Prophetic Tradition in The Quran and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions

This article aim to illustrate the historical framework of the late antique Near East in order to pave the way for our comparative study between the Qur’ān and the Aramaic Gospel traditions. The salient socio-religious phenomenon in this milieu dubbed “prophetic tradition” was generally latent in the Zoroastrian and Christian spheres of the Near East.

It was kept alive especially through the efforts of the waning Syriac speaking churches—along with their Aramaean and Arabian body politic—to reconsolidate themselves. In the late sixth and early seventh centuries, Syriac Christian patriarchs undertook great ventures to reformulate and unite Syriac Christian prophetic tradition (mašlmānūtā). Simultaneous with these efforts were the emergence of Arabian prophetic traditions—called in Arabic islām and philologically equivalent to Syriac mašlmānūtā—culminating in the Islam of the prophet Muhammad.

Sectarianism as Prophetic Tradition

First we begin with our discussion on what prophetic tradition is and its role in the late antique Near East. Norman Brown states in his study concerning the Haggadic and Hellenic conflation of Moses with Alexander in Surah 18, that the Qur’ān “in a characteristically abrupt and monumental gesture, breaks with Judaic ethnocentrism and re-projects the prophetic tradition on a new trans-cultural, universal, world-historical plane.”

His statement reveals the Qur’ān’s view of “prophetic tradition”—and its power to re-project ethnocentrism into universalism—in a manner which this study seeks to utilize and further define. What essentially gives Brown’s idea of “prophetic tradition” vitality in the Quran milieu is the strong sectarianism of the late antique Near East which, especially through Syriac Christian literature, melded together Rabbinic and Hellenic traditions, with a hodgepodge of heterogeneous traditions from other civilizations. This brings us to the discussion of sectarianism and prophetic tradition.

The sectarianism of the late antique Near East mentioned at the start of this examination is best understood in the framework of competing religious movements with one function in common, “prophetic tradition.” In this study, prophetic tradition may designate a religion, faith, denomination, sect, school, or group of adherents which tends to be monotheistic in a general sense. More explicitly, it is the social lifestyle of abiding by the teachings, ethics and law of a divinely inspired or sanctioned leader.

Such leaders were not just limited to prophets—who filled the late antique Near East—but included, furthermore, religious and political leaders whose interest it was to preserve and promote the tradition of the community. Their teachings are:

  1. dogmatic in nature, which gives them the universalist feature mentioned by Brown,
  2. passed down from one generation to the next.

This lifestyle excluded, in large part, many Arabian (Q 7:194; 53:19–23) and Egyptian (for example, Q 7:127; 40:36–37) cults because of their emphasis on the role of multiple or human gods rather than a single prophetic agent in connection to the one God.

Prophetic traditions competed with one another, and in doing so participated in the unending process of ‘cross pollination,’ that is, exchanging ideas with one’s rivals. This began in the Near East during the ancient period (ca. 2700 BCE–180 CE) where heterodox religious practices in Persia and the Fertile Crescent coalesced into the first prophetic traditions. This process was intensified in the late antique period (180–632 CE) with the emergence of ever more religious sects and stern dogmatic principles as a result of Christian controversies and the subsequent increase in prophetic claimants.4180 CE marks the death of Tatian whose Diatessaron was the first popular Syriac translation of the Gospels; it also approximates the beginning of popular Syriac Christian literature that became widely circulated throughout the Near East.

In the late second and early third century, the Arabian peoples began to embrace Christianity and to play a vital role in the sectarian landscape of the Near East. The increased sectarianism and church fragmentation of the sixth century emboldened its rivals and culminated in Muhammad’s new prophetic tradition called Islam in the seventh century. In order to understand the complex role sectarianism plays in this study we must briefly trace the beginnings of rivalries in Near Eastern prophetic tradition.

Judeo-Christian and Zoroastrian Background

The beginnings of Near Eastern prophetic tradition, of which Islam was the greatest manifestation, go back to the ancient period. Ancient kings who were said to have been semi-divine or communicated with God, like Gilgamesh, Hammurabi, and Croesus, sages like Ahīqār, Luqmān, and Aesop, and countless prophets including Zarathustra, Pythia, Enoch, Hūd, and S.ālih., through transcendent decrees received from divine beings and their access to universal truths, set an ancient precedent for emergent ideas of religious teachings, ethics, and laws.

From ancient Mesopotamian notions of prophecy the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel originated.Its teachings were traced back to Adam as the founder of the human race, salvaged by Noah from a global flood and constituted through the Abrahamic covenant. Its ethics and laws were legislated to Moses on Mt. Sinai by the one God, mandated to King David and upheld by numerous Hebrew prophets.

Following hard learned lessons at the hands of Assyrian cruelty in 722 BCE, Babylonian Captivity in 586 BCE and the subsequent destruction of Israel as a permanent political entity, the children of Israel renounced the pagan rites and lesser deities of what the Bible authors deemed was a sinful violation of their divine moral code. The result was the monotheistic religion known as Judaism founded upon the Mosaic Law.

Despite the hardships withstood by the children of Israel, Judaism remained ideologically popular and enjoyed a great deal of recognition as different sects of this tradition branched off. One reason for the rise of so many branches was that prophecy in Judaism had come to an end, thus delivering the authority of prophethood to the institution of the clergy.

Vestiges of the ancient priestly class known as the Sadducees (cf. Zadokites; 2 Samuel 8:17; I Kings 4:2; Matthew 1:14, 22:19) remained by the beginning of the common era when a new class of rabbis known as the Pharisees took over as champions of Rabbinic Judaism (for instance, Matthew 23:2). Samaritan Judaism, which began in the pre-exilic era and further emphasized the Mosaic Law, continued to develop parallel to Rabbinic Judaism. Within Judaism, however, competing prophetic traditions, the lack of political sovereignty, and feelings of suffering and persecution at the hands of foreign powers gave rise to new movements in Palestine.

These include the militancy of Jewish Zealots whose aim was to liberate Israel from the Roman yoke, and the strong eschatological beliefs of Essene communities.An essential component of this eschatology was the messianic impulse. Probably influenced by the Zoroastrian saoshyant (Avesta Yasna 46:3; 61:5), it evolved into the hope for a powerful military leader who would redeem Israel’s Davidic kingship and Aaronic priesthood.

This impulse was kindled by Cyrus the Great’s (d. 530 BCE) return of the Israelites to the land of Palestine in 538 BCE, the partial restoration of their temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 6:3–5) and the short-lived Hasmonean kingdom some centuries later (140–37 BCE; 1 Maccabees). Competing prophetic traditions came to include the adherents of dozens of messianic claimants Prophetic Tradition in the Late Antique Near East 53and prophets including Judas of Galilee (d. ca. 4 CE; Acts 5:37), Jesus of Nazareth (d. ca 32 CE), Simon Magus (first century CE; Acts 8:9–24), Montanus (second century CE) and Simon Bar Kokhba (d. ca. 135 CE), all of whom were defeated.

In Palestine, the revolutionary doctrine of the prophet Jesus (for example, Luke 4:24; 9:19; John 4:19; 6:17; 7:14) concerning unwavering love flourished in the context of wisdom from Hillel the Elder (d. ca. 10 CE); his position on divorce flourished in the circles of Shammai (d. ca. 30 CE) and his ideas about repentance and the impending arrival of the kingdom of God apocalyptic emerged in the circles of John the Baptist (d. ca. 30 CE; Matthew 3:2).

