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The imagined and the historical Muhammad.


Since John Wansbrough, Albrecht Noth, and Uri Rubin introduced the 'literary turn" to the study of the origins and rise of Islam, scholars of the field have found themselves facing a shibboleth of sorts: Has the recognition of the literary character of the source material precluded the possibility of reaching factual truth, or is the dismissal of the Islamic source material unwarranted extremism? How is it possible to extract positive knowledge from the mass of legendary material? Is there a sound methodology to deal with the material, and where does it lead? No matter how individual scholars go about it. these questions require a response before any findings can be assessed appropriately. In the course of modern studies on the beginnings of Islam, different answers have been given, with different reasoning. Fred Donner has summarized the development of approaches as a sequence from a descriptive, positivist attitude represented by the optimism of nineteenth-century Orientalists through the source-criticism of Wellhausen and the tradition-critical work of Goldziher and Schacht to the "skeptical approach." Under this last rubric Donner lists John Wansbrough's work informed by the textual analysis of biblical studies, and that of Crone and Cook, who drew the radical conclusion of these textual studies and abandoned hope of extracting historical information from Islamic sources altogether. (1) Ever since, any serious historical study in this field has to clarify its stance regarding the authenticity and source value of the early Muslim tradition, Qur'an, slra, hadith. and historiography.


The necessity of reflection on methodological challenges is not always acknowledged, however. Numerous popular and pious accounts of the life of Muhammad and the rise of Islam continue to offer more or (mostly) less critical rewritings of the central narrative source, Ibn Ishaq. In In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad, Tariq Ramadan claims to narrate the life of the Prophet in an "academically rigorous" manner, "in regard to classical Islamic sources." (2) There is no bibliography in this volume, but a quick glance at the endnotes reveals that he did not consult any source other than the Qur'an. Ibn Ishaq, and the classical hadith collections. The purpose of the book, however, is not historical, but didactic and paraenetic: "Because Muhammad's life expressed the manifested and experienced essence of Islam's message, getting to know the Prophet is a privileged means of acceding to the spiritual universe of Islam." Interestingly, he also emphasizes that this life story is "devoid of any human tragic dimension" (p. 7). Taking the Qur'anic statement about the purely human character of Muhammad as a starting point, Ramadan attaches all kinds of lessons on values, strictly in line with the requirements of modern life, to the narrative of the Prophet. While insisting on the reality of the Night Journey, he skirts the discussion about its physical character, suggesting instead that the moral lessons to be derived from it are more important (p. 73). Thus, Ramadan's Muhammad can be taken as a prime example of how the mainstream of the Islamic tradition is actualized under the premises of modernity. While his results from the interpretation of individual episodes may differ, his method is not substantially different from that of other Islamic scholars who mine the life of the Prophet for lessons to be learned by modern Muslims. Another scholar, who like Tariq Ramadan has often been hailed in the media as an example of "liberal" Islam, a problematic label on several counts, is Fethullah Gulen, who has also produced a book of lessons to be learned from the life of the Prophet, although he has abandoned the narrative structure in favor of a more thematic approach. (3) Both works indicate to what degree the connection between historical and religious truth claims remains intact among Muslim scholars. As long as religious truth has to be substantiated by historical evidence, any challenge to the source amounts to an undermining of religion itself for the pious, while for the historian piety becomes an obstacle to objective research. Few scholars have drawn the consequences, either by deliberately restricting themselves to the narrative and relying on its own mythical power, like Martin Lings, or by dismissing the material world with which the historian is concerned as irrelevant altogether, like Seyyed Hossein Nasr. (4)

In the modern era, there has not been a shortage of the hagiographical accounts of the life of Muhammad that projected distinctly contemporary ideals onto his persona. (5) One strand in this tradition is the depiction of Muhammad as a military leader, which probably began with Ahmet Refik [Altinay]'s treatise, written when he was an instructor in the Ottoman military academy, and continued with M. Hamidullah's compilation, first published in 1937. (6) The secularizing tendency inherent in these works, which dispenses with the religious and spiritual dimension of Muhammad's life, logically culminates in this history being taken up by non-Muslims. (7) Richard A. Gabriel is a retired U.S. military officer and a prolific military historian, who has also published Genghis Khan's Greatest General, Great Battles of Antiquity, and The Military History of Ancient Israel. Published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2007, Muhammad: Islam's First Great General is entirely derivative in its source base, drawing primarily on standard modern biographies by Watt and Rodinson, in addition to Muhammad Hamidullah's earlier attempt to write Muhammad's life from the viewpoint of military history. It is intended to show that "Muhammad was more than a great field general and tactician, He was a military theorist, organizational reformer, strategic thinker, operational level combat commander, political and military leader, heroic soldier, revolutionary, and inventor of the theory of insurgency and history's first successful practitioner" (p. xix). What follows, however, is an entirely conventional, if not trivial, account of the major battles during the Prophet's lifetime. As a tribute to more sensationalist interests, it does not spare grueling details as reported in the classical sources, such as the death of Hamza and the revenge wrought by Hind bt. 'Utba on his corpse--certainly not a central topic of military history. Yet to draw parallels between Muhammad, as a leader of an insurgency, and the North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap (p. xxiii) also invites, in a book published in 2007, parallels to be drawn between the rise of Islam and the insurgency in Iraq, thus opening the door to all kinds of historically problematic and politically volatile conclusions about a jihadi insurgent essence of Islam.

