A common feature of contemporary accounts of Islamic origins is greater attention to critical readings of historical sources. Historians are more aware than ever, as the adage goes, that Islam did not sprout from the sands of the Arabian peninsula and then radiate across the late antique Near East as a fully developed religious tradition. The identity of its earliest adherents was in a state of maturation and flux, as were certain beliefs about even such late fundamental points of doctrine such as the authority of the Prophet Muhammad and the nature of the Qur’an. The early historiographical traditions that developed over the following centuries are no longer taken at face value; scholars are increasingly cognizant of the biases and limitations of authors, as well as the historical processes underpinning the production and dissemination of historical material, be it written or oral. In other words, the traditional account of the rise of Islam—as presented, for example, in the sīrah (biographical literature) corpus represented by Ibn Isḥāq and Ibn Hishām—is undergoing a greater degree of scrutiny.
Stephen Shoemaker is one of the most prolific scholars championing for both a greater interrogation of these early Muslim accounts and a greater consideration of non-Muslim sources. In A Prophet Has Appeared: The Rise of Islam Through Christian and Jewish Eyes, A Sourcebook, he underscores the importance of the latter, making the point that “to rely solely on the early Islamic tradition in this case would be like writing a history of the Soviet Union during the Cold War using only Soviet newspapers” (7). Accordingly, the volume presents twenty of our earliest sources that complicate understandings of nascent Islam. However, this text is more than just a simple sourcebook of historical curiosities: Shoemaker has produced a sourcebook with an argument, and a compelling one at that.
Shoemaker lays out the argument of the volume in the introduction, which is critical to understanding his selection of sources and the themes that his readers may glean from them. There are three pillars to this argument: (1) the central place of Jerusalem and the Temple within the sacred geography of early Islam (later subverted by the emphasis on Mecca and the Ka‘ba); (2) the inter-confessional nature of the early Believers movement, which was open to both Jews and Christians (later displaced when the appellation “Muslim” developed into a distinctive identity marker, a thesis that Fred Donner formulated, such as in his Muhammad and the Believers [Harvard University Press, 2010], and Shoemaker develops); and (3) the apocalyptic character of Muhammad’s prophetic movement, which was oriented toward an imminent eschatology.
These and other theses feature prominently in some of Shoemaker’s other scholarship, such as the monographs The Apocalypse of Empire (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) and The Death of a Prophet (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), which expand upon his larger arguments. Indeed, Shoemaker provides one of the most cohesive alternative visions to the emergence of Islam. A Prophet Has Appeared is a pivotal piece of this vision.
The twenty sources of the volume represent—as is suggested by the subtitle—early historical witnesses of early Islam not penned by Muslims themselves, and therefore generally free from internal prejudices and self-images (though, as Shoemaker is quick to point out, they are not free from their own prejudices). The book therefore joins the ranks of similar collections, such as Robert Hoyland’s Seeing Islam as Others Saw it (Darwin Press, 1998) and Michael Penn’s Envisioning Islam (University of California Press, 2015). There is some overlap between these works; for example, Penn collects twenty-eight sources, eight of which overlap with Shoemaker’s sources. However, Penn restricts his sources to those written by Syriac Christians, and Shoemaker includes the testimonies of Jews and works written not only in Syriac but also Arabic (e.g., The Apocalypse of Ps.-Shenoute, based on a Coptic original), Armenian, Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Additionally, Shoemaker limits his sources to those written within the first century of Islam as well as those that reflect something of the beliefs or practices of the early believers. Each source is helpfully sandwiched between (1) an introduction to its authorship and context, and (2) Shoemaker’s commentary on its importance.
Shoemaker’s introductions and commentary distinguish themselves through their readability and academic value. Shoemaker has evidently conducted extensive research into each source, with his commentary and endnotes thoroughly engaging previous scholarship and contending with the perspectives of other scholars. He makes many novel contributions, as is the case with his translation of Jacob of Edessa’s Fourth Letter to John the Stylite (203), a correction to the version found in Penn’s Envisioning Islam. Shoemaker’s well-informed commentaries guide student and scholar alike in seeing the relevance and connection of each to the larger picture. For example, his commentary on The Book of Main Points by John bar Penkaye assists in guiding the reader to see the connections between this outsider’s account of the Second Civil War (or Fitnah) and the narrative provided by Islamic tradition.
Some readers may take issue with the author’s uniform preference for alternative accounts, but he also encourages readers to draw their own conclusions from the sources. I, for one, find arguments for the apocalyptic character of early Islam and the amorphous nature of early Muslim identities to be more compelling than the cases for the centrality of Jerusalem over Mecca, but I am willing to be persuaded. It is not evidently clear to me, to take one example, why Shoemaker exclusively reads the aforementioned letter of Jacob of Edessa in a way which locates the Ka‘ba in Palestine rather than the Hijaz—both readings seem feasible. This sourcebook may not entirely sway those historians and readers bound to traditional accounts of early Islamic history, but they will doubtlessly find these sources and the author’s commentary valuable. Readers will at least be convinced, one hopes, that historical voices outside of the traditional narrative are worth heeding.
Andrew J. O’Connor is assistant professor of theology and religious studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.
Andrew J. O'Connor
Date Of Review:
October 18, 2021
Stephen J. Shoemakeris professor of religious studies and Ira E. Gaston Fellow in Christian Studies at the University of Oregon. He is a specialist on early Christian apocrypha, devotion to the Virgin Mary, and the rise of Islam. He is the author of The Death of a Prophet, The Apocalypse of Empire, and Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion, among many other publications.
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