Did Muhammad Exist? (Why That Question Is Hard to Answer)

Cover of Robert Spencer's book Did Mohammad Exist? with subtitle An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins, black cover with antique looking painted flames in which resides an image of Mohammad, face erased. Yellow title. White subtitle and author credit. Also tagline for the author says New York Times bestselling author.I get asked this a lot. “Why not apply your methods and skills to the question of whether Muhammad actually existed or not?” My answer is always the same: I will not likely ever be able to do that, because it would require getting a whole second Ph.D. in Medieval Arabic Studies & Languages (and those languages include not just Medieval Arabic, but also Syriac at the very least). And I must emphasize, I would need not just a good command of the languages (as I do the Greek and Latin required for studying the origins of Christianity), but also “a strong grasp of the historical, cultural, political, social, economic, and religious context” of the origins of Islam (Proving History, p. 18), and that happens to include numerous relevant yet distinct cultural contexts (not just of the Middle East and North Africa, but Byzantine as well).

And I’m not going to do that. Because that period bores the shit out of me. If I ever get a second Ph.D., it will be in contemporary philosophy, to improve myself even further in that area, or a modern science. But Medieval Arabic Studies? Sorry. No. I have all these skills with respect to the origins of Christianity, so I am well qualified to produce peer reviewed studies of the historicity of Jesus (hence my book On the Historicity of Jesus, published at the University of Sheffield). But not so for Islam. We need someone to do that who has parallel skills in that field. I can competently communicate the findings of experts in the field. But on this topic, those findings are confusing and disputed at present.

Okay. So. Lacking my ability to test the question myself, or fully vet anyone else’s case as an expert, can I at least answer whether there is any plausibility to the claim that there was no Muhammad, that he was invented by early Arabic military leaders to give a name to a text they cobbled together to inspire their soldiers and build a new civilization on? In other words, that he was invented in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons as the militaristic Jews invented Moses?

I don’t know.

This is the most I can tell you…

The Basic Problem

There is a Wikipedia page on the subject (Historicity of Muhammad), but as one can tell from the similar page for Jesus (Historicity of Jesus), it’s mostly crawled over and meddled with by fundamentalist apologists and secular historicity fanatics, so it can’t really be relied upon to give you an honest picture. (Indeed, honest Jesus historians should be embarrassed by that page for Jesus. So I fear the same could be true of honest Muhammad historians for his correlating page.)

Experts (at least non-fundamentalists) do agree that:

  • The Quran can’t be used non-circularly to challenge such a hypothesis. (Nor, conversely, can a recent manuscript find prove such a hypothesis, since even that was written on parchment dated to precisely when the Quran claims to have been written, not before, and its stylistic features strongly suggest the current ink was not even placed on that parchment until many decades later.)
  • The Hadith contains much that is fabricated (so in fact Muslims were inventing Muhammad tradition, in abundance). Discussion and bibliography on that point can be found in Robert M. Price, “The Abhorrent Void: The Rapid Attribution of Fictive Sayings and Stories to a Mythic Jesus,” Sources of the Jesus Tradition (ed. R. Joseph Hoffmann).
  • No literature about Muhammad, that adds information not in the Quran, appears to have been written (or if written, none survives) until a century or more after his purported death, a situation in fact worse than for Jesus.
  • Mentions of Muhammad, and minor details about him, do exist within decades of his death, even from non-Muslim sources, but they all appear to be repeating what is said or implied in the Quran, or by Muslims using the Quran as a source. There are no eyewitness sources, nor any contemporary sources.
  • There is no archaeological corroboration (coins, inscriptions, or attesting manuscripts, of documents or literature, dating to within his life or very near it, other than the Quran). The earliest coins mentioning Muhammad start in 685 A.D., and the earliest inscriptions mentioning Mohammad start in 691 A.D. (dates that are fifty to sixty years after his purported death), but both reference him only in a creedal declaration (known as the Shahada), the existence of which is already entailed by any minimal non-historicity thesis. Similarly all subsequent inscriptions (e.g. on the Dome of the Rock, inscribed a year later; in fact, that just quotes the Shahada and the Quran).
  • Until recently the “best” attempt to argue Muhammad was a fiction was Robert Spencer’s Did Muhammad Exist? (2012), but that is not a peer reviewed university publication, and from what I can tell, it is not very convincing to those qualified to assess it. (Spencer might also be something of an Islamophobic crank. And according to Wikipedia at least, he has only an M.A. in “religious studies,” and even that only specializing in the history of Catholicism.)

This leaves us with certain first-stage questions that need to be answered by a qualified expert:

  • (1) Does any of the later literature cite or describe earlier sources that they used? As is claimed to be the case; but unfortunately I can’t vet those claims. Even some comments or notes in non-Muslim Syriac texts, which seem to derive from eyewitnesses within years of Muhammad’s purported death, are problematic as to authenticity and date, and are again in Medieval Syriac, requiring a different set of skills to evaluate than I possess, and on top of all that, all they do is mention that Muslim invaders follow the writings of the prophet Muhammad. Which the non-historicity thesis already grants. None of them are witnesses to the verifiable existence of Muhammad.
  • (2) Has anything been overlooked? For example, by taking historicity for granted, there may be evidence yet supporting it that no one has gathered up yet. And even the evidence already acknowledged requires a more definitive and unbiased critical analysis. The Syriac notes, for example, often don’t get mentioned by historicity deniers, or treated critically by historicity defenders. And there are complicated arguments surrounding the Charter of Medina, for example, that could yet yield a case for historicity. And that is also well beyond my ability to assess. And who knows what else there might be?
  • (3) What is the normal expected literature, document, and epigraphy survival rate from the 7th century? (The century when Muhammad is to have lived and died, and his followers first began expanding their conquests.) Because that affects how likely we should expect better evidence to still exist if Muhammad did. For instance, we have contemporary inscriptions attesting the existence of Caliph Umar from within ten years of Muhammad’s purported death, and Umar was reputedly a “close companion” of Muhammad and major player in governing the new Muslim state; and we have inscriptions attesting other players as well; but so far, never Muhammad.
  • And related to both questions, (4) are there any events essential to Muhammad’s existence that should be attested by better evidence?