It is not the political or religious agenda per se, however, that makes these biographies of Muhammad so problematic from a historical point of view. At a more serious academic level--especially in the U.S.--demand for introductory texts on the life of Muhammad continues unabated, due presumably to a persistent belief that Islam can most easily be understood through its origins. The textbooks for general undergraduate classes and an interested broader non-Muslim audience equally tend to be based on secondary literature and to ignore the profound problems of divergent sources and their disputable historicity. Irving Zeitlin is a professor emeritus of sociology; he has no access to sources in Arabic, and no chance of original research. His The Historical Muhammad attempts to elucidate aspects of that history by using sociological theories, including Ibn Khaldun, in conjunction with current primary research in the field. He opens his series of discussions of scholarship with a paraphrase of Donner's summary cited above, and thus seems to indicate his awareness of the foundational problem of sources and source criticism. Alas, he does not draw the consequences: subsequent chapters are more or less obviously centered around the set of seminal essays republished by Uri Rubin, (8) while countless equally critical studies in English, not to mention other languages, are ignored; in his discussion Zeitlin indiscriminately juxtaposes William Muir's arguments with those of Crone and Cook without realizing their methodological incompatibility. Unaware of the complexities of the Islamic tradition, and of its conflictual origins, and informed by sociology's search for clearly distinguishable social groups, Zeitlin reproduces a simplistic picture of late antique Arabian society. Seeking an explanation for what to him is the emergence of a religio-political mass movement, he finds that out of the four basic conditions, widespread discontent, ideology, charismatic leadership, and organizational strategy and tactics (p. 154), practically none was operative in Mecca, but all of them were in Medina. This is hardly a new insight, and it is marred by the absence of any analysis of the message of the "movement," the Qur'an. There is nothing to gain from Zeitlin's book for the specialist, while it is likely to cause confusion among non-specialists as it reverts the discussion back to the state that the work of Buhl, Watt, and Rodinson, to name but a few, had overcome. It is not insignificant that the title The Historical Muhammad appears on a book cover with a miniature from the life of the Prophet taken from one of the most legendary and ahistorical accounts in Islamic literatures, framed by a manipulated text in Arabic characters (in fact, Ottoman Turkish) that the designer obviously did not expect anybody to understand. (9)

All these works start out from, and perpetuate, the illusion that there is actually a significant body of firmly established factual information about the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the origins of Islam, despite the warning of Maxime Rodinson: "'A biography of Mohammed limited only to absolutely unquestionable facts could amount to no more than a few dry pages." (10) They all can and should be studied as examples of how the wealth and malleability of the Islamic tradition allows the creation of imagined Muhammads in accordance with all kinds of different ideas and ideologies. However, any historiographical attempt that still ignores the fundamental questions raised by the series of critical studies as discussed by Donne? is doomed to obsolescence at the time of publication.


It is against this background of uncritical literature in particular that one appreciates the fresh approaches in Tilman Nag-el's double opus maius, Mohammed: Leben und Legende, and Allahs Liebling: Ursprung und Erscheinungsformen des Mohammedglaubens. This is the summa of a lifetime--and an admirably productive lifetime at that--of research by the doyen of Islamic Studies in Germany. (11) It is fair to say that Nagel's work stands out as the most thorough and the most independent account of the life of the Prophet for many decades. In fact, this reviewer has difficulty recalling any previous synthesis of the period that combines the same in-depth familiarity with the textual tradition with a coherent critical vision. This is not to say that Nagel's two books under review are the final word. But it is a corpus that no serious study in the future will be able to ignore.

Both books are conceived independently and can be read as such, as there is a certain amount of overlap between the two. However, they clearly form a chronological and logical sequence. Muhammad: Leben und Legende ("Muhammad: Life and Legend1'; henceforth, MLL) narrates the life and work of Muhammad up to the point where the emerging mythilication definitively eclipsed the memories of the historical personality, in other words, up to the establishment of Islam, which Nagel dates to the late Umayyad period. Allahs Liebling ("Allah's Beloved"; henceforth, AL) studies the subsequent life of the hagiographical and theological traditions about Muhammad and their impact on Islam.

MLL comprises eight chapters in roughly chronological order, each of them built around a central motif in the life of Muhammad. Nagel situates the origins of Islam at the intersection of local and regional power struggles: Byzantines vs. Sassanians, northern vs. Yemeni Arab tribes, struggles between Quraysh and Mudar, descendants of 'Abd al-Dar vs. those of 'Abd al-Muttalib, etc. Nagel's attention to the complexities of tribal affiliations, the different alliances between tribes and clans such as the mu'attarun and the akabish, and the dynamic of social and religious practices defies a simplistic description of pagan Mecca. According to Nagel, the loosely structured tribal society of Arabia was shaken up by the ascent of the northern tribe of Quraysh to power over all of Arabia, beginning with the immigration of Qusayy to Mecca, and his and his descendants' usurpation of the cult of the Ka'ba from the Khuza'a tribe. Quraysh's predominance at the Ka'ba was threatened in later generations. At the same time, Christian influences made themselves felt. The hanifs developed a form of Hochreligion, which claimed Abraham as an ancestor. Quraysh had ties to Palestine, where a cult of Abraham is attested in early Christian sources. The same connection also accounted for political allegiances to the Byzantine Empire.

Nagel's depiction of early Meccan society is based on the Qur'an and other early Islamic texts, read closely, and always in respect to their apologetic or polemic context. Numerous traditions, whose elements are seemingly at odds with standard knowledge, suddenly make sense (e.g., MLL, 84). Close attention to factions and allegiances is key throughout the book: the reader is constantly reminded of tribal and kinship connections or antagonisms of protagonists and transmitters of texts. The result often makes for difficult reading, but it is frequently the difficulty, the tension of the different pieces of evidence that make the analysis fruitful.

In chapter 2, "A Pagan Prophet" (Nagel's rendering of al-nabi al-ummi; MLL, 178-80), Nagel lays out one of the main arguments that run through the entire text: building on his presentation of the role of the Ka'ba, Nagel suggests that Muhammad's initial impetus was nothing more than an attempt to reclaim his clan's domination over the local cult. To this end. he progressively mustered ancient traditions of inspired speech, the tradition of hanifs, and Christian and Jewish traditions. Thus, Nagel develops his Muhammad out of local structures rather than in contradistinction to them. Where modern Western scholars often tread a fine line not to offend Muslim beliefs in the Qur'an as the word of God, Nagel takes a decidedly atheistic stance. For him Muhammad is plainly the author of the Qur'an, and Allah speaking through him is "Muhammad's alter ego."

