Mary, Sister of Aaron
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Mary (Miriam) the sister of Aaron (and of Moses), is a phrase used in the Quran to refer to Mary the mother of Jesus. From at least the 8th century, and perhaps as far back as Muhammad's time, critics have attacked this verse as a simple but revealing error. In Arabic both Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary the sister of Aaron and Moses are called by the same name, مريم (Maryam). Skeptical Jewish and Christian scholars believed that Muhammad had mistaken Jesus' mother for Moses' sister. While they shared a name, according to the Bible these two women lived more than a thousand years apart. In the hadith Muhammad explains that this criticism was a misunderstanding, but, according to these same texts many remained unconvinced. Ultimately, it seems, the Hadith and sirah traditions came to assert that Aaron and Moses had a sister whose name was Kulthum rather than Miriam, which seems to point to the tradition’s fundamental inability to understand the context of these verses and how they relate to the two biblical Miriams. In contrast to the traditional narrative, some modern scholars have rather found in this surah a complex web of inter-textual references, pointing to a highly literate and Christian audience of the original text .
Biblical and Talmudic accounts of Mary
Miriam, Aaron, and Moses were the children of Amram (Imran in Arabic):
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the daughter of Joachim and from the family of David (not from the family of Aaron):
In Hebrew he is called Amram (עַמְרָם) with the letter mem (ם) at the end. In the Arabic Bible he is also called Amram (عمرام), with the letter meem (م) at the end:
The children of Amram: Aaron, Moses and Miriam.
In Islamic sources he is called 'Imran (عمران). English translators commonly choose to translate the name as Amram:
The Genealogy of Moses b. Amram
The Arabic original has the letter nun (ن) at the end:
Genealogy of Musa bin Imran (عمران)
Mention of Mary in the Quran
Mary the mother of Jesus is called sister of Aaron in Sura 19:
O sister of Aaron, your father was not a man of evil, nor was your mother unchaste."
So she pointed to him. They said, "How can we speak to one who is in the cradle a child?"
[Jesus] said, "Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet.
And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah as long as I remain alive
And [made me] dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant.
And peace is on me the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive."
That is Jesus, the son of Mary - the word of truth about which they are in dispute.
The Qur'an calls Mary the daughter of Imran
The Quran also says the wife of Imran gave birth to the virgin Mary who gave birth to Jesus. "Wife of 'Imran" is here imra'atu ʿim'rān, literally woman of Imran, though the same construction certainly means "wife" a few verses later (Quran 3:40), and in several other verses.
But when she delivered her, she said, "My Lord, I have delivered a female." And Allah was most knowing of what she delivered, "And the male is not like the female. And I have named her Mary , and I seek refuge for her in You and [for] her descendants from Satan, the expelled [from the mercy of Allah]."
The Quran mentions prominent families:
The Basis of the Apparent Confusion
The apparent confusion of the original Jesus story manifests itself in two ways:
1. In calling Mary the sister of Aaron and 2. In calling her the daughter of 'Imran.
The simplest answer to how the details were so mangled is confusion on the part of the Qur'an: Since that Miriam and Mary are called the same name in Arabic "Maryam” مريم, the author of the Quran confused Mary the mother of Jesus with Miriam the sister of Aaron and the daughter of Imran.
Since this confusion is two-sided, this makes any apologetic attempts almost impossible since such apologetics must not only explain why Mary was called the sister of Aaron, but also needs to explain why she was called the daughter of Imran.
Traditional Muslim Explanations
Mary the daughter of Imran:
Apologetic explanations focus on why Mary was called the sister of Aaron. But they don't say much about why she was called the daughter of 'Imran since the solution to this issue is straightforward from an orthodox Islamic perspective: The bible is a corrupted book and not everything in it is true. So when the Qur'an says that Mary’s father’s name is 'Imran then this must be the truth no matter what the bible or Christians say. As for the works of Muslim scholars and historians on the issue, they clearly consider 'Imran, the father of Mary, to be a different person than 'Imran the father of Aaron and Moses. The earliest mention of Mary’s lineage and Aaron’s linage in Islamic sources goes back to Ibn Ishaq (d.768 AD) who says that Mary is the daughter of Imran the son of Yashhim. While he says that the father of Moses and Aaron was Imran the son of Yaṣhar .
