Historical Context

Surah 30 (Al-Rūm/ The Byzantines): 2-5

2. The Grecians were vanquished

3. Upon the frontier of the Persians, but shall be victorious

4. Before the end of seven years. God disposeth all things from the beginning to the end. When they shall be victorious, the True believers shall rejoyce in the victory that God shall give them;

5. He protecteth whom to Him seemeth good; He is omnipotent and merciful.

[‘The Alcoran of Mahomet … newly Englished for the satisfaction of all that Desire to Look into Turkish Vanities’, 1649, the first English translation of the Qur’an, from a French translation generally attributed to Alexander Ross, chaplain to Charles I. ]



The traditional Islamic narrative

The traditional Islamic narrative is that the revelations that make up the Qur’an were delivered by Muhammad over a twenty-three year period that started in 610 and ended with his death in 632. For the first twelve of these years Muhammad is said to have preached in the desert trading hub and pagan pilgrimage site of Mecca. Then, in 622, fearing for his life from the scheming of Meccan pagans, Muhammad is said to have travelled to the oasis settlement of Yathrib, later to be renamed Medina. Here Muhammad organised his followers into a fighting force that waged a seven-year campaign against his former home town, eventually conquering it in 630. Thereafter, Muhammad ordered further expeditions to extend his rule both towards Yemen in the south and the frontier of the Byzantine Empire in Syria, so that by the time that he passed away he was the undisputed spiritual leader and temporal ruler in the western half of the Arabian Peninsula.


The society into which Muhammad was born had, it seems,  already contained some monotheists. Some Jewish communities had, it is said, been established in locations across Arabia, notably at Yathrib and at Kaybar, and individual Christians were to be encountered, such as Muhammad’s first wife’s cousin, Waraq ibn Nawfal. The Qur’an also appears to assert that some Arabs, said to have included Muhammad’s own parents, had kept a pure form of  monotheism called  ‘al-ḥanīf〈21.〉 which had been passed down through the generations from Ishmael. Two further monotheist communities are mentioned in the Qur’an which it calls the Sabeans and the Magians, the identity of which groups is unclear 〈88.〉 But fundamental to the origin story of Islam is that Muhammad had been born into a world characterised by ‘jāhilīyah’ (‘ignorance’), in which the majority population were polytheists, living uncivilised lives that were so deeply defined by dishonesty, licentiousness and primitive superstition that almost any laws that the Qur’an might have contained could be assumed to have been an improvement in tehir state.


Following Muhammad’s death, the traditional narrative continues, the community of believers that had formed around him came to be led by four of his companions in turn, the so-called ‘rāshidūn‘ (‘rightly guided’) caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, who compiled Muhammad’s revelations into the Qur’an we find today, and finally Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. These rulers between them forged a great Islamic empire stretching from North Africa to Central Asia. After the murder of the third caliph Uthman, however, so the history goes, Ali had been unable to unite the caliphate. A civil war (the First Fitna) had allowed the office of caliph to be seized by Uthman’s cousin, Muawiyah I who established his clan, the Umayyads, as a dynasty. The Umayyads ruled the Islamic world for the following ninety years, further extending the caliphate’s borders until, within a century of Muhammad’s death, they stretched from southern France to China.


Muawiyah’s son, Yazid I, ordered the killing of many of Muhammad’s descendants including his last surviving grandson at the Battle of Karbala. This shocking event provoked a Second Fitna, a rebellion by one Abd’ullah Ibn al-Zubayr, from 680 to 692. Then in 750, a Third Fitna led to the overthrow of the Damascus-based Umayyads and the founding of a new dynasty, the Iraq-based Abbasids, who would preside over the heartland of Islam for the next five centuries and oversee a fabled golden age of Islam, characterised by scholarly pursuits and tolerance.


This, in outline, is the origin myth of Islam that appears in Islamic lore and still tends to be recounted more or less uncritically by encyclopaedias and textbooks. However, over the past half century it has become increasingly apparent that the society in which the Qur’an was composed must have been far more religiously complex and sophisticated than the scorned ‘age of ignorance’ of Islamic disdain.


