The Social Origins of Islam

Divine revelations and satanic verses

– the links between sacred scriptures and social policies
by Madawc Williams

Ayatollah means “reflection of God”. The authority of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and of the whole Islamist (“fundamentalist”) movement, is rooted in the customs and beliefs of pre-industrial Islamic societies. This in tum looked back to the verses spoken by Muhammed, and believed by him and his followers to have been sent down by God.

It is misleading to speak of the Islamists as fundamentalists. All devout Muslims believe that the verses collected in the Koran came down from God. This was what Muhammed taught, and what his followers firmly believed. Without it, Islam would have no solid basis for existence.

Christian Fundamentalists are a minority who have closed their eyes to the obvious contradictions to be found in the various books of the Bible. But the majority of Christians have accepted that these contradictions exist. They insist merely that the Bible is an imperfect account of things that actually happened.

Christians do not have to believe that every last detail in the four Gospels is true. Provided that the Resurrection actually happened – and there is no way to prove that it didn’t – there is still a solid basis for conventional Christianity.

Islam cannot be so flexible. Islamists differ from other Muslims in the degree to which they would apply the customs and traditions of pre-industrial Islamic societies to the modem world. Since most of these are not directly based on anything in the Koran, it is quite possible to reject the rigid Islamist approach while still believing absolutely in the Koran as the direct word of God.

Salman Rushdie has caused such outrage because he is seen as having struck at the very root of all varieties of [slam – the belief that the Koran is the work of God. that was merely passed down to Muhammed and not devised by him.

The roots of Islam

Some 1300 years ago – in the 7th century, by the Christian measure of time – there was in South Arabia a small trading and religious centre called Mecca. This part of the world had largely escaped the continuous wars between the Persian and Roman (Byzantine) Empires. Mecca ruled itself – but it had no King or chieftain, or even a fixed or regular constitution. There was no state, no central authority to maintain law and order or to promote the public welfare. If someone was robbed, it was up to him to get his property back. If he was murdered, it was up to his relatives to take vengeance on the killer. But the killer’s relatives would most probably defend him, and retaliate if he were killed. This could lead to blood-feuds; a chain of killing and counter-killing that would sometimes carry on till all the males on one side were dead.

Some public functions were taken on by the leading men of Mecca. They would undertake to look after the wells, say, or help look after the shrines. Muhammed came from a family that had once had such public functions, a branch of the leading Quraysh clan. But they had become impoverished and had lost out to other branches of the same clan. He himself was an orphan who had been very poor. But his fortunes had revived somewhat, thanks to his marriage to a rich widow. He was therefore quite an important citizen in his home town.

At the age of 40, something remarkable began to happen to him. He received inspired verses which he regarded as having come from God via the Archangel Gabriel. And the verses said things that had radical implications for Meccan society as it existed at that time. Various progressive social policies were advanced – taxation from those who could afford it, to give help to the poor. Customs like female infanticide were condemned. So too was the customary worship of idols, and of the three goddesses whom the Meccans chiefly revered. Worship was to go only to God.

Muhammed passed on these revelations to some of his friends and relations, some of whom accepted that he was indeed getting messages from God. But others vehemently denied it. They wanted to stick to their established social customs, including idol worship. They could not tolerate a minority who rejected the things they valued and who wanted to introduce changes. Meccan society became polarised between the minority who accepted Muhammed’s revelations and the majority who rejected them.

There was no easy way to resolve the matter. Mecca had no ruler or state structure that could suppress heretics or dissidents. Murder was one possible solution – but this would have led to a VICIOUS and destructive blood-feud. Custom demanded that Mohammed’s close relatives should defend him, and be prepared to avenge him, even though many of them rejected his beliefs. The solution was continuous social pressure on the Muslims, together with attacks on those who had no powerful relatives to protect them. This was carried on over several years.

At one point Muhammed seems to have weakened, and declared that the three goddesses of Mecca were valid intermediaries between men and God. The verses in which he said this were the original “Satanic Verses”. He soon repudiated them as the work of the devil, but the fact that he could have spoken them at all is an embarrassment. Some Muslims have denied that the incident ever happened, yet it is based on reliable traditions. It is hard to see why Muslims should have passed on such a story if it hadn’t been true.

In any case, Muhammed rejected any possible compromise. Muslims rejected the things that the pagans held sacred; the two sets of belief could not co-exist for ever. And for a long time, Muhammed’s mission was blocked and seemed to be failing. Following the death of an uncle who had protected him, despite being a pagan, his position became very unsafe.

