Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Report: Did Muhammad Exist?

I read a lot, and about a lot of things.  One of the things that has continued to bother me, and so I have begun to research it is the nature of Islam and its so-called prophet Muhammad.  It has seemed to me all along that if the Koran calls on every Muslim to slay anyone and everyone who is not a Muslim (or isn't Muslim enough) that the person speaking to the people in the Koran is not the same One who speaks to us in the Old and New Testament.  The Gospel tells us to love our enemies, and to pray for them.  The Koran apparently says to make your enemies blood run in the streets.  One of these two books is a lie.

In Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins Robert Spencer takes his audience on a journey back in time to the 7th century to find what evidence there is to support the fact that Muhammad received the Koran from the angel Gabriel. In the process, he of necessity examines the roots of the Koran itself. As Spencer noted, this book is intended for the layman, not the scholar. He presents no new evidence, and the evidence he presents is well documented 19 pages of end notes, and 2 pages of further reading material. I have yet to check out the end notes, though that is on my to do list, and to take advantage of further reading.

The first thing that Spencer notes is that when the Arabs first broke out of the Arabian peninsula and began conquering other people, there was no mention of Islam, of the Koran, of Muslims, or of the prophet who supposedly inspired them, Muhammad. Considering the later centrality of Islam, the Koran and Muhammad to Muslim faith, it does seem strange. The typical Muslim confession is "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet." You would expect them to be waving the Koran in one hand, and carrying a sword in the other. But what writings we do have seem to have come from various Christian priests and bishops. They noted the awful oppressions of the Hagarians, of the Saracens, or the Ishmaelites, but not the Muslims.  He also notes that Muhammad could as easily have been a title as a name.   Muhammad means in Arabic the "Praised One" or the "Chosen One." But these titles equally apply to Jesus, called the Christ in Greek, the Messiah in Hebrew, which means the "Anointed One," if my recollection is correct.  Thus the early inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock could as easily been Christian as Islamic.

It is now necessary to take a side trip to lay out the culture extant at the time of the Arabian conquest. Christianity had, by the 7th century, taken over the Middle East. Most of the people in the area encompassed by Turkey, the Roman Empire, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Persia, as well as outposts in Carthage and India, were one stripe or another of Christian. The Orthodox Church held that Christ was divine, being one of "three persons" or really, one of three manifestations of the One God. The doctrine is known as Trinitarian. If one is a Trinitarian, Christ is not separate from, but a part of the One who was there at the Creation, and after he leaves, he sent his spirit to remain with us and guide us until He comes again. None the less, we do not pray to Jesus, but we pray to God, in Jesus name. But many people in the Middle East were heterodox, believing that Christ was not divine, but a great prophet none the less. They were Unitarian. Up until 325, people who held these various beliefs about the divinity of Christ were constantly fighting among themselves. As you might imagine, each group wrote gospels supporting their particular beliefs. These gospels had Jesus and the disciples saying or doing things that contradicted the Synoptic Gospels, so were declared heterodox.

In 325 AD, Constantine called a Council of priests and bishops to the town of Nicaea to settle the question of the divinity of Christ. Constantine,of course, was not so interested in Church doctrine as we was in establishing a common religion for his entire empire. At the Council of Nicaea, Arius of Alexandria, a priest, was the most vociferous in holding forth for the Unitarian principle. Unfortunately for him, his views were not the majority view, and he was excommunicated. Interestingly, he was eventually re-instated, despite holding a Unitarian view, and his beliefs live on in the Christian community. He and some of his followers fled east to Syria, the Arabian peninsula and to Persia. Interestingly, they were known as Arians. Arian beliefs also spread to Europe where they were held by the elite German princes and aristocrats.   We can here see also that many early Syriac speaking Unitarian Christians could as easily confessed to the Islamic confession if they thought Jesus was the Muhammad, the Chosen One.  Thus "There is no god but God, and Jesus (Muhammad) is his prophet" could be a shorthand way of confessing their beliefs.  We now return to Spencer's telling.

The second thing that Spencer notes is that the dizzying number of Hadiths and their often contradictory content.  The Hadiths are the recounting of the sayings and the activities that Muhammad did during his lifetime.  Supposedly, the Hadiths are recounting by eye witnesses to the events or the sayings.  The Hadiths are, for practical purposes, as important to Muslims as the Koran.  The Koran contains almost no context, and says very little about Muhammad.  But since Muhammad is the perfect Muslim, other Muslims want to do as Muhammad did.  Unfortunately, a number of Hadiths, possibly all of them, are forgeries.  We know that some Hadiths were written by one faction against another, since the events and the people mentioned happened long after 632 AD, the date Muhammad supposedly died.  This situation has created a cottage industry in Islam to determine which Hadiths are most likely to be accurate, and which are faked.  While acknowledging the value of these efforts, none the less Spencer speculates that if so many are forged, they all might be at best third hand accounts.  This makes them all suspect.  But it is mostly through the Hadiths that we know anything about Muhammad at all, and if the Hadiths are suspect, we know nothing at all. 

