Sunday, 26 May 2013

Did Muhammad exist? Yes, I think so.




I never read Robert Spencer but this review of his latest book interests me very much. I have blogged before about the complete lack of trustworthy evidence for the life of Muhammad or the origins of Islam. 

I became interested about ten years ago in this absorbing detective story (what else is history but detective work, though it should not be fiction?) when I read these two fascinating articles. Not only are they very exciting to any historian (nothing is more beautiful than the sound of an unsubstantiated, orthodox interpretation being exploded) but the story they tell is like an Indiana Jones film.

Robert Spencer, an American whose family is Lebanese Christian, is controversial. His books sell well but are not reviewed by scholars very often. His work is anti-Islam, which is fair enough, rather than anti-Islamist, whatever Islamist means. He speaks Arabic, but he did not learn Muslim history or Koranic studies at university and is a self-taught Muslim scholar. I always warm to people who annoy the academic consensus and, for some reason, almost all right-wing historians do so. (Why did history and the other humanities and social sciences move to the left in the 1960s, just as the working classes in developed countries moved the other way?) He is accused of 'being a hero of the American right' but I am not sure why this is an accusation, rather than a statement of fact. Though I do, of course, accept that the American right are sometimes very unsophisticated and bone-headed in their opinions of Islam. Americans' lack of sophistication is their country's greatest strength, but it can become wearing at times.

Spencer probably should be considered as a pamphleteer more than a historian, but he is more reliable than many who have written about Muhammad, including the very silly former nun, Karen Armstrong, whose biography of him elides the fact that the evidence for his life is extremely late. If mainstream historians have not realised this before (Gibbon drew attention to it and anyway it is very obvious) then it might be better to read Spencer first or revisionists such as Patricia Crone and Michael Cook,

Spencer is braver than Tom Holland, another populariser. Holland, from cowardice - I am talking physical cowardice - skirts the question of whether the Koran existed, as we know it today, in the early 7th century. Nick Cohen is very funny about this here, in his wonderful article 'Tiptoeing in the Mecca Ballroom'. 

By the way, what I would give to have come up with that title.

I think the Muslim accounts of the life of Muhammad are too late to have much or even any real historical value, except as evidence that a prophet of that name existed and won battles. Even this is questionable and Spencer, following other writers,  does question it. 

However, I would say, though I am no scholar, that the prophet mentioned in the Doctrina Jacobi is Muhammad, though some historians have not been convinced. The Doctrina Jacobi describes events in 634 and is dated no later than 640, shortly after the traditional date of Muhammad's death, 632. This is the key passage:


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 theAntichrist. 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.
The author of this may well have been misinformed about the Prophet's doctrine (the Koran does not claim Muhammad proclaimed the coming of the Christ or has the keys to heaven) and about the fact that he was dead by 634. Or the traditional date for his death may be wrong. It might be that the Koran does not record the teachings of the Prophet accurately. 

There is more evidence for Muhammad from early Christian sources here. Particularly striking are the words of Sebeos, a bishop writing in the 660s.
At that time a certain man from along those same sons of Ismael, whose name was Mahmet, a merchant, as if by God's command appeared to them as a preacher [and] the path of truth. He taught them to recognize the God of Abraham, especially because he was learnt and informed in the history of Moses. Now because the command was from on high, at a single order they all came together in unity of religion. Abandoning their vain cults, they turned to the living God who had appeared to their father Abraham. So, Mahmet legislated for them: not to eat carrion, not to drink wine, not to speak falsely, and not to engage in fornication. He said: 'With an oath God promised this land to Abraham and his seed after him for ever. And he brought about as he promised during that time while he loved Ismael. But now you are the sons of Abraham and God is accomplishing his promise to Abraham and his seed for you. Love sincerely only the God of Abraham, and go and seize the land which God gave to your father Abraham. No one will be able to resist you in battle, because God is with you.

So I do not find the argument that Muhammad did not exist persuasive. The most striking piece of evidence of all is that shortly after the time that Muhammad is supposed to have been active Arabs conquered half the civilised world. But it is clear that we know very little reliably about Muhammad.


