Fred Donner

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Fred McGraw Donner
Born1945 (age 76–77)
Alma materPrinceton University
Known forIslamic Studies; Quranic (Islamic) studies; scriptural exegesis; scholarship on Islamic origins
AwardsGuggenheim Fellow (2007)
Member of the Tunisian Academy of Sciences, Letters, and Arts
Scientific career
FieldsIslamic Studies
InstitutionsUniversity of Chicago;
Yale University;
University of Erlangen-Nuremberg

Fred McGraw Donner (born 1945) is a scholar of Islam and Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago.[1][2] He has published several books about early Islamic history.


Donner was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, where he attended public schools.[citation needed] In 1968 he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in Oriental Studies at Princeton University, having interrupted his studies from 1966 to 1967 to pursue the study of Arabic at the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies (MECAS) in the village of Shimlan, Lebanon.[citation needed] From 1968 to 1970 he served with the U. S. Army, seeing duty with U. S. Army Security Agency in Herzogenaurach, Germany in 1969-1970. He then studied oriental philology for a year (1970-1971) at the Friedrich-Alexander Universität in Erlangen, Germany, before returning to Princeton for doctoral work.[citation needed] Donner received his PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton in 1975.[citation needed] He taught Middle Eastern history in the History Department at Yale University from 1975-1982 before taking his position at the University of Chicago in 1982 (The Oriental Institute and Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations). He served as chairman of his Department (1997–2002) and as Director of the University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies (2009–present).[citation needed]

In 2007, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship[3] to examine Arabic papyri from the first Islamic century (seventh century CE) at collections in Paris, Vienna, Oxford, and Heidelberg.[citation needed]

Donner was President of Middle East Medievalists from 1992 until 1994 and served as editor of the journal Al-Usur al-Wusta: The Bulletin of Middle East Medievalists from 1992 until 2011.[4]

Donner was President of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.[5] He has been a member of MESA since 1975, served an earlier term on MESA's Board of Directors (1992-1994) and was awarded MESA's Jere L. Bacharach Service Award in 2008.[6]

Donner is a long-term member of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), The American Oriental Society, and Middle East Medievalists.


Donner's book The Early Islamic Conquests was published in 1981 by Princeton University Press.[7] He has also published a translation of a volume of the history of al-Tabari in 1993.[1]

In Narratives of Islamic Origins (1998), Donner argues for an early date for the Qur'an text. He responds in particular to the theory of late canonization of the Qur'an proposed by John Wansbrough and Yehuda D. Nevo.[8] The book attempts to explain how concerns for legitimation in the developing Islamic community shaped the themes that are the focus of Islamic historical writing, particularly the themes of prophecy, community, hegemony, and leadership.

Donner's book Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam, an account of the early years of the spiritual movement that would come to be known as Islam, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2010. Donner's main argument is that what came to be called Islam began as a monotheistic "Believers' movement" inaugurated by Muhammad which included righteous Christians and Jews as well as those monotheists who followed the teachings of the Qur'an. Only under the rule of Abd al-Malik (685-705) did Islam begin to separate from Christians and Jews.[9] This argument was first presented at a "Late Antiquity and Early Islam" workshop in London in 1993, and published in his article "From Believers to Muslims," which appeared in the journal Al-Abhath 50-51 (2002–2003), pp. 9–53.


Donner's book The Early Islamic Conquests (1981) has been described as "magisterial"[7] and "a major contribution to the understanding of early Islamic history" (International Journal of Middle East Studies).[10] It is used as a set text for several university courses.[11]

Donner's Muhammad and the Believers has been described as "learned and brilliantly original" in a The New York Times review.[12]

On the other hand, orientalist Patricia Crone was critical of the book: she wrote on Tablet that the only direct evidence for Donner's central thesis of an ecumenical early Islam comes from several Quranic verses, while the rest is based on conjecture. According to Crone, The New York Times review of Donner's book indicates that his account of a "nice, tolerant, and open" Islam appeals to American liberals, and it may perform a useful role in educating the broader public, but as a scholarly work "it leaves something to be desired".[13] Other academic reviews have characterized the book as "provocative and largely convincing"[14] and as "a plausible and compelling, if necessarily somewhat speculative, alternate account of the emergence of Islam".[15]


Donner received a 1994 Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.[2] From 2007 to 2008, Donner held a Guggenheim Fellowship.[2] Donner was appointed a life member of the Scientific Committee of the Tunisian Academy of Sciences, Letters, and Arts in 2012.[2]


  • The Early Islamic Conquests (Princeton University Press; 1981) ISBN 0-691-05327-8
  • The History of al-Tabari (Vol. 10): The Conquest of Arabia (State University of New York Press; 1993) ISBN 0-7914-1072-2 (translation)
  • Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing (Darwin Press; 1998) ISBN 0-87850-127-4
  • Muhammad and the Believers. At the Origins of Islam (Harvard University Press; 2010) ISBN 978-0-674-05097-6
  • Antoine Borrut; Fred McGraw Donner; Touraj Daryaee; Muriel Debié; Sidney Harrison Griffith; Wadād Qāḍī; Milka Levy-Rubin; Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych; Donald S Whitcomb; Luke B Yarbrough. Christians and Others in the Umayyad State (Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2016) ISBN 978-1614910312
  • The Articulation of Early Islamic State Structures. Second edition Formation of the classical world (Routledge, 2016) ISBN 978-0860787211


  1. ^ a b NELC Department Faculty list at University of Chicago
  2. ^ a b c d "Faculty members receive named, distinguished service professorships". University of Chicago. December 27, 2017. Retrieved December 22, 2020.
  3. ^ "University of Chicago article on Guggenheim Fellowship awards". 2007-04-12. Retrieved 2013-09-12.
  4. ^ Middle East Medievalists. "Al-Usur al-Wusta: The Bulletin of Middle East Medievalists". Retrieved 2013-09-12.
  5. ^ "Letters from MESA Presidents". Middle East Studies Association. Retrieved 2016-10-01.
  6. ^ "Jere L. Bacharach Service Award". Middle East Studies Association. Retrieved 2016-10-01.
  7. ^ a b Elton H in Bryn Mawr Medieval Review (accessed 2 October 2007)
  8. ^ Narratives of Islamic Origins p. 62
  9. ^ Patricia Crone: Among the Believers Tablet Magazine 10 August 2010
  10. ^ Review of The Early Islamic Conquests in the International Journal of Middle East Studies
  11. ^ e.g. refer University of Oklahoma (accessed 2 October 2007)
  12. ^ New York Times, The Muslim Past, Sunday Book Review by Max Rodenbeck 25 June 2010
  13. ^ Patricia Crone: Among the Believers Tablet Magazine 10. August 2010
  14. ^ Steven C. Judd (Sep 2011). "Review of Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam by Fred M. Donner". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 79 (3): 762–765. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfr024. JSTOR 23020418.
  15. ^ Paul R. Powers (February 2013). "Review of Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam by Fred M. Donner". History of Religions. 52 (3): 306–308. JSTOR 10.1086/66866.

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