No vowels are marked, and worse, there are no diacritical marks, so that many consonants can also be read in a number of ways.
The Prophet Muhammad and the Origins of Islam
Modern scholars usually assure themselves that since the Qur'an was recited from the start, we can rely on the oral tradition to supply us with the correct reading. But there is often considerable disagreement in the tradition — usually to do with vowelling, but sometimes involving consonants as well — over the correct way in which a word should be read.
This rarely affects the overall meaning of the text, but it does affect the details which are so important for historical reconstruction. In any case, with or without uncertainty over the reading, the Qur'an is often highly obscure. Sometimes it uses expressions that were unknown even to the earliest exegetes, or words that do not seem to fit entirely, though they can be made to fit more or less; sometimes it seems to give us fragments detached from a long-lost context; and the style is highly allusive. At the same time, however, both books are open to so many scholarly objections notably amateurism in Luxenberg's case that they cannot be said to have done the field much good.
The attempt to relate the linguistic and stylistic features of the Qur'an to those of earlier religious texts calls for a mastery of Semitic languages and literature that few today possess, and those who do so tend to work on other things.
This is sensible, perhaps, given that the field has become highly charged politically. Luxenberg's work is a case in point: it was picked up by the press and paraded in a sensationalist vein on the strength of what to a specialist was its worst idea — to instruct Muslims living in the west that they ought to become enlightened. Neither Muslims nor Islamicists were amused. The Qur'an does not give us an account of the prophet's life.
On the contrary: it does not show us the prophet from the outside at all, but rather takes us inside his head, where God is speaking to him, telling him what to preach, how to react to people who poke fun at him, what to say to his supporters, and so on. We see the world through his eyes, and the allusive style makes it difficult to follow what is going on.
Events are referred to, but not narrated; disagreements are debated without being explained; people and places are mentioned, but rarely named. Supporters are simply referred to as believers; opponents are condemned as unbelievers, polytheists, wrongdoers, hypocrites and the like, with only the barest information on who they were or what they said or did in concrete terms rather as modern political ideologues will reduce their enemies to abstractions: revisionists, reactionaries, capitalist-roaders, terrorists. It could be, and sometimes seems to be, that the same people now appear under one label and then another.
One thing seems clear, however: all the parties in the Qur'an are monotheists worshipping the God of the Biblical tradition, and all are familiar — if rarely directly from the Bible itself — with Biblical concepts and stories. This is true even of the so-called polytheists, traditionally identified with Mohammed's tribe in Mecca. The Islamic tradition says that the members of this tribe, known as Quraysh , were believers in the God of Abraham whose monotheism had been corrupted by pagan elements; modern historians would be inclined to reverse the relationship and cast the pagan elements as older than the monotheism; but some kind of combination of Biblical-type monotheism and Arabian paganism is indeed what one encounters in the Qur'an.
The so-called polytheists believed in one creator God who ruled the world and whom one approached through prayer and ritual; in fact, like the anathematised ideological enemies of modern times, they seem to have originated in the same community as the people who denounced them. For a variety of doctrinal reasons, however, the tradition likes to stress the pagan side of the prophet's opponents, and one highly influential source in particular Ibn al-Kalbi casts them as naive worshippers of stones and idols of a type that may very well have existed in other parts of Arabia.
For this reason, the secondary literature has tended to depict them as straightforward pagans too. Some exegetes are considerably more sophisticated than Ibn al-Kalbi, and among modern historians GR Hawting stands out as the first to have shown that the people denounced as polytheists in the Qur'an are anything but straightforward pagans.
The fact that the Qur'an seems to record a split in a monotheist community in Arabia can be expected to transform our understanding of how the new religion arose. What then are the big issues dividing the prophet and his opponents? Two stand out. First, time and again he accuses the polytheists of the same crime as the Christians — deification of lesser beings.
The Christians elevated Jesus to divine status though some of them were believers ; the polytheists elevated the angels to the same status and compounded their error by casting them or some of them as females; and just as the Christians identified Jesus as the son of God, so the polytheists called the angels sons and daughters of God, apparently implying some sort of identity of essence. The polytheists further claimed that the angels or deities, as they are also called were intercessors who enabled them to approach God, a well-known argument by late antique monotheists who retained their ancestral gods by identifying them as angels.
For Christians also saw the angels as intercessors, and the prophet was of the same view: his polemics arise entirely from the fact that the pagan angels are seen as manifestations of God himself rather than his servants. The prophet responds by endlessly affirming that God is one and alone, without children or anyone else sharing in his divinity. The second bone of contention between the prophet and his opponents was the resurrection.
Some doubted its reality, others denied it outright, still others rejected the idea of afterlife altogether. In any case, the hardliners convey the impression of having made their appearance quite recently, and again people of the same type are attested on the Greek and Syriac side of the fence. The prophet responds by repeatedly rehearsing arguments in favour of the resurrection of the type familiar from the Christian tradition, insisting that people will be raised up for judgment. He adds that the judgment is coming soon, in the form of some local disaster such as those which overtook earlier communities e.
His opponents tease him, asking him why it does not seem to be happening; he persists. At some point the confrontation turns violent and the book is filled with calls to arms, with much fighting over a sanctuary. By then it is clear that there has been an emigration hijra , though the event itself is not described, and there is some legislation for the new community. Throughout the book there is also much acrimonious debate about the credentials of the prophet himself. But God's unity, the reality of the resurrection and judgment, and the imminence of violent punishment are by far the most important themes, reiterated in most of the sura chapters of the Qur'an.
