The Revisionist Case That Muhammad Did Not Exist

Robert Spencer, Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2012), 272 pages, $39.95

Did Muhammad exist? No. And neither did the Koran for that matter, at least not in the form or with the status ascribed to it by Muslims. These are the two major conclusions of a vigorous stream of revisionist scholarship that has struggled for many decades to gain a hearing within the critically indolent field of Islamic Studies.

It is a primary virtue of a new book by Robert Spencer, Did Muhammad Exist?, that it summarises and explores this important work in a balanced, lucid and compelling fashion. It shows that the vast presence that Muhammad enjoys in global history rests on flimsy foundations, which Spencer’s new book systematically dismantles, leaving few stones standing, synthesising the findings of revisionist scholars into a devastating demolition of the traditional accounts of Muhammad and the origins of Islam in all their aspects.

As Spencer acknowledges, he builds on the work of earlier dissenting scholars, including Aloys Sprenger (1813–93), Ignaz Goldziher (1850–1921), Henri Lammens (1862–1937) and Joseph Schacht (1902–69), as well as more contemporary figures whose work is discussed below. His book also complements several recent sets of related essays and readings, including those edited by Karl-Heinz Ohlig and Gerd R. Puin on The Hidden Origins of Islam (2010), and by the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq on The Quest for the Historical Muhammad (2000), Which Koran? (2007), and Virgins? What Virgins? (2010). These have sought to raise the profile of the revisionist perspective and to challenge the rather inertial state of scholarship in this vital field.

The critical torpor that afflicts Islamic Studies is understandable of course, especially when Western scholars of Islam (and their universities) are dependent on petro-dollar funding from Muslim benefactors, and the goodwill of Muslim countries in which they carry out their research. Moreover, as Ibn Warraq observes in Virgins? What Virgins?, scholars have been “crushed into silence out of respect for the tender sensibilities of Muslims, by political correctness, postcolonial feelings of guilt, and dogmatic Islamophilia”. Indeed, Edward Said’s massively influential polemic Orientalism (1978) imposed a virtual prohibition on the objective study of Islam, asserting that even the most innocuous commentary is actually a form of Eurocentric oppression. Scholars are also aware of the apparently limitless wrath of Muslims eager to react violently to any suggestion that the fundamental tenets of their religion are being questioned or shown insufficient respect. And, of course, the role of Muhammad as the “Seal of the Prophets” and the status of the Koran as the pre-existing, eternal word of God are foundational beliefs of Islam, and are at least as central to that religion as Jesus Christ is to Christianity.

On the other hand, this timidity cannot be completely excused, as other religions have faced scholarly assaults upon their foundations. Christians have had to deal with relentless challenges to key elements of their faith by increasingly outspoken scholars for nearly 300 years. As long ago as the early eighteenth century Thomas Chubb initiated “the search for the historical Jesus”, which was taken up by a later Enlightenment intellectual, Hermann Reimarius, and promoted by Gotthold Lessing, who disingenuously justified the systematic deconstruction of the Christian faith on the basis that “the contingent truths of history can have no impact upon the eternal truths of reason”, with which he identified Christian theology. This deconstructive effort gathered pace through the nineteenth century, culminating in Albert Schweitzer’s (in)famous book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), and the subsequent work of Rudolf Bultmann, who set out systematically to “demythologise” the New Testament, ridding it of supernatural content, and conjuring up a Jesus who propounded an existentialist philosophy that, predictably, mirrored that of Bultmann. Subsequent biblical scholarship formulated increasingly powerful forms of historical and critical analysis, and the historicity of Jesus became highly problematic, inspiring the “death of God” school of theology in the 1960s.

More recently, Christians have had to accommodate the influential iconoclasm of the Jesus Seminar, made up of scholars and laypersons who regularly vote with coloured beads in a ballot on the historicity of the accounts of the activities and teachings of Jesus. Consequently, they portray him in a counter-culture or New Age guise, as an itinerant Hellenised Jewish wise man and faith healer who challenged religious dogmas and repressive social conventions, preached a theology of liberation, and championed the cause of the marginalised and oppressed. And, of course, according to the seminar, Jesus was not divine, but just an ordinary mortal of normal parentage who was executed by a frightened establishment, and not as a substitutionary atonement for the sins of the world, and who is also certainly not the Second Person of the Trinity. Adding to such intellectual assaults, Judaism and Christianity have to engage with two of the most exciting archaeological discoveries in history—the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Nag-Hammadi Library—both of which have the capacity to overturn and re-constitute the earliest history of both religions. 