Jesus’s followers also became prophets and spread the Good News after the day of Pentecost throughout Jerusalem (Acts 2:1–4) and later to Antioch (Acts 11:27–30; see further Didache 11). Increased political turmoil and subsequent Near Eastern sectarianism expanded the phenomenon of prophetic tradition to include miracle workers like Apollonius of Tyana (first century CE), and founders of new religious movements based onJesus’s revolutionary teachings concerning the Mosaic Law.

Saul of Tarsus (Paul; d. ca.67 CE) was a Hellenized Jew—not unlike the philosopher Philo of Alexandria (d. ca. 50 CE) and the historian Josephus (d. ca. 100 CE)—who claimed direct inspiration from Jesus (Galatians 1:11–16). After disputing with Jesus’s disciples—especially Peter (d. 67 CE) upon whom the Catholic Church was built—concerning the applicability of Jewish Law, Paul broke with the burgeoning Jerusalem church and preached to the Gentiles across the Mediterranean (Galatians 1:22–24; 2:11–14). For Gentiles around the world, including those in Arabia (Galatians 1:15–17), their salvation soon came through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

Christianity broke away from Judaism, whose adherents no longer possessed their own polity and whose Rabbinic manifestation slowly developed into a scholarly form of orthodoxy before the Common Era. An example of this orthodoxy can be seen in the views of Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph (d. ca 135 CE) who was one of the greatest authorities of early Rabbinic Judaism. In contrast to this, syncretistic prophetic traditions—Jewish-Christian sects—championed by prophets or prophetic leaders whose teachings and sects were often branded as heretical by later orthodoxy survived in marginal enclaves.

For instance, the prophet Elchasai (first century CE) who seceded from the Ebionites—a Jewish-Christian sect that held fast to the Jewish law—came to influence the people of Mesopotamia—especially the Sabians of Harran and the Mandaeans of southern Mesopotamia and Khuzistan—who became known for practicing full-body baptism. Hence, the Sabian-Mandaeans follow the teachings ascribed to John the Baptist, as well as other prophets before him. Basilides (d. 140 CE), Marcion of Sinope (d. 160 CE), Tatian (d. ca. 180 CE), Bardaisan (d. 222 CE)—whose Book of the Laws of Countries may be considered a third-century compendium of prophetic traditions—and various other dualists, Gnostics, reformers, and syncretists enriched Near Eastern sectarian debate from the margins.

The work of later Christian authors makes it clear that such early reformers considered themselves prophets, that is, individuals who communicated with what was understood as divine, transcendental beings.

In the late antique period, Zoroastrianism evolved from the national prophetic tradition of the Iranian peoples stretching back centuries into the official Sasanian religion—that is, the religion adopted and sanctioned by the political and military leader (the king, shāh, emperor, phylarc, or tribal leader). Mainstream Christianity triumphed over its competitors and, similarly, became the official Roman and Byzantine religion. The undying rivalry between both empires caused them to use religion in order to legitimate comparable but mutually hostile cultural ideas of sacred universal rule and sovereignty.

For both faiths, official religion became orthodox religion. It was the approval, sponsorship and propagation of a particular prophetic tradition by the shāh or emperor, and his enforcement of a single dogmatic interpretation, that gave it legitimacy. This legitimacy came at the detriment of other prophetic traditions that did not enjoy the approval of the state. In the case of Christianity and Zoroastrianism, the path to widespread adherence and orthodoxy was the same: imperial power and formal decrees.

Zoroastrian ideas became set and spread through strong kings and influential priests. Centuries after Persia had politically dominated the ancient Near East, Tiridates I (first century CE) further entrenched Zoroastrainism in the region.

This is because he is credited with the beginnings of compiling Avestan scripture by the Parthian king Vologases (d. ca. 191 CE), which is lost. In contrast to the Parthian Empire (247 BCE–224 CE), the Sasanian Empire (226–651 CE) was somewhat more centralized. The centralization of its religious sphere was a natural outcome of this policy. Therefore, after Ardeshīr I (d. 241) finally proclaimed Zoroastrian-ism the Sasanian Empire’s official state religion, new imperial commissions were enacted to re-compile the Avesta.

After him, Shāhpūr II (d. 379) and Khusrāw Anūshirvān (d. 579) managed under the supervision of numerous priests—like Tōsār and Atūrbād—to complete this task. In addition to this, priests like ArdāVirāf (sixth century) further disseminated and developed the ideas of Zoroastrianism by increasing the corpus of Pahlavi religious texts, like the Ardā Virāf Nāmak. Among the common ideas Zoroastrianism spread was the special place of the prophet, the importance of ritual, and the dualism latent within Zoroastrianism—including the battle between light vs. dark, and good vs. evil—which permanently influenced all prophetic traditions to come.

The priests were commissioned by the state—that is, the shāh himself—and were therefore the guardians of Zoroastrian orthodoxy. The popularity of the prophets Mani (d. 276) and Mazdak (d. ca. 528) did not ultimately gain the long-term support of the strong Zoroastrian priestly class, nor the state. Mani was persecuted fiercely, although Manichaeanism remained an appealing religious path for many adherents well into the early Abbasid era (750–945). Furthermore, Mazdak’s teachings became heresy with the death of his patron Kavād I (d. 531).

And so Zoroastrianism survived the challenges of rival prophetic traditions to win the day. Perhaps the most significant idea to disseminate among the pious masses, and which all subsequent prophetic traditions had to doctrinally reckon with, may be summed up in the words of the Sasanian high priest Kārtīr Hangripe (third century) in his efforts to blot out the fatalism inherent in the teachings of Zurvānism, “there is a paradise and there is a hell!”

Similarly were the Neoplatonic and Gnostic impulses of the Hellenic sphere, especially the idea behind the world of archetypes vs. that of the imperfect physical world, a contributor to the otherworldliness of paradise and the spirit. One further consequence of this thought on religious circles was the glorification of the human spirit and the debasement of the human body. A prominent center of Hellenic philosophy was Alexandria, where its philosophical base melded with Egyptian religious ideas.

Although not possessing a dualistic worldview or the office of prophet per se, Egyptian religion was rich enough in religious imagery and mythological lore that its ideas penetrated into the doctrinal fabric of prophetic traditions.  These different religious currents contributed to the development of Christian canon, theology, and the doctrine of the Trinity, which began with the writers of the Gospels, Pauline letters and deeply influenced the guardians of early Christian orthodoxy.

Eusebius’ description of Phillip the Arab (d. 249) confessing his sins in church on Easter service would—if we accept this story—make him the first Christian emperor of Rome in 244–49. However, the empire remained largely pagan. Soon afterwards cracks in the empire were staved off when Diocletian (d. 311) established the tetrarchy in 293. Only later did Rome itself follow the imperial precedent of its greatest rival—Sasanian Persia—when Constantine I (d. 337) converted to Christianity around 312, and when Theodosius I (d. 395) decreed Christianity the Roman Empire’s official religion in 380.

