Sunday, 26 May 2013

Did Muhammad exist? Yes, I think so.

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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.

28 comments:

  1. I haven't read the Links here yet but certainly
    will. My immediate response is I so agree with you that there are many good reasons why Christians and Muslims to ally against modern secular culture. Modern culture is a war against God. This is not a silly throw away claim ' War against God'. There is a documented history. Interpretations can vary and do but this history can legitimately be interpreted as war against God and against Christianity which of course at
    essence is the Catholic Church. Those who have
    had much responsibility historically and presently(though you've said we should stop using 'presently' incorrectly) bring us modern culture which in essence is what you've here said and in essence the vulgarization and pornographiation of society.

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    1. I find fault for your knee-jerk reaction. If you have proof, then list them, otherwise your remark is unreliable.

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    2. Anonymous 1 June 19:08. Who are you speaking to ( to
      whom are you speaking?

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  2. A bit further thought says this alliance will not be unless other things change. Indiscriminate immigration. Interference of foreign powers in Arab lands.
    The Frenchman who shot himself dead at the alter at Notre Dame,
    among other things said he respects all peoples in their own
    land...

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  3. Did Muhammed Exist? If he did he shouldn't have.

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    1. Don't be too negative. I agree, there is a lot of negativity connected with the Islamic peoples, but there is also negativity connected with Christianity down through the ages. There are religionists today who use Christianity to bash other people, there are even those who use it to justify killing people. Being religionist is not the same as being moral or good. Look at the individual, not just the religion.

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    2. I agree with the last comment

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    3. I agree period with the original comment. Religionists is not a valid argument any more than immoral people in the government means we should rewrite the constitution of the United States. Christianity is not a religion, it's the New Reality of Man, but 'narrow is the path, and few are those that find it' (Jesus). Broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many 'Christians' might be on that road as well. If Mohammed existed (of how many Mohammeds are there in the world?), he was either ignorant or very evil or actually did 'speak with an angel' but it wasn't Gabriel as they profess. People do comment that do not understand the bible (which is too many to number) and might not have even read the Koran. It only takes 10 minutes of reading it to make the skin crawl. P.S. According to the Koran, Jesus disciples were Muslims.

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    4. If you read Anthony Storr's The Gurus you will find that many or most prophets or mystics were neither deluded nor con-men. Carlyle said of Muhammed or Mahomet:

      We will not praise Mahomet's moral precepts as always of the superfinest sort; yet it can be said that there is always a tendency to good in them; that they are the true dictates of a heart aiming towards what is just and true

      On the whole, we will repeat that this Religion of Mahomet's is a kind of Christianity; has a genuine element of what is spiritually highest looking through it, not to be hidden by all its imperfections. The Scandinavian God Wish, the god of all rude men, — this has been enlarged into a Heaven by Mahomet; but a Heaven symbolical of sacred Duty, and to be earned by faith and well-doing, by valiant action, and a divine patience which is still more valiant. It is Scandinavian Paganism, and a truly celestial element superadded to that. Call it not false; look not at the falsehood of it, look at the truth of it. For these twelve centuries, it has been the religion and life-guidance of the fifth part of the whole kindred of Mankind. Above all things, it has been a religion heartily believed. These Arabs believe their religion, and try to live by it! No Christians, since the early ages, or only perhaps the English Puritans in modern times, have ever stood by their Faith as the Moslem do by theirs, — believing it wholly, fronting Time with it, and Eternity with it.

      To the Arab Nation it was as a birth from darkness into light; Arabia first became alive by means of it. A poor shepherd people, roaming unnoticed in its deserts since the creation of the world: a Hero-Prophet was sent down to them with a word they could believe: see, the unnoticed becomes world-notable, the small has grown world-great; within one century afterwards, Arabia is at Grenada on this hand, at Delhi on that; — glancing in valor and splendor and the light of genius, Arabia shines through long ages over a great section of the world. Belief is great, life-giving. The history of a Nation becomes fruitful, soul-elevating, great, so soon as it believes.

