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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Reading List: Did Muhammad Exist?

Spencer, Robert. Did Muhammad Exist? Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012. ISBN 978-161017-061-1.
In 1851, Ernest Renan wrote that Islam “was born in the full light of history…”. But is this the case? What do we actually know of the origins of Islam, the life of its prophet, and the provenance of its holy book? In this thoroughly researched and documented investigation the author argues that the answer to these questions is very little indeed, and that contemporary evidence for the existence of a prophet in Arabia who proclaimed a scripture, led the believers into battle and prevailed, unifying the peninsula, and lived the life documented in the Muslim tradition is entirely nonexistent during the time of Muhammad's supposed life, and did not emerge until decades, and in many cases, more than a century later. Further, the historical record shows clear signs, acknowledged by contemporary historians, of having been fabricated by rival factions contending for power in the emerging Arab empire.

What is beyond dispute is that in the century and a quarter between A.D. 622 and 750, Arab armies erupted from the Arabian peninsula and conquered an empire spanning three continents, propagating a change in culture, governance, and religion which remains in effect in much of that region today. The conventional story is that these warriors were the armies of Islam, following their prophet's command to spread the word of their God and bearing his holy writ, the Qur'an, before them as they imposed it upon those they subdued by the sword. But what is the evidence for this?

When you look for it, it's remarkably scanty. As the peoples conquered by the Arab armies were, in many cases, literate, they have left records of their defeat. And in every case, they speak of the invaders as “Hagarians”, “Ishmaelites”, “Muhajirun”, or “Saracens”, and in none of these records is there a mention of an Arab prophet, much less one named “Muhammad”, or of “Islam”, or of a holy book called the “Qur'an”.

Now, for those who study the historical foundations of Christianity or Judaism, these results will be familiar—when you trace the origins of a great religious tradition back to its roots, you often discover that they disappear into a fog of legend which believers must ultimately accept on faith since historical confirmation, at this remove, is impossible. This has been the implicit assumption of those exploring the historical foundations of the Bible for at least two centuries, but it is considered extremely “edgy” to pose these questions about Islam, even today. This is because when you do, the believers are prone to use edgy weapons to cut your head off. Jews and Christians have gotten beyond this, and just shake their heads and chuckle. So some say it takes courage to raise these questions about Islam. I'd say “some” are the kind of cowards who opposed the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, freeing it from the priesthood and placing it in the hands of anybody who could read. And if any throat-slitter should be irritated by these remarks and be inclined to act upon them, be advised that I not only shoot back but, circumstances depending, first.

I find the author's conclusion very plausible. After the Arab conquest, its inheritors found themselves in command of a multicontinental empire encompassing a large number of subject peoples and a multitude of cultures and religious traditions. If you were the ruler of such a newly-cobbled-together empire, wouldn't you be motivated, based upon the experience of those you have subdued, to promulgate a state religion, proclaimed in the language of the conquerer, which demanded submission? Would you not base that religion upon the revelation of a prophet, speaking to the conquerers in their own language, which came directly from God?

It is often observed that Islam, unlike the other Abrahamic religions, is uniquely both a religious and political system, leading inevitably to theocracy (which I've always believed misnamed—I'd have no problem with theocracy: rule by God; it's rule by people claiming to act in His name that always seems to end badly). But what if Islam is so intensely political precisely because it was invented to support a political agenda—that of the Arabic Empire of the Umayyad Caliphate? It's not that Islam is political because its doctrine encompasses politics as well as religion; it's that's it's political because it was designed that way by the political rulers who directed the compilation of its sacred books, its traditions, and spread it by the sword to further their imperial ambitions.

Posted at July 3, 2012 00:23