The flight to Medina

At this point, the inhabitants of the city of Yathrib suddenly invited Muhammed to come to them and be their ruler. It was a highly divided society, cons1stmg of three Jewish tribes and two tribes of pagan Arabs. They felt the need for unity, and had considered setting up one of their tribal leaders as king. Instead, the pagans opted to become Muslims, with Muhammed as their ruler. The city was renamed Medina, the city of the prophet.

There followed several years of war between Mecca and Medina. The Muslims, who believed that death would take them straight to paradise, fought much better than the pagans who had no such hope. During the course of these battles, the three Jewish tribes of Medina were also driven out, one after another. In Mecca, the Muslims had prayed towards Jerusalem, to distinguish themselves from the pagans. But in Medina, they began to pray towards Mecca, to distinguish themselves from the Jews, most of whom rejected Muhammed’s claims to divine revelations. The war ended with Muhammed’s triumphant return to Mecca. Idol worship was abolished, but Mecca remained a place of pilgrimage for Muslims, just as it had been for pagans.

Islam provided unity and a basic state structure for the Arabs. It offered a way out of endless small wars and blood feuds. For those who did not wish to live in peace, there was always holy war to spread Islam to foreign parts. And many people in the lands they conquered welcomed them as liberators from oppressive bureaucracies. Moreover, Islam tolerated “people of the book”, Christians and Jews. The Byzantine state had shown no such tolerance, persecuting those Christians who disagreed with the official line on the nature of Christ. There was also a clash of cultures; the Byzantine state was basically Greek, whereas the territories the Muslims took over were Semitic, or at least non-Greek.

Muslim divisions

The new Islamic order was not however free from problems. The first crisis occurred following the death of Muhammed. Some Muslims found it hard to accept that he had died, and there was also the question of who should succeed him. Some thought it should be his nephew ‘Ali, who had married Muhammed’s daughter Fatima. But these were a minority. The successors, or Caliphs, were first Abu Bakr, then ‘Umar and then ‘Uthman.

‘Uthman was murdered, and there was a susp1c1on that ‘Ali might have had something to do with it. ‘Ali was never the less elected Caliph. But his rule was troubled. The first challenge to his rule was led by ‘Aisha, Muhammed’s surviving widow. Her followers were defeated at the ”Battle of the Camel”. But then Mu’awiya, nephew of ‘Uthman, brought his army down from Syria and deposed ‘Ali. He himself became Caliph, the first of the Umayyad line. A few years later, his position was challenged by Hussein, son of ‘Ali and grandson of Muhammed. Hussein failed, and was killed. But his supporters survived, and continue to this day as the Shi’ite Muslims. The majority who did not accept ‘Ali’s claim became the Sunnis – although the Umayyads were to be overthrown by the ‘Abbasids, and many Sunnis look back to them more than the Umayyads.

Shi’ites were the losers, both in the short term and the long term. 90% of Muslims are Sunni. And the predominance of the Shi’ites in Iran has limited their appeal in the rest of the Muslim world.

Christians and Muslims

The Sunni/Shi’ite division is sometimes compared to the Catholic/Protestant division within Christianity. It is in fact both older and more bitter. Apart from the isolated case of Ananias, (1) Christians did not start killing each other until several centuries after the death of their founder. Muslims began after less than 30 years. If one were to translate it into Christian terms, one would have to imagine a vicious faction fight, culminating in murder and civil war, between the followers of St Peter and St Paul.

It should be borne in mind that Christianity largely grew up within the framework of the Roman state, whereas the Muslims had to create their own state in order to survive in the anarchy of pagan South Arabia. This also meant that Muhammed and his successors had to devise practical rules for running the state they had created. Thus Islamic law can claim a direct continuity back to the first Muslim communities, even though some aspects of it are based on questionable traditions. By contrast, the early Christians had no real social policy. They had none because they had no real control over the societies they lived in; these were run by the Roman ruling class and its client rulers. The early Christians’ aim was a modest one: to live devout lives in a hostile world. A world that they anyway expected to come to an end very soon.

The text of the Koran

It was in the time of ‘Uthman, the third Caliph, that the Koran received its definitive form. Up until then, there were various rival collections of the revelations to Muhammed. The definitive Koran replaced at least four rival versions, which included verses that were not included in the definitive Koran, and excluded others that were.(2) Precisely what the differences were is unknown; these rival versions have perished.

Another complication is that different parts of the Koran will sometimes say different things. One notable case is the ban on alcohol. Early revelations discouraged drinking but did not prohibit it; later revelations imposed an outright ban. At least this is the standard interpretation of verses that say different things. The general rule is that later revelations override earlier ones; but no one is quite sure of the order. The suras (chapters) of the Koran are arranged according to length, with the longest coming first. Parts of some of the suras are reckoned by Muslims to have been revealed at different times. The start of the , 96th Sura is generally reckoned to be the earliest revelation of all. But despite this, the orthodox Muslim view is that the Koran is a perfect copy of a text that had existed in heaven since the creation of the world! All things are possible to God, no doubt.

