Early Islam may not have been the same as today’s Islam: Interview with Mun’im Sirry

Alfiatul Rochmah| CRCS | Interview

In 2015, Mun’im Sirry, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in the US, who has been teaching over the past months at the State Islamic University (UIN) Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta, published a book in Indonesian titled Kontroversi Islam Awal (Controversies over Early Islam). As the title already suggests, it is about debates on the early history of Islam. Earlier this semester, Sirry presented on Islamic Christology at the CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum and now CRCS student Ari Alfiatul Rochmah has interviewed him about his approach to these issues and their significance.

Mun’im Sirry speaking at the CRCS-ICRS Wedneday Forum, Sept 27, 2017.


Would you tell us briefly what your book Kontroversi Islam Awal (Controversies over Early Islam, 2015) is mainly about?

The book was written primarly for general audience although it contains some ideas that may not be familiar with people in general. But the book was written in such a way that can be understood by people in general. The book is about most recent scholarships on the Islamic origin. I try to put into conversation between the traditionalists who argue that Islam came from Arabia based on the traditional Muslim sources and the group called the revisionists. By the revisionist I mean those people who call into question the traditional narrative that Islam was already complete from the begining. They question the historicity of the classical sources that had been written by the Muslims after the life of the Prophet; whether the information contained in them is reliable enough.

Why do you think Muslims need to reassess Islam’s early history?

I think it is important because what is lacking among Muslims is historical awareness; we take at face value what has been described in the traditional sources. We no longer approach the traditional sources with critical eyes. What we can learn from the revisionist scholarship is how to have more critical assesment of the history of this religion, because the sources that describe the life of the Prophet and the origin of Islam were written much later, after the death of the Prophet.

There are at least three issues with regard to the Muslim sources. First, as I just said, is that these sources were written much later than the events they tried to record. The earliest source we have about the life of the Prophet was written by Ibn Ishaq who died in 150 H (761 CE), meaning this book was written more than 100 years after the death of the Prophet. So, the question is how confident we are with the information contained in these kinds of sources. Even today when we talk about the life of Soekarno, the first president of this country, we still debate where he was born. Now imagine that Muhammad was born in a remote area in Arabia with no recording at all and the book was written more than 100 years after his life.

The second issue is that, if you look at just one source, you will see that everything is clear; that Muhammad was born in Mecca and then he migrated to Medina and so on. But if you consult other sources, not just the one written by Ibnu Ishaq, but also others written by al-Tabari (839-923), by al-Baladhuri (d. 923 CE), etc, you will see some contradictions, at least in details. So, for historians, the fact that there are contradictions in that description of the life of the Prophet raises an important issue about its historicity.

The third issue is that often times when you talk about an ideal figure you attempt to idealize in describing his life. Much infomation about the life of the Prophet seem to be projected backwards: authors wrote books idealizing and glorifying the Prophet and they saw that this Prophet is the real historical living prophet in the seventh century. They imagined the Prophet in their life in the ninth or tenth century, but then they projected this imagination about an ideal prophet as if it were the real Muhammad, the historical Muhammad. So, yes, like we don’t really know about the historical Jesus, we in fact don’t know much about the real historical Muhammad.

Were there any political interests in the construction of the history of Islamic origin?

Yes, there are some political issues. If you look at the earliest author of the biography of the Prophet, Ibn Ishaq, he himself was one of important figures in Medina. He lived in Madinah and had a conflict with another important figure at that time, namely Malik ibn Anas (711-795 CE) who later became the founder of the Maliki school (madhhab) of Islamic law and jurispudence (fiqh). So, because Malik was more prominent than him, he decided to leave Madinah for Baghdad which was the capital of the Abbasid caliphate. And the book he wrote, titled Sirah an-Nabiy meaning The Biography of the Prophet, was written as a present, as a gift to the Abbasid caliph. So, you can imagine that he should describe the Abbasid in certain ways to please the caliph, right? He made sure everything good about al-Abbas, uncle of the Prophet, the reason why the Abbasid caliphate was called Abbasid. But by any standard Al Abbas was not an ideal Muslim; he was not a good Muslim. He accepted Islam only after the conquest of Mecca (Fath Makka), two years before the Prophet passed away, when there was no other choice other than accepting Islam, while he fought against the Prophet in Medina. So, there was a political consideration when writing the book.

Besides books on the biography of the Prophet (sirah), we still have hadith that are more strict as to its chains of transmission and selection. Aren’t hadith reliable enough?

