In the Introduction to his Narratives of Islamic Origins, Fred Donner  (Professor of Near Eastern History – University of Chicago) describes and analyzes four different approaches which have characterized the historical study of the early period of Islam.  He specifically defines the period from 610-660 BCE as the period of “Islamic origins” due to its formative nature in containing key events in the life of the early Muslim community.  Donner explains that the few available sources for this period are problematic, lacking in contemporary material and often contradictory in nature.

  1. The Descriptive Approach
  2. The Source Critical Approach
  3. The Tradition-Critical Approach
  4. The Skeptical Approach

The first approach, which Donner calls the Descriptive Approach, simply agrees with and relates the sketch of Islamic origins as related in traditional Muslim sources and assumed that: a) the Qur’an was a documentary source for the life and career of the Prophet Muhammad; b) the reports found in Islamic chronicles were reliable; and c) the hadith literature was a theological corpus unrelated to the matter of sketching early history.  In The Empire of the Arabs, Glubb uses the Descriptive Approach when he narrates Muhammad’s birth and the story of him receiving revelation from the Archangel Gabriel as related in the tradition.  He also uncritically relates how tribal leadership was contested by Bani Hashim and Bani Umayya.  Thus, Glubb reproduces narrative found within the Muslim tradition which is consistent with the Descriptive Approach.  Glubb’s description of Islamic theology such as the idea of one God, judgement, and paradise and hell also suggests that he accepts the documentary nature of the Qur’an.

The abundance of newly discovered sources led to the formation of a second approach which Donner terms the Source-Critical Approach – which is directed at formulating methods to account for and filter through contradictory narratives.  Donner lays out the assumptions of this approach as follows: a) the available accounts in the sources contain authentic early historical information which was then meshed with unauthentic information; b) Non-Islamic sources gave an independent account with which the Muslim narratives can be compared for reliability; c) the hadith literature was of little value in sketching Islamic history because of its religious interests; and d) the Qur’anic text was a documentary source for the period of Islamic origins.  In Muhammad at Mecca, Watt utilizes the Source-Critical Approach when he questions whether the prominence of Muhammad’s ancestors is credible or a later exaggeration.  He also notes how the sources written under the Abbasids tend to present the Umayyads in a negative light.  This shows that Watt is critical of the sources and he is mindful of later unauthentic exaggerations which may have been added to actual historical information – a tendency which characterizes the Source-Critical Approach.  Watt, however, does not doubt the historical account as a whole, stating that “there are no grounds for supposing serious falsification or large-scale invention” and this admission clearly places his method outside the Skeptical or Tradition-Critical approaches.

