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DID MUHAMMAD EXIST?
An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins
By ROBERT SPENCER
Copyright © 2012 Robert Spencer
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Man Who Wasn't There
One may assume that the first and foremost source for information about Muhammad's life is the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam. Yet that book actually reveals little about the life of Islam's central figure. In it, Allah frequently addresses his prophet and tells him what to say to the believers and unbelievers. Commentators and readers generally assume that Muhammad is the one addressed in these cases, but that—like so much else in this field—is not certain.
The name Muhammad actually appears in the Qur'an 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. By contrast, Moses is mentioned by name 136 times, and Abraham, 79 times. Even Pharaoh is mentioned 74 times. Meanwhile, "messenger of Allah" (rasul Allah) appears in various forms 300 times, and "prophet" (nabi), 43 times. Are those all references to Muhammad, the seventh-century prophet of Arabia? Perhaps. Certainly they have been taken as such by readers of the Qur'an through the ages. But even if they are, they tell us little to nothing about the events and circumstances of his life.
Indeed, throughout the Qur'an there is essentially nothing about this messenger beyond insistent assertions of his status as an emissary of Allah and calls for the believers to obey him. Three of the four times that the name Muhammad is mentioned, nothing at all is disclosed about his life.
The first of the four mentions of Muhammad by name appears in the third chapter, or sura, of the Qur'an: "Muhammad is nothing but a messenger; messengers have passed away before him" (3:144). The Qur'an later says that "the Messiah, the son of Mary, is nothing but a messenger; messengers have passed away before him" (5:75). The identical language may indicate that in 3:144, Jesus is the figure being referred to as the "praised one"—that is, the muhammad.
In sura 33 we read that "Muhammad is not the father of any one of your men, but the Messenger of God, and the Seal of the Prophets; God has knowledge of everything" (33:40). This is almost certainly a specific reference to the prophet of Islam and not simply to a prophetic figure being accorded the epithet the "praised one." It is also an extremely important verse for Islamic theology: Muslim scholars have interpreted Muhammad's status as "Seal of the Prophets" to mean that Muhammad is the last of the prophets of Allah and that anyone who pretends to the status of prophet after Muhammad is of necessity a false prophet. This doctrine accounts for the deep antipathy, often expressed in violence, that traditional Islam harbors toward later prophetic movements that arose within an Islamic milieu, such as the Baha'is and Qadiani Ahmadis.
Less specific is Qur'an 47:2: "But those who believe and do righteous deeds and believe in what is sent down to Muhammad—and it is the truth from their Lord—He will acquit them of their evil deeds, and dispose their minds aright." In this verse, "Muhammad" is someone to whom Allah has given revelations, but this could apply to any of the Qur'an's designated prophets as well as to Muhammad in particular.
Qur'an 48:29, meanwhile, probably refers only to the prophet of Islam: "Muhammad is the Messenger of God, and those who are with him are hard against the unbelievers, merciful one to another." Although the "praised one" here could conceivably refer to some other prophet, the language "Muhammad is the messenger of Allah" (Muhammadun rasulu Allahi) within the Islamic confession of faith makes it more likely that 48:29 refers specifically to the prophet of Islam.
That is all as far as Qur'anic mentions of Muhammad by name go. In the many other references to the messenger of Allah, this messenger is not named, and little is said about his specific actions. As a result, we can glean nothing from these passages about Muhammad's biography. Nor is it even certain, on the basis of the Qur'anic text alone, that these passages refer to Muhammad, or did so originally.
Abundant detail about Muhammad's words and deeds is contained in the Hadith, the dizzyingly voluminous collections of Islamic traditions that form the foundation for Islamic law. The Hadith detail the occasions for the revelation of every passage in the Qur'an. But (as we will see in the next chapter) there is considerable reason to believe that the bulk of the hadiths about Muhammad's words and deeds date from a period considerably after Muhammad's reported death in 632.
Then there is the Sira, the biography of the prophet of Islam. The earliest biography of Muhammad was written by Ibn Ishaq (d. 773), who wrote in the latter part of the eighth century, at least 125 years after the death of his protagonist, in a setting in which legendary material about Muhammad was proliferating. And Ibn Ishaq's biography doesn't even exist as such; it comes down to us only in the quite lengthy fragments reproduced by an even later chronicler, Ibn Hisham, who wrote in the first quarter of the ninth century, and by other historians who reproduced and thereby preserved additional sections. Other biographical material about Muhammad dates from even later.
This is chiefly the material that makes up the glare of the "full light of history" in which Ernest Renan said that Muhammad lived and worked. In fact, arguably none of the biographical details about Muhammad date to the century in which his prophetic career was said to unfold.