Where imperial Sasanian commissions renewed ancient Persian prophetic tradition, the ecumenical councils of the Roman Empire defined Christian prophetic tradition by means of consensus. The Councils of Nicaea in 325, Ephesus in 431, and Chalcedon in 451 condemned Arius (d. 336), Eutyches (d. 456), and Nestorius (d. 451) respectively, ultimately asserting that Jesus’s two natures—the divine and human—were in fact unified by one hypostasis.

In its wake were left three competing Christian confessional groups—the Chalcedonian Dyophysites (including Melkites), non-Chalcedonian Dyophysites (East Syrians; Nestorians), and Jacobites (Monophysites). That each of these denominations enjoyed some level of state support—that is adoption by ruling dynasties and subsequent sponsorship under political entities—and especially with the rise of lesser kingdoms, meant the gradual but inevitable dominance of Christianity over Zoroastrianism in the late antique Near East. In other words, smaller kingdoms located between both the Byzantine and Sasanian empires, like Osrhoene and Adiabene, soon converted to Christianity. The Arabian peoples were in large part the reason for this shift.

The Arabian Peoples and Christianity

Sources attest to the fact that Christianity was adopted by the Arabian peoples throughout the late antique period, which eventually contributed to the development of qur’ānic teachings and Islamic doctrine. In the Doctrine of Addai, a proto-Jacobite legend of the third to fourth century, Abgar V Ukāmā (d. ca. 50 CE), who was phylarc of the Mesopotamian kingdom of Osrhoene (132 BCE–244 CE) and from a line of Arabian royalty dating back to the second century BCE, converted to Christianity at the hands of Addai (d. second century CE), one of Jesus’s seventy-two followers.

The demise of the once great Nabataean empire in 106 CE, possibly recalled in Q 89:7, created a vacuum filled by Arabian vassals who would strengthen the growing Near Eastern polarity between Persians and Romans pressing in from the east and west. The power vacuum created by the fall of largely pagan Arabian city-states like Hatra and Palmyra in 241 and 272 respectively were filled by increasingly Christian tribal groups coming from South Arabia, probably in the wake of the repeated collapse of the Ma’rib dam in Yemen recalled in Q 34:15–16 (ca. 145 BCE–575 CE). Most notable among them were the Banū Ghassan (ca. 220–638) and the Banū Lakhm (ca. 266–633). The Banū Kindah (ca. 425–529), a vassal to the Jewish Himyarite kingdom of Yemen, exerted great influence in Mesopotamia until the Lakhmids overtook them.

The Lakhmids, as the Sasanian buffer state, were a confederation of Arabian and Aramaean peoples who accepted Christianity after the conversion of their king Imru’ al-Qays b. ‘Amr (d. 328). Al-H.īrā, the Lakhmid capital in Iraq after 266, soon became a major center of East Syrian Christianity. By the sixth century the Persian Empire was, via the Lakhmids and the Sasanian marzbāns, able to exert enough control over Arabia to extract taxes from Medina through its Jewish inhabitants. In fact even the influence of Zoroastrianism was felt in Arabia during this time. Later Islamic literary sources like Ibn Kathīr’s (d. 774/1373) Sīrah speak of a semi-legendary Arabian prophet called Khālid b.

Sinān b. ‘Ayth al-‘Absī (sixth century?) who flung himself into the nār al-harratayn in order to extinguish the (Zoroastrian?) fire cult that thrived there. West of the Persian sphere of influence, the Syrian counterparts of the Lakhmids were the Ghassanids who were protectors of Byzantium and who became Melkite Christians sometime in the fifth century. During this same century in the South Arabian city of Najrān, Christianity flourished—perhaps at the expense of earlier Judaism—under the auspices of Axum and Byzantium. The death of Al-Harith (St. Aretas; d. 523) and the “martyrs of Najrān” transformed the city into an essential pilgrimage stop for Christians coming from the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. Furthermore, sectarian strife and the suffering of their Christian brethren in South Arabia captured the attention of the pious masses, as well as Q 85:4–8.

Further Syriac literature reveals that Arabian groups were sweeping into Syria and Mesopotamia in the fifth century and converting to Christianity by the sixth century. Strong kinship ties between Arabic speaking Christians in the Fertile Crescent and their Yemeni kindred in South Arabia, as was the case with tribes including Banū Taghlub, Tanūkh, Tamīm, T.ayy’, Kalb, Kindah, as well as the dominance of the Syriac dialect in the Arabian religious sphere, propagated the Christianity of Aramaic speaking prophetic traditions throughout the Peninsula and made it the prophetic traditions with which the Arabians were most familiar and to which they belonged.

This is not least because the Arabians of the H.ijāz took sides in the imperial warfare between the Byzantines and Sasanians (Q 30:1–5)38 and also because they became embroiled in sectarian warfare between the Jews of South Arabia, initiated by Yūsuf As‘ar Yathār Dhū al-Nuwās (d. ca. 525) and the Monophysite Christians of Abyssinia under orders from Constantinople, led by their king Abrahah al-Ashram (d. ca. 553; Q 105). According to Ibn Ish.āq, in the year of the elephant—which was the year of Muh.ammad’s birth (570) or shortly before then—the Abyssinians attempted to seize the Ka‘bah in Mecca and, furthermore, built the church shrine al-qulays or al-qalīs (Gk. ekklesia?) in San‘ā’ to rival its eminence.

There is further reason to believe that there was a sustained presence of Christianity in pre-Islamic H.ijāz specifically. The Islamic literary sources mention numerous Christian landmarks in the vicinity of Mecca and Medina, not least of which were Mary’s church (masjid maryam), the Christian station (mawqaf al-nas.ārā), the Christian cemetery (maqbarat al-nas.ārā), and most importantly the icon of the Virgin Mary within the Ka‘bah’s pantheon itself.

The sources also state that tribes in the H.ijāz like the ‘Udhrā, and even members of the Quraysh—especially the Banū Asad b. ‘Abd al-‘Uzzā and their Meccan ancestor ‘Abd al-Masīh. b. Buqīlah (or Nuqīlah) b. Jurhum who is alleged to have served Kusrāw Anūshirwān (d. 579) in Syria—were all Christians. Furthermore, Arabic speaking Christians like ‘Adīb. Zayd (d. first/seventh century) and al-A‘shā (d. ca. 3/625) were poets of the highest order and their poetry remained an important part of Arabian oral tradition in the region. However, there are no remains of a pre-Islamic Arabic (North Arabian) literary tradition, Christian or otherwise. At the same time, the Arabic speaking Christians of the H.ijāz and nearby provinces were inextricably tied to Christian communities in the north. They relied, therefore, on the literary traditions of the Aramaic Christians with whom they lived side by side for centuries.

Educated in the liturgical and scriptural Aramaic literature of their churches, early Arabic speaking Christians integrated such wisdom into the longstanding Arabian oral tradition. Arabian peoples of late antiquity were an integral audience of the dialogues, treatises, and histories of Christian Aramaic literature—especially Syriac.

Syriac Christian literature belonged as much to the Arabian peoples as it did the Aramaeans. This is because centuries of intermingling between both peoples evolved into the intimate relationship between Syriac speaking Christian groups and the tribal and urban centers of Arabia in the late antique period.

