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Review: Muhammad and the Believers by Fred M. Donner

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Muhammad and the Believers
Muhammad and the Believers

Professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago, Fred M. Donner’s ‘Muhammad and the Believers‘ tells the story of the birth and growth of Islam. Whilst it is not an exhaustive account, it is an excellent introduction to how and why the faith was born, and explains its proliferation in the Middle East and beyond.

Born in Washington, DC and raised in Chicago, Donner deals promptly and frankly with the main problem facing historians in their research of the roots of different religions: the veracity of the evidence to hand. Many of the available texts date from decades, sometimes even centuries, after the events they purport to document so their reliability is at once questionable. The claims made by the texts often tend towards the fantastic, too, in order that they align with the claims of the faith itself: events seem to stack upon one another in a manner so favorable to the growth of the religion that the only way to explain it would be some kind of divine hand guiding its progress.

With this issue at front of mind, Donner uses the original text of the Qu’ran and other source materials dating from the same period to piece together the history of the faith. What quickly becomes clear is that Islam, and what it means to be a ‘Muslim’, have both changed dramatically since the early days.

Donner notes that rather than existing as a brand new faith, separate and distinct from others, Islam originally took the form of a socio-political ‘movement’ whose subtextual goal was to spread God’s message, and as such was less of a ‘crusade’ than is commonly thought today. Members of this movement, referred to by Donner as ‘Believers’, held as most important the acceptance of a single god, and that the polytheism of the Romans and Greeks (and all the associated indulgence and excess) was to be rejected in favor of a life of piety and virtue.

The movement did codify its tenets and teachings as the years passed and was known to, in instances, assume control of towns and villages by force, but for the most part a peaceful approach of integration was the preferred method by which their message was spread. That existing communities lived sufficiently righteous lives and accepted the ‘onenness of God’ appeared to be enough to satisfy the Believers. These adherents to other monotheisms were known to the Believers as ‘people of the book’, and their dedication to their own faith was enough to excuse them, aside from the paying of additional taxes, from persecution.

Archaeological evidence, too, subverts the accepted view that the expansion of Islam in the Middle East was primarily by the sword: many churches, some still standing today, were built in lands whose occupation by Islamic activists pre-dates their construction. Why, if the movement’s goal was to eradicate all other existing faiths in favor of forced submission to their own, would they allow the building of houses of worship of other religious denominations? In point of fact, the most prolonged conflicts, and those that incurred the largest number of casualties, were actually internal and involved disputes over who should lead the Believers movement after the death of Muhammad in 632 CE.

‘Muhammad and the Believers’ is full with these kinds of intriguing questions and challenges readers to reconsider what they think they know about Islam. An example of this, particularly salient in the 21st Century, is the meaning of the word ‘Jihad’. Today we take it to mean a holy war perpetrated by extremists, however the original meaning was ‘struggle’ and, in the Qu’ranic context, it was intended to mean an internal one a believer might have when trying to live their life according to God’s law.

There are some assertions made by the book that could benefit from further explanation and sometimes a number of obvious questions go unanswered, but as long as the reader is aware of that they will find ‘Muhammad and the Believers’ a rewarding read.

I don’t wish to give the impression this book is like a Cliff Notes of Islam, in fact it is anything but: There is a great deal of detail, more than enough to give readers a solid understanding of the religion and region upon whose fortunes much of the rest of the world now depends.

Follow-up Recommendation: Cradle & Crucible – History and Faith in the Middle East

Cradle & Crucible

This National Geographic publication is a compendium of eight essays that recount the history of what we now refer to as the Middle East.

Part one, containing the first five essays, starts in 8500 B.C and ends in 2002 and chronicles the rise and fall of the various empires who assumed and maintained (with varying degrees of success) control of the region throughout the intervening centuries.

Part two, containing the remaining three essays, concerns the birth and proliferation of the three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and their effects on the people and lands throughout which they spread.

Cradle & Crucible‘ is concise, some might even say short, but if a reader is looking for an introduction to the region and its development over time, this book is an outstanding candidate.