Moreover, any contemporary physical and documentary evidence for the practice prior to 750 of a religion that is recognisable as Islam is astonishingly sparse and almost always problematic for the traditional narrative. Over the last fifty years the subject of the history of early Islam has become a rapidly expanding field of research, in which the astonishingly few facts over which there is academic consensus fail to provide even the most basic outline for a coherent narrative.



The date of the Qur’an’s completion

The Qur’an contains a wide range of writing style content and message, which, to a person reading it in its canonical arrangement, seems on occasion to shift markedly from one verse to the next. However, these evolve more smoothly when the surahs are rearranged into something closer to their chronological order, and so this book will proceed on the basis (by no means uncontroversial) that its text is mostly, if not entirely, the work of one author. Whilst it is clear that the Qur’an must have been composed over a substantial period of time, the moment at which it reached its final form can now be narrowed down to within a period of just seventeen years.


We know that the Qur’an could not have been completed prior to 628 because Surah 18 includes the story of a traveller whom it identifies as Dhu’l Qarnayn, which contains unmistakable elements taken from a Syriac text, Neṣḥānā d-leh d-Aleksandrōs, (The Victory of Alexander), 〈29.〉 This romanticised legend of Alexander the Great’s victory over a Persian king, Tubarlaq, was composed to serve as an allegory for the victory of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius over his Persian counterpart Kusrow II. We know that The Victory of Alexander must have been written after 628, since it alludes to a peace treaty signed between Heraclius and Kusrow in that year. Therefore, since the Qur’an’s story of Dhu’l Qarnayn incorporates scenes from this work, 628 is the earliest possible date for the Qur’an’s completion.


It seems likely that the latest date upon which the Qur’an could have been compiled is 645. This date comes from radiocarbon dating of a parchment containing Quranic passages discovered at Birmingham University in 2015.


Consequently, on the best available evidence, it seems that the Qur’an was composed by one man (there can be no doubt that the Qur’an was written by a man) who completed his work at some time between 628 and 645. This is a narrow window, but one that, as it happens, includes the traditional Islamic date of Muhammad’s last revelation, 632.


One factor that threatens to complicate this conclusion, is remarkable fact that there exists nowhere a complete Qur’an manuscript that is dated any earlier than 799 (and even that dating is regarded as highly dubious .) Nor is there any satisfactory explanation for what might have happened to all of the Qur’ans that must have been produced in Islam’s first one and a half centuries, that led to not a single one surviving intact. The absence of a complete Qur’an inevitably creates room for suspicion that individual words, verses and even whole surahs may have been added, amended or removed long after the core text was first completed. However, it is noteworthy that, so far as is known, all partial early Qur’an manuscripts except one (see 〈7.〉) are in complete agreement over the order of words within those verses that they do record, the order of those verses within the relevant surah and the order of surahs. Moreover, meticulous studies of minor scribal variations across the earliest Quran manuscripts has allowed scholars to build up a detailed stemma (‘family tree’) of manuscripts, mapping the order in which these manuscripts must have been copied one from another. The existence of this stemma demonstrates that all early Qur’an manuscripts (with the aforementioned exception) were copied from copies of a single canonical archetype. The scenario that a late antiquity ruler might have tracked down every Qur’an across three continents and then, for each one, required a local scribe to make an exact reproduction of it other than for required amendments, including each manuscript’s idiosyncratic variations and in the local style of manuscript production, whilst leaving behind the innocuous parts of the Qur’ans that they had replaced, is just about conceivable but is, it is suggested, highly implausible. Such a plan would have been an epic Orwellian exercise in falsifying history unprecedented in its ambition and success. Therefore, despite some lurking suspicions, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, this book will proceed upon the basis that the Qur’an was largely, if not entirely, complete by 645, within at most thirteen years of the date traditionally attributed to the announcement of its final instalment.


