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Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins" by Robert Spencer, 2012. A Book Review

Robert Spencer's 2012 book "Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins," citing peer-reviewed scholarship, makes a very strong case that everything previously believed about Islam, both by devout Muslims and secular historians, was invented to serve imperial, military, political ends. Islam was invented, Spencer argues, to provide a unifying ideology for the Arab conquest that began in the seventh century and that defeated Persia, besieged Byzantium, stretched to India, and made it all the way to Spain by 711.

Islam is different from Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism but like Christianity in this important aspect: it relies on an historically real founder. Christianity needs Jesus to exist. Without Jesus' life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection, Christianity could not exist. Just so Islam. Islam is very much the vision of one man, Muhammad, presumed to have really lived; in that sense, it is entirely fitting to refer to Islam as Muhammadanism and Muslims as Muhammadans. Muslims believed that Muhammad was visited by the Archangel Gabriel, who dictated the Koran to him. Muhammad then began sharing this new revelation with followers, and eventually Muhammad instituted jihad, war to establish Islam as the only faith on earth. Secular historians have long accepted this narrative, if not putting faith in its supernatural aspect.

Other sacred texts, such as the Jewish Torah, the Hindu Vedas, and the Buddhist Sutras are the products of centuries, and vast communities. The Koran is the product of the alleged encounter of one man – Muhammad – with an archangel, Gabriel. Without an historical Muhammad and a reliable record of this encounter, Islam has no foundations whatsoever.

Spencer points out that there are no contemporary or near contemporary mentions of Muhammad. When Arab armies attacked and pillaged in the seventh century, those they attacked often did not mention Muhammad, Muslims, the Koran, or Islam. An early document, the Doctrina Jacobi of the mid seventh century, refers to an "Antichrist," an Arab "armed with a sword," who is alive after Muhammad was supposed to have died.

Sophronius, in 637, gives a devastating account of these Arab raids: "Barbarian raids abound…there has been so much destruction and plunder…incessant outpourings of human blood…the birds of the sky devouring human bodies…churches pulled down…the cross mocked…Christ blasphemed." Spencer points out that centuries later, Muslim historians whitewashed these events, depicting the Arab conquest of the Holy Land as respectful and restrained.

There are early mentions of Muhammad, but he is not the Muhammad of later Islam. He announces himself as preparing the way for Jesus; he declares that the Jews have the right to the Holy Land. Violence, though, was a feature of this new faith, whatever it was. "They inflict the pain of death upon anyone who seems to contradict his tradition," wrote a contemporary of the Arab Conquests.

Arab conquerors, too, writes Spencer, did not mention Islam or Muhammad at first, and when they began to mention them, they did so in a way that differs from the understanding of Islam today. For example, Arab conquerors struck coins with the word "Muhammad" combined with a Christian cross. Christian crosses are anathema in today's Islam. As late as the eighth century, Arab rulers are announcing themselves as worshipping "The Lord of Moses and Aaron" – not Muhammad (61).

Inscriptions on the seventh century Dome of the Rock seem to indicate that the Koran was not codified by that time, and one interpretation argues that these inscriptions show that early Arab invaders weren't quite sure whom they worshipped; possibly Jesus. Clarity of the Islamic messages as totally different from Christianity may have come about because of "pressure from rebel factions" and Caliph Abd al-Malik's need to unify troops (58). "It is possible that Abd al-Malik expropriated and expanded on the nascent Muhammad myth for his own political purposes" (59). Certainly lines emerge that support political power, e.g. "'obedience to the Caliph in his every demand was compulsory for the population'" (60).

Islam itself, and Muslims themselves, repeatedly acknowledge fabricated material about Muhammad. Muslims attempting to establish their idea of who Muhammad was and what Islam should be protest against what they allege to be fabricated material, and develop ways to lend an air of credibility to their material. "My facts are better than so-and-so's facts because I got my facts from a more reliable source than so-and-so." There is no support for these assertions. There are no extra-Islamic mentions of Muhammad to rely on, and no contemporary documents. Believers are simply to leave their inquiring minds at the door, and accept the biographical details about Muhammad that are supported by the biggest guns.

