Henry Stubbe and the Prophet Muhammad: A Flash from the Past

by Professor Nabil Matar, University of Minnesota 

28 March 2012, University of Cambridge

Presented jointly with the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (UK)

As part of the Acknowledging a Shared Past to Build a Shared Future: Rethinking Muslim/Non-Muslim Relations conference

The history of medieval and early modern European writings about the Prophet Muhammad shows a consistent pattern of misunderstanding. Until the nineteenth century, only one writer challenged that history: the English physician Henry Stubbe (1632-1676), author of “Originall & Progress of Mahometanism.” Neither an Orientalist nor a theologian, Henry Stubbe approached Islam as a historian of religion, perhaps the first in early modern Europe, arguing that the study of another religion should rely on historical evidence derived from indigenous documents, and not on foreign accounts. The result of his new historiographical approach was a “Copernican revolution” in the study of the figure of Muhammad, the Qur’an, and Islam. It shifted the focus from faith to scholarship. Had his treatise been published, the course of Western understanding of Islam might have been different. Upholding the primacy of Arabic writings, rather than of European literary/imaginative or theological works, Stubbe focused on the Latin translations of medieval Christian Arabic writers who had presented a positive and nuanced view of the Prophet. His treatise gave primacy to the views of those Arabic writers who had lived in the midst of the Islamic polity and whose chronicles conveyed a history completely different from that of their European counterparts.