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


Some of my primary wishes for the book’s implications and consequences are implicit in the answer to your second set of questions.  I hope that the book will spur further discussion about Islam’s development within the broader context of religion in the late ancient Near East.  We need to examine the beginnings of the earliest Islamic tradition not as something that burst into the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian world already fully formed but instead as a phenomenon that continued to develop rapidly even after it entered these new milieux.

Likewise, I hope that this study might encourage more widespread incorporation of methods and perspectives from biblical studies to the study of formative Islam.  Although scholars of early Islam have often resisted and even explicitly rejected the relevance of these approaches, they offer valuable new avenues for investigating the beginnings of Islam.  This is particularly true for methods used in New Testament and historical Jesus studies, which have been largely ignored as models to this point, despite the fact that there are important similarities in the nature of the early Christian and Islamic materials.

By introducing historical-critical approaches developed in the study of Jewish and Christian origins we might achieve greater methodological and ultimately pedagogical unity within the discipline of religious studies.

The pedagogical implications, although often overlooked, are significant.  Undergraduate textbooks regularly present accounts of early Judaism and early Christianity that are based on the critical discourses of scholarship that have developed around Jewish and Christian origins, and accordingly these differ significantly from the traditional accounts.  The early history of Islam, by contrast, is generally presented largely according to the traditional Islamic view, despite the significant weaknesses of the relevant sources.  As an educator, I think it would be helpful to present these traditions on a more consistent basis, and hopefully, more skeptical approaches to the early history of Islam can move us in this direction.