Islam and Its Past

Jahiliyya, Late Antiquity, and the Qur'an

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Carol Bakhos, Michael Cook
Oxford Studies in the Abrahamic Religions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This edited volume by Carol Bakhos and Michael Cook, in memoriam of Patricia Crone, is a multi-disciplinary collection of scholarly studies, focusing primarily on the Qurʾan with a general reflection on revelation in Islam. It retains the main title of a conference held in October 2013 at the University of California, Los Angeles on the conferment of the Levi della Vida Award to Crone. With an introduction setting the scene to all articles and outlining them briefly, the work begins with a pertinent chapter by Devin Stewart who offers an excellent survey of the current field of Qurʾanic Studies , its history, and revival with newer lines of research, while also sharing drawbacks in western scholarship. Nicolai Sinai follows by exploring the internal archaeology in the opening sequences of suras 5 and 9 in two Medinese chapters to reconstruct their redaction history following aspects of Biblical scholarship, contending this approach to be promising. By contrast, Joseph Witztum probes into a specific dilemma in Q 33:69 with its exegesis, shedding light on the familial lives of Moses and Muhammad while also portraying  the degree to which early exegesis is steeped in biblical tradition. Interpretation in general arose as a natural consequence to Muhammad’s own explanation of the message he brought. Yet, in the narrations of former prophets, described as “the genius of Muslim tafsīr” by Andrew Rippin, fascinating aspects emerge for “it was the Prophet of Islam who gave to these legends an entirely new meaning, finding the events of his own life reflected in them” according to Tilman Nagel.

The Meccan milieu of the Qurʾan is then explored by Crone and what it tells us of late antiquity, how Muhammad’s audience was well-informed regarding biblical and para-biblical literature, and how this in turn became a source of authoritative knowledge for him. She concludes that despite God-fearing people having existed for at least six hundred years, no one had taken upon themselves to address other gentiles, let alone to believing Jews and Christians.  Angelika Neuwirth takes this further to posit the Qurʾan as a text of late antiquity within an Arabic literary milieu, creatively employing typologies from the Biblical tradition that become part of community worship practice. Scholars who pronounce “epistemic” concerns tend to relocate the Qurʾan out of Arabia into an indeterminate Christian space to reinterpret it, dissociating it from the historical event of Muhammad’s prophetic communication. While such studies offer distinctive perspicacity, the Qurʾan in reality needs to be read on its own terms rather than being sieved through other traditions with their own genres and histories of reception. Additionally, its whole exegetical tradition needs due recognition and consideration because of its inherent capacity to engender fresh meanings and perceptions as Jane McAuliffe suggests. The debate on the “presumed sources” of Muhammad as expressed in the Qurʾan is not a new one, and points to either a Jewish or a predominantly Christian influence. Already in the early 1960s, Gibb in his article on “Pre-Islamic Monotheism” regarded these arguments as inconclusive while unhesitatingly accepting the “sending down”—tanzil or wahy—inner communication as descriptions of Muhammad’s personal experience.            

In the next article, Gerald Hawting presents some individuals who proclaimed themselves as rivals to Muhammad in the 7th century, besides those who imitated him after his death as the Ridda prophets. Analyzing conflicting ideological reports, he concludes that the evidence is more limited even if Islam did emerge in a milieu of Biblical tradition of prophecy. Al-Tabari records al-Aswad, a leader and soothsayer of the Yemeni Madhḥij tribes who captivated many, such that Islam put forward a principle that there was no divination after prophethood. A contemporary poet, Umayya Ibn Abi al-Salt, was an opponent of Muhammad and both were reputably hostile to each other, precluding any influences between them. Umayya never accepted Islam while some identify him as a ḥanīf although William Montgomery Watt denies such ascriptions as apocryphal. The word ḥanīf itself occurs in the Qurʾan, repeated for those with real and true religion and used specifically for Abraham as a possessor of pure faith. 

Cook compares and contrasts early medieval attitudes to pagan law in Christian and Muslim traditions. From the Christian side, pagan law is valid unless overridden by specified revelation. Conversely, among Muslims pagan law is not valid unless confirmed by revelation. Within both faiths, law may emerge from custom to be adopted as valid law, but the difference is over who is qualified to affect the new dispensation. The kings and those in the assemblies were responsible among the Christians, while among the Muslims God and His Prophet were the lawmakers, even when interpreted by imams and jurists. In the final article, Iwona Gajda sheds new light on monotheism in South Arabia based on a rereading of rock inscriptions as well as epigraphy on wood. There are also several inscriptions from Yemen and Palestine that attest to Jewish communities, both those respectful of the Torah as well as those considered heretics by the rabbis. Several Christian inscriptions from the 6th century name God Rahmanan, this being common to all monotheists of South Arabia including Jews. In fact, monotheism influenced by Judaism was dominant but neutral and this explains why Judaism in South Arabia is ignored in Jewish sources, writes Gajda. The existence of groups representing a monotheistic tradition is historically certain and fully acknowledged in Q. 53: 33-54 according to Hamilton Gibb, which is why the prophet’s teachings found resistance.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Arzina R. Lalani is Research Associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies.

Date of Review: 
February 4, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carol Bakhos is professor of Late Antique Judaism and Jewish Studies at UCLA. Since 2012 she has served as Chair of the Study of Religion program and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA. Her publications include The Family of Abraham: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Interpretations (Harvard University Press, 2014) and The Talmud in Its Iranian Context (Mohr Siebeck, 2010).

Michael A. Cook is professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. His publications include The Koran: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2000) and Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective (PUP, 2014).


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