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Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins

de Robert Spencer

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794268,198 (4.06)1
Are jihadists dying for a fiction? Everything you thought you knew about Islam is about to change. Did Muhammad exist? It is a question that few have thought--or dared--to ask. Virtually everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, takes for granted that the prophet of Islam lived and led in seventh-century Arabia. But this widely accepted story begins to crumble on close examination, as Robert Spencer shows in his eye-opening new book. In his blockbuster bestseller The Truth about Muhammad, Spencer revealed the shocking contents of the earliest Islamic biographical material about the prophet of Islam. Now, in Did Muhammad Exist?, he uncovers that material's surprisingly shaky historical foundations. Spencer meticulously examines historical records, archaeological findings, and pioneering new scholarship to reconstruct what we can know about Muhammad, the Qur'an, and the early days of Islam. The evidence he presents challenges the most fundamental assumptions about Islam's origins. Did Muhammad Exist? reveals: *How the earliest biographical material about Muhammad dates from at least 125 years after his reported death *How six decades passed before the Arabian conquerors--or the people they conquered--even mentioned Muhammad, the Qur'an, or Islam *The startling evidence that the Qur'an was constructed from existing materials--including pre-Islamic Christian texts *How even Muslim scholars acknowledge that countless reports of Muhammad's deeds were fabricated *Why a famous mosque inscription may refer not to Muhammad but, astonishingly, to Jesus *How the oldest records referring to a man named Muhammad bear little resemblance to the now-standard Islamic account of the life of the prophet *The many indications that Arabian leaders fashioned Islam for political reasons Far from an anti-Islamic polemic, Did Muhammad Exist? is a sober but unflinching look at the origins of one of the world's major religions. While Judaism and Christianity have been subjected to searching historical criticism for more than two centuries, Islam has never received the same treatment on any significant scale. The real story of Muhammad and early Islam has long remained in the shadows. Robert Spencer brings it into the light at long last.… (més)
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Oh, what a question? How could you even ask that? But, yes, this is exactly the kind of question Islam should be subjected to. For the last 200 years, beginning in the late 18th century, Christianity has come under critical scrutiny like no other faith. And yet, in the 21st century, questioning any aspect of Islam is commonly viewed as Islamophobia, pure and simple. Interestingly, the word Christophobia has yet to be coined.

Now if you are going to question Islam, there are two great places to start: the Qur’an and Muhammed himself. Others are doing a pretty good job of questioning the former. Spencer has chosen the latter.

And he hasn’t done a bad job at all. If anyone is wondering what Yasir Qadhi’s infamous “holes in the narrative” are, Spencer’s book is a great place to start. There are holes galore.

The obvious place to start is with Islamic writings about Muhammad. There’s scant reference to him in the Qur’an (if at all) and so we turn to the Hadith where there are literally tens of thousands. There’s a lot in here that is quite shocking concerning the kind of person he was (so much so that Muhammad’s first official biographer Ibn Ishaq admitted to leaving parts out that would “distress certain people”), but Spencer is more concerned about whether he was at all.

Seeing how rapidly and extensively Arab armies conquered their known world, it is surprising how little and how late any references to Muhammad occur in external sources known to us today. Some of these references are puzzling. For example, for someone of such apparently monumental contemporary importance, there is no specific mention of him until 90 years after his death. In fact, the date of his death doesn’t surface until over 100 years after 632, the date in Wikipedia. A couple of the vague mentions of him are accompanied with illustrations of crosses, not something you’re likely to see down your local masjid these days.

After trolling through pretty much all the historical sources he can find, Spencer summarises his argument in the final chapter. Based on the fact that it wasn’t until the late 7th century that specific references to Muhammad as we understand him today emerge, he proposes that the Umayyad’s found it politically expedient to place him as a figurehead hero of their movement. Thus, from that point on and in particular under the Abbasids, he becomes a central figure, in stark contrast to any reference to him prior to that in any sources, Islamic or otherwise.

It’s an interesting theory and one which makes sense. Whether it’s true or not is impossible to prove. But this is exactly the same dilemma historians have about Muhammad’s life: much of it is impossible to prove. While many might argue that warring tribes have little time to sit down and write up their diaries at night, contemporary historians have little else to refer to except text. It’s an historical necessity if we are to be certain of what was what.

As Spencer concludes:

“Did Muhammad exist? As a prophet of the Arabs who taught a vaguely defined monotheism, he may have existed. But beyond that, his life story is lost in the mists of legend, like those of Robin Hood and Macbeth. As the prophet of Islam, who received (or even claimed to receive) the perfect copy of the perfect eternal book from the supreme God, Muhammad almost certainly did not exist. There are too many gaps, too many silences, too many aspects of the historical record that simply do not accord, and cannot be made to accord, with the traditional account of the Arabian prophet teaching his Qur’an, energizing his followers to such an extent that they went out and conquered a good part of the world.”
p. 214 – 215

Scholarly criticism of Islam is currently gaining slow but sure momentum in the west, spurred on, no doubt, by the glasnost of the Interwebs. But vehement opposition to, say, even the idea of applying the historical-critical method to the Qur’an, continues to plague anyone who dares step into the arena.

