The Origins of Islam
A Conversation with the German Islamic Scholar Josef van Ess
Was Islam already a fully-formed religion when Mohammed presented his revelation? What exactly is it possible for us to know about early Islam, the first Islamic sects, and their religious orientation? The German Islamic scholar Josef van Ess has devoted his life’s work to these questions. The journalist Christian Meier, himself one of the younger generation of Islamic scholars, interviewed him for Fikrun wa Fann / Art&Thought.
Christian Meier: Mr van Ess, since when has Islam existed?
Josef van Ess: This question is impossible to answer. For a start, there are differing opinions regarding how long the Koran has existed. However, one thing is clear: the Koran existed long before Islam.
How are we to understand that?
Josef van Ess: It takes several generations before a religion knows what it is there for. I once coined the term ‘options’ for this. As a revelatory religion, Islam, just like Christianity, is based on certain premises: an image of God, on the one hand – or indeed the very existence of a God, which is not self-evident – and a founder on the other. How the latter fulfils this role, whether as a prophet or as the son of God, is ultimately irrelevant. These preconditions create certain ‘options’. Every religion has, in the beginning, many options, but not an infinite number. On the contrary, the fact that it is a revelatory religion already limits the options available.
Nonetheless, decisions must be made. And that takes time. For example, it took centuries before the decision was made that the Koran should be said to be stylistically inimitable. Nowadays people behave as if this was already laid down in the Koran itself – but this is not the case at all. With each decision, the scope for further decision-making becomes more limited – until you end up with modern fundamentalism, where everything appears to have been set in stone from the beginning and there’s hardly any room for manoeuvre at all. Even though there are, of course, also variations within fundamentalism itself.
It is often said in the West that Islam is in need of a Reformation – an ‘Islamic Luther’ to prevent it from ossifying.
Josef van Ess: Oh, that’s old hat. This idea was already common among Muslims in the nineteenth century, and we’re always hearing it nowadays as well. What lies behind it is a somewhat amorphous desire for reform, because people are unhappy with the current situation. But this is true of every period in history. The fact that the name Luther comes up of course has to do with the Protestant view of history, which was very prevalent for a long time, not only in Germany.
Is it even true that Islam has never had a Reformation?
Josef van Ess: I consider the Koran itself to be a reformative text. I see in the Koran a reformative intention, to the extent that the older religions are dismissed as wrong paths, and the basic intention is simply to go back to the roots.
Which is of course an illusion. The Koran never went back the roots; the whole story of Abraham is a construct. But what lies behind it is presumably the historical experience that Christianity had come to the end of the road. Because the Prophet’s contemporaries, and the first generations after him, did not experience Christianity as a unified religion, but as three different ‘churches’ that were constantly at each other’s throats.
Furthermore, the central message of the Koran is very simple, with its monotheism. That too is an attempt to shed all that is superfluous. And we mustn’t forget that the idea of a ‘covenant’ with God also plays a role in the Koran. And just as Christianity understood itself to be a ‘new covenant’ vis à vis the old covenant of the Old Testament, the Koran essentially comprehends itself as a ‘third covenant’.
And as what did the early Muslims see themselves? How did Islam become Islam?
Josef van Ess: In his new book Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam, Fred Donner, a scholar of early Islam, proceeds from the assumption that Islam was not intended either by Muhammad or in the Koran. It was just that a community formed which aimed to cultivate a particularly moral or devout way of life, and which designated itself ‘the believers’: al-mu’minun. Donner considers mu’minun to be the Muslims’ actual self-designation.
The appellation ‘Muslim’ only started to be used much later…
Josef van Ess: Yes, precisely. The term muslimun is in the Koran, but it only refers to specific people: the old, heathen Kaaba worshippers from Mecca, who ‘subjugate’ or ‘dedicate’ themselves to Islam. Whereas there were also Jews and Christians among the mu’minun, the original congregation. Later they were separated out; according to Donner, this took place during the period of the Caliph ?Abd al-Malik. And so, towards the end of the first century after the Hijra, Islam becomes Islam. Of course, this is not the end of the discussion, and I personally see it as happening slightly differently… But the idea that it took some time is one I consider to be self-evident.
