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e-book The Life of Mohammed: Founder of the Religion of Islam and of the Empire of the Saracens

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Order a copy Copyright or permission restrictions may apply. We will contact you if necessary. To learn more about Copies Direct watch this short online video. Need help? How do I find a book? Can I borrow this item? The fact that the Qur'an seems to record a split in a monotheist community in Arabia can be expected to transform our understanding of how the new religion arose. What then are the big issues dividing the prophet and his opponents?

Two stand out. First, time and again he accuses the polytheists of the same crime as the Christians — deification of lesser beings. The Christians elevated Jesus to divine status though some of them were believers ; the polytheists elevated the angels to the same status and compounded their error by casting them or some of them as females; and just as the Christians identified Jesus as the son of God, so the polytheists called the angels sons and daughters of God, apparently implying some sort of identity of essence. The polytheists further claimed that the angels or deities, as they are also called were intercessors who enabled them to approach God, a well-known argument by late antique monotheists who retained their ancestral gods by identifying them as angels.

For Christians also saw the angels as intercessors, and the prophet was of the same view: his polemics arise entirely from the fact that the pagan angels are seen as manifestations of God himself rather than his servants.


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The prophet responds by endlessly affirming that God is one and alone, without children or anyone else sharing in his divinity. The second bone of contention between the prophet and his opponents was the resurrection.

Some doubted its reality, others denied it outright, still others rejected the idea of afterlife altogether. In any case, the hardliners convey the impression of having made their appearance quite recently, and again people of the same type are attested on the Greek and Syriac side of the fence. The prophet responds by repeatedly rehearsing arguments in favour of the resurrection of the type familiar from the Christian tradition, insisting that people will be raised up for judgment.

He adds that the judgment is coming soon, in the form of some local disaster such as those which overtook earlier communities e.

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His opponents tease him, asking him why it does not seem to be happening; he persists. At some point the confrontation turns violent and the book is filled with calls to arms, with much fighting over a sanctuary. By then it is clear that there has been an emigration hijra , though the event itself is not described, and there is some legislation for the new community. Throughout the book there is also much acrimonious debate about the credentials of the prophet himself.

But God's unity, the reality of the resurrection and judgment, and the imminence of violent punishment are by far the most important themes, reiterated in most of the sura chapters of the Qur'an.


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In sum, not only do we know that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, we also have a fair idea of what he preached. Non-Islamicists may therefore conclude that the historians' complaint that they know so little about him is mere professional grumpiness.

Mohammed and Mohammedanism

But on one issue it is unquestionably more. This is a big problem to do with Arabia.


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The inhabitants of the Byzantine and Persian empires wrote about the northern and the southern ends of the peninsula, from where we also have numerous inscriptions; but the middle was terra incognita. This is precisely where the Islamic tradition places Mohammed's career. We do not know what was going on there, except insofar as the Islamic tradition tells us.

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It yields no literature to which we can relate the Qur'an — excepting poetry, for which we are again dependent on the Islamic tradition and which is in any case so different in character that it does not throw much light on the book. Not a single source outside Arabia mentions Mecca before the conquests, and not one displays any sign of recognition or tells us what was known about it when it appears in the sources thereafter. That there was a place called Mecca where Mecca is today may well be true; that it had a pagan sanctuary is perfectly plausible Arabia was full of sanctuaries , and it could well have belonged to a tribe called the Quraysh.

But we know nothing about the place with anything approaching reasonable certainty. In sum, we have no context for the prophet and his message. It is difficult not to suspect that the tradition places the prophet's career in Mecca for the same reason that it insists that he was illiterate: the only way he could have acquired his knowledge of all the things that God had previously told the Jews and the Christians was by revelation from God himself. Mecca was virgin territory; it had neither Jewish nor Christian communities. The suspicion that the location is doctrinally inspired is reinforced by the fact that the Qur'an describes the polytheist opponents as agriculturalists who cultivated wheat, grapes, olives, and date palms.

Wheat, grapes and olives are the three staples of the Mediterranean; date palms take us southwards, but Mecca was not suitable for any kind of agriculture, and one could not possibly have produced olives there. In addition, the Qur'an twice describes its opponents as living in the site of a vanished nation, that is to say a town destroyed by God for its sins. There were many such ruined sites in northwest Arabia. The prophet frequently tells his opponents to consider their significance and on one occasion remarks, with reference to the remains of Lot's people, that "you pass by them in the morning and in the evening".