The Earliest Records of an Arabian Prophet
Yet surely there are abundant mentions of this man who lived and worked in the "full light of history" in contemporary records written by both friends and foes alike.
That is, at least, what one might expect. After all, he unified the hitherto ever-warring tribes of Arabia. He forged them into a fighting machine that, only a few years after his death, stunned and bloodied the two great powers of the day, the eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and the Persian Empire, rapidly expanding into the territory of both. It would be entirely reasonable to expect that seventh-century chroniclers among the Byzantines and Persians, as well as the Muslims, would note the remarkable influence and achievements of this man.
But the earliest records offer more questions than answers. One of the earliest apparent mentions of Muhammad comes from a document known as the Doctrina Jacobi, which was probably written by a Christian in Palestine between 634 and 640—that is, at the time of the earliest Arabian conquests and just after Muhammad's reported death in 632. It is written in Greek from the perspective of a Jew who is coming to believe that the Messiah of the Christians is the true one and who hears about another prophet arisen in Arabia:
When the candidatus [that is, a member of the Byzantine imperial guard] was killed by the Saracens [Sarakenoi], I was at Caesarea and I set off by boat to Sykamina. People were saying "the candidatus has been killed," and we Jews were overjoyed. And they were saying that the prophet had appeared, coming with the Saracens, and that he was proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come. I, having arrived at Sykamina, stopped by a certain old man well-versed in scriptures, and I said to him: "What can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens?" He replied, groaning deeply: "He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword. Truly they are works of anarchy being committed today and I fear that the first Christ to come, whom the Christians worship, was the one sent by God and we instead are preparing to receive the Antichrist. Indeed, Isaiah said that the Jews would retain a perverted and hardened heart until all the earth should be devastated. But you go, master Abraham, and find out about the prophet who has appeared." So I, Abraham, inquired and heard from those who had met him that there was no truth to be found in the so-called prophet, only the shedding of men's blood. He says also that he has the keys of paradise, which is incredible.
In this case, "incredible" means "not credible." One thing that can be established from this is that the Arabian invaders who conquered Palestine in 635 (the "Saracens") came bearing news of a new prophet, one who was "armed with a sword." But in the Doctrina Jacobi this unnamed prophet is still alive, traveling with his armies, whereas Muhammad is supposed to have died in 632. What's more, this Saracen prophet, rather than proclaiming that he was Allah's last prophet (cf. Qur'an 33:40), was "proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come." This was a reference to an expected Jewish Messiah, not to the Jesus Christ of Christianity (Christ means "anointed one" or "Messiah" in Greek).
It is noteworthy that the Qur'an depicts Jesus as proclaiming the advent of a figure whom Islamic tradition identifies as Muhammad: "Children of Israel, I am the indeed the Messenger of God to you, confirming the Torah that is before me, and giving good tidings of a Messenger who shall come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad" (61:6). Ahmad is the "praised one," whom Islamic scholars identify with Muhammad: The name Ahmad is a variant of Muhammad (as they share the trilateral root h-m-d). It may be that the Doctrina Jacobi and Qur'an 61:6 both preserve in different ways the memory of a prophetic figure who proclaimed the coming of the "praised one" or the "chosen one"—ahmad or muhammad.
The prophet described in the Doctrina Jacobi "says also that he has the keys of paradise," which, we're told, "is incredible." But it is not only incredible; it is also completely absent from the Islamic tradition, which never depicts Muhammad as claiming to hold the keys of paradise. Jesus, however, awards them to Peter in the Gospel according to Matthew (16:19), which may indicate (along with Jesus' being the one who proclaims the coming of ahmad in Qur'an 61:6) that the figure proclaiming this eschatological event had some connection to the Christian tradition, as well as to Judaism's messianic expectation. Inasmuch as the "keys of paradise" are more akin to Peter's "keys to the kingdom of heaven" than to anything in Muhammad's message, the prophet in the Doctrina Jacobi seems closer to a Christian or Christian-influenced Messianic millennialist than to the prophet of Islam as he is depicted in Islam's canonical literature.
Was That Muhammad?
In light of all this, can it be said that the Doctrina Jacobi refers to Muhammad at all? It is difficult to imagine that it could refer to anyone else, as prophets who wielded the sword of conquest in the Holy Land—and armies acting on the inspiration of such prophets—were not thick on the ground in the 630s. The document's departures from Islamic tradition regarding the date of Muhammad's death and the content of his teaching could be understood simply as the misunderstandings of a Byzantine writer observing these proceedings from a comfortable distance, and not as evidence that Muhammad and Islam were different then from what they are now.
