Fred M. Donner

Professor of Near Eastern History

Ph.D. Princeton University, 1975.
Teaching at Chicago since 1982.

Special Interests

Origins of Islam, Tribal and Nomadic Society, Early Islamic History, Arabic-Islamic Historiography, Islamic Law. Editor of Al-User al-Wista, the Bulletin of Middle East Medievalists.

 

Fred Donner's early interest in the role of pastoral nomadic groups in Near Eastern societies led him to write a dissertation on the role of Arabian pastoral nomadic groups in the early Islamic conquest movement in Iraq in the seventh century C.E. His first book, The Early Islamic Conquests (Princeton University Press, 1981), examined this question in more detail, particularly the relationship between pastoral nomads and the state, as well as the more general processes of state-formation and state-expansion that, he thinks, were an integral part of the early conquest movement. He has also written several articles dealing with the question of pastoral nomads and their place in the history of the region.

Close work with the sources for this early period of Islamic history, and the profound questions about the reliability of these sources raised by revisionist scholarship that has appeared since 1977, led Donner to a long-term examination of those sources. This resulted in several shorter studies and culminated in his Narratives of Islamic Origins: the beginnings of Islamic historical writing (Darwin Press, 1998).

Donner’s interests then shifted to the intellectual or ideological factors that were at play in the early expansion of Islam, and to an effort to understand just what the movement was all about.  The significance of militant piety, possibly rooted in an apocalyptic outlook, had already been suggested in Narratives of Islamic Origins.  However, he also concluded that Islam’s roots lay in what can most properly be called the “Believers’ movement,” begun by Muhammad (d. 632 CE), which was a stringently monotheistic and pietistic reform movement that also included righteous Jews and Christians.  It was only after about two generations, beginning about 680 CE, that the Qur’anic Believers (who came to call themselves “Muslims”) separated themselves from Christians and Jews as a separate confession, effectively defining Christians and Jews out of the movement, which now became the distinct confession we know as Islam.  These ideas he developed in his article “From Believers to Muslims: Confessional Self-Identity in the Early Islamic Community,” Al-Abhath 50-51 (2002-2003), 9-53 (a pdf of this article is found below), and more fully in his monograph Muhammad and the Believers: at the origins of Islam (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Most recently, Donner has turned to the study of true documents for the first century of Islam (roughly the seventh century CE), particularly Arabic papyri.  Thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship he was able to take leave in 2007-2008 to examine Arabic papyri in Paris, Oxford, Heidelberg, and Vienna.

His teaching at the University of Chicago focuses on early Islamic history, Islamic social history, and aspects of Islamic law.

Education:

Position Statements

Recent Lectures and Public Presentations

  • ”Muslims, Jews, and Christians in the First Century of Islam,” annual Sutherland Lecture, Saint Michael’s College, Colchester, VT, April 15, 2010
     
  • ”Neue Gedanken zu den islamischen Eroberungen,” Institut für Islamwissenschaft, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, 4 June 2009.
     
  • ”A Typology of Eschatological Concepts,” at conference on “Roads to Paradise: Eschatology in the Islamic Tradition,” Universität Göttingen, Germany, May 28, 2009.
     
  • ”The Development of Early Islamic Political Vocabulary,” annual Honor Society Lecture, History Department, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, 27 April 2009.
     
  • ”The Historian, the Believer, and the Qur’an,” at conference on “The Qur’an in its Historical Context,” University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN, April 20, 2009.
     
  • ”Recent Theories of Islam’s Origins,” Mead Memorial Lecture, History Department, Trinity College, Hartford, CT, 28 September 2008.

Recent Publications:

Monographs:

  • Muhammad and the Believers: at the origins of Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard     University Press, 2010).
     
  • Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing. Princeton: Darwin Press, 1998 (=Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, 14). 358 p.
     
  • The Early Islamic Conquests. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981. 489 pp.

Translation:

  • The History of al-Tabari, vol. X:The Conquest of Arabia: The Riddah Wars. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. 216 pp. Introduction, translation, annotations.

Selected Articles: [already published or accepted and forthcoming. All are refereed.]

  • “Umayyad Efforts at Legitimation: The Silent Heritage of the Umayyads,” in Antoine Borrut and Paul M. Cobb (eds.), Héritages Omeyyades/Umayyad Legacies (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2010), 187-211.

  • “The Qur’an in Recent Scholarship—Challenges and Desiderata,” in Gabriel S. Reynolds (ed.), The Qur’an in its Historical Context (Abingdon: Routledge. 2008), 29-50.

  • "Qur’anic furqan," Journal of Semitic Studies 52 (2007), 279-300.

  • “Fight For God—But Do So With Kindness: Reflections on War, Peace, and Communal Identity in Early Islam,” in Kurt Raaflaub (ed.), War and Peace in the Ancient World (Malden & Oxford: Blackwell’s, 2006), 297-311.

