Between Western Revisionism and Islamic Traditionalism in Islamic History: A Case Study of the Multireligious Environment of Early Islam (Wasat, Edition no. 20/April 2018)

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by Ustaz Azfar bin Anwar


‘Before Muḥammad, there was only the Jāhiliyya. A period and state of being where the pagan Meccans deified idols made of wood or stones, buried their female infants, and were utterly unethical in their daily dealings. A period where they have completely forgotten about Allāh, their Creator, and Sustainer. Allāh then sent His Messenger Muḥammad, who brought with him Tawhīd, and taught good values and moral conduct to guide the Meccans out of the darkness to the light.’

Such is the traditional account of how Islam came about. An account carefully constructed by the ‘interpretive community’ of the modern period, canonised in textbooks, recounted in Madrasahs all over the world, and is now considered axiomatic. However, this account is also shared by Islamicists like W. Montgomery Watt, as pointed out by Patricia Crone when forming the context of her ‘The Religion of the Qur’ānic Pagans’ (Crone 2010; Pp. 177-178).

In his ‘Reconstructing Early Islam,’ Chase F. Robinson pointed out that the orientalists are also guilty of purporting an ‘exceptionalism of Islamic history.’ Islam is made disassociated from the monotheist trend of the Near East and is a divine revelation on an Arab prophet who was unaffected and uninfluenced by Mecca’s and the peninsular’s monotheistic neighbours. “This is belief rather than history—a belief in the uniqueness of a particular moment, when the laws of history, such as the role of context and continuity are suspended.” (Robinson 2003; p. 128) Both Crone’s and Robinson’s articles are relied upon heavily in this brief literature.

In her article, Crone limits the basis of her argument within “a primary source” which she defines as “one which takes us as a far back as we can get.” To her, this criterion applies only to the Qur’ān, while exegetical commentaries, and perhaps even historical writings within the Islamic historical tradition, are all deemed “secondary sources.” (Crone 2010; Pp. 151-152) It is unclear though whether she places prophetic tradition (i.e., Hadīth) in the same category but it seems that no Hadīth narrations have been hoisted for her argument. It is worth noting, however, that the Hadīth is regarded as the second authoritative legal and historical source after the Qur’ān within the Islamic scholastic tradition.

early islam handbookProblems with Islamic historical traditionalism

Crone’s position on these secondary sources reflects those of some of her peers in Western academia who have cast doubt upon the accuracy and authenticity of the traditional account of pre- and early-Islamic Arabia. An account which relied on late Muslim historical writings, with the majority written centuries later and only emerged as a by-product and a subdiscipline of mostly Hadīth studies, “to settle later controversies and to justify retrospectively an Islamic Heilsgeschichte, and so reflect more what later Muslims wanted to remember than what was necessarily historically accurate.” (Berkey 2003; Pp. 39-40) This thus highlights the problems in Islamic historiography.

However, this source-critical skepticism is not without valid basis. As Mahdi puts it, and quoted by Robinson, “[…] Real or imagined facts of Islamic history, [have been] carefully selected and interpreted […] the resulting views of Islamic history might appear to the disinterested observer as ideological weapons rather than accounts of the past. Yet such is the nature of Islam (and other so-called historical religions) (sic) that there has always been and always will be a relationship between what Muslims believe to be true and right and what they believe to have taken place in early Islamic history”. (Robinson 2003; p. 119)

According to the Schachtian model, Islamic law was only formed during the second and third Islamic centuries. We may say the same for Prophetic biographies and other historical writings which emerged only after the genesis of Qur’ānic, Hadīth, and legal scholarship, due to the very fact that Islamic historiography relied primarily on the Qur’ān and the Hadīth. However, as agreed upon by Lammens  (d.1937), Wansbrough (d.2002), Crone (d.2015), and as summarised by Robinson, “the original context of Qur’ānic revelation was lost to scholars of the late second/eight and third/ninth century, who had in any case much less authentic history at their disposal than they did tales and legends that circulated orally; as a result, they imposed meaning of their own. This, rather than a continuous tradition of memorizing or writing, produced the genre of Prophetic biography” and is also a feature of early Islamic historiography. (Robinson 2003; Pp. 121-122)