Accepted biographical details about Muhammad are self-contradictory. Muhammad famously did not perform any miracles, except when he did perform miracles; he forbids, then praises, innovation; Muhammad forbids, then encourages the killing of women and children (77). There are many such contradictions; Spencer points out that these contradictions can easily be understood in light of the political needs of the person producing the biological detail. If a given, contemporary political problem required Muhammad to do or say x, y, or z, he could be made to do so (66).

This cynical view is not limited to non-Muslims. "'Emirs forced people to write hadiths,'" an early Islamic scholar protested (71). One leader demanded a hadith that forbade pilgrimage to Mecca, considered a pillar of Islam today (72). Islam insists that these biographical details were passed down since the lifetime of Muhammad, but there is no early record of them (68-69). Bukhari, author of a respected collection of hadiths, traversed the Muslim world collecting hadiths – and he rejected 293,000 of them as fabricated! Bukhari was a Persian, born in Uzbekistan, two hundred years after Muhammad died. Bukhari was not an Arab. There is no good reason to accept his work as factual.

Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad's first biographer, did not write until over a hundred years after the death of Muhammad, and his work no longer exists. It is known only by later references to it, made two hundred years after Muhammad died. This work's author admitted that he presents only a bowdlerized version. At least one Muslim historian regarded Ibn Ishaq as unreliable (88). Another alleges that Jews are to blame for Ibn Ishaq's problems (90). Ibn Ishaq assigns dates to every event in Muhammad's life. None of those dates occur during time periods that existed before a renovation of the calendar. This seems to indicate the dates were fabricated by an author unaware of that calendric innovation (98).

When assessing ancient texts, scholars seek support for the texts in still extant archaeological sites. Archaeology seems to contradict Muhammad's received biography. It contradicts what is known about Mecca (104-5).

When assessing texts, scholars consider the "criterion of embarrassment." Does the text contain material that might embarrass? If so, it is more likely to be true. Those who argue for the authenticity of Muhammad material cite his marriage, when he was fifty plus, to a six year old girl, and his demanding that his son relinquish his wife and allow Muhammad to marry his own daughter-in-law. Spencer claims that these details might jibe with seventh century Arab warlord needs and values.

The Koran is a notoriously incoherent book. It is unlike other world scriptures, whose narratives and values are usually readily apparent to non-members even on a first read through. One estimate states that 20 % of the Koran simply makes no sense (149). Islam's "theological flux" is explained with a Koranic verse that says that Allah gives better verses to abrogate inferior ones (128; 131). The Koran is said to be all but divine, but passing influences dictate its contents (128-9). Muslim traditions state that some Koranic verses disappeared (135-137). Scholarship backs this up; analysis shows that the Koran is the result of several authors working over the course of many years (138-9).

Finally, Spencer argues that the Koran was based largely on pre-existent Jewish and mainstream and heretical Christian material from the Bible and folklore (148-9). Much of this material was obviously misunderstood, for example, the Koran describing Jesus as Moses' nephew. Again, Islamic tradition supports this view, announcing that Muhammad's critics called him merely someone who heard and regurgitated Jewish and Christian tradition, "fairy tales of the ancients he has written down" (146-7).

Many words in the Koran make no sense in Arabic or any known language. It is possible that these words are the results of errors. If one understands the Koran in the context of the Syriac language and the Christian heresy of Arianism, it begins to make sense – but it is a much less "Islamic" text. It is not the unique revelation of God to a prophet, but simply a misunderstood and misused text. Translated correctly, the Koran may contain celebrations of the Last Supper, of Christmas, and a Christian confession of faith.

Did Muhammad exist? Spencer says that he possibly did, but scholarship shows that he is not the prophet of a coherent and new revelation, but, rather, that his name was used to unify and rally an imperialist, expansionist Arab conquest. That conquest's scripture was a garbled version of a Jewish and Christian substratum that evolved in response to military needs.

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