Both peoples of late antiquity submitted to the ethics, laws, and teachings of Syriac Christian literature, passed down from one generation to the next. This act of submission was called in Syriac ašlem (lit. to give up, surrender, hand down, hand ver, deliver), which is the G-stem (Aramaic aph‘ēl or Arabic fourth form af‘al) of the root š-l-m. The active participle of this verb is mašlem, that is, “surrendering.”

The nomen agentis of this verb is mašlmānā, meaning “surrenderer,” which has a negative connotation in Mark 14:11 and Matthew 26:25. The emphatic form of this verb’s infinitive (equivalent to the Arabic mas.dar or verbal noun) is mašlmānūtā, meaning “traditio,” “tradition,” that which is handed down.

An instance of this term is found in the Syriac Gospels where the Pharisees and Scribes question Jesus saying, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the clergy (ayk mašlmānūtā d-qašīšē) but rather eat with defiled hands?” (Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:5; cf. also Acts 28:17). Later on, the revivalist nature of prominent Syriac authors—that is, those who saw themselves as divinely inspired to protect and renew the faith—enriched mašlmānūtāwith deeper meanings. The richness of meaning imbued onto mašlmānūtāwas imparted by the many attempts with which both East Syrians and Monophysites sought to unite their crumbling churches.

Restoration of the Syriac Churches: mašlmānūtā

The Syriac speaking churches attempted to revive their visions of mašlmānūtāand, in so doing, set an example for Arabian prophetic impulses and ultimately the Islam of Muhammad. It was one of the earliest witnesses to the rise of Islam, John Bar Penkaye (d. 687/68), who writes of the “prophetic tradition of Muhammad” (mašlmānūtā da-mhamad). He also discusses that as early as the sixth century, the Syriac speaking churches of the Near East were so weak and divided along hardened confessional lines that they eventually came to view the Islamic conquests of the following century as God’s punishment for their sectarian squab-bling (cf. in relation Gēnzā RbāR1:2:212–34).

More specifically, the rejection of the Chalcedonian formula by the Jacobites in 513 (or 515) symbolized the final rupture in the Syriac speaking churches with Constantinople. During the late sixth and early seventh centuries the fragmented Syriac churches sought to recon-solidate their doctrine and regain political power. The point is that this was a time in which prophetic traditions were being re-created in the Near East.

For instance, the doctrinal framework of East Syrian tradition, which began under the authority of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 424), later developed under the leadership of Babai the Great (d. 628). This is because both theologians were dogmatic manufacturers of the mašlmānūtāfor “the entire church of the Persian country.”

This included the formulation of orthodox doctrine and religious identity. At the Synods of 585, 596, and 605 the well developed concept of mašlmānūtābecame frequently used in the East Syrian church to defend the exegesis or religious instruction (mpaššaqnūtā; cf. Pahlavi zand in Bahmān Yasht 2:55) of Theodore and others whose mašlmānwātā(pl.; cf. in relation Ardā Virāf Nāmak 101:13) were oral chains of transmission—including names like Narsai of Nisibis (d. 502) and Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373)—going back to the founder of Syrian-Mesopotamian Christianity, the apostle Addai in Edessa (second century CE).

At any rate, Monophysite propagandists infiltrated the East Syrian community at this stage and hindered the reconsolidation of the East Syrian mašlmānūtā. A number of features within East Syrian mašlmānūtālend itself to our definition of prophetic tradition: (1) the dogmatic nature of Theodore and Babai’s teachings—further evidenced by their defending it from “innovation”—; (2) the canonization of Theodore’s teachings which suggest a level of divine sanction and prophetic authority on Theodore’s part; (3) and the successive oral transmission which kept the tradition alive.

It is clear from the genre of Syriac mēmrēmade famous by Ephrem the Syrian and later mastered by Narsai the Great—who were crucial links in the chain of transmission of the East Syrian mašlmānūtā—that they were strong preservers and defenders of prophetic tradition, beginning with the prophets of the Old Testament right through the divinely ordained Syriac church fathers. In the exceptional case of Jacob of Serugh (d. 521)—a unique figure of Syriac Christendom who took little interest in doctrinal controversies—he held the institution of prophecy in the highest regard. For Jacob placed himself in the ranks of the prophets and sought to be one them.

On the whole, the view that the Syriac church fathers were seen as the champions of the correct prophetic tradition is reinforced by the teachings of John, Monophysite bishop of Ephesus (d. ca. 586). His reforms in Anatolia were roughly simultaneous with the development of East Syrian mašlmānūtā in Mesopotamia.

In part 3 of his Ecclesiastical History John recalls the dedication of the “famous and princely convents of ladies who had fled from Antioch at the commencement of the persecution,” who resisted the heretical doctrines of a patriarch called Eutychius saying, “we will never abandon the tradition of the Eastern Fathers (mašlmānūtā d-abhātē madnh.āyē) for as long as we live.” This was the unity to which John looked back and desperately sought—that is the tradition preserved and passed on through the succession of Syriac church fathers.

Hence, John renewed the call to unity among the ailing and fragmented body politic of the Syriac-speaking churches of the Near East. With the support of Justinian I (d. 565), he supervised the brutal persecution of heretical elements from Near Eastern Christendom ultimately in order to set up a united front against the Sasanian Empire and their potent Zoroastrian religious influences. However, with the ascension of Justin II (d. 578) and the subsequent persecution of Monophysites, John lost his status as chief inquisitor and ended up a humbled prisoner until his death. However, the hope for a unified Near Eastern church did not die with him; nor did John’s Syriac writings go unheeded by his audience, who remained highly involved in the fate of Near Eastern church affairs. However, different groups reacted differently.

Religious Disassociation: hanpēand hunafā’

Groups that disassociated from the major religions of the late antique Near East created the religious niche that would ultimately come to be dominated by the Islam of Muhammad. Over centuries of sectarian strife and political instability, some groups within the late antique Near East highly disputed the nature of Christian doctrine and became particularly disaffected by the fragmentation of the Near Eastern churches.

They were equally unsatisfied with the ethnocentricity of Judaism, outdated prophetic traditions, and pagan cults. As the puritans of their day these groups practiced ‘religious disassociation.’ Meaning, [This means that] they wanted no part in organized religion, especially Christianity and Judaism.

They sought rather to worship the one God freely according to the laws of old. Their Christian compatriots deprecated them by referring to them by the Syriac term hanpē (sg. hanpā) which had a wide range of meaning including “heathens, pagans, godless ones, hypocrites, profane ones, impious ones, apostates, gentiles/Greeks and Sabians (for example, Matthew 10:5).” At least one community of these religious disassociationists or hanpē was present in the Hijāz during the sixth century. By then their Syriac appellate was articulated into Arabic as hunafā’ (sg. hanīf; cf. Diatessaron 2:28; 20:48; 27:18; and so on), which lost its pejorative meaning and came to signify a monotheist who was neither Jewish nor Christian.

In addition to this gloss, there is a contradictory tension in the Islamic sources as to whether this term refers to polytheists or monotheists. Attempts by Crone and Luxenberg to explain this tension by arguing that early Muslims mysteriously borrowed the pagan appellation hanpā and sanitized its meaning to denote Abrahamic monotheism appear random, arbitrary and do not resolve the tension. This is because they do not explain why this group would choose the word hanpā specifically, nor why they would resort to the theatrical and circuitous process of incriminating themselves as hanpē (polytheists) and then correcting the mistake by sanitizing the term to show themselves as monotheists.

