Writing the Past: Cultural Memory and Religious Authority in the Quran and the Early Islamic Tradition

Name of applicant

Mette de Hemmer Bjerregaard


Last research institution: Université libre de Bruxelles


DKK 1,171,634



Type of grant

Reintegration Fellowships


It is hardly uncommon for a religious community to orient itself toward a collective and distant past which it considers to be foundational. This project explores the formation and development of such a cultural memory in the early Islamic tradition of the 7th-9th centuries. More specifically, it seeks to demonstrate that the early Islamic movement in the decades after the death of its founding figure, the prophet Muhammad, witnessed a pressing concern with asserting legitimacy and religious authority as a result of the fact that the founding figure and those who could remember him were gone. The project explores how the tradition expresses and renegotiates religious authority and identity through storytelling, and how these stories become a medium for the production of cultural meaning.


While the Qur'ān is relatively silent when it comes to biographical information about Muhammad, then the literature of the later Islamic tradition of the 8th-9th centuries overflows with details of his life and deeds. This apparent change in focus is understudied in former as well as current scholarship. This project poses the question of whether this development and surge in interest can meaningfully be understood as an expression of transition and renegotiation of religious authority as well as a need for firmly anchoring existing traditions in stories of the prophet in order to ensure religious and cultural continuity between past and present. The aim of the project is thus to provide new insights and nuance our understanding of the formation and development of the Islamic tradition.


Through a comparative reading of selected passages from the Qur'ān and from the later exegetical Islamic literature of the 8th and 9th centuries, this project will explore the formation of a collective Muslim memory and identity in the first centuries of Islam. Drawing on relevant theories of cultural memory and identity formation, which will help to shed light on the gradual development of religious authority in the early Islamic tradition, the analyses of these texts will center on a case study of the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage ritual, as its development in early Islamic literature presents an interesting case of negotiation of religious authority and continuity.

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