DID MUHAMMAD EXIST?: AN INQUIRY INTO ISLAM’SOBSCURE ORIGINS
By Robert Spencer
ISI Books, $27.95, 254 pages
There are two answers to Robert Spencer’s rhetorical question: yes and no. For millions of Muslims who accept the established canon of their religion, it is yes. Many non-Muslims, after reading this book, will conclude that the answer is no.
The Muslim canon rests on the belief that a merchant of Mecca, one Muhammad of the Arabian Quraysh tribe, in 610, at age 40, had a visit from the angel Gabriel. Though the Quraysh were pagans, praying to several gods, Muhammad believed in one god. His visit came when he was praying in a cave outside Mecca. Gabriel announced that Muhammad was to be God’s messenger and would recite the words of God. For the next two decades, he did just that, until his death in 632.
By 622, according to the canon, Muhammad had a band of followers. On learning of a plot to kill him, he led his group from Mecca to Medina, where they settled. Up to that time, the messages Muhammad had received had had to do with salvation. In Medina, God’s messages began to change to emphasize defense of the community and, ultimately, fighting offensive wars against nonbelievers.
Muhammad led his growing following into successful battles against the Quraysh and other pagan tribes and began to unite the Arab tribes. After his death, his followers embarked on conquests that created an Arab empire stretching from the Iberian Peninsula in the west nearly to India in the east.
Muhammad lived in an oral culture where extensive use of memory passed truths from one generation to the next. In time, his successors caused what he had said to be compiled into the Koran. It, along with the many hadith sayings of Muhammad and interpretations by others of what he said, provided followers with a complete order of life. A belief in the infallibility of the Koran and the hadith is at the root of the insistence by radical jihadists that the world must submit to their vision.
Muhammad’s successors directed those who had memorized his messages to write them down. Supposedly, Caliph Uthman had them compiled into the final version in 653. It has guided Muslims ever since.
Author Robert Spencer says of all this, “The more one looks at the origins of Islam, the less one sees.” He has engaged in concerted detective work of a scholarly nature. His book is no polemic. It is a serious quest for facts. The ones wrapped up in the Muslim canon are, alas, elusive.
One Ibn Ishaq wrote, circa 760 - 128 years after Muhammad’s supposed death - the first biography of the prophet. No biographical sketches of Muhammad exist before his, and all since are based on his opus.
Mr. Spencer’s quest led to his conclusion that the Koran as it appears today probably took shape much later than the middle of the seventh century. It was written in the Arabic alphabet, which did not exist during Muhammad’s lifetime. So the memorized portions probably were written down much later and were subject to considerable interpretation.
Neither Arab sources nor Christians or Jews mention the Koran until the early eighth century.
None of the early accounts by peoples conquered by the Arab warriors use the words Islam, Muhammad or Koran. Had these been common knowledge, one would expect them to have been mentioned. Instead, these accounts call the conquerors “Ishmaelites,” “Saracens,” “Muhajirun” and “Hagarians.”
Some modern-day scholars think Islam began as a movement within Judaism, focused on Abraham, his son Ishmael and his concubine (hence the third-party references to Arabs as being “Ishmaelites” or “Hagarians”).
In addition, several Koranic and hadith passages suggest Christian origins in their text, and Jesus is honored as a prophet, though not, according to the Muslim canon, the ultimate one. At least two caliphs among Muhammad’s early successors issued coins with crosses on them. One building constructed by Muawiya (caliph, 661-680) had an inscription that included a cross.
This book is well-written and moves right along despite considerable detail. While introspection and inquiry have been hallmarks of Christian scholars, it is unlikely that Muslim scholars will be moved by Robert Spencer’s work. The immutability of the Muslim canon and the presumed finality of the Koran stand in their way.
Peter Hannaford is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Reagan’s Roots: The People and Places That Shaped His Character” (Images from the Past, 2012).