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The Analysis of the Historical Development of the Distinct Self Muslim Identity Construction Vis-À-Vis the Christian-Western Civilization-PART ONE


By Adis Duderija, New Age Islam

This is the first in the series of three articles analyzing the historical development of the formation of Muslim identity from the emergence of Islam to the present.  In the first part the analysis covers the time of the prophet up to the end of the ear of the “rightly guided caliphs”.

a) The Prophetic Era (600-622 AD)

The context of the emergence of Prophet Muhammad’s Message in 7th century Hijaz was such that it took place alongside other already well-established religious communities, most important of which were, apart from Arabian pre-Qur’anic beliefs, Judaism, Hanifiyyah and Christianity.

The very fabric and nature of the Message embodied in the Qur’an clearly depicts many of the events and the nature of the relationship between the Muslim community and the non-Muslim Other and vice-versa. From the outset it is essential to point out that the Qur’anic attitude (and Muhammad’s praxis) towards the non-Muslim Other is highly contextual in nature and therefore ambivalent or context-dependent. The aspects of religious identity continuity and commonality with other faiths are intertwined with those of the emergence and emphasis on the Muslim identity originality and distinctiveness. This leads Waardenburg to assert that “Looking back at the interaction of the new Islamic religious movement with the existing religious communities, we are struck by the importance of socio-political factors” (Waardenburg, 2003, 99). Apart from the socio-political factors “religious ideas” were also significant since the Qur’an based gradual shaping of the Muslim religious identity is inextricably linked with the religious identity of others, notably Jews and Christians (Zebiri, 1997; Donner, 2002-2003; Donner 2010). Thus, the religious aspects of and the inter-actions between various religious communities at the time of the actual period of Revelation led to the genesis of a religious identity for Muslims and played a very important role in its construction (Zebiri, 1997)

For most of the Muhammad’s Prophethood the construction of a Muslim identity took place in circumstances characterised by the fight for religious survival, inter-tribal conflicts and the constant presence of external threats, firstly coming from the Makkan tribal leaders whose ethico-religious and socio-economic belief system and worldview Muhammad rebelled against, and later from the side of the main Jewish tribes of Medina and so called munafiqun or Muslim hypocrites. Another trend significant for this study is the ever–growing religious self-consciousness of the Prophet of Islam (and his early community). Whilst attempts to find common ground and syncretism featured more frequently during the earlier periods of his life, later periods stressed “features constituting specific identity and what distinguished one [i.e. Muslims] fundamentally from others” (Waardengurg, 2003, 44). For example, commenting on the early Muslim view of the Byzantines in the days of Prophet Muhammad, Shboul (2004, 242) makes the observation that attitudes of Muslims “developed from sympathy and affinity, reflected in the early Qur’anic verses, to awe and apprehension of Byzantium’s military power, scorn of Byzantine wealth and luxury, and finally anticipation of open antagonism and prolonged warfare.” Jews and Christians were recognised as recipients of previous revelations (Ahl-Kitab) and were, eventually, awarded the status of dhimmis or minority religious communities protected under Islamic law.

Another point to be considered in this period is the Qur’anic concept of a hanif / millat Ibrahim seen as a primordial monotheistic Ur religion based on belief in the One, True God as embodied by Abraham’s Message (Arabic -Ibrahim) which is considered as the universal norm and as potentially the final evolution in Muhammad’s attitude towards the religious – Self and the Other (Waardenburg, 2003, 87-94). It is, however, unclear whether the Prophet of Islam himself identified “historical Islam” “as the only or merely one possible realisation of the primordial religion, the Hanifiyyah, on earth” (Ibid, 106-107).

Additionally, an “Islamo- centric view” of Muslim perceptions of the Other stem from a certain interpretation of the nature of Qur’ano-Sunnahic teachings. This view is based upon the premise that the Qur’an is a source of empirical knowledge of the Other that is to be applied universally, a historically and decontextually.

