The unspeakable events of Sept. 11 have resulted in inquiries from students, friends, and acquaintances about my reaction as a professor of Middle Eastern history. I did a brief summary (following below) which you might find of general interest also for readers of Edge because it summarizes new insights gained during the past fifteen years. Recent scholarship has subjected the history of Islamic origins to the same kind of historical questioning that scholars dealing with ancient Israel, early Zoroastrianism, and early Christianity are used to. Such a questioning, in which Islam is put into its historical context, improves our approach to contemporary Islamic religiosity.
Summary of New Insights On Early Islam and Their Contemporary Relevance
(1) Historically, very little is known about Muhammad, except that he preached what can be called an Abrahamic monotheism at the time of the Roman-Persian wars (603-630) which Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians interpreted according to their respective apocalyptic traditions. Both the Koran and Muhammad's biography are works dating with their beginnings to no earlier than the 690s. When the Syrian and northwest Arabian Arabs conquered their Mediterranean-Southwest Asian kingdom there was no developed Islam around about which anything can be said with certainty.
(2) The full-blown Islam as we know it today is the result of religious scholars writing in Iraq during the 800s and 900s and nostalgically projecting a pristine religious community back into the desert of Arabia. (There is no archaeological proof that Mecca existed before the Arab conquests.) This projection took place in a cosmopolitan, sophisticated Iraq in which wine poetry, Greek philosophy, and the Sassanian royal cult were freely celebrated. Religious scholars designed a utopian community in the past in opposition to the "worldly" caliphs, their court, and the empire at large, hoping that this community would eventually replace the "immoral" empire they abhorred.
(3) The Prophet biography and Koran have to be understood as projections of a post ex facto, utopian Islam into the Arabian desert, complete with exodus and golden age motifs. Both exodus (purity of the desert faith) and golden age (returning to the roots) are the defining elements of Sunni Islam. Although there is eschatology in Sunni Islam (the Islamic empire as the final successor of both Rome and Persia), Muslims superimposed apocalyptic and gnostic speculations only in the Shi'i Islam of later centuries. Usama bin Laden plays on literally interpreted, utopian Sunni exodus and golden age motifs when he wants to cleanse the infidels from Arabia.
(4) Obviously, it is possible to read the Koran and Prophet biography literally and believe that early Muslims killed Jews in Medina and gave unbelievers the choice between sword and Koran. But as critical, modern readers we have to interpret these verses as the result of polemical discussions among Jews, Christians, and emerging Muslims in Iraq during the 800s and 900s when the Arab conquests had long ended. There is no historical evidence of Jews in Medina or a Koran being around in the 620s and 30s. Such a critical interpretation, of course, is no different from that of the Torah and the New Testament, some books of which also bristle with martial passages and which we today view in their historical contexts. We have to free ourselves from the naive essentialist and unhistorical opinion that Christianity is pacific, Judaism passive, and Islam martial. At most, the Koran is polemical, but the same holds true for the seemingly so innocent Gospels.
(5) For further information I recommend the easily obtainable paperback by the Canadian Islamist Andrew Rippin, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001). For more on the non-existing Islam of the early 600s see Ibn Warraq, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2000). See also G.R. Hawting, The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam: From Polemic to History (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999). The best summary of our current historical knowledge of the seventh century is part 3 of Robert G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam (Princeton, N.J.: Darwin Press, 1997).
(6) Finally, concerning contemporary Islamic radicals. These radicals despise the West for what they consider the immorality, depravity, and dissoluteness of its mass culture. In their radicalism, they confound this mass culture with the underpinnings of modern scientific-industrial society, such as equality before the law, representative democracy, and economic freedom. They see both together as seamless, satanic perversions contrary to the golden age community of Mecca and Medina. Unfortunately, they don't find any political leaders or intellectuals in the Middle East courageous enough to explain to them the facts about trivial mass culture, serious institutional underpinnings (largely absent from Middle Eastern regimes anyway), and the utopian Islamic golden age.