Why Invent Mohammed?

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.

If Islam is an invention of the 8th and 9th century, the question is: Why? The simple answer is that the Arabs were founding a new empire and wished to legitimize their power. But that does not explain the devotion that Islam continues to inspire. Among the unsung heroes of Islamic scholarship, perhaps the most informative is Prof. Sven Kalisch of the University of Muenster in Germany. I translated some of his work in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too). Prof. Kalisch, a convert to Islam who since repudiated his adopted religion, still offers the most cogent explanation I have seen.

Here is a relevant excerpt from my book:

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 theEastern Empire.

“To be sure,” Kalisch continues, “various explanations are possible for the lack of mention of the Prophet in the early period, and it is no proof for the non-existence of an historical Mohammed. But it is most astonishing, and begs the question [sic] of the significance of Mohammed for the original Muslim congregation in the case that he did exist.” The numismatic and archeological evidence against the received version of Islamic history confirms the source-critical case that the Koran is based on earlier Christian sources and was originally written at least partly in Syriac-Aramaic, not Arabic.[iv] This compelling case has been assembled by scholars who swam against the current of Islamic studies—for example Patricia Crone, Martin Hinds, Karl-Heinz Ohlig and John Wansbrough. Kalisch, though, was the first Muslim scholar to argue against the authenticity of the Koran.

If the Mohammed story was invented, then by whom was it invented, and to what end? The answer, Kalisch explains, is that the new Arab empire wanted to conflate the figures of Moses and Jesus into an Arab prophet. Neither the Jews nor the Christians as people of God, but the Arabs, instead, would become the Chosen People under Islam. “No prophet is mentioned in the Koran as often as Moses, and Muslim tradition always emphasized the great similarly between Moses and Mohammed,” Kalisch writes. “The central event in the life of Moses, though, is the Exodus of the oppressed Children of Israel out of Egypt, and the central event in the life of Mohammed is the Exodus of his oppressed congregation out of Mecca to Medina . . . The suspicion is great that the Hegira appears only for this reason in the story of the Prophet, because his image should emulate the image of Moses.” Furthermore,

"...the image of Jesus is also seen as a new Moses. The connection of Mohammed to the figure of Jesus is presented in Islamic tradition through his daughter Fatima, who is identified with Maria . . . The Line Fatima-Maria-Isis is well known to research. With the takeover of Mecca, Mohammed at least returns to his point of origin. Thus we have a circular structure typical of myth, in which beginning and end are identical. This Gnostic circular structure represents the concept that the soul returns to its origin. It is separated from its origin, and must return to it for the sake of its salvation. . . . In the Islamic Gnosis, Mohammed appears along with [his family members] Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Hussein as cosmic forces . . . the Gnostic Abu Mansur al Igli claimed that God first created Jesus, and then Ali. Here apparently we still have the Cosmic Christ. If a Christian Gnosis gave birth to  Islam, then the Cosmic Christ underwent a name change to Mohammed in the Arab world, and this Cosmic Mohammed was presented as a new edition of the Myth of Moses and Joshua (=Jesus) as an Arab prophet."

Why is theological clarity so important?

For several reasons.

First, the question of what Islam seeks to accomplish is of first importance. The definitive claim of the religion, if we follow Prof. Kalisch, is the Election of the Arabs to replace the Jews. Any manifest sign of Jewish election (for example, a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael) challenges the founding premise of Islam and constitutes an existential threat to the religion itself.

Second, the mechanism by which the new religion recasts the figures of Moses and Jesus is Gnostic, that is, the belief that an esoteric knowledge enables the adepts to see past the surface: underneath the Hebrew Bible and Christian Gospels lies the "true" revelation of  Islam. But that is not a revelation at all, not, at least, in the sense that the giving of the Torah or the ministry of Jesus were understood to be revelations, namely, a human engagement with an infinite God. There really is no revelation at all, because Allah always remains infinitely remote and unrevealed: there is merely Gnosis, a new esoteric knowledge, a re-reading of earlier sources that transforms Moses and Jesus into Mohammed.

This makes Islam far more fragile than Judaism or Christianity. If the West chose to exploit its fragility rather than attempt to appease, engage, or reform Islam, the outcome would surprise everyone.