Contemporary Christianity has been able to accommodate this relentless historical-critical activity, not without discord and division, but certainly without systematic intimidation and acts of violence and assassination against those who voice reservations about the truth claims being made. Indeed, many indubitably Christian scholars have embraced the challenge of these new discoveries and explored new insights generated by critical analysis of their source material.

Nothing comparable has occurred in Islamic Studies, even though the tools of historical and critical analysis are very applicable to that field of scholarship. Several tragic cases can be cited concerning those who’ve tried. Professor Suliman Bashear was a leading Arab scholar (Studies in Early Islamic Tradition, 2004) who was badly injured after being thrown out of a classroom window by fundamentalist students enraged by his revisionist argument that Islam evolved as a religion within the matrix of Judeo-Christian monotheistic thought that prevailed in the Middle East in Late Antiquity, rather than appearing abruptly as the result of a prophetic revelation. Professor Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd also ventured too far into this type of inquiry (Rethinking the Qur’an: Towards a Humanistic Hermeneutics, 2004). He was one of Egypt’s leading Koranic scholars and a very rare liberal Islam theologian who developed a humanistic form of Koranic hermeneutics that he used to argue that Islam could accommodate itself to modernity. Consequently, and despite his exemplary scholarly achievements, he was refused promotion at his university, declared an apostate from Islam, forcibly divorced from his wife, sentenced to death by Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and driven into exile. Mention might also be made of Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch, a German convert to Islam who taught Muslim theology at the University of Munster, but saw his career and his faith evaporate when he announced that his research had convinced him that Muhammad never existed.

It doesn’t require much imagination to envisage the bloody consequences of any “Muhammad Seminar” or ballot on the reliability of the Koran conducted in a Muslim country, or indeed in Western countries, paralysed as they are not only by threats of violence and the withdrawal of financial and other support, but also by the ever-tightening constraints of political correctness and proliferating laws on “hate speech” and discrimination. Not surprisingly, at least two of the most important Western scholars challenging the received account of the origins of Islam publish under pseudonyms, and travel and appear in public in disguise and with substantial security, wary of the fate suffered not only by Bashear and Abu Zayd, but also by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Theo van Gogh, Salman Rushdie and Naguib Mahfouz, amongst many other intellectuals victimised by Muslim authorities and fanatics. 

The scholarly insurgency in Islamic Studies challenging the traditional orthodoxy made its breakthrough about four decades ago, after an extended period of intellectual stagnation amongst traditionalists, in a classic example of a paradigm revolution. As Harald Motzki notes in his review of “Alternative Accounts of the Qur’an’s Formation” in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an (2006), there was very little development in Western scholarship concerning Islam until 1970 when some very important work emerged to challenge the accepted wisdom about the early history of the religion. A revolutionary paradigm had emerged suddenly to challenge the dominant one.

According to the dominant account, the Koran appeared in the first decades of the seventh century AD in Mecca and Medina as a result of a series of divine revelations to a charismatic religious and political leader, Muhammad, who had these recorded, and who then edited and re-arranged them during his prophetic career. They were later collected during the reign of the second caliph, ‘Umar, with the canonical version being finalised under the third caliph, ‘Uthmān, some twenty years after Muhammad’s death in 632. This was published as the official version of the Koran and has prevailed to the present day; attempts to produce a critical edition dealing with troublesome textual variations have been resisted.

