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Militant Islam Monitor > Articles > The Fantasy Islam Of The University Of Chicago's Fred Donner (Part 2)

The Fantasy Islam Of The University Of Chicago's Fred Donner (Part 2)

February 1, 2019

The Fantasy Islam of the University of Chicago's Fred Donner (Part 2)


In Part 1, we looked at Donner's book Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam and saw that Donner's premise of an ecumenical "Believers' movement" founded by Muhammad was not supported by fact. In Part 2 we will look at more misinformation in Donner's book.

Five prayers a day was established after Muhammad's death?

On p. 62 Donner wrote that the Koran specified three prayers a day but it said nothing about five daily prayers. He wrote:

The systemization of ritual prayers into five clearly defined times – a systemization that occurred in the century after Muhammad's death – does not seem yet to have taken place (at least the Qur'an provides no compelling evidence for such systemization)…

So according to Donner, the compulsory five daily prayers was a ritual that was not systematized until decades after Muhammad's death (also see p. 215).

Donner is correct that the Koran does not explicitly specify five prayers a day (although there are some Koran verses that are understood by authoritative Muslim scholars, beginning with Muhammad's cousin ibn ‘Abbas, to indirectly refer to these five prayers[1]).

But he is incorrect about when these five daily prayers were systemized. According to al-Tabari, soon after Muhammad received his first revelation he was taken up into the seven levels of heaven by the Angel Gabriel. During this journey Muhammad met Allah who gave Muhammad the requirement of five daily prayers for the Muslims.[2] The Muslim scholar Ibn Ishaq also related the story of how Allah had required the five daily prayers, and Ibn Ishaq even wrote that the Angel Gabriel visited Muhammad and actually prayed with Muhammad to show him the appropriate manner and time for each of these five prayers.[3] Muhammad then had the prayers called at the appropriate time and his followers copied his prayer ritual.

Al-Tabari and ibn Ishaq were trusted sources used by Donner, and both of these early Muslim scholars had written that the five daily prayers had been established (systemized) during Muhammad's early years in Mecca, and not "in the century after Muhammad's death." But this information would not have fit well with Donner's narrative about the Believers' movement.

Muhammad went to Medina to "reunify and heal" the town?

On p. 42 Donner had an interesting take on why Muhammad moved to Medina (Yathrib):

The people of Yathrib who sought out Muhammad were yearning for someone to reunify and heal their town.

On p. 74 Donner wrote:

Traditional narratives describe how Muhammad was invited to Yathrib/Medina to serve as arbiter of disputes between feuding tribes there, particularly the Aws and Khazraj and their Jewish allies.

The "people of Yathrib" who were initially attracted by Muhammad's teachings were from the Arab Khazraj tribe. But were they really "yearning for someone to reunify and heal their town"?

Donner also raised the question about why Muhammad had been accepted by the Khazraj but rejected by his fellow Meccans. According to Donner this was one of the "stubborn questions" that the traditional sources had left "unaddressed" (p. 52):

…the historian is faced with many stubborn questions that the sources leave unaddressed…For example, why were the pagans of Medina so readily won over to Muhammad's message, while the Quraysh of Mecca resisted it so bitterly?

I was surprised about Donner's claim that this was a question that had not been addressed. From the standpoint of the Meccans, Muhammad's preaching that there was only one god was an attack on their ancestral polytheism and the prosperity of Mecca. For many years Mecca had been a destination for pilgrims because it was the location of the Ka'ba, the sacred building housing several hundred pagan tribal gods. Providing food and lodging for these pilgrims was a lucrative business for many Meccans. But now Muhammad was denying all of these tribal gods and going around preaching that there was only one god. Consequently, resistance to this new religion started building among the Meccans. Donner himself had even touched on part of this reason on p. 41!

So why did Muhammad have success when he first approached a small group of the Khazraj in the year 620? This was not an "unaddressed" question because one of Donner's own sources, al-Tabari, had explained it this way:

One of the things which God had done for them in order to prepare them for Islam was that the Jews lived with them in their land. The Jews were people of scripture and knowledge, while the Khazraj were polytheists and idolaters. They had gained the mastery over the Jews in their land, and whenever any dispute arose among them the Jews would say to them, "A prophet will be sent soon. His time is at hand. We shall follow him, and with him as our leader we shall kill you as ‘Ad and Iram were killed." When the Messenger of God spoke to this group of people [the Khazraj] and called them to God, they said to one another, "Take note! This, by God, is the prophet with whom the Jews are menacing you. Do not let them be before you in accepting him."[4]

This was similarly explained by ibn Ishaq, another one of Donner's sources.[5]

So this small group of Khazraj had not accepted Islam because of Muhammad's religious discourses and recitation of Koran verses; they had accepted Islam because they believed that Muhammad was the prophet with which the Jews had been threatening them. These six men of the Khajraz wanted to be the first to join with that prophet against the Jews.

