Authored by: Stephen J. Shoemaker

Routledge Handbook on Early Islam

Print publication date:  August  2017
Online publication date:  August  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138821187
eBook ISBN: 9781315743462
Adobe ISBN:


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In the span of just over a century and a half, Muḥammad has gone from being a figure who was “born in the full light of history” to almost a complete cipher. This did not happen without a struggle, however, as many leading authorities on formative Islam have persistently sought to validate the historical worth of Muḥammad’s traditional Islamic biographies for reconstructing the earliest history of Islam. Even today a handful of scholars continue to labor intensively to prevent Muḥammad from completely vanishing in what amounts to a near total epistemological collapse regarding the beginnings of Islam. The sources themselves are at least partly to blame for this lingering confidence: the surfeit of information that they offer can be intoxicating for historians eager to know more about the past. Thus the New Testament scholar Ernest Renan boasted that it was possible to “follow year by year the fluctuations of [Muḥammad’s] thoughts, his contradictions, his weaknesses” (Renan 1851: 1025; Renan 2000: 129). Yet alongside of Renan’s credulity a more critical perspective was simultaneously beginning to emerge, particularly in the work of Gustav Weil, whose contribution to the foundation of early Islamic studies is not always appreciated as much as it should be. For instance, Theodor Nöldeke’s prize-winning dissertation on the Qurʾān owes a substantial debt to Weil’s earlier work on the topic, yet one imagines that Weil’s Jewish heritage has much to do with the fact that Nöldeke, rather than he, is remembered as the great father of Qurʾānic studies. 1 Weil also published path-breaking studies on Muḥammad’s early biographies and the early Islamic historical tradition, along with a translation of Ibn Hishām’s important early biography of Muḥammad (Weil 1843, 1846–1851, 1864). With these works Weil, perhaps more than any other figure, laid the foundations for future critical study of Muḥammad and Islamic origins.

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