Problems with western revisionism

The grass is not exactly greener on the other side of the fence. Robinson claims there is a “fetish for facts” in critical Western scholarship. Its effect on the Hadīth, for example, has “reduce[d] the sociologically complex and historically contingent functioning of the Sunnah to the relatively narrow issue of its authenticity.” This, in turn, puts too much focus on what is considered “truth” at the expense of its significance and cultural meanings. (Robinson 2003; p. 118)TarikhTabariFull

Subsequently, attempts to make sense of Islam from a historical point have forced the usage of multiple different lenses but the lens of Islam per se. The results of this approach have been ineffectual. As has been remarked by Robinson, “None has been entirely persuasive […] Neither Becker, who saw Islam as the fruit of Hellenism, nor Wansbrough, who obliterated its Arabian origins, can be said to command a consensus; meanwhile, Brown can reasonably be said to have made Islam look Christian, and Fowden can reasonably be said to have made Byzantium appear Islamic”. (Robinson 2003; p. 129)

Synergy as a solution

Considering the confusions and problems surrounding Islamic historiography of the first/seventh century, what should be the resolution? This writer believes that a balance between the two approaches, i.e., critical Western revisionist scholarship and Muslim traditional scholarship must be struck. A ‘synergy’ between the two should be the way forward if efficacy is the aim. Sources, whether primary or secondary, relied on by the two approaches should be made complementary to each other.

Perhaps realising this necessity, even Crone noted that “there cannot, of course, be any doubt that in the long run the [Islamic] tradition will prove indispensable […] both because it preserves early information and because it embodies a millennium and a half of scholarship by men of great learning and high intelligence on whose shoulders it is good to stand. Indeed, we cannot completely get off their shoulders even if we try […]”. Crone herself claims that her conclusion was not “exactly new” and has been preceded by Ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhāb approximately three hundred years ago. (Crone 2010; Pp. 151-153)

On the role of critical Western scholarship in this ‘synergy,’ this writer concurs with Robinson that it “can and should contribute to the long-delayed project of historicizing some concepts and institutions that the tradition itself has conventionally viewed as both aboriginal and fixed.” (Robinson 2003; p. 119) He went on to say that critical Western scholarship should “safely leave aside sensitive questions about authenticity and reliability, [so that] we may, therefore, find ourselves communicating more usefully with Muslim scholars of all persuasions. The stakes being lower, the payoff may actually be higher”. (Robinson 2003; p. 131)

This brief literature thus aims to show how this ‘synergy’ could work in the historical revision of early Islam, particularly the religious environment during its formative period. This essay will focus only on the Meccan period of Muḥammad’s career, where he spent 13 out of 23 years of his prophethood/messengership based on the traditional account, thus delimiting the area of study. This essay seeks to answer the question ‘was Islam born in a pagan environment?’ by proving that Mecca was not only a multifaith environment but that every faith had an influence to some degree in and formed the premise for the formation of early Islamic identity. It will also build upon Crone’s reconstruction of pre-Islamic Meccans’ ‘official’ religion who views that they were monotheists of the same Biblical God, and not simply godless pagans. (Crone 2010)

This writer argues that while these notions have been recorded in the traditional Islamic sources, the potentially significant narratives and historical ‘facts,’ however, are simply mentioned, documented, and/or understated by later Muslim traditionists. Subsequently, these historical narratives continued to be unselected and glossed over by later generations of ‘interpretive’ communities to perpetuate the traditional account of early Islam; perhaps to simplify pedagogy of Islamic history. However, a simple referencing of sources regarded as authoritative in the traditional Islamic approach should revise the old historical account in place of a new one.

christian and early islamCase Study: The Multireligious Environment of Early Islam

