Sunday Book Review: “Did Muhammad Exist?”

On the surface, this seems a bit of a silly question. According to the accepted story, Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was born in 570 AD and set in motion events of global significance in, as one writer puts it, “the full light of History.” We know when he lived and when he died. His words and deeds have come down to this day and are held up to billions of Muslims as an example to be emulated in every aspect. Shortly after his death, Arabs inspired by this new faith conquered over half the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire, destroyed the Persian Sassanid Empire, and built an Islamic Empire stretching from Spain to India. Surely, he existed.

Eh… Not so fast.

In his new book, “Did Muhammad Exist: an inquiry into Islam’s obscure origins,” Robert Spencer goes back to sources from Islam’s early days, the 7th-9th centuries, and finds that the evidence for a religion called Islam and a prophet named Muhammad is quite a bit more dodgy than one would think.

Over the course of the book’s ten chapters, Spencer examines the literary, numismatic, archaeological, and linguistic evidence from the time, both from the conquerors and the conquered, to argue that there is very little that shows the reality of Muhammad or Islam — at least in the form that we know it. For example, there is no mention of Muhammad or his religion for 70-100 years after the conquests. The conquests themselves are mentioned, of course, but the words “Muhammad,” “Islam,” and “Muslim” are strangely absent. One would think, for instance, that Patriarch St. Sophronius, who surrendered Jerusalem to the Arabs in 637 AD, would mention their religion and the figure who so inspired them and who supposedly had died just five years before. Instead, St. Sophronius calls them Saracens and does not speak of Muhammad at all. Other Christian sources call the Arab conquerors “Hagarians,” a reference  to Hagar, the concubine of Abraham who gave birth to Ishmael, the putative progenitor of the Arabs. (Indeed, another early name for the Arab conquerors is “Ishmaelite.”)

Other items jump out at the reader, too. As one example, coins from the early Caliphate (the ruler of the Arab Empire was called “Caliph.”) depict a man holding a symbol of rulership topped by… a cross. Given Islam’s hostility toward the symbol (Christians are derogatorily called “cross-worshipers”) and their firm belief that Christ was not on the cross, was not resurrected, and was not the Son of God, this is odd.

(Jesus, “Isa” in Arabic, is held to be one of the greatest prophets leading up to Muhammad. But, in Islam, He is held to be just a man, for Allah has no partners or children. To assign such to Allah is a great sin called “shirk.” According to Islam, the Christians just have got it all wrong.)

But what about Islamic sources — the Qur’an, the hadiths (sayings and deeds of Muhammad), and the earliest biographies of Muhammad? Don’t they prove his existence?

Not really. Spencer looks at problems with each and concludes they cannot be trusted as historical sources. The Qur’an, for example, was not gathered into one book until decades, perhaps a century, after Muhammad supposedly lived. Prior to that, even at the time of the conquests, there is no mention of it. The hadiths, even those considered most reliable, rely on long chains oral transmission from one person to another, back to someone who was supposedly there when Muhammad did or said whatever was being attributed to him. And even then, there is strong evidence that many were concocted to serve the purposes of factions within the Arab Empire, or simply to gull the pious out of a few coins, much like what was done with “relics” of Christian saints in the Middle Ages. And the oldest known biography of Muhammad, that written by Ibn Ishaq, was compiled from oral traditions roughly 150 years after Muhammad’s death. All of these present problems of temporal distance and the inherent problems of oral transmission and have to be considered questionable as sources.

Perhaps most telling to me was the linguistic evidence indicating that the Qur’an was not written in Arabia, nor was it a document in “purest Arabic,” as it itself asserts.

Spencer points out that, as a work of Arabic, perhaps one-fifth of the book simply makes no sense. Later scholars may come to an agreement on what a passage means (one often sees clarifying words inserted between parentheses in the Qur’an), but that does not mean the Arabic itself is intelligible.

This is so for several reasons. The first is that there are some words used, the meaning of which are unknown and have to be guessed at. The other comes from the style of writing early Arabic. Short vowels and some consonants were not indicated, so words with very different meanings (for example, “white raisins” versus “virgins”) could look confusingly alike. Later, diacritical marks or dots were added to aid in clarity, But the earliest Qur’ans lacked these marks. Instead of being perfectly clear, much of it was obscure.

Spencer reports that modern philologists have hit upon an interesting theory: that the original texts of the Qur’an were not written in Arabic, but were copied or adapted from Christian texts written in Syriac, a related Semitic language. According to scholars such as Christoph Luxenberg, if one strips out the diacritical marks and reads the text as Syriac, the Qur’an suddenly becomes clear and appears to be taken from several Christian works of the area, such as the hymns of St. Ephraem the Syrian. This makes some sense, as the early capital of the Arab Empire was not Mecca, but Damascus.

What then to make of all this? While the ultimate answer to whether Muhammad existed may be unanswerable (thus begging the question in the title…), Spencer posits that the early religion of the Arab conquerors may have been an extreme monotheism that traced its roots back to Abraham and was closely related to Judaism and especially the Christianity of the region. It then developed into the Islam we know out of the necessity to differentiate itself from these faiths and provide a focus for the unity of the new empire, as opposed to the religion of their great rivals, the Byzantines, and a justification for conquest. In this telling, Muhammad was created (or adapted from a minor figure) to give the evolving religion a heroic founder, and at least large portions of the Qur’an adapted from earlier Christian works to give the religion its own book, all this taking place in a process lasting one to two centuries.

It’s an argument I find plausible, albeit not proven.

But, also, what is the purpose of “Did Muhammad Exist?” One is that it is simply an interesting exercise in historical criticism, subjecting the historical claims of Islam to the same kind of scrutiny that has been applied to Christianity and Judaism over the last couple of centuries. In this work, Spencer collects and sifts through scholarly work and presents an interesting possibility to the general reader.

In other words, the investigation is its own reward.

But there’s another purpose, too: to introduce (or reintroduce) critical thinking about Islam and its origins to the Islamic world, where such investigations are condemned and often lead to violence against the questioner. To that end, Spencer and his publishers have arranged for translations of the book into Arabic and other languages of the Islamic world, which will be made available for free download via the Internet. It’s an intriguing exercise in planting the seeds of intellectual subversion in the cause of free thought, one that I hope bears fruit.

Summary: Robert Spencer has written a fascinating, thoughtful, and, yes, respectful book on the origins of Islam. “Did Muhammad Exist” is written in his usual easy style, is thoroughly footnoted, and comes with an extensive reading list for further research. Highly recommended, it is available in hardback and Kindle editions.

RELATED: Another review at PJMedia, by the inestimable “Zombie.” At The American Interest, Peter Berger looks at “The Koran and Historical Scholarship.”

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

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