We have the Koran, it is true, which mentions Muhammad four times, but, if we do not believe that God dictated the Koran, we do not know when and where and why it was written. There is a good case for it being early 7th century, because of the reference to the war between the Byzantine and Persian Empires which was fought between 602 and 628. But we do not know how or when it came into existence, unless we have faith in Islam, and that whereof we do not know thereof must we remain silent.

By the way, this need not worry Muslims. Lack of evidence for Muhammad's life or even existence does not in any way disprove or even undermine their beliefs. Biblical scholarship is a very much harder stumbling black for Christians. Although, having often been told that there was minutely exact information about Muhammad's life, it seems that there is more historical evidence for Jesus's. 

What would undermine the Muslim religion, on the other hand, would be evidence to suggest that parts of the Koran were based on Christian hymns, as suggested by Christoph Luxenberg.

Personally, I think Islam is a false religion. If I did not think that, I would be a Muslim. Instead, I am a Christian and therefore I hope all Muslims will convert to Christianity as soon as possible, for their sakes (and I am glad a surprisingly large number are doing so). Yet I respect Islam and believe the Holy Spirit is at work in all the religions. I am not sure St Paul would have agreed, but that is what the Second Vatican Council said. In any case, it appeals to my early 21st century sensibility. I am sure we can learn much from all religions, though I am lamentably ignorant about even my own.

There is much in Islam that is austerely beautiful and all beauty comes from God. I am sure most of the ethical teaching of Islam is true. I admire its simplicity and the emphasis it puts on frequent prayer. I find a sense of God and beauty when I enter mosques, though I also start to think I detect in it something synthetic that reminds me of Communism. At any rate, it certainly feels very Protestant. 

I find the Koran seems to be a series of rules and threats of hell, interspersed with promises of Paradise. It does not contain stories and the English translation certainly does not sing, but in the Arabic it is supposed to be very beautiful. The only things I knew about the Koran, before I started to read it (I have only managed a few pages) were Carlyle's and Sebastian Faulks' opinions. 

Mr. Faulks said recently:


“With the Koran there are no stories. And it has no ethical dimension like the New Testament, no new plan for life. It says ‘the Jews and the Christians were along the right tracks, but actually, they were wrong and I’m right, and if you don’t believe me, tough — you’ll burn for ever.’ That’s basically the message of the book.”
He said much more and was criticised for doing so. Carlyle famously said: 
I must say, it is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite; -- insupportable stupidity, in short! Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran.
Other Europeans have been much more polite, though. Tony Blair, for example:
The most remarkable thing about reading the Koran – in so far as it can be truly translated from the original Arabic - is to understand how progressive it is. I speak with great diffidence and humility as a member of another faith. I am not qualified to make any judgements. But as an outsider, the Koran strikes me as a reforming book, trying to return Judaism and Christianity to their origins, rather as reformers attempted with the Christian Church centuries later. It is inclusive. It extols science and knowledge and abhors superstition. It is practical and way ahead of its time in attitudes to marriage, women and governance.
This sounds like his praise for Hans Kung. Mr Blair seems to see Muhammad (and Father Kung) doing to religion what Mr Blair did to the Labour Party. To be fair to Carlyle, or to Islam, or both, Carlyle also thought that Islam was a progressive and civilising force. So in its time it was, compared to the idolatry it replaced in Arabia, though not compared to the Byzantine Roman Empire. 

Christians and Muslims should and will continue to find ways to coexist - and there are many reasons why they should be natural allies against the materialistic modern world, which replaces the sacred with welfare and the state and regards, for example, abortion, contraception and homosexual marriage as human rights.  

Note at Easter 2015: Radiocarbon of the Sana'a MS of the Koran shows something close to the modern Koran existed 70 years after traditional date for Muhammad’s death.



File:Mosque Bucharest.JPG
The Bucharest Mosque. I must go and look for it one day.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The strange death of Christian England

St Etheldreda's, Ely Place, Holborn, London


The latest figures from the 2011 census are very important, alarming, saddening, but not really such a very great surprise. 

