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Early Islam: Collected Articles
Book Review
Noureen Ismail Mervani

Book Name:           Early Islam: Collected Articles

Compiler & Editor:  William Montgomery Watt

Publisher:              Edinburgh University Press

Year:                    1990


The book Early Islam is a collection of articles that basically revolve around the major issues in Islam, such as the Prophet Muhammad (sws), the Qur’an and the division of Islam into various sects and their histories. Montgomery Watt, in this book brings forward many ideas and views of various Muslim historians on the above mentioned issues and concludes each article with his own view and comment on the topic under discussion. In a few articles, he defends the Islamic view on subjects such as authenticity of the sirah material and the reliability of the material used to frame the biography of the Prophet (sws) – at other places he raises important issues that question the long held concepts and traditions reverenced in Islam.

The book is divided into two parts, with the first part dealing mainly with the issues concerning the Qur’an and Muhammad (sws) that have been raised by the Orientalist world. The second part deals with Islamic thoughts on various issues –  such as questions relating to God, Islamic sects and the concept and history of caliphates – and the relations (that is agreement and differences in thoughts) between the Muslims and the Christians. Being famously known as one of the “Last Orientalist”1 and his interest in the study of religion, William Montgomery Watt has successfully managed to highlight the Modern Orientalist point of view on Islam and has derived some important conclusions where the above issues are concerned.

Following is a brief summary of the articles which comprise the book.

Condemnation of the Jews of Banu Qurayzah: A Study of the Sources of the Sirah

This article is a response to the statement made by Caetani about the responsibility for the slaughter of the men of Banu Qurayzah falling on the Prophet (sws). To refute this statement and also using this as an example, Watt has introduced the concept of isnad, that is, use of a complete chain of authority to verify a certain tradition. Since the earliest authorities might have ignored mentioning the sources, Montgomery introduces a concept of “hypothetical reconstruction” which bases the earlier links in the chain on what the scholars believed would have been true (justified in most of the case), as opposed to what Dr. Joseph Schacht believes, which is that the constructions are just inventions. Watt then uses the distinction between scientific and informal transmissions to highlight the possibility of fabrication in the traditions and to separate historical facts from legal doctrines. He then concludes the article by defending the Islamic stance on sirah, by saying that scholars must realize what the core argument is, before raising questions on the biography of the Prophet (sws).

The Reliability of Ibn Ishaq’s Sources

This article starts by pointing out the weakness in the Western view of the collection of sirah by Ibn Ishaq, which are that the origin of the chronology are unknown and secondly that the Western Scholars have failed to distinguish between sirah and hadith. The author also disagrees with the Western view of the Qur’an being the only source for the biography of the Prophet. Watt then goes on to analyze the sources (materials) used by Ibn Ishaq in writing the biography. First and foremost is the use of sirah, which cannot be derived from the Qur’an, as opposed to what most Western scholars believed. Use of the methodology of interlocking items in history, along with the documented material such as the constitution of Madinah, have been used to support that aspect of the biography which deals with Arab genealogies and the pre-Islamic events. When the Qur’an has been used by Ibn Ishaq, a distinction has been on the type of elaboration used, that is whether it is a detailed version by the Biblical preachers or is related to the use of occasion of revelation or Hadith of the Prophet (sws) relating to the interpretation and elaborations in Qur’an. Apart from supporting the sources used by Ibn Ishaq, Watt concludes the article by raising a few criticisms on the work of Ibn Ishaq, but restating the fact that the mentioned biography is acceptable on the grounds that the methods used are reliable and justified.

The Dating of the Qur’an: A Review of Richard Bell’s Theory

The dating of the Qur’an is summarized by Richard Bell in three basic principles. Firstly, he believes that the units of revelation were shorter in nature, that is, the long passages found in the Qur’an are made up of these shorter passages which can be further divided into three major types – sign passages, punishment passages and slogan passages2. The second principle (which is quite disputable) states that when the Prophet (sws) combined the shorter passages, he made some revisions for the general good of the Muslim community; to support this principle, Bell describes a few formal ways to recognize the revisions. Lastly, the third major principle that is a key factor in the dating of the Qur’an is the discovery of a few inscribed passages of the Qur’an in the form of written material. Watt, after giving a brief introduction, critically analyzes the three principles and raises questions such as the length and the basis on which the longer passages are divided into shorter ones, reasons and occasions of revisions and the degree of certainty in all three cases.

