Is It Still Possible to Question Islam?

Muslims around the globe are not the only ones who take this account for granted; even non-Muslims generally accept the broad contours of this narrative, which has been told and retold for centuries. However, virtually none of that standard account stands up to historical scrutiny, for several key reasons:

  • No record of Muhammad’s reported death in 632 appears until more than a century after that date.
  • The early accounts written by the people the Arabs conquered never mention Islam, Muhammad, or the Qur’an. They call the conquerors “Ishmaelites,” “Saracens,”“Muha- jirun,” and “Hagarians,” but never “Muslims.”
  • The Arab conquerors, in their coins and inscriptions, don’t mention Islam or the Qur’an for the first six decades of their conquests. Mentions of “Muhammad” are non-specific and on at least two occasions are accompanied by a cross. The word can be used not only as a proper name but also as an honorific.
  • The Qur’an, even by the canonical Muslim account, was not distributed in its present form until the 650s. Contradicting that standard account is the fact that neither the Arabians nor the Christians and Jews in the region mention the Qur’an until the early eighth century.
  • During the reign of the caliph Muawiya (661–680), the Arabs constructed at least one public building whose inscription was headed by a cross – a symbol abhorrent to Islam.

The lack of confirming detail in the historical record, the late development of biographical material about the Islamic prophet, the atmosphere of political and religious factionalism in which that material developed, and much more suggest that the Muhammad of Islamic tradition did not exist, or if he did, he was substantially different from how that tradition portrays him.

Unmistakably historical, however, are the Arab conquests and the empire they produced. Every empire of the day was anchored in a political theology. The Eastern Roman Empire was Christian; the Persian Empire was Zoroastrian. The realm of political theology offers the most plausible explanation for the creation of Islam, Muhammad, and the Qur’an. The Arab Empire controlled and needed to unify huge expanses of territory where different religions predominated. Islam began as an umbrella monotheistic movement that presented itself as encompassing the true forms of the two great previous monotheistic movements, Judaism and Christianity.

Historical records make clear that toward the end of the seventh century and the beginning of the eighth, the Umayyad leaders of the Arab domains began to speak much more specifically than anyone had before about Islam, its prophet, and eventually its book. Muhammad, if he did not exist, or if his actual deeds were not known, would certainly have been politically useful to the new Arab Empire as a legendary hero. The empire was growing quickly, soon rivaling the Byzantine and Persian Empires in size and power. It needed a common religion—a political theology that would provide the foundation for the empire’s unity and would secure allegiance to the state.

In any case, the late appearance of the biographical material about Muhammad, the fact that no one had heard of or spoken of Muhammad for decades after the Arab conquests began, the changes in the religion of the Arab Empire, the inconsistencies in the Qur’an—all of this needed to be explained. But is attempting to do so “Islamophobic?” Or can disinterested historical investigation still be carried out in the free West?

It is most interesting that the book Did Muhammad Exist? has been greeted with silence or opprobrium. Yet now, more than ever before, historical investigators have the opportunity—in fact, the responsibility—to usher Islam’s origins out of the shadows and into the light, and the responsibility not to be cowed by Islamic supremacist intimidation in doing so. Were they not to discharge that responsibility fully or properly, we will all be the poorer.