By Tanvir Akhtar Ahmed
The origin of Islam is one of the most fiercely debated fields in modern discourse. In the current atmosphere, it is a subject that begs address. However, any attempt to deal with Islam's inception must first face down the enshrinement of a pervasive Orientalist myth: that the religion of Islam arose in a vacuum.
Even the very imagery of Islam's beginnings often relies on the picture of sand flowing across an empty desert (perhaps as a solitary, melancholy oud strums in the background). This is a dangerously misleading image.
Yes, Islam has some roots in the rural western coastland of the Arabian peninsula. But it has other foundations in the fairly cosmopolitan city of Mecca -site of pilgrimage and trade fairs, once home to diverse religions, from various cults of idols to forms of Christianity. Islam's cornerstones were also laid in the oasis-citadels of Medina, which was less of a cohesive city than a cluster of tribal strongholds, many of which were predominantly Jewish. Its first satellite community was established by exiles in the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia. Islam's central figure, the Prophet Muhamad, was by all accounts fairly well-traveled, having had encounters with merchants and monks in his journeys, which took him from Roman Syria to Yemen (home to various Christian communities and formerly ruled by an independent Jewish dynasty).
Yet Muslims and non-Muslims alike continue to advance the idea that Islam had no connection with the landscape in which it was cradled. In the formative period of Euro-American scholarship on Islam, many advanced the view that Muhammad was a "confused" would-be religious reformer with distorted notions of Christianity. Some of these scholars put forth that Muhammad assembled apocryphal Biblical texts and passed them off as his own invention, perverting Christianity and Judaism past the point of recognition (thus severing any meaningful relationship with those communities).
On the other side of the spectrum lies a theological (and sectarian, and in some cases modern) narrative of Islam's revelatory text being free of editorial meddling in all arenas save arrangement, and free of any dependency on prior religious expressions for its own existential identity (thus making sophisticated engagement with other religious material unnecessary). This narrative also tends to imply that Islam lost its breath after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, becoming chained to a particular time and place for its own identity (seventh-century Arabia, in this case), creating the myth of a particular "origin" period in the first place.
Traces of both these strains of thought are visible today in many forums. Their continued presence is clear in the way that Islam is often compared to Judaism and Christianity by everyone from neocolonial pundits to interfaith activists. These figures enjoy picking various verses from Islamic scriptures and contrasting them with sets of verses from Judeo-Christian scriptures, to make a series of worthless points: Islam is more/less peaceful than other religions, Islam is worse/better to women than other religions, Islam is more/less rational than other religions, etc. But all of this is sheer nonsense.
We must approach a possibility uncomfortable for many -that Islam not only arose out of a religiously diverse milieu that included Jews and Christians (among others), but that its central scriptures were in direct conversation with these communities, commenting upon them and arguing with them and approving of them and condemning them. Furthermore, the composition of the early Muslim community was largely drawn from the aforementioned groups.
It is uncritical to claim that this background would have no effect whatsoever on the adherents of the religion that came to be known as Islam. Does it make sense to assume that those who joined the Prophet Muhammad's movement had all their memories, stories, intellectual leanings, and theological bents simply erased by some all-pervasive force from the heavens? Can it be that Islam utterly annihilated the former identities of these early partisans? Anyone who has met more than one Muslim today will know that this is an insupportable notion, for despite a shared religious identification, no two Muslims look alike -something that will not be surprising for anyone who acknowledges the sometimes-overlooked fact that Muslims are, indeed, human.
Early Muslim intellectuals were themselves very aware of their particular context, and made no attempt to hide it. In addition to Koranic scripture, these first generations often utilized the stories and sayings of Muhammad, Biblical material (both apocryphal and "canonical"), and popular tales about prior religious figures (such as Jesus) as integral pieces of their own religiosity.
Far from uncritical efforts at comparison, some Muslims engaged other religious sources and did not shy from using them in their own works. Entire Islamic literary forms, such as the "tales of the prophets" genre, relied more on Jewish and Christian source material (sometimes known as "Isra'iliyyat") than on anything found in the Koran, which is not always entirely forthcoming on prophetic biographical details. Only after the institutionalization of religious authority by scholars patronized by oppressive dynasties did an all-encompassing grand narrative become advanced -though for the past fourteen hundred years, Muslims across sectarian boundaries have constantly contested and challenged such narratives with their own imaginative visions of history.
As we go forward today, we must also challenge those grand narratives that are not only dishonest and essentialist, but also threatening. The effort to understand Islam's early years is key to its survival as a dynamic center of strength and guidance for Muslims the world over.
Islam is not nearly as alien as some have made it out to be. It was born in the greater Hellenistic world of Late Antiquity, and has always been in conversation with the traditions it has encountered. It is this spirit of desire for knowledge, truth, and understanding -- a spirit which so many throughout time have channeled- that we must harness and project for the sake of our own mutual understanding, betterment, and human camaraderie.