The term hanpēmay be more plausibly be explained as follows. The attestation of h.-n-p in late antique Hebrew and Aramaic literature as “gentile,” “heathen,” “profane,” “impious,” ensures that this communicates the original gist of the term. Furthermore, the root h-n-p/f and similar roots in other Near Eastern languages similarly convey the meaning of “deviance” and “crookedness.” It is vident from Syriac Christian sources, where the word hanpē and its derivatives occur frequently, that it is used not just literally but also rhetorically and polemically. An example of its rhetorical usage is found in John of Ephesus’ Ecclesiastical History where he reprimands his fellow believers stating, “why do you sit as a Christian and judge the servants of God as a heathen (hanpāīt)?” A further polemicization and sectarianization of the term h.anpūtā (lit. heathendom) is evident in the meaning “impious” or its identification of rival monotheistic sects like “Sabians” (see earlier). Therefore, hanpūtā and by extension hanpē, served as a polemical-sectarian label imposed by one religious group upon a rival group who were considered “other,” and who—all the while—were monotheistic in world-view. The point is that hanpē was not always used literally (that is, polytheists) but also as a means of slander (that is, impious monotheists). This sectarian phe-nomenon—attacking one’s enemies by calling them polytheists—was a polemical tactic not merely in the sphere of Syriac Christian literature of the late antique Near East, but also in the Qur’ān’s milieu.

Jewish sources, like the Babylonian Talmud, Josephus (d. ca. 100 CE), Jubilees, and Christian sources like Sozomenos of Gaza (d. ca. 450) attest to the fact that Arabians in the late antique period were increasingly abandoning pagan cults and developing a religious lifestyle more akin to that of Jews and Christians prior to Islam in which Abraham and Ishmael played a major role. According to the Qur’ān, the hunafā’ of the H.ijāz came to view Abraham as the earliest h.anīf since he came before both Hebrew and Christian scripture—vindicating him from the heretical stain latent of the hanpē in the Aramaic sphere. It informs us that he was not one of the mushrikūn. It states,

Abraham was neither a Jew (yahūdiyyan) nor a Christian (nas.rāniyyan) but was rather a Hanafite-Muslim (h.anīfan musliman). And he was not one of the polytheists (mushrikūn).

(Q 3:67: see also Q 2:135, 140; 3:64)

Firstly, The use of muslim in Q 3:67 clearly does not indicate a confessional identity, but rather an adjectival or adverbial qualifier to hanīf. Abraham was, therefore, the symbolic founder of the most basic, non-denominational prophetic tradition—Hanifism. In addition, this verse is an emendation to the views espoused in Paul’s Letters where Abraham is portrayed as the paragon of faith. Paul’s emphasis on Abraham’s faith, his abolishment of circumcision (Romans 4:1–25), his criticism of Jewish Law and his nullification of Jewish superiority over heathens (Galatians 3:6–29), was re-articulated by the Qur’ān to give credence to the hunafā’ (see in relation Chapter 3). It states,

And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen [‘ammā] through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham . . . that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles through Jesus Christ . . . There is neither Hebrew nor Gentile [armāyā] . . . for ye are all one in Jesus Christ.

(Galatians 3:8–28)

Q 3:67’s reply to Galatians 8:29 is dogmatic by further limiting Paul’s language to give preeminence, not to Christianity, but toa newer prophetic tradition associated with the hunafā’. Abraham was, therefore, neither a Jew nor a Christian, but rather a heathen (‘ammā), gentile (armāyā) who was—all the while—not a polytheist, that is, a Hanafite-Muslim. Moreoever, the Qur’ān rejects Paul’s perception of Abraham, that “God would justify a heathen through faith,” adding at the end of Q 3:67—almost as an afterthought—that “he was not one of the polytheists.” It may even have been the case that the idea of religious disassocia-tion was—in part—inspired by an interpretation of Paul’s description of Abraham which imbued his heathen and gentile qualities in a positive light.

Still, some hunafā’ succumbed to the proselytization of their revivalist Christian compatriots by converting to Christianity. In relation to this point, Lüling sees Hanifism as the oldest form of Christianity in Arabia, which he describes as an antitrinitarian heresy; Abū Zayd sees Hanifism not as a step backward from JudeoChristian prophetic tradition but rather as a midway point in the transition of the Arabian peoples away from idol worship towards Christianity. Included among the ranks of the hunafā’ were: Waraqah b. Nawfal, the priestly cousin of Muhammad’s first wife Khadījah; his companions ‘Uthmān b. Huwayrith, ‘Ubayd Allāh b. Jahsh;

and Umayyah b. Abī al-Salt. al-Thaqafī (d. ca. 1/623).84 Concerning Umayyah, like Khālid b. Sinān before him, the Sīrah ascribes to him Qur’ān-like poetry, the authenticity of which is debated among scholars, but nonetheless portrays him as an Arabian prophet from the ranks of the hunafā’.

The Final Prophetic Tradition: islām

Many hunafā’ who did not convert to Christianity may have taken a new path—islām. One h.anīf in particular, who possessed all the marks of a leader, was not satisfied with the relative indifference of Hanifism towards the social injustice of tribal society and its political irrelevance. Nor was he about to simply give in to Christianity. Empowered by the sectarian dialogue of the late antique Near East (Q 22:17), sensitized by deep mystical reflection (Q 53:1–18), dismayed by the social injustice of his tribal society (Q 4:2–10; 5:89; 81:8–10; and so on), and emboldened by the rise of an Arabian ethnic consciousness (Q 41:44; 42:47)Muhammad b. ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Abd al-Muttalib (ca. 570–632) of the Quraysh tribe “rose up” against the corruption of his society, like a prophet straight of out of the Bible (cf. Q 73; 74; Isaiah 51; Jeremiah 1:17; Psalms 88; Ephesians 5:14).

He channeled his divine insights and compassion for society’s downtrodden (see Chapter 3) into an ambitious, unprecedented project that would unite not merely all the churches of the Near East, but consolidate the entire religious fabric of the region and beyond into a world empire (Q 3:103; 21:106–107; 42:7; 61:9). Furthermore, if Shoemaker’s reading of the Doctrina Iacobi is right then Muhammad may have led a military campaign into the coveted city of Jerusalem himself as late as 634, which is an insightful prospect. In any case the bold project upon which Muhammad embarked, which far exceeded the call to Christian unity preached by patriarchs like John of Ephesus, ultimately became the final manifestation of the entire Judeo-Christian sequence of prophetic traditions—the final mašlmānūtā—for which Muhammad himself was proclaimed—not unlike Jesus before him—“the messenger of God and seal of the prophets” (rasūl allāh wa khātam al-nabiyyīn; Q 33:40). It comes, therefore, as no surprise that the Qur’ān calls Muhammad by the standard Hebrew and Aramaic word for prophet, nabī, and that the name it gives to the new prophetic tradition which he established was the Arabic articulation of Syriac mašlmānūtā—that is islām.