At the same time, there is not a single account of any kind dating from around the time the Doctrina Jacobi was written that affirms the canonical Islamic story of Muhammad and Islam's origins. One other possibility is that the unnamed prophet of the Doctrina Jacobi was one of several such figures, some of whose historical attributes were later subsumed into the figure of the prophet of Islam under the name of one of them, Muhammad. For indeed, there is nothing dating from the time of Muhammad's activities or for a considerable period thereafter that actually tells us anything about what he was like or what he did.
One apparent mention of his name can be found in a diverse collection of writings in Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic common in the region at the time) that are generally attributed to a Christian priest named Thomas and dated to the early 640s. But some evidence indicates that these writings were revised in the middle of the eighth century, and so this may not be an early reference to Muhammad at all. Nonetheless, Thomas refers to "a battle between the Romans and the tayyaye d-Mhmt" east of Gaza in 634. The tayyaye, or Taiyaye, were nomads; other early chroniclers use this word to refer to the conquerors. Thus one historian, Robert G. Hoyland, has translated tayyaye d-Mhmt as "the Arabs of Muhammad"; this translation and similar ones are relatively common. Syriac, however, distinguishes between t and d, so it is not certain (although it is possible) that by Mhmt, Thomas meant Mhmd—Muhammad. Even if "Arabs of Muhammad" is a perfectly reasonable translation of tayyaye d-Mhmt, we are still a long way from the prophet of Islam, the polygamous warrior prophet, recipient of the Qur'an, wielder of the sword against the infidels. Nothing in the writings or other records of either the Arabians or the people they conquered dating from the mid-seventh century mentions any element of his biography: At the height of the Arabian conquests, the non-Muslim sources are as silent as the Muslim ones are about the prophet and holy book that were supposed to have inspired those conquests.
Thomas may also have meant to use the word Mhmt not as a proper name but as a title, the "praised one" or the "chosen one," with no certain referent. In any case, the Muhammad to which Thomas refers does not with any certainty share anything with the prophet of Islam except the name itself.
Sophronius and Umar
No one who interacted with those who conquered the Middle East in the middle of the seventh century ever seems to have gotten the impression that a prophet named Muhammad, whose followers burst from Arabia bearing a new holy book and a new creed, was behind the conquests.
Consider, for example, a seventh-century Christian account of the conquest of Jerusalem, apparently written within a few years of that conquest (originally in Greek but surviving in a translation into Georgian). According to this account, "the godless Saracens entered the holy city of Christ our Lord, Jerusalem, with the permission of God and in punishment for our negligence." A Coptic homily from the same period characterizes the "Saracens" as "oppressors, who give themselves up to prostitution, massacre and lead into captivity the sons of men, saying: 'We both fast and pray.'"
Sophronius, the patriarch of Jerusalem who turned the city over to the caliph Umar after the Arabian conquest in 637, lamented the advent of "the Saracens who, on account of our sins, have now risen up against us unexpectedly and ravage all with cruel and feral design, with impious and godless audacity." In a Christmas sermon in 634, Sophronius declares that "we, however, because of our innumerable sins and serious misdemeanours, are unable to see these things, and are prevented from entering Bethlehem by way of the road. Unwillingly, indeed, contrary to our wishes, we are required to stay at home, not bound closely by bodily bonds, but bound by fear of the Saracens." He laments that "as once that of the Philistines, so now the army of the godless Saracens has captured the divine Bethlehem and bars our passage there, threatening slaughter and destruction if we leave this holy city and dare to approach our beloved and sacred Bethlehem."
It is not surprising that a seventh-century Christian like Sophronius would refer to the invaders as "godless." After all, even if those invaders had come brandishing the holy book of the deity they proclaimed as the sole true creator of all things, Sophronius denied that god's existence. Still, he makes no mention, even in the heat of the fiercest polemic, of the conquerors' god, their prophet, or their holy book.
In all his discussion of the "Saracens," Sophronius shows some familiarity with their disdain for the cross and the orthodox Christian doctrines of Christ, but he never calls the invaders "Muslims" and never refers to Muhammad, the Qur'an, or Islam. In a sermon from December 636 or 637, Sophronius speaks at length about the conquerors' brutality, and in doing so he makes some references to their beliefs:
But the present circumstances are forcing me to think differently about our way of life, for why are [so many] wars being fought among us? Why do barbarian raids abound? Why are the troops of the Saracens attacking us? Why has there been so much destruction and plunder? Why are there incessant outpourings of human blood? Why are the birds of the sky devouring human bodies?
Excerpted from DID MUHAMMAD EXIST? by ROBERT SPENCER Copyright © 2012 by Robert Spencer. Excerpted by permission of ISI BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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