This explanation for Muhammad's success with the Khazraj was reinforced when he met with a larger group of Khazraj Muslims in 622, shortly before the Muslims started emigrating to Medina. These new Muslims took an oath of allegiance to Muhammad and swore to protect him as they would their wives and children if he came to Medina. This was known as the "Second Pledge of al-‘Aqabah." This oath of allegiance included a pledge to wage war against all of mankind:

When they gathered to take the oath of allegiance to the Messenger of God, al-‘Abbas b. ‘Ubadah b. Nadlah al-Ansari…said, "People of the Khazraj, do you know what you are pledging yourselves to in swearing allegiance to this man?" "Yes," they said. He continued, "In swearing allegiance to him you are pledging yourselves to wage war against all mankind."[6]

The Medinan Muslims (the Ansar) would later say:

We are those who have given the Bai'a (pledge) to Muhammad for Jihad (i.e. holy fighting) as long as we live.[7]

This oath of allegiance also meant that the Muslims in Medina would have to sever their ties with the Jews of Medina. One of these Muslims said to Muhammad:

O Messenger of God, there are ties between us and other people which we shall have to sever (meaning the Jews). If we do this and God gives you victory, will you perhaps return to your own people and leave us?" The Messenger of God smiled and then said, "Rather, blood is blood, and blood shed without retaliation is blood shed without retaliation. You are of me and I am of you. I shall fight whomever you fight and make peace with whomever you make peace with."[8]

Muhammad did not have initial success in Mecca because he was threatening to upset the religious/social/economic order. He had success in Medina because he was considered the prophet who would come in and crush the Jews and give power to the new Muslim converts in Medina. To claim that Muhammad was invited to Medina as an "arbiter" to "reunify and heal" the town is a work of fiction that ignores the writings of authoritative Muslim scholars, including two that Donner had listed as sources.[9]


On pp. 47-48 Donner wrote:

Then, according to traditional sources, in 6/628, Muhammad and a large following marched unarmed toward Mecca with the avowed intention of doing the ‘umra or "lesser pilgrimage"…the fact that they set out without weapons was meant to confirm their peaceful intentions.

On p. 65 Donner repeated this claim that Muhammad and his followers were "unarmed" at the time of that pilgrimage.

But early authoritative Muslim scholars reported it quite differently:

Ibn Ishaq noted that Muhammad had a quiver of arrows, that one of the Muslims was standing by Muhammad "clad in mail," that a small band of Meccans had attacked Muhammad's camp "with stones and arrows" but had been captured by the Muslims (difficult to do if the Muslims had been unarmed), and ‘Umar, a Muslim leader, was wearing a sword.[10]

Al-Tabari reported that after Muhammad had travelled only a short distance toward Mecca,

‘Umar said to him, "Messenger of God, will you without arms or horses enter the territory of people who are at war with you?" So the Prophet sent to Medina and left no horses or weapons there untaken.[11]

Al-Tabari also reported that Muhammad had a quiver of arrows, that a Muslim standing next to Muhammad had a sword and a "mail neck-protector," that there was brief armed fighting between some of the Muslims and Meccans, and that ‘Umar was armed with a sword.[12]

Ibn Sa'd reported that the Muslims left Medina carrying swords and that Muhammad had a quiver of arrows.[13]

Al-Waqidi reported that the Muslims were wearing swords, that at one point the Muslim "cavalry" faced off with a Meccan "cavalry," that Muhammad had a quiver of arrows, that a Muslim with a sword and wearing a helmet was standing by Muhammad, and that Muhammad had a spear.[14]

If there was any doubt about the Muslims being armed, there were two reports that showed that Muhammad was prepared to do battle.

