David S. Powers


On his book Muhammad is Not the Father of any of Your Men: The Making of the Last Prophet

Cover Interview of September 03, 2009

The wide angle

Professional path

I began the study of Arabic during my senior year at Yale.  After receiving my B.A., I spent two years (1973-75) at the Hebrew University in the Department of Arabic Language and Literature, where I was introduced to the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (Hadith).  It was in Jerusalem that I developed an interest in Islamic law.  In the fall of 1975 I returned to the States and began to work on a doctorate at Princeton University.  A revised version of my dissertation was published in 1986 under the title Studies in Qur’an and Hadith: The Formation of the Islamic Law of Inheritance.

As I was working on my dissertation, I encountered the word kalala.  This word occurs only twice in the Qur’an, once in verse 12 of chapter 4 (“Women”) and again in verse 176, the last verse in the chapter.  Both verses treat the subject of inheritance.

At the present time, the word kalala is little-known, even among native speakers of Arabic.  During the first two or three centuries of Islamic history, however, the meaning of this word was a matter of great interest to Muslim scholars.  One might say that the word kalala was a mystery.  The second caliph Umar b.  al-Khattab appears to have been obsessed with this word for much of his adult life.  He is reported to have said that he would rather know the meaning of kalala than possess the equivalent of the poll-tax levied on the fortresses of Byzantium.  The word puzzled the earliest commentators.  Eventually, they defined it as a man or woman’s relatives except for parents and children, i.e., collaterals.  No big deal.

Following the publication of Studies in Qur’an and Hadith, I spent two decades studying the Islamic judicial system in the Maghrib in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries CE.  In the summer of 2005, serendipity drew me back to the Qur’an.  In June of that year, I was looking for a book on Islamic law in the basement of Olin Library at Cornell University.  By chance, I picked up a two-volume handbook on ancient Near Eastern law which contains an index of terms in Semitic languages.  The references in the index led me to a discussion of adoption, a subject to which I had not paid any attention previously—no doubt because the institution is prohibited in Islamic law.

I learned that in Nuzi in the middle of the second millennium BCE, a man could adopt a woman by taking her into his house “in daughtership and daughter-in-lawship.”  In Akkadian the phrase is martuti u kalluti.  Eureka!  In Q.  4:12, we find the phrase kalala aw imra’a.  There is a striking similarity between the Akkadian and Arabic phrases: Akkadian martu and Arabic imra’a are derived from the same root, have the same morphology, and have a similar meaning (“daughter,” “woman”).  Similarly, Akkadian kallatu and Arabic kalala are derived from the same root.  But they have a different morphology and a different meaning.  Akkadian kallatu signifies daughter-in-law; Arabic kalala signifies collateral relatives.  Be that as it may, I now asked myself: Is it possible that the Akkadian phrase passed into Arabic and resurfaced 2,000 years later, in a slightly modified form, in the Qur’an?

In the winter of 2005, I became aware of a facsimile edition of Bibliothèque Nationale de France 328, a substantial fragment of a Qur’an codex that has been dated to the third quarter of the first century AH.  To the best of my knowledge, this is the earliest extant Qur’an codex that contains the full text of chapter 4 (“Women”) of the Qur’an.  It was not long before I noticed several irregularities in the writing of the word kalala on folio 10b.  My suspicions were reinforced by direct examination of the manuscript in Paris and by photographs of the manuscript taken under infra-red and ultra-violet light.

Based upon the linguistic evidence from Nuzi and my analysis of folio 10b, I maintain that the early Muslim community changed the spelling of one word in Q. 4:12: kalala was originally kalla.

At first sight, this argument is improbable, as the word kalla does not exist in the Arabic language. All is not lost, however.  In every Semitic language except for Arabic, one finds an equivalent of our hypothetical *kalla, i.e., kallatu, kallah, kallta. In each instance, the noun functions as a kinship term that signifies a daughter-in-law.  If one reads *kalla (“daughter-in-law”) instead of kalala(“collaterals”) in Q. 4:12, then the original meaning of the verse would have been, “If a man designates a daughter-in-law (kalla) or wife as heir and he has a brother or sister, each one of them is entitled to one-sixth.”

The addition of a single letter (a second lam) transformed the meaning of the verse, which – not without difficulty – came to be understood as signifying, “If a man is inherited by collaterals (kalalatan) or a woman [is inherited by collaterals], and he [or she] has a brother or sister, each one of them is entitled to one-sixth” (words within brackets indicate glosses).  The semantic change is significant.  What force on earth might have motivated the first Muslims to revise the text of the Qur’an?  It was my effort to answer this question that led me to the theological doctrine of the finality of prophecy.