Yaṣhar married Shamith the daughter of Binadit son of Barkiya son of Yaqsan son of Ibrahim. She (Shamith) gave birth to Imran the son of Yaṣhar, and Qarun the son of Yaṣhar. Imran married Yahib the daughter of Shamuyil son of Barkiya son of Yaqsan son of Ibrahim and she gave birth to Aaron the son of 'Imran, and Moses the son of 'Imran.
تاريخ الطبري، دار التراث، ج1 ص385
According to what has reached me over Mary’s lineage, she was the daughter of 'Imran the son of Yashhim son of Amun.
تاريخ الطبري، دار التراث، ج1 ص586
This Islamic take on Mary’s father hugely undermines the apologetic attempts trying to explain why she was called the sister of Aaron because of a big assumption they make: that the Christian sources mistook the name of Mary’s father. Futhermore it presupposes that, out of sheer coincidence, Mary’s father’s name is the same as the name of the father of Miriam the sister of Moses and Aaron.
Mary the sister of Aaron:
The apparent error in calling Mary a sister of Aaron was noticed very early on, so early that there is a Hadith attributed to Muhammad explaining this error. This Hadith is most likely a fabrication by early Muslims to resolve the error. The Hadith says as recorded in Sahih Muslim:
Al-Shanqiti (d.1974), a modern Quran interpreter, listed the previous Hadith and said:
وَإِذَا حَقَّقْتَ أَنَّ الْمُرَادَ بِهَارُونَ فِي الْآيَةِ غَيْرُ هَارُونَ أَخِي مُوسَى، فَاعْلَمْ أَنَّ بَعْضَ الْعُلَمَاءِ، قَالَ: إِنَّ لَهَا أَخًا اسْمُهُ هَارُونَ، وَبَعْضَهُمْ يَقُولُ: إِنَّ هَارُونَ الْمَذْكُورَ رَجُلٌ مِنْ قَوْمِهَا مَشْهُورٌ بِالصَّلَاحِ، وَعَلَى هَذَا فَالْمُرَادُ بِكَوْنِهَا أُخْتَهُ أَنَّهَا تُشْبِهُهُ فِي الْعِبَادَةِ وَالتَّقْوَى، وَإِطْلَاقُ اسْمِ الْأَخِ عَلَى النَّظِيرِ الْمُشَابِهِ مَعْرُوفٌ فِي الْقُرْآنِ وَفِي كَلَامِ الْعَرَبِ.."This authentic Hadith disproves the opinions that say Mary is Aaron’s sister or that she was a descendant of Aaron. And since that Aaron mentioned in the verse isn’t Aaron the brother of Moses, some scholars say that Mary had a brother called Aaron, and others say that Aaron mentioned in the verse was a man from her tribe who was known for being a righteous man. This must be taken to mean that “sister of Aaron” means she’s as righteous as him. When two things are similar, it’s a known metaphorical style in the Quran and Arabic to call one of them a brother (or a sister) of the other.
أضواء البيان للشنقيطي، دار الفكر، ج3 ص414،415
According to Al-Shanqiti, the Hadith can mean either of these two things:
A- Mary had a brother who was named Aaron.
This explanation is too convenient and too forced as it forces the following assumptions:
1- The Christian sources mistook Mary’s father’s name.
2- The Christian sources ignored mentioning that Mary had a brother.
3- Mary’s father’s true name matches the name of Miriam’s father out of coincidence.
4- Mary’s brother’s name matches the name of Miriam’s brother out of coincidence.
Christian sources say Mary’s father was named Joachim, and they don't mention she had a brother called Aaron. And if she had a brother called Aaron, then the question still arises, why is she called "sister of Aaron?" It also seems to beg the question of why this righteous brother is nowhere else mentioned in the Qur'an, hadith or Israyyiliyaat. It is rather much more probable that the author of the Qur'an thought that she really is the sister of Aaron and Moses, and so in the Qur'an people called her "sister of Aaron" to emphasize her social status.
In other words, the people asked "How can you have a baby without a husband, when you are from such a moral family".
The other possible explanation of the Hadith is:
B- There was a known righteous man in Mary’s people called Aaron. And “Sister of Aaron” is a metaphor for “Mary is as righteous as this man called Aaron”.
