State of the Art


A  Vast Research Literature

The Muslims’ relations to their Prophet have been the object of a vast research literature. But the focus chosen by our exploratory project, i.e. the interplay of doctrinal representations, configurations of power and authority and individual and collective patterns of piety and devotion has found only selective attention until now, especially with view to the early modern and modern period. The same can be said for the history of Islamic Prophetology itself. The pioneering overviews of Max Horten (1916, 1917/18) and Tor Andrae (1918) have retained much of their value, as they already presented a panorama of early and medieval doctrines, traditions and customs concerning the exemplary figure of the Prophet with its strong supernatural touches in learned as well as popular culture within both Sunnī and Shīʿī Islam. This broad perspective was further developed and augmented only in the 1980s by Annemarie Schimmel (1981, 1985) with particular stress on Sufi culture and poetry in different languages well into the modern period. Her treatment of Prophetic piety also took up its calligraphic and pictorial expressions and dwelt on the popular celebrations of Birthday (Mawlid) and Ascension (Miʿrāj) of the Prophet. A comprehensive exploration and historical critique of the Arabic source literature on Islamic beliefs about and pious attitudes towards the Prophet was undertaken by Tilman Nagel (2008)1 who stresses the emergence of a metahistorical « omnipresence » of the Prophet, which came to be expressed in the biographical and pious literature attached to his person. The short overview of Marco Schöller (2008) also offers some brief but pertinent chapters on the development of Prophetic biography and on Islamic Prophetology and the metahistorical image of Muammad, something which had been also attempted some years before from a religious studies perspective by Carl Ernst (2003) in the course of his general introduction to Islam as a religion. An overview of the images of the Prophet which developed over the centuries was also presented by Tarif Khalidi (2009).The supranatural dimension of the Prophetical image in medieval Islam has been further highlighted by Rebecca Williams (2013). The Cambridge Companion to Muammad, edited by Jonathan E. Brockopp (2010), offers a highly significant collection which also extends into the field of early modern and modern Islam. Olga Hazan and Jean-­Jacques Lavoie (2012) presented a collective volume focussing on the different representations of the Prophet.2 An encyclopedian attempt at covering the cultural and historical facets of the Prophetic image can be found in the two-­ volume work edited recently by Coely Fitzpatrick and Adam Hani Walker (2014).3

Apart from these comprehensive works, several authors have treated particular aspects of pious doctrine and practice related to the Prophet. Fritz Meier’ʹs article (1986, republished in English 1999) and his posthumously published studies on the Invocation of Blessings on the Prophet (taliya) (2002, 2005) have provided ample documentation of this common practice in Sufi-­and non-­Sufi contexts across different ages and regions, with a particular focus on North Africa, where it was further covered by Amine Hamidoune (2012). The history of the celebration of the Prophet’ʹs Birthday (mawlid) has been the subject of a number of studies, with those of Nico Kaptein (1993) and Marion Holmes Katz (2007) certainly the most important ones (see also Denis Gril 2003). The latter combines the medieval with the modern period. For the latter there are regional studies by Sigrid Kleinmichel (2009) on Mawlid poetry in Central Asia (early 20th century), and on the contemporary changes of the Mawlid festivals in Egypt by Samuli Schielke (2005).4 The gender dimensions of the Mawlid celebrations with their specific female-­‐ oriented expressions were already described for Turkey by Nancy and Richard Tapper (1987). Key pieces of poetry in praise of the Prophet from different periods have been presented and analysed by Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych (2010) and Idris de Vos (2011). A representation of the Prophet in Islamic painting have recently been presented by the art historian Christine J. Gruber (2009), and also also two volumes on the Ascension (miʿrāj) of the Prophet in Muslim literature and art and on the Image of the Prophet, which were edited by her together with Frederick Stephen Colby (2010) and Avinoam Shalem (2014).