My book challenges two key assumptions

The first assumption relates to the text of the Qur’an, which teaches that God revealed the Torah to Moses and the Injil or New Testament to Jesus.  The Qur’an also indicates that the Israelites and the Christians were unable to preserve the original contents of their respective scriptures which, over time, were subjected to textual distortion (tahrif).  By contrast, it is a fundamental tenet of Islam that the Qur’an always has been, and must remain, immune from textual distortion.  From this tenet it follows that the text of the Qur’an, as it has come down to us in the 21st century, is identical in all respects to the revelations received by Muhammad over a period of twenty-three years between 610 and 632 CE.  The notion that the early Muslim community might have revised the text of the Qur’an is unthinkable, not only for Muslims but also for most Islamicists—including, until recently, myself.  This unthinkable notion is one of the central concerns of my book.

The second assumption relates to the career of the Prophet.  Unlike Moses or Jesus, Muhammad is said to have been born “in the full light of history.”  Indeed, the Sira or Biography of Muhammad contains detailed information about the Prophet’s life, including reports about his birth, childhood, marriages, children, and death.  Except for a handful of scholars, most historians treat these “facts” as history.

I challenge this view by focusing attention on a man named Zayd b.  Haritha al-Kalbi who, for approximately twenty years, was the Prophet’s adopted son.  Zayd is a marginal figure in Islamic history.  In fact, I argue, apart from Muhammad himself, Zayd was the most important figure in the early Muslim community.

Zayd’s importance comes into sharp focus when we view reports about his life from a literary perspective.  Although Muhammad may have had an adopted son named Zayd, the narrative reports about Zayd’s life have nothing to do with history—as that term is understood in the academy today.  Viewed from a literary perspective, Zayd emerges as a key figure whose sole function was to make it possible for Muhammad to become the Last Prophet.  Zayd fulfilled this function by serving Muhammad with absolute loyalty and unwavering devotion from the moment he entered Muhammad’s household as a slave ca.  605 CE until his martyrdom in the year 629.

In the narratives, Zayd’s persona is a remarkable combination of biblical models.  As a youth he is Joseph in Egypt—albeit with a twist.  Whereas the biblical figure welcomes reunification with his family, Zayd chooses to remain Muhammad’s slave rather than return to Syria with his birth family.  It is only after this demonstration of absolute loyalty that Muhammad adopts Zayd as his son.  As a consequence of the adoption, two extremely important changes take place:  Zayd’s name changes to Zayd b.  Muhammad al-Qurashi, and he acquires the right to inherit from his father.

As Muhammad’s heir, the figure of Zayd is modeled on that of Dammesek Eliezer (Abraham’s servant and heir prior to the birth of Ishmael and Isaac).  Once Muhammad emerges as the Messenger of God, Zayd becomes the Beloved of the Messenger of God.  Like Solomon, he is favored by God.  Indeed, according to the Qur’an, Zayd is favored by both God and the Prophet.  In addition, he is the only Muslim apart from Muhammad whose name is mentioned in the Qur’an.

With the emergence of the doctrine of the finality of prophecy, however, Zayd becomes a liability who must be marginalized.  Like Ishmael, he is repudiated by his father so that he will not be his heir.  Like Uriah the Hittite, Zayd is sent to certain death on a battlefield in southern Jordan.  Like Isaac, he is sacrificed.

The marginalization of Zayd was facilitated by the invention of a curious story about how Muhammad fell in love with a beautiful woman named Zaynab bt.  Jahsh—who just happened to be Zayd’s wife.  N.B.  Zaynab was the Prophet’s daughter-in-law.  Although Muhammad wanted to marry Zaynab, he apparently was familiar with the biblical and Near Eastern prohibition on marriage with a daughter-in-law.

In order to prevent the Prophet from committing a sin, God is said to have intervened in history in order to legitimize Muhammad’s marriage to Zaynab.  The Qur’an introduces a distinction between the wives of natural sons and the wives of adopted sons.  Henceforth, a marriage between a man and the former wife of his natural son was forbidden, whereas a marriage between a man and the former wife of his adopted son was licit.  Inasmuch as adoption was abolished almost immediately thereafter, this was a distinction without a difference.  Be that as it may, after Zayd had divorced Zaynab, Muhammad took his daughter-in-law and made her his wife.

In fact, I argue, Muhammad’s marriage to Zaynab is pure fiction, a story that was invented in order to create a narrative space in which Muhammad could be said to have repudiated Zayd.  It was in the brief narrative moment between Zayd’s divorce of Zaynab and Muhammad’s marriage to her that the Prophet is reported to have said to Zayd, “I am not your father.”  To secure the matter, the institution of adoption was abolished.