Monday, 22 October 2012

Do we know anything about Muhammad or the origins of Islam?

I am reading Tom Holland's book In the Shadow of the Sword which I should probably not have bought had I taken the time to look through the pages and see that it is a popular history, written to make the paperback bestseller lists. But this would, on the whole, have been my loss. Some of the book's themes are important and should be widely discussed.

The book is exasperating and quite exceptionally badly and vulgarly written.  I cannot remember ever reading anything that insults the reader quite so much and yet Mr Holland has won several literary prizes, which I find completely incredible. The book contains many hundreds of sentences as bad as this one:

'He [Muhammad] had experienced history's most epochal mid-life crisis.'  
Historians are discombobulated. A sultan with halitosis can 'slay flies with a single breath'. Holland sounds like a history teacher trying to amuse his fifth form class and the whole book seems to be written for serialisation in the Daily Mail. The stories about the Empress Theodora's prepubescent sexual life, which are completely off the subject, are repeated with unnecessary detail and given undue credence. The book is, as Gerald Manley Hopkins described Locksley Hall, an ungentlemanly row, but the subject matter is fascinating.

Holland convinces me that we know virtually nothing about Muhammad, including whether or not he had a religious conversion at the age of forty. This is largely because of a lack of a written culture in the Arabia of the period. Compare what we know about fifth century Britain: we know much more simply due to Gildas and the Venerable Bede. The Koran tells us almost nothing about Muhammad. There are no more than four references to him in the Koran and two fleeting references to him by name in near-contemporary Christian writers. The Teaching of Jacob, a Greek Christian apocalyptic text written between 632 and 640, which Holland does not specifically mention, might be the oldest reference to Muhammad in existence. It does not name Muhammad, but puts the Christian case against him poignantly and pithily: 

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."

The hadiths, sayings attributed to Muhammad, and the biographies of him probably have no value at all as historical evidence, being written far too late. This lack of evidence should always have been obvious (Gibbon pointed it out in a footnote to the Decline and Fall) but only became reasonably widely accepted in the last thirty-odd years, though it is still fiercely disputed. We do not know, for sure, if Muhammad visited Mecca. The battles he is thought to have won, over which historians have spilt much ink, are probably as factual as the Battle of Camlann at which Mordred defeated King Arthur.

Thomas Carlyle's famous essay praising Muhammad and Sir William Muir's Life suggesting he may have been a psychopath possessed by Satan seem equally houses based on sand. The most important fact that we know for sure about the early history of Islam is that Muslims conquered half the known world in the seventh century, including the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, before being defeated at the Battle of Tours in 732. We do not know for sure if Islam enabled the Arabs to conquer so much of the world or whether Islam was a by-product of this remarkable explosion. The late Bishop Kenneth Cragg said: 

Muhammad, in expanding his empire, managed to start a religion.

However, we do not know for sure if Muhammad himself led the Muslims to victory. Some have even argued that Mohammad did not exist, as others have done about Jesus of Nazareth, of whom much more is reliably known. 

Holland is certain (perhaps too certain) that the Koran originates in the early seventh century, basing his argument on one verse, which he thinks refers to the Persian conquest of Palestine in 614. He rejects, in a couple of sentences, the idea that the Koran was composed using material from various sources, including Christian hymns, as others have asserted. This is a question that deserved much more space in a long book that includes many long and irrelevant digressions. I suspect that it is elided for fear of the reaction from Muslims.

Two scholars were allowed to examine parchment fragments of the oldest known Koranic manuscript which were found forty years ago in a mosque in Sana’a, in Yemen. One, Gerd- Rudiger Puin, decided that the Koran had evolved over time using material from various sources. The Yemeni authorities were understandably angry and no further research has been published. This is also the theory of other scholars, including Patricia Crone and 'Christoph Luxenberg' (the latter writes under a pseudonym for fear of violent reprisals).  Holland, however, agreeing with the scholarly consensus, is convinced that the variations in texts are not of great importance and their similarities point to an early origin. These scholarly disputes require a good working knowledge of Arabic and classical Syriac or Middle Aramaic. Holland, so I have read, does not have these languages.

Of course, for Christians the idea that the Koran we know today does have an early origin is rather disappointing, although they hate it when biblical scholars undermine the historicity of the Gospels. Still, there is very much that is very mysterious about the Koran. It is fascinating to learn that many hadiths insist that the punishment for adultery should be death by stoning, but the Koran stipulates 'a hundred lashes'. How does this square with the Koran being much older than the hadiths? It tells us that the scribes who copied out the Koran did not adjust the text to accord with the hadiths but also that those who wrote down the hadiths did not know the Koran in the version we have it.