Throughout this Companion, the traditional Islamic narrative will be treated as entirely unreliable. Whilst the later accounts contain vastly more detailed information concerning the life, works and personal habits of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad bin Abdullah bin Abd al-Muttalib, than can be garnered for virtually any other figure in history, in fact we know almost nothing about him with any reasonable degree of certainty. The earliest accounts of his life were written long after his death, a matter that is addressed more fully in 〈5.〉 below, and are either adaptions of biblical stories or written to be moral or legal exemplars. Many episodes in the traditional biography of Muhamad were clearly inventions to explain passages in the Qur’an, although modern critical analysis of the Qur’an show these explanations to be at odds with what the Qur’an is actually saying. Where Muhammad lived, how his prophethood developed and even his name, are all matters of contention, and must be reconstructed anew from the historical evidence.


A huge historical change in the Middle East, North Africa and Persia occurred in the 630s that might be referred to as the ‘Arab conquests’. However, there is little sign that the Arab ‘conquerors’ formed a coherent political entity before the 690s. They operated under no universally recognised collective name and, so far as we can tell, no insignia (Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphate are traditionally said to have marched under a foreboding plain black banner). It is probably more accurate to envisage these ‘conquests’, as a loose coalition of tribes assuming control over regions that the empires of Byzantium and Iran had abandoned, and establishing post-Byzantine or post-Sassanian Arab rule, rather than any mysterious anonymous and flagless empire. A comparison might reasonably be made with the barbarian expansion into sub-Roman western Europe two centuries earlier.


There is certainly little to no evidence that these initial conquests were seen by their leaders as any sort of religious enterprise, still less that the new rulers’ religion, even when it can be glimpsed, was recognisable as Islam. One of the earliest occurrences in the historical record, of any of the aforementioned ‘caliphs’ was the inscribing of Muawiyah’s name on the dedication plaque of a bathhouse in northern Palestine, where it appears, before the non-denomination-specific title ‘emir of the believers’, and a prominent, but for Muslims highly incongruous, Greek cross. The Arab conquerors continued to mint coinage featuring Christian crosses in the west and Zoroastrian fire alters in the east, almost until the end of the seventh century, and even after the addition to these images of Arabic religious mottos such as ‘Allāhu akbar’ (‘God is greatest’) and – inscribed alongside the image of Kusrow II – ‘Muhammad rasūl Allāh’ (‘Muhammad is the messenger of God’). One small copper penny bears the word ‘Mhmd’ directly beneath the depiction of a figure holding aloft a large cross.


A handful of short Quranic phrases appear in seventh century rock inscriptions and on formal documents, and a longer series of Qur’an extracts feature in the decoration of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, but no reference to the existence of the Qur’an as a single document has been found in any source, Arab or non-Arab, until the 720s. This is more than seventy years after the Qur’an’s probable completion, and is a silence that is simply incompatible with the traditional story of a huge empire spurred to conquest by the desire to spread Islam. As late as the 730s, St John of Damascus, who is described in his biography as a senior Umayyad official, felt quite uninhibited by that position from denouncing stories from the Qur’an (he appears to have been unaware of the Qur’an’s existence) as heretical nonsense and Muhammad as an obvious charlatan with mocking contempt.


Other signs of the practise of Islam that, based upon the traditional narrative, one would have expected to see are also conspicuous by their absence. Of the city of Mecca, towards which Muslims regard themselves as bound to face when they pray five times a day and which each Muslim must visit once in their lifetime if they are able, there is no reliable reference on any map or in any written account prior to 741 . The Arab conquerors built few religious buildings, and, so far as one can tell, not a single one was oriented in even the approximate direction of Mecca until 727. It will be clear to the reader by now, that the Arab conquerors were not a bookish folk, but it is nevertheless remarkable that they governed great centres of learning such as Alexandria, without a second significant Islamic text (i.e. after the Qur’an) having been produced until the 750s.


