Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam By Fred M. Donner (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2010, hbk., 280 pages)

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Vernon James Schubel

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Abstract

Fred Donner’s Muhammad and the Believer’s at the Origins of Islam is the
most recent in a long line of books that have attempted to recast the narrative
of the early history of Islam in ways that seek to challenge both traditional
Islamic readings of the sources and previous academic scholarship.
Donner explicitly states that his book has two goals. The first is to challenge
the notion that he sees as permeating Western scholarship on Islam: that the
Prophet Muhammad (ṢAAS) and his followers were mainly motivated by
factors other than religion ‒ that is to say, that Islam was more of a political
movement than a religious one. On this point, Donner argues persuasively
that the primary motivation guiding the Prophet and his movement was
religious and that his message was a clarion call to monotheism and piety that built upon Christianity and Judaism. More controversially, Donner argues
that the Prophet Muhammad was less the founder of a new religious
community than “an inspired visionary” who “inaugurated a pietistic religious
movement that we can best call, followings its adherents own usage,
the Believers movement (86‒87).” This movement was not in its origins
a new religion but instead an ecumenical community, which included not
only Arabs newly converted to monotheism but also Christians and Jews.
Donner’s second task is to counter the notion that that the Umayyads were
“cynical manipulators of the outward trappings of the religious movement
begun by Muhammad (xii).” Instead, Donner seeks to rehabilitates the
Umayyads “as rulers who sought practical ways to realize the most important
goals of the movement and perhaps more than anyone else helped
the Believers attain a clear sense of their own distinct identity and of their
legitimacy as a religious community (xii).” ...

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