10 percent of British people under 25 are Muslim, which means one day Britain will be at least 10 percent Muslim. The Russian news agency RT says Islam could be the dominant UK religion in 10 years.  

Damian Thompson in the Daily Telegraph says:


For the first time, the proportion of under-25s who don’t describe themselves as even nominal Christians has risen above 50 per cent. Also, the new breakdown shows that the rate of decline in British Christianity has been masked by the presence of 1.2 million foreign believers in this country. Take them out of the picture, and we can see that home-grown Christianity has shrunk by 15 per cent in just a decade. To quote the demographer Prof David Coleman of Oxford University, “It is difficult to see whether any other change in the census could have been remotely as big.”

A drop of 15% in just ten years... 

It is partly the combination of fear of Islam with fear of being 'Islamophobic' or thinking Christian Europe superior to non-Christian cultures. It is partly because of the horrible sex scandals involving a tiny minority but nevertheless a shockingly large number of Catholic priests. It is partly because Christianity in the UK is no longer rock-like and counter-cultural as Islam is and as, before the 1960s, Catholicism was. Instead Catholic bishops worry about climate change, women's rights and, bizarrely, homophobia, like all other authority figures. But there are much deeper reasons too.



Muslims attend Friday prayers on a rainy first day of Ramadan, at the courtyard of a housing estate next to a small BBC community centre and mosque in east London (Reuters/Chris Helgren)
Muslims attend Friday prayers on a rainy first day of Ramadan, at the courtyard of a housing estate next to a small BBC community centre and mosque in east London (Reuters/Chris Helgren)

From a conservative atheist's standpoint this development is disastrous, of course.

T.S. Eliot wrote in The Idea of a Christian Society:


‎'An individual European may not even believe that the Christian Faith is true, but what he says and makes and does will all spring out of this history of European culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning. Only a Christian culture could have produced a Nietzsche or a Voltaire. I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith. And I am convinced of that not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology.' 


When Eliot wrote those words in 1948, which is pretty recently, he had in mind that Europe would lose belief in Christianity, but did not contemplate that Hinduism, Islam and other  religions would come to Western Europe or England. Nobody did.


He saw, rightly, paganism as the enemy. 

(Elsewhere in The Idea of a Christian Society he says:


The more highly industrialised the country, the more easily a materialistic philosophy will flourish in it, and the more deadly that philosophy will be. Britain has been highly industrialised longer than any other country. And the tendency of unlimited industrialism is to create bodies of men and women — of all classes — detached from tradition, alienated from religion and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed, and well disciplined. 

 But the age of Ford has passed. Mass suggestion is rather out of date in the internet age and we are de-industrialising. Is there still a mob?)

Romanian men have the smallest penises in Europe, according to survey



Romanians have the smallest penises in Europe, figures show. Please don't attack me about this. I just read it in the paper and am posting it for information. 

This is a very chaste blog, but since this was on the front page of the Independent it must be acceptable. It would not have been in the papers some years ago.

While on this subject, which I shall not revert to in this blog, in case anyone does not know this, during the war Winston Churchill agreed to supply condoms to Soviet troops with the proviso that each box should be stamped with the words "EXTRA SMALL".

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Romania's hospital scandal: Babies left to die as doctors refuse to work without bribes


A telling story from today's Independent, by Alison Mutler, the AP woman here, about bribery in Romanian hospitals.
Dr Catalin Cirstoveanu runs a cardio unit with state-of-the-art equipment at a Bucharest children's hospital. But not a single child has been treated in the year and a half since it opened. The reason? Medical staff he needs to bring in to run the machinery would have expected bribes. 

So Dr Cirstoveanu has launched a lonely crusade to save babies who come to him for care. He flies them to Western Europe on budget flights so they can be treated by doctors who don't demand kickbacks. That's what he did last week for 13-day-old Catalin, who needed heart surgery. Dr Cirstoveanu packed a small bag, slipped emergency breathing equipment into the baby carrier and caught a cheap flight to Italy, where doctors were waiting to perform the surgery.


