‘Before Orthodoxy’ by Shahab Ahmed

Summary of Main Thesis

Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam is Shahab Ahmed’s study of early Muslim attitudes to the Satanic verses incident. The story of the Satanic verses narrates the occasion on which the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is alleged to have mistaken words suggested to him by Satan as divine revelation. These Satanic verses praise the pagan deities of Muhammad’s tribe and acknowledge their power to intercede with God. By uttering the Satanic verses, Muhammad (pbuh) thus committed the error of compromising the fundamental theological principle of tawḥīd, the exclusive Oneness of God.

Muslims of all sects and schools universally reject that the Satanic verses incident ever actually happened as historical fact. Through his analysis of early narrative reports, Ahmed demonstrates that the Satanic verses incident constituted a standard, widely circulated and generally accepted element in the historical memory of the Muslim community on the life of Muhammad (pbuh) in the first two centuries. In other words, the almost universal contemporary rejection of the Satanic verses incident by Islamic orthodoxy represents, Ahmed argues, the rejection of something that was held to be true by early Muslims. The early Muslim community believed almost universally that the Satanic verses incident was a true historical fact.

This leads Ahmed to contrast the first Muslims’ acceptance of the Satanic Verses hadith with modern Muslims’ rejection of it. He explains how modern Muslims default to the ahl al-hadith view, who want for their Prophet a perfect example of humankind and a vessel for God’s Word. Ahmed’s main thesis is that the Prophet’s first biographers had a different aim: drama. They needed an epic story. An epic hero is not perfect; he is faced with challenges that he might overcome them and win. The Satanic Verses story served as a tool to present the story of the Prophet and the Qur’an and their final triumph as an inspiring epic.

How Main Thesis is Derived

“How does truth happen?” Shahab Ahmad starts his dissertation with this question to the reader. He uses this generic question to drive to his specific question: given the diversity of Islam, “how does a single position come to be universally established as authoritatively true?” The Satanic Verses—their content, their context, their interpretation—occupy the heart of this book. Ahmed goes through over fifty reports from traditional sources that narrate the Satanic Verses incident. What becomes clear is a shift in the character of authority within the early Muslim community. While the scholars of sirah and tafsir accepted the incident as part of their historical memory, the scholars of hadith did not.

The differences between the three historical memory projects or discourses is dealt with early in the book. The aim of the scholars of the Hadith movement, as it took shape in the early centuries of Islam, was to define and establish legal and creedal norms through the authoritative documentation of the words and deeds of the Prophet as produced from the historical memory of the early Muslim community. Ahmed argues that the Hadith scholars were concerned with prescribing the specific content of Islam, and as a result, the project of Hadith fused with the authoritative and prescriptive project of the elaboration of Islamic law. The Hadith project’s appropriation of the historical memory of the Prophet for the purposes of prescribing Islamic norms required not only a particular method but also, and this is key, a particular type of Prophet suited to its authoritative and prescriptive purpose. Given the centrality of the authoritative persona of the Prophet to the logic of the Hadith movement, the idea of an infallible Prophet whose words and conduct might reliably be taken to establish a model for detailed pious imitation must have possessed a particular appeal for the early scholars of the Hadith movement. Coming back to the Satanic verses incident, the image of Muhammad (pbuh) contained in the incident, i.e. that of a Prophet who fell victim to Satan and erred in the transmission of Divine Revelation, was entirely inconsistent with the Hadith movement. It is for this reason that, despite its wide circulation in the first and second century genres of tafsir and sirah, the Satanic verses incident was not included in any of the canonical Hadith collections.

Ahmed argues that those responsible for remembering the Prophet in the first and second century project of sirah were not primarily concerned with establishing norms of religious law and praxis for pious mimesis, but rather with constructing a narrative of the moral-historical epic of the life of Muhammad (pbuh) in his attempt to found the divine human community and set it on the path to salvation. Similarly, the Prophet of the tafsir, Ahmed argues, was the Prophet of the text of God’s allusions, and thus the heir to a long line of Prophets to whose histories of trial, sin and repentance God also alluded. The Qur’anic exegetes accepted the Satanic verses incident as another in this series of divine citations of Prophet-defining moments. More controversially, the Satanic verses incident was seen as illustrative of Muhammad (pbuh)’s ongoing struggle to comprehend the enormity of his Prophetic mission, and to retain a clear sense of its nature, as well as to perform that mission with clarity in the face of complex and difficult circumstances.