In short, whilst a modest number of genuinely impressive Qur’an manuscripts were created by devotees to its message across the Arab realm, it appears that for the century following its author’s death, his pronouncements were largely neglected by his successor rulers and the great majority of their subjects, in a rush of empire-building. It was only after the Abbasid revolution of 750 that the Qur’an receive significant official recognition, and by that stage it seems that the story of its revelation had to be reconstructed virtually from scratch. No substantial account of Muhammad’s life is known to have been written until after this time, and even the original text of this, like the earliest Qur’an manuscripts, has inexplicably been lost, coming to us only in quoted extracts, from works written one or more generations further removed, see 〈5.〉


What one can say with confidence from a careful reading of the  Qur’an itself is that whilst Muhammad’s world may have been extraordinarily poorly documented, it was far from the barren wilderness of primitive superstition and isolated monotheists that the traditional narrative describes. Rather, the Qur’an provides ample evidence that it emerged from a highly complex and religiously sophisticated milieu formed in the wake of four great religiopolitical conflicts.



The ‘Jesus Wars’

In the century prior to the announcement of the Qur’an, the Christian church had been riven by fierce and sometimes violent disputation over an arcane but central theological question: the precise manner in which Jesus was the Son of God. The patriarchs of Alexandria had preached that Jesus had one nature that was simultaneously human and divine (monophytism). In its most extreme form, holders of this position disputed that Jesus, as God incarnate, could have experienced physical pleasure or pain. To the eastern church of Antioch, this doctrine amounted to an effective denial that Jesus was human at all. Its patriarchs responded that in order to have been God made man Jesus must have possessed two natures that had somehow co-existed separately (dyophytism). At the Council of Chalcedon, 451, a subtle and elegant compromise was adopted – that Jesus possessed ‘two natures in one person’, his divine and human attributes existing ‘unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably‘. Today the Chalcedonian definition satisfies most Christians, but in the late fifth and sixth centuries many on both sides of the debate refused to accept it, leading to a disorderly series of schisms, inquisitions and mutual excommunications across Christendom. One result of this disharmony was the emergence of a number of anti-Chalcedonian churches, including the Coptic Church in Egypt, the Tawahedo church in Ethiopia and, in Arabia, the Syrian Orthodox Church


The latter of these is often referred to as ‘West Syriac Christianity’, to distinguish it from a church that already existed beyond the reach of the Byzantine Empire and under the protection of the Kingdom of the Iranians, known as the Church of the East (or ‘East Syriac Christianity’). This had declared itself to be autonomous of Rome and Byzantium prior to Chalcedon, and preached Jesus’s divinity in pre-Chalcedonian terms (sometimes described as Nestorianism).


By the time of the Qur’an’s composition then, Christianity in Arabia included Byzantine orthodoxy and two major schismatic Syriac churches, as well as a plethora of minor sects. Three great Christian figures of the Syriac Christian tradition are known to have influenced the Qur’an through their writings:

St Ephrem of Syria, 306-373, who established a literary tradition of poetic homilies and exhortations, memrê, which the format of the Qur’an appears to emulate (a short example is provided at 〈10.〉 below),

Narsai, 399-502, baptised into the Church of the East, who was trained in the west, later returning to the east, whose homilies included expansions on biblical stories, several of which found their way into the Qur’an, see 〈21.〉, and

St Jacob of Serugh (451-521), the earliest recorder of the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, a version of which is told in the Qur’an at {18.9-22} 〈27.〉, who managed to skilfully negotiate the Christological controversies whilst in the east, without losing communion with the western church.


The last great war of antiquity

The eastern border of the Christian world saw the continuation of the epic struggle between Rome and Persia, sometimes said to have been the human race’s most protracted conflict, dating back to the days of the Roman Republic. Seen from this perspective, by 600, the struggle was in its seventh century, with pagan Rome supplanted by Christian Byzantium and ‘Persia’ by the Empire of the Iranians or Iranshahr, ruled over by the Zoroastrian House of Sassan. The two empires had long been separated in the Middle East by two confederations of Arab tribes. Jordan and southern Syria was controlled by the Christian Ghassanids who were clients of the Byzantine Empire and guarded their desert, whilst the predominantly pagan Lakhmids performed a similar role in Southern Iraq, for their patrons, the Sassanids.


