Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam

Publication Year



Fred McGraw Donner, B.A. 1968, Ph.D. 1975.

The origins of Islam have been the subject of increasing controversy in recent years. The traditional view, which presents Islam as a self-consciously distinct religion tied to the life and revelations of the prophet Muhammad in western Arabia, has since the 1970s been challenged by historians engaged in critical study of the Muslim sources.

In Muhammad and the Believers, the eminent historian Fred Donner offers a lucid and original vision of how Islam first evolved. He argues that the origins of Islam lie in what we may call the “Believers’ movement” begun by the prophet Muhammad—a movement of religious reform emphasizing strict monotheism and righteous behavior in conformity with God’s revealed law. The Believers’ movement thus included righteous Christians and Jews in its early years, because like the Qur’anic Believers, Christians and Jews were monotheists and agreed to live righteously in obedience to their revealed law. The conviction that Muslims constituted a separate religious community, utterly distinct from Christians and Jews, emerged a century later, when the leaders of the Believers’ movement decided that only those who saw the Qur’an as the final revelation of the One God and Muhammad as the final prophet, qualified as Believers. This separated them decisively from monotheists who adhered to the Gospels or Torah.

Table of Contents

  • List of Maps*
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • A Note on Conventions
  • 1. The Near East on the Eve of Islam
    • The Empires of the Late Antique Near East
    • Arabia between the Great Powers
    • Mecca and Yathrib (Medina)
  • 2. Muhammad and the Believers’ Movement
    • The Traditional Biography of Muhammad the Prophet
    • The Problem of Sources
    • The Character of the Early Believers’ Movement
  • 3. The Expansion of the Community of Believers
    • Sources
    • The Community in the Last Years of Muhammad’s Life
    • Succession to Muhammad and the Ridda Wars
    • The Character of the Believers’ Early Expansion
    • The Course and Scope of the Early Expansion
    • Consolidation and Institutions of the Early Expansion Era
  • 4. The Struggle for Leadership of the Community, 34–73/655–692
    • Background of the First Civil War
    • The Course of the First Civil War (35–40/656–661)
    • Between Civil Wars (40–60/661–680)
    • The Second Civil War (60–73/680–692)
    • Reflections on the Civil Wars
  • 5. The Emergence of Islam
    • The Umayyad Restoration and Return to the Imperial Agenda
    • The Redefinition of Key Terms
    • Emphasis on Muhammad and the Qur’an
    • The Problem of the Trinity
    • Elaboration of Islamic Cultic Practices
    • Elaboration of the Islamic Origins Story
    • The Coalescence of an “Arab” Political Identity
    • Official vs. Popular Change
  • Appendix A: The umma Document
  • Appendix B: Inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
  • Notes and Guide to Further Reading
  • Glossary
  • Illustration Credits
  • Index


“A learned and brilliantly original, yet concise and accessible study of Islam’s formative first century… Donner’s explanation of the process by which Muslims came to define themselves is both fascinating and enlightening.”—Max Rodenbeck, The New York Times

“Provocative and accessible… Donner’s vision of an ‘ecumenical Islam’ is thought-provoking… Donner’s overarching thesis in Muhammad and the Believers is convincing. It sheds light on a world far more fluid and confused than the one we have come to expect from the usual storyline.”—Christian C. Sahner, The Times Literary Supplement

Donner is to be commended for posing questions that many mainstream scholars have chosen to leave aside.”—Malise Ruthven, The New York Review of Books

“It is an excellent introduction to how and why the faith was born, and explains its proliferation in the Middle East and beyond… Donner uses the original text of the Qur’an and other source materials dating from the same period to piece together the history of the faith. What quickly becomes clear is that Islam, and what it means to be a ‘Muslim,’ have both changed dramatically since the early days… Muhammad and the Believers is full…of intriguing questions and challenges readers to reconsider what they think they know about Islam… [It’s] a rewarding read.”—Dan Sampson,

“In Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of IslamDonner takes a fresh look at the heart and soul of Islamic history.”—Joseph Richard Preville, The Saudi Gazette

Donner is one of the leading scholars of early Islam in the world. No other book I know of distills the often highly arcane and dispersed stuff of scholarship on the first century of Islamic history into such an accessible narrative account that, in addition, offers a compelling new interpretation on the formation of Islamic confessional identity. A tremendous achievement.”—Ahmet Karamustafa, Washington University in St. Louis

“This is an invaluable book. Not only does it provide a sane and lucid guide to the origins of Islam, a topic that is currently more mired in controversy than any other in the entire field of ancient history, but it is also a stimulating and original work of scholarship in its own right.”—Tom Holland, author of Millennium

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Cambridge, MA
ISSN Number
Cloth: 9780674050976; paper: 9780674064140; ebook: 9780674056268