Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Urwa's Muhammad, Part I

In 2008, Andreas Gorke and Gregor Schoeler published a book summarizing their research into the accounts of the life of Muhammad attributed to Urwa b. al-Zubayr.  Since then, the debate over their findings and methods has continued.  One thing I like about their work, though, is that none of what they conclude is authentic material involves the miraculous.  (If I understand them correctly, lots of miraculous doings and embellishments were added to Urwa's accounts by Abu al-Aswad, one of those who passed them on.  Other embellishments were made by al-Zuhri, who served at the Umayyad court for over half a century.)  An account of a miracle would not invalidate it, since plenty of people believe they have experienced them and thus pass on such accounts, but to this post-Enlightenment historian the fact that there aren't any is striking.  To take the biggest example, Urwa does not have an account of Muhammad ascending to heaven on a winged horse to lead other prophets in prayer and speak with God.

Gorke and Schoeler's method leads them to believe that Urwa taught of seven major events in the life of Muhammad.  There is additional Urwa material, but given their methods very short traditions or those without a lot of later attestations are harder to work with, and they did not undertake it for this book.  It is, of course, also possible that longer traditions Urwa originally passed on have been lost.  In other words, rather than "This is what Urwa said," we should probably say, "Urwa said all of this, and probably some other stuff we can't be certain about."  The seven major events also represent key developments in standard accounts of Muhammad's life found in the later biographies.  For this reason, I occasionally draw upon those standard accounts for connective tissue.

1.) First Revelation - Urwa's account, according to the authors: While meditating on a nearby mountain, Muhammad had a vision and heard a voice commanding him to recite what was the first Quranic revelation, the first five verses of sura 96.  Muhammad's reaction was fear and despair that he was mad, and confided only in his wife Khadija.  Khadija then had Muhammad consult with her cousin Waraqa, who was educated, had become a Christian, and studied the Bible.  Waraqa tells him that he has had a divine revelation similar to that of Moses.

Muslim tradition identifies the Archangel Gabriel as the agent of revelation, but the authors conclude this was added later.  I suspect Waraqa was thinking of the Burning Bush Moses encountered on Mt. Sinai.  According to the traditional Muslim accounts, early 7th-century western Arabia had lots of people who were aware of the major religions of the Middle East, were not convinced of any of them, and yet filled with spiritual longing for the God of Abraham of whom they spoke in different ways.  These people, called hanifs, are associated with a sort of "back to basics" monotheism without elaborate rituals and theological controversies and meditated on mountains in the hopes of gaining wisdom.

2.) Flight to Medina - The authors conclude with certainty that Urwa taught that as more and more people converted to Islam, the Meccans turned against them with increasingly intense persecution, and that some began seeking asylum in Ethiopia with the Christians.  Thereafter the situation for Meccan Muslims briefly improved, but only briefly, and other Muslims began going to Medina.  Abu Bakr wanted to emigrate, but Muhammad asked him to remain.  Muhammad then went to Abu Bakr's dwelling every day, but on the day of the flight went at a different time, cluing Abu Bakr in that something was up.  Muhammad was worried that lots of people might be around, but Abu Bakr told him only his family was there.  Muhammad then revealed his plans for emigration, and when Abu Bakr asked if he could come, as well, was told he could.  Abu Bakr ordered two camels, which Muhammad insisted on paying for.  Leaving Mecca, the two men spent several days in a cave, where Abu Bakr's son brought them news from Mecca.  Finally, they found a trustworthy pagan guide to help them reach Medina, where they initially stayed among the B. Amr b. Awf tribe.  Amir b. Fuhayra, a shepherd who worked for Abu Bakr, showed them the cave and then went with them to Medina.

Nothing is here said of the arc of Muhammad's early career, but standard Muslim tradition is that he kept his revelations mostly to himself and a few close confidants for several years before a revelation ordering him to preach to all the Meccans.  Abu Bakr, a wealthy man in Mecca, would become the first caliph.  There is here about a role for Ali, whom Shi'ites believe should have been Muhammad's successor.  Again, in the more developed biographies, the Quraysh had decided to kill Muhammad, by coincidence on the night he departed, and Ali slept in his bed so they would not realize he was gone.  If that account is later, then it could have been added by Shi'ites to give Ali a role in this crucial event.  Urwa's letter to Abd al-Malik is the only source in his corpus for the standard explanation of why he chose Medina to flee to:  that people there had heard of his wisdom, some had begun converting to Islam, and that all were willing to extend a covenant of protection if he came there.

3.) Battle of Badr - I can't find where the authors lay out precisely what they think is definitely authentic Urwa material about this event, which the developed biographies place a couple of years after the flight to Medina.  The most important account is Urwa's letter to the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik; the letter indicates Abd al-Malik was seeking information about Abu Sufyan, the then-pagan leader of the Umayyad clan in Mecca who played a role.  According to Urwa's reply, Muslims and Meccans were in conflict, and the former raided the latter's flocks and merchant caravans.  Abu Sufyan was leading a merchant caravan back from Syria, which the Muslims intended to raid.  Most of the letter recounts manuevering around and intelligence gathering.  The Meccans expected a raid, and so sent out a force of about 1000 to defend the caravan.  The 300 or so Muslims found themselves in a pitched battle, which they won, though there were casualties on both sides.

Unfortunately, I can't find much at all in this chapter about why there was a conflict between Muslims and the Meccans.  There are accounts that Muhammad went to Medina with the intention of fighting Mecca from the beginning.  More common, and far better known among Muslims, is the tradition that this resolution came afterward, and that a Quranic revelation authorized it.  A commonly cited reason is that the Meccans had seized the properties of those Muslims who left the city, and so the Muslims felt entitled to take wealth back from the Meccans, but this may be a late tradition emphasized mainly in modern apologetics.  The sort of raiding described was common in Arabia even into the 20th century, and a key way young men proved their valor and martial skills.  Things only became really intense when people started getting killed, as happened here.  Perhaps that is why, in a short but well-attested tradition, Urwa is mentioned as saying that Badr was the first battle against the Meccans, which is how it is remembered today while the preceding raids are little-known.

This post is getting long, so I will deal with the other four events definitely handled by Urwa tomorrow.

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