Further questions would pertain (5) to prior probability: in that time and place, how commonly were fictive authors created to market holy books or other propaganda (since Mohammad is not in any of the myth-heavy reference classes Jesus belongs to); and then (6) to hypothesis testing: how would one prove likely an alternative origin story for Islam and the Quran. Because, remember, possibly is not probably (this is what I have named the possibiliter fallacy, as described in Proving History, Axiom 5, pp. 26-29).

Robert Spencer

Spencer’s theory, for example, is that one can adduce internal and external linguistic evidence that the Quran is just a redaction of a pre-Islamic Syriac holy text (or texts) actually foundational to a Middle Eastern sect of Jewish Christians centuries before (this is also now argued by others, including Karl Ohlig, discussed below). And certainly, Islam is actually just a sect of Christianity (as much as Muslims—and Christians—would be horrified to admit it; Islam is in many ways just the first Mormonism), and clearly descended from the obscure but more original Torah observant wing of Christianity (hence their common requirement of circumcision, their common prohibition against consuming pork, and other details). Other scholars have proposed similar theories (as even acknowledged on Wikipedia), that the Quran is not really all that original, and Spencer is drawing on their previous work—indeed, more experts continue to make similar arguments. But crucially, most others who do, didn’t and don’t conclude this entails Muhammad didn’t exist.

Indeed, Spencer’s theory is compatible with historicity, since Muhammad might have been the very one to do that adaptation and pass it off as an original work—adding, perhaps, details about himself and his use and gradual development of the treatise during his life. Although Spencer claims, “we can glean nothing” from the Quran “about Muhammad’s biography,” because such details are too vague, and it is not “even certain, on the basis of the Qur’anic text alone, that these passages refer to Muhammad, or did so originally” (p. 19), that is a claim that requires a well-qualified expert to assess. Similarly his extensive arguments for there being problems with the earliest evidence, which he argues supports the conclusion that Muhammad was invented later. Assessing all that also requires expertise I don’t have.

Likewise, while even adding a historical Muhammad back into Spencer’s theory would still be damning to fundamentalism (which requires the text to have been revealed by an angel of God and not a half-assed plagiarism of heretical Christian scriptures), even that claim requires vetting by a qualified expert. And since Spencer’s case for it depends on comparing Arabic with Syriac (although he isn’t alone in noting this evidence), the skillset required is not a simple thing to acquire. Spencer himself relies on other purported experts in the language. But that doesn’t excuse their work from the need of vetting.

For those who want to explore Spencer’s case further, the most authoritative critique I’ve found so far is that of Ian Morris, a doctoral student in Medieval Studies who exhibits significant expertise in Syriac (a crucial skill for this debate). His article “Misspelling Muhammad: Why Robert Spencer Is Wrong about Thomas Presbyter” (2014) is not comprehensive, but important to challenging key elements of the Spencer thesis, especially centering as it does on one of the most important evidences. More importantly, it shows the kinds of skills and background knowledge that are needed to engage in this debate overall, and thus why I can’t contribute to it (since I don’t have those skills, and won’t likely ever). Likewise the critical analysis “Muhammad: Man or Myth?” by J. Mark Nicovich at The Catholic World Report, who is a fully qualified professor in Byzantine Studies, and thus brings another key area of expertise to the discussion.

Even so, there are some useful favorable summaries of Spencer’s case to examine, too: most useful I think are: an article by Neil Godfrey at Vridar; a syndicated review by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (published in various places, including The Middle East Forum and The American Spectator); and an article at Answering Islam by Dallas Roark, which also links to a debate on the topic between Spencer and David Wood. (Although be aware, I think that’s this David Wood, whom I consider an established liar for Christ; the same guy also recently debated ex-Muslim Heina Dadabhoy, and was kind of a douche with them in a subsequent vidcast. So he is not, IMO, the best rep for the historicity side of the Muhammad debate.)

Patricia Crone & Yehuda Nevo

Another book often cited is Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, published by Cambridge University in 1977, which argues for similar conclusions about the Quran being an adaptation of earlier Jewish and Christian texts, and the minimal involvement of Muhammad in originating Islam, but they didn’t argue for his non-existence. Their book also remains highly controversial and has not persuaded mainstream experts. Although as we know from Jesus studies, bias could be operating on them more than sense, I am not qualified to ascertain that. But the fact that the authors themselves have evidently backed off some aspects of their thesis after some severely critical reviews is reason enough to approach it skeptically, even though their book is a peer reviewed university publication, and Crone and Cook both are fully qualified PhD’s in the subject (Crone in Islamic Studies, Cook in Middle Eastern Studies). So even their work is not trouble free assistance to anyone who would use it in a case against historicity.

