Umayyad invention of the idea of Islam

A few months ago I wrote The Myth Of Arabian Paganism, And The Jewish-Christian Origins Of The Umayyads. Some readers suggested I look at Sean Anthony’s Muhammad and the Empires of Faith: The Making of the Prophet of Islam. After finishing Muhammad and the Empires of Faith there are no major revisions I would make the earlier post. But, there are some changes in the details of my confidence of various aspects of the post.

First, the historical Muhammad existed. This seems to be something I can say with high confidence. Higher than before I read Muhammad and the Empires of Faith. The figure of Muhammad and many banal details of his life seems to be very likely. More likely than the historical Jesus (who I also believe existed as a Jewish reformer and prophet). In addition to Muhammad, something like the Koran in broad form also existed quite early.

Second, I am much more sure than the basis of a crisp and distinct Muslim identity which serves as the core of a universal salvation religion dates to the period in and around the Second Fitna, between 680 and 692. Basically, the texts seem to suggest to me that the Umayyad Caliph who came out of the conflict in victory engaged in fence-mending with the rebel faction, which was based out of the city of Mecca. The last decade of the 690s and early 700s is when we see the proliferation of distinctly Islamic aspects of the Arab Empire, from the phasing out of Greek in administration, to the separation between Muslims and Christians in the church in Damascus where they had earlier worshipped together. This is the period when the formula which we are so familiar with in regards to Muhammad’s prophethood comes to the foreground.

I believe that the middle to late Umayyads formalized and demarcated the sectarian heterodoxies of the Arabs of their Caliphate to create a unified and cohesive ruling elite. But, because the religion emerged out of a Christian matrix within it was the natural opening to conversion by non-Arabs, which had already occurred with assimilated clients of Arab tribes in various forms.

All that being said, I want to distinguish an Islamic identity from the substance and form of what Islam means today. Muhammad and the Empires of Faith makes it clear that the roots of many Islamic traditions and practices do date to the Umayyads (e.g., hadith culture was not created out of thin air). But it is during the Abbassids, after 750, that the flesh was put upon the skeleton of the religion created by the Umayyads. That flesh is a function of the reality that the Abbassid Islam transcended Arab identity through the assimilation of large numbers of Iranians of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Buddhist, backgrounds. Umayyad already had a potentiality of universality, but when Islam truly became multi-ethnic, with non-Arab Muslims retaining their own independent national identities, a rapid consensus of what Islam was and is emerged.

To recap:

– The basic “furniture” to assemble the House of Islam was present in the early 7th century

– The foundations of the house date to the last quarter of the 7th century

– The house was completed in the last half of the Umayyad period and into the early Abbassid period

– The house was furnished, decorated, and painted, in the period between 750 and 900 AD, so that by 900 AD it looks just like the house we know today


12 thoughts on “Umayyad invention of the idea of Islam

  1. Re Jesus, I still wish you’d read “On the Historicity of Jesus” by Richard Carrier, and give us your thoughts. You would find it fascinating to consider the mythical Jesus possibility.

  2. How does this explain that Islam is closer to Judaism in many ways (e.g., halal-kosher/circumcision/orthopraxy) than to Christianity? Or, for that matter, was the bringing in of Ishmael only “contingent” or a necessary stratagem notwithstanding the “natural opening to conversion by non-Arabs”?

  3. the standard explanation is that islam might have emerged out of the ebionites, ‘jewish christians.’ basically, i think we need to consider that lots of heterodox christian and christian-like sects with some affinity to judaism existed in the 6th to 7th century (mesopatamia in particular was religiously pretty much open territory; the sassanians let ppl do anything so long as they weren’t christians oriented to rome)

  4. Whatever the ritual/developmental affinities between Islam and Judaism, or their practical/territorial disputes, they have had a common enemy in Christianity that has aligned them in the past to a degree I think underappreciated today.

  5. @Zunz
    I found Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt to be forced, just like his earlier Bayes’s Theorem analysis of Jesus’s historicity. You get the sense he’s too invested in atheism and his own theories.

  6. Razib,

    Since you’re delineating your current perspective on those hot topic questions, I can’t resist but ask another one: How much do you believe (after reading recent books, that is) the traditional “rapid conquest” scenario is true? i.e. whether roving bands of Arabs really did confront and defeat the Byzantines while completely deposing the last Sassanid monarch within a narrow window of ~15 yrs?

  7. @ Riordan

    What exactly is there to dispute about the “rapid conquest”? We have contemporary accounts from non-Muslim, mostly Christian, writers within the the first 1-2 generations of the Arab invasions talking about defeats suffered by the Byzantines, and some early Christian chronicles make direct references to Muhammed by name as being the prophet and leader of the Arabs (there is even a possibility that Muhammed himself might have led the initial campaigns into Palestine and actually died there during one).

  8. I recently read Patricia Crone’s and Martin Hinds “God’s Caliph” and GR Hawting’s “The First Dynasty of Islam,” both books are absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in early Islam (and you can find PDFs of both online with a bit of googling). Hawting’s book in particular is so useful as a basic chronological introduction to the first 1.5 centuries of Islam, it’s a short book but captures enough of the important social/religious/political developments within a coherent narrative that I’ve found it to be much more readable than other books on early Islamic history.

    “God’s Caliph” is definitely the more provocative and interesting of the two books though, Crone and Hinds demonstrate pretty convincingly IMO that the institution of the caliphate was suffused with sacrality and conceived from almost the very beginning as being the locus of religious authority within Islam – the Ummayad and early Abbasid caliphs were more central religious authorities in Islam than either the Pope in Rome or Patriarch in Constantinople were to their churches.

    One really interesting point that Crone & Hinds touched on that I had never considered before was regarding the aftermath of the 2nd Fitna and Abd-al-Malik’s reforms. The 2nd Fitna in part revolved around Mukhtar’s pro-Alid revolt, and I think in a sense you could actually call this the beginning of (proto)-Shiism, because Ali and his progeny from this point onwards were seen as a religious icons due proper reverence in and of themselves, with an associated sacral cult attached.

    Abd al-Malik won, but pro-Alid elements never went away, and Abd al-Malik had to find new ways of shoring up his own legitmacy. One of the ways he did this was by trying to undercut Ali’s legacy by more forcefully centering Muhammad himself as the lode star of the religious tradition – the shahada with it’s explicit invocation of Muhammed’s name came into its classic form during 690s. In other words, Ali and his family might be important figures, but Muhammad is the alpha and omega of our religion here, and the (Ummayyad) caliphs are the ones carrying out his message and institutionalizing his revelation on earth now. And even if Ali had a closer family connection to the Prophet, the Ummayyad’s still emphasized the fact that they were still blood relatives to the Prophet as well, the Banu Ummaya being a brother-lineage to the Banu Hashim, Muhammad’s family.

  9. @Mick

    Thanks for that low down. I’ve been out of the loop on this topic for almost a decade now. Back then I heard of some “dissent” on this traditional rapid conquest narrative, with one theory claiming the Arabs didn’t really conquer the MidEast but merely settled in there by “natural migration” after the whole region was literally killed off by the Justinian Plague. Another theory, slightly reworked of that, claimed the Arabs were “intentionally” imported in by the exhausted Byzantines who wanted to use them as foederati in the plague devastated MidEast to garrison there since they were out of manpower (which spiraled out of control eventually like the Goths did). Forgot who proposed those daring (or perhaps conspiracy?) theories, but wondering if they’re now fully trashed and debunked, or have gained more mainstream acceptance.

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