Islamic history in contemporary perspective

With a new interpretation and new insights, The Emergence of Islam by Gabriel Said Reynolds—professor of Theology and Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame—is an illustrated, lucidly written, and comprehensive introduction and contribution to the study and history of the ‘emergence’ of Islam. Usually such an account is rather “straightforward”, whereas the question of “how much of this story is historically accurate” is “less straightforward”. Consisting of 3 parts and divided into 8 chapters, the book discusses the ‘emergence’ of Islamic history from its origins to contemporary perspectives in three main parts.
Part I presents the “traditional story” of the rise of Islam, from the birth of the Prophet (SAW) to the death of the fourth caliph, Hadrat ‘Ali (i.e., from 570-661 CE) in three chapters. Reynolds analyses how and why pious Muslim scholars wrote the “story” of Islam in this manner, and simultaneously offers, in the same section, an appreciation of the Islamic understanding of the Prophet (SAW) and his four Caliphs.
Part II provides a critical scholarly perspective on the rise of Islam through a presentation of the Qur’an which is, according to the author, the “most ancient”, earliest and primordial, and “most intriguing” source of the emergence of Islam. Spanning over 4 chapters, this part offers a general presentation of the Qur’an’s religious message, wherein Reynolds asks what the Qur’an itself might teach us of the “story” of Islam’s origins. What Reynolds puts forth, using “Qura’nist” approach, although not in the “religious sense of the term” but “by relying on the Qur’an alone” to “gain a revealing view of Islam’s emergence”, is that: “Whereas most scholars see the Qur’an through the lens of the traditional history of Islam’s emergence, we will see the history of Islam’s emergence through the lens of the Qur’an.” In other words, he bases his narrative only on what is found in the Qur’an, and what he asks: “What we can know about the emergence of Islam from the witness of the Qur’an alone.”
The book, in chapters 5 and 6 especially, suggests that the “Qur’an was proclaimed in a milieu where people were hotly debating theology… and where they knew the literature of the Jews and Christians well”. Similarly, in chapter 7, what Reynolds essentially, asks—making things the “other way around”—is that “Instead of asking what the biography of the Prophet (SAW) can teach us about the Qur’an, we will ask what the Qur’an can tell us about the biography of the Prophet (SAW), and about the emergence of Islam in general.”
Part III of this work offers insights into contemporary Islamic visions of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s (SAW) life—illustrating how Islam’s interaction and contact with the West has led Muslims to develop new ideas about the Qur’an and the Prophet (SAW) today. This chapter also introduces case studies (viz., Egypt, Pakistan, and Iran) as bearing witness to the “power of the story of Islam’s emergence to shape the world we live in today”. It also discusses “Islam and Modernity”, “The Qur’an and Scientific Miracles”, thereby making references of Maurice Bucaille’s The Bible, the Qur’an, and Science (1976), and “[Prophet] Muhammad (SAW) and Morality”, with special reference to Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s The Life of Muhammad (SAW). The most important arguments put forth are that the (i) “idea of scientific miracles in the Qur’an” is due to modernity and “a response to the modern world” in general, and due to the “increasing awareness among Muslims of Western critiques of the Qur’an” in particular; and (ii) “The Prophet (SAW) of Islam demonstrated moral, spiritual, and psychological qualities that offer humanity the secret of happiness today.”
In the conclusion of this chapter, Reynolds offers the answer to the question—quoted in the beginning of this review—regarding the “story” of Islam, as historically, “less straightforward” in these words: “In the course of this book, it has become apparent that the question of Islam’s emergence is far from settled” because the earlier generations of critical scholars (following medieval Islamic historical sources) generally thought of Islam as a “tradition that emerged in reaction to a sort of vulgar Arab Paganism”. Today, however, an increasing number of scholars, following the Qur’an, think of “Islam as a tradition that emerged in conversation with the earlier monotheistic religious traditions of the Middle East, and in particular with Christianity.”
Suggesting, by way of conclusion, that both “traditional Muslim scholars and earlier generations of Western scholars have largely failed to understand the Qur’an’s intimate relationship with its religious context,” Reynolds’ aim and objective for writing this book has not been to reconcile “critical scholarship and religious thought”, but to offer insights into two questions (and he has succeeded to an enormous degree in achieving the aim), viz: (1) What can we actually know of Islam’s emergence in history? and (2) How do faithful Muslims understand Islam’s emergence? One shortcoming needs to be pointed out: Reynolds, while referring to Islamic history, repeatedly uses the word “story”, instead of history, narration, etc., for the emergence of Islam and the term “traditional” in a majority of instances while referring to the “biography of the Prophet” (SAW).
One more important feature is that all the three parts of the book are preceded by an “Introduction” and followed by a “Conclusion”, which make it much easy and simple for the reader to get an idea of the information that each part seeks to convey.
These features, along with the author’s new insights, make this book a significant resource. Many of these insights, however, are complicated, controversial and in need of critical analysis.
—The author holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from Aligarh Muslim University. Feedback: