Did Muhammad Exist? A revisionist look at Islam’s Origins
By Neil Godfrey
Danish translation: Eksisterede Muhammed? Et revisionistisk blik på islams oprindelse
Source: Vridar, March 26, 2015
Published on myIslam.dk: October 16, 2017

In 2013 I read Tom Holland’s history of the rise of Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword, in which he argues in a most readable narrative that the astonishing spread of Arab conquests in the seventh century had more to do a series of tragic forces, in particular the Bubonic Plague, weakening the neighbouring Byzantine and Persian empires, than it did with the might of Arab arms. Moreover, those Arab conquests were not motivated by the Islamic faith; rather, the Islamic faith did not emerge until some decades after those conquests. I posted about Holland’s views at:

Islam, the Untold Story
Islam’s Origins, the Historical Problem
Interview with Tom Holland

Since then I have been wanting to read more about the historical questions surrounding early Islam. Holland cited the works of several scholars I had hoped to engage with before I read Robert Spencer’s book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins, (But I distracted myself by reading another of Holland’s historical works instead.) Meanwhile Spencer’s book fell my way so I grabbed it.

Happily it turned out to be much more interesting as a historical exploration than I had expected. The most troubling flaw was Spencer’s rather poorly informed and stereotypical views of the nature of religions generally and Islam in particular as experienced in today’s world: he contrasts Christianity as an essentially peaceful religion ever since its origins with Islam as an essentially war-making and killing machine because of its historical origins. Some readers will love that summary and others will be dismayed by it (I am among the latter). Nonetheless, despite this botched conclusion much of the book is quite interesting and informative. How much of its information I will come to revise as I learn more I don’t know, so here I am writing up some general points that appear to be the views of a minority of Islamic scholars.

Anyone familiar with the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus will recognize some of the terrain here. Evidence cited over the years for the historicity of Muhammad has included:

  • the rich and vivid detail in the Islamic records of his life

  • the documenting of negative (embarrassing) features of his biography

  • the implausibility of anyone making up a character making such grandiose claims

  • only the personal inspiration of such a person could explain why so many others were motivated to found a vast empire in his name

  • how else can we explain the founding of a religion that went on to boast more than a billion adherents

Similar arguments have been made for the historicity of Jesus yet as we know not one of them truly withstands scrutiny.

But before I write more about the doubts raised about the traditional story of Islam’s origins I ought to make clear what scholars who dispute this minority view say about it.

Patricia Crone is professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. She writes:

"True, on Arabic coins and inscriptions, and in papyri and other documentary evidence in the language, Mohammed only appears in the 680s, some fifty years after his death (whatever its exact date). This is the ground on which some, notably Yehuda D Nevo and Judith Koren, have questioned his existence. But few would accept the implied premise that history has to be reconstructed on the sole basis of documentary evidence (i.e. information which has not been handed down from one generation to the next, but rather been inscribed on stone or metal or dug up from the ground and thus preserved in its original form). The evidence that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, on the eve of the Arab conquest of the middle east, must be said to be exceptionally good."
"Everything else about Mohammed is more uncertain, but we can still say a fair amount with reasonable assurance. Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qur’an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death – how long after is controversial. But that he uttered all or most of them is difficult to doubt. Those who deny the existence of an Arabian prophet dispute it, of course, but it causes too many problems with later evidence, and indeed with the Qur’an itself, for the attempt to be persuasive."

For my own views on Crone’s argument about historicity see my post on historical method.

For further criticism see also, of course, the interview excerpts I have placed in the side-box [which is an interview with Islam scholar Michael Marx from Spiegel Online, (note by Danish translator)]

I mentioned previously several other historians who have questioned the conventional story of Islam’s origins in my posts on Tom Holland’s book; here are a few of many more names listed by Spencer:

Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921): Lateness of earliest biographical sources on Muhammad along with tendency to invent stories to support later political and religious positions made it impossible to treat the biographies as historically reliable. Spencer lists many names of scholars who have raised questions about Muhammad’s historicity but I list only a few here;

Henri Lammens (1862-1937): Questioned the traditional dates associated with Muhammad; noted the “artificial character and absence of critical sense” in the earliest biographies of Muhammad.

Joseph Schacht (1902-1969): Impossible to extract authentic core of historical material from the earliest texts. Many documents claiming to be early were in fact composed much later.

John Wansbrough (1928-2002): Doubted the historical value of early Islamic texts. Qur’an was developed for political purposes to establish Islam’s origins in Arabia and to give the Arabian empire a distinctive religion.

Patricia Crone and Michael Cook: Noted lateness and unreliability of most early Islamic sources; reviewed archaeological, philological sources, coins from seventh and eighth centuries. Posited that Islam arose within and then split from Judaism. Argued the Arabic setting (including Mecca) was at a late date and for political purposes read back into the history of Islam’s origins. Later, however, Crone wrote that the evidence for Muhammad’s existence is “exceptionally good” (see the quotation above).

Günter Lüling: Qur’an originated as a Christian document; reflects theology of non-Trinitarian Christianity that influenced Islam.

Christoph Luxemberg (pseudonym): Qur’an shows signs of a Christian substratum; Syriac, not Arabic, resolves many difficulties in the text.

So what are the main points that prompt questions about the historicity of Muhammad and suggest that Islam emerged as a major religion some decades after the Arab conquests? Robert Spencer lists the following:

  • The first record of Muhammad’s death in 632 appears more than a century after that date.

  • There is a mid-630s Christian reference to a living Arab prophet “armed with a sword”.

  • Those conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century never mention Islam, Muhammad or the Qur’an until much later. They refer to their conquerors as Ishmaelites, Saracens, Muhajirun and Hagarians but never as Muslims.

  • The coins and inscriptions of the Arab conquerors do not mention Islam or the Qur’an for the first sixty years after their conquests. Mentions of Muhammad are ambiguous: does it refer to a name or an honorific? Twice the name appears with a cross.

  • The Qur’an in its present form was not distributed until the 650s according to the orthodox account. The Qur’an is not mentioned by the Arabs, Christians or Jews in the region until the early eighth century.

  • The Arabs constructed a public building with an inscription headed by a cross during the reign of caliph Muawiya (661-680).

  • Coins and inscriptions indicating Islamic beliefs, and the first mentions of Muhammad as a prophet of Islam, emerge in the reign of caliph Abd al-Malik in the 690s.

  • At the same time Arabic (the language of the Qur’an according to tradition) superseded Syrian and Greek as the dominant language of the empire.

  • Abd al-Malik claimed to have been the one to have collected the Qur’an sayings into the one volume contradicting Islamic tradition that this had been accomplished forty years earlier by caliph Uthman.

  • At the same period (690s) the governor of Iraq Hajjaj ibn Yusuf edited the Qur’an and distributed it to various provinces, according to multiple hadiths — also something the traditional account attributes much earlier to Uthman.

  • Some Islamic traditions date certain practices such as the recitation of the Qur’an during mosque prayers from the directives of Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, not to the earliest period of Islamic history.

  • The first complete biography of Muhammad appeared 125 years after the traditional date of the prophet’s death. This biographical material proliferated after the Umayyad dynasty was replaced by the Abbasids. The new dynasty accused the Umayyads of being most irreligious. The new biographical details of Muhammad emerged at this time.

  • Mecca (the supposed birth place of Muhammad and Islam) in the centre of Arabia was never a centre for trade and pilgrimage as claimed by canonical Islamic accounts.

There are many textual oddities in the Qur’an and Spencer discusses some arguments of scholars who have suggested that these remain problematic only if we accept the traditional account that they were originally composed in Arabic. They can apparently be resolved if we hypothesize Syriac and Christian sources behind them.

One curiosity in the Qur’an is its repeated emphasis on how clear is its meaning yet in fact it has been said that one in five passages are very definitely anything but clear. Again, some scholars have argued that this is an indication of a text that has been cobbled together ultimately from non-Arabic and non-Islamic sources and an editor attempting damage control by denying the problematic result.

If not from Muhammad then how did Islam originate?

The Byzantine (Roman) empire was held together through Christianity and the Persian empire by Zoroastrianism. However, the peoples ruled by the Arabs adhered to a wide variety of religions: Nestorians and Jacobites, Zoroastrians.

"The realm of political theology, then, offers the most plausible explanation for the creation of Islam, Muhammad, and the Qur’an. The Arab Empire controlled and needed to unify huge expanses of territory where different religions predominated. . . . . "
"But at first, the Arab Empire did not have a compelling political theology to compete with those it supplanted and to solidify its conquests. The earliest Arab rulers appear to have been adherents of Hagarism, a monotheistic religion centered around Abraham and Ishmael. They frowned upon the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. . . ."
"This umbrella monotheistic movement saw itself as encompassing the true forms of the two great previous monotheistic movements, Judaism and Christianity."
- Spencer, Robert (2014-04-08). Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins (Kindle Locations 2666-3668; 3673-3678). Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Kindle Edition.

Spencer cites the evidence of early Arab coins bearing crosses and early accusations that the Arabian prophet was making common cause with the Jews to suggest that early Islam had a positive attitude towards Christians and Jews. The concern, he suggests, was to unify the empire and to create a religion building on the foundations of existing religious interests to accomplish this.

But how could one explain stories about Muhammad emerging late in the day? Would that not look suspicious?

"The answer was to blame the Umayyads. They were impious. They were irreligious. Although they were the sons and immediate heirs of those who had known Muhammad, they were indifferent to this legacy and let the great message of the Seal of the Prophets fall by the wayside. Now the Abbasids had come along and—Muhammad emerged! His teachings would be taught throughout the empire. His Qur’an would sound from every mosque. His faithful would be called to prayer from every minaret."
- Spencer, Robert (2014-04-08). Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins (Kindle Locations 3732-3736). Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Kindle Edition.

Yes, okay. But surely something would have been preserved of Muhammad no matter how impious the Umayyads were. And what about the inconsistencies in the Qur’an?

"The late appearance of the biographical material about Muhammad, the fact that no one had heard of or spoken of Muhammad for decades after the Arab conquests began, the changes in the religion of the Arab Empire, the inconsistencies in the Qur’an—all of this needed to be explained. The hadiths pinning blame on the Umayyads helped, but other explanations would have been necessary, too. A common justification emerged in the hadiths: It was all part of the divine plan. Allah caused even Muhammad to forget portions of the Qur’an. He left the collection of that divine book up to people who lost parts of it—hence its late editing and the existence of variants. It was all in his plan and thus should not disturb the faith of the pious."
- Spencer, Robert (2014-04-08). Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins (Kindle Locations 3736-3741). Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Kindle Edition.

Can we draw a comparison here with the argument that the first evangelist had to explain why his story of Jesus (the Gospel of Mark) was only being written so long after Jesus had left the scene and why no-one had heard about such details before? That argument suggests that the reason the disciples were depicted as so completely uncomprehending in the Gospel of Mark, and why the gospel originally ended at 16:8 with the women witnesses fleeing in such fear that they told no-one what they had just seen, was to plausibly explain why no-one had heard that newly composed story of Jesus before. The blindness and fear of Jesus’ first followers was all part of the divine plan.

Revisiting the criterion of embarrassment

Another interesting comparison with the Christ Myth debate is to see how ostensibly embarrassing details about the founder figure are addressed. Most of us are aware that it has become something of a truism among scholars of early Christianity to argue that “no one would make up stories about Jesus or his disciples that would appear embarrassing so the existence of such stories indicates they really happened.”

The same point is sometimes made with respect to Muhammad.

"Why would anyone invent a hero and then invest him with weaknesses?"
- Spencer, Robert (2014-04-08). Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins (Kindle Locations 1926-1927). Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Kindle Edition.

One such incident is the early Islamic account of how Muhammad came to marry his former daughter-in-law, Zaynab.

"The Zaynab incident depicts Muhammad as a rogue prophet, enslaved to his lust, and stooping to construct a flimsy excuse (the prohibition of adoption) in order to exonerate himself."
- Spencer, Robert (2014-04-08). Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins (Kindle Locations 1989-1991). Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Kindle Edition.

The story as I read it goes like this:

Muhammad’s adopted son, Zayd, was married to the stunningly beautiful Zaynab. One day Muhammad visited his adopted son Zayd’s house when he was out, saw Zaynab in semi-undress, and fell in love with her. Her husband disliked her and offered to divorce her so Muhammad could marry her.

Muhammad refused, saying, “Keep thy wife to thyself, and fear God.”

However, it was Allah’s will that Muhammad marry Zaynab! This was a point of extreme embarrassment in the narrative, not because Muhammad was lusting after his adopted son’s wife but because he was resisting the will of Allah.

Muhammad did finally resolve to perform Allah’s will.

"The story of Muhammad’s marriage to his former daughter-in-law appears to betray embarrassment about, and provide a justification for, a negative episode in Muhammad’s life. But it may actually be something else."
"The Qur’an’s allusive and fragmented reference to the incident concludes with the affirmation that"
“'Muhammad is not the father of any one of your men, but the Messenger of God, and the Seal of the Prophets; God has knowledge of everything'” (33:40).
- Spencer, Robert (2014-04-08). Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins (Kindle Locations 2050-2052). Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Kindle Edition.

What does that concluding remark have to do with the story? Perhaps nothing; perhaps everything.

In the Qur’an all the prophets were related to one another. The prophetic office appears to have been passed down from father to son. Thus of the sons of Abraham, David and Solomon, Job and Joseph, Moses and Aaron, Zachariah and John, were all related prophets. If Muhammad were to have a son to carry on his name after his death then that son, in this case Zayd, would have been a prophet. (No other sons of Muhammad survived childhood.)

In that case Muhammad would no longer be “the Seal of the Prophets”.

In the story Allah disregarded the the sonship status of Zayd.

What appears to be an embarrassing incident in Muhammad’s life may instead have originated as a story to eliminate the possibility of anyone else (in particular any descendants of Zayd) from claiming to be a rival voice among the later followers of Muhammad. The rule was set that adopted sons were not to be considered as having any of the rights of natural sons. Adopted sonship was not to be recognized at all.

In this way potential rival political claimants could be rendered illegitimate.

"Thus in order to ensure the centrality of Muhammad in Islamic tradition, and to establish religious orthodoxy that held the empire together, stories had to be invented emphasizing that Muhammad had neither natural nor adopted sons. This was because a son of Muhammad could potentially become a rallying figure for a rival political faction. . . ."
- Spencer, Robert (2014-04-08). Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins (Kindle Locations 2092f). Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Kindle Edition.

There was another advantage to deligitimizing an adopted son. The rule was a blow against Islam’s chief rival, Christianity, with its adoptionist teachings justifying the status of both Jesus and gentile converts.