  • The Muwaḥḥidūn

Ibn ‘Abd Al-Wahhāb was not exactly the first to note the monotheism of the ‘pagan’ Meccans. There are several traditional historical precedents, like Al-Shahrastānī (d.548) who preceded him by almost 1300 years. In his Milal, though a theological literature and not a historical one per se, Al-Shahrastānī gives a rich typography of the associationism[1] (or ‘shirk’)  of the said Meccans. This is after noting that they believed in the same Allāh as Muḥammad and that they were ‘Muwaḥḥidūn’, a term which shares the same root word as Tawhīd. (Al-Shahrastānī 1992; v.2, Ff.235) Both are defined conveniently by this writer as ‘monotheists’ and ‘monotheism’ respectively, though a more nuanced understanding and sui generis translation and definition of the concept of Islamic Tawhīd are aptly needed. Al-Mas’ūdī (d.956) also made the same claims in his Murūj, and unlike Crone, pointed out that the Meccans’ ‘shirk’ is not exactly monolithic but more spectral in nature. (Al-Mas’ūdī 1988; v.2 p.126)

Subsequently, the similarities between the Meccan Mushrikūn and ‘Muḥammad’s Muslims’ are more counter intuitive to the traditional account than one would think. This has precedent within traditional Islamic historical literature as well. According to Al-Baladzūrī (d.892), the Mushrikūn had a concept of prayer and offered it once or twice a day, though in a changed form. In fact, they even offered the “uā” (mid-morning) prayer at the Ka’bah.  (Al-Baladzūrī 1959; v.1 p.113) Evidence from the Qur’ān shows that their prayer too consisted of standing, bowing and prostrating; almost similar to Muḥammad’s Muslims’ prayers.[2]  This should be seen perhaps as a logical extension to the notion that they share the same Abrahamic God and that the Arabs were descendants of Abraham through Ishmael, according to the traditional account. It is clear that despite this historical narrative being mentioned and recorded in the traditional historical literature, it is severely understated and lacking in the analytical attention that it truly deserves. On the other hand, it could also lend support to the ‘late antique’ theory about Islam and how the latter is simply a continuity of the monotheistic trend of the Near East. A theory that is not necessarily antithetical to traditional Islamic belief that Muḥammad was the “seal of all the Prophets” before him from Adam.

In line with this, Muḥammad was hardly the first to start a ‘religious reform movement’ which preaches a kind of strict Tawhīd/monotheism in Mecca. According to Al-Baladzūrī, he was called Abū Kabshah, a nickname given to him after his progenitor Abū Kabshah Wajz ibn Ghālib Khuzā’ī who also preached the same kind of stark monotheism in Mecca before Muḥammad. (Al-Baladzūrī 1959; v.1 p.191) In fact, according to Al-Baghdādī (d.860) in his Munammaq, who also recorded this narrative, many were called Abū Kabshah prior to Muḥammad for the very same reason. (Al-Baghdādī 1964; Ff. 129)

  •  Christianity

Christianity had entered Arabia in the late antiquity before Muḥammad came. Some viewed that it was a “tactic employed by the Romans [who] employed some Arab tribes as “federates” and allies of the imperial army. [This in turn][…] increased the level of cultural exchange, and contributed to the spread of Christianity among the Arabs. (Berkey 2003; p. 44) However, even in traditional historical literature, there were Christians who formed part of the Meccan community, and whose significant role in the formative period of Islam is severely understated in the traditional account.

Al-Baladzūrī, for example, reported that Muḥammad’s first wife, Khadīja enquired two Christian scholars in Mecca after the angel Gabriel reportedly first revealed the revelation unto Muḥammad. In this account, one of the two scholars, Waraqah ibn Nawfal reportedly affirmed that Gabriel is God’s angel who calls on the Prophets thus calming Muhammad’s nerves. (Al-Baladzūrī 1959; v.1 p.111) Even if we are to cast serious doubt on the authenticity of this account, one could only ponder if Muḥammad’s initial hierophany was not validated by Waraqah, from a hypothetical perspective, would there even be an ‘Islam’ to begin with?