Conversion in Islam at the Time of the Prophet (sws)

The study of the earlier passages of the Qur’an helps understand the concept of conversion. Initially, there was no concept of strict conversion; the only concept that was highlighted was how the person responded to the message of God that was revealed to the Prophet (sws). This has been supported in the article by stating that it was not before the second year after hijra that the followers of the Prophet (sws) formed a separate identity and thus the terms “Islam” and “Muslim” came into use3. Thus the idea of conversion cannot be generalized. The only other fact remaining to be considered is that in early times the theory of conversion relied more on the external appearance of the person as compared to what his inner-self believed. This then leads us to the issue of hypocrites as seen in the early times, and it is then that the concept of conversion is defined as seen today – that is a change of the inner beliefs of the person.

The Camel and the Needle’s Eye  

The famous parable of the camel passing through a needle’s eye can be found in both, the Qur’an and the Gospel. Interestingly scholars from both the traditions are caught in the interpretation of the word “camel”. The two interpretations put forward by them are that of a reference to either an animal or a rope. Those who hold the first of these opinions concentrate on the metaphorical meaning of the use of the term animal to show the greatness of God. On the other hand, those who believe in the second interpretation, concentrate on the fact that rope and needle go together. Watt ends this article by highlighting the occurrence of the similar interpretation in the two religions, and briefly associates it to similar linguistic origin of the root word kamelos.

God’s Caliph, Qur’anic Interpretations and Umayyid Claims

The word khalifah has been interpreted in various ways which has led to many complications, one of them being its association to being a God’s deputy. This particular interpretation is said to be used by the Umayyid Caliphs to strengthen their hold on the Muslim world but Watt denies this on the basis of historical analysis which proves that the Umayyid claim to the caliphate relied more on the Arab culture of blood-revenge. Ibn Ishaq is of the view that the word refers to “the one who settles or inhabits”; Zamakhshari and Tabari slightly alter the previous given definition of the word khalifah to state that it was used for “Adam as a successor to the angels.” With reference to the term being associated with the title for Abu Bakr, many scholars believe that it has no relation to the usage in the Qur’an; khalifah in this case meant “successor to the Messenger of God”.

Christianity criticized in the Qur’an

The enmity between the Muslims and the Christians is believed to have started after the conquest of Makkah when Muslims started expanding their empire and were met with Christian opposition. The start of the hostility gave rise to criticisms – many of which were actually directed to the heretic Christians rather than the Orthodox Christians. One of the major criticisms that have been raised is that Christians believe in three Gods – a concept that is mistakenly associated with the Orthodox Church which officially claims to believe in one God only. Secondly, the Qur’an talks of the “Virgin Birth” as a miracle, but in recent times it is being said that if scientifically birth from a virgin is impossible then does this disprove the divinity of Jesus (sws)? This general argument has been wrongly associated with the Qur’an; thus once again the Qur’an is said to be criticizing Christians when in reality it is just a matter of interpretation.4

Two Interesting Christian-Arab Usages   

The article’s basic emphasis is that there was a specific linguistic tradition found in the Christian-Arab period, which is believed to have influenced the language of the Qur’an. The argument is supported by giving the example of the word rijs as used and interpreted in the Qur’an. One interpretation of the word is with reference to the filth of the devil; several others interpret it as a form of anger or wrath or a severe punishment from God. In these different interpretations, a slight transformation from the pre-Islamic meaning is seen, from an internal feeling of anger to an outward expression of anger. This specific interpretation is often related to the meaning of the word as seen before the times of Muhammad (sws) and the meaning is often said to be formed under Christian influence.  

Early Development of the Muslim Attitude to the Bible

When looking at the development of the Muslim attitude to the Bible, first consideration is given to what is actually stated in the Qur’an. According to Watt, the Qur’an states four major points: (1) there have been previous revelations, (2) the arrival of Muhammad (sws) was foretold in the Bible, (3) Jews have hidden some of the revelations from their book, and (4) Jews have also been accused of falsifying their revelations. Watt then divides the article in various parts: the first deals with the fact that the Muslims were using the falsification and hiding of certain verses to strengthen their belief that Muhammad (sws) was the last Prophet. The second phase is marked by strong hatred for the people of the other Books, and this is the phase where great intellectual activity started and there was a closer contact between the two schools of intellectuals. The last phase of the development, as put forward by Watt, is when the discussions between Muslims and the people of the other Books stopped due to the beliefs being contradictory in nature.