  • “The Historical Context of the Qur’an, “ in Jane D. McAuliffe (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 21-39.

  • “The Islamic Conquests,” in Yousef Choueiri (ed.), A Companion to the History of the Middle East (Malden & Oxford: Blackwell's, 2005), 28-51.

  • "The Background to Islam," in Michael Maas (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 510-33

  • "From Believers to Muslims. Patterns of Communal Identity in the early Islamic Community," Al-Abhath 50-51 ( 2002-2003), 9-53.

  • " ‘Uthman and the Rashid‚n Caliphs in Ibn ‘Asakir's Ta’rikh madinat Dimashq: a Study in Strategies of Compilation," in James E. Lindsay (ed.), Ibn ‘Asakir: A Muslim Historian and his work (Princeton: Darwin Press, forthcoming 2001).
     
  • "La Question de Messianisme dans l'Islam primitif," Révue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée (forthcoming, 2000).
     
  • "The Tribal Perspective in Early Islamic Historiography," in Lawrence I. Conrad (ed.), Historiography in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East (Princeton: Darwin Press, forthcoming 2000).
     
  • "From Believers to Muslims. Patterns of Communal Identity in early Islam," in L. Conrad (ed.), Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, 4: Patterns of Communal Identity ( _Al-Abhath_, forthcoming, 2003).
     
  • "Muhammad and the Islamic Caliphate, 570-1258 C.E.," in John Esposito (ed.), The Oxford History of Islam, chapter 1 (pp. 1-61). (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1999)
     
  • "Piety and Eschatology in Early Kharijite Poetry," in Muhammad al-Sa‘afin (ed.), Fi mihrab al-ma‘rifa. Festschrift for Ihsan ‘Abbas. Beirut: Dar –adir, 1997, pp. 3-19 [English Section].
     
  • "Centralized Authority and Military Autonomy in the Early Islamic Conquests," in Averil Cameron (ed.), Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam, 3: States, Resources, and Armies. (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1995), 337-60.
     
  • "Mesopotamian Trade from the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century C.E.," Asien, Afrika, Lateinamerika 20 (1993), 1095-1112.
     
  • "Al-Lahajat al-‘ammiyya al-‘arabiyya wa-ahammiyyat dirasatiha" ["The Colloquial Arabic Dialects and the Importance of Studying Them"], Al-Abhath 41 (1993), 3-26 [Arabic].
     
  • "The Growth of Military Institutions in the Early Caliphate and their Relation to Civilian Authority," in monograph series supplementing the journal Al-Qanþara 14 (1993), 311-326.
     
  • "The Sources of Islamic Conceptions of War," in John Kelsay and James Turner Johnson (eds.), Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991), pp. 31-69.
     
  • "The Shurþa [Police] in Early Umayyad Syria," in M. Adnan Bakhit and Robert Schick (eds.), Proceedings of the 3rd Symposium on the History of Bilâd al-Shâm--Umayyad Period, 2 (Amman, 1989), 247-262.
     
  • "The Role of Nomads in the Near East in Late Antiquity (400-800 C.E.), in F. M. Clover and R. S. Humphreys (eds.), Tradition and Innovation in Late Antiquity (Madison: U. Wisconsin, 1989), 73-85.
     
  • "The Death of Ab‚ Talib," in J.H. Marks and R. M. Good (eds.), Love and Death in the Ancient Near East. Essays in Honor of Marvin H. Pope (Guilford, CT: Four Quarters, 1987), pp. 237-245.
     
  • "The Problem of Early Arabic Historiography in Syria," in M. A. Bakhit (ed.), Proceedings of the 2nd Symposium on the History of Bilâd al-Shâm--Early Islamic Period, vol. I (Amman, 1987), pp. 1-27.
     
  • "The Formation of the Islamic State," Journal of the American Oriental Society 106 (1986), 283-296.
     
  • "Xenophon's Arabia," Iraq 48 (1986), pp. 1-14.
     
  • "Tribal Settlement in Basra during the First Century A.H.," in T. Khalidi (ed.), Land Tenure and Social Transformation in the Middle East (Beirut: AUB, 1984), pp. 97-120.
     
  • "Some Early Arabic Inscriptions from al-ºanakiyya, Saudi Arabia," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 43 (1984), pp. 181-208.
     
  • "The Bakr b. Wa’il Tribes and Politics in Northeastern Arabia on the Eve of Islam," Studia Islamica 51 (1980), pp. 5-38.
     
  • "Muhammad's Political Consolidation in Western Arabia up to the Conquest of Mecca: A Reassessment," Muslim World 69 (1979), pp. 229-247.
     
  • "Mecca's Food Supplies and Muhammad's Boycott," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 20 (1977), pp. 249-266.
     
  • Numerous Encycopedia entries, over 60 book reviews.