This explanation is also far too convenient and too forced as it includes the following assumptions:
1- The word “sister” in the verse shouldn’t be understood literally. Rather, it’s a metaphor meaning “similar to”.
2- Out of coincidence, the name of the righteous man that Mary was compared to matches the name of Miriam’s brother.
3- The Christian sources mistook Mary’s father’s name.
4- Out of coincidence, Mary’s father’s true name matches the name of Miriam’s father.
There’s nothing in the Quran indicating that the verse shouldn’t be understood literally. Actually, an early report shows clearly that Aisha bint Abi Bakr, Muhammad’s wife, understood the verse literally:
It was narrated from Ibn Jarir, narrated from Yaqub, narrated from Ibn U’laya, narrated from Sa’id Ibn Abi Sadaqa, narrated from Muhammad Ibn Sireen who stated that he was told that Ka’b said the verse that reads, "O sister of Harun (Aaron)!" (of Sura 19:28) does not refer to Aaron the brother of Moses. Aisha replied to Ka’b, "You have lied." Ka’b responded, "O Mother of the believers! If the prophet, may Allah’s prayers be upon him, has said it, and he is more knowledgeable, then this is what he related. Besides, I find the difference in time between them (Jesus and Moses) to be 600 years." He said that she remained silent.
And the mere fact we have a report attributed to Muhammad trying to explain the confusion means that the verse was understood literally.
The only reason for not taking the verse literally is to avoid the apparent mistake in chronology which Mary being the sister of Aaron would present. As with many such apologetics, this argumes assumes the conclusion: That the Qur'an cannot make a mistake.
Furthermore, the questions also arises, "where did 'Aaron the righteous man' come from?" There’s no mention of him whatsoever in the Quran and is only introduced (supposedly) in this verse. He’s only mentioned in Islamic interpretations of this verse. Since the Qur'an arose many centuries after Jesus lived, the introduction of such a character into the story when it is lacking in the original Christian texts would seem to be no more than an apologetic explanation.
Here are the Mentions of Aaron the righteous man in Al-Tabari’s interpretation:
حدثنا بشر، قال: ثنا يزيد، قال: ثنا سعيد، عن قتادة، قوله (يَاأُخْتَ هَارُونَ مَا كَانَ أَبُوكِ امْرَأَ سَوْءٍ وَمَا كَانَتْ أُمُّكِ بَغِيًّا) قال: كانت من أهل بيت يُعرفون بالصلاح، ولا يُعرفون بالفساد ومن الناس من يُعرفون بالصلاح ويتوالدون به، وآخرون يُعرفون بالفساد ويتوالدون به، وكان هارون مصلحا محببا في عشيرته، وليس بهارون أخي موسى، ولكنه هارون آخر. قال: وذُكر لنا أنه شيع جنازته يوم مات أربعون ألفا، كلهم يسمون هارون من بني إسرائيل
Qatadah (d.735 AD) said: Aaron was a righteous man from the Israelites. So Mary was compared to him.Qatadah also said: Mary belonged to a house known for righteousness. Aaron was a righteous man popular in his tribe. He wasn’t Aaron the brother of Moses. He was a different Aaron. Forty thousand people attended his funeral. They were all called Aaron from the Israelites.
تفسير الطبري، مؤسسة الرسالة، ج18 ص186
Another traditional explanation mentioned by Quran interpreters is that “sister of Aaron” means “descendant of Aaron”. Ibn Kathir (d.1373) , the most popular Quran interpreter, says:
This explanation is also seems too convenient and too forced as it includes the following assumptions:
1- The word “sister” in the verse shouldn’t be understood literally. Rather, it’s a metaphor meaning “descendant of”.
2- Mary is called a descendant of Aaron despite the fact that Christian sources state that she was from the family of David.
3- The Christian sources mistook Mary’s father’s name.
4- Out of coincidence, Mary’s father’s true name matches the name of Miriam’s father.
