Monday, May 17, 2010

Origins of Islam: Interview with Historian Fred Donner

The Boston Globe recently published a good interview with Fred Donner (here), an early Islamic history professor from the University of Chicago (my alma mater). In the study of religion scholars who study the origins of any religion encounter a few problems. There is often very little information from that historical period which leaves scholars searching for sources of information (texts and archeological artifacts) that can help to verify or challenge the narrative developed by the religious community later in time but projected back on to the past so as to make the origins appear concrete when there is usually very little evidence to legitimize such certain claims to truth or history. However, for most religions the earliest historical material is their own texts and scholars have developed very technical modes of interpreting and comparing data contained within any religion's earliest scriptures. Some scholars accept the self-narrative of religious communities as factual (naive), while others refuse to accept any premises upheld by a religious community (ultra-skeptical). Then, someone like Fred Donner takes up a revisionist position which accepts certain elements from the religion and is less skeptical, while also drawing different conclusions than the uncritical and overly critical scholarly camps. Donner is the at the forefront of major debates about the origins and early history of Islam and his conclusions seem to be the most well-reasoned and moderate view within academia. For that reason I usually draw off of his material while teaching and I highly recommend his work for anyone interested in the subject.