It is generally agreed that the Koran includes the best Arabic poetry ever written. This is taken by Muslims to be proof of its divine origin. But the quality of the verses did not convince the bulk of the pagan Arabs of Mecca, or the Jews of Medina.

As for the subject-matter of the Koran – when it can be checked against other independent historical records, it is usually out of line with them. Moreover, some of the Hebrew names are given in an Arabic version of the Greek form: Elias for Elijah, for instance.

The Koran speaks of a prophet Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.(3) The Bible speaks of many Zechariahs, including a prophet who lived in the 6th century BC; and Zechariah the priest, who was not notable except as the father of John the Baptist.

The Koran’s version of the tales of Joseph and of Moses refer to the ancient Egyptians practising crucifixion. Crucifixion was practised by many ancient peoples, including the Assyrians, Scythians, Phoenicians and Romans. But outside of the Koran, there is no reference to the Egyptians making use of this particularly cruel method of killing.

Jesus and the Koran

The Koran’s version of Jesus is in one respect more believable and historical than the standard Christian one. He is seen as a Prophet, a man who had a special relationship with God, but still a mortal man. In other respects, however, the Jesus of the Koran is much harder to believe in.

The Gospels have quite a few references to Jesus’s family. He had four younger brothers and at least two sisters. One of his brothers, James the Just, became head of the Christians in Jerusalem after his death. No one seems to have doubted that he was the son of his mother’s husband, Joseph the Carpenter. It is only the Gospel of Matthew that speaks unequivocally of the “immaculate ,conception”. And even here, Jesus is referred to by the people of Nazareth as the carpenter’s son.(4)

Puzzlingly, this Gospel also gives him a descent from King David(5) – one that would also make him a descendent of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, though they are not directly mentioned. But this line of descent culminates with Joseph, and is thus irrelevant if Joseph was not in fact his father. It seems likely that the author of the Gospel drew on several sources, at least one of ‘which regarded Jesus as the son of Joseph, conceived just like all other babies.

As time passed, Jesus became a more supernatural figure to Christians. His alleged virgin birth became an article of faith, prompting some vulgar and ill-informed ridicule from the Christians’ opponents. His brothers and sisters were simply not talked about – even though James the Just seems to have outranked both St Peter and St Paul. Joseph was not left out – he played too important a part in the ( completely different and almost irreconcilable) accounts of Jesus’s birth in the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke. But much more emphasis was put on Mary; she became more or less a goddess, even though a formal theological distinction has always been maintained.

Interestingly enough, the Koran has only Mary and Jesus. The rest of the family are not mentioned at all. (References to Joseph are to Joseph the son of Jacob, not Joseph the Carpenter). Mary is seen as an unmarried mother, who surprises and shocks her pious relatives by turning up with an unexpected baby. But the new-born Jesus preaches them a little sermon about how all things are possible to Allah.(6)

The Koran also denies that Jesus was crucified. In this, at least, it has some historical support. Although mainstream Christianity is based on the notion that Jesus really did suffer and die on the cross, some of the early Christian sects, including the Gnostics, said that this was only an illusion or an appearance. It may seem very odd to those of us brought up in the standard Christian tradition. But the notion of a man only seeming to be crucified is hardly stranger than the notion of an actually crucified man rising from the dead!

Islamic law

Islam began as a minority community in Mecca. But in Medina, they were the dominant element. They could control how people were to live their lives. Indeed, the Medinans had chosen Muhammed to be their ruler as much as their religious teacher. The two concepts are never fully separated in Islam.

Islamic law grew out of the traditions – real or false – of how Muhammed and his immediate successors coped with the problems of ruling the Islamic community/state. For the time and place where it evolved, it was a very enlightened system. It allowed slavery, but slavery was common at the time, and it gave slaves certain definite rights. Likewise, women had rights, though they were officially defined as inferior to men. “People of the Book” were also defined as second-class c1nzens with definite rights and freedoms. They could not be forced to convert, which was the normal custom in Christian countries until the last two or three hundred years. On the other hand, for a Muslim to renounce Islam was regarded as a crime punishable by death.

The great problem with Islamic law is that it is not flexible. It is seen as representing the will of God, which no mortal should dare to try to adjust or amend. And thirteen hundred years after Muhammed, it is not progressive at all. It rejects equality of the sexes – or rather, it has a · definition of “true equality” that most non-Muslims would regard as gross inequality. It insists that religion is not a matter for private conscience, and that other religions cannot be treated equally with Islam. And it is operated by people who sincerely believe that their judgements and op1mons are the judgements and opinions of God.

