anger and curse of Allah upon themselves; as we learn from sura 2 this was (among other reasons) for their rejection of animal sacrifice, which the hanifs certainly did not abandon in their pilgrimage rites. Through his claim to prophethood, Muhammad's 'Arabic' proclamation thus acquires a 'heathen' character, in the sense that it is associated with hanif beliefs and directed against the Jews and Christians. Muhammad is not at all a sectarian Christian.

The conviction that Muhammad's public activity had political dimensions from the beginning results in a substantially modified picture of the events of 'the Meccan period'. Generalizing somewhat, it is fair to say that Muhammad's claim to be Allah's messenger, together with his corresponding behaviour, subverted Mecca's traditional clan loyalties. First, however, it caused 'a deepening and hardening of the old party lines. Muhammad himself intended that his message should have this seemingly contradictory impact. On the one hand, he appealed to the one Creator, who had destroyed the ungrateful and unbelieving at different times in the past, with disobedience to Allah, rather than clan identity, being the decisive factor. On the other hand, Muhammad clung to the idea that he should above all save his own kinsfolk. This seeming contradiction runs throughout his life's work, resurfacing again at a higher level at Medina in the dispute over the favouring of the Quraysh over the Arabs of other ancestry' (I, p. 853).

In the Meccan period it was already becoming clear that, if it was heeded by the majority of the people of Mecca, the message of guidance proclaimed by Muhammad would bring about fundamental social and political change. Possibly the Meccan pagans were at first only aware of Muhammad's criticism of their worship of their gods. In reality, however, the conflict went much deeper for it concerned bringing these traditions to an end once and for all and if necessary driving away their stubborn defenders. Some late Meccan suras (notably sura 7) make this utterly clear.


The forcible expansion of power

In Medina the Prophet began to issue detailed ritual regulations. These are summarized in sura 2, with additions made in many later sections of the Qur'an. As the source of numerous regulations, to be observed on a daily basis both in religious practice and in mundane matters of social interaction, the Qur'an was able to develop at Medina into the unifying centre of the Muslim community. However, the divisions within this community along lines of kinship proved tenacious; for example, marriages between the emigrants from Mecca and the Medinan 'helpers' remained exceptions. The sense of community among the Muslims was in fact particularly strengthened by the line dividing them from the 'People of the Book' (ahl al-kitab), the Jews and Christians, whom the Qur'an portrays as mocking Muhammad's warnings about the Last Day and claiming to have privileged access to Paradise. But the Prophet declares that Allah is angry with them, since they refuse to offer the animal sacrifices required of them.



In sura 2 Muhammad already announces quite bluntly that he will fight his way to the Ka'ba. 'Meticulous performance of the rituals is not enough to win Allah's favour. True faith (al-imân) must prove itself in the war against the enemies who are in possession of Mecca and who prevent believers offering the worship ordained by Allah' (I, p. 856f.). Nagel argues that the Muslim tradition is justified in seeing Muhammad's direction of his military campaigns (al-magâzî) as central to his activity at Medina.

The military conflict led by Muhammad from Medina against Mecca gradually escalated, lasting until the year 627. Muhammad's actions against the Jews of Medina are to be seen in connection with these hostilities against Mecca. All too soon the Jews had become conscious of the precarious nature of their situation and would understandably have welcomed a victory of the Quraysh over Muhammad. Directly after his arrival in Medina Muhammad had agreed with the Jews, or at least with some of them, that where possible they would maintain a neutral position towards him. In the course of events he seized opportunities to expel or exterminate the Jewish tribes, taking possession of their lands and property.

From 627 Muhammad could consider himself able to make treaties with the people of Mecca on equal terms. With the period of defensive warfare over, he now announced his claim to power beyond the borders of the Hejaz. Fearing no danger from the south, he could devote himself to profitable conquests in the north in order to meet the material needs of his supporters. In the early Medinan period the Meccan emigrants and Medinan helpers had in principle all belonged together as one group involved in military conflict with their Meccan enemies; with the passage of time the efforts of these mudschâhidîn (those dedicated to 'jihad in the path of Allah') were no longer targeted towards Mecca but rather towards a wider expansion of the power of Muhammad by military means.

After Muhammad had taken possession of Mecca the message became 'Muhammad alone and his islâm', with the Islamic rituals practised at the Ka'ba and in and around Mecca now applying to the whole of Arabia. Muhammad's successor Abu Bakr succeeded, in the course of his short reign, in subjugating the 'apostates' and also in advancing into areas not previously under the power of Medina. Under Abu Bakr's successors Umar and Uthman Muslim rule came to include the empires of Western Asia and North Africa. The religious and ideological basis for this new Islamic dominion was found in the ideal of jihad established by Muhammad after the Treaty of Hudaibiyya and the justification of conquest provided by it.