This traditional account of the origins of the Koran is based on what is asserted to be the stylistic uniformity of the text, and (in a methodologically circular move) on evidence believed to be found in the Koran itself, with the latter interpreted in the light of other traditional Muslim accounts (hadith) about the life of Muhammad and the compilation of the Koran. It is not based on external documentary, archaeological or numismatic evidence. (Note that the apparently Koranic verses inscribed in the Dome of the Rock, although early, contain variations that raise more questions than they answer about the formation of the Koran, as Spencer and other revisionists point out. For example, it appears that the verses record a dissident Christian critique of mainstream Christology, predate the Koran, and were incorporated into, rather than derived from it.)

The alternative paradigm emerged in response to a range of unavoidable difficulties about the evidence that scholars ultimately could no longer evade. The decisive step was taken by John Wansbrough, an American-born historian at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. As Motzki notes, “all the elements of [the official] account have been challenged by John Wansbrough in his Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (1977) and The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (1978)”, two works whose legendary difficulty unfortunately (or deliberately?) limited their impact on a wide audience. At any rate, Wansbrough tackled head-on the fundamental problem in the historiography of early Islam, the absence of any original source material from the first century in the religion’s history, and concluded that this was because such material existed (if at all) only as an oral tradition or traditions, and relevant documentary or other sources from the period, including any early forms of the Koran, therefore never existed. Indeed, he dated the formation of the canonical version of the Koran to no earlier than the third Muslim century (the ninth century AD), some 200 years after Muhammad was said to have received his revelations.

This solution, although traumatic and resisted by those who adhered to the previous paradigm, could not be avoided. As F.E. Peters observed in “The Quest of the Historical Muhammad” (1991), in terms of any extant historical evidence illuminating its sudden appearance in the mid-seventh century, the Koran “stands isolated like an immense rock jutting forth from a desolate sea, a stony eminence with few marks on it to suggest how or why it appeared in this watery desert”. As Daniel Brown concluded in A New Introduction to Islam (2004): “Wansbrough’s arguments, given the state of the evidence, are substantially irrefutable”; and consequently, 

students of Islam are faced with a set of contrasting paradigms for the formation of the Qur’an. Proponents of one paradigm accept the traditional Muslim view, sometimes with superficial revision. The other paradigm places the canonization of the Qur’an in a Near Eastern environment during the two centuries following the conquest.  

These paradigms are quite incompatible, the implications of the new one being devastating for Islam’s traditional self-understanding of its history and the foundations of its faith. 

Wansbrough’s re-interpretation did not stop there. He also rejected the basic assumption of the standard source analysis of the Koran—that it was possible to identify facts in the text that anchored it in history and provided reliable insights into “what really happened” in the formative years of both the text itself and Islam. Instead, he applied form criticism derived from the work of Bultmann and others in biblical studies, where it had been honed to a sharp critical edge, and which approached the Koran and the traditional accounts surrounding it as literature, that is, as fictional accounts derived from various sources, including oral traditions, woven together in a creative and collective fashion over an extended period.

He also noted that the Koran and early Muslim documents made considerable reference to concepts, images and theological issues associated with various forms of the Judeo-Christian tradition that played a dominant role within a broader monotheistic matrix prevailing throughout the Middle East at the time. He surmised that the religious movement that eventually evolved into Islam had begun as a Judeo-Christian sect in the western Arabian region, and that material derived from this sectarian source was adapted to an Arab perspective over centuries to ultimately become the Koran.

Consequently, in Wansbrough’s interpretation, the official account of Islam’s origins is best seen as a “salvation history”, constructed from various sources and projected back onto the past by later generations as the Arab people sought to establish their own religious identity and acquire a special status as the recipients of God’s “final” revelation. Muhammad emerges as a similarly constructed mythical figure, who served to provide the Arab people with their own prophet. Moreover, he was also granted a special status, as the Seal of the Prophets, ranking above all previous prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition and disqualifying any that might appear in the future. In summary, according to this analysis, neither Muhammad, the Koran, nor Islam appeared miraculously in the seventh century, as the traditional account maintains, but evolved instead over centuries, as have other world religions. 