Wednesday, 8 May 2013

"A nation is a group of people united by a common misunderstanding about their origins."

"A nation is a group of people united by a common misunderstanding about their origins." 

(Ernest Renan). 

The current misunderstanding held by the English does not relate to Hengist and Horsa but to the mistaken idea that they were always an immigrant nation. In fact, there were few immigrants between 1100 and 1940. 50,000 Huguenots came and later about 50,000 Jews. The Irish  among them my forebears, were moving from one part of the UK to another. A useful summary of the figures is here.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

I never liked Tarby



I never liked Jimmy Tarbuck, who has been arrested charged with sexual crimes. He summarised, in fact, everything in England I did not like. 


Well, apart from feminism, socialism, Scottish and Irish nationalism, business taught at Oxford and Cambridge .. calling strangers by their Christian names ....double glazing, mock Tudor bungalows....those beige coats drivers wear...dice in car windows ...


To be continued..

Easter in Athens


I never wanted to visit Greece, had made up my mind against the place before I first came here in 2002, but I hoped I might like Athens, which everyone told me I would hate. I like shabby capitals with many nineteenth century public buildings and I thought Athens could not be less appealing than Sofia, but in fact Athens, which seemed the 1970s incarnate, terribly polluted, traffic choked and boringly first world depressed me utterly in 2002. 

This year, for the first time, I got to like the town. Last year I managed the same feat with Istanbul - one grows tolerant with age. Athens has its charm, despite affluence and post 1960 property development, which have made the whole world dull. 

Athens under Ottoman rule was a very small place of between five and ten thousand inhabitants, half Christian, half Muslim. Bucharest was bigger (with no Muslims), Sofia even smaller. All these Balkan capitals were effectively created when their countries were invented, but though Athens does not have much Byzantine architecture it has some absolute jewels.

Especially, I loved the frieze on the wonderful eleventh century church of Agios Eleftherios,  a tiny church which used to be the cathedral and stands next door to and is completely overshadowed by the preposterously large nineteenth century cathedral. The latter is in the midst of repairs.






I stayed a couple of days with an American friend of mine and his wife, who have lived here for a couple of years and before spent five in Bucharest. They both think Athens is pretty much the same as Bucharest, beneath the Western European veneer, and they do not mean this as a compliment. Buildings are jerry built, people are an hour late for meetings, nothing is efficient. Personally, I don't see why foreign countries  should be as efficient as England or America and find problems give a place texture. that elusive thing that makes life interesting.

I remember another American, years ago, who split his time equally between Romania, Turkey and Greece. He was asked in my hearing how Romanians Greeks and Turks compared in terms of honesty. His answer was that Romanians were far more honest than Greeks and Turks, but that ''Turks are sometimes too proud to cheat you. A Greek never is.' I repeat this to my host who said this was exactly right.

Athens then is something like Bucharest would be had it not been for Communism. Greeks apparently go to great lengths to be ingenious and sometimes crooked, when being straight would actually be easier. That sounds familiar. But there are two big differences: the Greeks are very proud of their history, which Romanians are not, really, having been conquered and exploited for most of it. And Greeks still believe in socialism and often Communism. After all, they were prevented from having a Communist government by the UK and the US, while in Romania until 1944 the Communist party was miniscule. Though there are now plenty of true believing Communists in Romania among the older generation.



An evzone and I. I was told evzones can have all the girls they desire. This is why they become evzones, it seems. I wonder if they have as much success as Etonians.



The Thinker (4500 - 3300 B.C.) at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. This makes it  more recent than The Thinker in the National History Museum in Bucharest which is dated 5000-4600 BC.



Wonderful sculpture of a boy on a horse, discovered underwater and pieced together in the 1970s — at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

The National Archaeological Museum only ten minutes from the centre is in a bad area, with many illegal immigrants who dislike the police. I like bad areas and anyway it seems fine to me but I notice how very few immigrants there seem to be. Brown-skinned ones, at least, are almost nowhere. Not a diverse society.