It means “submission” or “surrender” to God. Its verbal origin aslam corresponds to the Syriac ašlēm and is also the G-stem (aph‘ēl/af‘al) of the root s-l-m, where Aramaic š corresponds to Arabic s. The active participle in Arabic frequently functions as the nomen agentis; and thus the new prophet, Muhammad, appropriately called the followers of his islām the muslimūn (sg. muslim) who, in the Qur’ān, are explicitly made the heirs to the Judeo-Christian “line of prophets” (Q 2:136; see Chapter 3). Donner argues that the earliest members of this community were a diverse group of believers (mu’minūn) in God and the Final Day (Q 2:62, 177; 4:95; 6:27; 8:60–64; 9:111; 10:104; and so on). This community included Jews, Christians, and other monotheists who joined Muhammad’s movement. Furthermore, that the h.anīf in a sense evolved into a muslim is suggested by the Qur’ān (see later discussion) and supported by scholarly studies. Jeffrey considers both islām and muslim to be of Syriac origin. However, Qur’ān specialists who have researched he word islām have not really ventured beyond the Islamic literary sources to divulge the very core of its meaning. At the same time, Andrae rightly alludes to general similarities between Muhammad’s new islām and the mašlmānūtāof Babai cited earlier.

Still, there is a specific dimension of meaning contained within the islām cited in the Qur’ān which links its usage directly back to the hunafā’. It states, “posi-tion your face towards the religion as a h.anīf (aqim wajhak li al-dīn h.anīfan)” (Q 10:105; 30:30). In this latter example we see the beginnings of a religion being formed out of Hanifism. Elsewhere in the Qur’ān it states,

And who is better in religion [al-dīn] than he who surrenders his face [aslamwajhah] towards God while being upright [muhsin] and follows the religion of Abraham as a hanīf [millat ibrāhīm hanīfan; 4:125]?

It appears that aqim wajhak (position your face) comes from an earlier stage in the development of Muhammad’s prophetic tradition where islām may not yet have been the name chosen for it. This changed later on when the Qur’ān states aslam wajhah (surrender his face)—which is not without parallels in earlier Syriac literature—where the act of islām or being a muslim (that is aslam) became more or less equated with Abrahamic Hanifism. Another point is that the expression millat ibrāhīm h.anīfan appears to be a mysterious Aramaic phrase that the exegetes had trouble interpreting and a point which modern Qur’ān specialists have debated.

A final piece of evidence which leads us to believe that Muhammad’s islām was received by some as Hanifism itself is found in comparing Q 3:19 of ‘Uthman’s codex with that of ‘Abd Allāh b. Mas‘ūd (d. 31/652). The former states, “indeed the religion before God is islām”; the latter states “indeed the religion before God is Hanifism (al-h.anīfiyyah).”Tīzīnī’s argument in this regard is concise and summarizes the point of this discussion. He sees Muhammad’s new prophetic tradi-tion, which he calls al-muhammadiyyah or al-islām al-muhammadī(Muhammadan Islam), as a second conservative phase growing out of what he deems a transitional religious manifestation he calls al-h.anīfiyyah al-nas.rāniyyah or Hanafite Christianity. The question is when did the shift from Hanifism to Islam occur? Donner hints that this shift may have occurred decades after Muhammad’s death (presum-ably by when the Qur’ānic text was standardized and the Umayyad bureaucracy Arabicized; see Chapter 1). I suspect the shift may have occurred earlier, perhaps towards the end of Muhammad’s life or shortly thereafter during the Wars of Apostasy (hurūb al-riddah; ca. 630–34 CE; see later discussion).

However, it is crucial to note that not all h.unafā’ flocked to the side of Muhammad’s islām. The h.anīf turned Christian, Waraqah, sanctioned Muhammad’s movement, although never became a muslim himself. Some hunafā’ like Zayd b. ‘Amr b. Nufayl (d. early seventh century?) refrained from all forms of organized religion and fled Mecca for the Syriac speaking monasteries in Mosul, and later those around Syria. Allegedly heeding the words of a monk he made for a speedy return back to his homeland to meet the new Arabian prophet only to get killed along the way. Other hunafā’, especially Abū ‘Āmir ‘Abd ‘Amr b. S.ayfī al-Rāhib and Abū Qays b. alAslat., accused Muhammad of corrupting Hanifism and took up arms with the Qurashīs against him.

Some Christians in Muhammad’s locale joined him early on, as well as others from far flung Christian centers in the Near East. For example, the Sīrah narrates that in Esfahan, the son of a Persian dehqān, named Māhbeh (or Rūzbeh)—known to Islamic tradition as Salmān al-Fārisī (d. ca. 36/657)—converted from Zoroastrianism to Christianity and then visited the Syriac Christian centers of Nisibis, Mosul, and Damascus before making it to Wādī al-Qurā in search for the new prophet called Muhammad; similarly the Hellenized Arab known as Suhayb b. Sinān al-Rūmī (d. 38/659) was a former captive in Constantinople who also sought out the prophet Muhammad. The details of Suhayb and Salmān’s stories are likely apocryphal. However, they demonstrate that Christian elements from the Persian and Byzantine spheres traversed Muhammad’s locality and, perhaps, played a role in the development of his prophetic tradition.

Moreover, Muhammad’s respect for church sanctity, which he was uniting and renewing on a level that Syriac Christian patriarchs could never have imagined, prohibited him from disposing of the icon of the virgin Mary and an image of Abraham when he was smashing the idols in the Ka‘bah’s pantheon. It is also fitting that the standard word for house of worship or church in the Qur’ān is masjid (Q 7:29, 31; 9:108; pl. masājid Q 2:114; 9:17–18; 72:18), which comes from (Christian?) Aramaic masgēd. The Qur’ān, in turn, refers to the Meccan house of worship surrounding the Ka‘bah as al-masjid al-h.arām (Q 2:149; 9:7, and so on). Other Christian masājid and holy sites filled Muhammad’s Hijāzī locale; and we know from the Islamic literary sources that Christianity was likely part of Muhammad’s Qurashī ancestry (see earlier). The sources also inform us that two of Muhammad’s closest companions and Islam’s first two caliphs, Abū Bakr ‘Abd Allāh b. Abī Quhāfah al-Taymī (d. 13/634) and Abū Hafs. ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb al-‘Adawī (d. 23/644), were known as “the sincere” (al-siddīq) and “the savior” (al-fārūq) respectively. These honorific titles likely came through the Aramaic Christian sphere where zdīqāand pārūqāare terms of tremendous religious significance. Notwithstanding the late nature of such reports, their existence in the Islamic literary corpus compels one to acknowledge the sustained presence of Christianity among Muhammad’s community and kindred. Hishām Ja‘īt. makes the claim—undoubtedly influenced by earlier authors like Andrae—that Christianity was so strong in Mecca that Muhammad learned Syriac there and studied the works of Ephrem the Syrian. This bold claim lacks substantial evidence but deserves more attention.

At any rate, even after Muhammad’s death Christian groups and tribes of Arabian origin were given special treatment well into the Umayyad era (661–750 CE) and were unconditionally allowed to keep their Christian faith. In light of such evidence it appears more fruitful to understand the historical Muhammad primarily as a literate ascetic and reformer of Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition—not unlike the historical Jesus who preached his message as a reformer of Rabbinic Judaism—whose impulses were part of the fabric of Aramaic Christianity in sixth to seventh century Arabia.

