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

The wide angle

One of the main goals of this book is to narrow the divide that exists between the study of religion in the late ancient Mediterranean and the study of Islamic origins.  Surprising as it is, there is still little scholarly activity across this divide, despite some notable recent achievements.

The beginnings of Islam have long been studied in relative isolation from the religious history of the late ancient Near East.  Its study has proceeded almost exclusively on the basis of materials drawn from the Islamic tradition, and its formation has been conceived within the relative isolation of western Arabia, about which we know precious little during the pre-Islamic period outside of much later Islamic accounts.  Little attention has been paid to how Islam may have developed into its classical form through a process of dialogue and interaction with the other religions of the seventh-century Near East.

The value of contemporary non-Islamic sources as evidence for the beginnings of Islam also needs to be taken more seriously.  And it is not only the case that these sources need to be studied for what they relate about early Islam, but the possibility of significant development within the Islamic tradition after sustained contact with these other religious also needs to be more fully considered.

The book also addresses the need to bridge the study of Islam methodologically with these other Near Eastern religious traditions.  Many scholars of early Islam have long taken the witness of the Islamic historical tradition more or less at face value, despite widely acknowledged problems with these sources.  The traditional narratives of Islamic origins were very late in forming—over a century after the events in question—and they are widely recognized as presenting a highly idealized portrait of Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam that seems designed to embody the beliefs and practices of Islam during its second and later centuries.  Similar problems also beset the study of Christian and Jewish origins, but scholars in these fields have learned to treat the relevant sources with a healthy dose of skepticism.  They have also developed methods for reconstructing various models of early Judaism and Christianity despite the tendentious nature of the sources.  These approaches also hold potential to shed new light on the beginnings of the Islamic tradition.

I began along the path to this book many years ago, back in graduate school actually.  The focus of my training was on Christianity in the late ancient and early medieval Near East, but one of my good friends was an Islamicist who had initially started out in the history of Christianity.  We often discussed the differences in approach to studying the origins of the two traditions, and especially the relative absence of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” from study of early Islam.  This same friend first introduced me to a book by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism, a highly provocative and controversial study of formative Islam based on the non-Islamic sources.  This was the first work to identify the discrepancy in the sources concerning the timing of Muhammad’s death.  I was struck by the quality of the evidence for this tradition, particularly its “multiple, independent attestation” in a variety of sources: such evidence is the “gold standard” of historical Jesus studies.  I initially intended to write a brief article noting the apparent quality of this evidence when viewed from another discipline.  But the article grew, and before long, I realized that I was writing a book.