The chronology of Qur'anic texts is the crucial guide in this chapter. Based on his own previous studies, Nagel largely agrees with the chronology as determined by Noldeke/ Schwally and Bell: he argues that codification in writing did begin already during the lifetime of the Prophet, leading to the parallel existence of a body of oral recitations and a book, and that texts from the recitation were often redacted when they were included in the book at a later time (for example, sura 12 [Yusuf], revealed in Mecca but incorporated in Medina; MLL, 139IT.). Much attention is paid to the evolving idea of revelation from a suffering of inspiration in the way of pagan soothsayers to one patterned after a "bureaucratic" relationship of master and disciple (MLL, 90). Similarly, the theological concept evolved over time: monotheism is still lacking in the first suras, but is taken up as Muhammad appropriated the beliefs of the hanifs, which provide a convenient foundation myth for the Kaba through the link to Abraham (MLL, 173). The Kaba will remain the center of Muhammad's ambitions: in Nagel's view, the emigration to Medina was not Muhammad's new start in the foundation of a community, but only a detour, leading back to the original goal via Hudaybiyya. Consequently, Nagel dismisses the depiction of the Meccan period as one of suffering for Muhammad as later, specifically Abbasid, propaganda, while a view of the Meccan experience as Muhammad's triumph is equally tendentious, in favor of the Umayyads (MLL. 189).

Chapter 3 deals with the deteriorating situation in Mecca and the rivalry with the Banu Makhzum, for which sura 105 is a prime example (MLL, 194). The interest in local power and Muhammad's reactionary rather than revolutionary impulse lead Nagel to a second thread of arguments throughout the book: the disconnect between Muhammad's own interests and those of the community, i.e., those who followed his preaching. Nagel points to a constant discrepancy between the impact of the message and the ambitions of the messenger. Challenging the existing social order was the last thing that Muhammad had in mind. On the contrary, says Nagel: "His history since the middle part of the Meccan period is the history of his avoiding the social consequences of his message. He avoided them in such a way that he diverted these consequences so that they conformed with his convictions of the superior rank of Qusayy, Abd Manaf, Hashim, Abd al-Muttalib. He would die at a point where he almost achieved this goal, but underneath the surface of the Medinan community shaped according to his ideas, new powers had formed for a long time, which give a new interpretation to his work, one more in conformity with his teachings, and thus not only permit, but require a new social reality" (MLL, 206).

Islam spread frequently without Muhammad's involvement, as evident from the emigration to Ethiopia (which Nagel attributes more to Jafar b. Abi Talib) and the formation of the community in Medina, but also from men like Tufayl b. Amr. who remained a member of his tribe and did not join the Muslim community until much later. Not every new institution was welcome, however, viz. resistance against the idea of prostration before Allah (MLL, 222). The sequence of suras 28 and 7 illustrates the mounting tensions, as do Muhammad's threats against the Meccans (MLL, 238ff.). The spread of the legend of the ascension is depicted as a propagandistic ploy, in denial of the failure and the necessity to leave Mecca. Instead, it further exacerbated tensions in Mecca, a situation that became definitely untenable after the failed mission to Ta'if. Nagel berates Muhammad for the delusion of casting himself in the role of Moses (as suggested by sura 7) while seeking an alliance with the Banu Thaqif (MLL. 243). Thus, ultimately, Muhammad's emigration and that of his followers from Mecca appear as two different events "which have the same cause, but occur independently of one another" (MLL, 251).

Up to this point, Nagel has presented the story as a struggle of ideas and arguments at two levels: the ideas put forward in the message and their place in the sociopolitical context of events of the day, and the struggle of ideas in the tradition about the interpretation of the message and the events. According to Nagel, the development of the religious dimension of Muhammad's message ended with the migration (MLL. 602). Had the Meccan period been aiming at restoration, the situation in Medina as described in Chapter 4, "The Faith," offered the space to create something new. Sura 2 is the first set of rules ordering the community (MLL, 280ff.), later followed by sura 4. which Nagel labels the subjection of the women (MLL, 324ff.). It is now that Muhammad takes over the community that had been forming independently of his will--again Nagel is adamant that Muhammad was not aware of the possible consequences of his action. The establishment of the sacrifice as part of the ritual followed a hanific tradition distinct from Christianity and Judaism. The act of the emigration (hijra) becomes the defining experience of the new community in this phase, and will remain so, almost synonymous to jihad, for a period long after Muhammad's death (MLL, 323).

The main activity, however, is warfare against Mecca. Nagel mostly follows the early historians. Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi, in terms of chronology and motivation, but also all too easily adopts their explanation of a religious motivation, rather than considering, for instance, economic reasons for raids on Meccan caravans. If defeating Mecca is considered the primary goal, the treaty of al-Hudaybiyya must be considered a failure (MLL, 379).

Chapter 5 is devoted to the evolving meaning of jihad, which is, as noted, intimately connected to the concept of hijra (which, as Nagel points out. Muhammad never applied to himself). The obligation of hijra/jihad became the primary social glue, as the community of the faithful (Nagel here uses the distinctly Christian phrase Gemeinschaft der Glaubigen) is transformed into a jihad army (MLL. 388). It also helps to distinguish the faithful (mu'min/ mujahid/muhajir) from those who joined after al-Hudaybiyya and the conquest of Mecca and primarily follow the rituals (muslim), a distinction that will continue until long after Muhammad's death.

Military expansion into Byzantine territory follows a trajectory of old Quraysh connections. Nagel devotes much attention to military campaigns and legal disputes over the distribution of booty, arguing that discontent was growing in the community. This discontent as well as the "emerging contradictions between an ideal of selfless dedication to the cause of Allah and the insistence on differences in rank" were the motivations for a continuation of war, to silence criticism with the help of military triumph (MLL, 424). Nagel suggests that Muhammad's message of equality in faith was only aimed at the Arabs, despite its universalistic ring (MLL, 452, based on sura 9). The outlook of world conquest becomes manifest in sura 18, which now adds Alexander the Great to the prophetic stories (MLL, 484).

