Tattered fragment of papyrus with writing

This fragment of papyrus dating from the seventh century gives clues to the early community that became Islam, according to historian Fred Donner, a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center. (Image credit: Courtesy Oriental Institute, University of Chicago)

Historian Fred Donner has dedicated his career to investigating the contested origins of Islam, the world’s fastest growing religion.

Donner, currently a Marta Sutton Weeks Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, has studied what is typically called the “Islamic conquest” of the seventh century, the period when a newly founded state in Arabia took over much of the Near East and Muslims’ narratives about the origins of Islam surfaced.

According to the traditional origin story, the prophet Muhammad (d. 632) started Islam as a new religion, distinct from Judaism and Christianity. But confirmation of that story is difficult, because it is based not on documents from that time – there are very few of them – but from eighth- and ninth-century literary sources, well past Muhammad’s lifetime.

“We can only gain an accurate picture of how Islam began by examining documentation from the seventh century,” Donner said. But that’s not easy.

“The seventh century is a difficult period because we don’t have many documentary sources,” he said.

But Donner has a key piece of evidence: a letter that he believes was written in that crucial early seventh-century period.

Donner did not find the letter on one of his numerous trips to archives in Europe, the United States or the Middle East, but came across it inadvertently while preparing to teach a course at the University of Chicago, where he is a professor of Near Eastern history.

According to Donner, both the script in which it is written and the names of people mentioned in the letter point strongly to an early seventh-century date. “As far as I can tell, it may be the earliest Arabic letter we have,” he said.

The stained and tattered papyrus is written in Arabic script and is mostly complete, except for a small part missing in the middle.

“As you can see, it’s a complete letter,” Donner said, as he excitedly pulled up a digital image of the document on his laptop. “For the seventh century, you usually only find a little piece.”

Since arriving at Stanford last fall, Donner has been analyzing the letter along with other such original documents. “When you work on a papyrus like this, it’s usually several years for a single page,” he said. The letterforms can be puzzling, the documents smudged, faded and folded. He’s been known to keep a copy of a difficult document posted on his refrigerator for years.

An understanding of archival materials from the seventh century, Donner said, will “not only provide more insight into this broadly defined religious community, but also bring us closer to an updated account of Muhammad’s time.”

The documents at the center of Donner’s current work help to bolster theories he established in his most recent book, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origin of Islam (2010). In the text, he argued that Muhammad’s movement was originally composed of “Believers,” people from different religions who all believed in one God and in living a pious and righteous life for fear of the last judgment. “It wasn’t exactly a new religion in the beginning,” Donner said. “It was a monotheistic revival movement.”

Who were the Believers?

Donner’s scholarship was the first to call Muhammad’s following a “community of Believers” or a “Believers’ movement,” rather than simply “Islam.”

The term Believers comes from the Quran itself, a text that is regarded by Muslims as the word of God as it was revealed to Muhammad. In the Quran, the word “believer,” or mu’minum, appears in hundreds of passages, especially in the phrase used when addressing its original audience, “O you who believe.”

However, the part of Donner’s argument that has received the most attention is the claim that this community of Believers included some Jews and Christians. A few passages in the Quran state explicitly that among the “peoples of the book” – its general term for Christians and Jews – are some who are Believers. According to Donner, it would not have been difficult for Jews and Christians to join since Muhammad’s movement could appeal to anyone who believed in one God and in living a righteous life.

Being part of the Believer community did not necessarily mean one had to give up one’s membership in another confessional group, Donner said: “You could be a Believer and be a Jew; you could be a Believer and be a Christian. It’s not like you had to convert.”

According to Donner, eighth- and ninth-century Islamic law, which granted “peoples of the book” protected status and allowed them to live in relative autonomy because “they were earlier recipients of the revelation,” may offer vestigial evidence of the earlier phase of peaceful coexistence among the different religious groups.

No evidence of forgery

Donner was looking through digital scans of papyri at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute when the letter caught his eye. It had been cataloged as an unremarkable commercial document, but Donner noticed a letterform in it that, he said, “was never used after the late seventh century.”

A striking aspect of the letter is that it features language that is monotheistic but not confessional – that is, it doesn’t reflect any particular theologically defined monotheistic community. As Donner pointed out, it opens with the phrase “I praise to you God, other than whom there is no God,” and closes with “Peace and God’s blessing upon you,” which would be acceptable to any monotheist – Jew, Christian or otherwise.

While the letter does mention God, it offers no signs that this seventh-century worldview is “distinctly Islamic,” he said. “No mention of Islam, or of Muhammad, or of the Quran; or, for that matter, of distinctively Christian or Jewish features, either.”

Donner has deciphered enough of the letter to see that it mentions a number of people who have the same names as several people who were close associates of Muhammad, though the prophet himself is never mentioned in the letter.

“The constellation of names is very suggestive, and these are people who died in the first half of the seventh century,” Donner said.

He pointed to the mention of a seventh-century caliph, the supreme religious and political leader of an Islamic state, as significant. The mention of this caliph is especially noteworthy because there is no other secure documentation of his existence, only references from later texts, Donner said.

While the document does not prove Donner’s theories, it doesn’t disprove them, either, which is an important point, he said.

Because the letter is missing a piece, it is difficult to extract a full story from it. Donner is still figuring out particular Arabic words, but is nonetheless working to “get a reading sufficiently convincing that there is no other alternative,” and publish it.

What he can say with certainty so far is that the letter shows “no evidence of being a later forgery.” It offers no claims to property, or to religious or political authority, and doesn’t advance any confessional religious claims – Muslim, Jewish or Christian. So no later person would have had reason to forge such a letter.

The question of forgery is important for Donner since forgery would show that later generations were trying to hide the non-confessional element, or the “believerish” character, in Muhammad’s religious movement.

“The traditional origins narrative is a nice story; it reads like a good novel,” he said. “But when I read it as a historian it just doesn’t compute. The idea of the Believers movement rings truer to me.”