Muhammad had sent a spy ahead as he was travelling toward Mecca:

The Prophet proceeded on till he reached (a village called) Ghadir-al-Ashtat. There his spy came and said, "The Quraish (infidels) have collected a great number of people against you, and they have collected against you the Ethiopians, and they will fight with you, and will stop you and prevent you from entering the Ka'bah." The Prophet said, "O people! Give me your opinion. Do you recommend that I should destroy the families and offspring of those who want to stop us from (going to) the Ka'bah?"[15]

Muhammad would not have talked with his followers about confronting their opponents and destroying the families of those opponents if the Muslims were unarmed. However, despite being armed, the Muslims decided to engage peacefully with the Meccans instead of fighting them.

And al-Tabari had written that after they had arrived outside Mecca, Muhammad sent ‘Uthman into Mecca to talk with the Meccan leaders. Muhammad was later erroneously informed that ‘Uthman had been killed by the Meccans. Muhammad gathered the Muslims together to swear allegiance to him (the Pledge of al-Ridwan) and said, "We will not leave until we fight it out with the enemy."[16] Negotiations with the Meccans resumed after Muhammad found out that ‘Uthman had not been harmed. Here again, there would have been no talk of fighting the Meccans if the Muslims had been unarmed.

Unfortunately Donner did not identify the "traditional sources" that supposedly claimed that Muhammad and his followers marched "unarmed" toward Mecca. On the other hand, we can see that many authoritative early Muslim scholars, including two of Donner's sources, had, to the contrary, written that Muhammad and his followers were actually armed.

Muhammad changed the direction of prayer (qibla) on his own?

On p. 214 Donner wrote that there was evidence that "early Believers from Arabia…participated in the prayer practices of some of the Christian (and Jewish?) communities they encountered," including having an east-facing direction of prayer. He noted, however, that as the "Believers" transitioned into "Muslims" they started praying in a different direction to differentiate themselves from non-Muslims. Donner then wrote this curious statement:

It is possible that the vague traditional reports about Muhammad himself changing the direction of prayer during his early years in Medina are a retouched, vestigial memory of this change, projected back to the time of the prophet to make it acceptable to later generations.

Why would Donner ascribe this to "vague traditional reports" when earlier on pp. 44-45 he had written that "according to tradition":

At first Muhammad and his Believers faced toward Jerusalem in prayer, as the Jews did, but after some time Muhammad ordered that the Believers should conduct prayers facing Mecca instead. This change of qibla (prayer orientation), which is mentioned in the revelation (Q. 2:142-145), may reflect Muhammad's deteriorating relations with the town's Jews, who according to traditional sources were for the most part not won over to his movement.

This change in the qibla happened around February 624,[17] and as Donner noted, the change in the qibla is found in the Koran – Chapter 2:142-145 (and also 148-150). But contrary to what Donner wrote, these Koran verses show that it was actually Allah who had commanded the change in the direction of prayer toward Mecca, and this was done in response to Muhammad's request to change the prayer direction. In addition, ibn Ishaq and al-Tabari had also written that Allah had commanded the change in the qibla.[18]

Why would Donner state that Muhammad himself had changed the qibla when the Koran and two of his sources clearly stated that it was Allah who had commanded that change? And why would Donner refer to "vague traditional reports" when the change in the qibla is noted in the Koran, and on p. 53 of his book Donner had written that the Koran was "the most important source of information about the early community of Believers"? Perhaps it is because the claim that "vague traditional reports" about Muhammad himself commanding the change had been projected back in time better fits Donner's narrative about the supposed transition from the "Believers movement" to "Muslims."

Cathisma Church and shared places of worship with Christians

Donner not only claimed that early Arab Believers had shared prayer practices with Christians, but also that the Believers and Christians had actually shared places of worship. He wrote (p. 115):

Indeed, the Arabian Believers may even have shared places of worship with Christians when they first arrived in a new area…Some archaeological evidence seems to support the idea of joint places of worship as well; excavation at the Cathisma Church, a Byzantine-era construction between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, has revealed that in its final phase it was modified to accommodate the Believers by the addition of a mihrab or prayer niche on the south wall (facing Mecca), while the rest of the building continued to function as a church oriented in an easterly direction.

On p. 250, in his "Notes and Guide to Further Reading," Donner referred to an article by Leah Di Segni to support his statement about the final building phase of the Cathisma Church, and Donner referred especially to p. 248 of that article.[19] But examining subsequent pages in that article raises some interesting considerations about the timing of this final building phase.