The new paradigm had other champions. In 1977, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook published what Spencer describes as “the wildly controversial book” Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World. This book propounded a controversial re-interpretation of the early history of Islam that “unleashed an avalanche of work on Islam’s origins”, as Fred Donner reflected in “The Historical Context” in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an. Like Wansbrough, Crone and Cook rejected outright the basic axiom of most previous accounts of the early formation of Islam—that it is possible to derive an historically reliable framework from Islamic sources: 

It is … well-known that these sources are not demonstrably early. There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century, and the tradition which places this rather opaque revelation in its historical context is not attested before the middle of the eighth. The historicity of the Islamic tradition is thus to some degree problematic.  

At most, “what purport to be accounts of religious events in the seventh century are utilizable only for the study of religious ideas in the eighth”, and consequently, for historical purposes, “the only way out of the dilemma is thus to step outside the Islamic tradition altogether and start again”.

The best external point of departure for reconstructing the early history of Islam, Crone explained in Slaves on Horses: The Evolution of the Islamic Polity (1980), was a mass of documentary material that has been systematically ignored because of its non-Muslim provenance and implications: 

All the while that Islamic historians have been struggling with their inert tradition, they have had available to them the Greek, Armenian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Coptic literatures of non-Muslim neighbors and subjects of the Arab conquerors, to a large extent edited and translated [over a century ago, but] left to collect dust in the libraries ever since.  

While this dismissive attitude towards these sources was “striking testimony to the suppression” of historical scholarship concerning the non-Islamic Middle East, this material was invaluable, “because there is agreement between the independent and contemporary witnesses of the non-Muslim world [and] they leave no doubt that Islam was, like other religions, the product of a religious evolution”, and not a sudden revelatory event of epochal significance that left, inexplicably, no contemporary historical evidence to support subsequent traditional Muslim claims about it.

Wansbrough had been a mentor of Crone and Cook, although they diverged from his account in several areas, accepting an earlier date for the final recension of the Koran, seen as a compilation of material derived from Judaic forms of Christianity and Middle Eastern pagan sources. In their view Islam, the caliphate, and the Arab conquests were the ultimate results of a rebellion against the Byzantine and Persian empires as they slid into crisis, initially involving a coalition of Arabs and Jews inspired by Jewish messianism, and known in non-Muslim contemporary sources as “Hagarenes”, because of their decision to claim descent from Abraham through his slave wife Hagar as distinct from the Jewish claim of descent from Abraham through his wife Sarah. At some point in the early eighth century the coalition dissolved and the “Hagarenes” began to evolve a specifically Arab version of monotheism as they recognised the need to establish their own religious identity. In this fashion Crone and Cook reach the same basic conclusion as Wansbrough, although they proceeded along a slightly different route in a more combative fashion. 

Another central figure amongst the revisionists must be noted. This is the pseudonymous scholar Christoph Luxenberg, who argued in The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran (German edition 2000, English translation 2007) that the emergence of Islam is best understood in terms of the evangelising activities of Syrian Christians who were active in Arabia at the time. Their teachings were, of necessity, expressed in concepts derived from their own Syro-Aramaic language, and those Arabs who responded adopted many of these terms and incorporated them as loan words into an oral tradition that eventually evolved into a central component of the Koran.

This theory allowed Luxenberg to resolve many apparent inconsistencies and incoherencies of the Koran by considering certain obscure words, phrases and sentences as originally Aramaic loan words rather that Arabic. This procedure involved exploring ancient Aramaic for relevant or plausible homonyms for terms found in the Koran on the assumption that these had been imported into the oral tradition that later found written Arabic form in the Koran after copyists and editors had guessed at their meaning, thereby producing the difficulties that characterise the text. A famous example of this is the rendering of one term as “virgins” instead of “raisins”. According to Luxenberg, the word usually translated as “virgins” or “dark-eyed maidens” is best understood as referring to “white raisins” of “crystal clarity”, meaning that the promised delights awaiting martyrs in Paradise are more culinary that carnal—a finding that may be deflating for prospective suicide bombers.