Prophecy and Sainthood

Studies on the Prophet and his significance for Sufi sainthood, especially in the context of the theosophical doctrine developed by Ibn ʿArabī and his successors, have markedly increased over the last decades, forming an important part of the works of Michel Chodkievicz (1986, 1993), William C. Chittick (1989, 1994, 1998, 2007), and Claude Addas (1993, 2001, 2015), and also of the study on Ibn ʿArabī’ʹs critics by Alexander Knysh (1999). The writings of Yohanan Friedmann (1971) and Arthur F. Buehler (1998, 2011) provided crucial insights into an important early modern Sufi prophetology, developed in response to Ibn ʿArabī and to a perceived decay of Muslim statehood and culture, by the founder of the Naqshbandiyya mujaddidiyya, Shaykh Amad Sirhindī (1564­‐ 1624). The later outcome of Sirhindī’ʹs movement in Delhi focusing on the Prophet, the arīqa muammadiyya formulated by Nāir Muammad ʿAndalīb (d. 1758) and his son Khwāja Mīr Dard (d. 1785), mentioned already by Annemarie Schimmel (1976), has been discussed and analysed at length in the dissertations of Homeyra Ziad (2008) and Soraya Khodamoradi (2014). With its different versions which have been documented by now for widely distant regions from the 14th century onward, the arīqa muammadiyya has gained increased attention as one of the most crucial developments of early modern Sufism and moralism, since the 1990s for the Maghreb (esp. Vincent Cornell 1998), the Arab Middle East (Bernd Radtke 1996; Valery Hoffmann 1999; Mark Sedgwick 2005; Stefan Reichmuth 2002, 2010), and the Ottoman heartlands (Bernd Radtke 2002; Katharina A. Ivanyi 2012). Its most striking political expression, the millenarist movement of Sayyid Amad Barēlvī (d. 1831) in northern India in the early 19th-­century, has been discussed in a paradigmatic study by Marc Gaborieau (2010). The prophetology of the founder of the Amadiyya movement, who grew up in a similar Sufi milieu and came to claim the status of an incarnation of the Prophet and the Mahdī and even of the Christian Messiah, offers a special and controversial case of the representational claims of the Indian arīqa muammadiyya (see esp. Yohanan Friedmann 2003).

Prophecy and Sharifism

The descendants of the Prophet (sāda, ashrāf, shurfa etc.) and their religious and political role, important since the Abbasid age but of growing visibility in early modern times, have also found increasing attention in historical and Islamological research since the 1990s. It is especially this field where the necessity to link historical, religious and socio-­‐ cultural perspective has come out with particular clarity. The close regional interaction of Sunnī and Shīʿī groups and communities which can be observed time and again also runs across the usual divide between the established religious borders within Islam, maintaining a cultural dynamics between both sides which is still insufficiently understood. The monographs and edited volumes by Teresa Bernheimer (2013, for early and medieval Islam), Biancamaria Scarcia Amoretti and Laura Bottini (1999), Mercedes Garcia Arenal (2000, 2009), Ulrike Freitag (2003), Esther Peskes (2005), Stefan Reichmuth (2009), Kazuo Marimoto (2012), and Ruggero Vimercati Sanseverino (2014) and Catherine Mayeur-­‐ Jaouen/Alexandre Papas (2014) have mapped and highlighted this diverse cultural and political field for the early modern and modern periods, which included the study of sharīfian scholars and their networks and diasporas, saintly lineages and urban communities. This also includes monarchical dynasties established in connection with Mahdist and millenarian expectations. The dynamics of statehood and administration under Sharīfian rule in the 19th and 20th century century has been studied by Paul Dresch (1989, 2000) and Brinkley Messick (1992) for the Yemen, for Jordan e.g. by Kamal Salibi (1998) and Philip Robins (2004), and for Morocco e.g. by John Waterbury (1970), Sonja Hegasy (1997); Amira K. Bennison (2002), Michel Abitbol (2009), and Charles Saint-­‐ Prot (2012). A shorter study on the ashrāf in Egyptian Sufism had already been presented by Valerie Hoffmann-­ Ladd (1992).

The Prophet and his Political Heirs

Studies highlighting the significance of the Prophet for Muslim political ideology and action can be found in the historical literature on the Jihādī and Mahdist movements of the 18th and 19th century which emerged in both precolonial and colonial settings. The early ideology and history of the Wahhābiyya in Arabia and its transformation which set in with the rule over the Hijaz and the Holy Cities has been thoroughly analysed by Esther Peskes (1993); while a study on the ideological program of Muammad b. ʿAbd al-­‐ Wahhāb as outlined in his abridged biography of the Prophet has been presented recently by Martin Riexinger (2015). The Prophetic model of a radical departure and emigration (hijra) from established society and the foundation of a new spiritual as well as political community can also be found at work in the jihād movements of West Africa (Murray Last 1977, 1987; David Robinson 1985; Roman Loimeier 2000, 2013), in the establishment of the Mahdist State in the Sudan (P. M. Holt 1958, Aharon Layish 1997; Robert S. Kramer 2010), as well as in the flight of Sufi movements and Muslim leaders from European colonial encroachment and conquest (e. g. Britta Frede 2014 for Mauretania; for the last Sultan of Sokoto Murray Last 1967). Sufi and anti-­Sufi trends of attachment to Prophetic models can equally be observed as underlying these militant Islamic uprisings. Muslim radicalism of the 20th century would often refer to the earlier movements which had often made a considerable and indeed lasting impact on their respective regions. Even the writers of the early Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt refer to the Prophet as their ʺleader » (zaʿīm) (Gudrun Krämer 2010). References to the Prophet and his « ʺmethod »ʺ (manhaj, minhāj) can also be found at work, sometimes together with millenarian expectations, in the transnational Salafī militancy of the last two decades, with the contextual study of the regional conditions behind their success or failure remaining an urgent task for current research (see for first attempts at clarifying the ideological framework of ʿish with its Prophetic references and millenarian claims, Christoph Günther 2014; Will McCants 2015; Cole Bunzel 2015).

