In this meticulously researched work, Anthony distinguishes between “first-order sources” and a “second-order source” for our knowledge of the origins of Islam. By “first-order sources” he means “the Qur’an, material and documentary evidence from the sixth to seventh centuries CE, and non-Muslim sources from the seventh century” (235). By a “second-order source” he means the sīrah-maghāzī literature. Anthony’s description of the sīrah-maghāzī literature as a “second-order source” reflects his position, illustrated among other things by a careful study of the call to prophethood account (what he calls the “Iqraʾ narrative”), that this literature cannot always offer “what really happened” or granular details from the life of the historical Muhammad. Nevertheless, Anthony argues forcefully that it should not be dismissed entirely either. In other words, Anthony argues (responding to a famous statement of Patricia Crone in Slaves on Horses [New York, 2008]) that one can indeed, “work with it.”
Muhammad and the Empires of Faith is divided into three parts. In the first part, Anthony examines the value of the Greek text Doctrina Jacobi (usually held to be the earliest documentary witness to Muhammad) for our knowledge of the historical Muhammad and evidence (or the lack thereof) for the idea that Muhammad was a merchant in early non-Islamic literature. In the second part, he carefully discusses the origins of the sīrah-maghāzī literature, analyzing recent scholarship and classical sources on al-Zuhrī (d. 124/742) and Ibn Isḥāq (d. 150/767). In the third part, Anthony studies two traditions in the light of both the sīrah-maghāzī literature and late antique Christianity—the story of Byzantine Emperor Heraclius’ vision (and Muhammad’s letter to him) and the story of Muhammad’s call.
Anthony argues for a significantly later date for the Doctrine Jacobi based in part on a statement therein that Jews have been subjugated by the nations since the crucifixion of Christ 640 years ago. This evidence would place the Doctrina Jacobi in the 670s, not the 630s. He also argues that the reference to the coming of a prophet with “the keys of paradise” reflects an element of Umayyad war propaganda. The Qur’an (39:63; 42:12) insists that only God has the keys to heaven, and late antique Christian literature connects the motif of the “key of heaven” to the apostles and Peter in particular. Anthony argues, however, that this turn of phrase in the Doctrina Jacobi likely reflects akhbār, including a tradition associated with Yazīd b. Shajara, celebrating jihad with the idea that “swords are the keys to paradise.”
Anthony then turns to the widespread idea that Muhammad was a merchant, which, as he notes, appears early among non-Muslim sources, including the Armenian historian pseudo-Sebeos and Jacob of Edessa (d. 708). Anthony argues that these two authors are too early to have relied on Islamic biographies. He concludes, “The claim that Muhammad had been a merchant appears to be one of the earliest, best attested facts about his life as a historical figure” (63). In fact (and intriguingly), in the sīrah-maghāzī literature Muhammad is more commonly described as a shepherd than as a merchant (although much has been made of the two stories of his trading journeys with Abū Ṭālib and Khadīja). Yet, the Quraysh do feature as traders in that literature, and Anthony holds that the Qur’an itself (depending in part on how one reads Q 106) might point to that conclusion as well. But why then does no trace of Qurashī or Meccan traders appear in pre-Islamic sources from the eastern Mediterranean or South Arabian worlds where they supposedly conducted business?
The second part of the book contains a careful, illuminating study of the origins of the sīrah-maghāzī literature. Anthony begins with ʿUrwa b. al-Zubayr, the brother of ʿAbdallāh b. al-Zubayr, who was ʿAbd al-Malik’s rival in Mecca (although ʿUrwa eventually reconciled with the caliph after ʿAbdallāh’s death). He dedicates an entire chapter to the letters that ʿUrwah allegedly wrote to the caliph, as recorded in a variety of third/ninth- and fourth/tenth-century texts (whereas early scholars often avoided referring to written documents). Anthony supports the authenticity of the letters, and the likelihood that they include reports with verified information about the historical Muhammad. The letters include descriptions of (among other topics) the persecution of the believers in Mecca, the hijra to Medina with Abū Bakr, the death of Khadīja and the Prophet’s marriage to Āʿisha in her youth, the Battle of Badr, the truce established at Ḥudaybiyah, and the conquest of Mecca. One argument for the historicity of these accounts is that they are “matter-of-fact” (that is, with few supernatural details), but the problems with the sīra-maghāzī literature do not end with the miracles therein but include its relationship to the Qur’an, improbable details (for example, a shepherd leading his entire flock daily to Muhammad and Abū Bakr in their cave hideout without arousing suspicion), and legal purposes (including the account of Muhammad marrying a woman named Qutaylah but sending her away without consummating the marriage).