Christian sources consistently stated that Mary was from the family of David, so many wondered why the Qur'an would describe her as instead being from the family of Aaron. Some point out that in Luke 1:5, Elizabeth is said to be a descendant of Aaron; and in Luke 1:36, Elizabeth is said to be a cousin or relative of Mary . But being related to another person does not guarantee that one also descends from any particular one of that person’s distant ancestors (Aaron in this case). It should be noted that if “sister of Aaron” has room for metaphorical interpretations, then the kinship link between Mary and Imran has no room for that since that the Qur'an not only states that Mary is the daughter of 'Imran, but it also states that Mary’s mother is the woman of Imran. This casts doubt on the claims of some scholars , such as A. J. Wensinck, who claimed in the Encyclopaedia Of Islam that “It is not necessary to assume that these kinship links are to interpreted in modern terms. The words "sister" and "daughter", like their male counterparts, in Arabic usage can indicate extended kinship, descendance or spiritual affinity.” Such a claim ignores the seeming issue of calling 'Imran Mary's father.
Complete Picture of the Mistake
Tying all of the threads together, Miriam in the book of Exodus was the daughter of Amram and a sister of Aaron. The Qur'an describes Mary, the mother of Jesus, as being a daughter of Amram and a sister of Aaron - with the exact same familial relations as Miriam. According to later hadith traditions many Muslims, including allegedly 'Aisha, understood Mary and Miriam to be the same person, based on their understanding of the Qur'anic text.
When Christians criticized the verse which calls Mary "sister of Aaron" in the Quran, Muhammad's claimed response was that "people were named after pious persons who lived before them". Islamic scholars concluded that Mary was either called "sister of Aaron" because she was his descendant, she had a brother coincidentally called Aaron, or she was compared in piousness to a pious man from her people who was coincidentally named Aaron. All these solutions seem to be inventions, because Mary was not known to be a descendant of Aaron, she was not known to have a brother called "Aaron" and this pious man named Aaron seems to be made up by Muslims to justify the verse. On the other hand, Miriam was well-known to be a sister of Aaron.
Since Mary and Miriam are both pronounced Maryam in Arabic, it's possible that Muhammad, based on the Christian stories he heard, mixed these two women into one person when he was composing/relaying the Qur'an.
Modern Scholarly Interpretations
Some Modern scholars note that the author of Surat-Maryam had an in-depth knowledge of Christian tradition, and that he may have been a Christian clergyman whose work was used by the incipient believers movement, or who had joined the movement himself. As the author was evidently steeped in Christian tradition, it seems unlikely that he would have made a mistake about of Mary, the mother of Jesus, conflating her with Mary, the sister of Aaron and Moses. Rather, what is being invoked here is likely both Mary's descent from the scions of the Jewish people, Moses and Aaron, as well a priestly tradition in the Church of Kathisma in Jerusalem, linking the Dormition (apparent death, followed by the resurrection and assumption of Mary alive into heaven) with the priesthood of Aaron. A pre-Islamic Georgian Christian homiletic text exists that seems to explicitly call Mary the sister of Aaron. The shared phrasing between this Georgian text from Jerusalem and the Qur'an is remarkable; it suggests that whoever the author is of the rest of the Qur'an and even surat-Maryam, the author of this specific passage must have been a Christian from the area around Jerusalem, who was intimately familiar with the Christian tradition around the church of Kathisma and the liturgical traditions the church possessed around the virgin Mary .
References to Other Narratives
The entire first portion of Surat-Maryam (verses 1-63) makes constant references to apocryphal stories from legendary apocryphal gospels such as the Protoevangelium of James and the gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. These texts outline an infancy gospel of the Virgin Mary, telling of her father Joachim and mother Ana, righteous Jews who served the poor and followed the word of the Lord. Joachim was excluded from a temple ritual because of his lack of a child, however, since all righteous men of Israel had children. He went to the desert to pray and fast while Ana prayed for children from the Lord; after seeing a sparrow's nest in a tree, the angel of the Lord appeared to her and informed her that she would bear a child. In their joy for being granted a child at such an advanced age, the couple dedicated the child, Mary, as a perpetual virgin to the Lord. When she grew older she was entrusted to the care of an older man, Joseph, who would act as her husband but would not engage in sexual intercourse with her. When the Lord impregnated Mary with Jesus, the Jews accused Joseph and Mary of violating her oath to the Lord. The priest of the temple put Joseph to the test of the water of the ordeal of the Lord, drinking it and returning unharmed; furthermore, when Mary gave birth to Jesus, a blinding white light bathed the cave she was in, and both the midwife and the accused inserted their finger into her vagina and were shocked to see that even after Jesus' birth she was still a virgin. After seeing these great signs, the faith of Mary and Joseph was vindicated. Although these sources are uncredited in Muslim exegesis, there is no doubt that Surat-Maryam makes numerous references to this Marian infancy cycle, and in ayah 25 it also makes explicit reference to the Palm miracle recorded in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 20:1-2 (itself a reworking of the pagan fable of Leto giving birth to Apollo ).
