Robert Spencer is known as a bête noire to Islamist sympathizers. He published a critical blog with a chapter-by-chapter study of the Qur’an during 2007-2008, and in his current blog, http://www.jihadwatch.org/, furnishes us with up-to-date information hardly ever available from the mass media. He has also published several books on Islam and Muhammad; but his latest book, Did Muhammad Exist?, offers us significant departure from his previous endeavors. Like Tom Holland in The Shadow of the Sword, Spencer shows that the origin of Islam in the Arabian desert is doubtful – but he goes even further in doubting the existence of the “prophet” who started it all.
Can he be serious? Is he just trying to be provocative? Spencer explains that in the Introduction to his 2006 book, The Truth about Muhammad, a biography based on the earliest Muslim sources,
I pointed out “the paucity of early reliable sources” and observed that “from a strictly historical standpoint, it is impossible to state with certainty that a man named Muhammad actually existed, or if he did, that he did much or any of what is ascribed to him.” Even then, however, I said for a variety of reasons that “in all likelihood he did exist.” That may have been an overly optimistic assessment.
Proofs of non-existence – even of God – are notoriously difficult to substantiate. But Spencer is content to focus on the strange lack of historical evidence for the existence of Muhammad. This lacuna contrasts unfavorably with the abundant testimony, not only from believing Christians, but from Jewish and pagan historians, of the existence of Jesus. Hardly any trustworthy, roughly contemporary testimony is available for Muhammad. The quest for the “historical Muhammad” is made even more challenging by the fact that Muslim scholars, mostly because of religious taboos, have not applied anything analogous to the “historical-critical” methodology employed by Christian scripture-scholars.
The “canonical” story, briefly, is that Muhammad, brought up as a child by an uncle after his parents’ death, worked as a merchant in Mecca, a pilgrimage site and bustling commercial center, married at 25, started to receive revelations from the angel Gabriel at age 40, fled from Mecca to Medina after his attempts to convert pagan polytheists were rebuffed, became a prophet/warlord in Medina, receiving messages from Allah which later were compiled into the Qur’an, and conquered hostile opponents to Islam, which was meant to supersede all other religions; he acquired a sizeable harem, great wealth and prestige, and died in 632 at the age of 62.
Numerous problems emerge with this narrative, according to Spencer:
- There are no records of Mecca being a pilgrimage site or a commercial center. Because of its location in Western Arabia, it was hardly likely to be a crossroad for commerce.
- A coin struck by the first Arabian conquerers between 647 and 658 does bear the inscription muhammad – but this is a figure carrying a cross! – which certainly does not jibe with Islam as we know it.
- The first attempt to record stories about Muhammad (“hadiths”) did not begin until the 8th century, under the 5th Umayyad caliph, Abd al-Malik; this project continued on into the 9th century, when the first biography of Muhammad was authored by Ibn Ishaq. All subsequent biographies have been based on Ibn Ishaq’s very late-appearing work.
- Ibn Ishaq’s biography goes into great detail about the birth, childhood, adulthood, marriage, visions, raiding campaigns, marriages, etc, but also is peculiarly replete with miracles attributed to Muhammad. This is peculiar because the Qur’an (29:51) asserts that Muhammad did not perform miracles, because the Qur’an itself was a sufficient miracle to convince believers.
Problems turn up also with the history of the Qur’an, the editing and expanding of which began after Muhammad’s death by the fifth caliph, Abd al-Malik:
- The first non-Muslim reference to the Qur’an was by a monk, 80 years after the book was supposedly completed, and 60 years after it was supposedly collected and distributed.
- Some hadiths assert that parts of the Qur’an were missing, and had to be gathered together by various caliphs, starting with the first caliph, Abu Bakr.
- Caliph Uthman (644-656) and caliph Abd al-Malik (685-705) seemed to compete with each other in altering verses to favor their own political claims.
- Early fragments have no diacritical markings. But the same word with different markings can have very different meanings.
- Spencer cites the philologist, Gerd-R. Puin, regarding the complete unintelligibility of about one-fifth of the Qur’an, and gives examples of verses that make some of Gertrude Stein’s “stream of consciousness” experiments sound lucid.
- The Qur’an has been subjected to variant translations, which sometimes lead to contradictions. For example, Sura 3:158 says that those who die or are slain will be gathered to Allah, while a 1978 translation published in Tehran says that they will not be gathered to Allah.
- Some references seem to be reinterpretations of Christian writings or liturgical accouterments. The “Night of Power” (Sura 97:1-5), and the vigil associated with it, is commonly associated with the first appearance of Gabriel to Muhammad, but seems to have involved an incorporation of the Syriac Orthodox Liturgy of the Nativity, e.g. the midnight celebration of Christmas. The reference to the “virgins” of Paradise offered as a reward to martyrs is an example of a similar incorporation, as well as an orthographic misreading. It is really a reference to white raisins – a prized delicacy at that time in the middle east, and possibly related to one of the 4th century hymns of St. Ephraem the Syrian, which refers to the “grapevines of paradise.”
So what are we to make of such obscurities? That Mohammed never existed? Spencer concludes,
The full truth of whether a prophet named Muhammad lived in seventh-century Arabia, and if he did, what sort of man he was, may never be known. But it would be intellectually irresponsible not to ask the question or consider the implications of the provocative evidence that pioneering scholars have assembled.
The evidence that Spencer examines leads only to the cautious conclusion that a warlord/prophet may have existed, who, with help from adulating admirers, became a larger-than-life hero, like Robin Hood, King Arthur, Macbeth, and El Cid.
What seems clear and incontestable is that someone in the middle east started a political religion that energized his followers for conquest extending from Spain to India, from Sudan to the Caucasus, and that he subsequently became the “stuff of legend.”