Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Historical Context of the Qur’an

Today, as research for my current writing project, The Qur'an: a Book Report, I read an article by scholar Fred M. Donner on the historical context of the Qur’an.  Like the Bible, or any widely-read ancient document, scholars disagree over many aspects of the context of the holy book of Islam.  Donner begins by giving the traditional account of the Qur’an’s origins, and concludes with the state of current scholarship on this issue.

Following the death of Muhammad in 632 C.E., Muslim sages began compiling a body of literature about the life and times of the prophet, known as sira literature.  This body of literature has, for centuries, been the traditional account of the Qur’an’s origins and context, and it is as follows.

The prophet Muhammad was born some time in the latter part of the 6th century C.E. in Mecca, in western Arabia.  His father died before he was born, and his mother died when he was very young.  He was raised by his uncle Abu Talib, who was head of the Hashim clan, which was part of the larger Quraysh tribe, which basically ruled Mecca.  Muhammad became a moderately successful caravan trader, known for fair-dealing.  As a young man, he married a wealthy widow named Khadija.  Contrary to the custom of the time, Khadija proposed to him.

Mecca is in present-day Saudi Arabia

Around 610, when he was about 40, Muhammad began taking spiritual retreats to the caves around Mecca.  It was here that he began to receive the revelations that would ultimately form the Qur’an.  At the time, the religious climate of Mecca was polytheistic.  The Ka’aba (or cube) was the shrine which housed many Arabic deities.  Muhammad’s message called for radical religious reforms.  Against the polytheism of his day, he preached strict monotheism.  He began preaching his new faith in Mecca.

Ultimately, the prophet’s teachings brought him into conflict with the Quraysh, the tribal leaders of Mecca, who found his teachings both offensive and bad for business.  Eventually, due to escalating conflict, Muhammad led his followers to the town of Yathrib (later called Medina), which was about 350 km north of Mecca.  The year of this migration (or hijra) was 622.  This became year one on the Islamic calendar.  In Medina, Muhammad’s new community of faith grew; however, life there was not without conflict.  He came into disagreement with the community of Jews in Medina, which ultimately led to their expulsion.  This probably led to later Jewish/Muslim conflicts.

Migration to Medina.

As both a religious and a political leader in Medina, Muhammad led his followers on military campaigns against the powerful Quraysh tribe in Mecca.  Two important battles are referred to in the Qur’an—the Battle of Badr (which Muhammad won), and the Battle of Uhud (which Muhammad lost).  In the Battle of the Trench, Muhammad’s enemies attempted to take Medina, but were repelled.  Ultimately, in 630, Muhammad and his forces took control of Mecca.  Notably, he spared the lives of most of his “enemies.”  He destroyed all the “idols” in and around the Ka’aba, and established himself as the strongest political and religious leader in western Arabia.  In 632, Muhammad died in Medina, in the arms of his favorite wife, Aisha.

Throughout Muhammad’s life, he received and spoke many revelations, which would ultimately form the Qur’an.  Some of these revelations were oral, others were written down, but they were not compiled during his lifetime.  It would fall to his successors to compile the holy writings.  Early compilers were caliph Abu Bakr and caliph Umar.  The first official compilation was done under the caliphate (or leadership) of Uthman.  The official “Uthmanic text” is generally considered to be the basis for the Qur’an today.  That is the traditional account of the historical context of the Qur’an.

Cave of Hira, where Muhammad received his first revelation (Mecca)

The situation for scholars today is, of course, more complex.  As with the Bible, many variant texts of the Qur’an have been discovered which complicate the picture.  Also, the fact that the original Uthmanic text was written in a highly rudimentary script, without vowels, makes accurate translation difficult.

In addition to the textual problems, scholars since at least the 19th century have questioned the historical accuracy of the traditional sira literature account of Islam’s origins.  Scholar John Wansbrough asserts that the Qur’an did not exist as a stable collection until at least 200 years after the prophet’s death.  Other scholars like Henri Lammens argued that the sira literature was not meant to be historical, but rather to explain or interpret certain passages of the Qur’an.  Still others, like Gerald Hawting, assert that the sira’s portrayal of Mecca’s polytheism was exaggerated for effect.  Recent work by Gunter Luling and Christoph Luxemberg tries to situate the birth of the Qur’an into a more historically accurate picture of near eastern culture and society.  The point is that there remain many unanswered questions about the real historical context of the Qur’an.  Much scholarship remains to be done.  This is an exciting field of inquiry which I will continue to investigate with great interest.


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