Stephen J. Shoemaker


On his book The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad's Life and the Beginnings of Islam

Cover Interview of April 24, 2012

In a nutshell

This book is an effort at the “quest for the historical Muhammad” that uses methods and perspectives borrowed from biblical and early Christian studies to investigate the beginnings of Islam.  It takes its main focus on divergent traditions about the timing of Muhammad’s death in the historical sources for the early Islamic period.

The traditional Islamic biographies of Muhammad, which were first written more than a century after his death, relate Muhammad’s death in 632 at Medina.  Nevertheless, an alternative tradition survives in earlier and more numerous Jewish, Christian, Samaritan, and even Islamic sources, in which Muhammad was still alive when his followers entered Palestine in 634-35.  Although this discrepancy in the source materials has been known for several decades, until now, it had never been investigated.

The purpose of this study, however, is not to determine when Muhammad really died.  Rather, these rival memories of the end of Muhammad’s life afford a valuable opening through which to explore the nature of earliest Islam more broadly.

The tradition of Muhammad’s leadership of the campaign in Palestine seems to be earlier than the account of his death in Medina.  The question then is what developments within early Islam could explain such a transformation in the early Islamic memory of the conclusion to Muhammad’s life.  This study argues that the basis for such “re-remembering” of Muhammad’s death lies in the rapidly changing nature of the new religious movement that he founded.  Evidence suggests earliest Islam to have been driven largely by belief that the end of the world had drawn very near: Muhammad and his followers seem to have expected this event even within their lifetimes.  The final judgment of “the Hour” was anticipated, it would appear, in Jerusalem, as it largely still is today in the Islamic tradition.

Accordingly, Jerusalem and the biblical Holy Land were of enormous religious significance for Muhammad and his earliest followers, vestiges of which can still be found in the Islamic tradition today.  There is in fact mounting evidence that Jerusalem and Palestine were at least as significant as Mecca and Medina—if not perhaps even more so—in early Islamic sacred geography.  Such a configuration would favor a memory of Muhammad’s association with the invasion of Palestine, as he led his followers to meet the final judgment in the Holy Land that was their promised inheritance as children of Abraham.

Nevertheless, Muhammad’s followers soon grew more patient regarding the end of the world and also developed a distinctive sacred geography that significantly diminished the status of Jerusalem to focus instead on the western Arabian Peninsula.  Consequently, a new tradition of Muhammad’s death in this uniquely Islamic “Holy Land” was required.  In such a way then, one can imagine the emergence of a tradition that remembered Muhammad’s death in his own sacred city, Medina, in parallel with these other developments in earliest Islam.

I hope that readers will read the book with an open mind.  As clichéd as that may sound, this is particularly a concern given the hostility that some scholars of early Islam have expressed toward prior studies of Islamic origins that use historical-critical methods on traditional materials and approach the traditional Islamic narrative of its origins with a significant measure of skepticism.  Indeed, in comparison with other areas of religious studies, the occasional but persistent antagonism to these kinds of approaches from some scholars in Islamic studies is unusual and unfortunate.