In the light of this, wouldn’t it be desirable to have closer co-operation between scholars of early Islam and those of Late Antiquity?
Josef van Ess: That is in fact a desideratum; Germany in particular is somewhat behind in this regard. The perspective on the genesis of Islam and on the centuries prior to it is somewhat different in the English-speaking world, for example. The term ‘Late Antiquity’ is characteristic of this. In anglophone scholarship there is speculation about chronology, the boundaries between epochs. The term ‘Late Antiquity’ actually comes from German scholars; or, to be more precise, it was invented by an Austrian art historian who wanted an umbrella term to cover objects from the first millennium of the Christian calendar – i.e. after the ‘Ancient’ period – so that Coptic artworks and Oriental products of a different kind could also be included.
This has always interested me, not least because I come from Aachen and earned the money to pay for my studies by working as a tour guide. In the cathedral there is the famous golden pulpit endowed by King Heinrich II shortly after the year 1000 which has on it Coptic statuary in the antique style – ivory carvings of naked bodies. Presumably for Heinrich II this was first and foremost something exotically beautiful. But of course one asks oneself where the carvings came from, and it appears that these things were made in Egypt by Copts during the early period of Islam. For something like this, the term ‘Late Antiquity’ is a helpful one.
So the latter days of Antiquity overlap with the Islamic period…
Josef van Ess: The boundaries between the epochs are fluid. Exactly when the period of Late Antiquity begins has always been a matter of debate. What is far more important, though, is when it ends. For a long time people said that it ran out of steam, in the Orient as well, some time in the sixth or seventh century – before Islam, at any rate. But the people working with this term nowadays say no, it continues until the end of the dynasty of the Umayyad caliphs. At any rate, not only is the rise of Islam still Late Antiquity, but so, in terms of its structure, is the so-called ‘Arab Empire’ of the Umayyads. The break comes with the Abbasid revolution, which is simultaneously also a geographic displacement of power: towards Iraq, which was the centre of the ancient Persian Sassanid empire.
Let’s go back to the genesis of Islam. You said that you have your own ideas about how the new religion developed.
Josef van Ess: When we talk about ‘Islam’ as a single entity, this is not, of course, true of the Islam of the present day. However, it is just as untrue of Islam in its early years. We always imagine it like this: there’s this group of people, they come up with some ideas and start a new religion. But it was never like that. Of course there were the ‘believers’. But the wars of conquest scattered them to the four winds. The result was a conglomerate of different nuclei, primarily in the new garrison cities – Basra and Kufa, Fustat in Egypt, Hims in Syria. So in these places there are a couple of so-called companions of the Prophet, who are later also revered and around whom a sort of Islam configures. But I’m convinced that it was quite different in Kufa to Hims or Fustat.
Why? Were these areas completely isolated from one another?
Josef van Ess: The communication between the centres was weak. Of course people travelled, and of course they had some kind of Koran text that they adhered to – insofar as this existed already. But the defining element is the exegesis, the question of how one comprehends the text. The question is whether the Koran was even central to the religion at this time. From my point of view: no, it wasn’t. What united the congregation was far more the manner of their communal prayer. The peculiar gymnastics they perform in the process – the proskynesis – it’s quite unique. And everyone else noticed it. At the same time, performing this act was a way of testifying your subjugation to the one God. Of course, it also took time for this rite to develop. But this was something that the individual nuclei had in common. Significantly, prayer was led by the governor, or by whichever general was present at the time – almost as a military discipline. What kind of superstructure was added to this, that is, what we today understand as Islam: goodness knows. It might be possible, with considerable devotion, for someone to find this out, but it will be a long time before we are able to define what exactly was going on in Kufa, for example.
Does that mean that each city developed its own school of Islam?
Josef van Ess: Yes. Even in places like Kufa, or later Baghdad, I would not assume that there was one unified Islam. Baghdad was far too big for that; at times it had one million inhabitants. I think it’s completely impossible that people in every mosque would immediately have understood Islam. As far as Kufa is concerned, we have reports from those crazy Gnostics from the early Islamic period. It was obviously primarily Shiite ideas that flourished there and engendered the strangest fantasies. At some point these must have been expressed and must have attracted followers, otherwise they would never have been set down in writing. At least, this is how I imagine it: that in many mosques Islam looked very different, if not necessarily in every mosque – and certainly not in the main mosque, where people went on Fridays and the governor told them what was what.