At this point, a few remarks about Sunni Muslim hadith literature are warranted. A hadith is a hearsay report (i.e. A reports from B reports from C reports from D that the Prophet said/did XYZ) about what the Prophet Muhammad said, did, or authorized. Today, Sunni Muslims consider specific hadith collections as the body of literature that reports the Prophet Muhammad’s Sunnah. In the first four generations after Prophet Muhammad, the concept of the Sunnah (exemplary and right practice) of the Prophet was not identical with the content of hadith literature. The term sunnah was associated, at first, with multiple individuals including the Prophet, the first three Caliphs, and even the Umayyad Caliphs who had the power to create, amend, and rescind sunnah as they saw fit. In addition, sunnah was understood to be the correct customs and practices transmitted by the (Sunni) Community. As a result, there was a Sunnat al-Madinah, a Sunnat al-Basra, a Sunnat al-Kufa, etc., each with different ideas of what correct prophetic practice consisted of. Hadith began to be transmitted in the second generation after Muhammad, but only in oral form, and their status was hotly debated by the early generations of Muslims. A large number of scholars of law and theology gave no credibility to hadith and the People of the Hadith (ahl al-hadith) were merely one group of Muslims among many other groups (the Mutazilis, the Mutakallimun, the Philosophers, the Shi’is, the Zaydis, the Jurists, the People of Reasoning, etc.). The People of the Hadith only recognized legitimate hadiths as those transmitted orally and recited by a living narrator who could recite all the names in the chain (isnad) of the hadith. But it is important to note that hadiths were never meant to serve a historical purpose, but rather, they were intended to be sources of guidance for legal and ritual matters. The earliest written hadith compilations come from al-Zuhri (d. 741), Malik b. Anas (d. 795) and Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 855) but they were hardly meant to be authoritative reference collections. Instead, these compilations were merely personal collections for individual use in teaching. The first person to argue that the sunnah of the Prophet is equal to the content of written hadith literature was Muhammad b. Idris al-Shafi’i (d. 820) in the 9th century. The first hadith compilations – now recognized as “official” by Sunni Muslims were written in the late 9th century – were written over 250 years after Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. These were the compilations of Muhammad b. Isma’il al-Bukhari (870) and Muslim b. Hajjaj (d. 875), followed by Abu Da’ud (d. 889), al-Tirmidhi (d. 892), Ahmad al-Nasa’i (d. 915), and Ibn Maja (d. 889). The publication of hadith collections caused widespread controversy and divided the hadith movement (ahl al-hadith) into two camps – one group refusing to recognize the authority of any written hadith compilations and only following hadith transmitted by a living transmitter, and the other group initially a minority recognizing the legitimacy of Bukhari and Muslim’s collections.These two collections, Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslims did not get recognized as “canon” collections, however, until the 11th century. Hadith literature essentially consists of hearsay reports (i.e. A reports from B reports from C reports from D that the Prophet said/did XYZ) about what the Prophet Muhammad said, did, or authorized and the chains of transmission (A, B, C, D, etc.) were evaluated in Muslim scholarship according to a set of standards determined by Sunni scholars. But a “Sahih” hadith does not mean that the hadith represents actual history; it only means that the hadith can be relied on to arrive at a legal ruling on a specific issue. Therefore, modern historians and scholars of Islamic history do not see the hadith literature as providing historically reliable information on the origins of Islam or the life and activities of Prophet Muhammad. At best, the content of the hadith literature reflect what some Muslims in the first and second centuries after Muhammad believed, debated, and were concerned with with respect to the Prophet’s legacy and how it should be practiced. It would, therefore, be historically and academically irresponsible to simply quote a hadith and represent its content as actual history:

In other words, the tradition literature (hadith) is unreliable as a source for the rise of Islam, but it provides an invaluable source for the beliefs, concerns, and conflicts of the generations of Muslims who came after and who put the traditions into circulation. As he [Goldziher] himself puts it: “The hadith will not serve as a document for the history of the infancy of islam, but rather as a reflection of the tendencies which appeared in the community during the more mature stages of development.”…In the course of studying legal hadith, Schacht concluded, like Goldziher, that few if any traditions originated with the Prophet.

Daniel W. Brown, Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought, 84

Goldziher, Schacht and Juuynboll among others argued that we have good reason to believe that Prophetic reports were fabricated at a later stage in Islamic history and that they were gradually projected back to the Prophet.

Wael B. Hallaq, A History of Islamic Legal Theories, 2

There are significant problems in relying on the use of hadith and other traditions when attempting to understand certain aspects of the Prophet’s life or to identify what was happening in the earliest Muslim communities. Given the level of fabrication of hadith that occurred in the first and second centuries of Islam, and the difficulties associated with the biographical material collated by Muslims in relation to the Prophet, the question of authenticity of such material remains an important question in contemporary Islamic scholarship.

Abdullah Saeed, Reading the Qur’an in the Twenty-First Century: A Contextualist Approach, 27

According to Western critics, the great bulk of the hadith, sound or otherwise, appear to be forgeries and there is no reliable way of determining which, if any, might be authentic historical reports from or about Muhammad.

