Book Review: Did Muhammad Exist?, by Robert Spencer
Scholars have for centuries been pursuing clues to "the historical Jesus" — evidence that the religious figure now known as Jesus Christ actually once existed as a real person. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of popular books, documentaries, television programs, magazine articles, research papers, films and more on the search for the "real" Jesus. While this investigation into the ultimate origins of Christianity may have once long ago been controversial, it is by now quite commonplace and accepted as a standard part of religious studies, even when the researchers conclude (as they often do) that the evidence for the historicity of Jesus is skimpy at best.
But no similar investigations have ever been conducted on the historicity of Muhammad (a.k.a. Mohammed, depending on the Arabic transliteration). Why not?
Most people assume that no one bothers to investigate whether or not Muhammad was a real person for the same reason that no one bothers to investigate the reality of other religious founders such as Joseph Smith or Martin Luther or Anton LaVey — because the evidence for their existence is overwhelming, well-documented and unquestioned. Regardless of whether or not Muhammad's teachings were moral or useful, everyone, even the most hardened infidels, of course accepts that he must have existed. Right?
Well, actually, no. At least not according to a surprising and eye-opening new book by Robert Spencer, the bestselling author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and many other books, and a well-known critic of the Islamic doctrine of jihad.
While it may be true that "absence of proof is not proof of absence," Spencer in his new book Did Muhammad Exist? does quite a convincing job of showing that there is, indeed, a complete "absence of proof" when it comes to the historicity of Muhammad. Yes, admittedly, it's nearly impossible to "prove a negative," and Spencer concedes as much; but in the vacuum of evidence there is no reason from a skeptic's perspective to accept as factually true the traditional stories about Muhammad. (As we will see, alternate theories about the origins of the Muhammad tales more closely match what little evidence we have.)
To tackle such a big subject, Spencer focuses on five potential sources of information about Muhammad:
1. Documents from the era (7th and 8th centuries) written by independent (i.e. non-Muslim) outside observers;
2. Documents from the era written or created by Arabs/Muslims themselves;
3. The Qur'an itself;
4. The Hadiths, Islamic commentaries and sayings collected in the 8th and 9th centuries; and
5. The first biography of Muhammad, written by Ibn Ishaq over a century after Muhammed's lifetime, on which all subsequent biographies are based.
Over the course of 200 pages, each category is carefully examined for solid evidence of Muhammad's historicity, and each category is found wanting.
Of particular interest to a skeptic like me is the first category, because it is the only one that counts as a truly independent source. I simply assume that Islam, like most religions, boasts sacred texts which are self-referential and self-confirming (turns out I was wrong, but more about that later).
So: What did non-Muslims have to say about Muhammad and Islam, during his lifetime, and for 60 years afterward?
They made no mention of Muhammad or Muslims or Islam at all, at least until around the start of the 8th century. In case you're thinking that there'd be no reason for outsiders to mention the religion of some obscure far-off tribe, remember that starting with the date of Muhammad's purported death in 632, Arabs galloped out of the desert and conquered or captured almost the entirety of the Near East, the Middle East and North Africa in just a few decades. They encountered many cultures and civilizations, but none of those conquered peoples seem even to have heard of Islam or Muhammad. As Spencer notes in Chapter 2,
The Arabian conquests are a historical fact; that the Arabian conquerors actually came out of Arabia inspired by the Qur’an and Muhammad is less certain.
There are many puzzling details which tend to cast doubt on the standard narrative of Islam's early years — that is, Muhammad's life, and the decades immediately after his death when Arabs conquered the Middle East under the banner of their new religion, Islam. For example, a record exists of what was essentially a religious debate between a Christian in Antioch and an Arab commander at the height of the Arab conquest of the region, but, as Spencer notes,
In it the author refers to the Arabians not as Muslims but as “Hagarians” (mhaggraye) — that is, the people of Hagar, Abraham’s concubine and the mother of Ishmael. The Arabic interlocutor denies the divinity of Christ, in accord with Islamic teaching, but neither side makes any mention of the Qur’an, Islam, or Muhammad."
Imagine debating a "Christian" about religion, and he never mentions the Bible, Christianity, or Jesus. You might begin to doubt that he was a Christian at all.
And, jumping to the book's conclusion, that's exactly what Spencer posits: That the 7th century Arabs may have practiced a sort of nonspecific monotheism, loosely syncretized from pre-existing Judaic and Christian beliefs; but this new religion at first did not have a name, did not have a supposed "founder," did not have a sacred text, and did not have rigid rituals. All of those were added much later, but fashioned in such as way as to retroactively assert their own 7th-century origins.
Surprising even for me was the book's revelation that even among Arabic documents and artifacts, there is no mention of or example of any Qur'anic text until the year 691, a full 80 years after Muhammad supposedly started dictating it, and 60 years after it was completed and purportedly became the central text of Arab society. And even that 691 appearance — an inscription on the Dome of the Rock — may not have been a copy of Qur'anic text. From Spencer's book:
This Qur’anic material is the earliest direct attestation to the existence of the book — sixty years after the Arab armies that had presumably been inspired by it began conquering neighboring lands. ... Given the seamlessly mixed Qur’anic / non-Qur’anic nature of the inscription and the way the Qur’an passages are pulled together from all over the book, some scholars, including Christoph Luxenberg, have posited that whoever wrote this inscription was not quoting from a Qur’an that already existed. Rather, they suggest, most of this material was added to the Qur’an only later, as the book was compiled. ... It may be that both the Dome of the Rock and the Qur’an incorporated material from earlier sources that contained similar material in different forms."
As for the third potential source of contemporary information about Muhammad, the Qur'an itself, non-Muslims might be shocked to learn, as Spencer writes, that,
The name Muhammad actually appears in the Qur’an only four times, and in three of those instances it could be used as a title — the “praised one” or “chosen one” — rather than as a proper name. By contrast, Moses is mentioned by name 136 times, and Abraham, 79 times. Even Pharaoh is mentioned 74 times. Meanwhile, “messenger of Allah” (rasul Allah) appears in various forms 300 times, and “prophet” (nabi), 43 times. Are those all references to Muhammad, the seventh-century prophet of Arabia? Perhaps. Certainly they have been taken as such by readers of the Qur’an through the ages. But even if they are, they tell us little to nothing about the events and circumstances of his life.
Indeed, throughout the Qur’an there is essentially nothing about this messenger beyond insistent assertions of his status as an emissary of Allah and calls for the believers to obey him. Three of the four times that the name Muhammad is mentioned, nothing at all is disclosed about his life.
That is all as far as Qur’anic mentions of Muhammad by name go. In the many other references to the messenger of Allah, this messenger is not named, and little is said about his specific actions. As a result, we can glean nothing from these passages about Muhammad’s biography. Nor is it even certain, on the basis of the Qur’anic text alone, that these passages refer to Muhammad, or did so originally."
Wait — there's basically nothing about Muhammad in the Qur'an?
And even if there had been, that may not have proven anything anyway. Spencer goes to great lengths to dissect the early history of the Qur'an, recounting how even Islamic sources admit that it was not compiled until long after Muhammad's death, often based on the memories of random people the compilers met by chance; and there are even competing versions of who compiled it and when, and what their political and military motivations were for including or excluding certain passages.