Even so, other scholars have argued for the non-existence of Muhammed, most famously Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren, in their 2003 book Crossroads to Islam: The Origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State (Prometheus), which contains a survey of the earliest literary and archaeological evidence available (Nevo was a somewhat qualified archaeologist of the period; Koren, their research assistant), and has had some positive reception from experts, though none are convinced by it. On the other hand, those hostile to its thesis have equated it to Holocaust denialism, the same ridiculous hyperbole found in the Jesus debate, the use of which immediately discredits the opinion of anyone who utters it. And yet even they still make sober enough points that have to be addressed. And again, assessing that, or the merits of other criticisms (e.g. this), requires skills I don’t have.

Ultimately, Crone’s argument (likewise Nevo’s) was that the Quran was assembled later than claimed, which does indeed eliminate Muhammad as its author, and that’s minimally the only thing that his having done renders him relevantly historical. But certain evidence can challenge that (such as recent manuscript finds; the Syriac notes I mentioned; etc.), which then leaves the question of whether their thesis can be modified to account for that. All well beyond my ability to assess. Crone, meanwhile, does not see her theory as entailing the non-existence of Muhammad, as she sees him as just one of many compilers, and that view would work just as easily with Nevo’s position as well.

Muhammad Kalisch

Other historicity challengers now include Muhammad Sven Kalisch, a relatively qualified expert (I believe he at least has full credentials as a professor of Islamic theology), who is writing a book to make his case, and has, so far, produced one article summarizing it. It is only available in German, as “Islamische Theologie ohne historischen Muhammad,” “Islamic Theology without a Historical Muhammad.” In it Kalisch states his position as a historicity agnostic, similar to several well-qualified professors with respect to Jesus. In fact, Kalisch agrees the historicity of Jesus is also doubtable (“Islamische,” p. 9), and he thinks Muhammad might have begun the same way, as an imagined revelatory being, not an actual prophet. On this view the Shahada developed the same way as the Nicene creed: as a shibboleth to test sectarian allegiance.

The destruction of opposition literature in the first two centuries of Islam (“Islamische,” pp. 3-7) does give cover to such a sequence of events. Likewise, claims of descent from the prophet would then be another contrivance to the same end, just as apostolic pedigrees were invented in attempts to seize control of Jesus tradition (“Islamische,” pp. 8-9). Kalisch also sees the late appearance of a Muhammad tradition in coins, epigraphy, and papyri odd on the theory that he existed (“Islamische,” pp. 9-12), in particular as Allah was featured alone for half a century before that on coins, epigraphs, and documents. Except, apparently, some evidence Kalisch claims of a “Muhammad” figure in pre-Muslim Jewish and Christian materials (“Islamische,” pp. 10-11). Again, I lack the skills needed to vet that claim. Although that the name Muhammad means, essentially, “The Ever-Praised One” and thus can be the title of almost any exalted being is indeed a problem for historicists.

Kalisch then goes on to challenge other assumptions about early Islamic history, such as some of its traditional claims of sustained military conquest, in parallel to the now doubted claims of a sustained Hebrew military conquest of Palestine (“Islamische,” pp. 13-14). He proposes a more symbiotic and migratory evolutionary change (albeit with some military events), in which Islam results as an evolution from a newly dominant Torah-observant Christian sect under the Caliphate, with Muhammad originating as in fact a title for Jesus, the cosmic revealer of the “teachings” that came to be assembled into what is now the Quran (“Islamische,” pp. 14-17).

Kalisch attempts to lay out how this could become transformed into a historicized Muhammad for political and sectarian convenience, in order to demote external Christian traditions and set-up a superior source of authority (“Islamische,” pp. 17-18). The new “Muhammad” thus gets the teachings direct from Gabriel, God’s right-hand archangel, bypassing Jesus—perhaps adapting a Gabrielite revelatory tradition that dates all the way back to pre-Christian times, and seizing on the by-then-established precedent that the most recent revelation is God’s truest. Thus what the Christians used to supplant Judaism, the Muslims used to supplant Christianity.

Kalisch then reasons…

Muhammad ist für die Muslime der ideale Mensch, das vollkommene Vorbild. Wenn man es genau nimmt, dann haben sich Muslime niemals wirklich für den historischen Muhammad interessiert. Die Idee einer Befolgung des prophetischen Vorbilds war eigentlich immer schon eine fromme Illusion. In Wirklichkeit namlich hatten Theologen aller Zeiten immer ihr Bildvom “wahren” Muhammad im Kopf, das sie dann als den historischen Muhammad betrachtet haben.

Muhammad is for Muslims the ideal man, the perfect model. Look closely, and you’ll see Muslims have never really been interested in the historical Muhammad. The idea of following the propheticrole model’ has always in fact been a pious illusion. In reality, theologians of all eras just always have a true’ Muhammad in their minds, which they then simply regard as the historical Muhammad.

Thus the “biography” of Muhammad evolved (“Islamische,” pp. 18-20). In much the same way and for the same reasons as the Gospels, in which Jesus is again the model all missionaries are to follow, in their own missions as well as in the stories they tell to explain their understanding of the world.

Kalisch admits he cannot prove this. His argument is more sensibly that it fits all the evidence, particularly evidence the traditional theory does not fit so well, so that at most we cannot rule it out. Sacred histories are simply not reliable. Ever. And yet that’s all we have for Muhammad as a historical man (as opposed to a revelatory being). And there is some odd stuff left over (such as a strange disinterest in Muhammad for the first half century or so, and evidence of a pre-Muslim Muhammad tradition). So we are left with enough uncertainty to have a reasonable doubt.

