The Death of a Prophet

The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad's Life and the Beginnings of Islam

Stephen J. Shoemaker
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 416
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    The Death of a Prophet
    Book Description:

    The oldest Islamic biography of Muhammad, written in the mid-eighth century, relates that the prophet died at Medina in 632, while earlier and more numerous Jewish, Christian, Samaritan, and even Islamic sources indicate that Muhammad survived to lead the conquest of Palestine, beginning in 634-35. Although this discrepancy has been known for several decades, Stephen J. Shoemaker here writes the first systematic study of the various traditions. Using methods and perspectives borrowed from biblical studies, Shoemaker concludes that these reports of Muhammad's leadership during the Palestinian invasion likely preserve an early Islamic tradition that was later revised to meet the needs of a changing Islamic self-identity. Muhammad and his followers appear to have expected the world to end in the immediate future, perhaps even in their own lifetimes, Shoemaker contends. When the eschatological Hour failed to arrive on schedule and continued to be deferred to an ever more distant point, the meaning of Muhammad's message and the faith that he established needed to be fundamentally rethought by his early followers. The larger purpose of The Death of a Prophet exceeds the mere possibility of adjusting the date of Muhammad's death by a few years; far more important to Shoemaker are questions about the manner in which Islamic origins should be studied. The difference in the early sources affords an important opening through which to explore the nature of primitive Islam more broadly. Arguing for greater methodological unity between the study of Christian and Islamic origins, Shoemaker emphasizes the potential value of non-Islamic sources for reconstructing the history of formative Islam.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0513-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
    (pp. 1-17)

    The publication of Patricia Crone and Michael Cook’s controversial study Hagarism in 1977 unquestionably marks a watershed in the study of religious culture in the early medieval Near East, even if its significance has occasion ally been underestimated by other specialists in this field.¹ In particular, this relatively slim volume highlighted the potential importance of non-Islamic literature for knowledge of religious (and secular) history in the seventh and eighth centuries, a so-called dark age for which sources are often sparse and spotty.² Perhaps more importantly, however, this study proposed a radical new model for understanding both the formation of the...

  4. CHAPTER 1 “A Prophet Has Appeared, Coming with the Saracens”: Muhammad’s Leadership during the Conquest of Palestine According to Seventh- and Eighth-Century Sources
    (pp. 18-72)

    At least eleven sources from the seventh and eighth centuries indicate in varied fashion that Muhammad was still alive at the time of the Palestinian conquest, leading his followers into the Holy Land some two to three years after he is supposed to have died in Medina according to traditional Islamic accounts. As will be seen, not all of these witnesses attest to Muhammad’s leadership with the same detail: some are quite specific in describing his involvement in the campaign itself, while others merely note his continued leadership of the “Saracens” at this time. When taken collectively, however, their witness...

  5. CHAPTER 2 The End of Muhammad’s Life in Early Islamic Memory: The Witness of the Sīra Tradition
    (pp. 73-117)

    Any effort to reconstruct the life of Muhammad and the origins of the religious movement that he founded must confront the difficult problem that there are only a handful of Islamic sources from the early period that convey any information regarding his life—or death, for that matter. Particularly troubling is the complete absence of any accounts from the first Islamic century. While the traditions of the Qurʾān rather probably belong to the first Islamic century, they convey virtually no information concerning the life of Muhammad and the circumstances of his prophetic mission.¹ Admittedly, many of Muhammad’s later biographers claim...

  6. CHAPTER 3 The Beginnings of Islam and the End of Days: Muhammad as Eschatological Prophet
    (pp. 118-196)

    Insofar as the early sīra traditions preserve a memory of Islamic origins that has been deeply colored, if not completely determined, by the faith and practice of Islam during the eighth and ninth centuries, one must look elsewhere for evidence of what the “historical” Muhammad and his earliest followers may have believed. Only by somehow bypassing Muhammad’s traditional biographies can we hope to discover any possible traces of the primitive Islam of the mid-seventh century. Unfortunately, however, the sources for such an undertaking are rather limited. One potential alternative to the sīra traditions is of course the Qurʾān, which provides...

  7. CHAPTER 4 From Believers to Muslims, from Jerusalem to the Ḥijāz: Confessional Identity and Sacred Geography in Early Islam
    (pp. 197-265)

    The Hour’s failure to arrive in a timely fashion certainly must have required Muhammad’s early followers to undertake a profound reinterpretation and revision of his original message, much as one similarly finds in the wake of early Christianity’s failed eschatological expectations. Inasmuch as Muhammad seems to have forecast the Hour’s proximate advent with great urgency, one would expect that the transformation of primitive Islam began rather quickly: as this core conviction, which seems to have partly fueled the Near Eastern conquests, became increasingly untenable with each year that passed, the early Muslims would have been forced to rethink the focus...

  8. CONCLUSION: Jesus and Muhammad, the Apostle and the Apostles
    (pp. 266-278)

    The Islamic tradition reports Muhammad’s death at Medina in 632 before the Near Eastern conquests with remarkable consistency, a fact that might appear to inspire some sort of confidence in the historical accuracy of this account. Nevertheless, at present we do not have any evidence that this particular tradition is much earlier than Ibn Isḥāqʾs mid-eighth-century Maghāzī, the first written source to relate this information. It may very well be that Ibn Isḥāqʾs biography has largely determined this date for all subsequent sources, since, as numerous scholars have observed, the basic chronology of Muhammad’s life as we now have it...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 279-352)
    (pp. 353-390)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 391-406)
    (pp. 407-408)