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Before the Qur’an: Texts, monuments, perceptions

The pre-Islamic (Nabatean) site of Mada’in Salih, north-west Saudi Arabia
The pre-Islamic (Nabatean) site of Mada’in Salih, north-west Saudi Arabia
We approach the Qur’ān at the moment of its first conception and then dissemination, as a collection of revealed poetic texts arising in a late antique and primarily Arabian socio-historical context. Yet Arabia figures hardly at all in conventional accounts of late Antiquity. What is the evidence that permits us to enter this little-known milieu, and what are the researcher’s preferred methods? And how was the pre-Qur’anic world filtered for early Muslim consumption? We address four main types of evidence, namely pre-Islamic Arabic poetry; architecture, art and epigraphy; the Qur’ān itself; and the biographical literature. The poetry evokes the world the Qur’ān rejected: hunters, warriors and lovers, with no thought of an afterlife. The material evidence, thanks to Saudi Arabia’s recent, cautious opening to archaeology, is transforming our picture of pre-Islamic politics and religion. The Qur’ān turns a vastly varied scene into a single Muslim narrative, while preserving echoes of dialogue with Jews and Christians. The biographical and historical narratives are copious for Muḥammad, less so for his rivals.

Through a close reading of a selection of these materials, we hope to obtain some understanding of how they have reached us and of what scholarly aids assist us in comprehending them. We consider the knotty problems of how to deduce historical narrative from sparse and disparate sources requiring various disciplines for their analysis; how socio-historical contexts impact the formulation of religious teachings; and how scriptures and their exegetes promote their uniqueness by (re)constructing historical narratives. Besides students of Theology, History, Classics, Middle Eastern Studies, and Art and Archaeology, our target audience also includes anyone interested in how Islam evolved into a religious culture so akin to, yet distinctive from, Judaism and Christianity.

This module will not be offered for the academic year 2018-19.