Kalisch’s case thus sounds more credible and well thought out to me than Spencer’s, but I am not qualified to know for sure, particularly at key points where he makes claims about the surviving evidence or the lack thereof. One doubt I have, for example, is that Kalisch does not address some of the best evidence for historicity in his article, such as the Syriac notes. Hopefully he will address that in his book. And hopefully his book will make it into English.

And More

Then there is Hans Jansen, also a relatively qualified expert (he has a doctorate in Arabic; though he appears to have specialized in contemporary, not Medieval, studies), but his reasons for doubting the historicity of Muhammad do not appear well thought-out. Although I am only basing this judgment on his summary; I have not read his book, Mohammed: Eine Biographie. But in the linked article, it doesn’t look good. He confuses evidence against the later and definitely mythical Mohammad as evidence against the original, minimally historical Muhammad (out of whom the myths were constructed). And he too casually leans on the argument from silence, not addressing the complications attending that (such as the fact that the record might not be so silent, e.g. he does not seem aware of the Syriac notes; and that we still have to resolve the question of evidence expectancy for minimal historicity; and so on).

I should also mention Ibn Warraq. Even though I cannot ascertain that he has any qualifications beyond a B.A. in Islamic studies, he has written or edited several books critically examining the subject of Muhammad’s historicity, in turn citing other scholarly work, or assembling it in one place, so these are probably crucial starting points for examining the broader debate. Most importantly is his anthology The Quest for the Historical Muhammad (Prometheus 2000), although also relevant are Which Koran? Variants, Manuscripts, Linguistics (Prometheus, 2008) and Koranic Allusions: The Biblical, Qumranian, and Pre-Islamic Background to the Koran (Prometheus, 2013). Notably, Warraq also wrote the new introduction to the paperback edition of Spencer.

There are also two other edited works that collect articles by several experts doubting (or at least willing to doubt) the historicity of Muhammad, which engage in some detailed analysis of key items of evidence, and lend support to key arguments of Kalisch, so I think anyone who wants to explore the matter certainly must consult them: The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History (Prometheus, 2009), edited by Karl Heinz Ohlig and Gerd R. Puin; and Early Islam: A Critical Reconstruction Based on Contemporary Sources (Prometheus, 2013), also edited by Ohlig (and summarized here). Ohlig is a retired professor of religious studies; Puin, an established expert in Arabic manuscripts. Their contributors are likewise qualified experts. So this is not coming from amateurs. But I would still need to see competent and honest responses by well-qualified opponents to assess it all.

The Case for Historicity

For contrast, I do not know what the best books are that argue for the historicity of Mohammad. I have found reference to only one that even focuses on the question, and that not even directly, and it is not available in English: Tilman Nagel’s Mohammed: Leben und Legende (2008), which sounds a lot like your average “historical Jesus” book—based on presumptions of historicity, rather than demonstrations of it. And we need a book that directly takes on the question.

The closest I have found in English is a short but recent article by the very Patricia Crone, “What Do We Actually Know about Mohammed” (2008), which is good, but hardly comprehensive (and not sufficiently critical of the Syriac notes to be sure she has properly vetted them as to date and content). Likewise the about ten pages surveying the matter in the introduction to The Historical Muhammad by Irving Zeitlin, which is probably worth reading as being representative of the standard mainstream view and its basis (much like the handful of pages in Van Voorst are for the Jesus question: hence for comparison see my discussion of the latter in On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 4-7).

But perhaps equally important is an articulation of the most defensible hypothesis of minimal historicity for Muhammad, since the doubter of historicity must render improbable the most defensible alternative. Patricia Crone, again, has provided that, along with another expert co-author Martin Hinds, in God’s Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam (Cambridge University, 1987). There the idea is maintained that Muhammad was just one prophet among many in the production of the Quran, and simply the last one the list was winnowed down to later when a singular authority was more convenient to claim.

The most defensible minimal mythicism for Muhammad, meanwhile, is any basic revelator-authority model as followed by the Jews in creating Moses, and the Christians in creating Jesus. The fewer assumptions attached to it the better.

Conclusion

In the end, best I can tell (and I am not qualified to tell with much confidence), it is at least significantly more probable than not that a guy named Mohammad existed, and cobbled together the Quran, perhaps adapting earlier writings from a Torah observant Christian sect, and perhaps not alone, and perhaps even at someone else’s behest (e.g. Crone & Cook propose he was simply working as an assistant to Umar in this respect, and elevated to prophet status later for convenient propaganda). But that’s at most.

And here I am imagining a contest between minimal historicity and mythicism for Muhammad. That is, what it would take for him to merely have existed and constructed (at least some of) the first Quran. The rest of his biography could still be bullshit. But proving that wouldn’t be enough to conclude he didn’t exist at all. Just as for Jesus, where one must separate the obviously mythical Jesus of the Gospels (as all mainstream experts agree, that guy is a myth) from a modern historical reconstruction of the most probable actual Jesus (which mainstream experts still struggle to do and debate the details of), so also one must separate the probably mythical Mohammad of the later Sira and Hadith, from a needed modern historical reconstruction of the most probable actual Mohammad. And the latter could well consist of nothing credible beyond that he lived and composed some of the Quran.

Whether one can go further and flip the probability the other way, or close enough to 50/50 to entail agnosticism, depends on two things: (1) Whether you can establish a low rather than a high prior for Muhammad’s existence (initially, I would say there is not a strong enough precedent for fabricating a scribal “prophet” for the Quran, e.g. Umar could just have claimed to have received and transcribed the revelation himself, so I would assign a high prior to Muhammad’s historicity, although again I only barely know enough to do this—Kalisch and Ohlig, for example, do seem to make a good case regarding the history of Muhammad’s name, which would put him in a more myth-heavy reference class); and/or (2) Whether you can show that the evidence is less likely on historicity, or at least no more likely.