In theory, Islamic law could even be used to reintroduce slavery. I have not heard of anyone trying to do this, although slavery still survives unofficially in some of the more remote parts of the Muslim world. It might seem too drastic a step for people who have experienced secular societies. But there is no logical reason why it should not be re-introduced, if Islamic law were to become the norm for countries where Muslims are a majority. The Koran does not say that there is anything wrong with slavery as such; it simply demands that it be mediated by justice and kindness.

The Islamic community

Islam has always had very definite ideas about how societies should be run. Possibly if the Roman Empire had remained pagan, and had included South Arabia 1300 years ago, the original Muslims could have developed into something rather like the early Christian communities. But this was not the case. There were no superior authorities to protect the early Muslims from their pagan Arab enemies. To survive at all, they had to fight and to conquer their enemies. At Medina they created an Islamic community that functioned as both Church and State. Indeed, it was the first effective state that the Arabs had ever had.

The success of the Arab Islamic State gave it control over large non-Muslim populations. The policy that they adopted – tolerance, combined with mild but continuous pressure to convert to Islam – proved highly effective. Islam was able to spread over large parts of the world. On the other hand, the direct continuity between the first Islamic community and later Islamic states also led to a lack of flexibility. Major change could be seen, and usually was seen, as departing from God’s laws.

One major problem for Islam was its calendar. Various civilizations have tried different ways to cope with the awkward fact that the cycles of summer and winter don’t really match up with the monthly fluctuations of the moon. Most have opted for a compromise; months that are longer than the lunar month, or extra days to keep the year in step with the seasons. Islam is an exception; it has a “year” that is shorter than the actual solar year, and thus out of step with the seasons. This may have been a factor limiting its spread; it is notable that it has mostly remained limited to countries close to the equator, where summer and winter, longer and shorter days, are not so large a factor.

Christian societies

Various people, including Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher, try to justify their social policies in terms of their Christian belief. Each of them can quote some useful texts from the Bible to support their cause. And each can have their claims rejected on the basis of other texts.

The Catholic Church built up, and still maintains, a detailed code which it regards as being the basis of a Christian way of life. But large parts of this code are rejected by Protestants and by the Orthodox churches, who have their own codes. And societies in which the majority of the population are Christians are now effectively secular, with religion regarded as a matter of private faith.

Strictly speaking, the early Christians had no social policy. They had none for the simple reason that they had no control over the societies in which they lived. St Paul, as a Roman citizen, had a theoretical right to vote for the Roman magistrates. It is not recorded that he ever did so. It would have been a complete waste of time anyway; voting had long ago ceased to mean anything. Power was shared between the Senate and the Emperors, with the army lurking in the background as the ultimate source of power. Tyrants like Caligula and Nero could last so long, because the things they did to members of the ruling class were not so different from the things that many members of the ruling class did to lesser mortals.

This was the society in which Christianity began and spread. The early Christians had no more control over their society than we today have over the weather. Just as we today do not devise definite schemas for what the weather ought to be, they did not work out in detail how society ought to be run. Their aim was more modest, to live devout lives in a hostile world. They did not hope to reform or improve it; they expected God to bring about the Day of Judgement, punishing the wicked and rewarding the good, and with new and perfected heaven and earth.

The differences between Islam and Christianity can be quite neatly explained by the differences in the social situations in which they grew up. The Roman Empire did not allow its ordinary citizens to murder one another; therefore the early Christians could seek protection against their Jewish or pagan enemies. The Empire itself did make intermittent attempts to wipe them out; but by the time that the Emperors made a definite decision to get rid of Christianity, it was too widespread and strong to be destroyed.

The Emperors were seeking to stabilize and unify the Empire on the basis of a single creed. They began by trying to make everyone conform to an official version of paganism. But this policy failed; the Christians were too stubborn to be fitted in, and too numerous to be wiped out. Therefore Constantine modified the policy. Christianity became the official creed, and later Emperors suppressed paganism. They also suppressed “heretics”, Christians who did not follow the official line on theological matters.

The Christianised Roman Empire undoubtedly killed more Christians than it ever had in its pagan days; only

Hollywood tends not to make epics about the latter sort of persecution! On the other hand, later Christians felt no obligation to abide by the social customs of Byzantium.

Because of its origins, Christianity retained an ambiguity about the relationship between Church and State, and about just what Christian social policies ought to be. It is therefore not so surprising that modern Christian societies have mostly become secular. The potential for it was always there.



1 Acts 5 1-12.

2 Islam by Alfred Guillaume. Penguin Books 1981, p 58. 3 Sura 21, 89-90.

4 Matthew 13 1-16. 5 Matthew 1 53-58. 6 Sura 19, 16-34.


This article appeared in May 1989, in Issue 11 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more see