In the following chapter, Anthony carefully traces the origins of historiography with al-Zuhrī in Umayyad Damascus. He lays out the various recensions of Zuhrī traditions (which Zuhrī never wrote down but only had recorded in memory aids). At the same time, Anthony underlines the achievement of Ibn Isḥāq under the early ʿAbbasids (including al-Mahdī, before he became caliph, and al-Manḥūr). According to Anthony, Ibn Isḥāq effectively created the literary genre of sīrah-maghāzī by developing earlier Islamic reports, consulting Jews and Christians, incorporating poetry and written documents, and shaping his accounts for the benefit of his ʿAbbāsid patrons: “With Ibn Isḥāq’s Maghāzī, the corpus transformed into a genre that encompassed a bricolage of prose and poetry of sundry origins” (169). In emphasizing the role of Ibn Isḥāq, Anthony challenges the view of Nabia Abbot, who wanted to push back the origins of creative historical writing to al-Zuhrī.
The final section of the book offers original perspectives on two accounts—Islamic stories involving the court of Heraclius and the account of Muhammad’s call to prophethood by the angel Gabriel on Mt. Hirā’. In both cases, he means to show that a rigorous assessment of such accounts must involve both a knowledge of Islamic literature and the Judeo-Christian context of the late antique Near East. The Heraclius account (for which Anthony provides a detailed web of traditions, stemming from al-Zuhrī) includes three parts: the emperor’s vision of the rise of a kingdom of the circumcised, Heraclius’ conversation with Abū Sufyān, and the arrival of a letter from Muhammad. Anthony argues that this account has origins partly in Christian traditions of Heraclius as astrologer. He also investigates Zuhrī’s report of having heard the story of Hercalius’ vision from someone named Ibn Nātūrā, which Anthony proposes stems from Syriac nāṭar kūrsyā and refers to a “holder of the chair” of the bishop at a time when there was no patriarch in Jerusalem.
Finally, Anthony enters into the debate over the relationship of Muhammad’s call narrative and Venerable Bede’s story of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon named Caedmon who miraculously learned to compose hymns in English. A few earlier scholars have argued that Caedmon’s story might have been influenced by the story of Muhammad’s initial vision and call to prophethood. Anthony makes a strong case for the possibility of transmission between the Islamic world and England. Nonetheless, it is a legitimate question whether Bede would have known anything about Muhammad’s biography. Although Bede speaks of “Saracens” entering Europe, he never mentions Muhammad. In the end, Anthony argues that both accounts likely developed from “late antique hagiography’s tales of holy men and women” (217). Anthony also argues convincingly that the “Iqraʾ narrative” is “early but not historical,” in part because of the insights of Angelika Neuwirth that Sura 96 (on which it is based) has qualities of middle and late Meccan texts and not of the earliest Meccan stratum of texts.
Anthony convincingly demonstrates that the sīrah-maghāzī literature is more than “historicizing exegesis” of the Qur’an (as Henri Lammens had argued) but also more than a “closed self-sustaining textual universe that curates the earliest memories of Muhammad’s followers.” He argues, in the epilogue, that a historically reliable, basic account of the Prophet’s life can be achieved through his method of studying the sīrah-maghāzī literature together with early material evidence, the Qur’an, and early non-Islamic sources: Muhammad was a merchant who claimed to be one in a long line of “Abrahamic prophets” to receive revelation; he formed a community at Yathrib where he became a ruler; and, inspired by his teachings, this community engaged in military campaigns and built an empire (for more, see 237). He also argues that even though seventh-century non-Islamic sources do not refer to the Qur’an, material (and other) evidence suggests that they constitute an early and an important source for our basic knowledge of Muhammad’s teaching.
Anthony’s work strikes a careful balance between extremely skeptical views that would deny the Arabian origins of Islam, or even the historicity of Muhammad, and more sanguine views that would see the sīrah as only a collection of reports more or less faithfully transmitted. Anthony rightly claims that there is “scant basis” to reject categorically the data of the sīrah-maghāzī literature, but the real lesson of Muhammad and the Empires of Faith is that there is scant basis to work only with the sīrah-maghāzī literature. Historians of Islam’s origins must now contend with the significant epigraphic and other material data, the entire world of late antiquity represented by Syriac, Greek, and other literature, as well as a critical reading of the Qur’an. The real question for the field of Islamic origins is not whether a relatively small number of extreme skeptics have been able to disqualify the sīrāh-maghāzī literature but whether scholars will show the critical skills to do more than hadith criticism and put that literature in conversation with other data. Happily, in this highly consequential work, Anthony offers an example for scholars to emulate.