And the latter can only happen once all the evidence has been fully collected and analyzed. And it does not appear that this has happened. For instance, there is no mainstream peer reviewed monograph for Mohammad equivalent to Van Voorst’s for Jesus. Nor has a good survey been done, that I know of, of what evidence we should expect but don’t have, and how likely we should expect to have it (e.g. why we have contemporary inscriptions for major leaders of Islam who were later said to be companions of Muhammad, but no inscriptions for Muhammad). And even then, once all that is done, the question must be asked: How likely is that evidence’s collective existence (including what is absent) if Mohammad minimally existed, and how likely is it if he didn’t? The ratio between the latter two probabilities gives us the likelihood ratio (or Bayes factor) favoring historicity. When that ratio is multiplied by the ratio of the prior probabilities (for and against historicity), you get the odds that Muhammad minimally existed.

No one has done that yet. And I am not qualified to do it myself.

39 comments

  1. Steve Watson October 1, 2015, 6:52 am

    There is a reference class for religions and a generic ideal type for what the origin of a religion should look like. I can’t name one religion whose origin story according to its faithful isn’t a fantasy or lie. I have been reading stuff about Islam’s origins for thirty odd years. I was quite taken by its being a product of the eighth-ninth centuries. Then I read you on ‘John Frumm’ and Roswell.

    What is apparent is there just doesn’t seem to be nearly enough of anything to honestly construct more than a bare minimum origin and given the Saudis, ISIS, and Yemen are actively destroying evidence and archaeology as we speak, I don’t think that circumstance is going to get anything other than worse.

    One book I would recommend is Tom Holland’s ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’, also look out for the documentary he made and various talks and interviews available on the web.
    Crone and Crook have evolved in the way good scholars should, by examining the evidence and testing hypotheses. There is a caveat though, unlike proposing Jesus wasn’t real, it is far more probable someone will try and kill you for proposing such about Mo. It has happened; professors are in hiding, have been thrown out of windows by their students, Ibn Warraq and others publish under pseudonyms, etc.

    That ‘discovery’ in Birmingham. When I saw that on the BBC, I thought ‘ Come on, how bloody convenient is that?’. Compare and contrast the Tapliot Tomb, the ‘James’ Ossuary, and ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’. When they reared their ugly heads, almost immediately numerous scholars across various relevant disciplines were contesting them. Suddenly we have a 640AD Qur’an and all I saw was credulity.

    Latin and Greek authors generated biography from the work and sayings attributed to their subjects. Gospel writers generated Jesus stories from the OT and each other. We can’t abide not knowing; if we don’t have any facts we make them up. If you did have the time, the interest, the relevant expertise and investigated I think you would find yourself thinking ‘It’s deja vu all over again’ if you haven’t already.

    Reply
    1. Just clarify one point: We do not have a 640 AD Koran. We have a parchment that could have been manufactured as recently as 645 with ink on it now that reflects styles fifty years later (thus, the ink was probably put to that parchment circa 695, either for the first time, or as a palimpsest), and consisting of only a small fraction of a whole Koran (parts of Surahs 18, 19, and 20…there are 114 Surahs). Whether it is a forgery is a legitimate question. But even if not, it’s not what is commonly being reported.

      Reply
  2. stevenjohnson2 October 1, 2015, 9:19 am

    One of the arguments against the historicity of Jesus (or so I always thought,) is the apparent nonexistence of relatives trying to seize their famous relative’s legacy. After all, Jesus was reported to a descendant of the historical John the Baptist, implying a claim to his legacy. (No, it is not clear to me that James the brother of the Lord was a sibling, sorry. I’m not even sure the James the Just reported to be executed in Josephus was a Christian, doubly sorry.) Ali, alleged cousin and son-in-law, and Aisha, alleged wife, were taking part in historically attested events relatively soon after the Muhammads’s reported floruit. It seems unlikely that Ali and Aisha could have succeeded in making such claims, especially in the case of Ali, who essentially lost the political struggle, which left him in no position to censor history. I suppose if real history is against you, as may be the case for the Umayyads, might you be less interested in the real history?

    Reply
    1. The problem is that there actually isn’t any contemporary evidence for any of that. The notion of family fighting over control comes about a century or more later. There is a conspicuous absence of any earlier evidence of it. This is discussed in Kalisch’s essay. It’s in fact one of his arguments. He also articulates a plausible model for the invention of family (as I mention in my article above), based on other precedents in the history of religion (my favorite example, though he doesn’t mention it, is the Jews who claimed to be descended from the people raised from the dead by Ezekiel, an obviously allegorical and not historical event).

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  3. favog October 1, 2015, 9:51 am

    When Kalish’s book gets finished, I hope there will be an English translation. I’ve heard just enough about this stuff to be interested, but to know it’s too difficult a question for me to even begin to gauge with the resources at hand. Just the fact that the Haddith was compiled, so it is said, by going around to any and all communities and offering cash for any quote or anecdote anyone had, even if it came from their late grandparents, and with no attempt to vet any of it. So they were creating a climate bound to promote distorted memories and outright fraud, and if they did that in terms of the Haddith, there’s no indication they used any better intellectual integrity in other areas.

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  4. Pierce R. Butler October 1, 2015, 11:57 am

    Numerous anomalies in the standard stories raise interesting questions, such as the claim that most trade in the Arabian area at that time used ships, making it unlikely that a purported caravaneer would have traveled as widely as Muhammad allegedly did. Steve Watson @ # 2 alludes to Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword, which takes a historicist line but cites a passage about the salt pillars associated with the Sodom legend to conclude that Big M lived and wrote near the southern end of the Dead Sea.