What would become the endgame of the centuries long struggle, began with the renouncing by both empires of their Arab auxiliaries, after the latters’ religious affiliations had cast a doubt over their loyalty. In 583 the Byzantine emperor Maurice had deposed and exiled the last independent Ghassanid phylarch, Al-Nu’man VI ibn al-Mundhir over his refusal to accept the official Chalcedonian definition of the incarnation. Twenty years later, in 602 the Sassanian Shah, Kuzrow II, invaded and annexed the territory of his former proxies, the Lakhmids, as the result of the conversion of their king – coincidentally also called Al-Nu’man ibn al-Mundhir – to Christianity. Kusrow appointed in Al-Nu’man’s place one Ilyas (Elijah) ibn Kabsha al-Ta’i, chief of the Tayyaye tribe as a vassal king, and he ruled from the city of al-Hirah..


With both Arab proxies weakened, Kusrow launched an offensive against Byzantium in 602 capturing several of its Middle Eastern and Armenian territories of Byzantium in 602. Eight years later, in the year that Muhammad is said to have announced the first verses of the Qur’an – a Byzantine general, Heraclius, seized the imperial throne in an attempt to save what remained of the empire’s eastern territories. However, he was unable to prevent the loss of all of Christian Syria including Damascus which fell in 614, Jerusalem, 615, and even Egypt to the Zoroastrian Kusrow.


It was these defeats that are referred to in the Qur’an’s {30.2-5}, produced above, which refer to a military loss suffered by ‘Rūm’ (ie Byzantium) nearby and predicted that Rome would recover to prevail over its foes. Hope for such a recovery must have seemed remote in 615 for by that year Kusrow was marching upon Constantinople itself. As his Kusrow’s army moved in, Heraclius offered to recognise Kusrow as his emperor in return for peace and the sparing of his capital. But as it transpired, Kusrow’s siege was unsuccessful, and the Qur’an’s prediction of a recovery by the Romans came to pass in spectacular fashion as, between 622 (the reputed year of Muhammad’s Hijra from Mecca to Medina) and 629, Heraclius led one of the greatest comebacks in military history, attacking Kusrow’s heartland through Armenia and forcing the return of almost all of the territory lost in 611-15. Following this catastrophe, Kusrow was overthrown by his son who sued for peace with Heraclius, resulting in the peace treaty alluded to in the Victory of Alexander referred to above.


On its face, {30.2-5} would appear to have been composed in the mid-620s between the Sassanian push through the Middle East and the Byzantine recovery. However, it was more likely composed, after Heraclius’ surprise triumph and phrased as a prediction of it to bolster its credibility in identifying omens of the coming end of days. One may see in the Qur’an’s prediction of an imminent Byzantine victory – which involved its recapture of Jerusalem – a conscious reprise of Jesus’s foretelling of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Rome in the gospels six centuries earlier.


The Expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem and Edessa

A valuable source for history of Jerusalem during this time is a chronicle written in Armenia under the adopted name of Sebeos, sometimes referred to as the History of pseudo-Sabeos . The chronicle records events until 661, and so it is likely that its accounts of Kusrow’s seizure and Heraclius’ recapture of Jerusalem were written within a few dozen years of those events. He describes that with the Sassanian advance, the long-persecuted Jewish population of the city sided with the Iranians.

The entire country of Palestine willingly submitted to the king of kings. The remnants of the Hebrew people especially rebelled from the Christians and manifesting desire for a homeland wrought very damaging slaughters among the multitude of believers.


Pseudo-Sebeos then describes that the authorities in Jerusalem voluntarily surrendered to the Sassanians, but that thereafter the Christians and the Jews fell to fighting, during which the Christians initially prevailed, massacring many Jews whilst ‘the remainder of the Jews jumped from the walls and went to the Iranian army.’ This brought the Jews little benefit, however, as upon their restoring control over the city, the Sassanians refused the Jews permission to return. Moreover, when Heraclius emerged from the war triumphant, he compelled all Jews throughout the Byzantine Empire to convert to Christianity for their treachery. A later chronicle written by Michael the Syrian records:

‘In this era, the Emperor ordered that all the Hebrews that lived in all Roman territories would become Christians. For this reason, Hebrews ran away from Roman territories. First, they came to Edessa, when they began being attacked there they ran to Persia. Many of them received the baptism and became Christians.’