Of course, this is just a personal image I’ve created for myself, but I see it as a way of getting a better grip on the subject. It then becomes possible to rectify somewhat the whole question of the genesis of Islam, because the question has to be asked separately all over again for each new location.
You’re painting an almost atomistic image of Islam.
Josef van Ess: Or I’m inverting the established image. In the beginning there is plurality – unity comes later… A fundamentalist would see it as the exact reverse. And of course when you’re studying it, it’s also the other way round: first there is the Koran, this defines Islam, and then we can take a look at what it becomes.
What was the bond that unified all these local groups and variations of Islam, other than the gymnastics of prayer?
Josef van Ess: Long-term, of course, it was the Koran. Wherever you were, if you accepted the Koran as the basis for your life, you were a Muslim. It took some time before it was compiled and people became aware of it. But the moment the Koran was publicised as the authoritative foundation, from then on there was Islam. It probably started with Abd al-Malik and the inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which quote the Koran – not, incidentally, word for word. From this point on people had something they could hold on to. Then later there was Islamic law as well.
So if prayer gave Muslims their social or ritual identity, the Koran gave them a spiritual one?
Josef van Ess: Muslims don’t comprehend the Koran as a ‘sacred text’, but as a way of life, a ‘constitution’. Just as the Americans believe in their Constitution, Muslims believe in the Koran, because they believe it shows them how they should behave in certain situations, how they should live – from an ethical and, if you like, also from a legal point of view. I think this was very important to people, even though they never quite expressed it in this way. Whenever there was resistance within Islam to the religion, from the ‘heretics’, mulhidun in Arabic,it is noticeable that the resistance is never directed at Islamic law. We would expect it to be the exact opposite: because if there is anything about Islam that is repugnant to us it is surely Islamic law, that if someone steals you chop off his hand, and so on. But this is never a problem. Wherever heretics or so-called ‘doubters’ appear, they question Mohammed’s prophecy or his person – much as depicted by Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses.
I would like to conclude from this that the Koran came to be so highly esteemed because it gave people a stable way of life. That is basically also the reason for many conversions that take place nowadays. The New Testament is quite different in this respect. You’ll find metaphors and parables in it that are stylistically far more beautiful than those in the Koran, but you have to spend a long time puzzling over the interpretation before you work out what is actually meant.
So you mean that Islam managed to spread so successfully because it possesses concrete rules in the form of the Koran?
Josef van Ess: The wars of conquest are often given as the sole explanation for the spread of Islam. In my opinion, that isn’t really enough. Because Islam was not in fact a missionary movement – it has only become that in this day and age, and even now many Muslims have reservations about it. The Arabs who lived in Kufa or elsewhere at the time probably had no desire at all to take people into their congregation who might then become pious Muslims, but who didn’t have to pay any taxes – and who may also have been spies. In the garrison towns too they kept well away from everyone else so as not to put themselves in danger. Converts were really not all that welcome.
Converts and spies are one thing – heretics are another. In your next book Der Eine und das Andere [The One and the Other] you deal with Islamic sects, and the fact that in the majority of cases our primary source of knowledge about them is the writings of their opponents.
Josef van Ess: The book is first and foremost a history of a literary genre, namely one we call ‘heresiography’. There is a huge quantity of texts of this genre in Islam, in which so-called sects are listed. This genre was very enduring; it lasted for more than a millennium, from the second century after the Hijra right up to the nineteenth century C.E. However, there is a thesis behind my analysis: that of ‘denominationalism’. The basic idea is that there is never any such thing as a religion. There are always only individual congregations. If this is the case, it means that there have never been any heresies in our sense of the word, only different congregations.
