Islam Before Muhammad

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Theology and Religious Studies


Quranic studies, a vibrant field of research essential to the humanities and to contemporary culture, is deeply polarized roughly along the same lines that defined biblical studies in the past two centuries: one camp holds the Quran to be revealed verbatim, while the other camp operates within a historicizing paradigm focusing on origins and external influence. Putting it crudely, one could argue that the extreme adherents to the traditional approach do not allow any challenges to the integrity of the text and instead focus on medieval commentaries, while the extreme adherents of the revisionist approach hardly grants the text any degree of cohesion and autonomy and instead sees it as the barely cohereing imitation of specific aspects of preceding religious movements.

The key to moving the discussion forward may be found in a middle position which, on the one hand, recognizes the coherent hermeneutics and intellectual independence of the Quran, and on the other hand recognizes that the Quran stands in a demonstrable continuous intellectual tradition with previous religious movements. The fact that the Quran explicitly affirms its own traditional nature allows for such a moderate approach. As a scholar trained broadly in the history and literature of Late Antique Judaism, Christianity, and early Islam, I bring a specific perspective to the study of the Quran that allows me to argue for a new field of inquiry, focusing on "deep" continuities between Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic literature from Late Antiquity to the Quran. My innovative approach to the Quran is complemented by a simultaneous re-examination of the ethnic, ritual, and Christological concepts handled in Late Antique literature such as the Didascalia.

My research in this field began in 2006. I have presented preliminary results in a series of lectures and a conference dedicated to the subject matter of Jewish and Muslim cultural exchange which I co-organized in Berkeley from 2007 to 2010. The Quran's claim that it is a mere "confirmation of what was before it" (tasdiq alladhi bayna yadayhi, Q. 10:37, 12:111) can indeed be justified by a close examination of the Syriac Didascalia and related documents, a fourth century church order which circulated widely throughout Late Antiquity. In this literature we find specific aspects of many Quranic phrases as well as a broad range of ritual, ethical, legal and Christological concepts which anchor the Quran securely in previous religious tradition.

I will be on research leave in the period preceding the proposed AHRC fellowship. I have completed all textual studies and much of the analysis of the collected data already, and have already partially drafted just under half of the chapters of the proposed monograph. The present proposal seeks to evaluate my research results with a cross-disciplinary perspective, through collaboration with leading academic as well as religious scholars on Quranic and Late Antique studies in Europe and the US, and to complete my monograph. I will organize a conference at the University of Nottingham and participate in a seminar under the direction of Gabriel Said Reynolds (Notre Dame). In addition, the project will bring together religious scholars working together with the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme in order to transmit the research to practitioner groups.

Planned Impact

Cultural communication is a key factor ensuring the well being of any diverse society. Such communication includes the transmission of cultural competence from minorities to the majority and vice versa. "Islam Before Muhammad" addresses the cultural history of Christianity and Islam, touching on the very core of British and European societal debates. Illustrating the intrinsic historical cohesion of parts of the Christian tradition and of Islam, the project, in conjunction with its partners, has the potential to contribute to arguments about religious diversity and the status of minorities. Impact is also conceivable in the long run in countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt, in which the search for a new consensus about the status of Christian minorities may benefit from a more informed account of the historical relationship between Christianity and Islam. As specified in "pathways to impact," however, the exceedingly complex and dynamic cultural and political landscape in some of these countries precludes even tentative predictions in this respect.

The research advanced in the project will be of significance for the following non-academic users and beneficiaries:

Religious institutions like the Church of England, the Catholic Church, and the plethora of organizations under umbrella of the Muslim Council of Britain would greatly benefit in their attempts at interaction from the proposed research, as would the local organizations affiliated with them. Potential aspects of impact include informing theology and preaching, the Muslim-Christian dialogue, and interfaith initiatives. In detail, several organizations dedicated to interfaith-dialogue (such as the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, see "pathways to impact") will assist in the initial transmission of the research results to practitioner groups. Likewise, national television, radio and print media such as the BBC and the Guardian would be invited to disseminate parts of the research in various ways. Coverage of the Nottingham conference would allow for direct impact (see "pathways to impact"). Moreover, programming dedicated to the history of religion would likely be enhanced by the cultural implications of the research results, leading to additional potential channels of research dissemination which I will pursue in due course.

In the longer term, new ways of presenting the intimate historical relationship between Christianity and Islam could be integrated into the curriculum of religious education offered in state as well as in faith based Christian and Muslim schools.

The interested wider public most of all would be challenged by the research results of the projects to reconsider its perception of the relationship of Christianity and Islam. In its various research outputs, the project seeks to present accessible concrete data about the existence of proto-Islamic tendencies throughout Late Antiquity. Transmission of this information to the wider public through media and publication channels (see "pathways to impact") is intended to initiate public rethinking of the often bifurcated perception of the Christian and Muslim religious tradition.