The Qur’an draws deeply upon Jewish writings: not merely the Hebrew Bible, but also Talmudic commentary and more esoteric Jewish mystical traditions. Several verses of the Qur’an clearly anticipate the presence of Jews within its immediate audience and its author apparently judged cases according to the Mosaic law. Yet there is no archaeological or historical record of any permanent Jewish communities having ever lived in Yathrib, Kaybar or anywhere else in the Hijaz as described in the traditional narrative. Instead, it will be suggested as more than likely that the Jews of the Qur’an were in fact, not the long-settled tribes of farmers and artisans such as are described in the traditional Islamic narrative but were more likely, as Sebeos asserts, recent refugees from the Byzantine-Sassanian wars.


South Arabia

At about the time of the reputed birth of Muhammad, a second front in the Sassano-Byzantine War had been fought in the south west of Arabia. Inscriptions show that the kings of Himyar, in modern day Yemen, had converted to Judaism in the 380s. In the 520s a Himyarite king, Yusuf As’ar Yathar, is said to have ordered a massacre of Christians at the city of Najran. This is traditionally believed to be the event described in the Qur’an’s Surah 85 (although a more persuasive case can be made for these verses referring to a Jewish massacre of Christians in Jerusalem in 620s).

{85.4}  May they perish, the inhabitants of the pit,

{85.5}  The fire well fuelled,

{85.6}  When they sat by it,

{85.7}  And were witness to what they did to the believers,

{85.8}  And took vengeance on them for naught but that they believed in God, the Mighty, the Praised.


The Najran atrocity provoked an invasion of Himyar, in or around 525, from across the Red Sea by the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum. The Aksumite invaders were led by a general called Abraha, who deposed Yusuf and subsequently established himself as a Christian king of Himyar. Abraha is traditionally believed by Muslims to be the doomed ‘master of the elephant’ of Surah 105, see 〈10.〉 below, although this identification too, as will be seen, is highly doubtful. The Aksumite monarchs had claimed to be descended from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and the Ethiopian Tawahedo church preserved (and still preserves) a far stronger Jewish identity than any other Christian denomination. The Tawahedo church observes the Jewish sabbath, follows Old Testament dietary laws and practises circumcision. After his invasion of Himyar, Abraha adopted, in inscriptions, the distinctively Jewish-sounding phrase ‘Messiah of God’ to describe Jesus. The adoption of this term was no doubt calculated to make Christian rule less provocative to his Jewish subjects than the more usual ‘Son of God’. This Jewish style of Christianity not only recalls the practises of the original apostolic church, but also has a notable similarly to the outlook of the Qur’an which draws more heavily upon Old Testament figures than New, presents Jesus as one of the Jewish prophets (as indeed he was) whilst validating aspects of the old Mosaic law that had been eschewed by Pauline Christianity: 〈25.〉, 〈88.〉


The Qur’an contains clear evidence of South Arabian/Ethiopian influences, especially in relation to Christianity. For example:

each surah of the Qur’an except one, begin with the basmala, ‘In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful‘ (‘ar-Raḥmāni ar-Raḥīm’),  a term that has a history of use by both Jews and Christians only in southern Arabia, see 〈9.〉

the Tawahedo church is the only Christian denomination to include in its biblical canon the First Book of Enoch, in which angels are described teaching man certain forbidden knowledge, a variation of which teh Qyur’an alludes to several times, see 〈14.〉, and

the Qur’an contains several words that are derived from Ge’ez (an Ethiopic language associated particularly with Christian liturgy) including:

wangel’, originally from the Greek ‘euangelion’, likely to have been the immediate source of the Qur’an’s word for gospel, the ‘injeel’,

ḥawāryā’ (literally ‘walkers’), referring to the disciples of Jesus, which appears in the Qur’an as ‘ḥawāariyyūn’, and

mā’edd’ (‘feast’) that appears in the Qur’an as ’al-mā’ida’, ‘the table spread’ by Jesus in Surah 5.


