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Book Review: Did Muhammad Exist?, by Robert Spencer

It is not until page 100 that Spencer lays out his thesis clearly:

Muhammad was an Arab messenger, born in Mecca, speaking Arabic, and bringing the message of Allah to the Arabs and thence to the world at large. Every element of that sentence is a commonplace that both Muslims and non-Muslims take for granted; yet every element, upon closer scrutiny, begins to dissolve. From the extant historical records, it is not at all clear that there was an Arab prophet named Muhammad anywhere near Mecca, who brought any kind of message to the world. Or at the very least, the records indicate that if there was a Muhammad, he was not in Mecca and didn’t preach anything that closely resembles Islam — until long after his death, when his biography and holy book as we know them began to be constructed.

In the final third of the book Spencer goes off on what seems at first to be somewhat of a sidetrack, discussing whether or not the Qur'an has Arabic origins. But the purpose for this eventually becomes clear when evidence is presented to show that significant components of the Qur'an were "borrowed," to put it kindly, from Jewish and Christian Syriac sources (some now little-known). If so much of Islam has roots in pre-existing religions (as opposed to haveing arisen from Allah completely intact and unique), then could it be that the tale of a "messenger of God" is also one of those borrowed tales?

The problem with attempting to disprove that something exists is that it is necessarily a laborious and detail-oriented task. No grand generalizations can suffice to dismiss all potential confirmations of something's potential existence. Thus, if you have a cabinet with 100 drawers and want to prove that none of them contains a walnut, you must necessarily open all 100 drawers to demonstrate that they are all empty. To that end, Spencer opens as many historical drawers as he can in a standard-length book; to go into any more detail would have been far too tedious for a popular volume; but for those readers who want to explore every conceivable potential historical clue, Spencer provides an extensive bibliography for further independent research.

Could it be that Spencer is giving a selective reading of the evidence? That is to say, is he highlighting historical documents which cast doubt on the reality of Muhammad or of early Islam, while downplaying or ignoring other documents which might tend to support Muhammad's historicity? It's hard for a non-expert like myself to judge, but the book does seem to contain a fairly comprehensive collection of every reference, or potential reference, to Muhammad or Islam from the century or so after the religion's supposed founding. And in a field fraught with controversy and more than a simple threat of violence, it may be hard to ever again find a book which approaches the topic of Islam with fearless academic impartiality. If anything, it might be more logical to question the veracity of any book which supports Islam's self-referential origin myths, since the authors in that case may be hedging their bets and saving their necks by not challenging the orthodoxy.

To the Euro-American mind, the period we know as the "Dark Ages" remain almost completely obscure; even highly educated people would be hard-pressed to offhandedly name anything that happened in the 600s. The literary, archaeological and cultural record from the era is comparatively scant. And yet it is this exact period in which the story of Muhammad and the founding of Islam takes place. Thus, it could be argued that the absence of evidence is to be expected, since there is now an absence of evidence for most things that happened in that era.

Even so, there seems to be a sort of "event horizon" when it comes to the history of Islam: The closer one goes back in time toward the lifetime of Muhammad, the more difficult it is to proceed and the more unsure the sources. At a certain point - sometime in the century following Muhammad's supposed death — the event horizon is reached, and no further progress can be made. The veil comes down, and we cannot see back to the beginning. So we will likely never know whether Muhammad was a real man, a linguistic boo-boo, or just a convenient fiction.

Within the context of modern geopolitics, a title like Did Muhammad Exist? is actually a meta-challenge about the existence of the book itself. Considering that the author risks condemnation, ostracism and fatwas for even daring to ask such a question, the book should be more properly titled, Is It OK to Write a Book Called "Did Muhammad Exist?"? And since the answer to that über-question is "No," then we can only conclude that the answer to the embedded question ("Did Muhammad exist?") is "No" as well. Why? Because if Muhammad did exist, and if his existence was incontrovertibly documented, then there would be no threat in asking the question or doing an investigation. And if despite all the evidence the author doubted the existence of Muhammad anyway, then his conclusions could be easily disproven, and his thesis dismissed and forgotten. So the very fact that the book is certain to be controversial and banned in certain countries lends credence to the notion that there must be something to the arguments it presents.

There is no controversy when scholars examine the historicity of Jesus. Biblical archaeologists work freely, with no danger to their persons or their careers. Even if some literalist Christians find the scholarly conclusions distressing, no death threats are issued. Christianity has survived all critiques of its origins, relying on the strength of its message and not the provability of historical details. One would hope that Islam reacts similarly.

Did Muhammad Exist?

by Robert Spencer

ISI Books, April 2012