In the last chapters of his book Nagel describes in detail the changes undergone in the mid-seventh century by the community founded by Muhammad. These led to the formation of the 'Islamic' Prophet, who dovetailed with the now predominant 'Islamic' understanding of religion and community and who made visible in his person those aspects which confirmed this understanding. It can thus be explained that the 'Islamic' Muhammad strikes us, so to speak, not as a figure from real life but rather as an amalgam of historically verifiable facts and interpretations added from the mid-seventh century onwards.

Thus at this early stage of the history of Islam there already emerged an image of Muhammad portraying him as 'both the Messenger of Allah and Prophet in one'. This image suggests that he was prepared from birth for the many tasks which he had to fulfil in this double role expected of him by Muslims. The whole tradition about Muhammad was eventually to acquire 'the character of an accumulation of miracle stories' (I, p. 871).


The Muhammad of faith

The second 'wing' of Nagel's study of Islam, Allahs Liebling ('Allah's favourite'), describes the main features of the understanding of the Prophet formed by Muslim believers in the course of history.

Tor Andrae (1885-1947) made an essential contribution in this field with his study Mohammed: the Man and his Faith, first published in German in 1932. What Andrae's work lacks, however, is 'detailed consideration of the Muslim literature since the 13th century dedicated to the Messenger of Allah, particularly the doctrine of Muhammad as the epitome of Allah's creative activity, as this is reflected in the works written in verse and prose in celebration of the Prophet's birthday' (II, 13). In Allahs Liebling Nagel therefore focuses on widely read works about Muhammad from this period. In order to convey developing Muslim views of Muhammad he gives, in the first part of this book, a rough sketch of the lines connecting earlier interpretations of Muhammad with the understandings of him current today.

By producing this survey of the history of Muslim views of Muhammad Nagel takes us into a core area of Islam, showing us how Muslims have expressed their religiosity and their wider view of the world. The fascinating summaries and analyses of previously little known lives of the Prophet make a substantial contribution to answering one of the central questions in Islamic studies: 'What is the significance of the fact that in everything they think and do the adherents of Islam are even more directed towards their Prophet than towards their God?'



This volume gives a detailed account of the process, unfolding from the earliest period, in the course of which the Prophet's life comes to be understood in increasingly dogmatic terms. Letting the texts speak for themselves, Nagel quotes passages mentioning Allah's reverence and care for Muhammad and his tactfulness towards him. Other relevant texts illustrate the doctrines of Muhammad as the primordial light, of the otherworldliness of the essence of Muhammad's being and of Muhammad's infallibility.

From the 13th century onwards Muhammad becomes the model, to be followed by all Muslims, of piety expressed in obedience to the Shari'a. Finally, he is preached and hailed as the embodiment of Allah's creative activity. Nagel's study pinpoints the 'keynote of Muslim thought, speech and action, which for the overwhelming majority of Muslims is so omnipresent and so self-evidently true that they do not even notice it' (II, p. 20). This keynote conveys not the historical Prophet Muhammad but the Messenger of Allah, as the only guarantor of the truth of Islam, a truth which they are convinced transcends history.

In more recent times there have been many examples of biographies of Muhammad serving political and ideological aims. Thus in the Arabic biography published in Cairo in 1935 by Muhammad Husayn Haykal (translated into English as The Life of Muhammad, 1976), Muhammad is completely free of any blameworthy characteristic; he is even incapable of doing anything reprehensible. Haykal's portrayal of Muhammad's life is, so to speak, a pretext for connecting his name with everything imaginable that is true, good and noble, and so also to claim everything good, true and noble for Islam and for Muslims. Accounts of the Prophet's life thus come to be burdened with 'the task of overcompensating for the Muslim inferiority complex over against Western civilization', which proves to be 'the essential feature of the most recent Muslim writings about Muhammad' (II, p. 18).

In Allahs Liebling Nagel is therefore primarily concerned 'to demonstrate how and why such an instrumetalisation of the figure of Muhammad became possible, and also to show that this possibility is inherent in Islamic religious and intellectual history and becomes a reality in the given circumstances of world politics' (II, p. 19). An important difference between this contemporary 'Islam-' or 'Muhammad-ideology' and European doctrines of political salvation of the last two centuries should not be forgotten: 'the former consistently stresses its relationship to the transcendent and does not reject religion but rather considers it to be 'its indispensable partner and justification' (II, p. 19).

Tilman Nagel's important two-volume study of Muhammad does indeed represent a remarkable new beginning. It is to be hoped that, among both Muslim believers and all other readers, it will stimulate the critical discussion which it seeks and deserves and which will help to deepen our understanding of its crucial subject. The publication of this work in English seems indispensable if this discussion is to happen around the world.


    {*} Christian W. Troll SJ (b. 1937) was Professor of Islamic Studies at New Delhi and then taught at Birmingham and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. He now works as an honorary Professor at the Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology, Sankt Georgen, Frankfurt.


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