I’m sure the books you analyse present this rather differently…
Josef van Ess: It seems to me that these books are above all an inventory of the denominations that exist in Islam. It’s true that it is sometimes said that the teachings of this or that denomination are improper – but that doesn’t mean they’re heresies. The term ‘heresy’ is based on the assumption that there is an orthodoxy. This works for Christianity, because we have churches – but not in Islam. How would you define orthodoxy in Islam? There have always been people who have attempted to do so, and there have also been orthodoxies in the sense in which we use the word, but they were always local and of limited duration. The moment a ruler or the leading theologians in a particular region defined a certain interpretation of Islam as binding, there were of course groups that were labelled deviant and were then, according to our vocabulary, heresies. But there were very few groups that were categorically abhorred in all places. The Ismailis were one such, particularly at the time when they were acting as assassins.
How were such ‘deviant’ groups dealt with?
Josef van Ess: Even the Ismailis were not wiped out: there are still Ismailis today. They had to flee to areas where they could retreat, but they did survive. This is even more applicable to the early groups that rose up against the state. Iranian groups, for example, such as the one around the ‘Veiled Prophet’ Al-Muqanna in the eighth century, who had many followers. He and his congregation were persecuted, and when he saw that his cause was failing he took his own life. Centuries later, however, followers of this man were discovered in the mountains of Turkestan. And when travellers interested in these people went there and asked, ‘Are you Muslims, or are you not Muslims any more?’, the people replied: ‘Well, we don’t really know, either. But we pay taxes.’ And that was the decisive point. They didn’t think about rebellion any more; there weren’t enough of them any more for that, anyway. It was only when they turned up in the city and formed a congregation there that things got tricky – because there, of course, they were outsiders. But as long as they lived off in the countryside somewhere, nobody minded.
It was a similar story with odd people like the Nusairis – in Syria they’re called Alawis – who are pure Gnostics and don’t believe in the Koran. They still exist, and nowadays they’ve even managed to assert themselves by way of the army. The Christians, back in the Middle Ages, would have sent them to kingdom come. Think of the Cathars – they were mercilessly pursued and utterly destroyed. They did things differently in Islam, and that’s why I’m interested firstly in attempting to dissect the term ‘heresy’ and ask: what, in fact, is orthodoxy? And secondly in trying to move away from heresy itself and focus on the praxis, that is, the way these people were dealt with.
This sounds almost too harmonious to be true.
Josef van Ess: Of course, sometimes things were dealt with extremely brutally. Mahmud von Gazna, for example, simply cut off a lot of people’s heads – but specific people, those who also stood in his way politically. In other times, though, people lived alongside each other in relative peace. In this sense the image presented by Islam is a more varied one than that of the Christian world – up until the present day, when this is changing due to the power of the media.
So the media don’t promote plurality of opinion, but the standardisation of content?
Josef van Ess: With the help of the media it is much easier to convey to people a definitive image of Islam and assert it by supporting it financially. The reversal began among the late nineteenth-century reformers we hold in such high regard, such as Muhammad Abduh. They also propagated a return to the Script, to the Holy Book, and at the same time a renunciation of mysticism – and in doing so they hoped to establish a unified Islam. The irony of history is that this eventually developed into modern fundamentalism.
Doesn’t the multiplicity of different interpretations of Islam today – such as fundamentalist or progressive – contradict the idea of a single, authoritative, unified Islam?Josef van Ess: When I say that Islam has become ossified, I am thinking of developments such as those that took place in Saudi Arabia and were then disseminated through modern capabilities. However, one must always add that what is going on in so-called fundamentalism is also something new. There is much more of the modern age in it – the European modern age, too – than we imagine. Just as the European modern age lies at the heart of Islamic terrorism, because, after all, we were the ones who first employed these tactics. So if we trace modern viewpoints, as represented by the fundamentalists, back to the Koran, we are certainly doing the fundamentalists a favour; but from the historical point of view this is incorrect. But essentially, I’m not worried about the Islamic world. I’m sure that the fundamentalists too will fail to establish an orthodoxy. It’s simply not there in the religion.
is regarded as one of the foremost researchers in the world in the field of Islamic theology, philosophy and mysticism. His principal work, Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra [Theology and Society in the Second and Third Centuries A.H.] was published in six volumes between 1991 and 1997. In July 2010 van Ess was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the third World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies in Barcelona.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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