April 15, 2023


Swift Hall Common Room

1025 E. 58th St.

Chicago, IL 60637

This conference deals with what is known as “early Islam”, namely the development of the faith itself, the formation of the Islamic state in Arabia, the expansion of the Muslim Empire in the Middle East and the political theories, legal approaches, and system of documenting and archiving that emerged in the process. It covers the 6th to the 8th centuries. This conference focuses mostly on Arabia and the Middle East, and it is dedicated to questions of sources, methodologies, and research agendas.  

In the last two decades, the study of early Islam has experienced enormous progress, driven by multipronged advances in the use of previously known sources and in the discovery of new ones. The former category includes the development of new methods of evaluating historical reports, while the latter relies on radiocarbon dating of the oldest surviving manuscripts, the systematic collection and study of previously unknown rock inscriptions from the Arabian Peninsula, and new discoveries in and developing methods for the study of early Islamic papyri.  

This conference seeks to bring together leading scholars of each of the fields concerned with early Islam both to share their individual research and to define a collective research agenda for the future that integrates these advances. This research we hope, will shed important light on the early Islamic state, its relationships with its neighboring states and empires, questions of administration and military expansion, and views of political legitimacy.

Conference organizers

Ahmed El Shamsy, Professor of Islamic Thought, NELC 

Cecilia Palombo, Assistant Professor of Early Islamic History              


Welcoming Remarks
Professor Orit Bashkin


Suleyman Dost, Assistant Professor of Late Antiquity and Early Islam, University of Toronto 
“Pilgrimage and Animal Sacrifice: Continuity and Rupture from pre-Islamic Arabia to the Qur’an”

Ahmad Al-Jallad, Sofia Chair in Arabic Studies, Ohio State University
"The Religious Landscape of the Late Pre-Islamic Hijaz: a View from the Epigraphy"

10:45-11:00AM Coffee Break

Elizabeth Urban, Associate Professor of History, West Chester University 
"How Unfree People Can Teach Us About Early Islamic History"

Mehmetcan AkpinarAssistant Instructional Professor, Department of Near Eastern
Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago
"Revisiting the Early Syrian Historiographical Tradition on the Islamic Conquests of Syria"

12:30-2:00PM Lunch

Sean Anthony, Professor, Near Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures,
Ohio State University  
"The Eschatological Muḥammad: Post-Qurʾanic Prophetology in Arabic Inscriptions
from the Marwanid Period"

Cecilia Palombo, Assistant Professor of Early Islamic History, University of Chicago
“The Believers’ Administration and Multilingual Papyri”



Fred Donner, Peter B. Ritzma Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern History, University of Chicago
"The Changing Face of Early Islamic History"

4:30-5:00PM Discussion and Concluding Remarks



Suleyman Dost is Assistant Professor of Late Antiquity and Early Islam at the University of Toronto. He works primarily on inscriptions and other documentary sources from late antique Arabia and Ethiopia. His research also covers the historical context in which the Qur’an emerged as well as the history of its textual transmission. Before joining the University of Toronto, Dr. Dost was an Assistant Professor at Brandeis University and held a year-long fellowship at ANAMED Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 2017. His first monograph titled An Arabian Qur’an: Materials Sources for a History of the Muslim Scripture will appear in 2024 from Edinburgh University Press. 

Ahmad Al-Jallad did his doctoral work at Harvard University in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He currently researches the languages, writing systems, and cultures of pre-Islamic Arabia and is the Sofia Chair of Arabic at the Ohio State University. He is the author of The Religion and Rituals of the Nomads of Pre-Islamic Arabia: A reconstruction based on the Safaitic inscriptions, among other works.

Elizabeth Urban is Associate Professor of History at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. She completed her PhD at the University of Chicago in 2012, under the supervision of Fred Donner. Her 2020 monograph, Conquered Populations in Early Islam, studies how enslaved people sparked debates about the political, social, and religious boundaries of the earliest Islamic community. Her current research focuses on the lives and labor of freedwomen, and it considers how walā’ (manumission/clientage) functioned as a form of kinship tie in early Islamic society.

Mehmetcan Akpınar is an Assistant Instructional Professor at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. He is a scholar of early and medieval Islamic history and thought, whose research addresses questions of transmission and intertextuality in Arabic historical and religious traditions. By tracing scholarly mobility and textual transmission in their social, religious, intellectual, and historical contexts, and by editing new sources from the 8th century, his research demonstrates that we can learn far more about the beginnings of Islam than hitherto assumed. Akpinar received his MA and PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago. Prior to joining the faculty, he was a research and teaching associate at the University of Tübingen.

Sean W. Anthony (Ph.D. ’09, University of Chicago) is Professor of Islamic Studies at the Department of Near Eastern and South Asian Studies at the Ohio State University.

Cecilia Palombo is Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, specializing in late antiquity and the early Islamic period. She studies the social history of the early Islamic Middle East and its various documentary cultures, multilingual traditions, and endangered cultural heritages. She gained her PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University and has worked as a researcher at the Institute for Area Studies of Leiden University.

Fred M. Donner is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern History in The Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1982 to 2020. Donner is an historian whose has made significant contributions to our understanding of the origins of Islam and early Islamic history. In his first book, The Early Islamic Conquests (Princeton, 1981), Donner demonstrates that the early Islamic conquests were the result of a well-planned and well-executed state policy. In Narratives of Islamic Origins (Darwin Press, 1981), Donner investigates the early development of Islamic historical writing and argues that this historical interest developed out of a need to articulate and legitimate an identity separate from that of other religious communities. His book Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Harvard University Press, 2010), presents a unique vision of how Islam first evolved: the early Believers’ movement created by the Prophet Muhammad was one that actively included some Jews and Christians as part of a general monotheistic community, but decades after Muhammad’s death in 632 CE a new generation decided that only those who saw the Quran as the final revelation, and Muhammad as the bearer of that message, were Muslim. In recent years he has turned to the study of documentary sources for early Islamic history, particularly Arabic papyri. He was educated at Princeton University, where he earned his A. B. in Oriental Studies (1968) and his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies (1975), and at the Friedrich-Alexander Universität in Erlangen, Germany (1970-71). He taught at Yale University (History) from 1975 to 1982, before joining Chicago’s Oriental Institute (now Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures) and Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in 1982. He has been President of the Middle East Studies Association, Middle East Medievalists, and the International Qur’anic Studies Association, and is a life foreign member of the Scientific Committee of the Tunisian Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts “Bayt al-Hikma”. His work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Stanford Humanities Center, the American Academy in Berlin, and the American Council of Learned Societies.


Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Franke Institute, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, The Divinity School