Chapter 6 takes up the hijra again as constituting element of the community, which becomes an important criterion of social stratification and legitimacy in the struggle after the Prophet's death. Nagel provides an impressive account of the political and conceptual chaos that ensued, beginning with the problem of Muhammad's mortality (MLL, 506). While the resuming expansion broadened the horizon through encounters with other cultures and the transfer of cultural techniques, the influx of material wealth also had a corrupting effect (507ff.). Nagel's centra! theme is what he terms "Islamic equity" (islamische Gerechtigkeit), which under Umar b. al-Khattab meant a kind of communitarianism (MLL, 518), based on religious meritocracy, which, however, was displaced by the older Arab tribalism as basis of social order.

However, at least one important area of cultural transfer remains unexplained: as Muslims conquered the old civilizational centers of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, they must have encountered well-established administrative systems. While Nagel spends much time in this and the following chapter tracing the distribution struggles over income from those regions, he never asks what kind of property rights and surplus distribution (to put it in Marxist terms) (salaries, fiefdoms, rent, tithe, etc.) they encountered, and to what degree such structures were preserved in the course of the conquest and the establishment of various kinds of military or pious aristocracies. Obviously, Nagel's Islamic sources did not have an interest in discussing such questions, which may explain why his reader gets the impression that the Muslims started with a tabula rasa. For the same reason, and under the same conditions, the transition to statehood with firm institutions receives little attention. Again, a comparative perspective would have been helpful, and could help disentangle the process from the endless interpersonal debates and struggles that are manifest in early Islamic historiography.

The codification of the Qur'an took place in this same period of religious consolidation (MLL, 529ff.). While Umar was seeking a final version of every verse, Ubayy b. Kab sought to collect ever morsel that had ever been uttered as a revelation (MLL, 532). Umar also is described as pursuing a more hanific model of piety, and as being staunchly opposed to the collection of hadith as a "Muslim mishna," but still could not prevent that the "remembered Muhammad" inserted himself between the Qur'anic text and the practices of the community (MLL, 538).

In chapter 7, "The Fitna," Nagel describes how Umar s vision of an Islamic community based on "Islamic equity" collapsed (p. 570) during the complex succession struggle, which went far beyond a simple alternative between Uthman and AIi. Uthman's unification of the Qur'anic text thus becomes embedded in ongoing conflict over the right understanding of scripture, authority, and governance. The emerging hadith becomes a new and uncontrollable authority in the hand of malcontents (e.g., MLL, 595). Nagel persistently faults the leaders of Islam for not acting on the Qur'anic principle of equality of believers, but rather perpetuating traditional forms of social inequality based on tribal affiliation and status. Power shifted from those who excelled at jihad to the Companions as guardians of expert knowledge of practices, while jihad itself lost its status as sole raison d'etre. The Kharijis presented the first attempt to realize the eschatological promise of the Qur'an in this world. Tracing the multiple conflicts and the struggle for power culminating in the Battle of the Camel, Nagel faces too divergent and too confictual a tradition to unify it in a single narrative. Increasingly, his reliance on historiographical sources reaches its limit as to the reconstruction of Rankean "reality" (p. 607 and passim). But also the writing of this history as legal and religious discourse reaches its limit: the numerous arguments mustered by the combatants at Siffin no longer provide a convincing solution to the political questions of the day (MLL, 629).

In the final chapter 8, entitled "Islam," Nagel comes full circle, as the reconstruction of history through the Islamic tradition blends into the reconstruction of the history of the tradition. It delineates the emergence of Islam as organized religion in the context of the Umayyad caliphate in Syria and the conservative counter-caliphate of al-Zubayr in Mecca, which was oriented towards 'Umar's hanific ideals, and towards Byzantium (MLL, 671). The old ideal of "Islamic equity" was bound to fade away; at the same time, Mu'awiya opened the door to a new interpretation of Muhammad's life and message that would articulate itself as resistance against Umayyad rule as soon as he himself left the stage (MLL, 654).

The Umayyads harnessed the example of the Prophet for their imperial project, which needed a specifically Islamic identity and legitimation. Nagel demonstrates this in a series of symbolic politics, including a new interpretation of the ascension, the beginning cult of relics of the Prophet, and the erection of the Dome of the Rock. Experts of knowledge of Islamic practices like Abu Hurayra gained new authority. Another is Ka'b al-Ahbar, expert in narrative elaborations on Islamic traditions. That the Prophet was taken as a model replaced a free access to scripture, and led to religio-legal reasoning penetrating the most mundane actions (MLL, 696), attributing increasing value to ritual over jihad. The old relation of iman and islam was redefined, with Islam becoming dominant (MLL. 707). The emerging theory of the imamate required yet another reinterpretation of the sira, a strict separation of the Meccan from the Medinan period, and the elevation of the latter to the manifestation of divine truth in this world. The historical Muhammad, whom Nagel has tracked through tomes of sources, and over more than 700 pages, ends up being obscured by the Muhammad of Islam.


It is impossible to do justice to the many individual themes in Nagel's close readings even in a lengthy review, and many will disagree with one or another of his results. The immeasurable value of this work is that it opens the complexities of the Islamic tradition to the reader who has no access to the Arabic texts. Where Zeitlin and many other more popular authors offer streamlined accounts with few factual problems, it is most instructive to follow Nagel through the divergences, contradictions, and oddities of tradition which he translates and analyzes at great length, and which so resist facile paraphrase and interpretation. The constant intertwining of readings at the factual and at the discursive level constitutes a wealth, but also a challenge.

Nagel makes a fundamental distinction between ahistorical hadith and historiographical tradition. While he refers to the former in order to understand the factions and arguments at play in later periods, he relies heavily on the latter for all kinds of factual information, and reproduces numbers and direct speech with little critical intervention. Praising especially al-Waqidi for his historiographical efforts, he seems to neglect the fact (hat not even al-Waqidi was working in a neutral setting, free of political or simply literary agendas.