This, however, did not mean that the relationship between Muhammad and all the Christian elements in Arabia was amicable. Against those who turned towards (aslam) the religion of Abraham the Hanif, were those who “rejected and turned away” (kafarū wa tawallū) from their prophets (Q 64:6). There is also reason to believe that during Muhammad’s lifetime some Christian groups setup rival houses of worship to fragment the muslimūn. Q 9:107 accordingly refers to, “those who took up a house of worship in offense and rejection and to cause division among the Muslims” (al-ladhīn ittakhadhū masjidan dirāran wa kufran wa tafriqan bayn al-muslimīn). Furthermore, the qawm ulī ba’s shadīd, “nation of great ferocity” in Q 48:16, may be a reference to Arabic speaking Christian tribes that exercised strong influence during Muhammad’s lifetime. Due to such strong sectarianism in the Qur’ān’s milieu, Q 42:13 calls upon Muhammad’s followers to preserve the unity of the prophetic tradition proscribed to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, saying, “establish the religion, and about it, be not divided!” After disputing with Muhammad over the encroachment of his islām into Yemeni territory, the Christians of Najrān were eventually able to resolve their disagreements.  Nonetheless, on the eve of Muhammad’s death, virtually all of Arabia had at least nominally joined islām. Still, after his death the Christian communities of the eastern provinces of Arabia around Bahrayn, whose lands were dotted with churches dating back to the fifth century, rebelled. It is further evidence of the entrenchment of Christianity among the Arabians of late antiquity that immediately after Muhammad’s death, it was Christianity that made a large scale come-back and not pagan cults.

In Yemen and East Arabia, where Christianity exerted great influence, numerous “counter prophets” rose against Muhammad. These included prophets like al-Aswad al-‘Ansī (‘Abhalah b. Ka‘b b. Ghawth al-Madhh.ajī; d. ca. 10/632) and Tulayhah (Talhah?) b. Khuwaylid b. Nawfal al-Asadī (d. ca. 21/642) respectively. The two most emboldened Christian parties were led by the prophet Maslamah b. H.abīb of Banū H.anīfah (d. 10/634) and the prophetess Sajjāh. bt. al-H.āris of Banū Tamīm/Taghlub (d. ca. 10/632). Failing to join with Muhammad, the two Christian parties joined forces to repel Muhammad’s now rapidly expand-ing islām with a rival prophetic tradition also from within Arabia.

The details of the Wars of Apostasy episode are not our interest here. Two matters are of more immediate concern. One is that the existence of several prophetic claimants—at the very least Khālid b. Sinān, Umayyah b. Abī al-Salt., Muhammad, al-Aswad al-‘Ansī, Tulayhah, Maslamah, Sajjāh., and possibly Zayd b. ‘Amr, among others—up to this time is proof that late antique Arabia was “ripe with the institution of prophecy” and a participant in prophetic tradition. Secondly, the name maslamah contains an Arabic or Syriac participial-nominal substratum, like muslim/mašlēm (submitter), muslam/mašlam (submitted), maslam/mašlmānā (a place or tool of submission) or something similar. In any case what is suggestive is that the name maslamah is ultimately a title derived

from aslam/ašlēm, which as explained earlier is a verb associated with prophetic tradition. The frequency of important Arabic speaking Christians with names derived from or related to this word lends more credence to a developed religious conception of islām as prophetic tradition circulating among Arabian hunafā’ and Christians. Numerous individuals during Muhammad’s lifetime, especially of east Arabian or Persian Christian origin, possessed such names. These include the poet Zuhayr b. Abī Sulmā; leader of the delegation of Banū Hanīfah Sulmah b. Hanzalah; leader of the delegation of Banū Kilāb Jabbār b. Sulmā; and Salmān al-Fārisī, to name a few.

A matter of equal significance is that both Maslamah and Sajjāh. became prophets and charismatic leaders of their Christian communities, not unlike Muhammad among the hunafā’ (and possibly even Christians) of his community. In this regard, one may speak of different islams—that is, competing religious movements that emerged among the Arabian peoples in response to the sectarian fragmentation of (mainly) Syriac speaking churches, and the desire to unite them under a single, dogmatic, prophetic impulse. The other vital point about this formative episode is that later Muslim authors, as the new guardians of Islamic orthodoxy, disparage the characters of the two counter prophets in their chronicles. In virtually all the Islamic literary sources Maslamah’s name is preserved as Musaylimah al-Kadhdhāb, or “lowly Maslamah the liar.” The Islamic literary sources also describe Sajjāh. as a seductress whose beauty and eroticism ultimately caused her and Maslamah to get married. This kind of character defamation aims to describe the “other” as immoral, sexually deviant, and is typical of similar late antique heresiographical descriptions before it. However, it does not seem logical that Maslamah and Sajjāh.’s alleged sexual exploits would lead to a noble end like marriage: plain fornication would have demonized them just fine, unless of course the marriage itself was a negative smear, which it would have been for celibate Christian leaders as they likely were.

At any rate, when Khālid b. al-Walīd (d. 21/642) dealt Maslamah the final death blow, Sajjāh. fled and their rival prophetic tradition fell apart. It was then that the one and only Islam (with a capital “I”) of Muhammad reigned supreme. From then on and according to Q 3:19, Islam became the one and only religion (dīn) accept-able to God. All other religions and sects that were based on the teachings of other prophets were tolerated (Q 2:62, 256; 5:69; 7:87; 22:17; cf. Q 3:113).

That the Qur’ān itself speaks favorably of the hunafā’ (for example Q 98:5), and to a great extent the Christians (cf. Q 5:72–73, 82), and shows more ambivalence to adherents of other prophetic traditions like the People of the Scripture (ahl al-kitāb; Q 3:64, 70–75, 98–99) as well as the Jews (cf. banī isrā’īl in Q 2:122 with al-yahūd in Q 5:64, 78, 82) is consistent with Muhammad’s interaction with those groups and the energetic role Arabian peoples played in the history of late antique Hanafite and Christian prophetic traditions of the Near East.  Aside from one explicit mention in the Qur’ān of al-majūs (Q 22:17), the Zoroastrians are the “un-named other” whose religious history was not as interlaced with that of the Arabian peoples and whose doctrines were not fully in harmony with the Judeo-Christian background of Muhammad’s world. Nonetheless, a simple debate over which prophetic tradition, Judaism or Christianity, or even which variety thereof, most informed the Qur’ān’s discourse is misguided. It is evident from the Qur’ān alone that with regards to the nature of ritual, orthopraxy, and law, that Islam was developed with Judaism as the model (for example Q 2:238, 4:3, 5:32). However, concerning the political scale of Islam and its place as an empire of salvation, the Christian example, perhaps that of the Byzantine Empire, was far more significant (for example Q 3:110).

The Qur’ān’s awareness of Christian prophetic tradition—in its most general sense—came from numerous scriptural and liturgical sources and in different languages. The central place to begin retrieving these sources is with the foundational texts of Christianity, the Four Gospels, in the principle language they circulated within the Qur’ān’s milieu—Aramaic. This examination will take place over the next four chapters, following a brief statement of my assumptions.