The Koran is almost the only evidence that we have for the origins of Islam, yet the Koran tells us virtually nothing about history. According to Holland, we do not even know if it originates in the Arabian peninsular (Arabia) or elsewhere in the Arab world - Iraq has been suggested by Patricia Crone as an alternative site.

Some light on this mysterious period in Arabian history is also shed by this book about the Jewish kingdom of Himyar (very roughly what is now Yemen), where Jews oppressed Christians. The suppression of Himyar by the Ethiopians provides Holland with the opening chapter of his book, though it is not very relevant to the origins of the Muslim religion. My visit to Ethiopia and to the Yazidi holy place, Lalish, in Iraq have whetted my appetite to know more about this period and part of the world. I look forward to going to Sana'a, though possibly when it is a little less dangerous.

Here is a very good article in Standpoint by Nick Cohen, about Tom Holland's book.


  1. The self declared followers of prophets may twist their words to justify attacks. But Muhammed ordered attacks himself - that is indeed the difference.

  2. You are always interesting. You should be writing for The Spectator. Alex Woodcock-Clarke

  3. Well, I think that we know enough about Muhammad but unfortunately the rampant political correctness and fear prevent many people to tell openly what they think. We know for example that Muhammad married his first wife Aisha when she was 6 or 7 years old and he consummated his marriage when she was 9 years old. How do we call a person who sleeps with a 9-year-old child?
    The expeditions of Muhammad give also some very interesting information about his life and the origins of Islam. You can see them listed here:

    Some of these expeditions are quite curious. Killing poets for insulting Muhammad with their poetry, plundering caravans, stealing camels and gold, kidnapping kings for ransom. How do you call people who rob, kill, plunder and kidnap?!
    The Quran also is a very interesting book that gives us some valuable data on the origins of Islam. I am particularly interested in the advice this book gives on the subject of family relations. This is one of my personal favourites:

    Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them.

    Well, such advice doesn´t help too much to treat women as equal human beings in the Islamic societies I guess.
    Chris Kostov

  4. Hi Paul,
    I have now read and partially digested your excellent link. Thank you.
    Far from being an Anti Islamist the educated Muslims put Westerners to shame and Muslim friends from school days would,I am quite certain be unable to recognise the faith they love in modern Fanaticism, The same goes for the rather few Priests in the Anglican/Baptist/Presbytarian tradition who cope with excessive number of mindless,aggressive,uneducated so called Christians I have met in the mid west Of America

  5. I quite agree with your comments. However, rooting through the origins of Islam is dangerous -- Muslims hate it more than some (not all) Christians and Jews do.

    In some ways, Islam seems to have been assembled as an ideology and one is reminded of the old academic joke about an essay being "Good and original, except what is good is not original and what is original is not good." Certainly, bits of Christianity and Judaism seem to have been cut and pasted on to it

    The difference is that for many Muslims, particularly today's Wahabbis and Salafists, there is no room for reinterpretation -- such is fitna (discord) and utterly unwelcome. Mohammed is the final messenger, and he must have got it perfect because such is the will of God. End of message with fingering of sharp objects, in case you still don't understand.

    My own favorite exchange was when talking about Islam, I had a young Sunni in the audience who said:
    "Oh, so you speak and write Arabic?"
    I said I didn't.
    "So, then you can't really understand what is in the Quran and must misunderstand it."
    I said the sundry translations have always been good enough.
    "Oh, no, to be perfectly understood the Quran must be read in the original Arabic [Being the language in which Gabriel gave dictation to the illiterate Mohammed]."
    "Really?" I said. I don't speak or read classic 1st Century Latin, yet I've read Caesar's Commentaries; I'm ignorant of Medieval Japanese but have read the "Tale of Genji"; Nobody speaks Sumerian or Akkadian of Ur, yet "Gilgamesh" is widely understood."

    He said, "But the Quran is perfect and to be perfectly understood, you must know Arabic."
    I replied that the "Three Baskets" of Buddhism, the works of Confucious, the Torah and the Bible have all be satisfactorily translated into many languages... but then, they have universal messages. You are telling me, that Allah's message was really for 7th Century Arabs alone and not for all of humanity. So my question then, is what are you doing still following it?"

    He left.
    John Thompson

  6. The assertion that their is no documentary evidence of Mohammad or Islam for the first 100 years of its exsitence is just wrong. While the oldest fragments of the Koran before the 1970s were in Western museums and dated from 100-200 AH, there is an older source.

