Shoemaker, a professor of religious studies at the University of Oregon, has written several path-breaking books on early Islam; here, he complements them with a sourcebook collecting and translating twenty contemporaneous texts by non-Muslims (all Christians and Jews) about the first century of Islam. These have exceptional importance because the entire Muslim historical tradition relies on accounts from centuries later which are, as Shoemaker puts it, "notoriously unreliable." In contrast, "all the relevant contemporary witnesses to the rise of Muhammad's new religious community" come from non-Muslims. Better yet, they often confirm each other, for example, about the central importance of Jerusalem among Muhammad's followers. The result is a marvel of concision and originality; best of all, it is readily accessible to the general reader.
Those twenty excerpts tend to brief; Shoemaker helpfully introduces each one, provides the passages in translation, and then draws conclusions. But the most eye-popping insights come in the course of his substantial introduction to the volume. Some examples:
- "Muhammad and his followers were determined, it would appear, to liberate the biblical Holy Land of the Abrahamic patrimony from the sinful Romans who were illicitly occupying it."
- "In its early history Muhammad's religious movement was closely linked to Judaism." It was open to Christians as well.
- "The earliest Islamic community appears to have been a loosely organized confederation of Abrahamic monotheists. [Muhammad] served as an arbiter among the members of this inter-confessional community and their spiritual guide, rather than a prophet with a new dispensation."
- "It is not at all clear that the faith and practice of Muhammad and his earliest followers was identical with the religious faith that would eventually emerge as Islam."
A Prophet Has Appeared is one of the most readable and exciting books in Islamic history.