The third thing Spencer brings up is the Koran itself.  The story goes that Muhammad was sitting in a cave on a mountain when the angel Gabriel appeared and began reciting the Koran.  Muhammad faithfully regurgitated all he had heard just as it was recited to him to his faithful secretary, who wrote it all down.  Since Muhammad spoke Arabic, in the dialect of Mecca, Gabriel evidently recited in Arabic, in the dialect of Arabic used in Mecca, and Arabic was the language in which the Koran was recorded.  The Koran was thus the Perfect word of God, faithfully transmitted to mankind in the Perfect Language of God.  It has remained unchanged, as to change even one letter of the Sacred Text would possibly change its meaning.  As a side note, remember that the printing press was not invented until 1440, so that a the Muslim faith was transmitted by oral means for at least 8 centuries before printed Korans could be made available to a wide audience.  There was one copy of the Koran, and the believers had to have faith that what they were told was the truth.

The first effort at collecting the Koran occurred supposedly under Abu Bakr, Muhammad's supposed successor.  But then no Koran was distributed.  Instead, Uthman, the second successor apparently, was supposedly asked to standardize the Koran because various believers in various regions had varying Korans.  How could this be, if there was only one copy?  Uthman supposedly directed that the standardized Koranic text be checked against the original, and that it be written in the dialect of Mecca. Again, one wonders that it was not already.  At least 3 copies were made and distributed.  But four years later, the conquerors at the Battle of Siffin, generally knew the the Koran, a miracle indeed.  And all this 8 centuries before the printing press.

Another issue with the Koran is that approximately 20% of it is simply not understandable.  No one knows what these verses actually mean.  Muslim scholars explain this by noting that some concepts that God may understand may simply be beyond us, as a man's understanding is beyond an ant's.  Maybe, but one is left to wonder that the God who created us, and understands our limits better than we do set down a verse that we can not understand.  If the Koran is supposed to be His will, and we are to submit to His will, shouldn't we be able to understand what His Will is?  Following this line of reasoning leads to the fact that the unchanging Koran has indeed changed! 

In the original text of the Koran, the diacritical marks are largely absent.  In Arabic, there are no letters for short vowels, and for some consonants.  Moreover, without diacritical marks, the dots around various Arabic letters, many consonants would look like other consonants, rendering the reading unclear.  Nobody knows when the first diacritical marks were added, but it is thought to be in the first century after the Arabian conquest began, circa 632 to 732.  The Muslim collector of Hadiths Abu Nasr Yahya ibn Abi Kathir al Yamami (d. 749) admits this happened to illuminate the Koran. But as one person I was explaining this to exclaimed, "That means you could make it say anything you wanted!"  Interestingly, if you take out the diacritical marks you have a text in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.  An example is this text, Koran 25:1 which reads "Blessed is He Who has revealed unto His slave the Criterion (of right and wrong) that he maybe a Warner to the peoples"  If you take out the diacritical marks the text is rendered as "Blessed is He who sent down the redemption on His servant that he might be a sacrifice for the peoples."  This is a Christian statement summarizing text from the Gospel of John (1:1, 1:14) Ephesians 5:1, Hebrews 10:10-14, Ephesians 1:7, and 1 John 2:2.

Interestingly, much of the rest of the nonsensical passages become clear when one takes out the diacritical marks.  Spencer concludes that the Koran was originally a Christian, Unitarian lectionary written in Aramaic for use by the Churches that dotted the landscape in the 7th century.  The polemics against Orthodox Christians represent the the battles between Unitarians and Trinitarians, taken to the extreme (kill them all wherever you find them.)  The fight with the Jews seems to be that they worship, inexplicably, Ezra or something.  Slowly, over time, various Muslim rulers and Caliphs worked the text into what it is today.  Like the Byzantines before them, they found that their new empire was easier to rule if it had a common religion, and a common language.  The emphasis in the Koran on it being in Arabic, and the need to study it in Arabic meant that slowly the other languages would die out.

And what of Muhammad?  Spencer concludes that the answer to the title question can not be answered with certainty.  Surely Muhammad did not exist as he is presented to the world today.  At the same time, if Muhammad did not exist, the Caliphs would have had to invent him.  Once invented, he seems to have taken on a life of his own.  Competing sides wrote Hadiths forcing Muhammad to take first one side, then the other.  Spencer did not say this, but I will.  Since Islamic law is based on the Hadiths, one wonders that anyone can see Sharia as any more than the codification and ossification of traditions then extant in the Islamic world.  If what I surmise is true, how the world would be different if Arius and his followers had understood that the Trinitarians were trying to reconcile the words of Jesus himself in the Gospels and the events of the first Pentacost. They did not worship three gods, but The God, who made himself known to man in three ways, because He loved us so much.

This book doesn't say it, but I will.  It appears that Islam is nothing more than the worm turning.  They lost the debate over the divinity of Christ in 325 AD.  They took their convictions, and nursed them, slowly turning them into something dark and sinister.  When they spilled out again, in the late 630s, what returned was no longer recognizable as the Christianity that went in.        


  1. Rev Paul,

    Thank you. It is an interesting book, and took some time to read and digest it. I am now looking into the Koran, taking baby steps. I am amazed however by the circularity of Islamic thought. Anything that is not in the Koran or the Hadiths is not Islamic, therefore is sinful. This thought process has kept Islam from reforming, and has kept the people bound to an ancient way of life. It is too bad.

    Best wishes,