Sufism and its Opponents

The rift between Sufi and anti-­Sufi reformism over the role of the Prophetical heritage as a living presence or rather as a legal and moral trust for his community, notable already in the has been developing throughout the Sunnī Muslim world since the 19th century (For a comprehensive overview of the history of Sufi and anti-Sufi controversy, Frederick De Jong/Bernd Radtke 1999; for the Ottoman Kadizadelis, their influence in 17th-­and 18th  century Syria and their probable links to the Wahhābī movement, Currie 2015; for the 19th century in India e.g. Barbara Metcalf 1982, 2004; Usha Sanyal 1999; for the Arab Ottoman Provinces e.g. Itzkhak Weitzmann 2001; Thomas Eich 2003). It has increased in vehemence in the context of the post-­colonial transformations and has fueled religious militancy since the 1970s. This has been studied for several countries (e.g. for India and Pakistan: Jamal Malik 1996, 1997; Alix Phillippon 2011, Michel Boivin 2012, 2015; Nigeria Roman Loimeier 1993, 1997;) but still remains to be fully assessed for its interplay between local and global dimensions. The emergence of Muslim Daʿwa and preaching movements, which equally call for a closer commitment to the Prophet and his Sunna and evoke the model of his early community also contributed to a heightened presence of the Prophet in public discourse (see e.g. for the Daʿwat-­e Islāmī and the Tablīghī Jamāʿat in Pakistan, Thomas Gugler 2011, 2012; for Muslim preaching and missionary Daʿwa in general Larry Poston 1992; Patrick D. Gaffney 1994; Edgunas Racius 2004; Henning Wrogemann 2006). Gender issues acted out in contemporary Sufi and Shīʿī piety and female commitment and responses to Daʿwa Movements and also to Dāʿish have also found increasing attention (Barbara Metcalf 1995; Sossie Andezian 1997; Lara Deeb 2006; Paula Schrode/Udo Simon 2012; Jeanette S. Jouili 2015; Charlie Winter 2015; Hamideh Mohaghgheghi 2015). Challenges to the interpretation of the Prophet’ʹs Legacy in the context of changing value systems reveal far-­reaching tensions between the legal tradition a widespread Salafī-­‐oriented literalism claiming direct allegiance to the Prophetical adīth (on this e.g. Jonathan A. C. Brown 2014). The struggles over the image of the Prophet which were generated in strikingly diverse arenas in the course of the Rushdie Affair and of the Danish Cartoons scandal can also be related to this unsettling of Muslim culture and communal life. The Prophet emerged in them as a source of public honour and as a larger­‐than-‐ life symbol of socio-­‐ political representation and identity, easily to be used for the mobilisation of anger, protest or militant action, especially in the Muslim global diaspora (e.g. Pnina Werbner 1996; Abdulrazak Gurna 2007; Kenan Malik 2009; Jytte Klausen 2009; Peter Hervik 2012).The consequences of this development have come out with increasing vigour and brutality today. Closer cases studies about the dynamics of Prophetic piety and political mobilisation since Khomainī’ʹs call against the Satanic Verses (1989), which heralded a new era of Islamic mass politics, are still strangely lacking; this appears particularly striking as mobilisation in this case easily transcended the confessional Sunnī-Shīʿī divide which has come out once more so strongly in the current struggles for hegemony in the Middle East.


It becomes clear from this condensed and by necessity sketchy overview of the research literature on Prophetic piety and its different socio-­‐ cultural and political dimensions, that, over the last decades, the Prophet of Islam has been met with increased interest in a wide range of research fields. But a general comparative approach which covers the full time range of the early modern and modern period, and which brings the different perspectives into a unified framework with a determined interdisciplinary effort is still lacking. It can also be observed that the relevant aspects of Sufism and mystical piety have generally found more attention than the political role of the Prophet in the revolutionary and millenarian movements of the later periods until the present, where the focus on the living actors involved remains for obvious reasons at the centre of attention. The notable and in some ways quite ancient split in the attitude of the Muslims to their Prophet and his heritage which was mentioned above, namely as a living presence or rather as a legal and moral trust for his community, often pervades the different regional studies but, apart from some passing remarks in general historical overviews has not yet found any comparative treatment, even less so with regard to Prophetic reference in the respective controversies. The challenge still remains to locate the particular place of the Prophet in the early modern and modern worlds of Muslim religious and political life; to find an analytical framework which is able to take both historical and contemporary features and developments into appropriate account; and to relate them to each other without neglecting either historical depth or current topicality.

  1. see Vimercati Sanseverino’s review here []
  2. See Rachida Chih’s review here []
  3. Projet members contributed to this volume, see, for instance, Chiabotti’s article on Muhammad’s names []
  4. Cf. Samuli Schielke, « On snacks and saints: when discourses of rationality and order enter the Egyptian mawlid », on line. Schielke doctoral thesis is accessible here []