There is no tradition in Islam that Muhammad himself ever went to Ethiopia, nor even to Himyar, but the traditional narrative does describe him sending approximately half his followers to Abyssinia for their safety during the first decade of his mission. Moreover, Abraha commemorated in a rock inscription an expedition in which he claimed to have ‘seized’ (probably meaning having secured oaths of loyalty from) the Arabs of several places including Yathrib, where the later surahs are said to have been announced.


It has occasionally been suggested from the Qur’an’s dependence upon both Jewish and Christian scripture that the Qur’an’s author may have taken his inspiration from a ‘Jewish-Christian’ sect – that is to say either a Christian group that had retained (or rediscovered) the Jewish identity of the original apostolic church, or else a Jewish sect that had incorporated Jesus’s ministry, into their theology. Such groups had once existed, but there is no evidence for any such group having survived into the fifth, let alone seventh century. It would, however, be entirely unsurprising that the Qur’an author, who we know was based for a time at Yathrib, should have been exposed to an informal South Arabian fusion of Jewish and Christian terminology and practices.


Conclusion on the historical context

These four conflicts: the fragmentation of Christendom over the nature of Jesus, the final war between Byzantium and the House of Sassan, the expulsion of Jews from the Holy Land and Abraha’s invasion of Himyar framed the world from which the Qur’an emerged.


Whilst the Jews, Byzantine and Arab Christians and Sassanians fought over Palestine and the Jordan plain, the remote deserts and mountains of north and central Arabia, beyond the reach of empires, would have provided, if not a safe space, at least a neutral zone for the many religious groups suffering their various persecutions, expulsions and deportations, and the inevitable disruption of war. This may have attracted not merely the full spectrum of Jews and Christians, but also the followers of eastern creeds: Manichaeism (a belief system that itself combined elements of Judaism, Christianity and religions from further afield), Mandaeism (an offshoot of Manichaism) and Mazdakianism (a reformed Zoroastrianism). Adherents of all of these traditions and more may have found themselves eking out a difficult existence in proximity to one another in a ‘Jurassic Park of heresies’ Far from being the barren wasteland of primitive superstition that has traditionally been imagined, the evidence contained within the text of the Qur’an is that it was within a setting of intense, varied and unstructured religiosity that Muhammad composed his masterpiece.


More specifically, it might be noted that the earliest historical record of Muhammad describes raids by the ‘tayyaye d-Mhmt〈49.〉, the Tayyaye having been the tribe favoured by Kusrow II in 602 with the command of his southern border, after the Christianised Lakhmid rulers had become suspect. Intriguingly two centuries later a single hadith recorded by Muhammad al-Bukhari (describing an unlikely visit by Muhammad’s enemy Abu Sufyan to the Emperor Heraclius in Jerusalem) refers to Muhammad, without explanation, as ‘ibn Kabsha’, the same name as the Tayyaye chief installed as king by Kusrow. Moreover, Muhammad is also said to have had his first vision on the mountain called Hira, the name of the city from where Kabsha ruled.


Whilst it seems unlikely that a king would have had the time or inclination to have produced such a work as the Qur’an, it is eminently sensible to ask if it was through ibn Kabsha’s appointment, that the opportunity for a new religious disposition, blending pagan and Abrahamic elements (but emphatically rejecting Chalcedonian Christianity) through a process of syncretism, mysticism, may have arisen, spurred on by the fall of empires and by rising Arab self-confidence.



Further reading


Hagarism, The making of the Islamic World, 1977, Patricia Crone & Michael Cook ,

Muhammad and the Umayyad Conversion to Islam, 2007 A J Deus  

The Alexander Legend In The Qur’an 18:83-102, Kevin van Bladen ,

The Romans Will Win!’ Q 30:2-7 in light of 7th c. political eschatology, 2018, Tommaso Tesei ,

The Jews and Christians of Pre-Islamic Yemen (Himyar) and the Elusive matrix of the Qur’an’s Christology in Jewish Christianity and the Origins of Islam, 2015, Carlos Segovia .