One of the most important books making the rounds of conservative circles this spring is Robert Spencer’s Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins. This book purports to be a popular discussion of a scholarly debate about whether the Prophet of Islam is a historical figure or a mythic one. The author never quite states but clearly wants his audience to believe that denying the historicity of Muhammad negates the value of Islam.
This is actually a very interesting question: How can we prove whether a given personage actually existed? How can we distinguish between a man to whom legends accrued and a myth to whom bits of history became attached? How would we distinguish, in crude terms, between Alexander the Great (the former) and King Arthur (the latter)?
Unfortunately, Spencer is not interested in these questions. In the sections of his book I’ve read so far, his argument is so simple-minded that it makes ancient astronaut authors look like critical thinkers of the first order.
Spencer’s argument reduces to a few key points. These are, in essence, that Islam presents itself as having emerged fully formed when Gabriel whispered the Qur’an into Muhammad’s ear, and therefore any evidence for evolution in belief or practice is prima facie evidence that the faith is a fraud. Because the accepted facts of Muhammad’s biography, as received in medieval Islam, do not conform completely to the earliest external sources from the Dark Ages, he must therefore have never existed. This specious reasoning rests on his interpretation of a key text.
The earliest non-Islamic source for the appearance of Muhammad and Islam is the Doctrina Iacobi nuper Baptizati, a Byzantine text written in the 630s CE recording events that occurred after the forced conversion of Byzantium’s North African Jews in 632. The dialogue given in the text is said to have taken place in July 634, after the Byzantine commander (candidatus) Sergius was killed by invading Arabs at the battle of Dathin near Gaza that February. This event was recorded in multiple sources, so we know it really happened.
Here is the passage about the coming of Islam. The translation on the left is the one Spencer uses. The translation on the right is a more recent, complete, and accurate translation, which gives a slightly different flavor to the text.
Spencer finds this passage troubling because in 634 “this unnamed prophet is still alive, traveling with his armies, whereas Muhammad is supposed to have died in 632.” But, since Spencer makes much hay out of the need not to accept sources as true uncritically, it is logically inconsistent to criticize an earlier source for not conforming to a death date not given until later, and therefore more distant, medieval biographies. Other sources from the era also suggest that Muhammad lived past 632 (see Shoemaker’s Death of a Prophet). I am in no position to judge this question, but, logically speaking, arguing over whether he died in 632 or 634 does not impact the question of whether he ever lived.
Additionally, Spencer notes that this prophet was proclaiming a new Messiah, not that he is Allah’s last prophet. He is also troubled by the keys of paradise in the passage because “it is also completely absent from the Islamic tradition, which never depicts Muhammad as claiming to hold the keys of paradise.” Even some early Islamic sources preserve the claim—well documented in other Byzantine texts—that Muhammad claimed the “keys of paradise.” Down to the end of the medieval period, Islamic texts routinely state that “thine are the keys of paradise and hell,” usually in a metaphorical sense. The same claim was made in the sixteenth century, in the records of the life of the Orthodox Serbian St. George of Kratovo, a martyr who refused conversion to Islam. A Muslim attempted to convert him, according to his hagiographer, and in so doing asked George "What wrong do we do who honor Muhammad and keep his law and believe that God entrusted to him the keys of Paradise?"
Spencer concludes, however, that the prophet was a Christian- and Jewish-influenced figure, not the Muhammad of Islam. He suggests that “the unnamed prophet of the Doctrina Jacobi was one of several such figures, some of whose historical attributes were later subsumed into the figure of the prophet of Islam under the name of one of them, Muhammad. For indeed, there is nothing dating from the time of Muhammad's activities or for a considerable period thereafter that actually tells us anything about what he was like or what he did.”
But Spencer is suggesting a false dichotomy, that either Muhammad was exactly as depicted in late medieval Islamic hagiography, or he did not exist at all. Scholars have long understood that Islam, like every faith, has undergone a process of growth and change. No first-century Christian would recognize the gilded splendor of the Vatican, and the earliest Jews would wonder why no animals today are consecrated to Yahweh in bloody sacrifice. Scholars today recognize that early Islam underwent a process of growth and development.
It is hardly controversial to suggest that Islam drew upon Jewish and Christian traditions; the Qur’an itself contains stories parallel to Jewish and Christian traditions and states clearly that it builds upon and supersedes them. The similarity was noted in the Armenian History attributed to Sebeos and written after 660 CE in which the merchant “Mahmet” (i.e. Muhammad) is said to have preached of the God of Abraham because he was well versed in the history of Moses (ch. 42). Theophanes in the Chronicle confirms that Messianic expectations accompanied Muhammad when he writes that “At the beginning of his advent the misguided Jews thought he was the Messsiah who is awaited by them.” Such expectations are also seen in The Secrets of Rabbi Shi'mon in the seventh century, though drawing on an earlier original, according to Shoemaker: "In accordance with His will He shall raise up over them a prophet. And he (the prophet) will conquer the land for them, and they [the Ishmaelites--i.e., Muslims] shall come and restore it with grandeur."
For Spencer, such texts are proof that Muhammad did not exist because in their depiction of Muhammad as a Jewish Messiah they do not conform to Islamic traditions of anti-Semitism, which he attributes to Muhammad.
But all of his arguments reduce to a false dichotomy. He feels that Islam is static, and that if Islam, as presented in a specific form at a specific date in time, is not also present at the very dawn of the faith that it therefore is fraudulent and that Muhammad therefore did not exist except as a vague, politically-convenient fiction.
It isn’t an either-or situation, and the enormous question of historicity and how we can establish criteria for evaluating ancient sources can't be reduced to a juvenile thumbing of the nose dressed up in the name of inquiry.
I will keep reading the book and see if the quality of evidence gets any better.
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