    Contemporary politics also adds to the smoke & mirrors around the question of Islamic origins. Not only do we have to factor in Spencer’s involvement with US Islamophobia, but Nevo & Koren’s work has a whiff of Zionist propaganda, as do various other “hoaxist” (as compared to mythicist) accounts. A stash of ancient Quranic variants was discovered several years ago in Yemen, but not opened to scholars Islamic or otherwise; we can only hope that neither the local Al Qaeda nor King Salman’s US-built weaponry have incinerated it.

    Another problem, is academic self-censorship. I once asked a colleague of Ibn Warraq’s why his anthology The Quest for the Historical Muhammad included several articles referring to the works of Patricia Crone & Michael Cook (among others) but did not reprint any of them, and was told they stayed out of such debates both to preserve their professional dignity and to avoid jeopardizing their access to historic documents and other sources. This may be prudent, even necessary, on their parts, but it certainly leaves the field open to ax-grinders.

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    1. Pierce R. Butler October 1, 2015, 4:09 pm

      Thanks for the links!

      The Sana’a manuscript wiki-article was Last edited on 1 August 2015, at 06:08. I hope the lack of any updates on war damages to the Yemeni House of Manuscripts &/or Grand Mosque supports the saying about no-news…

      Reply
      1. Drudge1:
        Im not exactly sure where you are going – but for me superlative honorific type names like Mohammad could have referred to someone else back then and then edited to produce a super duper Mohammad.

        Its a bit how the Bible Solomon may have existed but his grandeur, riches and accomplishments are simply a retell of Amenhotep III who built Karnak, but they made him jewish and transplanted him to Jerusalem. How would anyone hundreds of years know better ? They wouldnt, when they heard stories of A III they would have thought yes those damn Egyptians are claiming Solomon as theirs again.

        Funnily enough Solomon wasnt even his actual birth name, i think its Jedediah, which again shows how easily it is in those times to steal and edit stories of different people and edit them.

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  5. Notably, I’ve encountered another example of someone who knows the languages exposing the fact that Spencer evidently does not. This is another good example of why it is so important to have the requisite background skills (though not related to the historicity question, it is still instructive).

    Reply
    1. That would appear to be a practical joke.

      Even in myth Muhammad’s father was not a king. Nor was he ever said to be a son of God (that would be blasphemy in Islam). He is explicitly God’s messenger, not son. We are told lots about his childhood. No one tried to kill him as a baby. He is never reared in secret. None of his wives was a princess. And on and on (many more false claims are there). Also bizarrely, this linked list also scores criterion 11 as his gaining victory over his adversaries, even though that means by military campaigns, which is actually supposed to downscore the hero (who does not wage any wars during his “reign”), thus this person is faking a score for defeating an adversary before ascending to power, and concealing the actual truth, which is that Muhammad does not score this, and in fact fails to score on the “reigns peacefully” criterion.

      I can’t believe whoever wrote this believed any of this. It looks too deliberately faked.

      Is this supposed to be a Poe?

      Reply
  6. What i find amazing about all these grand religious characters is their names.

    Take Mohammad (1) its not a humble average name, but means something like “praised”. I dont know how many kids were called that in ancient times, but it seems a bit too lucky that his parents picked the right name for someone who achieved what he ended up doing.

    Jesus himself has hardly a humble name, “saviour” is a big name when you consider the Jewish situation and their opinions and wishes for freedom from the Romans. I know he didnt save the jews, but his name is far to appropriate considering he supposedly “saved” us from sin by dying on the cross and all that nonsense.

    Aaron i think means ark which of course hardly sounds reasonable. After all did his parents really know that their son would grow up and become the high priest in charge of the ark of the covenant ?

    We can say the same of many of these characters, where imho and limited opinion its obvious even if there was a man, the character we are presented has been at the very least heavily edited with myth making thrown.

    There are literally dozens and dozens of others where the name is too perfect, which can only lead one to one conclusion that the text isnt original, but has been edited.

    1)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_(name)
    Muhammad (Arabic: محمد‎) is the primary transliteration of the Arabic given name, مُحَمَّد‎, from the triconsonantal root of Ḥ-M-D; Praise. It is the name of the Islamic prophet.

    Reply
    1. As I note in the article (and as I note experts have noted, too), Muhammad does mean “Praised One” and can be the title of almost any exalted being. It is also a personal name. I discuss the significance of both facts being also true of Jesus in OHJ, pp. 239-42.

      Reply
    2. Drudge16 October 3, 2015, 12:52 pm

      Well, as with Jesus, it’s always possible this was not his given name, but merely his title. I think Islamic scholars have considered that hypothesis, in the Middle Ages (although I cannot remember where I read that).

      Reply
    3. davidross October 5, 2015, 4:59 pm

      “Muhammad” seems to be cognate with Hebrew “tahmod” which implies something desired, as in the tenth Commandment “lo tahmod!”. So it might not even be “one praised” but “one chosen”. Nevo and Koren – Israelis, who would know from Hebrew – point this out in their book.

      Reply
  7. Drudge16 October 1, 2015, 7:26 pm

    I see you didn’t include Christoph Luxenberg’s work in your analysis. Is he simply too much of an amateur for you to take him seriously? I’m quite puzzled by this, since he’s one of the most famous extreme skeptics of the origins of the Qur’an, and his work is amply discussed in many of the sources you studied.