It is only in the afterword that Nagel directly addresses the problem of source criticism and methodology. His argument against Wansbroughs skepticism is ultimately similar to that of Donner--finding the textual history of the Qur'an as reconstructed by Noldeke/ Schwally and Bell largely confirmed, he argues (in a slightly reductionist way) that Wans-brough's presupposed random or chaotic process of codification cannot explain how such a structured body of text could have emerged. Where Rubin restricted himself to putting the divergent, and often incompatible accounts about the problems in dialogue, Nagel claims that it is possible to anchor them in factual history by attributing them to different factions. (12) Indeed, one of Nag-el's strengths is his relentless attention to the factionalism of tribes, kinship, and other associations in Arabian society, which he brings to bear on these accounts. From this perspective he dismisses Harald Motzki's isnad-atm-matn analysis, which breaks the task down into an endless number of similar operations of comparison, as neither new nor fruitful.

In Nagel's view, literary transformation of accounts can be stripped away to lay bare the factual events underneath. By way of the accounts of the different Pledges of al-'Aqaba Nagel concludes that any resemblances with biblical narratives are secondary, and can be separated from a veridical rendering of the events: 'The event happened, yet the memory may be shaped by widespread knowledge of Jewish and Christian tradition--this is the way to approach the sources" (MLL. 731). The results of this procedure have not always convinced this reviewer. Nagel rightly rejects out of hand legends of miracles that are patterned after biblical stories. But in other instances, he simply excises the legendary aspect, such as Muhammad's escaping the attempt to poison him, while accepting everything else, in-eluding the poison's impact on his health, as factual (MLL, 491, see also 670). He accepts al-Waqidi's dating of the ascension, out of the many other options, despite the fact that it contradicts his dating of the introduction of the five daily prayers; similarly, his account of the sermon at the Ka'ba is only a combination of al-Waqidi and Ibn Ishaq (MLL, 420). He even seems to rather uncritically accept many of the numbers, e.g., of soldiers or income, given by al-Waqidi, even where their character appears to be primarily rhetorical (e.g., 272). Thus, the separation of the historical from the legendary, in Nagel's terms the "imagined Muhammad," whom this reviewer would prefer to call "mythical," remains debatable, especially since Nagel, despite his objections to the "skeptical approach," does not provide a systematic argument of his own methodology.


This problem does not present itself in the second book, Allahs Liebling, which continues the threat of the depiction of the Prophet in Islam where MLL left off. Accordingly, it deals primarily with theological arguments and interpretations rather than factual statements about the Prophet. At the same lime, AL is much more oriented towards the present state of Islam, and as such, much more openly ideological. The subtitle. "Origins and Manifestations of Muhammad[-Oriented] Faith," suggests a study in the footsteps of Tor Andrae, or a more systematic treatment of the material compiled by Annemarie Schimmel. (13) However, neither of these is even referenced; instead, Nagel takes the reader through an extensive survey of theological literature, which is analyzed, dissected, and often refuted, to arrive at a scathing critique of Islam's unsuitability to serve mankind's religious needs in the modern age. The presence of the transcendent in this world and its theological implications, i.e., its dominance over the relationship of man with his empirical world, is the central theme around which Nagel's arguments evolve.

The introductory part summarizes many of Nagel's findings in MLL about Muhammad's activity and message, bringing into stronger relief the points highlighted above: the eradication of the memory of a historical Muhammad and the instrumentalization of the "imagined" Prophet for the benefit of those in power. The pagan understanding of the world admitted human agency, and required recourse to the transcendent only in emergencies. Thus, the subjection of the believer under an omnipotent God and the model Muhammad appear as an essential loss of freedom (AL, 40). The access to the transcendent, previously available to everybody, is monopolized, tantamount to an act of usurpation. Nagel's consistent accusation is that Islam after the demise of the Mu'tazila does not encourage the rational exploration of the empirical world, but rather subjects it entirely to the transcendent, in a theology based on trivial self-referentiality (platte Selbstbezuglichkeit, e.g., AL, 79, 199, 227). Chapter 2 pursues the same argument of the establishment of a self-referential ideology, summarizing the arguments around the Qur'an as a miracle (Ibn al-Baqillani). and treating the elevation of Muhammad to an almost divine status, as evidenced by the dalail al-nubuwwa literature (Abu Nu'aym, al-Bayhaqi), not as a religious development but primarily as a (problematic) attempt to insulate Muhammad from criticism (AL, 103ff.). The same process of sacralization extends to the early community of believers in its entirety, as the definite truth is already present in the world.

The second part is the main section of the work; it is very much centered around some of the most important texts of Islamic prophetology. Here chapter 1 demonstrates how al-Qadl 'Iyad al-Yahsubi broke down the life of Muhammad into innumerable individual events from which he derived an all-comprehensive set of doctrines that demanded absolute obedience. In his breathtaking rigorism he constitutes an early culmination of radical re-thinking of all categories of Islam through the Prophet. Nagel pits him especially against al-Ghazall, who had achieved his breakthrough to a philosophically more satisfying theology focusing much more on God than Muhammad. Al-Qadi 'Iyad instead encapsulates the strand that rules by instilling infinite and inescapable fear of damnation by virtue of the rigor of the demands imposed on the believer. One after the other Nagel investigates the legendary expansion of the Prophet's character and status, the concept of Muhammadan light, the correspondence of his names with the divine names, the concept of the faith of the Prophet from childhood, his infallibility, and the Satanic Verses, up to the point of quasi-deity.