Policy makers and governments in the UK, in continental Europe, in the US, and possibly beyond, which are dealing with public policy involving Muslim or Christian minorities would benefit from an amelioration in cross-cultural understanding. Especially, the project's potential to illustrate the historical proximity of Christianity and Islam could contribute to changing the perception of Islam in the UK, in continental Europe, and in the US, and underpin a more effective response to Islamophobia and religious intolerance. Transmission of knowledge to governing bodies would equally occur via media and publication channels.
Description The Qur'an preserves aspects of an earlier Jesus movement that most Christian groups diluted or rejected. The Didascalia Apostolorum, a late ancient church order, records a significant number of the laws promulgated in the Qur'an, but does not fully endorse them when it comes to purity. Likewise, the Didascalia's legal narratives about the Israelites and about Jesus, as well as the legal and theological vocabulary of the Syriac (Eastern Christian Aramaic) version of the Didascalia, recurrently show kinship with the Arabic Qur'an. The Qur'an, however, is not based on the Didascalia in any direct way. Both texts should rather be read against the background of the practices and the oral discourse shared by their respective audiences: a common legal culture. The research funded by this grant offers new insights into Late Antique Judaism and Christianity, into the continuity of Judaeo-Christian law and narrative within Jewish and Christian mainstream communities past the fourth century, and into the community that the Qur'an first addressed.
Exploitation Route The research here presented offers a novel starting point for the study of Qur'anic and early Islamic law, with special emphasis on its continuity with Late Ancient Near Eastern Law. The Qur'an's continuity with and critique of Christian and Jewish legal culture shown by the research invites further studies on the ways in which the Qur'an responds to its contemporaries.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

Description The flurry of prizes and nominations to leading roles in national and international scholarly societies and publications, chiefly a 2014 Philip Leverhulme Prize and a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship, may be the best measure of the impact of my findings to date. In addition, the reception of my recent findings in scholarly circles and their use in further fundamental research should be noted. My recent monograph has been discussed on international scholarly blogs and discussion lists such as that of the International Qur'anic Studies Association (, Coran et Sciences de l'Homme ( ) and the website of the Syriac Studies Group Hugoye ( Moreover, my insights into the legal background of the Qur'an have been highlighted by a series of enthusiastic reviews of my monograph and in several recent pivotal publications, for example in Sidney Griffith, The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the 'People of the Book' in the Language of Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 26; Gabriel Said Reynolds, "The Qur?an and the Apostles of Jesus," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 76 (2013): 1; and Emran El Badawi, The Qur'an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), 25.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Mid Career Fellowship
Amount £87,000 (GBP)
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2016 
End 12/2016
Description Notre Dame Qur'an Seminar 
Organisation University of Notre Dame
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Participation in the 2012/13 Qur'an Seminar at Notre Dame. Contribution to the publication resulting from the seminar.
Collaborator Contribution Participation in the 2012 Nottingham Conference "The Qur'an's Reformation of Judaism and Christianity." Contribution to the forthcoming publication of the conference proceedings.
Impact The Qur'an Seminar Commentary: a Collaborative Study of 50 Qur'anic Passages, edited by M. Azaiez, G.S. Reynolds, T. Tesei and H.M Zafer, Cambridge University Press, 2015; accepted for publication. I have contributed thirty entries totaling 15.000 words.
Start Year 2012
Description Conference talk (Nottingham) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact During the AHRC sponsored conference titled "Return to the Origins: The Quran's Reformation of Judaism and Christianity," I presented a paper titled "and He loves those who keep clean" (Q2:222): The Quran and Judaeo-Christian Ritual Law.". The paper has contributed to a shift in Quranic studies, aspects of law and ritual are now increasingly incorporated.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Presentation at Brown University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Departments of Classics, History, and Religion at Brown University (Province, RI), invited me to present my AHRC funded research. The talk was titled "Jesus and Ritual Purity in the Apostolic Literature and in the Qur'an;" the audience was composed of academics and members of the general public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Presentation to Cambridge Inter-Faith Program 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact About 40 participants from various faith groups met for a full day workshop, and intensely discussed pivotal scriptural passages in light of my research findings.

The Cambridge Inter-Faith Program has asked me to continue to contribute to their activities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description Quran Conference (Nottingham) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Twelve scholars presented papers on the Qur'an's engagement of Judaism and Christianity; a public of around sixty people attended. The conference drew international attention to Qur'anic studies conducted at the University of Nottingham and has led to the establishment of an active scholarly network among the participants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013