Muslim immigrants in Athens want to build a mosque, as is their right in a free country. I am very sorry the Muslims were expelled from Greece in 1922-1923, yet I do not want a new mosque in Athens. The making of Albanians into Greeks annoys me too. As I said, I wish Turkey were full of Greeks and Greece full of Turks. But I want countries to withstand the horrible values of the EU and ECHR.

By the way, whenever I am in Athens I go to gaze at the lovely eighteenth century mosque in Plaka. It houses a museum of Greek folk art. Why not use that?

Greek Folk Art Museum in Monastiraki 
There is a second nearby. I am always pleased that they were not destroyed by Greek patriots, as so many mosques were in Greece and as most of the mosques in Sofia were.

Fehtiye Mosque, Plaka, Athens

For the latest on this, click here. I would love Greece and Poland to save Europe from a hundred post-Christian developments. They and we should start by having more children - and I a childless bachelor am in no position to talk.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Easter on Hydra

The view from my hotel in Hydra, a Greek island where I am spending the Orthodox Easter.

I was so lucky to get a boat ticket from Athens when they had all sold out (it was Good Friday, after all). The island is a kind of Greek Sark, where motor vehicles are banned. Thankfully there are almost no beaches either, so no children. Actually, I like children, but it is parents who are hard to take.  

And actually, there is a small beach, but it is a forty minute walk away from the town of Hydra.  



No families come to Hydra, but middle aged foreign couples do come, sometimes in pairs of couples and some, I regret to say, are British. Not my ambiance. Two German couples in the taverna last night said hello to me as if I were one of their generation and it  shook me. One had a Franz Josef moustache. My parents' generation was the class I put them in, but they might have been only a year or two older than me. Might who knows even be my age. 

This hotel looks like something from the Sunday Times, again not me, and is a climb of over 350 steps from the quay. Leonard Cohen, whose poetry books in the shops I never opened was also a  musician it seems. He lived here, as did Henry Miller and Patrick Leigh Fermor. I do not recommend the hotel, the Nefeli - although it is very pretty and the owner and manager are  amiable. There far, far too many steps from the quay to here and far too many nice British middle middle class or upper lower middle class couples.

A Romanian friend of mine damningly called some people I introduced her to 'ordinary people' and I realised this is a judgment easier to make about ones own race than foreigners. There is absolutely nothing at all wrong with ordinary people, who are essential to the economy of the universe, but they make me scared that ordinariness may be infectious, which of course it is. I went to school with a lot of ordinary people. Some of the ones who were not ordinary, such as the brilliant psychotic who burgled a chemist's, made a cocktail of the drugs and thereby died, were  out of the ordinary in a way I do not find particularly interesting.

The Orthodox Easter is always spell-binding: the funeral processions of the Lord on Good Friday evening and midnight Mass the next evening. Here it is poetic beyond description. On Good Friday evening the hearses, symbolising the corpse of Our Lord, are emptied into the sea to sanctify it. On Easter Saturday late a boat arrives with a flame from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. From this flame are lit the candles of all the faithful at midnight. At midnight the cannons explode and fireworks go off. The devout continue with Mass but most of the town goes off to feast and celebrate the end of the arduous, vegan, orthodox Lent, with lamb soup. roast lamb, lamb organs. The feasting, as far as I could see, goes on in restaurants, not at home. Which pleases me - much jollier than the celebrations at home of the reserved, low-key, private English.

Most of the town goes to Mass, the girls in their finest dresses and I revise my opinion of Greek young womanhood. Many are good-looking, some beautiful. Christianity here is  social not an individual thing and it would be sad if relativism, globalisation, loss of belief and immigration change that.


Of course, Hydra was once as, as recently as the 1960s, not part of the tourist industry and now it is. I wonder what I am doing here, but I do like it here.  Except for the foreigners. People speaking Romanian cheer me up - British voices the reverse.

Vlichos, the second hamlet as you go left, forty minutes' walk along a path along the coast from the port  is like Hydra was in the 1970s, I suppose, although it has two restaurants and a beach with deckchairs. Wonderful Easter dinner, meaning lunch, traditional music, lots of offal, almost no damn foreigners. Blue, glittering, transparent sea.