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Review of K&A's research

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 19, 2009 4:01 pm    Post subject: Review of K&A's research Reply with quote

Besides scholars like H.-C. Graf von Bothmer, engaged in examining manuscripts of the Koran that predate its textual standardization, and scholars like Christoph Luxenberg, engaged in etymological exegesis of its text, there is now a swelling cohort of scholars distinct in academic method and result but similar in practical public effect who are radically skeptical of the Koran, the hadith, Ibn Ishaqs biography of the Prophet, and nearly all other Arabic-language documents, as sources of information about the origins of Islam. Since the 1970s, the growing doubt about the provenance of Arabic sources engendered by such revisionists as John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, and Patricia Crone, has stimulated new interest in virtually any non-Arabic source of less uncertain provenance that might shed light, however feebly, on the subject. Since all extant Arabic sources were put into their present form long after the events they describe, others must be found that were not. Initially, attention focused chiefly on Greek, Armenian, or non-Arabic Semitic-language sources of an ostensibly secular character, such as the Armenian-language History of Bishop Sebeos. More recently, Luxenberg famously has suggested that some apparently early Meccan-period Koranic verses may refer to Aramaic-language Christian religious documents. However, in recent years, hitherto neglected Jewish religious documents also have been studied, with varying degrees of critical scrutiny, as sources of historical information about the origin of Islam and closely related events.

These Hebrew-language religious texts consist of: (1) several piyyutim, or liturgical poems, that refer to the conquest and occupation of Byzantine Palestine both by the Sasanian Persians during 614 to 629 CE and by the Arabs (or, in revisionist parlance, the Hagarenes) in the 630s; and (2) a pseudepigraphic messianic apocalypse, the Book of Zerubbabel (Sefer Zerubbavel, not to be confused with the first six chapters of the biblical Book of Ezra, also known by the same name). Both texts couch descriptions of contemporary events in ostensibly ancient settings. Both texts are generally thought to date from the period between 614 and 636 CE, and, in so far as they may be comprehensible and credible, to shed light on the formation and fate of alliances forged by Jewish entities with first the Persians and then the Arabs against the Byzantines, in the hope of rebuilding the Temple and reestablishing a homeland and polity in Judea. That aspiration may even have been realized briefly after 614 CE.

The Persian conquest and occupation of Syria (609-629 CE), Palestine (614-629 CE) and Egypt (617?-629 CE) may be closely related to the prophetic career of Muhammad, traditionally dated from 610 to 632 CE, for several reasons. First, Meccas economy depended on overland trade with the Mediterranean basin via the Levant, and Muhammads clan and Muhammad personally are said by Arabic sources to have engaged in that trade. Muhammad is said by traditional Arabic sources to have participated in annual Meccan trading caravans to the Levant until, around 610, he retired from trade and began to receive revelations, about, inter alia, the need for Meccans to share their wealth more freely and focus more on God and the afterlife. One Arabic tradition states that Muhammad was born within sight of Damascus, presumably during such a caravan journey. A chapter of the Koran, Surat ar-Rum (The Romans) is held by the preponderance of traditional exegesis to express the distress of the Prophet and his community at the Persian conquests of the Byzantine Levant during the 610's CE. Second, Palestine is the goal toward which the military expansion of the Islamic state first and chiefly was directed after its unification of Arabia around 630 CE. Third, Jerusalem is indicated by the Arabic sources to have had religious significance for Muhammad, for reasons involving but not fully determined by Jewish tradition and Jews in the political community led by the Prophet after his migration (hijra) to Medina in 622 CE. Fourth, some revisionist scholars have suggested that the Hagarene (proto-Islamic) community may have originated, not as an Arab-led undertaking in Mecca and Medina, but as a joint Arab-Jewish venture centered much closer to Palestine.

The Persian conquest of the Levant affected and may still be of interest to the Christian West in part because it reportedly involved the slaughter or forced relocation to Persia of the Christian population of Jerusalem, the destruction of most Christian shrines in Jerusalem, the removal to Persia of the True Cross, and, by some accounts, the burning of the Library of Alexandria. It was part of a war of nearly 30 years continuous duration, and of 300 years intermittent duration, between Christian Rome and Zoroastrian Persia, in which Jews, generally siding with the latter, both suffered and inflicted great violence. The subsequent Arab conquest of the region appears to have been less bloody, perhaps partly because Greco-Roman elites may not fully have reoccupied or reasserted control over it after its negotiated evacuation by Persia in 629-30 CE.