F. E. Peters, Islam: A Guide for Jews and Christians, 168

While the Source Critical approach produced many new studies the recognition of issues in oral transmission led to the emergence of a third approach to Islamic origins that Donner calls the Tradition-Critical Approach – which first appeared in Goldziher’s study of hadith literature.  This approach holds that traditional accounts were the product of evolution over time and reflect political, religious and social factors which became important after the time of the events which the accounts describe.  This approach acknowledges that large parts of Muslim traditional literature may be fabrications but assumes that the “kernel of historical fact” remains embedded within this literature and can be recovered by thorough analysis.   In The Eye of the Beholder, Uri Rubin utilizes the Tradition-Critical Approach in examining different versions of the annunciation story as present in multiple sources including Shi‘i sources.  Rubin also cites two versions of the story which include Abu Bakr and concludes these arise from later interpolations which reveal certain non-Shi‘i motivations intended to support Abu Bakr’s early conversion to Islam.  Rubin’s analysis shows his assumption that traditional accounts were subject to gradual development based on political and theological factors.  Rubin refers to one such account as an “original tradition which only survived in this interpolated extract” and this conclusion shows his adherence to the Tradition-Critical method which seeks to uncover original accounts by analyzing different versions of an account. In another study, Wilferd Madelung in The Succession to Muhammad employs a Source-Critical and Tradition-Critical methodology to investigate the succession claims to Prophet Muhammad and concludes that the Prophet’s cousin Ali b. Abi Talib was likely Muhammad’s own choice as his successor and the logical choice based on the Qur’anic conception of prophetic familial succession.

As a result of applying Source-Critical and Tradition-Critical approaches, some scholars began to call into question the very idea that any historical truth had at all survived in the Muslim tradition.  Such concerns led to the formation of a fourth approach which Donner terms the Skeptical Approach.  This approach also holds that the traditional sources have undergone evolution but denies the existence of any remaining historical truth which could indicate the reality of events that actually occurred because such evidence has been drowned in a sea of later distortions.  The assumptions of the Skeptical Approach are that: a) the Qur’anic text was closed and canonized during the second or third century AH; b) Islamic origin accounts which glorify the past as “salvation history” come from a later period; and c) the accounts describing the Prophet’s life and were originally tied to the Qur’an itself as a form of exegesis.  Donner criticizes some elements of this approach as being implausible. In Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, Crone employs the Skeptical Approach in her analysis of different versions of the annunciation story about Muhammad in Syria and remarks that “evidently none” of the fifteen versions of the story can be true.  Crone attributes these various accounts to “storytellers” whom she says could “produce equally fictitious accounts of an apparently historical incident.”  She concludes that the entire idea that Muhammad traded in Syria must be untrue.   Thus, Crone follows the Skeptical Approach in completely denying the existence of any historical truth in these narratives.  She also refers to some of the stories in biblical accounts and this subtly demonstrates how biblical criticism may have influenced her approach to Islamic sources – a tendency of other Skeptical Approach scholars.  The book Hagarism by Crone and Cook is an eminent examples of the Skeptical Approach to the study of Islamic origins.

The Skeptical Approach has lost credibility in the last few decades due to a number of key findings and studies that date the Qur’anic Text to the 650s (as noted here) and primary sources that attest to the historical existence of Prophet Muhammad and his mission (as shown here).

So we seem, after all, to be dealing with a Qur’an that is the product of the earliest stages in the life of the community in western Arabia…The fact that the Qur’an text dates to the earliest phase of the movement inaugurated by Muhammad means that the historian can use it.”

Fred Donner (Professor of Near Eastern History – University of Chicago), (Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam, 56)

This means that the Qur’an itself is a documentary historical source bearing witness to the even of Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. For this reason, both Patricia Crone and Michael Cook have since withdrawn the skeptical arguments made in their book Hagarism where they speculated that Prophet Muhammad never existed in the first place. Crone’s later statement confirms both the existence of Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’anic Text:

Mohammed is also mentioned by name, and identified as a messenger of God, four times in the Qur’an… We can be reasonably sure that the Qur’an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death – how long after is controversial. But that he uttered all or most of them is difficult to doubt.

Patricia Crone (Former Professor of Oriental Studies – University of Cambridge), (“What Do We Actually Know About Mohammed”, June 2008, Read Here)

Therefore, the best academic and historical approach to the origins of Islam must give primary historical value to the Qur’an and then use Source-Critical and Tradition-Critical approaches to assess, judge, and correlate later material from the sira, hadith, and historical chronicles with the Qur’anic material.

Works Cited:

Crone, Patricia. Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987

Donner, Fred M. Narratives of Islamic Origins: the beginnings of Islamic historical writing. Darwin Press, 1998

Glubb, John. The Empire of the Arabs.  Hodder and Stoughton, 1963

Rubin, Uri. The Eye of the Beholder: The Life of Muhammad as Viewed by the Early Muslims: A Textual Analysis. Princeton: Darwin Press, 1995

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad at Mecca. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960