Fred Donner

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Fred McGraw Donner
Born 1945
Washington, D.C.
Residence Chicago, Illinois
Citizenship American
Fields Islamic Studies
Institutions University of Chicago;
Yale University;
University of Erlangen-Nuremberg
Alma mater Princeton University
Known for Islamic Studies; Quranic (Islamic) studies; scriptural exegesis; scholarship on Islamic origins

Fred McGraw Donner (born 1945) is a scholar of Islam and Professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago.[1]

As a representative of the Revisionist School of Islamic Studies Donner concentrates on historical criticism of Islam's early history, Other than the Islamic traditions which came into being only 150 to 200 years after Muhammad tell, Donner draws a picture of early Islam as a "believers' movement" including Jews and Christians.


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[2] 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.[3]

Donner is currently the President of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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


His book The Early Islamic Conquests (1981) has been described as "magisterial"[4] and "a major contribution to the understanding of early Islamic history" (International Journal of Middle East Studies).[5] It is used as a set text for several university courses.[6]

He has also published a translation of a volume of the history of al-Tabari in 1993.[1] In his Narratives of Islamic Origins (1998), he 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.[7] 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.

His 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) Islam began to separate from Christians and Jews.[8] 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.

Reception and Critique[edit]

Fred Donner is a renowned expert for his field of studies. His thesis about early Islam as a kind of "ecumenical" believers' movement found a positive public response.[9]

Patricia Crone wrote that Donner's thesis is based on a weak argument. According to her, there is no evidence for Donner's thesis except of some verses in the Quran which address Jews and Christians as "believers". The public response was positive only because his thesis "appeals deeply to American liberals: Here they find the nice, tolerant, and open Islam that they hanker for", Crone opines.[10]


  • 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


  1. ^ a b NELC Department Faculty list at University of Chicago
  2. ^ "University of Chicago article on Guggenheim Fellowship awards". 2007-04-12. Retrieved 2013-09-12. 
  3. ^ Middle East Medievalists. "Al-Usur al-Wusta: The Bulletin of Middle East Medievalists". Retrieved 2013-09-12. 
  4. ^ Elton H in Bryn Mawr Medieval Review (accessed 2 October 2007)
  5. ^ Review of The Early Islamic Conquests in the International Journal of Middle East Studies
  6. ^ e.g. refer University of Oklahoma (accessed 2 October 2007)
  7. ^ Narratives of Islamic Origins p. 62
  8. ^ Patricia Crone: Among the Believers Tablet Magazine 10 August 2010
  9. ^ New York Times, The Muslim Past, Sunday Book Review by Max Rodenbeck 25 June 2010
  10. ^ Patricia Crone: Among the Believers Tablet Magazine 10. August 2010

External links[edit]