Chapter 2 addresses the transformation of a historical figure Muhammad into an extra-historical one (ubergeschichtlich), starting with Ibn al-Jawzi's al-Muntazam ft l-ta'rikh, and proceeding to al-Maqrizi, Ibn Sayyid al-Nas, al-Halabi, and al-Qastallani. This tendency explains the dissolution of the narrative and a preference for all kinds of lists, which abound in this genre. Even authors who in other works show themselves to be astute analysts of historical processes, like al-Maqrizi, succumb to this tendency, and produce endless lists of exemplary episodes rather than a reconstruction of historical events (AL, 218). A1-Qastallani represents Muhammad's prophethood as coterminous with divine creation (AL, 244), a point that should have deserved much more thorough investigation and connection with other cosmological doctrines. Here it is discussed only as alienation from history: for these authors history serves to reassure that salvation is possible, even likely (AL, 219). 'Ali b. Burhan al-Din al-Halabi criticized his own time's approach to the tradition; unfortunately, the historical contextualization that could shed more light on this point is minimal (AL, 230).

Salvation, however, is dependent on the imitation of Muhammad as the all-comprehensive model, as is demonstrated in chapter 3, starting this time with Ibn al-Jawzi's al-Wafa', and moving on to al-Yafi'i and al-Nawawi, who developed the concept of Muhammad as the first and foremost of the friends of God, manifested in the legends of the opening of the Prophet's breast, the hilya, and the all-encompassing love for the Prophet. As this discussion leads deep into the foundational ideas of Sufism, a more comprehensive presentation of some of the central concepts would have been helpful, but here and elsewhere the theologian in Nagel seems less than comfortable with Sufism. Nagel introduces it primarily as a counter-movement that offers a modicum of hope for salvation vis-a-vis the threats and fear of God instilled by Sunni doctrine (AL, 275), an increasing desire for immanence, first found in al Hakim al-Tirmidhi, and coming into the open especially from the thirteenth century on.

The development is not without problems, however. Ibn Kathir exemplifies the realization that two concepts are mutually exclusive: Muhammad as the palpable (erlebbar), still present Messenger of Allah, and Muhammad as the conveyor of a comprehensive system of norms perceived by the Muslim as inevitable demands (AL, 286). Yet, to bridge the contradiction between the two is exactly the intention of al-Salihi's (d. 1535) al-Sira al-shdmiyya. Both raise the question what "imitation of Muhammad" is supposed to mean: a strict observance of the Shari'a regulations that go back to his practice, or the pious interiorization of the "beautiful aspects" of his life (following al-Tirmidhi; AL, 298)?

Consequently, Muslim veneration of Muhammad has proceeded to see in him the culmination of the divine act of creation, as discussed in chapter 4. A "new, unlearned Mu-hammadan piety" manifested itself in celebrations of the Prophet's birthday, following Fatimid inspiration. Through these, the "friends of God" assumed strong influence over the masses in competition with the jurists, who immediately attacked the new practice. Nagel, too, quickly returns from the discussion of the mawlid to the doctrinal discussions of Ibn al-Tabbakh. Abu Shama, and Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (AL, 311). (14) Al-Busiri's Mantle Ode is analyzed as the emblematic poetic expression of the certainty of salvation (HeilsgewiBheit) through Muhammad (AL, 316). Here, again, the question of the relation of divine truth to the created world is posed: Sufi philosophers like al-Ghazali and Ibn al-'ArabI find the divine not manifested in the troubled outward world but in a hidden world--here exemplified by Ibn al-'Arabrs symbolic interpretation of Arabic script. Both the visible and the hidden world, however, are unified in the person of Muhammad. Knowledge of the "New Eon" in which salvation is assured through Muhammad threatens to devalue practice: Ibn al-'Arabi proposed the unity of knowledge and practice, while the nineteenth-century scholar al-Hulwani found the coherence of the cosmos assured in the person of Muhammad. With this esoteric interpretation the light metaphor becomes central again, although it is, as Nagel insists, incompatible with the foundations of Ash'arite metaphysics. Lack of intellectual rigor is also Nagel's main complaint against more contemporary scholars, who seek the basis of everything, including the seeds of modernity, in the persona of the Prophet.


AL thus provides important and often insightful analyses of many foundational texts which have been, and often still are, influential in the theological debates around the Prophet. Nagel's scrutiny more than once constitutes the very first inroads into a literature that has barely attracted the attention of modern-day scholars. Nagel describes his goal as "revealing the 'Music of the Spheres' of Islamic theology and anthropology," implying that most, if not all of it--as much as it dominates their lives--is unbeknownst to the overwhelming majority of Muslims (AL, 357). This statement, of course, raises the question who the Muslims are whose lives are subjugated by the belief in Muhammad in the way Nagel describes it. All the texts studied here are in Arabic, and, despite their undeniable importance in Islamic scholarship, stem linguistically and geographically from only a fraction of the Islamic world. Other approaches to the Prophet are absent: neither the philosophical problem of prophecy, nor the poetic and artistic celebration of his persona, nor the popular narrative appears at all. (15) Modern depictions of the Prophet, the existence of which is acknowledged on the very last page, receive no attention whatsoever. Is this to say that some texts are more Muslim than others? Moreover, the question to what degree the doctrines by rigid scholars such as al-Qadi 'Iyad have actually dominated the life and practices of all these Muslims is not even raised.

Nagel's complaint about the neglect of Ash'ari metaphysics, mentioned above, reveals one of the themes of the entire book: "Metaphysics--meaning the seriousness of the categories of argument--had to give way to eclectic fishing for the opportunistic and helpful. For the sake of the comforting certainty of salvation people put up with a degradation of intellectuality from which [. . .] an escape has not yet been found" (AL, 354). The theme of the intellectual inadequacy of Islamic doctrine runs through the entire book, compounded by an unsettling subtext, which frequently threatens to harm the important and valid individual analysis.

In both books there is a persistent tone of condescension, which frequently explains events in the life of Muhammad by virtue of flaws of character of the protagonists and attributes outcomes to anything but the intention of the actor, the typical phrase being "probably without being aware of it." Both books bristle with stark moral judgments, usually negative, of historical protagonists (e.g., the return of Abu Jandal to Mecca, in accordance with the treaty of al-Hudaybiyya, is not a tragic event, but utter moral failure, MLL, 404) or of later authors (e.g., "obnoxious pharisaic morality," AL, 83). Labeling the early community as die Bewegung (MLL, passim) and ridiculing the notion of Muhammad as military leader as der groBte Feldherr aller Zeiten (AL, 363) will inevitably evoke in Nagel's German audience associations that are neither historically appropriate nor heuristically helpful.