فَنَادَىٰهَا مِن تَحْتِهَآ أَلَّا تَحْزَنِى قَدْ جَعَلَ رَبُّكِ تَحْتَكِ سَرِيًّا فَأَجَآءَهَا ٱلْمَخَاضُ إِلَىٰ جِذْعِ ٱلنَّخْلَةِ قَالَتْ يَٰلَيْتَنِى مِتُّ قَبْلَ هَٰذَا وَكُنتُ نَسْيًا مَّنسِيًّا وَهُزِّىٓ إِلَيْكِ بِجِذْعِ ٱلنَّخْلَةِ تُسَٰقِطْ عَلَيْكِ رُطَبًا جَنِيًّا فَكُلِى وَٱشْرَبِى وَقَرِّى عَيْنًا ۖ فَإِمَّا تَرَيِنَّ مِنَ ٱلْبَشَرِ أَحَدًا فَقُولِىٓ إِنِّى نَذَرْتُ لِلرَّحْمَٰنِ صَوْمًا فَلَنْ أُكَلِّمَ ٱلْيَوْمَ إِنسِيًّاAnd the pangs of childbirth drove her unto the trunk of the palm-tree. She said: Oh, would that I had died ere this and had become a thing of naught, forgotten!Then (one) cried unto her from below her, saying: Grieve not! Thy Lord hath placed a rivulet beneath thee, And shake the trunk of the palm-tree toward thee, thou wilt cause ripe dates to fall upon thee. So eat and drink and be consoled. And if thou meetest any mortal, say: Lo! I have vowed a fast unto the Beneficent, and may not speak this day to any mortal.
Compare with the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew:
While there are doubts as to the dating of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and its ability to directly influence the Quran, Stephen Shoemaker has found that the story was already developing in an earlier form in a set of early 5th century CE texts (at the latest) known as the Dormition of the Virgin, for which we have later fifth century Syriac manuscript fragments as the earliest textual witnesses (see Parallelism Between the Qur'an and Judeo-Christian Scriptures).
The Palestinian Connection
There exists in Palestine a Byzantine Church dedicated to the virgin Mary, the church of the Kathisma or Holy Throne of the virgin Mary. This church has a deep and complex relationship with the Islamic tradition, and was the likely model for the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem . Around the time of Muhammad, this church was a center of the Christian cult of the virgin Mary. Unlike modern Catholic and Orthodox Church, where only the Bible is read from the lectionary during the mass, at this time it was not unusual for reading to be done from the apocrypha and other non-canonized works. The Kathisma was built upon the site of the palm miracle mentioned in Pseudo Matthew chapter 20 and surat Maryam verse 23-25. According to the lectionary found for this church, the miracle of the palm, the virgin conception of Jesus, the immaculate (sin-free, virgin) conception of Mary, and the dormition (assumption into heaven alive) of Mary were all celebrated at this church. The Marian stational liturgy of the Dormition was celebrated here from the 13th of August to the 17th of August in the church calendar. In addition, in the middle of this celebration there were also reading on the 14th of August from the Life of Jeremiah. The Life purports to tell how the prophet Jeremiah saved the Ark of the Covenant and concealed it after the destruction of the 1st temple by the Babylonians. A text from the Kathisma , preserved in Georgian, one of the languages of mass celebration at the church, adds an extra prophecy to the story in the Life of Jeremiah .