  • Judaism EarlyIslam

Christianity was not the only religion of the Near East with a significant presence in Mecca and a role in the formation of early Islam; there was also Judaism. The origins of Jewish communities in Arabia, however, is obscure. Newby, for instance, claimed that the Jews came to Arabia to seek refuge after the suppressions of the Palestine rebellions in the first and second centuries. Even before the rise of Islam, these Jews were already Arabised and integrated into the Arabian community; they spoke Arabic, had a variety of occupations, and had Arabic names.  (Newby 1988; Ff.14)

Subsequently, the Qur’ān itself uses terms such as ahbār and rabbāniyyūn[3], which is suggestive of the presence of rabbinical organisations in Arabia, which in turn, suggests a link to late antique Judaism when it took shape in Iraq and Palestine. (Berkey 2003; p.46) Even in traditional Islamic historical literature, the presence of the Jews is recorded and also understated. For example, Muḥammad’s grandfather, ‘Abd Al-Muttalib Al-Hashimī had a Jewish neighbour named Adina, but this hardly forms the traditional textbook historical narrative of early Islam. (Al-Baladzūrī 1959, v.1 p.72-73)

  • Persian faiths

Besides Christianity and Judaism, there was also the presence of Iranian faiths like Zoroastrianism which were known to the Arabs. The military presence of the Sassanians along the Persian Gulf and in Arabia, and the commercial and political links between Iraq and the Hijaz were perhaps the major contributing factors to this. Persian terms such as zandaqa which means “Manichaeism” were present in Arabia, so there is a high historical probability that Manichaeans were present in Mecca when Islam emerges. The Qur’ān itself contains Iranian religious ideas in the form of Persian loan words like firdaws[4]  which means ‘paradise’. (Berkey 2003, p.47-48)


While this writer agrees that more can be written and said about each of the sections above, the aim of this brief literature was to prove that a synergy between critical Western scholarship and Muslim traditional scholarship, with the utility of primary and secondary sources relied by both approaches, along with critical Western revisionist approach, are effectual in persuasively reconstructing the religious environment of early Islam and perhaps even in other periods of Islamic history. This essay has perhaps succeeded to provide an alternative account that Islam was not in fact born in a pagan environment but a multi-faith one with each faith playing a role in its early formation. It contributed as well to the late antique theory about Islam via the utility of traditional sources which recorded significant narratives and historical ‘facts’ yet are under-analysed and unselected by writers of the traditional account of early Islam.


  • Al-Mas’udy, ‘Ali ibn Al-Husein. Muruj Al-Zahab Wa Ma’adin Al-Jawhar. Vol. 2. Beirut: Al-Maktabah Al-Asriyyah, 1988.
  • Al-Shahrastānī, Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd Al-Karim Abu Al-Fath. Al-Milal Wa Al-Nihal. Edited by Ahmed Fahmi Mohamed. Vol. 2. 3 vols. Beirut: Dar al_kutub Al-‘Ilmiyah, 1992.
  • Al-Baladzuri, Ahmad ibn Yahya ibn Jabir. Jumalun Min Ansab Al-Ashraf. Edited by Hamidu Allāh. Vol. 1. Cairo: Dar Al-Ma’arif, 1959.
  • Al-Baghdadi, Muḥammad ibn Habib. Al-Munammaq Fi Akhbar Quraysh. Hyderabad, 1964.
  • Berkey, Jonathan P. The Formation of Islam: Religion & Society in the Near East, 600-1800. Cambridge University Press, 2003
  • Crone, Patricia. “The Religion of the Qurʾānic Pagans: God and the Lesser Deities.” Arabica (Brill) 57 (2010): 151-200.
  • Newby, Gordon Darnell. A History of the Jews of Arabia: From Ancient Times to Their Eclipse under Islam. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
  • Robinson, Chase F. Method and Theory in the Study of Islamic Origins. Edited by Herbert Berg. Leiden; Brill, 2003.



[1]I prefer to define ‘Shirk’ as ‘associationism’ rather than polytheism as the latter is not an accurate categorisation of the ‘pagan’ Meccans’ faith. I base this on Crone’s ‘The Religion of the Qur’ānic Pagans’, 2010.

[2]Cf. Qur’an 5:55; 2:125; 22:26.

[3]There are several studies on the non-Arabic (though mostly semitic) origins of some Qur’ānic terms.

[4]Cf. in Qur’ānic chapter Al-Kahf, verse 107.



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