Back to the Sources: The Meaning of the Abrahamic Election According to Some Classical Muslim Authors

Muhammad and his Companions destroying an idol during the purification of the Kaʿba after Mecca's surrender to the Muslim community in 630 CE. Classical Muslim authors understood the restoration of the Kaʿba to its pristine state as a shrine to the one God to symbolize Islam's renewal of the Abrahamic covenant. Manuscript illumination from an Ottoman Siyer-i Nabī, 16th c. (courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Ulrika Mårtensson

There are different views on the usefulness of medieval Islamic sources such as histories and commentaries for obtaining historical information about the Prophet and the origins of the Qur’an. One school argues that these sources are confessional and legitimize later political and religious developments by covering up the fact that the Qur’an and Islam emerged out of Judaism and Christianity.1 According to Fred Donner, recent research on the Qur’an and Late Antiquity points towards Syriac Christianity and language as a Sitz im Leben for the Qur’an, but the traditional Islamic narratives present Christians as “entirely absent from the context in which Muhammad lived and worked” (and Jews only as enemies of the Prophet).2

Another school, which I represent here, is that while the sources do reflect later religio-political standpoints, these differ between the classical historians, some of whom actually emphasized the significance of Judaism, Christianity and the Bible for the Prophet and the Qur’an.3 Of relevance here is ʿAbd al-ʿAziz al-Dūrī’s distinction between the early Medinan school, which contextualized the Qur’an and the Prophet primarily with reference to the Arab tribes and their affairs, raids, and conquests, and the later Iraqi school, which employed biblical and Jewish-Christian materials derived especially from the Yemenite-Persian judge Wahb b. Munabbih (d. 110/728 or 114/732). 4 According to al-Dūrī, Muḥammad b. Isḥāq’s (d. 150/767) biography of the Prophet represents a synthesis of the two paradigms. Ibn Isḥāq’s historical traditions are incorporated into other compiled histories, including notably Ibn Hishām’s (d. c. 218/833) edition al-Sīra al-nabawiyya transmitted by Ziyād b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Bakkāʾī of Kufa, and al-Ṭabarī’s (d. 310/923) universal history Taʾrīkh al-rusul wa’l-mulūk transmitted by Salama b. al-Faḍl of Rayy and Yūnus b. al-Bukayr of Kufa.5 These too represent Ibn Isḥāq’s synthesis of ‘non-biblical’ and ‘biblical’ historical approaches, although al-Ṭabarī’s history contains much more and varied material than Ibn Hishām’s biography, which is limited to the Prophet’s genealogy, his Abrahamic and Arab ancestors, and his life and mission.

The different frameworks and focal points of the works of Ibn Hishām and Ṭabarī affect their use of Ibn Isḥāq’s traditions. Both were writing under ʿAbbasid rule, when doctrinal struggles over predestination (jabr) versus free will (qadar) and the uncreated versus created Qur’an coincided with political ones over the rule of law versus enlightened despotism. Parallel debates were going on within Christian and Jewish communities, which implies that our historians were well aware of the doctrinal overlaps between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and that their writing of history reflects their awareness clearly.6

Ibn Hishām’s family originated in Yemen but moved to Basra. Ibn Hishām eventually settled in Egypt, where he edited Ibn Isḥāq’s Sīra. Ibn Isḥāq’s family had Christian origins. His grandfather Yasār was from ʿAyn Tamr in the kingdom of the Nestorian Banū Lakhm, and was brought to Medina with the conqueror Khālid b. al-Walīd. There the family served as transmitters of sīra and maghāzī. Ibn Isḥāq’s reports convey clear bias for the Hāshimites, even the ʿAlids, and for qadariyya. The poetry that Ibn Hishām added celebrates Yemenite culture, and both the Prophet’s mother and the Medinan Anṣār are said to hail from Yemen, while the Quraysh are said to be of ‘northern’ descent.7 In Ibn Hishām’s historical narrative, the Prophet and his tribe Quraysh descend from Abraham through Ishmael. Abraham himself established the religion of divine oneness in the Ḥijāz and Mecca, and manifested it ritually in the Hajj to the Kaʿba sanctuary. The Quraysh and all other Arab tribes would enter contracts and pledge oaths of allegiance and mutual defence and support, and the Kaʿba symbolised the divine presence and witnessing of oaths.8