Another scholar drawn into the revisionist camp was Gerd R. Puin, a German authority on ancient Koranic manuscripts. Puin was the head of a restoration project commissioned by the Yemeni government to examine and catalogue a vast hoard of Koranic and non-Koranic fragments discovered in Sana’a in 1972. Amongst the material was a palimpsest which appears to contain the oldest Koranic texts in existence. Significantly, the older of the texts can be radio-carbon-dated to no later than 660 AD. This was after the canonical Koran was supposedly settled, and yet it exhibits significant textual variations that suggest a process of formation of the Koran that differs markedly from the traditional account, and is especially challenging for Muslims who believe that the Koran is the eternal word of God and arrived in this world perfect and fully formed. Based on this and evidence derived from the other material, Puin and his associates concluded that the proto-Islamic religious movement must have been in constant flux in its early years and that the Koran is an amalgam of texts from various sources that were apparently not fully intellectually assimilated even at the time of Muhammad, and may date from at least a century before. In particular, Puin detected a Christian substrate in the material from which may be derived an entire “anti-history” of the origins of Islam.

In summary, what Ibn Warraq identifies in Virgins? What Virgins? as “the Wansbrough/Cook/Crone line” lies at the centre of the revisionist paradigm, supported, supplemented and developed by the work of other scholars. Instead of the traditional view that Islam appeared miraculously, as “a breach in cultural continuity unparalleled among the great civilisations”, as Marshall Hodgson asserted in The Venture of Islam (1974), the revisionists offer a more prosaic scenario. As Warraq says: 

Islam, far from being born fully fledged with a watertight creed, rites, rituals, holy places, shrines, and a holy scripture, was a late literary creation, as the early Arab warriors spilled out of the Hijaz [the Western region of Arabia containing Jeddah, Mecca and Medina] in dramatic fashion and encountered sophisticated civilizations—encounters that forced them to forge their own religious identity out of the already available materials, which were then reworked to fit into a mythical Hijazi framework.  

This included a holy scripture to supplant those of the Jews and the Christians, and a prophetic figure to supersede Jesus Christ. The profound implications of this paradigm shift have been summed up by one leading proponent of the traditional position as follows: “If the hypothesis of Wansbrough and others in his group turns out to be true, it would serve to destroy the very basis of Islamic civilization” (Massimo Campanini, The Qur’an: The Basics, 2007). 

Robert Spencer’s new book appears to signal a growing confidence amongst the revisionists. He published a biographical study, The Truth about Muhammad, in 2006, based on the earliest sources, and although he remarked then that “from a strictly historical standpoint, it is impossible to state with certainty even that a man named Muhammad actually existed”, he nevertheless felt compelled to concede that “in all likelihood he did exist”. Now he believes that “may have been an overly optimistic assessment”, as 

even the pillars used to support the traditional account begin to crumble upon close scrutiny … The available historical records contain a surprising number of puzzles and anomalies that strongly suggest that the standard Muslim story about Muhammad is more legend than fact. 

This is not surprising, as the extant material concerning the historical figure of Muhammad is scant indeed, as we have seen. And even in the Koran, Spencer reminds us, “the name Muhammad actually appears … only four times, and in three of those instances it could be used as a title—the ‘praised one’ or ‘chosen one’—rather than as a proper name”, and no information is disclosed about his life. (By contrast, Jesus is mentioned twenty-five times, eleven as the Messiah.) Elsewhere, the sources fall into two categories. First, there is the biography by Ibn Ishaq and related works composed in the ninth and tenth centuries; and, second, the canonical collections of hadith from the same era. As Ohlig observes in The Hidden Origins of Islam, “following the canons of historical-critical research, these reports, written approximately two hundred years after the fact, should be taken into consideration only with great reservations”; while Brown confirms in A New Introduction to Islam that “all accounts of Muhammad’s life lead back to Ibn Ishaq, an otherwise minor Medinian scholar who secured a place in history by compiling the first full biography of Muhammad”. Moreover, the work of Ibn Ishaq is itself not even extant, but is known only via the work of a ninth-century Muslim writer, Ibn Hisham, who explained that he heavily edited Ibn Ishaq’s work to remove “things which it is disgraceful to discuss [and] matters which would distress certain people” or otherwise scandalise the devout. Nevertheless, Ibn Ishaq’s version remains the dominant source of all later biographies of Muhammad, so much so that, in Brown’s view, anyone who reads a modern biography, such as Montgomery Watt’s major two-volume study, “is essentially reading Watt’s commentary on Ibn Ishaq”, and this stricture applies to similar biographies and textbooks based on them, which together shape much of what is accepted knowledge about Muhammad and the origins of Islam.

