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Book Review: Did Muhammad Exist?, by Robert Spencer

April 23rd, 2012 - 3:16 pm

The same is true even moreso for the Hadiths. While the Qur’an is nearly silent on Muhammad, the Hadiths — a sort of second-tier commentary on the Qur’an written much later but nonetheless regarded as sacred and authoritative Islamic texts — discuss Muhammad and his life in endless detail. To a non-believer like myself, much of that detail is obviously legendary in nature, an impression that is confirmed when one reads Spencer’s account of how the Hadiths came into being: compiled over centuries by competing factions, who carefully noted down the provenance (isnad in Arabic) of each Hadith to “prove” its authenticity:

Since warring parties were all fabricating hadiths that supported their positions, the Hadith are riddled with contradictions.

In the latter part of the eighth century, the Abbasids initiated the collection and codification of the Hadith. By doing so, they exponentially expanded specific knowledge about what the prophet of Islam had commanded and condemned, approved and disapproved. … This great effort came to full fruition in the next century, with the appearance of the six most important Hadith collections, none of which date from earlier than two centuries after Muhammad’s death.

Ignaz Goldziher, the pioneering critical historian of the Hadith, notes that “the simplest means by which honest men sought to combat the rapid increase of faked hadiths is at the same time a most remarkable phenomenon in the history of literature. With pious intention, fabrications were combated with new fabrications, with new hadiths which were smuggled in and in which the invention of illegitimate hadiths were condemned by strong words uttered by the Prophet.”

If a hadith could be forged, however, so could its chain of transmission. There are numerous indications that isnads were forged with the same alacrity with which matns — that is, the content of the hadiths — were invented.”

You had me at “fabricating.”

Similarly, the biography of Muhammad written by Ibn Ishaq is “reliable” only to those who believe unquestioningly or to scholars desperate to accept as valid any source, since hard evidence from the era is lacking. Again quoting Spencer,

The “full light of history” supposedly shining on Muhammad’s life results largely from the work of a pious Muslim named Muhammad Ibn Ishaq Ibn Yasar, generally known as Ibn Ishaq, who wrote the first biography of Muhammad. But Ibn Ishaq was not remotely a contemporary of his prophet, who died in 632. Ibn Ishaq died in 773, and so his work dates from well over a hundred years after the death of his subject. What’s more, Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah — Biography of the Messenger of Allah — has not survived in its original form. It comes down to us today only in a later, abbreviated (although still quite lengthy) version compiled by another Islamic scholar, Ibn Hisham, who died in 834….

The Muhammad of Ibn Ishaq is not a peaceful teacher of the love of God and the brotherhood of man but rather a warlord who fought numerous battles and ordered the assassination of his enemies. “The character attributed to Muhammad in the biography of Ibn Ishaq,” observes the twentieth-century historian David Margoliouth, “is exceedingly unfavorable.”…

…Ibn Hisham, moreover, warns that his version is sanitized: He left out, he says, “things which it is disgraceful to discuss; matters which would distress certain people….”

Hang on just one minute. Let me get this all straight:

The earliest biography of Muhammad, upon which all subsequent biographies are based, was not written until a century after his death, in an era of few or no written records, when all potential eyewitnesses were long dead; and furthermore, that original biography is itself long gone, and all we have left is a much later copy, the author of which frankly confesses he left out all the embarrassing parts?

Considering how badly Muhammad comes off in the work we now have, one can only imagine how horrifying the suppressed parts were.

The Book

Did Muhammad Exist? is essentially one big hoisting of Islam by its own petard. A religion that purports to be “revealed,” and perfect and unchanging from its inception, has a serious burden of proof; but as Spencer shows, Islam fails to supply that proof.

While the book goes into great detail about the literary and philological evidence for and against Muhammad’s existence, some readers may ask themselves, “But what about the archaeological evidence?” Unfortunately, Spencer does not address that side of the argument, primarily because there’s basically nothing to say: The Saudi government (as well as the Islamic Waqf controlling the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) has gone to great lengths to suppress or destroy any archaeological remains which might shed light on Islam’s earliest days. All the legendary sites associated with Muhammad in and around Mecca and Medina have been intentionally and irretrievably disturbed, eradicated and/or built over, so any rigorous archaeological investigations confirming or undermining Islam’s origins are now impossible. One suspects that the Saudis have obliterated Mecca’s history intentionally, fearful that impartial evidence may undermine Islam’s various historical claims. While this is not a significant omission, the book’s argument would have been slightly strengthened if this confirming detail had been discussed, if even for just a paragraph or two.

Did Muhammad Exist? is a popular book for a popular audience. Put another way: Spencer makes no claim to have uncovered original research. All he has done, yet done quite effectively, is marshall the findings of dozens of scholars from the last hundred years, including people like Günter Lüling, David Margoliouth, Patricia Crone, and most notably Christoph Luxenberg, the philologist whose recent work challenging the very linguistic basis of the Qur’an as an Arabic document has caused such a sensation that for his own safety he must work under a pseudonym. Spencer draws all these threads together to make a convincing case that, when one examines all the evidence these experts have uncovered and ponders all the theories which might explain that evidence, the currently dominant theory (that Muhammad existed) is the least likely to be true. Much more in line with the known facts is the theory that Islam slowly coalesced from earlier monotheistic Judeo-Christian beliefs, and that most of the historical details about the evolution — including and especially the existence of a prophet from Mecca — were later concocted to retroactively give a veneer of official sanctity to the new religion.

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