The Near East and Arabia in the decades before the career of Muhammad and the rise of Islam. Contemporary scholars place great emphasis on the imperial conflict and political entanglements between Byzantium, Sasanian Persia, and their proxies as an explanatory context for the rise of Islam, but it is important to note that classical Muslim historians understood this context as well and explored it in their writings (From Peter Sluglett and Andrew Currie, Atlas of Islamic History [Routledge, 2014], 15).

Ibn Hishām sketches a highly complex context for the Ḥijāzī Quraysh: in the north-west the Byzantines and their Christian Arab vassals (Banū Ghassān); in the north-east the Persian Sasanians and their Christian Arab vassals (Banū Lakhm); the Persian-allied Jews in Ḥijāz and Yemen; the Byzantine-loyal Christians in Najrān; and in the south the king of Byzantine-loyal Axum (Ethiopia). The Prophet’s mission had to do with the Quraysh having deviated from Abrahamic divine oneness, becoming idol worshippers. He thus restored authentic Abrahamic doctrine and ritual, replacing the Quraysh’s social contract and pacts with his, which included people from all social classes, ethnicities, and religions. The mission is described as the fulfillment of a prophecy from the Gospel of John about the ‘Comforter,’ and the Abrahamic doctrine is declared identical with both the ‘law of Moses’ and the ‘laws of Jesus.’9 The latter are described as the true form of Christianity that came to Ḥijāz with an ascetic from Syria. However, true Christianity was corrupted by the Byzantine creed, as represented in Najrān and in Axum, and, according to Ibn Isḥāq’s reports, the Prophet and the Companions polemicized against it.10 The Prophet used to sit and discuss various matters with a Christian slave, to the extent that the Quraysh accused him of simply copying the slave’s Christianity. In the long section on the Companions’ migration from the Quraysh’s persecution to Axum, Ibn Hishām placed Qur’anic verses on Christology in the dialogue between ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb and the king of Axum, with ʿUmar explaining to the king that unfortunately he had deviated from the true Abrahamic doctrine by believing that Jesus is the Son of God.11 Nevertheless, later in the narrative the Prophet, in his capacity as ruler in Medina, concluded a peace contract with the Christians of Najrān. The Jews of Medina (Yathrib) were equally important. In the famous Constitution of Medina, the Jews entered a pact of mutual defence with the Prophet’s community, pledging to take part in jihad and claiming a share of booty and property rights on equal terms with ‘the faithful’ (al-muʾminūn)12 and the other Arab tribes. They also received the right to maintain their own religion. Later in the narrative, when the Prophet is at war with Jewish tribes, these are only partly the same tribes as those who entered the pact, and the conflict results from their active hostility towards the Prophet as leader, rather than over doctrine.