Nor are external contemporary sources of any assistance in establishing a reliable picture of the historical Muhammad, despite the literally awesome impact he was alleged to have had on the world at the time. As Spencer observes, “it would entirely reasonable to expect that seventh-century chroniclers … would note the remarkable influence and achievement of this man”, but no, “there is nothing dating from the time of Muhammad’s activities or for a considerable time thereafter that actually tells us anything about what he was like or what he did”. Moreover, what records do exist produce more questions than answers. For example, there exists a Christian account from around 635 of the conquest of Jerusalem by “the godless Saracens … who give themselves up to prostitution, massacre and lead into captivity the sons of men”, but it makes “no mention, even in the heat of the fiercest polemic, of the conquerors’ god, their prophet, or their holy book”. A similar account, the Doctrina Jacobi, written around 635 to 640, speaks of an unnamed Saracen prophet emerging in the region, but this was in 635, after Muhammad’s supposed death, and this prophet (if he existed) was proclaiming not a new religion but “the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come”: a Jewish or Christian Messiah.

Notably, nowhere amongst such accounts is there mention of “Muhammad”, “Islam”, the “Koran”, or “Muslims”, with reference only to “Saracens”, or “Hagarenes”, and so on, and no indication that a major new religion has emerged, led by a new prophet and supreme political and military leader. Even more significantly, the Arab conquerors themselves didn’t mention these terms, with the few references to “Muhammad” as likely to be an honorific as a proper name, and in several instances these are accompanied by the symbol of the cross, suggesting a Christian association. It was only at the very end of the seventh century, sixty years after the traditional date of Muhammad’s death, that any mention of him begins to appear, and it was another sixty years before Ibn Ishaq’s biography was apparently published. 

Ultimately, it is only through the wilful suppression and avoidance of historical evidence and the implications that flow from it that the traditional accounts can be maintained, and it is difficult to dissent from what Spencer calls “A Revisionist Scenario” that offers a synthesis of what is known (and not known) about the appearance of the Koran, Muhammad, and the origins of Islam. In his own attempt to provide an evidence-based account, Spencer begins with the “immutable fact” of the Arab empire that emerged at the time and quickly found itself requiring the ideological legitimation that could only be provided by a political theology similar to that exercised over their subject people by the Roman, Byzantine and Persian states. The Arab rulers appear initially to have been adherents of Hagarism, and rejected the mainstream Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, with the latter seen instead as a messenger of God. Around the beginning of the eighth century this allegiance began to fade in favour of an embryonic version of Islam that nevertheless retained many elements of the original religion.

This new faith emphasised an extremely rigorous form of monotheism, within which “the ‘praised one’, Muhammad, an Arabian prophet who may have lived decades before”, took centre stage. This prophetic figure had to be not only an Arab, a warrior, and a political leader, but also an inhabitant of central Arabia, to avert any suggestion that the new divine dispensation was anything other than purely Arabian in origins and nature. Similar considerations surrounded the advent of the Koran, which was fashioned from various sources, including the inscription from the Dome of the Rock, and other material that originally had a Judeo-Christian provenance, resulting in the “numerous non-Arabic elements and outright incoherencies” that came to characterise it. In summary, the imperatives of “empire came first and the theology came later … the spiritual propositions that Islam offers were elaborated in order to justify and perpetuate the political entity that generated them”.

So, did Muhammad exist? In Spencer’s view, “as a prophet of the Arabs who taught a vaguely defined monotheism, he may have existed. But beyond that, his life story is lost in the mists of legend.” Ultimately, “as the prophet of Islam, who received (or even claimed to receive) the perfect copy of the perfect eternal book from the supreme God, Muhammad almost certainly did not exist”.

Dr Mervyn F. Bendle is Senior Lecturer, History and Communication, at James Cook University. He wrote on “How Civilisations Die” in the April issue.

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