The various writings and sources in the Islamic heritage, dominated as they are by a quicksilver mentality, by a reverential and apologetic approach, have in general remained been marked by an absence of analysis, criticism, scrutiny and any accountability for events and disasters. They have maintained a predilection for collection, accumulation, repetition and regurgitation, and did not act to scrutinize what it was that was being collected and accumulated, neither at the time of their collection nor afterwards. This has continued to this day.
BY JADOU JIBRIL
IN THE FIRST CENTURY and at the beginning of the second century AH, stimulating reports and narrations multiplied and accumulated. Among the first to achieve fame for compiling and synthesizing these materials were Saif ibn ‘Umar al-Kūfī, al-Madā’inī, al-Zubayr ibn Bakkār and others. Those who succeeded them, such as al-Bilādarī and al-Ṭabarī in the late second and beginning of the third century AH took some care in arrangement and made attempts to organize the material. In their narration, collection, and arrangement they themselves did not follow a sequential, ordered narration focusing on specific places and specific people, but recounted what was said to be the narrations of the predecessors. The researcher may notice here – easily – how one and the same disaster could occur at the same time in different places, with different protagonists, yet the text and sayings would remain the same. As for the time and date of the occurrence of many cataclysms or facts – even ideologically important ones – this remains fluid.
This is made all the worse by the blatant interference of chauvinistic tribal prejudices, ‘political’ and sectarian tendencies, and mere whims. In the opinion of many, the early history of Islam was dominated by beliefs and ideas that stemmed from myths and legends, and an unbridled desire for justification and veneration at any cost and by any means. This has at times inflicted history with obscurity, and a sustained ambiguity that has accumulated over the centuries.
Written and documented Islamic sources date back to the year 750 AD – a period later than the formative period of early Islam. These sources are founded upon early documents that have not come down to us and are not available today, that is, if they existed at all.
Dealing with the legacy of the Islamic narrative
For centuries, recourse to the Islamic heritage and its sources and reliance upon these was mainly for the purpose of carrying out scholarly research and study. They were used without any scrutiny and accountability regarding their reliability. The Islamic narrative remained authoritative for demonstrating the central facts and major problems. Today, this Islamic heritage has itself become the subject of questioning and scrutiny regarding its chronology and its validity as a reference. A necessity has emerged for re-examining and questioning it, leading to its having to be dealt with today with caution, as a result of what research and scientific studies have discovered concerning the problems and areas of opacity that have invested the early history of Islam for centuries.
A skeptical current has emerged vis-à-vis many of the accounts presented by the Islamic narrative concerning the early history of Islam, the Qur’ān, and the history of the Qur’ānic text. Today, a number of central theses in this hitherto unchallenged Islamic narrative have begun to fall apart. To top it all, whenever one account begins to dismantle, other central accounts have followed suit, and the process continues. More than ever before the features and nature of this fluid, mercurial mentality, its reverential and apologetic approach, and its analytical tools, have become clear.
Over the last two decades, the problem of the reliability of Islamic sources has emerged like never before. Most of the ancient Islamic source materials were written down between the years 850 and 950 AD, and the various sources that followed were based on these. Note that the first, early sources were based on oral narration, and due to the nature of this type of narration it is simply not possible to confirm or prove them, or get beyond the starting point of questioning and scrutinising them.
Those who compiled and codified the early Islamic sources did not take them directly from the Prophet or from written documents, but rather from narrators who lived more than a century and a half later.
Those who carried out this collection and compilation were rehearsing the format of the past reports and major events, but the criteria they adopted remains a mystery difficult to decode. The early Islamic sources appear to be permeated by a permanent criterion, which is to refer their text to the Prophet or to one of his Companions. Many researchers have questioned the credibility and reliability of these sources, due to the bias of the compilers and composers towards one or other of the parties involved, especially since the struggle for power emerged early, immediately following the death of the Prophet. Today what has become certain (and there is a consensus of researchers in this regard) is that the Islamic sources did not begin to make their appearance until a century and a half after the date of the death of the Prophet. Many researchers go so far as to state that these sources, and the way that they were written, were intended to venerate and glorify, and to establish the rule of the Umayyads, or after them the Abbasids. Many stories and myths have seeped into these sources, including Zoroastrian myths – for example, the story of the splitting of the Prophet’s chest and the story of the Miʽrāj).
A number of central theses in this hitherto unchallenged Islamic narrative have begun to fall apart
The ancient Islamic sources available today generally date back to between 150 and 300 years following the events they describe and present. Therefore, in the eyes of many researchers, they are less than secondary sources, bearing in mind that one of the most important sources of Islamic narrative is the hadith tradition. For the historian, a primary source is that which directly relates to an event, while a secondary source is one that depends on a primary source in one way or another.
The Islamic narrative is based on memory, on that which has been memorized – and on sources written down at a late stage. Most of the reports and information this contains appears to be biased and reverential – which undermines its credibility – and this raises questions about their reliability. Of course, from a faith-doctrinal point of view, it may be useful in the eyes of believers, as long as the starting point is divine intervention and His revelation to His Messenger. But in terms of research and study, the opposite is the case. All the oldest Islamic references that we have today were based on the oral tradition that spread in the eighth century AD in an unprecedented manner.
Reality and fate
The fluid, reverential and apologetic mentality is ultimately doomed to ossification, stagnation and calcification. This is what has deprived Muslims of many historical opportunities to keep pace with the intellectual, civilizational and material development which humanity in general has witnessed. A natural reaction has thus been to confine oneself to a longing for the past, whereby the supreme, future goal becomes a return to this past. This means that a ‘future’ does not need to be constructed, established and equipped, because its features are already known in all of its details, and its template is already established. It is a ‘past future’.
The Islamic mentality has thus become calcified by endless repetition and regurgitation, and by the policing over the thought of a Muslim who to this day still feels constantly menaced (he does not know from where) by the fear of takfīr and apostasy, because some people have taken it upon themselves to declare themselves God’s agents on earth and the guardians of the Islamic ‘heritage’ temple.
At a time when modern studies, regarding the early history of Islam, are based on scientific methodologies and on the latest advances in a number of sciences (linguistics, ontology, anthropology, geography, environmental sciences, archeology and so on), the fluid, mercurial mentality still confines itself to rehearsing what has been repeated over the centuries and based on sources that – before adopting and swallowing them without any accountability – should have been scrutinized, updated and purified of nonsense. Only by so doing could they hope to keep pace with the tremendous cognitive development that humanity is witnessing in all fields, so that these sources of the heritage could actually form a reliable basis, instead of one that causes embarrassment.
Given that this is how things are, the fluid, reverential, apologetic mentality leaves us no option but to rely on stirring up religious and sectarian incitement, to adopt conspiracy theories, and more often than not engage in insults and defamation, instead of embracing scientific research methods and the ability to mount a response via refutation and fighting an argument with a better argument.
 See Almuṣliḥ article The Prophet Muhammad between al-Isra’ and al-Miʽraj.
Main image: An Islamic papyrus manuscript from Egypt c.800 AD.