In sum, not only do we know that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, we also have a fair idea of what he preached. Non-Islamicists may therefore conclude that the historians' complaint that they know so little about him is mere professional grumpiness.
But on one issue it is unquestionably more. This is a big problem to do with Arabia. The inhabitants of the Byzantine and Persian empires wrote about the northern and the southern ends of the peninsula, from where we also have numerous inscriptions; but the middle was terra incognita. This is precisely where the Islamic tradition places Mohammed's career. We do not know what was going on there, except insofar as the Islamic tradition tells us. It yields no literature to which we can relate the Qur'an — excepting poetry, for which we are again dependent on the Islamic tradition and which is in any case so different in character that it does not throw much light on the book.
Not a single source outside Arabia mentions Mecca before the conquests, and not one displays any sign of recognition or tells us what was known about it when it appears in the sources thereafter.
How and Why Muhammad Made a Difference | Pew Research Center
That there was a place called Mecca where Mecca is today may well be true; that it had a pagan sanctuary is perfectly plausible Arabia was full of sanctuaries , and it could well have belonged to a tribe called the Quraysh. But we know nothing about the place with anything approaching reasonable certainty. In sum, we have no context for the prophet and his message.
It is difficult not to suspect that the tradition places the prophet's career in Mecca for the same reason that it insists that he was illiterate: the only way he could have acquired his knowledge of all the things that God had previously told the Jews and the Christians was by revelation from God himself.
Mecca was virgin territory; it had neither Jewish nor Christian communities. The suspicion that the location is doctrinally inspired is reinforced by the fact that the Qur'an describes the polytheist opponents as agriculturalists who cultivated wheat, grapes, olives, and date palms. Wheat, grapes and olives are the three staples of the Mediterranean; date palms take us southwards, but Mecca was not suitable for any kind of agriculture, and one could not possibly have produced olives there.
In addition, the Qur'an twice describes its opponents as living in the site of a vanished nation, that is to say a town destroyed by God for its sins. There were many such ruined sites in northwest Arabia. The prophet frequently tells his opponents to consider their significance and on one occasion remarks, with reference to the remains of Lot's people, that "you pass by them in the morning and in the evening".
This takes us to somewhere in the Dead Sea region. Respect for the traditional account has prevailed to such an extent among modern historians that the first two points have passed unnoticed until quite recently, while the third has been ignored. The exegetes said that the Quraysh passed by Lot's remains on their annual journeys to Syria, but the only way in which one can pass by a place in the morning and the evening is evidently by living somewhere in the vicinity.
The annual journeys invoked by the exegetes were trading journeys. All the sources say that the Quraysh traded in southern Syria, many say that they traded in Yemen too, and some add Iraq and Ethiopia to their destinations. They are described as trading primarily in leather goods, woollen clothing, and other items of mostly pastoralist origin, as well as perfume not south Arabian frankincense or Indian luxury goods, as used to be thought. Their caravan trade has been invoked to explain the familiarity with Biblical and para-Biblical material which is so marked a feature of the Qur'an, but this goes well beyond what traders would be likely to pick up on annual journeys.
There is no doubt, however, that one way or the other a trading community is involved in the rise of Islam, though it is not clear how it relates to that of the agriculturalists of the Qur'an. On all this there is much to be said, if not yet with any certainty. The biggest problem facing scholars of the rise of Islam is identifying the context in which the prophet worked. What was he reacting to, and why was the rest of Arabia so responsive to his message? We stand a good chance of making headway, for we are nowhere near having exploited to the full our three main types of evidence — the traditions associated with the prophet primarily the hadith , the Qur'an itself, and a new source of enormous promise archaeology.
Introduction to cultures and religions for the study of AP Art History
The first is the most difficult to handle; this overwhelmingly takes the form of hadith — short reports sometimes just a line or two recording what an early figure, such as a companion of the prophet or Mohammed himself, said or did on a particular occasion, prefixed by a chain of transmitters. Nowadays, hadith almost always means hadith from Mohammed himself. Most of the early sources for the prophet's life, as also for the period of his immediate successors, consist of hadith in some arrangement or other.
Miles examines Abraham in both and highlights a key difference: In the Bible, Abraham is presented as the father of a great nation that will multiply and inherit a holy land. The story of Moses, again a crucial one in both the Bible and the Quran, comes with similar nuance. In the Bible, the great mission of Moses is to liberate his people, the children of Israel, from the yoke of the Pharaoh. In the Quran, too, Moses rises up against the Pharaoh, but his main problem is that the Pharaoh and his people worship false gods.
Through such scriptural comparisons, Miles gets to the core of the Abrahamic matrix: The monotheism that the Jewish people developed over the centuries was inherited by Islam and was turned into a global creed. All the national elements within Judaism, meanwhile, were then muted. What about Christianity, the third, and the largest, piece of the matrix? It seems to be, just like Islam, a universalization of Judaic monotheism.
How and Why Muhammad Made a Difference
But Christianity introduced a new theological element to the scene — a divine Christ and triune Godhead — which proved unacceptable to both Judaism and Islam. In the chapter comparing the Quran with the New Testament, Miles shows this by explaining how Islam rejects Christian theology, while showing great respect for Jesus Christ and Mary. The book underlines other distinctions between Yahweh and Allah.
In observing such nuances, Miles, a Christian, is as objective, fair and gracious as one can get. Non-Muslims who take the time to read the Quran may end up feeling a bit baffled, though. For they will hear a lot about Abraham, Moses, Joseph or Jesus, but almost nothing about the person they may be expecting the most: Muhammad.