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This takes us to somewhere in the Dead Sea region. Respect for the traditional account has prevailed to such an extent among modern historians that the first two points have passed unnoticed until quite recently, while the third has been ignored. The exegetes said that the Quraysh passed by Lot's remains on their annual journeys to Syria, but the only way in which one can pass by a place in the morning and the evening is evidently by living somewhere in the vicinity. The annual journeys invoked by the exegetes were trading journeys.

All the sources say that the Quraysh traded in southern Syria, many say that they traded in Yemen too, and some add Iraq and Ethiopia to their destinations. They are described as trading primarily in leather goods, woollen clothing, and other items of mostly pastoralist origin, as well as perfume not south Arabian frankincense or Indian luxury goods, as used to be thought. Their caravan trade has been invoked to explain the familiarity with Biblical and para-Biblical material which is so marked a feature of the Qur'an, but this goes well beyond what traders would be likely to pick up on annual journeys.

There is no doubt, however, that one way or the other a trading community is involved in the rise of Islam, though it is not clear how it relates to that of the agriculturalists of the Qur'an. On all this there is much to be said, if not yet with any certainty. The biggest problem facing scholars of the rise of Islam is identifying the context in which the prophet worked. What was he reacting to, and why was the rest of Arabia so responsive to his message? We stand a good chance of making headway, for we are nowhere near having exploited to the full our three main types of evidence — the traditions associated with the prophet primarily the hadith , the Qur'an itself, and a new source of enormous promise archaeology.

The first is the most difficult to handle; this overwhelmingly takes the form of hadith — short reports sometimes just a line or two recording what an early figure, such as a companion of the prophet or Mohammed himself, said or did on a particular occasion, prefixed by a chain of transmitters. Nowadays, hadith almost always means hadith from Mohammed himself. Most of the early sources for the prophet's life, as also for the period of his immediate successors, consist of hadith in some arrangement or other.

The purpose of such reports was to validate Islamic law and doctrine, not to record history in the modern sense, and since they were transmitted orally, as very short statements, they easily drifted away from their original meaning as conditions changed. They were also easily fabricated, but this is actually less of a problem.

They testify to intense conflicts over what was or was not true Islam in the period up to the 9th century, when the material was collected and stabilised; these debates obscured the historical nature of the figures invoked as authorities, while telling us much about later perceptions.

The material is amorphous and difficult to handle. Simply to collect the huge mass of variant versions and conflicting reports on a particular subject used to be a laborious task; now it has been rendered practically effortless by searchable databases. However, we still do not have generally accepted methods for ordering the material, whether as evidence for the prophet or for the later doctrinal disputes for which it will probably prove more fruitful. But much interesting work is going on in the field.

As regards the second source, the Qur'an, its study has so far been dominated by the method of the early Muslim exegetes, who were in the habit of considering its verses in isolation, explaining them with reference to events in the prophet's life without regard for the context in which it appeared in the Qur'an itself. In effect, they were replacing the Qur'anic context with a new one. Some fifty years ago an Egyptian scholar by the name of Mohammed Shaltut , later rector of al-Azhar, rejected this method in favour of understanding the Qur'an in the light of the Qur'an itself.

He was a religious scholar interested in the religious and moral message of the Qur'an, not a western-style historian, but his method should be adopted by historians too. The procedure of the early exegetes served to locate the meaning of the book in Arabia alone, insulating it from religious and cultural developments in the world outside it, so that the Biblical stories and other ideas originating outside Arabia came across to modern scholars as "foreign borrowings", picked up in an accidental fashion by a trader who did not really understand what they meant.

The realisation is slowly dawning that this is fundamentally wrong. The prophet was not an outsider haphazardly collecting fallout from debates in the monotheist world around him, but rather a full participant in these debates. Differently put, the rise of Islam has to be related to developments in the world of late antiquity, and it is with that context in mind that we need to reread the Qur'an. It is a big task, and there will be, indeed already have been, false turns on the way. But it will revolutionise the field. The third, and immeasurably exciting, type of source is looming increasingly large on the horizon: archaeology.

Arabia, the big unknown , has begun to be excavated, and though it is unlikely that there will be archaeological explorations of Mecca and Medina anytime soon, the results from this discipline are already mind-opening. Arabia seems to have been a much more developed place than most Islamicists myself included had ever suspected — not just in the north and south, but also in the middle. We are beginning to get a much more nuanced sense of the place, and again it is clear that we should think of it as more closely tied in with the rest of the near east than we used to do. The inscriptional record is expanding, too.

With every bit of certainty we gain on one problem, the range of possible interpretations in connection with others contracts, making for a better sense of where to look for solutions and better conjectures where no evidence exists. We shall never be able to do without the literary sources, of course, and the chances are that most of what the tradition tells us about the prophet's life is more or less correct in some sense or other.