Regarding Ṭabarī, he staked out a middle path between jabr and qadar, but leaned towards the rule of law and an uncreated Qur’an.13 His family were ʿAbbasid vassals in Ṭabaristan, a region with surviving Sasanian families. Ṭabarī wrote the Taʾrīkh al-rusul wa’l-mulūk in Baghdad. He established the Prophet and the Qur’an in direct continuity with the royal and prophetic legacies of the region, especially the Persian imperial system of vassalage, and the Abrahamic election. The former consisted in a social contract of ‘rule of (written) law,’ and the latter in the sent-down divine writing (kitāb), which contains the political wisdom and persuasive rhetoric that ensures rule according to the social contract.14 As in Ibn Hishām’s Sīra, the Abrahamic legacy is related to the Hajj and the Kaʿba, which is where oaths are taken with God as witness.15 Also like Ibn Hishām, Tabarī constructed a complex context for the Prophet, with the Ḥijāzī Arabs interacting with the Byzantines and their Christian Arab vassals (Banū Ghassān); with the Sasanians and their Christian Arab vassals (Banū Lakhm); with Jews in Ḥijāz and Yemen; with Byzantine-loyal Christians in Najrān; and with the king of Byzantine-loyal Axum. However, Tabarī broadened the scope and gave much more information on Sasanian politics and their relationship with the Lakhmid kings. The Prophet’s mission had to do with the vassal contract between the Sasanians, the Lakhmids, and the Quraysh. Ṭabari claimed that the Prophet and his Companions supported the Christian Byzantines (Ahl al-Kitāb) over the polytheist Sasanians, who had violated their vassal contract with the Lakhmids, and that the idolatrous Quraysh (al-mushrikūn) were vassals and supporters of the Sasanians. The Prophet’s mission enabled Arab victory over the Sasanians, beginning already in his Meccan days. Notably, Ṭabarī does not mention any Constitution of Medina. The significant social contract was related to ‘rule of (written) law’, and the analysis was on the relationship between the Arabs of Mesopotamia and Ḥijāz and the Sasanians. Thus, the Prophet restored the vassalage contract to its original just form. Regarding Ibn Isḥāq’s traditions, they transmit some material on Persian history, but above all on the prophetic and ‘biblical’ legacy, and thus, like in Ibn Hishām, contribute to the construction of the Prophet as the reformer of the Abrahamic legacy.16

Although Ṭabarī and Ibn Hishām portray the Prophet’s Abrahamic doctrine as a faith related to social contract, which is communicated by God, they still conceptualized and even historicized the Prophet’s doctrine and social contract through reference to Judaism and Christianity; Ibn Hishām particularly dwells (through Ibn Isḥāq) on the significance of different Christologies. However, as al-Dūrī points out, the earliest historical material from Medina is different. Thus, just as we today have different schools and foci at play in the study of Qur’anic origins, variations in classical Islamic historiography reflect different peoples, polities, religions, localities, experiences, and interests, and the Jewish/Christian/biblical approach to the Qur’an was only one of several viable ones. I hope this highly simplified sketch shows that the different Islamic historical frames for conceptualizing the Prophet and the Qur’an yield much information that is of value for contemporary research, with which it sometimes converges.


ULRIKA MÅRTENSSON is Professor in the Archaeology and Religious Studies Department at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). She has an M.A. in Arabic and History of Religions from Stockholm University (1989), and a Ph.D. in History of Religions from Uppsala University (2001). Her research focuses on Islam in its medieval, modern and contemporary contexts, specifically the ways in which Islamic knowledge is produced – both ‘Islamic knowledge’ as produced by Muslims and ‘knowledge about Islam’ as produced by non-Muslims. She is the author of Tabari in the Makers of Islamic Civilization series (Oxford University Press and I. B. Tauris, 2009), as well as several articles in peer-reviewed journals and chapters in edited volumes.





[1] The model studies being Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism (Cambridge University Press, 1977); John Wansbrough, Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 1977; new ed. with translations and expanded notes by Andrew Rippin, Prometheus Books, 2004); and ibid., The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (Oxford University Press, 1978; new ed. with translations and expanded notes by Gerald Hawting, Prometheus Books, 2006). A contemporary follower of Crone and Cook’s approach is Stephen Shoemaker, The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[2] Fred Donner, “The Historian, the Believer, and the Qurʾān,” in Gabriel Said Reynolds (ed.), New Perspectives on the Qurʾān (Routledge, 2011), 25–37, 26.