    There are manuscripts found in the walls of a Mosque dating to 1 AH one of the earliest outside of Medina built in Yemen. The text is called the San'a manuscript and it contains many of the suras of the Koran and in a version which is altered from the modern text, suggesting that the passage that the Koran is the unaltered word of God is a late addition to the book, post 200 AH and inaccurate. The prophets name is included here and the most likely date of the hiding of the documents was the Persian recapture of Yemen no more than 10 years after the Prophet's death,

    The other early manuscripts at the British Museum is by most accounts circa 100-200 AH and one in Turkey sometimes considered to be either in his hand or transcribed to an early cleric is likely from circa 100 AH. Both are later than the Yemen document and it is both early and extensive.

  7. Read Hagarism by Crone--that is serious scholarship.

  8. Here is a better book than Holland on the topic you mentioned:

  9. Hi Paul, all I can say is "religion is the opium of masses", although I am muslim by birth, I can not say too much since religion is totally out of my system. Guess who :)

    And isn't a shame that I do not wish to declare my name due to increasing fanaticism in my country ?

    But still it is in the same way in USA too nowadays and we are trying to be little US:

  10. do we know anything about any founder of any major religion, and I mean anything that would pass a court examination ? ... or even pass as "historical fact", proven by more than one source ...

  11. Interesting point. We have more evidence about Jesus than about Mahomet or Buddha or Confucius. A few people still think Jesus was a sun myth or an Egyptian deity but this defies a lot of written evidence - Josephus as well as Christian. personally I think Mohammed did exist and did found Islam - whatever that meant at the time - partly because of the words from The Teaching of Jacob, written between 632 and 640, referring to " the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens."

  12. well, certainly Muhammad existed, and quite probably Jesus was a real person, but there is no documentary evidence to prove that what is attributed to them was really what they did or said

    at least until the XIIth century Islam was regarded by some Christians as a heresy, not as a distinct religion ... the ishmaelite heresy

    to me debating truth about religions seems to be a waste of time :) , belief is not about proof: if you have proof you know, you don't need to believe ... and we now have people believing they are reincarnated aliens, so debate helps only in showing in which camp you are, not what is true

  13. I am not debating but I think this whole subject absolutely fascinating!
    In some ways Islam is a Christian heresy, as a historian as bad but as stimulating as Belloc said. I feel sure Mohammed existed but it is possible to doubt it. I am also certain that Artorius = (King) Arthur existed and we do not have very much less evidence for him than for Mohammed - Gildas, one or two other things.

  14. Jesus is attested to by people who knew him, in his own lifetime. Not just the apostles or early Christians, either; but he is attested to by the Roman historian Josephus.
    The first gospels were written within the memory of many non-Chrisitans who would have known they were BS, if in fact they were. Now, you can argue that other religions mythology became enmeshed with Christianity in the early centuries. But you can't fairly or objectively say Jesus didn't exist.

    I see no reason not to believe the merchant-turned-prophet, Mohammed, existed.
    In his life, he led a minority sect in Mecca; that preached peace and tolerance. When driven out, he fled and reestablished himself and his cult at Medina. From there, he wrote his "sword" suras; a much more violent creed. From Medina, his power spread by the sword and Islam became the dominant power in the Arabian peninsula.
    The dual nature of Islam grew from Mohammed's different experiences, in Mecca and Medina. In the first, he preached love and peace and tolerance. In the later Medina period, an angry Mohammed preached jihad and killing of "infidels". Sadly, the later suras carry more authority in Islamic doctrine than the earlier...

  15. A friend wrote this. I post with my comments. Paul,


    I think you are wrong on this subject. The lack of contemporaneous written accounts does not disprove the existence of Mohammed. Inthe Arabian peninsula during that era, history, literature and folklore tended to be passed down orally.

    I do not say he did not exist and am sure he did.

    The hadiths would be better described as a written recording of Mohammed's words by his followers and his followers' followers ex post. They follow the form of "So-and-so heard from so-and-so who heard from so-and-so that the Prophet said ____". If you are confused by distinctions or contradictions between Qur'an and hadith, if I am not mistaken, the Qur'an takes precedence.

    And your point?
    Forgive me, but I think your post attempts to raise questions, at the very least, about the consistency of religious law, if not the religion itself. Certainly, one can find apparently inconsistent statements. However, when there is an inconsistency between Qur'an and Hadith, there are jurisprudential norms of interpretation.

    Now, in comparing the historical evidence of Mohammed's existence versus Jesus', I find that accounts of the former crystallize more clearly and form a more coherent story in that Mohammed left a greater material trace (i.e. family, wives, children, conquests).

