Fred M. Donner

Professor of Near Eastern History

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

Special Interests

Origins of Islam, Qur’ān, Arabic-Islamic Historiography, Early Islamic History, Islamic Law, Tribal and Nomadic Society. 

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, and more fully in his monograph Muhammad and the Believers: at the origins of Islam (Harvard University Press, 2010).  He subsequently proposed that the emergence of Islam as a faith distinct from other monotheisms and focused on the person of the prophet Muhammad and the text of the Qur’ān as God’s word led the community to relabel many of its institutions and practices using terms drawn from the Qur’ān, an idea set forth in his article “The Qur’anicization of Religio-Political Discourse in the Umayyad Period,” Révue des Mondes Musulmans et e la Mediterranée 129 (2011), 79-92.

In recent years, 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.  He has also turned his attention to the question of the earliest crystallization of the Qur’ān text and the manner of its early writing and transmission, which may reflect the manner in which the early community of Believers evolved into Islam.  This interest underlies his articles “The Qur’ān in Recent Scholarship—Challenges and Desiderata,” in Gabriel S. Reynolds (ed.), The Qur’ān in its Historical Context (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), 29-50; “The Historian, the Believers, and the Qur’ān,” in Gabriel S. Reynolds (ed.), New Perspectives on the Qur’ān (London: Routledge, 2011), 25-37; and “Dīnislām und muslim im Koran,” in Georges Tamer (ed.), Kritische Koranhermeneutik: in memoriam Günter Lüling  (forthcoming).


Position Statements

Recent Lectures and Public Presentations

  • "The Debate over Islam's Origins and an Enigmatic Early Arabic Papyrus." University of Helsinki, 29 April 2016. 

Recent Publications:


  • 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.

Edited Volumes: 

  • The Expansion of the Early Islamic State.  Articles selected, and with an introduction and bibliography, by Fred M. Donner (London: Ashgate/Variorum, 2008). [= “The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, 5.]

  • The Articulation of Early Islamic State Structures.   Articles selected, and with an introduction and bibliography, by Fred M. Donner (London: Ashgate/Variorum, 2012). [=”The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, 6.]

  • Antoine Borrut and Fred M. Donner (eds.), Christians and Others in the Umayyad State.  (Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 2016). [=The Late Antique and Medieval Islamic Near East, 1.] LINK


  • 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.]

  • Dīn, Islām, und Muslim im Koran,” in Georges Tamer (ed.), Kritische Koranhermeneutik: in memoriam Günter Lüling (forthcoming).

  • “Early Muslims and Peoples of the Book,” in Herbert Berg (ed.), The Routledge Handbook on Early Islam  (Abingdon: Routledge, forthcoming).

  • “Reflections on the History and Evolution of Western Study of the Qur’an, from ca. 1900 to the present,” in Mun’im Sirry (ed.), Proceedings of the First IQSA International Conference, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, August 2015  (forthcoming).

  •  “A Typology of Eschatological Concepts,” in Sebastian Günther and Todd Lawson (eds), Roads to Paradise. Eschatology in the Islamic Tradition  (forthcoming).

  • “Fragments of Three Umayyad Official Documents,” in Maurice A. Pomerantz and Aram Shahin (eds.), The Heritage of Arabo-Islamic Learning. Studies presented to Wadad Kadi (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2016), 28-41. PDF

  •  “Was Marwān ibn al-Ḥakam the first Real Muslim?” in Sarah Bowen Savant and Helena de Felipe (eds.), Genealogy and Knowledge in Muslim societies: understanding the past (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014, pp. 105-14). PDF

  • “Periodization as a Tool of the Historian, with special reference to Islamic History,” Der Islam 90 (2014), 20-36. PDF

  • How Ecumenical Was Early Islam? (Eleventh Farhat J. Ziadeh Distinguished Lecture in Arab and Islamic Studies). (Seattle: Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, University of Washington, 2013).

  • “ ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, ‘Amr ibn al-‘Āṣ, and the Muslim Invasion of Egypt,” in A. R. Sālimī, Brannon Wheeler, et al. (eds.), Community, State, History, and Changes: Festschrift for Prof. Riḍwān Al-Sayyid (Beirut: Arab Network for Research and Publishing, 2011), 67-84. PDF

  • “Qur’anicization of Religio-Political Discourse in the Umayyad Period,” Révue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Mediterranée 129 (2011), 79-92. PDF

  • “Visions of the Early Islamic Expansion: Between the Heroic and the Horrific,” in Nadia Maria El Cheikh and Shaun O’Sullivan (eds.), Byzantium in Early Islamic Syria (Beirut and El-Koura: American University of Beirut and University of Balamand, 2011), 9-29. PDF

  •  “The Historian, the Believer, and the Qur’an,” in Gabriel S. Reynolds (ed.), New Perespectives on the Qur’ān: The Qur’an in its Historical Context 2 (London, Routledge, 2011), 25-37. PDF

  • “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. PDF

  • “The Qurˀan in Recent Scholarhip–Challenges and Desiderata,” in Gabriel S. Reynolds (ed.), The Qurˀan in its Historical Context (Abdingdon: Routledge. 2008), 29-50. PDF

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

  • “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. PDF

  • “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. PDF

  • " ‘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, 2001).
  • "La Question de Messianisme dans l'Islam primitif," Révue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée (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, 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, 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. PDF
  • "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. PDF
  • "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. PDF
  • "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. PDF
  • "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. PDF
  • "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. PDF
  • "The Formation of the Islamic State," Journal of the American Oriental Society 106 (1986), 283-296. PDF
  • "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.