Why invent a new religion? Robert Spencer’s excellent new book Did Mohammed Exist? collates recent historical research questioning the existence of the historical Mohammed, much of it previously not accessible to a lay American audience. This is a dangerous thing to do, and a courageous one.
Some years ago I chided Spencer for giving the Koran too much credibility; more important than the nasty things one finds in the Koran, I argued, are two questions: “1) Mohammed may never have existed, and 2) If he existed, he may have had nothing to do with the Koran, which well might be an 8th- or 9th-century compilation.” Spencer’s present book will be translated into major Muslim languages and published on the Internet, according to Daniel Pipes. That is an important and welcome development.
This point was made eloquently last year by the Georgetown University political philosopher Fr. James Schall, who argued, “The fragility of Islam, as I see it, lies in a sudden realization of the ambiguity of the text of the Koran. Is it what it claims to be? Islam is weak militarily. It is strong in social cohesion, often using severe moral and physical sanctions. But the grounding and unity of its basic document are highly suspect. Once this becomes clear, Islam may be as fragile as communism.” Koranic criticism, I have argued since 2003, is Islam’s Achilles’ Heel.
In his capacity as prosecuting attorney in the Mohammed hoax, Spencer has laid out means and opportunity. A bit more could be said about motive. Why invent a new religion? There have been efforts since the 18th century to recast Moses as a renegade Egyptian priest of a sun-worshiping sort of monotheism who became the leader of the backward Hebrews. We find this canard repeated from Schiller’s essay “Moses’ Mission” to Freud’s 1938 Moses and Monotheism. But Judaism is not monotheism as such, but a human relationship with an infinite God who loves and suffers with his people. Vast amounts of scholarship show similarities between the language of the covenant in the Bible and earlier legal documents in the region, or parallelisms between Ugaritic hymns and the Psalms. These are interesting but have no direct bearing on the astonishing innovation of Jewish revelation: nowhere in earlier history do we hear of an infinite and eternal God who also has a personality and engages human beings with love.
Serious scholars no longer argue that Judaism is somehow descended from an Egyptian sun cult. No-one has yet explained, moreover, why an ancient tribe would invent a history that portrayed its ancestors as slaves, or itself as conquerors of a land rather than as its autochthonous and legitimate inhabitants. In short, there is neither a literary, nor an historical, nor an anthropological, nor an archaeological argument against the Jewish claim that the written and oral laws were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai.
Christianity proposes to extend the Jewish covenant to all of humankind. After countless academic lives have burned out in the “search for the historical Jesus,” no reputable scholar claims to be able to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth was a fiction. One can argue about the reliability of different accounts of Jesus, but not the existence of Jesus himself. The Christian doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection cannot be refuted. One believes it, or not.
But Islam is an entirely different matter. We have extensive archaeological evidence in the form of coins and inscriptions from the 7th century, and there is no mention of a new religion in any of them until 70 years after Mohammed’s supposed death, as Nevo and Koren showed in their 2003 book Crossroads to Islam. Two centuries go by before an account of Mohammed’s life is circulated. The Koran itself is evidently a compilation that draws on contemporary Jewish and Christian sources, in a language that often does not resemble Arabic.