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.
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.
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.
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.
by Robert Spencer
ISI Books, April 2012