People of the Book: What the Religions Named in the Qur’an Can Tell Us About the Earliest Understanding of “Islam”

Purchase at Amazon >

Purchase at Barnes and Noble >

This study will look at the sects named in the Qur’ān to demonstrate that what the Muslim holy book describes as “Islam,” a verbal activity which – along with the higher grade of “faith” (īmān) – is a general action engaged in by existing religious communities to which the Qur’ān was orated, rather than being set forth as a new religion. A major problem in unpacking what the Qur’ān means by “Islam,” in the relatively few times that it is mentioned, is that this general term for “obedience” or “submission” to God, was not used in relation to any one specific community in the passages where it appears. One way to decipher its meaning then, is to take a critical and contextual look at those historical groups named in the Qur’ānic audience. This study, therefore, endeavors to understand more about the activity of Muhammad ibn `Abd’ullāh (ca. 570/571 – 632 CE), and the meaning of “Islam,” by reviewing the historical sources on the religious groups specifically named in the Qur’ān, in order to establish the context of the Qur’ān, and thereby more appropriately elucidate its intended meaning to its original audience.


Thesis Statement and Introduction 1

I. How Historical Jesus Research Can Help Us Assess the Historical Religious Milieu of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s Islam 4
The Historical-Critical “Quest” 8
The Methodology for Assessing Probability Regarding the Qur’ānic Religious Milieu 10
II. The Traditionalist and Revisionist Scholarship on Islam 16
Revisionist Methodologies 19
Modern Analysis of the Hadith Literature 21
John Wansbrough and the Sectarian Milieu 27
Criticism of Wansbrough 29

III. The Religious Milieu of the Qur’ānic Audience 33
Polemic Translations of “Those Who Turn” as “Jews” 37
Various Sectarian Expressions of Judaism 39
Hasmonean Dynastic Origins 41
The Ḥimyarite Empire of Yemen as It Relates To Islamic Origins 42
The Emergence of Pharisees 46
The Essenes “in every town” 48
Jewish Sects After The Fall of Jerusalem and into Late Antiquity 51
The Sabians (Sābi’ūna Hunafā’) 52
The Identity of the Qur’ānic Nazarenes: A Broken Off Branch 57
People of the Gospel 60
Nazarenes and the Virgin Birth 61
Qur’ānic Designations Regarding Nazarenes as Quasi-Jewish and Hebraic 63
Who Were the Qur’ānic Mushrikīn? 65

IV. Chapter 4: What Did Muhammad Mean by Islam? 68
How the Constitution of Medina can help us understand Muhammad’s Islam 74
Conclusion 83

V. Endnotes 86

VI. Bibliography 97