Islamic Origins

Several articles have appeared lately outlining the growing investigation of Islamic origins. While Hagarism may have gone too far,  scholars from many backgrounds are delving further into the misty genesis of Islam and are asking if Muhammad even existed, or, if he did, what we really know about him. David Goldman takes the subject up today:

In 2008 a Muslim theologian at Germany’s Universityof Münsters candalized his co-religionists by asserting that the Prophet Mohammed was a figment of myth rather than an historical personality. Sven Muhammed Kalisch was a convert to Islam who held one of the most important positions in Islamic studies—the first German university chair for teaching Muslim religious instructors in German public schools. His paper, “Islamic Theology Without the Historical Mohammed,” was the first work by a Muslim academic to dispute the Prophet’s existence. Prof. Kalisch since has apostatized and repudiated the Muslim faith, but the damage was done. As he told a German newspaper, “It might be that the Koran was truly inspired by God, a great narration from God, but it was not dictated word for word from Allah to the Prophet.”

In Kalisch’s account, the invention of the historical Mohammed transformed the Christian message into a declaration that the Arabs were God’s chosen people. The Koran accomplishes this theological feat, Kalisch argues, by casting Mohammed as an Arab prophet who embodies the characteristics of Moses as well as Jesus.

“We hardly have original Islamic sources from the first two centuries of Islam,” Kalisch observes. “And even when a source appears to come from this period, caution is required. The mere assertion that a source stems from the first or second century of the Islamic calendar means nothing. And even when a source actually was written in the first or second century, the question always remains of later manipulation. We do not tread on firm ground in the sources until the third Islamic century [ninth century A.D.]” This substantial lag between the time Mohammed is supposed to have lived and the first historical evidence of the religion he is purported to have founded is extremely suspicious,” Kalisch observes. “How can a world religion have erupted in a virtual literary vacuum?” As he quotes Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds,

It is a striking fact [writes Kalisch] that such documentary evidence as survives from the Sufnayid period makes no mention of [Mohammed] the messenger of god at all. The papyri do not refer to him. The Arabic inscriptions of the Arab-Sasanian coins only invoke Allah, not his rasul [messenger]; and the Arab-Byzantine bronze coins on which Muhammad appears as rasul Allah, previously dated to the Sufyanid period, have now been placed in that of the Marwanids. Even the two surviving pre-Marwanid tombstones fail to mention the rasul.[ii]

The trouble with the Muslim version of the religion’s early history lies not in the absence of evidence, but rather in an abundance, including a large number of coins and inscriptions on monuments during its first two centuries that fail to refer to the Prophet Mohammed. “Coins and inscriptions are incompatible with the Islamic writing of history,” Kalisch concludes, citing the monograph Crossroads to Islam, by Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren.[iii] The oldest inscription with the formulation “Mohammed Messenger of Allah” is to found in the sixty-sixth year of Islamic reckoning. But there also exist coins found inPalestine, probably minted inAmman, on which the word “Muhammed” is found in Arabic script on one side and a picture of a man holding a cross on the other. Kalisch cites this and a dozen other examples of evidence that contradicts official Muslim history. Citing Nevo and Koren among other sources, Kalisch also argues that the Islamic conquest as reported in much later Islamic sources never happened—instead, there was a gradual migration into depopulated Byzantine lands by the Arab auxiliaries of the Eastern Empire.

Malise Ruthven discussed the subject earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal:

In a view that Mr. Holland takes forward from Wansbrough and his disciples, Islam was born not in the deserts of Arabia but in the borders of Syria-Palestine, a region that had long been devastated by plagues and wars—the usual precursors of apocalyptic scenarios and millennial hopes. The Qurayshites may not have been Meccans but Arab tribes that had grown rich on Roman-Byzantine patronage. Far from being illiterate (as the biographies claim, with a view to emphasizing the Quran’s miraculous character), Muhammad was a sophisticated man who “laid claim to traditions of divine inspiration that were immeasurably venerable,” knowing full well what he was about.

The religion he founded began as a classic millennial cult comprising Jews, Christians and Arabs driven by an apocalyptic belief in the end of the world, with Jerusalem as its original focus. The early caliphs of Islam, who saw themselves as God’s vice-regents, were both heirs and beneficiaries of the same millennial expectations—long entrenched in the region’s culture—that surface in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, as well as in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The purely Arabian provenance attributed to Islam and its prophet were later inventions by pious scholars who tried to curb the power of the caliphs by using the memory of Muhammad, with its iconic moral authority. The empires of the caliphs are long gone, but the sunna of the prophet—his custom and example—endures.

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