Interview with Jonathan Brockopp, author of Muhammad's Heirs

Despite figuring prominently in most contemporary historical accounts of early Islam, communities of Islamic scholars did not in fact emerge until after Islam’s first generations. By underscoring the importance of material evidence in recounting this history and attending to the different phases of the evolution of Islamic scholarship, Jonathan Brockopp, in his book Muhammad’s Heirs: The Rise of Muslim Scholarly Communities, illumines new ways of understanding how these early scholarly communities developed within Islam. On November 20th, 2017, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston, I had the pleasure to meet with Dr. Brockopp to discuss his recent book.  –Kirsten Boles, Assistant Editor

KB: What got you interested in Islamic history to begin with?

JB: I actually came into Islamic history through the study of Arabic. I was living in Germany at the time and was attending graduate school at Tübingen University. I was interested in comparative religion, but I didn’t really know what direction I would choose. Tübingen happens to have a very strong Arabic program, so I started taking Arabic, and I fell in love with the language. That was the beginning of my interest in the study of Islam.

KB: What changed with the development of scholarly communities in early Islam, and what factors contributed to this development?

JB: One of the problems I address in this book is the idea that these scholarly communities existed from the very beginning of Islam. There is this presumption that Islam couldn’t have existed without scholarly communities and that there were even people who were called the “scholars of the Prophet of God” who were Muhammad’s Companions at that time. Historically, that couldn’t possibly have been the case. There were no madrasas, and the study of Islamic law only developed much later. We know that. What I’m interested in doing in this book is comparing that memory of that early period with the material evidence that we have. I’m not trying to say one is the right answer or the other, but I instead try to explore the different stories that these two strands tell us.

KB: In what ways do you see the historical legacy of the emergence of Muslim scholarly communities in contemporary Islam?

JB: One of the things that is interesting about Islam is who stands in authority, who defines what the tradition is. There is no priesthood in Islam. There is no tradition that there must be somebody to judge that this is the way you do it, and this is the way you don’t do it. Because of this, it is the scholars—similar to what Rabbis do in Judaism—who are the arbiters of what the tradition is. The question then is where do these scholars come from and what was it that gave them authority to begin with? Today, in the modern Muslim world, people constantly look to scholars for the definition of Islam, for ideas of who’s in and who’s out, and who’s doing the right thing and who’s not. The question of authority and how it developed is central to the book.

KB: And do you see traces of this in contemporary Islam?

JB: Absolutely. Whether we are talking about Sunni or Shi’a, scholars play an enormous role in Islam. The role is quite different in those two traditions, but in both it really is the scholars who determine everything from ethics to Islamic law to proper theological views. Scholars are absolutely active in the modern world, but things have changed in terms of authority in Islam, as they have in every religious tradition. So, women, for example, are today taking on some of these roles as scholars, taking on positions of authority, and that challenges some of the traditional narratives of who the scholars are and what the boundaries of scholarship are.

KB: Were there any roles for women in the time period that you covered?

JB: The role of women is, of course, very interesting, and it’s all tied up in questions of gender and construction of gender. So, traditionally, no. All the very famous scholars are male. But we know that women were involved in lots of ways. Recovering that is not central to this book, but it really is an interesting aspect of early Islamic history. And that’s very important for women today. As they reach back into the tradition, Muslim women can excavate these stories and see in those exemplary women an example for themselves.

KB: Defining the category of the Muslim scholarly community, would you consider people like Aisha or Hafsa, two of the wives of the Prophet, as scholars of Islam?

JB: Yes, especially if we start with the position that there were no official scholars around the time of Muhammad, then what were the boundaries? There were exemplary individuals, such as Aisha, such as Hafsa, who then were sought out for their memory of the time of the Prophet, and who were sought out for their own exemplary actions. But there weren’t communities of scholars then who were studying books. The role of books and book-learning as well as the role of communities is bound together, and there is what one scholar has called the “magical limit” about 200 years after the hijrah, about 815 CE, where we see book-learning becoming much more significant within the tradition. Once that comes into play, then women and women’s roles are almost completely erased from the tradition.

KB: You mention a “magical limit” in which book-learning was introduced in the scholarly study of Islam. Could you say more about that and the role the codification of the Qur’an possibly played in that history?

I don’t want to characterize this introduction of book-learning as a shift from oral to written tradition, because the oral tradition never went away. It still is there today. Ibn Khaldun talks about books as having an eternal life, but that the scholar who thinks that they can learn just from a book without a guide to lead them through that knowledge is lost. In the early community, we have evidence of writing, of note-taking from a lecture, but it’s ultimately that personal experience with the scholar that is the most important. However, book-learning does change things. Eventually, around that “magical limit” of the year 815 CE, real books start to come into play. What I mean by “real books” is an attempt to pass down verbatim a text from one scholar to another. And that kind of learning requires a community, a community that’s disciplined in the arts of verbatim transmission. Why would they do that? Why does that become important? That’s one of the central questions that I ask in the book: Why does that shift happen?

The history of the Qur’an is different, however. We have two kinds of Arabic writing in the earliest period: we have the history of the Qur’an and we have documentary evidence—for instance, papyri that tell us about tax receipts. I argue that these were two different kinds of expertise that required different kinds of training: bureaucrats and secretaries produced documents on papyri, while another group produced our earliest Qur’an manuscripts. I call this second group “proto-scholars” because their devotion to careful production and transmission of the Qur’an lays the foundation for the writing and transmission of scholarly texts.

KB: How does knowledge and knowledge-seeking figure into Islam’s history—or the many histories of Islam—and what is the relationship between knowledge-seeking and authority in this history?

JB: Knowledge is central. By “knowledge” one could mean several different words, but ʿilm (علم) is the central word here. This kind of knowledge is very special in Islam. In not only Muslim understanding but in the understanding of the world at that time, ʿilm came from God directly. Human beings could access this in several different kinds of ways: you could access it through dreams; you could be a particularly adept person who receives this like a prophet; or you could be somebody who, like a philosopher, works by patiently uncovering the internal workings of the world. These different ways all lead to the same end because there can be only one ultimate knowledge, as there can only be one concept of God in the Muslim understanding. Everybody has different ways of getting there. Some are more direct, some are more indirect. The one who is the possessor of this knowledge—the ʿālim, a member of the ʿulamāʾ (علماء)— is somebody who has a direct connection to the divine realm. This is important because no individual then can actually embody this divine knowledge. It is much larger than any single individual could possibly comprehend. So, there is a certain humility built into the idea of what knowledge is in the Islamic context, and there are limitations on any particular expertise in knowledge.

KB: How do you see your book contributing to the field of Islamic studies?

JB: There have been a lot of questions about how one interprets material evidence and the role of material evidence, especially in the early period. In my book, I am critical of the way that some scholars have used material evidence to develop some really radical critiques of the early Islamic period, such as suggesting that Muhammad never existed and that the word “Muhammad” just means someone who was praised, or that the name actually refers to someone else entirely, or that it was created 200 years later. One way in which my book intervenes into the field is by showing that material evidence can help ground our critique of those theories and correct some of them.

A second intervention concerns this question of where the ʿulamāʾ came from and what factors caused them to arise. I distinguish between, on the one hand, proto-scholars—the first generations of individuals who have some kind of expertise and who work not in communities but who were consulted individually—and then, on the other hand, the process of developing communities of scholars, and the role of writing, and especially of book-writing, in these communities. I ask not only who the scholars are but also how we are to understand the role of writing and developing scholarly authority.