For Nagel, the history of ideas that he is writing is one of tragic [sic] intellectual failure: "Is not such Mohammedanism--a fitting characterization of Islam--rather to be understood as the deep fear of people, who, entangled in the maze of their self-referential pseudo-certainties, begin to sense the failure of their confidence, but do not dare to face reality, and thus shout out to the world with even more vehement emphasis how right they are?" (AL, 79). Moreover, it is linked to a principal loss of freedom: "The foundation of a claim to regulate, through sacralization, the daily life and world view of the individual, in an all-encompassing manner, which exceeds the totalitarianisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by threatening the most severe penalties in the hereafter for deviation and dissent" (ibid.). "This example demonstrates why it is ultimately the threat of violence alone that holds the hadlth-based construction of statements of faith and law in Sunnism together--just as mutatis mutandis the other extant confessions of Islam: it includes building blocks which only appear to fulfill the functions for which they are used. On closer scrutiny their insufficiency becomes obvious; therefore, scrutiny has to be penalized" (AL, 185f.). "There is nothing but slavish submission, in reality not to Allah, but to those who incessantly pretend to be repealing divine speech to the common man, and blind imitation of Muhammad is demanded . . ." (AL, 206). Thus, as long as the belief in Muhammad as a model of orientation for daily practice persists, Islam will be essentially unsuited for modernity: the idealized Muhammad "very much insulates the overwhelming majority of Muslims against the occupation with any ideas that do not result from their Prophet" (AL, 78). "The belief in a prefabricated knowledge eternally valid for all aspects of life, and in an all-competent messenger of Allah, is the decisive obstacle that Muslims have to overcome in order to become equal shareholders in a pluralistic global culture" (AL, 128). Nagel vehemently rejects as profoundly dishonest all claims that Islam has no share in modernity, which has been achieved "against the imputations of the transcendent" in Europe alone (AL, 359).

It is evident, however, that Nagel's approach, too, is underpinned by a "Music of the Spheres" of his own, which is the harmonies of Enlightenment Christianity. Hence his insistence that a proper religion must encourage man to explore the empirical world relying on his own rationality. The sacrificium intellectus, which, according to Nagel. Islamic doctrine requires frequently (e.g., MLL, 292), is to him not a voluntary and inspired effort of transcending rationality, but an act of intellectual dishonesty, at least a testimony of inadequacy. There is little empathy for any kind of world rejection in the Weberian sense, which explains why Sufi thought receives short shrift throughout AL. Similarly, Nagel's concept of what is truly "religious" is defined by secularism (see AL, 219). Nagel praises the Christian church--in contradistinction to Islamic involvement with worldly power--for its disavowal of a civitas dei in this world (following Augustine, AL, 358), and for its lack of attempting to change worldly order (MLL, 436), thus ignoring events in church history such as the Gregorian reform, Calvinism, or twentieth-century liberation theology. As a result, Islam only receives Nagel's approval as long as it conforms to those premises and stays within the parameters of late antique thought (MLL. 930). The defeat of 'Umar's religiosity, which explicitly rejected the establishment of a "Muslim mishna" based on the practice of the Prophet, and the demise of Mu'tazilite rationalism are the decisive junctures where Islam in Nagel's view took the wrong turn.

The second chord in this Music of the Spheres, again deeply grounded in the Enlightenment, is the belief in the redemptive quality of history. Nagel insists that the historical Muhammad and the Muhammad of Islam have to be congruent: he appreciates the early Islamic historical tradition of Ibn Ishaq, al-Waqidi, and Ibn Sa'd as being that of true historians, as if their primary interest was simply and objectively to record "what really happened" (AL, 228 and passim) and they were not themselves driven by a particular interest and agenda. Consequently, he condemns any discrepancy of the latter Muhammad from the former as being the result of intellectual dishonesty (e.g., MLL, 266: "brazen forgery") or lack of rigor (e.g., AL, 234ff.). He chides al-Qadi 'Iyad and others for arguing with Qur'anic quotations without taking into account the original or basic meaning of the verse. Such neglect of the historical is one of the main problems with the Islamic world: Nagel voices his frustration that his arguments about the historicity of hadith are regularly rejected by Muslim scholars (AL, 128). Time and again the expectation emerges that the figure towards which Muslims orient themselves should be a historically accurate and unambiguous persona aligned with current social norms. Applied to a set of overwhelmingly medieval texts, such standards inevitably lead to serious anachronisms, which interfere with the important findings of both studies.


This leads to the final question of the prospective audience of these two expensive and challenging volumes. Certainly, no Muslim audience is envisaged. Modern Western scholars of Islam will probably miss an engagement with previous scholarship, which in both works is minimal. Older biographies are not referenced at all; critical examinations of individual problems arc addressed only selectively, or discussed in the most summary fashion. For instance, Nagel's discussion of the "Constitution of Medina" dismisses suggestions out of hand that the text as preserved by Ibn Ishaq is a compound document. (16) The engagement of the different schools of source criticism mentioned above is relegated to an afterword. Both books, on the other hand, take pains to guide the reader who is unfamiliar with Islam or the non-academic reader. Both feature short and extensive tables of contents, and the printing of section headings in the margin is a welcome way of providing fast orientation in a long text in small print. Yet, MLL especially is cumbersome to use, since the publisher has opted for endnotes instead of footnotes, while some more extensive and often illuminating discussions are buried in numbered appendices to the endnotes (MLL, 873-979), followed by maps, and genealogical and chronological tables. AL comes with a glossary of key Islamic terms, in addition to a chronology and multiple indices. On the other hand. Nagel's academic prose hardly makes for an easy read; the complexity of argumentation and the reliance on theological concepts will necessarily restrict the audience to an academic one.