In sum, the early Muslim community accepted the Satanic verses incident because, for them, there was simply nothing anomalous or problematic about it. It was entirely consistent with several other narratives which they took as explaining passages of the Qur’an that also appear to allude to Prophetic error. Ahmed observes that “in rejecting the Satanic Verses incident, the Hadith project—emerging with increasing force and definition from the mid-2nd century onward—was disapprovingly at odds with the early understanding of Muhammad’s Prophethood. The logic of the Hadith project required an infallible Prophet … authorizing prescribed norms. It is that logic, and that notion of Prophethood, that would later establish itself as Islamic orthodoxy”

What Problems does ‘Before Orthodoxy’ Present for Traditional Muslims?

The interpretation of the Satanic verses incident touches directly on the nature of the Prophet’s revelations as understood by traditional Muslims. The concept of infallibility is assumed to the extent that ascribing even minor sins to the Prophet (pbuh) are considered blasphemous. For these traditional Muslims, to admit the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) made such an error in the receipt of revelation itself casts doubts on the entire enterprise of the Prophet’s mission, his veracity, and therefore the veracity of the Qur’an, too!

As Anne-Marie Schimmel has noted, “The absolute obedience owed to the Prophet is meaningful only if Muhammad was free from any faults and could thus constitute an immaculate model even for the most insignificant details of life.” Consequently, the image of Muhammad contained in the Satanic verses incident, that of a Prophet who fell victim to Satan and erred in the transmission of Divine Revelation, was entirely dissonant with and, indeed, constituted a normative challenge to the Hadith movement.

Another problem this book presents to traditional Muslims is that it challenges the idea that the ummah have always had the same view of the Prophet (pbuh) and his role as teacher and leader. Many traditional Muslims hold dearly to the idea that Islam has remained constant and fixed over the centuries; while this concept may not be held by modern Muslim scholars, most if not all Muslim laity have this presumption. The idea that the communal memory of the Prophet changed and evolved over time can be disconcerting to those who have not been exposed to this side of Islamic history.

How to Respond to These Conclusions?

Interestingly, Ahmed himself offers a “way out” for traditional Muslims to explain why and how the modern Muslim majority view of this incident emerged so different from the early Muslim majority view: he concludes that we can agree with modern Muslims that the Satanic Verses tale were an invention by early pious story-tellers to cast the story of their Prophet into an epic tale of triumph despite the odds against him, thus making him more relatable to those generations who never met him.

In my personal opinion, there is another “way out” that is often ignored by Muslims of the modern era: that the Prophet’s infallibility was not as encompassing or comprehensive as the classical ahl-al-hadith wished to convey. Ibn Taymiyyah courageously wrote as much when he affirmed the historicity of this story and that it does not impugn the Prophet’s veracity since these Satanic suggestions did NOT become part of the canonical text but were rejected via revelation itself. This story stands as a testament to the honesty of the early Muslims, since they would not be motivated to invent such a story. On the contrary, they would have been very motivated to make sure it was forgotten. Yet, we find it being transmitted and handed down to us.

One thing I’ve noticed is that earlier Muslims didn’t seem to have as much of a problem in regarding the prophets, including the Seal of them, as being human, subject to errors, mistakes, and even sin. This wasn’t seen as a contradiction of their being the best of people and the best examples for humanity, but they were still subject to the nature of being human. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the era of when the Muslim community’s view of prophethood began to change corresponds to the same era that Muslim scholars translated and accreted Hellenistic philosophies. From these accretions, rationalist theologies emerged, and therefore the view of prophets changed so that the prophets were no longer simply seen as the best examples of humanity, but rather possessing a Platonic ideal, an infallibility and even incapability to sin. This would lead to the rejection of reports that would contradict this view, or explaining away of Quranic verses where prophets appear to err, and even repent from sin. We are not required to accept this change of paradigm; we can revive and reaffirm the worldview of our pious predecessors, who had a more nuanced and humanized concept of prophecy and our Prophet (pbuh).

‘Before Orthodoxy’ by Shahab Ahmed
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