Well, hadith is a source of theology. If you want to know what Muslims believe, you should study hadith. It is not a primary source of history, but it can be seen as a historical document. Your question concerns isnad (the chain of transmission), and people try to defend the historicity of Muslim sources on the idea that the sources were based on reports transmitted by trustworthy people over generations, traced back to the first witness during the life of the Prophet. But there is one among the tabi’in (followers of the companions [sahabah] of the Prophet) named Ibn Sirin (d. 729 CE) who was reported to have said something like we were not used to providing names of people when we reported certain narration (riwayat) or statement, but when later conflicts took place among Muslim communities, everybody began asking what is your isnad? Therefore we put names in order to support our report. So, the use of isnad itself is a later development. If we look at early reports written by earliest Muslim scholars, for example those written by Hasan al-Basri (d. 728 CE) who is one of the earliest Muslim scholars, addresing the question about qadariyya (Islamic theological trend advocating the idea of humans’ free will), he mentioned several hadith but he never provided any isnad. The use of isnad was not common; it doesn’t mean that it was not used at all, but it was not common. It was common later when people wanted us to provide the isnad to support our claims. But then, the problem was that everybody provides their own isnad based on their own ways. So, in order to support your position you mention certain hadith; you mention certain riwayat; and you said my hadith is reported by so on and so on. And because of this, later Muslim scholars developed methods in order to distinguish the right or authentic isnad from the false ones. The science about these methods is called ‘ilm al-jarhi wa at-ta’dil, which literally means the science of condemning someone and praising someone. So, the reliability of hadith depends on the transmitters; if they are trustworthy, the reports coming from them should be accepted.

So how do the revisionists reconstruct the history of Islam if they don’t accept the reliability of isnad?

The revisionists prefer to use sources that were written closer to the life of the Prophet. They use, for example, chronicle literatures written by Christians or Jew who lived in era close to the era of the Prophet. One example of this approach is the one advocated by a very smart scholar named Patricia Crone (1945-2015) along with her colleague Michael Cook. Crone and Cook wrote a book titled Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977). This book is a product of a new experience in the way that both based their analysis on non-Islamic sources. The picture that we have from using non-Islamic sources is very different from the one presented in traditional Islamic sources. Crone for instance said that Islam did not originate in Hijaz (Mecca and Medina) and the hijrah is not that the Prophet migrated from Mecca to Medina, but rather the Arabs who migrated from Mesopotamia to Jerusalem. So Crone has already developed her theory based on non-Islamic sources. But she seemed to change her mind in her later lectures  and publications as she came to rely on the Islamic sources but with more critical eyes.

I’m curious what is your position in this debate between the traditionalists and the revisionists?

Maybe I would call myself a revisonist but not a skeptic. I think it is very difficult to claim the Muslim sources all together have no use. But certainly there are myths; there are unreliable stories in the Muslim sources. What we need to do in dealing with the Islamic sources is critical thinking. I still believe that these Muslim sources can be used to reconstruct the history of Islam. However these sources must be approached critically. So, in that sense I differ from the radical revisonists, but I’m in agreement with the revisonists that if we base our reconstruction of the history of Islam on the Muslim sources only, it is not reliable. You know, I don’t believe that the Islam as we know it today is the same Islam from the time of the Prophet. In my thinking, the formation of Islam as we know it today took place over a much longer period than the Muslim sources seem to assume.

Has this critical study of early Islam been prevalent among Western academia? And how is the response in Indonesia?

Yes, some of the revisionit ideas are no longer revisonist; they have been accepted by critical scholars. But of course, some issues are still alien to people living in Indonesia. So, the book was published about 2-3 years ago and I haven’t seen any reactions against the book. But it is most likely that they don’t have the book, or haven’t read the book seriously, or maybe they don’t agree but they don’t know how to reject these ideas. So, it is very interesting, you know, that I have never seen any serious refutation of the ideas presented in the book.

What do you think about the future of Islamic studies in Indonesia?

What we can learn from revisionist scholarship is how to develop critical thinking, that is what is lacking in our scholarship. We used to accept everything at face value without question. We accept as if those ideas presented by early scholars are the only correct ideas that cannot be questioned. Something we can learn from this revisionist prespective is that often times the ideas we accept without question actually have no historial basis. We already know from our teachers that the Quran was already put into a single book during the time of the first caliph, Abu Bakar, then during the time of the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, the Quran became canonical, became a textus acceptus, and therefore the Quran that we have is called Mushaf Uthmani, meaning the text of the Uthman. However we don’t really know exactly, because we don’t have manuscript that can be traced back to the time of Uthman.

So, what we can learn from revisonist scholarship is that when we examine not only the manuscripts but also books written by Muslims themselves, it seems that canozation of the Quran took place much later then we assume because even Muslim scholars like Ibn Abi Du’ad (d. 854 CE) wrote a book titled Kitab al-Masahif. The title is interesting; it means the book on masahif or mushafs (Quranic texts) in plural. So there was not only one mushaf. We will find in this book, Kitab al-Masahif, a report in which the caliph of the Umayyad Dinasty along with his governor in Iraq, named Hajjaj ibn Yusuf (d. 714 CE), commissioned some people to edit the Quran; and there were six members of this commission and they debated among themselves wheter to exclude or include certain pages of the Quran, whether to read the Quran in certain way, and so on; there were sixty points of debate.

That is what we can learn from the revisionists: the way in which we should develop more critical thinking, more historical awareness about the history of this religion, the history of the text of the Quran and so on.

Thank you.


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