The afterword to MLL also brings up a strictly German debate, sparked by publications that claim to continue the "skeptical approach" to the point where they cast doubt on the very historicity of Muhammad, but are hardly based on solid evidence. (17) In addition, the public dispute about the role of Islam in Europe has been intensifying in Germany over the last few years, since the country more or less openly admitted to the long-denied fact of permanent immigration, which in this case largely means Muslims. An insistence on "European," i.e., mostly Christian, identity and a rejection of "multiculturalist relativism" have become dominant themes in this discussion, leading to harsher and shriller tones and a desire to assert and maintain difference. Nagel, too has repeatedly intervened in this debate with essays and op-ed articles. Thus, this reviewer suggests that the agenda of the two books lies less in academic than in public debates. My hope is that this contextuahzation will allow one to benefit from the author's unique knowledge and insight into one thousand years of Islamic writing about the Prophet, without adopting his polemical stance and partly problematic conclusions. The greatest mistake scholars and pious readers could make would be to dismiss Nagel's work as biased, and pass it over. These books need to be taken seriously. One would hope that the linguistic barrier also does not prevent this engagement.

This is a review article of the following three books: The Historical Muhammad, By Irving M. Zeitlin. Malden, Mass.: Polity Press. 2007. Pp. viii + 181. $69.95 (cloth), S24.95 (paper); Mohammed: Leben und Legend. By Tilman Nagel. Munich: Oldenbourg, 2008. Pp. 1052, maps. [member of]178; Allahs Liebling: Ursprung und Erschei-nungsformen des Mohammedglauben. By Tilman Nagel. Munich: Oldenbourg, 2008. Pp. 430. [member of]79,80.

(1.) Fred McGraw Dormer, Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing, Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1998), 5-31

(2.) Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007, also published as The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad (London: Allen Lane. 2007).

(3.) M. Fethullah Gulen, The Messenger of God: Muhammad: An Analysis of the Prophet's Life (Somerset. N.J.: Light. 2005). previously published as Sonsuz Nur: Insanligm iftihar tablosu (Izmir: Nil Yayinlari. 1993).

(4.) Martin Lings. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (London; Islamic Texts Society. 1983); Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Muhammad: Man of God (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1995).

(5.) See. e.g.. E. S. Sabanegh. Muhammad B. Abdallah. "Le Prophete": Portraits Contemporainx; Egypte 1930--1950 (Paris: J. Vrin; Rome: chez l"auteur, 1981),

(6.) Muhammad Hamidullah. The Battlefields of the Prophet Muhammad, with Maps, Illustrations and Sketches: A Contribution to Muslim Military History, new rev. ed.. Centre Cultural Islamique Series. 3 ([Hyderabad. Deeean: stockists. Habib], 1973); Ahmet Refik, Ghazevat-t Jelile-i Peyghamberi (Istanbul 1324/1906); see Gottfried Hagen, "The Prophet Muhammad as Exemplar in War: Ottoman Views at the Eve of World War I," New Perspectives on Turkey 22 (2000): 145-72.

(7.) Emerick expresses this secularization well when he stales in his introduction: "Much more than a religious ligure, Muhammad was the catalyst for a revolution in politics, economics, law, and civilization" (Yahiya Emerick, The Life and Work of Muhammad [Indianapolis: Alpha Books. 2002|, iv).

(8.) Uri Rubin, ed.. The Life of Muhammad (Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1998).

(9.) Mustafa Darir's translation of Abu 1-Hasan al-Bakri's popular narrative: for other illustrations from the same ms. see Zeren Tamndi. Siyer-i Nebi: Islam tasvir sanaunda Hz- Muhammed'in hayati ([Istanbul!: Hurriyet Vakfi Yaymlari, 1984).

(10.) Maximo Rodinson, Mohammed, 1st American ed. (New York: Pantheon Books. 1971), x.

(11.) Other studies relevant for these two works are in particular: Die Festung des Glaubens: Triumph and Scheitem des islamischen Rationalismus im II. Jahrhundert (Munich: C. H. Beck. 1988); Medinensische Ein-schube in mekkanischen Suren (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. 1995): Im Qffenkundigen das Verborgene; Die Heilszusage des sunnitischen Islams (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. 2002); The History of Islamic Theology from Muhammad to the Present (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2000).

(12.) Uri Rubin, The Eye of the Beholder: The Life of Muhammad as Viewed by the Early Muslims, A Textual Analysis (Princeton; Darwin Press, 1995).

(13.) Tor Andrae. Die Person Muhammeds in Lehre und Glauben seiner Gemeinde (Stockholm: Kungl. boktryck-eriet, P. A. Norstedt und Soner, 1918): Anne marie Schimmel, And Muhammad is His Messenger; The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press. 1985).

(14.) See also Marion Holmes Katz. The Birth of the Prophet Muhummad: Devotional Piety in Sunni Islam. (London; Routledge, 2007]; N. J. G. Kaptein, Muhammad's Birthday Festival: Early History in the Central Muslim Lands and Development in the Muslim West until the 10th/16th Century (Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1993).

(15.) See, e.g.. Fazlur Rahman, Prophecy in Islam: Philosophy and Orthodoxy (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1958); Kamal Abdel-Malek, Muhammad in the Modern Egyptian Popular Ballad (Leiden: E. .1. Brill. 1995); and Boaz Shoshan, Popular Culture in Medieval Cairo (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993). on Abu l-Hasan al-Bakri's popular sira.

(16.) See the survey of The discussion in R. Stephen Humphreys. Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry, rev. ed. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), 92-98.

(17.) Karl-Heinz. Ohlig and Gerd-R. Puin, Die dunklen Anfandge, Neue Forschungen zur Entstehung, und fruhen Geschichte des Islam (Berlin: H. Schiler. 2005); Karl-Heinz Ohlig, Derfruhe Islam: Eine historisch-kritische Re-konstruktion anhand zeitgenossischer Quellen (Berlin: Verlag H. Schiler. 2007).


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Author:Hagen, Gottfrier
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Date:Jan 1, 2009
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