Where Do the Multi-Religious Origins of Islam Lie? A Topological Approach to a Wicked Problem
The revelation of Islam in Arabic, its emergence in the Western Arabian Peninsula, and its acquaintance with Biblical literature seem to be clear indications for Islam’s birthplace and its religious foundations. While the majority of academic scholarship accepts the historicity of the revelation in Mecca and Medina, revisionist scholars have started questioning the location of early Islam with increasing fervour in recent years. Drawing on the isolation of Mecca and the lack of clear references to Mecca in ancient and non-Muslim literature before the mid-eighth century, these scholars have cast doubt on the claim that Mecca was already a trading outpost and a pilgrimage site prior to Islam, questioning the traditional Islamic and Orientalist view. Space, thus, plays a prominent role in the debate on the origins of Islam, although space is almost never conceptually discussed. In the following paper, I challenge the limited understanding of space in revisionist as well as mainstream scholarship. For the most part, this scholarship is not really interested in the multi-religious landscape sui generis, but understands early Islam either as a stable or an unstable entity that either reworked or digested the impact of Judaism and Christianity. In contrast, my contention is based on the view that Islam emerged neither “in” Mecca nor anywhere else, but that Muslims’ practical and symbolic actions produced such places as Mecca, Medina, and the Ḥijāz as the central places of Islam. My argument is threefold: Firstly, the production of the Meccan space and its central meaning for Islam were mutually dependant, gradual processes. Secondly, the creation of an exclusively Muslim space in the Ḥijāz conversely inscribed multi-religiosity into the general topology of early Islam. Thirdly, the early history of Islam hints at practices of un/doing differences, exemplified by instances of sharing, the creation of ambivalence, and processes of
purification. Moreover, my contribution questions the way in which research on the origins of Islam has become a meaningful object of knowledge about the “true” nature of Islam against the background of populist discourses on Islam.