Sociopolitical and Historical Framework

A reconstruction of the social and political context within which the Koran originated is fraught with difficulties. Early Islam is a controversial subject within which there is little academic consensus. Thanks to the innumerable hadith (traditions) regarding the life and times of the Prophet, there is much information, but it is opaque in the extreme. The first Islamic history was transmitted orally, according to the tribal tradition, and it was not until the second half of the eighth century, as the Islamic regime matured and settled into the Near East over one hundred years after the death of the prophet, that these oral narratives, or hadith, were committed to paper. Moreover, it was not till the late ninth and tenth centuries that a definitive version (or versions) of the history of the early years was crystalised. The Islamic sources, as we find them today, date from this period of "classical" Islamic historiography and later, and represent a selection, compilation, editing and reworking of earlier narratives.

One of our most important sources regarding the sociopolitical and historical framework of the Koran is Ibn Ishaq's biography of Muhammad. This was composed in the second half of the eighth century (and was itself based on earlier traditions) however, the original version has since been lost, and the form in which it is today is an abridged version by the scholar Ibn Hisham. In his introduction to the work, Ibn Hisham admits that he has omitted parts of Ibn Ishaq's work, which he considers to be superfluous, irrelevant, distasteful or untrustworthy. Such authorial explanation is in fact rare, most compilers of the historical traditions felt under no obligation to indicate their omissions. Indeed, the compilers apparently had complete freedom of wording in reproducing their source. To further confuse the modern observer, in general no effort was made to construct a connected narrative; there are often several reports on one topic, which may even be contradictory, and there is little authorial intervention to clarify matters. Many modern western historians have taken the ultra- sceptical view that these sources have very little to do with the seventh century Arabian reality. Instead, they see the sources as the product of two centuries of violent ideological conflict during which so much spurious material was generated, which had been repeatedly collected and reinterpreted for different motives, such that no accurate record of the past could survive.

However, this approach is rejected by many who believe that although rigorous assessment is imperative, a 'kernel of truth' can be found within the sources, and a tentative reconstruction of 7th Century Arabia attempted. Pre-Islamic Arabia hosted an essentially egalitarian and anarchic tribal society. The desert lacked the resources to support an intricate civilisation, and the statecraft of bureaucracies, aristocracies, cities and priesthoods that inevitably accompany settled and developed societies. The nomads within this society lived a very isolated and mobile existence, which contributed to the general homogeneity of Arabia; the Arabs of the North and South were a single ethnic people, with one language and one culture. As would be demonstrated by Muhammad, this stateless, tribal society held great potential for political and ideological creativity. Moreover, the highly mobile and warlike tribes were to prove a very effective resource of military strength, which facilitated the Arab expansion under the banner of Islam. The Arab religion prior to Islam was a simple form of polytheism, with no developed mythology or structure within society. It was very old and very stable. Monotheism was not unknown in the peninsula; there were Jewish and Christian communities both bordering Arabia and living within it. Moreover, the Fifth century Greek historian Sozomenus records the existence of Arabian tribes who believed themselves to be the heirs of Ishmael and of the pure monotheist "religion of Abraham".

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