Some Muslim Discussions of Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behaviour to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena.5 This section deals with the thoughts of different schools on the attributes on God and their association with the physical attributes found in men. The initial step of bringing light to this aspect of academics can be attributed to the doctrine of balkafiyya which emphasizes on the use of pictures to understand religious concepts such as God. Later schools of thought such as the Mu‘tazalites and the Ash‘arites brought about slight changes in the association, that is, they said that the physical attributes such as God has hands and eyes, does not mean that He has these characteristics physically, but is a metaphorical use to emphasize the power and qualities of God. The article then explains the evolution of the basic doctrine with time and with the formation of a new school of thought that is in reality an offshoot of the original Ash‘arite­ school of thought.

Created in His Image: A Study in Islamic Theology

This piece of writing focuses on the differences in the school of Muslim thought who believe in the “absolute otherness of God” and those who believe that there is an “affinity between God and man.” The basic line of argument was a statement given by a Muslim from a Jewish background who said that “God created Adam in his image.” There are four stages found in the interpretation of the above statement by the Traditionalists, many of whom believed that the use of the word “his” referred to Adam and not God; there is only one group of Traditionalists who believe the contrary, that is, “his” referred to God and not Adam. Watt, towards the end of the article, presents various arguments for and against the views mentioned above, and also raises the question of anthropomorphism in relation to the above stated interpretations of the statement of the relation between God and man.

The Logical Basis of early Kalam

This article details with ways and approaches to understand the concept of knowledge, its relation with reality and the function of the knower in the way that he perceives the acquired knowledge. Many definitions can be found of the term knowledge. Furthermore, the article explains the various forms of sensible knowledge as compared to reflective knowledge (there are four kinds of reflective knowledge – use of analogy and reasoning, experience (tajariba) and customs (adab), revelation (sharah) and inspiration (ilham))6; wide transmission (tawatur) as opposed to individual transmission (ahad) and far-spread (mustafid).7 The article then ends with a small section on the theory of legal knowledge which depends on the Qur’an, the Sunnah, the Consensus and the Analogy.

The Origin of the Islamic Doctrine of Acquisition

The basic idea of this article is that “it is God who ‘creates’ the acts of man, whereas man merely ‘acquires’ them.” The Jahmite view is that it is in fact God who does all the actions. Dirar, on the other hand, believes that “man has his own share in human acts.” Hisham Ibn Hakam believes that acts are created by God but adds a few conditions such as cause, conscious willing and the soundness of the act to create links between what a person does and what God wants him to do. Shahham brings in concepts that highlight the actions directed by God as some external power and associates man with a mind and a conscious, and thus distinguishes between the voluntary and the involuntary acts of the humans. al-Najjar and Muhammad Ibn ‘I%sa are of the view that humans have been given the power to acquire (kasb) but they cannot create (khalq). This is further explained by stating that the just like faith, God cannot create a person’s need for acquisition; this is something that the person has to do himself. Later scholars built up on the above views, sometimes by combining two or more schools of thought together; other times by expanding and elaborating on one chief belief only. 8





1. Alastair McIntosh, and Bashir Maan, An Interview with the “Last Orientalist” – The Rev Prof William Montgomery Watt, The article states that Professor Watt is known as the “Last Orientalist” among the Muslim press and as “most reverential” among the Muslim Scholars.  

2. Sign passages are those that were used by Muhammad (sws) to create an image in the minds of his people. Punishment passages refer to those that were used to induce fear in people so that they accepted the message. Slogan passages refer to those that the Prophet (sws) used as means of positive propaganda to spread the new ideas in the earliest time. (William Montgomery Watt, Early Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 26.)

3. The term used earlier to refer to the believers of the message was mu’minun and that for the new practices was tazakka. (William Montgomery Watt, Early Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 35.)

4. The same applies to the event of crucifixion. (William Montgomery Watt, Early Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 69-70.)


6. Sensible knowledge here refers to the functions of the five basic human senses; Reflective knowledge refers to reflection of reality in gaining knowledge. (William Montgomery Watt, Early Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 106-107, 111.)

7. Wide transmission refers to a tradition whose chances of getting fabricated are minimum since a whole generation is following the same thing; individual transmission refers to the concept of isnad; far-spread is when the initial narrators are few but later on the chain becomes wide. (William Montgomery Watt, Early Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 109-110.)

8. The details of the history of each view can be found in detail in the article presented in: William Montgomery Watt, Early Islam, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 117-128.

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