    One more question; what do you do with the Khuzestani Chronicle, the Doctrina Jacobi, John bar Penkaye and Sebeos’ detailed description of Muhammad?

    Apart from this, thank you very, very much for this analysis. I actually started by examining the historicity of Muhammad and the origins of Islam, and only then moved to Christianity. From my limited study, I became reasonably convinced that there probably was a Muhammad, who was a warrior-prophet, and led an Arab invasion of the Holy Land (didn’t die before the invasion). This army was probably made-up of Christians, Jews, Pagans and “Hagarists”, and was assembled in northwest Arabia, close to the Roman border, after the Byzantine Empire dissolved the Ghassanid federation. The invasion was probably motivated by a mixture of opportunity (two huge, wealthy Empires were mostly defenceless) and apocalyptic fever (the end is nigh, and Jerusalem must be taken!). So, a big mishmash of Crone, Nevo, Luxenberg, Shoemaker, Donner, Ohlig and Puin… and now Carrier! 😀

    Reply
    1. Luxenberg is used by Spencer. It’s not possible to vet the credentials of Luxenberg because he conceals his identity. He also makes a lot of dubious claims. And none peer reviewed. And I’m not sure he even argues Muhammad didn’t exist (only that the Quran wasn’t originally written in Arabic).

      The other question pertains to what I call the Syriac notes in my article (so your answer is there).

      Reply
    2. davidross October 5, 2015, 5:08 pm

      “what do you do with the Khuzestani Chronicle, the Doctrina Jacobi, John bar Penkaye and Sebeos’ detailed description of Muhammad?”

      Sean Anthony wrote the definitive article on the Doctrina last year: ““Muḥammad, the Keys to Paradise, and the Doctrina Iacobi”: it doesn’t name the Arab prophet.

      Pseudo-Sebeos’s description of “Mahmet” is detailed, yes; but it has no mention of a new Scripture. This is interesting in that ‘Uthman, who supposedly published the definitive edition of the Qur’an, had already been killed by the time Ps-S was writing in 660ish CE. Same goes for Bar Penkaye in 686 CE (this one can be more narrowly placed in time and space). So now we are sixtyish years off of the Prophet’s supposed career and, still, almost bupkes.

      Guidi’s “Khuzestan Chronicle” says NOTHING useful about “Mahmet”. It’s more like the Maronite Chronicle in that regard – “Mahmet” had something to do with Yathrib in the northwest Hijaz, and the Arabs invoked his name, but to what end, who knows.

      Reply
  8. Drudge16 October 2, 2015, 11:43 am

    There is something analogous to van Voorst’s analysis of extra-biblical references to Jesus: Robert Hoyland’s “Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam”. It’s a reference work on the subject, and one of the most cited works by defenders of historicity.

    Reply
    1. That’s a start, but it still only covers the very sparse non-Muslim sources. It thus doesn’t address the important Muslim evidence outside the Quran, e.g. coins, inscriptions, biographies, papyri, Sira, Hadith. The only non-Muslim evidence that’s actually of any use to the debate is the early Syriac comments/notes. And Hoyland is almost 20 years out of date on that. Nevertheless, I agree it’s essential to consult for anyone who wants to enter this debate. It needs to be expanded and updated.

      Reply
    2. davidross October 5, 2015, 5:13 pm

      Hoyland does have a section on apocalyptic Muslim literature; and he does append an appendix with some early/proto- Muslim coins, inscriptions, and papyri.

      But yes, we are now approaching two decades away from that book.

      Reply
  9. Drudge16 October 2, 2015, 11:44 am

    Patricia Crone passed away recently. I reckon you didn’t know this, given your use of the present tense when referring to her.

    Reply
  10. Drudge16 October 2, 2015, 11:55 am

    May I add to your comments on the cultic sounding character of “Muhammad” that, not only was he named “The Ever-Praised One”, his father is reported to have been called “Abdallah”, “The Servant of Allah”. So we’re dealing with a prophet named “Muhammad bin Abdallah”, “The Ever-Praised One, son of the Servant of Allah”. How convenient!

    Luxenberg analysed the passages inscribed in the Dome of the Rock Mosque, the oldest to mention Muhammad’s father, and concluded that, originally, they said something slightly different. Instead of “Muhammad (bin) Abdallah” (the “bin” being implicit, even today), it was originally written as “Muhammadun Abdallah”, something like “Praised be the Servant of Allah”. He concludes this “Servant of Allah” was Jesus Christ. He argues that the text was slightly changed through diacritical markings to produce a more palatable reading to later Muslims. I have no skills whatsoever to assess the validity of his analysis, but it is a very interesting hypothesis.

    Reply
    1. And that is one of the claims that is disputed by established experts. I can’t tell who is telling the truth. But I don’t know Luxenberg’s credentials, and he does make a lot of other claims that look patently dubious, so this isn’t really a good start. We need a known person qualified in the field to weigh in.