The use of "sister of Aaron" (here reversed as "the brother of Mary" for Aaron) is being invoked here deliberately by the Georgian author, who always uses "Mary" for the mother of Jesus and "Miriam" for the actual sister of Aaron. The Qur'an is thus not showing its ignorance here; rather the reference to Mary as Aaron's sister is a reference to the celebration of the cult of the virgin Mary in Palestine. It is thus unlikely that an uneducated pagan audience in Mecca or Medina might have understood this verse; there are several explanations for how such a complex reference could have made its way into the Qur'an, and none of them align with the traditional narrative:
- The Arab audience of the northern Hijaz was not actually illiterate and pagan as the sirah and tafsir literature would have us believe, but was rather already in Muhammad's time largely Christian and intimately familiar with the literate, multi-lingual Grecophone and Syriac-speaking culture of the Byzantine near east.
- This surah (at least the first section) was not composed as the preaching of Muhammad, but was rather the product of Christian holy men working for an Arabic-speaking audience inside of the Byzantine empire; the first part of the surah which makes these allusions is thus a separate text from the later part of the surah which is heavily "Islamic" and lacks the complex Christian allusions. The entire surah as a whole is thus a composite work.
- Muhammad did not compose and preach this surah in the Hijaz, but rather in or around Palestine for an audience that would understand it; if Shoemaker in his book The Death of a Prophet is to be believed, this could have been after he personally conquered Jerusalem itself.
Likely Meaning of Imran
When the Qur'an states that Mary is the daughter of 'Imran, it is likely using typology, an approach to scripture that sees later figures as reflections of their biblical forebears. Thus what the Qur'an is here saying, through the mother of Jewish interlocuters, is that Mary and her family were pre-figured by the family of Aaron and Miryam. This pre-figurement further plays into the links established between Mary and Miriam at the church of the Kathisma, and once again demonstrates the author’s intimate knowledge of the Palestinian cult of the virgin Mary .
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- Quran 19:27-34
- Mughira b. Shu'ba reported: When I came to Najran, they (the Christians of Najran) asked me: You read "O sister of Harun" (i. e. Hadrat Maryam) in the Qur'an, whereas Moses was born much before Jesus. When I came back to Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) I asked him about that, whereupon he said: The (people of the old age) used to give names (to their persons) after the names of Apostles and pious persons who had gone before them. Sahih Muslim 25:5326
- Quran 19:27-28.
- Sahih Muslim 25:5326.
- Majlisi, Hayat al-Qulub 2:26.
- Guillaume Dye, “The Qur’ān and its Hypertextuality in Light of Redaction Criticism,” The Fourth Nangeroni Meeting Early Islam: The Sectarian Milieu of Late Antiquity? (Early Islamic Studies Seminar, Milan) (15-19 June 2015): 8
- Suleiman A. Mourad, “Mary in the Qur’an: a reexamination of her presentation,” The Qur'an in its Historical Context, Edited by Gabriel Said Reynolds (2008): 165.
- The Encyclopaedia Of Islam (New Edition), 1991, Volume VI, p. 630.
- For example from Waraqa ibn Nawfal.
- Guillaume Dye, “The Qur’ān and its Hypertextuality in Light of Redaction Criticism,” The Fourth Nangeroni Meeting Early Islam: The Sectarian Milieu of Late Antiquity? (Early Islamic Studies Seminar, Milan) (15-19 June 2015): 10.
- Suleiman A. Mourad, “Mary in the Qur’an: a reexamination of her presentation,” The Qur'an in its Historical Context, Edited by Gabriel Said Reynolds (2008): 169.
- Guillaume Dye, “The Qur’ān and its Hypertextuality in Light of Redaction Criticism,” The Fourth Nangeroni Meeting Early Islam: The Sectarian Milieu of Late Antiquity? (Early Islamic Studies Seminar, Milan) (15-19 June 2015): 15.
- Guillaume Dye, “The Qur’ān and its Hypertextuality in Light of Redaction Criticism,” The Fourth Nangeroni Meeting Early Islam: The Sectarian Milieu of Late Antiquity? (Early Islamic Studies Seminar, Milan) (15-19 June 2015): 13.
- Guillaume Dye, “The Qur’ān and its Hypertextuality in Light of Redaction Criticism,” The Fourth Nangeroni Meeting Early Islam: The Sectarian Milieu of Late Antiquity? (Early Islamic Studies Seminar, Milan) (15-19 June 2015): 9.