[3] For the historians’ different concepts of history, see above all Franz Rosenthal, A History of Muslim Historiography, 2nd ed. (Brill, 1968); ʿAbd al-ʿAziz al-Dūrī, The Rise of Historical Writing Among the Arabs, ed. and trans. Lawrence I. Conrad (Princeton University Press, 1983); and Tarif Khalidi, Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period (Cambridge University Press, 1994). See also my “History, Linguistics and Manuscript Research: A Discipline-based Approach to Ibn Hisham and al-Tabari on Islamic Origins and the Qur’an”, in the proceedings from the Early Islamic Studies Seminar, 4th Nangeroni Meeting, June 15-19, 2015: Guillaume Dye (ed.), Early Islam: The Sectarian Milieu of Late Antiquity? (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

[4] Already Julius Wellhausen distinguished between early and more factual reports from Medina, such as those from al-Wāqidī, and the more legendary and embellishing ones transmitted by Sayf b. ʿUmar; see Prolegomena zur ältesten Geschichte des Islams, in Skizzen und Vorarbeiten, vol. 6 (Reimer, 1899). Al-Dūrī focuses on the development of the different traditions, highlighting the biblical materials in the ‘Iraqi school.’

[5] Al-Dūrī, Historical Writing, 33–37; cf. Alfred Guillaume, “Introduction,” The Life of Muhammad (Oxford University Press, 1995 [1955]), xxx.

[6] John Wansbrough, The Sectarian Milieu; Benjamin Jokisch, Islamic Imperial Law (Walter de Gruyter, 2007).

[7] Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, xiii, xxiv, xxvii, xxxiv; al-Dūrī, Historical Writing, 36. See also Sarah Savant on the historicization of Salmān al-Fārisī in the Sīra in The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran: Tradition, Memory and Conversion (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 62–66.

[8] On oaths, contracts, and their religious symbolism in pre-Islamic Arabic contexts, see Andrew Marsham, Rituals of Islamic Monarchy: Accession and Succession in the First Islamic Empire (Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 24–39.

[9] In a forthcoming article, which builds on and develops a conference paper about Ibn Isḥāq presented at the 2013 SOAS Qur’an conference, I explore Ibn Hishām’s reference to the ‘laws of Jesus’ compared with Holger Zellentin’s thesis of possible qur’anic engagement with ‘Jacobite’ law in The Qurʾān’s Legal Culture: the Didascalia Apostolorum as Point of Departure (Mohr Siebeck, 2013).

[10] According to Manfred Kropp, Ethiopia and adjacent Arabia were Christianized by a Lebanese man, and subsequent missionaries came from Syria-Palestine, all of which constitutes al-shām; “Beyond single words: Māʾida – Shayṭān – jibt and āghūt. Mechanisms of transmission into the Ethiopic (Ge’ez) Bible and the Qur’anic text,” in Gabriel Said Reynolds (ed.), The Qurʾān in Its Historical Context (Routledge, 2008), 204–216.

[11] The verses are mainly from Q.3, 5 and 19. This converges interestingly with Kropp’s observation that the title word for Q.5, al-māʾida, is attested in Ethiopian Christian vocabulary, including a fourth century homily which thematically echoes Q.5:111–115.

[12] On faith (īmān) as the dispensation to keep the social contract, see Ulrika Mårtensson, “‘The Persuasive Proof’: A Study of Aristotle’s politics and rhetoric in the Qurʾān and al-Ṭabarī’s Commentary,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 34 (2008) 363–420.

[13] Ulrika Mårtensson, “Al-Ṭabarī’s Concept of the Qur’an: A Systemic Analysis,” forthcoming, Journal of Qur’anic Studies (2016).

[14] Mårtensson, “Al-Ṭabarī’s Concept of the Qur’an”; “History, Linguistics and Manuscript Research”.

[15] Mårtensson, “Discourse and Historical Analysis: The Case of al-Ṭabarī’s History of the Messengers and the Kings,” Journal of Islamic Studies 16 (2005), 287–331; Tabari (Oxford University Press and I. B. Tauris, 2009); “Al-Ṭabarī’s Concept of the Qur’an”; “‘It’s the Economy, Stupid!’ Al-Ṭabarī’s Analysis of the Free Rider Problem in the ʿAbbasid Caliphate,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 54 (2011), 203–238.

[16] Mårtensson, “Ibn Ishaq’s and al-Tabari’s Historical Contexts for the Qur’an: Implications for Contemporary Research”, forthcoming in Sebastian Günther (ed.), Knowledge and Education in Classical Islam (Leiden, Brill, 2016).