The relevant piyyutim have been translated and explicated by Hagith Sivan, in From Byzantine to Persian Jerusalem: Jewish perspectives and Jewish/Christian polemics Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 41 (2000), 277-306. The Sefer Zerubbavel, of which three different manuscripts are extant, was first printed in Istanbul in 1519; no critical edition exists, but see: "Apocalypse of Zerubbabel: Sefer Zerubbabel," ed. S.A. Wertheimer, in Batei Midrashot, new ed. (Jerusalem, 1953), 497ff; Alexander Marx, Studies in Gaonic History and Literature, Jewish Quarterly Review n.s. 1 (1910-11): 61-104, esp. 75-78, and Marx, Additions et rectifications, Revue des tudes Juives 71 (1920): 222. No printed English translation is known to exist, although one is contemplated by the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha project at St. Andrews University, Scotland. However, an English translation of the Book of Zerubbabel has been posted online by Johh C. Reeves, Prof. of Judaic Studies at the University of North Carolina, at

A French translation has been made available by Israel Levi, in "L'Apocalypse de Zorababe et le roi de Perse Siroes," Revue des tudes Juives 68 (1914) 129-160, 69 (1919) 108-128, 71 (1920) 57-65. Both the relevant piyyutim and the Book of Zerubbabel have been exploited as sources for secular history by Wout Jacob van Bekkum, Jewish messianic expectations in the age of Heraclius, in Gerrit J. Reinink & Bernard H. Stolte, eds., The Reign of Heraclius (610-641). Crisis and Confrontation. Groningen Studies in Cultural Change, 2 (Leuven: Peeters, 2002), 95-112.

Salo Baron, in chapter XVI of his Social and Religious History of the Jews (27 vols.: 2d ed. New York: Columbia U.P., 195283; selections online at here ), opined: "The only Jewish source which seems to shed some light on the events during that final armed uprising of Palestinian Jewry against their Roman masters, the apocalyptic Book of Zerubbabel, by its very nature ... is too vague and obscure to enable us to reconstruct any significant details. Nevertheless, Rabbi Joseph Katz and Ben Abrahamson, in an undated but apparently recent online essay entitled The Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614CE compared with Islamic conquest of 638CE: Its Messianic nature and the role of the Jewish Exilarch (at here), and summarized under the title, The Prophet Mohammed, a Jewish pseudo-Messiah (at here ), boldly weave chiefly from the Book of Zerubbabel and Sebeos History a tale highly consistent with the interpretations of Cook and Crone, albeit even more revisionist.

The abstract posted by Katz and Abrahamson (K&A) reads: "Explores the conquests of Jerusalem in 614CE and 638CE within the context of previous attempts at Jewish restoration. Discusses reasons for a Persian-Jewish alliance and later a Judeo-Arab alliance. In an attempt to reconcile contemporary sources, an account is given of Babylonian Jewish Exilarch Nechemiah ben Hushiel, his brother Shallum (Salmaan Farsi) and nephew Yakov (Ka'b Al-Ahbar) who played pivotal roles in these conquests. Proposes that the twelve men who went to Mecca [from Medina] to meet with the Prophet [in 622 CE, to invite him to migrate] were Jewish refugees from Edessa, by way of Medina. Suggesting that the authors of Sefer Zerubavel and of the Prayer of Shimon bar Yochai were Jews from Medina." The "Prayer of Shimon bar Yochai" is a distinct Hebrew pseudepigraphic document, ostensibly ascribed to the 2nd-century CE rabbi to whom also is traditionally ascribed the Zohar, the masterwork of Kabbalist lore, and whose prayer is said in Hassidic lore to be the third of the four great Holy Sparks gathered by the Baal Shem Tov. In the K&A narrative, Arabia in the early 7th century CE is heavily settled with Jewish refugees from Rome, and Jewish sectarian divisions, e.g., between Sadducees, Rabbinicals, Cohens (priests) and Zealots, contribute materially to the divisions within Muhammads community described by traditional Arabic sources.