    Finally, on the point of prophets not carrying swords, this is silly. As I said, perhaps the most revered prophet of the Jewish religion, Moses, had numerous military campaigns, arguably much more severe than Mohammed's.

    This is not my point at all. My point is that this remark is perhaps the earliest reference we have to Mahomet. That’s all.
    Noted. If so, that is fascinating. Wish I knew more on this subject to determine the merits of that statement.

    King David himself commanded an army. So to characterise Mohammed as a fraud simply for also pursuing the use of force is facile and disingenuous. I guess perhaps you are trying to make an unflattering comparison against the peaceful Jesus, but I don't think the Christians consider Jesus to be a prophet (whereas Muslims do), so the implied comparison to Christ is inept.

    I did not say or imply in any way that Mahomet was a fraud nor did I make a comparison with Christ, the anonymous old man did, but I do not think the remark of the old man was inept. I thought it was telling despite Moses and i think you are being pedantic and even obtuse. Inept by the way is a strong word to use between friends. Why the strong feelings? P.
    The argument about Mohammed's violence has been in common use, particularly for ideological purposes, for the last decade (as have been the arguments about his relations with 'Aisha). I am familiar with them, but I don't like inconsistency. From a Jewish or Christian perspective (rather, perhaps, at the very least Protestant, as Catholics and Orthodox tend not to be avid readers of the Pentateuch), calling out Mohammed for using force is particularly disingenuous.

    No strong feelings at all. I do have pedantic tendencies on this subject because I think Islamic history now has a tendency to be deliberately distorted on our continent as it is tied up with the immigration question and the wars abroad. I'm stuck with a bad cold and of course in the office. "Inapt" would be a better word. The best "Orientalist" accounts of the origins of Islam have yet to be written, I'm sure.

    Apologies if I came off as abrasive, Paul!

  16. More here:

    When you say the "writers of the hadith" one must distinguish between those who recorded them and those who transmitted the messages from one person to the next. I would not be surprised if some who transmitted the sayings were not experts in theology and jurisprudence.

    I just can't see how the man's words on prophets not carrying sword can be beautiful if they are not true. That's all. And on the subject of defending the honor of this religion, if we were in a Muslim country and had to hear inaccuracies regarding Jews and Christians, I would try to correct inaccuracies. It certainly is a political subject, considering that Islam and the situation of the Muslim religious minority are now continuous political issues in Europe. I understand there's a legitimate discussion to be had about immigration levels, but I find the public discussions on Islam now to be very heavy-handed and (PC as this may sound) insensitive.

    I do have an ideology, slightly more "left" than yours I think, but I admire your readiness to pronounce views that are uncommon among the, what I would call, polite crowd, which is why I like to read your blog and your posts.

  17. the new insights of academics on early islam could be summarised as such: 1. mohammed had a heterodox christian faith between manicheism (!) en donatism 2. mohammeds family had control over the ka'aba, in that time a christian 'temple'/church 3. mohammed wanted to recapture the temple from the arab pagans and make it the new temple of jerusalem (a thought borrowed from donatism) 4. mohammed saw himself as the paraclete or the second coming of the holy spirit after jesus 5. mohammed was always violent and intolerant, that's why he had to run from Mekka, he has the typical mindset of all apocalyptic religious leaders, this mindset is also the origin of jihad (later mixed with the ghazwa war-technique of beouins) 5. mohamed was mentally ill because of a tumor in his brain that caused acromegaly, hence many of his bizarre physical, sexual and violent traits which are very well documented in the hadith, a Flemish clinical psychologist wrote a good book about his psychopathology 6. Quran is partly a bad translation from Aramean sources, one of them is very telling, the diatesseron, a gospel-compendium, parts of it are practically the same as parts of the medina suras, so the Quran, who accuses others of being a forgery, is a bad translation itself. Jacques

  18. On the subject of Christ, we all seem to accept Caesar's Gallic Wars as history and yet they too only show one side as the Gauls were illiterate. Also the earliest manuscript is about 10 th century. By then we have scores of NT testament texts. Codices date from the 4th century, fragments from the 2nd. There are 3 gospels written within 40 years (the Synoptics) while the dating of John's gets earlier as research reconsiders it. St. Paul's letters are all earlier still as may be the case with the Didache. Josephus speaks of his prophetic ministry and crucifixion and possibly of his resurrection (manuscript issue), and there are other first century sources.

  19. Can we really posit that the opposition of hadiths to the Koran means that were not known to each other? I would contend the opposite. Hadiths are written to contradict the Koran, or to clarify it. If they were expressing the exact same idea, they would be worthless and would not be preserved.