Shahab Ahmad, author of the thought-provoking book – Before Orthodoxy – 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. Ahmad 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 earliest collections of what the Prophet said or did were sirah and tafsir literature. Hadith were not officially compiled in the authenticated volumes until over two hundred years after his death. This means that it is quite possible that many Hadiths that we have today are not in their original forms. They had been altered, either intentionally or unintentionally. Much of the writings of the Hadiths’ volumes were also written by the scholars’ students and their students.
The differences between the three historical memory projects or discourses are as follows. 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. 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 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.
Ahmad 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 establish a godly community and set it on the path to salvation. Similarly, the Prophet of the tafsir 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 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. Ahmad 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.”
This brings us to the topic of what is revelation and how did the Prophet receive it. This incident, and similar incidents in the Prophet’s life such as his marriage to Aisha and Zaynab, his persecution of war against Quraysh and Khaybar, and his seeming acceptance of slavery and concubinage exemplify the tensions that emerge between modern sensibilities and traditional narrations. Over and over, the Qur’an instructs the Prophet to say to the people, “I am only human like you.” The only difference between any prophet and a regular, noble human being is the revelation the former receives. But what is that revelation? How does it affect a man? We cannot fully answer this because even when the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) tried to explain what he felt when Gabriel descended upon him, the rich Arabic language was not sufficient to describe the process. Being a prophet does not mean having special powers or sight-beyond-sight; it is a constant struggle to still the inner ego, the inner self, and listen to the promptings of God. Sometimes this is easy, because the issue is important enough for the angel to come down and dictate God’s Will to the prophet. However, most times, the angel does not come down, and the very human prophet has to make the best choice he can.
The piece-by-piece revelation of the Qur’an is suited for the kind of interactive dialogue that God intended to happen with his Prophet and the Prophet’s followers. Often, revelation would come down in response to some problem or issue or question, so the revelations instruct the Muslims who first followed the Prophet and all subsequent generations. This is why sometimes the Qur’an addresses mundane problems like indiscreet children (Surah 24), rude dinner guests (Surah 33), men and women who gossip (Surah 49), and neglectful husbands (Surah 58). Some mundane problems are universal enough and socially disruptive enough to warrant immortalization in scripture. Muslim scholars teach us that this is so all future generations will benefit from these admonitions, regardless of time or cultural background.
Another point is that these constant reprimands to the Prophet highlight the claim that the revelation was not under the control of the Prophet. They could come at any time or not at all. One the one hand, when the Prophet was asked how the Israelites entered Egypt, revelation descended immediately, and the Prophet recited Surah 12 as an answer. On the other hand, the one time that the Prophet implied he would receive revelation in answer to a question, no revelation came for over three weeks. This was an embarrassment for the Prophet, but it showed all those around him that there was no revelation-on-demand. In fact, when the story of the Seven Sleepers was revealed in Surah 18, it included to reprimand the Prophet of his previous statement: Never say of anything, ‘I shall certainly do this tomorrow,’ without ‘if God wills.’ (18:23)
 (Ahmad 2017, 3)
 (Ahmad 2017, 282)
 (Ahmad 2017, 21)
 (Ahmad 2017, 300)
 (Rashed, Islamic Law, Theology, and Practice 2019, 127)