In some important particulars, the story told by K&A based on their reading of the Book of Zerubbabel is difficult to reconcile with the consensus of scholarship based on other sources. For example, K&A suggest that, between 619 and 622, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius reconquered Palestine, slaughtering and failing to bury a regiment of Jewish soldiers outside a gate of Jerusalem in the process; thence Heraclius marched his army via Edessa to assault Persia through Armenia. The slaughter of these Jews at Jerusalem is said by K&A to have grieved Muhammad, and to have been the occasion of his Night Journey to Jerusalem. However, secondary literature based on other sources, e.g., A. N. Stratos, Byzantium in the Seventh Century (vol. 1: Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1968); and Walter E. Kaegi, Heraclius Emperor of Byzantium. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2003), is not known to describe any Byzantine armies in the Levant between 619 and 629 CE. Also, instead of K&As account, based on the Book of Zerubabbel, of a Byzantine slaughter of Jews outside a gate of Jerusalem around 621 CE, Byzantine Christian sources describe a Jewish slaughter of Christians outside a gate of Jerusalem in 614 CE; see B. M. Wheeler, "Imagining the Sasanian Capture of Jerusalem: The 'Prophecy and Dream of Zerubbabel' and Antiochus Strategos' 'Capture of Jerusalem,'" Orientalia Christiana Periodica 57 (1991): 70ff.

To what extent the inferences made by K&A from the Book of Zerubbabel may withstand scrutiny by scholars more inclined to skepticism of source documents remains to be seen. To date, it seems to have attracted little academic attention. However, it seems likely that, absent the revisionist discreditation of traditional Arabic sources, we might never have had an opportunity to read an account of Muhammad as a Jewish pseudo-messiah based chiefly on a pseudepigraphic Hebrew apocalypse -- which, if written in its extant form at the time of the events described rather than much later, may, by revisionist standards, be more credible.

On the more practical level, K&A suggest that their work implies that Jews and Muslims should be friends. One may question whether Muslim readers are likely to receive it in that spirit.

If any reader is sufficiently acquainted with the Sefer Zerubbavel and other pertinent Jewish literature of the era to offer an evaluation of K&As inferences from the text, that could be interesting.

Burke's perspective on innovation in political institutions seems to me applicable to historical revisionism with respect to the core of a revealed religion: reason can be rightly used to adapt and improve tradition, but abruptly to reject all tradition is to open Pandora's box.

Western revisionist scholarship that bases its understanding of the origins of Islam on a dismissal of all traditional Arabic sources, including the Koran, may facilitate the secularization of Islamic society advocated by Ibn Warraq, but can hardly lead to any reform of Islam. Insofar as any Western scholarship were to base its understanding of the origins of Islam on Jewish religious texts of proto-Zionist character, the prospects of all Western scholarship for advancing reform of Islam might be substantially reduced. It is chiefly with that in mind that I have ventured to call attention to the work of K&A.

Admittedly, the provenance of the Arabic sources is questionable: Arabs justifying their empire by reference to religion, and quarrelling among themselves over the spoils, had powerful incentives to manipulate the religious tradition before the sources took their extant forms, and there is abundant evidence that they did so. However, extant early 7th-century Greek and Armenian sources appear to have known little of Arabs and to have interpreted developments in early 7th-century Arabia by reference to their own traditions and understandings. Sources that are contemporary with the events they describe, but are flawed by limitations of perspective and of physical and cultural distance, are not necessarily any better, and may be worse, than sources that date, in their extant form, from centuries after the event, as the work of Schliemann at Troy and Evans at Knossos so powerfully has shown. Non-Arabic Semitic-language sources may be less culturally and physically distant from Islams secular origins than the Greek or Armenian sources, and, if contemporary, are potentially informative; however, the value of a messianic Hebrew apocalypse is difficult to assess, inasmuch as the extent to which its perspective differs from that of the first Muslims is one of the matters to be investigated.

Although K&A have not written for an academic audience, K&A's work suggests to me that Wansbrough-school revisionists might increasingly make use of Hebrew religious sources like the Book of Zerubbabel and relevant piyyutim to fill the void created by their wholesale rejection of Arabic sources in studying the origins of Islam. Scholars seem to agree that such Hebrew religious sources are coded accounts of contemporary events, masked as ancient prophecies and assigning false names to contemporary actors. Since the sources are contemporary to the events and their authors may have been neither culturally nor physically distant from Arabia, success in breaking those codes would leave only the question of the difference in perspective between source and subject as an impediment to their use by revisionists as principal rather than supplemental sources of information about the origins of Islam. Academic readers of K&A may doubt that K&A have "broken the code" ofSefer Zerubbavel, but nevertheless be inspired to emulate the attempt.


Posted - 03/14/2006

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 01, 2009 10:01 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

K&A's work is not at all revisionist, it is actually fundamentalist.
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