Jerusalem surrendered to the Muslims in 637. If the Cathisma Church was an example of how the "Believers" and the Christians worshipped together when the "Believers" first arrived in an area, it would appear that the addition of the mihrab for the "Believers" would have been done within a few years after the surrender of Jerusalem; in other words sometime during the middle of the 7th Century.

However, Di Segni had a different approach to dating the addition of the mihrab. De Segni wrote on p. 248 that there were three building phases to the Cathisma Church:

…the foundation phase, dated by written sources to ca. 450, a renovation in the sixth century, and another in the early Muslim period, in which a new mosaic pavement was laid and the southern part of the church was adapted for the use of Muslims by the addition of a mihrab, while the rest of the building apparently continued to function as a church. The third and last pavement is dated by the excavators to the eighth century…

But on pp. 248-250 Di Segni discussed one of the outer rooms on the southern side of the church that appeared to have also been built during that third phase. After examining the information found in a Greek inscription in the mosaic floor of that room, Di Segni added a new time frame for the third building phase of the Cathisma Church:

Therefore, one is tempted to date the pavement of this room – and possibly the entire renovation of the church – not to the eighth but to the ninth century.

According to Donner, the final building phase of the Cathisma Church appeared to have been done around the middle of the 7th Century. However, according to his source for this information, the final building phase was really done in either the 8th or the 9th Century.

The timing for this final building phase is muddied even more by Donner's statement on p. 214:

The evidence of the Cathisma Church, with its east-facing apse and the south-facing mihrab or prayer niche added in the final phase of construction, presumably reflects architecturally the very moment when the Qur'anic Believers began to redefine themselves as "Muslims," distinct from their erstwhile Christian co-Believers.

Was this "very moment" in the 7th, 8th, or 9th Century?

In Part 3 we will look at additional examples of Believers "sharing" places of worship with Christians.

The Koran was revealed about Muhammad?

On p. 53 Donner wrote that each verse of the Koran was revealed about "a particular episode in the life of Muhammad." Unfortunately, Donner is not correct.

Islamic Doctrine teaches that the verses of the Koran can be divided into two categories:

1. Those verses revealed because of a specific incident or occurrence. Such verses "must have been revealed in response to the occurrence, and give an answer or ruling pertaining to that occurrence."

2. Those verses revealed without a preceding incident or occurrence. Most of the verses in the Koran were revealed without a particular preceding incident.[20]

Since most verses in the Koran were not connected to a particular incident, that means that many, if not most of the events that occurred during the time of Muhammad had no direct connection to verses in the Koran. But the claim that each verse of the Koran was connected to a particular incident in Muhammad's life allows one to not only provide new meanings to Koran verses, but to also ignore the early biographical writings of authoritative Muslim scholars which, as we have seen and will see again, often contradict Donner's claims about his Believers' movement.

When was the Koran really codified?

On p. 54 Donner wrote:

…finally, about twenty years after Muhammad's death, the scattered written and unwritten parts of the revelation were collected by an editorial committee and compiled in definitive written form.

Donner later wrote on pp. 153-154 that this compilation was done by ‘Uthman, the third Caliph, who decided "to codify the Qur'an text." According to Donner, ‘Uthman asked "a team…to collect and compare all available copies of the Qur'an and to prepare a single, unified text."

This is a surprisingly inaccurate claim by Donner because in reality, the codification of the Koran started within months of Muhammad's death.

During Muhammad's lifetime the revelation of verses in the Koran had not been collected into one book because the revelations kept occurring, and Muhammad would indicate where among the previously revealed verses a new revelation was to be placed. When Muhammad died in June 632 the revelations ended. While many of the Koran verses had been written down by scribes, others of the verses had only been memorized by one or more of the Muslims who had reportedly heard them from Muhammad. In the Wars of Apostasy that began after Muhammad's death, some of these Muslims were getting killed in battle. Consequently, in December 632 Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, commanded that all of the verses, whether written down or only memorized, be collected in order to be put into one book. There were a few Muslims who had memorized all of the verses in the order which Muhammad had recited them, so it was in this order that the verses were codified. Only one copy of the Koran was created, and it was kept in safe-keeping by Muhammad's widow Hafsa.

In 644 ‘Uthman bin Affan became the third Caliph. For many years the Muslim armies had been spreading Islam throughout the region, and in the rapidly growing Muslim world there were starting to be differences in how the Koran was being copied and recited. Consequently, ‘Uthman obtained the original copy of the Koran from Hafsa and ordered additional copies to be made. These additional copies were then sent to the various regions of the Muslim empire, and ‘Uthman ordered any other existing copies of the Koran, or portions thereof, to be destroyed.[21]

One can only wonder why Donner was not aware of the original codification done by Abu Bakr.