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  4. I think the evidence that he existed is convincing, but we already discussed this.

    Are you becoming more polite yourself though, Paul? I was expecting stronger words following the events last week. I do agree with your comment on Cameron, as he, of course, is not an authority on the subject. Any thoughts on the EDL, by the way?
    Joel

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  5. Yes - read my recent blog posts! http://pvewood.blogspot.ro/2013/05/british-muslims-behead-british-soldier.html

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  6. I had not realised that the Prophet Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him, was so poorly attested in the pseudopigrapha. I am displeased that you suggest that contraception is a sin. It reduces human suffering and that is no bad thing. George

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  7. Just my two cents. Does anyone who's not a Muslim care if he existed or did not?

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  8. Of course! Anyone interested in history. How incomprehensible your lack of curiosity is for me.

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    1. History is long and not a simple narrative. I am interested in history but have my own areas of interest.
      This is not particularly one of them. Why is or should
      that be incomprehensible to you or to anyone?

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    2. That is comprehensible, just about, but you asked 'Does anyone who's not a Muslim care if he existed or did not?'

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    3. That is comprehensible. Correct. Does Anyone care...
      Check. Clarification x2. I was flippant. You maybe were being persnickety.

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  9. Did Mr P.V.E just say that Islam is a false religion but in the same breath say he thinks Christians and Muslims should be natural allies? (since he said he is a Christian) Does that will that ever work?
    Marren Jn.Pierre

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    1. He said he would be Muslim if not for it being "a false religion". But then when is any organized religion not false? At least, false to its founder's original aims. The organized Christian churches of today, most of them, leave much to be desired, if you compare them to what is written about Jesus in the 4 Gospels (and remember, there are no direct writings of Jesus). I do not claim to be an expert on Islam, I have read some chapters. I agree with much of the criticism of the book, some of it sounds as though the writer was either mentally ill or on drugs. But some is beautiful. And I believe that it is up to the individual to get what they need/want, and that makes any interpretation of any religion totally subjective and individualized. I do not believe 'organized religion' is inherently good, like any organization, corruption sets in. Religion, after all, is one's own beliefs. Which is why we have so many different kinds of people in every religion. And that is why we cannot condemn all Muslims for the behavior of a few. Or Christians, for that matter (thinking of the people who kill abortion doctors). What bothers me is why the Islamic peoples did not condemn Osama Bin Laden & his ilk, and why they still do not universally rise up & condemn them in no uncertain terms.

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  10. I liked Robert Spencer's previous books better.

    He set himself a modest task in previous works - let us look at what is actually in traditional mainstream Islamic literature and bring what it actually says to the attention of the public.

    In this task Spencer utterly refuted the whitewash merchants (Armstrong and so on) and showed the life and teachings of Muhammed for what they are (even in mainstream Islamic literature).

    In this work he sets himself a more difficult task - to try and see if Muhammed ever existed in the first place, and (if he did exist) whether he was actually much like the figure described in traditional Islamic works.

    I am reminded of Archbishop Richard Whately's work "proving" that Napoleon did not exist (R.W. was mocking "ractionalist" claims that their could never have been miricles because they had never seen any...). An obscure farmer's son from an unimportant island rise to become the ruler of Europe, and making his relatives the Kings and Queens of virtually everywhere? Absurd! What will these mad novelists think of next........

    Of course it is quite possible that Muhammed did not exist - I am not old enough to have met him and (more importantly) there is not one scrap of physical evidence that he existed (or that Moses and Jesus existed either).

    These things are cultural traditions - memories past down for a long time before they are written (indeed written only when it become obvious that the generation who knew the person I dying off).

    Did Muhammed exist? I do not know - but it is enough that the enemies of the We

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  11. It sounds to me -I have not read the book - that Muhammad very probably did exist, because of the references to him or someone like him in some Christian authors. But it is good to see someone suggest he did not to remind us of the,limitations of our knowledge. People still sometimes argue that Jesus is an Egyptian myth or what have you, of course, though this is not taken seriously by scholars. We do not of course know whether the doctrine Muhammad preached was that contained in the Koran or not and we do not know if it was his doctrine that energised the Arabs to conquer half the world or not. It is even possible that the creation of that religion followed the conquests though the other way rounds sounds much more inherently likely. Spencer in this book sounds a like clever people denying Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him.