I am mindful that this study, by examining the Qur’ān critically as a historical text, is entering an arena that has been highly charged from the very start, both religiously and politically. Some of this tension goes back to the colonial era (ca. eighteenth to twentieth centuries) wherein Islam was treated by European orientalists with enmity.  In more recent years some of this tension has been the product of a neo-polemical strain of publications and international, political events that have disadvantaged Muslims. This study hopes to be free from such polemical and political motivations. In order to achieve this goal it is necessary, after having discussed the sources, method, and introductory framework, to make explicit the assumptions inherent in the methodology of this study.

Firstly, being composed of questionable Hadith reports and later pious historisizations, the early Sīrah narratives (see earlier) are viewed highly critically but not rejected outright. This is because once the pious and romantic details of most stories—like those of Waraqah and Salmān al-Fārisī for instance—are removed, a plausible ‘historical kernel’ remains which is capable of shedding light on the Qur’ān’s development and the origins of Muhammad’s Islam. However, our concern regarding the authenticity of many Islamic literary sources—especially the Hadith corpus—severely hinders its applicability in interpreting the Qur’ān. This concern is not just well founded among academics, but can also be justified from within the Qur’ān, the Hadith corpus, and among contemporary Muslim scholars as well.

In the Qur’ān, Muhammad’s goal to win over the adherents of other religious communities is found in the rhetorical question posed, “therefore, in which speech [hadīth] after God and his signs will they believe?” (cf. Q 45:6 and 77:50). In line with this statement is the Hadith report—the logic of which nullifies fraudulent reports in the Hadith corpus—wherein Muhammad warns his followers “whoever intentionally speaks a lie about me, then let him take his place in hellfire” (Bukhārī 1:52:108; Muslim 2:1:10). The spurious nature of most Hadith reports, which was one reason for spawning the meticulous science of Hadith in the first place, and its inapplicability to interpreting the Qur’ān, have been recognized by Islamic modernists like Gamāl al-Bannā and even the former grand Mufti of Egypt Mahmūd Shaltūt.

Additionally, that the history of Muslim scripture is mysterious or problematic is not an aberration but common to the phenomenon of scripture and all revelations. Likewise, that a scripture of the late antique Near East should allude to, reference, transform, quote or in some way incorporate the sacred language and religious expression of earlier confessional traditions or civilizations should hardly be a surprise, since the same phenomenon is found in the scriptures of the ancient Near East including the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Furthermore, the complexity of studying qur’ānic origins has on occasion been compounded as a result of reductionist tendencies in scholarship on the Qur’ān. It is problematic—and perhaps presumptuous—to claim based on finding some sort of parallel between two texts that one is simply derived from another. The Qur’ān is part of several contexts and is not reducible to any one of them. As has been demonstrated, some scholars have searched for an ancient qur’ānic ur-text, that is, preceding the milieu of Muhammad, while others argue for a later context. The resulting “chaos” cannot sufficiently serve as a foundation for our inquiry. Rather, concerning ourselves with the Arabic text of the Qur’ān as it has come to us, separating it from later traditional Islamic literature, and respecting the Qur’ān’s integrity as a unique scripture in the diverse context of late antique Near Eastern revelation generally and seventh-century Arabia specifically, will prove a more fruitful foundation with which to begin our investigation. The premise of this paper follows that of Griffith as he states,

The Qur’ān [is] a scripture in its own right, in dialogue with previous scriptures through the oral reports of them that circulated among the Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians in the Qur’ān’s own milieu.

While the Qur’ān claims that the “original” Hebrew and Christian scriptures have been corrupted and therefore lost (Q 3:93; 5:47; 28:49; 37:157; 46:4), we have on the contrary well preserved copies of both scriptural traditions in Hebrew, Aramaic (especially Syriac), Greek, and Latin stretching back centuries before Islam. Furthermore, numerous qur’ānic passages are in conversation with pas-sages found in these Hebrew and Christian Bible translations. The corruption and loss of “original” scriptures—a belief attested in some Syriac Christian homiletic works as well—is a hermeneutical strategy on Muhammad’s part to voice his disapproval of what he deemed disobedience of the scriptures (Q 4:171; 5:47, 66–77; 62:5) and scribal tampering (Q 2:41, 79; 3:78; see in relation Didache 11:1–2) in order to pave the way for the new dogmatic re-articulation of divine revelation (cf. Q 3:3; 4:47; 25:33; 35:31; 46:30). This is confirmation, moreover, that Muhammad’s divine insights and mystical experiences were filtered—not unlike his predecessors the Psalmist and musician David, Ephrem “the harp,” and Jacob of Serugh “the flute”—through his knowledge of the melodic and hymnal qualities found in Arabian prophetic speech (saj‘), in addition to Judeo-Christian sectarian debate.

As such, the utility of the extant Judeo-Christian corpus to interpret the Qur’ān and the events of Muammad’s revelation and prophethood was picked up early on by numerous Muslim exegetes like Muqātil, Mujāhid, and al-Biqā‘ī, as well as historians like Ibn Ishāq and Ibn Hishām. In a similar way, the presence of numer-ous words from (mainly) Aramaic dialects within the Qur’ān’s language has long been recognized by quite a few traditional Muslim scholarly works, at the head of which are Ibn Sallām’s Lughāt al-qabā’il, Ibn Qutaybah’s Tafsīr gharīb al-qur’ān, al-Jawālīqī’s Mu‘arrab and al-Suyūtī’s Itqān.

It has been argued earlier that the Qur’ān’s understanding of islām and Muhammad’s place within it should be understood in the context of his Syriac Christian near contemporaries—namely Babai the Great, John of Ephesus, as well as Jacob of Serugh some decades earlier. Evidence has been adduced aligning the Qur’ān’s Arabic text to earlier Aramaic Christian impulses of prophetic tradition. Not only did Muhammad’s very own pedigree, namely his ancestor ‘Abd al-Masīh b. Buqīlah (who served the Sasanians in Syria), confess the existence of QurashīChristians who probably knew a dialect of Aramaic, but so too did the company with whom he associated. Salmān al-Fārisī who spent time touring the Syriac monasteries of Nisibis and Mosul wherein the prophetic impulses of Jacob of Serugh and prophetic tradition (mašlmānūtā) of Babai the Great was well known, as well as the captive Suhayb al-Rūmī who fled from Constantinople where John of Ephesus’ restoration of the (mainly) Syriac speaking churches was known as well, would have contributed Christian Aramaic ideas to the Qur’ān’s milieu.

Evidence has further been adduced justifying a study of the Qur’ān as an Arabic scripture which is in part a dogmatic re-articulation of the Aramaic Gospel Traditions. The presence of Aramaic speaking Arabians from a priestly or scribal background in the Sīrah narrative, whether semi-legendary like the Syrian monk Bahīrā or more historically plausible figures like Waraqah b. Nawfal and Zayd b. Thābit, provide a strong precedent for the continued circulation of the Aramaic Gospel Traditions in the milieu of the Qur’ān. Still, this study does not merely compare the ‘Uthmānic codex of the Qur’ān with the Syriac New Testament Peshitta—from which the majority of our literary relationships will be drawn—but rather frame a much broader discussion involving literature from the greater ancient and late antique Judeo-Christian and Zoroastrian spheres, that may have served as intermediaries between the Qur’ān’s dialogue with the Aramaic Gospel Traditions. We turn to this dialogue next.











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