On to Part 3

There is even more misinformation to be found in Donner's book, and we shall wrap it up in the third, and final part.

[1] "Are the five daily prayers mentioned in the Qur'an?" Islam Questions and Answers; accessible at https://islamqa.info/en/answers/1092/are-the-five-daily-prayers-mentioned-in-the-quraan.

[2] Abu Ja'far Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari: Muhammad at Mecca, Vol. VI, trans. and annotated W. Montgomery Watt and M. V. McDonald (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1988), pp. 78-80.

[3] The Life of Muhammad (Sirat Rasul Allah), pp. 186-187, and 112-113, respectively.

[4] The History of al-Tabari: Muhammad at Mecca, pp. 124-125. This reason was also noted in Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul Wahhab at-Tamimi, Abridged Biography of Prophet Muhammad, ed. ‘Abdur-Rahman bin Nasir Al-Barrak, ‘Abdul ‘Azeez bin ‘Abdullah Ar-Rajihi, and Muhammad Al-‘Ali Al-Barrak (Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Darussalam, 2003), p. 160; Safiur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar (Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Darussalam, 2008), pp. 175-176; and Safiur Rahman Mubarakpuri, When the Moon Split (Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Darussalam, 2009), p. 151.

[5] The Life of Muhammad (Sirat Rasul Allah), pp. 197-198.

[6] The History of al-Tabari: Muhammad at Mecca, p. 134. This statement by al-‘Abbas b. ‘Ubadah was similarly reported in The Life of Muhammad (Sirat Rasul Allah), p. 204; and The Sealed Nectar, p. 192.

[7] Sahih Al-Bukhari, Vol. 5, Book 63, No. 3796, p. 86.

[8] The History of al-Tabari: Muhammad at Mecca, p. 133. For a similarly worded report seeThe Life of Muhammad (Sirat Rasul Allah), pp. 203-204; The Sealed Nectar, p. 191; and Abridged Biography of Prophet Muhammad, p. 166.

[9] For more on the crucial role that the Khazraj played in Islam see my article "Islam could have died with Muhammad," Jihad Watch, February 8, 2018; accessible athttps://www.jihadwatch.org/2018/02/islam-could-have-died-with-muhammad.

[10] The Life of Muhammad (Sirat Rasul Allah), pp. 501, 502, 503, and 505, respectively.

[11] Abu Ja'far Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari: The Victory of Islam, Vol. VIII, trans. and annotated Michael Fishbein (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1997), p. 71.

[12] Ibid., pp. 73-74, 76, 79-81, and 87, respectively.

[13] Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Sa'd ibn Mani' al-Zuhri al-Basri, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, trans. S. Moinul Haq (New Delhi, India: Kitab Bhavan, 2009), Vol. 2, pp. 117 and 119.

[14] Muhammad b. ‘Umar al-Waqidi, The Life of Muhammad: Al-Waqidi's Kitab al-Maghazi, trans. Rizwi Faizer, Amal Ismail, and AbdulKader Tayob, ed. Rizwi Faizer (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 281, 286, 289, 292, and 302, respectively.

[15] Sahih Al-Bukhari, Vol. 5, Book 64, Nos. 4178-4179, p. 303. This was similarly reported in The Life of Muhammad: Al-Waqidi's Kitab al-Maghazi, p. 285.

[16] The History of al-Tabari: The Victory of Islam, p. 82.

[17] The Life of Muhammad (Sirat Rasul Allah), p. 289.

[18] The Life of Muhammad (Sirat Rasul Allah), p. 259; and Abu Ja'far Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari: The Foundation of the Community, Vol. VII, trans. and annotated W. Montgomery Watt and M. V. McDonald (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1987), p. 24.

[19] Leah Di Segni, "Christian Epigraphy in the Holy Land," Aram 15, 2003, pp. 247-267.

[20] Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi, An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur'aan (Birmingham, UK: Al-Hidaayah Publishing, 1999), p. 107.

[21] For an interesting overview of how the Koran was compiled see Jalal-al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Suyuti, The Perfect Guide to the Sciences of the Qur'an, trans. Hamid Algar, et al. (Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing, 2011), pp. 137-153.


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