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    1. Yes - now I am less tired (although still very tired) this occurs to me also. Of coursre Muhammed did formally speaking "write" the Koran (he coudl not write - not a shameful thing at the time), but someone composed (and spoke) this poetry - and the verses appear to be in the style of one man. Of course Muslims claim that the Koran was composed by God - but we are not Muslims so an alternative explination is requred,. To me the most likely one is that it was oral versues spoken by a man called Muhammed and then written down by his followers. By the way - your quotation from Mr Blair, on the nature of the Koran, is scary - Mr Blair is either a wild liar or a utter lunatic.

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  12. I have already tried to comment once - perhaps this time will go better.

    Yes Mr Wood - even in my deeply tried state I generally agree with what you are saying.

    By the way there is one grain of truth even in the insane ravings of Mr Blair - early Muslims did believe they were "returning to the origins" of Christianity and Judaism, but there was nothing progressive in that position, On the contrary the Islamic cry of "raise your hand" to Jews was about the Jewish Talmudic practice of placeing one's hand over the savage punishments listed for various thing in the Torah (Leviticus, Deuteronomy) when reading aloud - least one read out the savage punishments in the Torah (which the Talmud, at very great length, tries to explain away), The Islamic position was (and is) that the savage punishments should be read out - and practiced. Surely this is not what Mr Blair means by "Progressive"?

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  13. "Did Muhammed exist?"

    And if he did exist, was he actually trying to found a new religion, or a prophet at all, or just someone trying to reform the Christian church? What if Muhammad was just a Martin Luther who also realized that Arabia needed to be unified to keep law and order? Tradition says he took at least two Christian wives and had many Christian friends - since his "works" were not written until nearly a hundred years after his death, who is not to say that Omar the Bloodthirsty (the title of the Caliph of the Quranic period) did not purposefully misrepresent Muhammads works to create a feud over nothing and conquer most of the Near East?

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  14. What if Muhammad was so popular for having brought law, decency and spiritual fulfillment to Arabia that, a sufficient time after his death, his own popularity was used to elevate him in to a blasphemous monstrosity?

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  15. The prophecy tells about Ahmad; 'Servant of God' whom will war to correct the wrongs and bringing judgement based on the law of God. He will also liberate Arabia from worshiping molten images. Wilderness (desert), villages and cities will glorify God since then. As can be seen today, whole of Arabia are worshiping,praising God and singing words of God daily.

    And we continue reading Isaiah 42:18 - 25; about Children of Israel, whom will still be deaf and blind neglecting the message brought by this 'Servant of God'.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    In Isaiah 42:1, it is not a coincidence upon seeing the writing of both אתמך (Atmc) אחמד (Ahmd). And the word before אתמך (Atmc), is עבדי (Abedi~My Servant). For indeed, It is indicating Ahmad; Abedallah (Ahmad; Servant of God).

    Not to mention אתמך (Atmc) is a special term foretelling the coming of a righteous man and is used only ONCE throughout the entire Book. [could this be a copying error or an intended error?]

    Children of Israel have been foretold upon the coming of Ahmad but sadly, only a few accepts.

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  16. I read the book recently - fascinating. That what is now known as Islam (and the koran) has its roots deep in a form of Syriac Christianity, which kept its Jewish traditions, denied the Trinity, and was anathematized at the Council of Nicaea is, for me, beyond doubt (seems more plausible than the story of the koran being the immutable word of god told to a warrior-p*dophile in a cave by an angel). Muhammed was a title meaning the chosen or preferred one. There is good evidence to suggest that it was applied to Jesus Christ, and the inscription in the Dome of the Rock (originally built as a church on one of the supposed sites to Christ's tomb) can be interpreted to reflect this.

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