      Reply
    2. questionerrob October 6, 2015, 1:24 pm

      ” Instead of “Muhammad (bin) Abdallah” (the “bin” being implicit, even today), it was originally written as “Muhammadun Abdallah”, something like “Praised be the Servant of Allah”. He concludes this “Servant of Allah” was Jesus Christ.”

      and then spencer repeated this

      but spencer must deal with the following

      quote:
      6. His handling of the Documentary material is no better. Spencer presents this image that early Islam is an archaeologically void. However, to my knowledge, there exist at least 25 pieces of documentary data from the first fifty years of Islam, all of which sit comfortably within the traditional account. Admittedly, documentary data mentioning Muhammad only occur 50 years after Muhammad. However, between 50-100 years after Muhammad, there exist at least 25 pieces of extant documentary data that mention Muhammad. The first clear reference to Muhammad occurs in the drahma of `Abdul al-Malik ibn `Abdullah ibn Amir, dated 685 CE, 53 years after Muhammad, and contains on the obverse margin the legend Muhammad rasul Allah (“Muhammad is the Messenger of God”). How does Spencer deal with this and other documentary data? Quite astonishingly, he argues that `Muhammad’ in these inscriptions does not refer to the prophet Muhammad, but refers to Jesus? Since “Muhammad” linguistically means `praised one’, these inscriptions could be referring to Jesus. Nowhere does Spencer provide any corroborating evidence for this argument. If Spencer were to produce a single instance where Arab Christians ever referred to Jesus as “Muhammad”, then on this basis, his argument would have some weight. Unfortunately he does not, and this raises the obvious question: Why now? And why did they stop? In other words, Spencer wants us to believe that all of a sudden in the seventh century, the Christians started referring to Jesus as “Muhammad” and then all of a sudden in the eighth century, they stopped. Beside the absurdity of this argument, Spencer failed to mention let alone deal with the disconfirming evidence against this argument. Spencer failed to engage with the first century bilingual Greek-Arabic administrative papyri that clearly translate “Muhammad” as “Muhammad” in Greek. Further still, he failed to mention the first century Arab-Sasanian coins of Kirman which translate “Muhammad” as “Muhammad” in Middle Persian. So the Greeks translated “Muhammad” as proper name, the Persians translated “Muhammad” as a proper name, the Arab held “Muhammad” as a proper name, but Spencer wants us to believe it was not a proper name but “could have been” an epithet referring to Jesus. Furthermore, Spencer fails to note the absurd consequence of this argument. If “Muhammad” meant Jesus, who was that “Muhammad” referred to by earlier and contemporaneous Christian texts? That “Muhammad” was clearly an Arab, while Jesus was a Jew. Were seventh century Christians so stupid that they didn’t know that Jesus was a Jew and not an Arab? Much worse, was Jesus alive in the seventh century according to these Christians? Worst Still, why are these Christians referring to Jesus so negatively? Is he not their Lord and Savour? Thus is trying to rubbish the documentary data, Spencer forgot about the contemporaneous Christian texts. So much for explanatory scope!

      Reply
  11. StevoR October 3, 2015, 9:09 am

    Whether Mohammad existed or not what he did (according to his koran & hadith & modern – as opposed to Dark Age – morality) showed he was a total douchebag if he ever was ..

    Reply
  12. Bruce Grubb October 3, 2015, 1:12 pm

    I remember reading that there are these personal notes of an unnamed monk c 636 CE mixed in with his copying of the gospels that talks of the “many villages were ruined with killing by [the Arabs of] Mụhammad and a great number of people were killed and captives” (Wright, Catalogue Of Syriac Manuscripts In The British Museum Acquired Since The Year 1838, 1870, Part I, Printed by order of the Trustees: London, No. XCIV, pp. 65-66. This book was republished in 2002 by Gorgias Press.) as well as records by Sebeos c 661 CE (Nigosian, Solomon Alexander (2004). Islam: Its History, Teaching, and Practices. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-21627-3. pg 6) which if correct would be lightyears better then anything we have for Jesus.

    Reply
  13. Alif. October 4, 2015, 4:33 pm

    Just finisht reading, ‘Life Alert’ about Muhammad’s temporal lobe epilepsy. Not a peep about St Paul’s. These biast Christians!

    Nice survey Richard.

    In the Serah/Hadeth, Muhammad says that God has made it haram for the earth to corrupt bodies of Prophits. Just opun the lid wher muhammad lies in Madenah, take a bit’v DNA…and hey presto all is pruv’d or dispruv’d.

    Reply
  14. Bruce: Couldnt part of the problem with the text be that the Monk was talking about some great Arab ruler using a title, while we see it as a name that identifies only a single individual ?

    Reply
  15. questionerrob October 6, 2015, 1:03 pm

    i quote
    Take Mohammad (1) its not a humble average name, but means something like “praised”.
    end quote

    quote
    Muhammad was not a common name but it is said that Muhammdah apepars as one of the Matyrs of Najran (Ashab-i Ukhdud).
    In a Nabataean inscription from Roman era

    end quote

    wasn’t it common for arabs to name their children with letters beginning with “m”
    mubarak, muhammad , muslim, mubashar etc?

    aren’t these “not a humble average name” back then?

    Reply
  16. @question: First of all, im not sure if those names appear that frequently before Mohammad, especially Muslim. Secondly most of the Koran and muslim history just like the bible hardly focuses on humble people its always about kings, rulers, caliphs call them what you want. In those societies, those elites, just love superlatives.

    Eventually out of reverence, AFTER nearly everybody seems to use the names you mention.

    Reply
  17. @davidross

    Very interesting, which further adds to what i originally said, that Mohammad of the Koran and Muslim tradition is simply a title for a character. Naturally for selfish reasons the caliphs that followed needed to invent an ancestor that gave them the divine right to rule. I think its reasonable to think there might have been somebody, he probably was a great warlord and did reform things, but the extent of his perfection assumed by Islamic tradition is beyond rediculous just like with Jesus. People say Jesus was some shining example of pure virtue, but if you examine his message, he has some serious flaws in his teaching. He never teaches equality of women, abolishment of slavery or that Moses laws are wrong.

    Reply

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