In his study of the extent to which Prophet Muhammad and Qur’anic scripture emphasised confessional distinctiveness Donner demonstrated that scripturally(or based upon the Qur’anic evidence) in early Islam “ the community of Believers was originally conceptualised independent of confessional identities”(Donner, 2002,12) and that:

It was only later –apparently during the third quarter of the first century A.H., a full generation or more after the founding of Muhammad’s community –that membership in the community of Believers came to be seen as confessional identity in itself-when, to use a somewhat later formulation of religious terminology, being a Believer and Muslim meant that one could not also be a Christian, say, or a Jew.

In other words, Donner adduces a substantial amount of evidence that it could be argued that Qur’anically (some) Jews and Christians qualify as Mu’minun (believers) as well as muslimun, i.e. those who ‘submit’ to God (Donner, 17-24; 28-34).

b.) The Era of “Four Rightly Guided Caliphs” (622-661 AD)

It is difficult to track the development of Muslim consciousness and the construction of religious identity among the leaders of the post-Prophetic Muslim community vis-à-vis the non-Muslim Other due to a scarcity of available literature on first century Islam in general. However, the trend to form a religiously distinct identity amongst the early Muslim community seems to have increased with the rapid expansion of Arab conquests of non-Arab lands and as their need for self-definition vis-à-vis- the Other became more common place (Donner, 1998, 282). This tendency is noticed by Donner (2002-2003, 46-47) who maintains that:

It seems likely that the relinquishing of a broader identity as Believers and the crystallization of a separate identity as Muslims, distinct from other monotheisms, took place concomitant with the increasing emphasis on the importance of Muhammad’s prophetic or apostolic status among Believers.

Importantly the emphasis of Muhammad’s Prophethood claim, as evident in the evolution of the wording of the Shahadah, argues Donner, began only when “some Jews and Christians began to challenge his [Muhammad’s] prophetic status” (Ibid, 66-67).

Additionally, during this period the internal schisms triggered by political disagreements increasingly evolved into theological and doctrinal ones. This, in turn, further highlighted the need to Self-define oneself antagonistically vis-à-vis the Other, in this case also the “Other kind of the Muslim-Other.” This phenomenon is best understood in the emergence of a number of Muslim sects such as the Khawarij, Murji’ah, and the Alids etc., during this period. The universal basis for the construction of religious identity embodied by the spirit of Hanifiyyah/millet Ibrahim started to become more suppressed although the confessional identity of believers at this time was still inclusive of some Jews and Christians (Donner, 2002-2003, 28; cf. Donner, 2010). In this context Donner (ibid) makes a very interesting assertion:

It is therefore, not entirely capricious to suggest that for the first few decades of the Islamic era, the Believers may have been quite ready to accept among their number those Christians and Jews who shared their zeal to spread the message of God and the Last Day, and who agreed to live piously by the law, even though the theological implications of some passages in the Qur’an would eventually exclude the ahl-kitab (i.e. Jews and Christians) from the ranks of Believers.

Thus, argues Donner, the broader and looser confessional identity of Believers (Mu’minun) which could subsume the Christians, Jewish and Zoroastrian communities started to be replaced by the more distinctly defined identity of Muslims (Donner, 1998, 277; 284). Like in the case of many other key concepts forming the Islamic Weltanschauung, the word Momin underwent a semantico-contextual change being equated with the word Muslim. The concepts of Ahl-Kitaband dhimmis instead gained broader legitimacy and were applied to other religious communities such as the Zoroastrians in Islamic Persia or, with the expansion of the Mogul Empire in the 15thand 16th centuries, to Hindus in the Indian subcontinent.

During this time-period Arab-Islamic civilisation, although now expanding well outside the Arabian Peninsula, was still in its infancy and was dominated by numerous internal political and theological conflicts ( Watt,1998), thus civilisational interactions giving rise to potential trans-cultural spaces were not significant enough to influence religious identity construction at the civilisational ummah level.