“Even raising the question of whether Muhammad existed challenges the very premise of their belief system. No Muslim authorities have encouraged such scholarship, and those who have pursued this line of inquiry often labor under threat of death.”
p. 216

Those who are willing to walk that path though have started to publish some interesting results. It’s definitely a fascinating space to watch as scholarship, Muslim or not, takes bolder steps in that direction though. ( )
  arukiyomi | Dec 27, 2020 |
This is a reasonably competent summary of some the recent "higher criticism" approach to Muhammad's life. having read a umber of the books on which it is based, notably Crone's Hagarism, and Mecca, I should say it is useful if one wants an overview of that school of thought. whether that school's views are credible is another question. Everyone, including the most pious Muslims, admits that by no means all the traditions about Muhammad are true; the question of just which ones (if any) are worthy of belief is another matter. Even the earliest life of Muhammad by ibn Ishak (which I have read in translation) contains a good many stories that a no-Muslim like myself will find questionable. On the other hand, if the recent carbon dating of a manuscript of the Koran to no later than the 650s is correct, the claims in this book and elsewhere that it was compiled later will become untenable. (This is not the same thing as denying that it includes Jewish and Christian elements, which to most non-Muslim scholars seems obvious, but it may mean Muhammad himself chose to include them.) ( )
  antiquary | Dec 29, 2015 |
This one of a series of recent books examining the historical basis for the start, and amazing spread, of Islam; if you are firm in your monotheistic faith this is not for you unless you wish that faith be challenged, be that Judaism, Christianity (in all forms, Trinitarian, monophysite, Arianism, etc.) and, of course, Islam. This is not a complete historical record (well nothing from that period is!) and the author's views are clearly partial; nonetheless it is well researched and if a simplistic conclusion that the Q'uran is derived from a Syriac monophysite text lacking the diacritical marks of modern Arabic then one could feel the author has sought a tendentious answer for controversy's sake. The truth, I'm sure, will be far more complex and the input of early Christian texts, the oral history of the region, the initial warm relations between Judaism (with its millennium old scholarship on the study of the word of god), the remnants of the Persian and Eastern Roman Empire will have created a stew, a ferment, in which monotheistic traditions met with a people of warlike and nomadic culture to create that extraordinary synergy that became Islam. A good book but only part of the picture. ( )
  liehtzu | Jan 19, 2013 |
“Did Muhammad exist? The full truth of whether a prophet named Muhammad lived in seventh-century Arabia, and if he did, what sort of a man he was, may never be known. But it would be intellectually irresponsible not to ask the question or consider the implications of the provocative evidence that pioneering scholars have assembled.”

Though this is the penultimate paragraph of Rober Spencer's Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry Into Islam's Obscure Origins, it is nevertheless the sole paragraph that should be taken away from this book. Spencer articulates this largely in the beginnings of his work, explaining that Islam should be subject to the same higher criticism that both Christianity and Judaism have undergone for centuries already. With this point, I am in complete accordance; the God debate in America is usually limited to Christianity since, after all, historically America has been predominately Christian in its religion of choice. However, being one the world's most adhered to religions, Islam should not be an exception to this dialogue – and by no means am I saying it has not been at all. Unfortunately, some scholars who had probed this ground have all too predictably (and sadly) been the target of death threats (and, let me be upfront now that I obviously do not believe that all Muslims act in this fanatic demeanor. I have had the pleasure of having both kind, and compassionate Muslim co-workers, as well a close friend since my youth).

Spencer's book is a reconstruction of Islam's history based upon a critical review of the evidence. Rather than adhering to the canonical story of Islam's origins, Spencer uses the contemporary data of the time to hypothesize that the earliest Muslims were actually an ambiguous monotheistic group who held to both Judaism and Christianity, albeit with Arian overtones (Arianism is the heresy that Christ was not co-equal with God the Father in his divinity, and was the subject of the first two Ecumenical Councils). To buttress his position, Spencer shows that there was no mention of a Quar'an, Muhammed, or Islam within the first many decades of the Arabs conquest, and that contemporary accounts on both sides fail to mention these items. Furthermore, Arab coinage originally had shown a figure (already a prohibition of Islam's iconoclasm) with a crown carrying a cross, and it was not until later that the coins no longer bore such images. To add to this, he surveys the lack of any corroboration of Mecca in the purported time that Muhammed began his religious quest, not to mention the plethora of warring hadiths in the 7-8th centuries. Most interesting is his chapter on the Quar'an itself; Spencer argues that the Quar'an, far from being purely Arabic in origin, was originally a Syriac Lexicon that had morphed over time. He relies heavily off of the work of Christoph Lüxenberg to show how the diacritical marks which were non-existent in the oldest copies of the Quar'an, were likely misplaced, and that when redone come out with heavily Christian passages, going as far to include a liturgical reference to the Eucharist. Such claims are hard to take a face value, but Spencer goes in passage by passage to explain where the mistakes were made. If all this is true, then it would undoubtedly be devastating for Islam.

But that is exactly where the problem is.

Spencer's work relies heavily off of fringe, revisionist scholarship, which while it should not be dismissed outright, should also be examined against more mainstream scholarship – but this view is missing from Spencer's work. Thus, it seems convincing, but one is unsure of what the response would be. In other words, this is as if one had merely picked up any Jesus Mythicist book and uncritically accepted all the facts within. There is one reviewer on Amazon that has taken issue with Spencer in this regard, and has done a fair job in opposing his claims. For example, one of the works Spencer utilizes in his reconstruction is Patricia Crone's Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, a work “in which she [Crone] demonstrated that one of the principal foundations of the canonical Islamic biography of Muhammad – its Arabian setting, with Mecca as a center for trade – was not supported by any contemporary records.” (Spencer 13) However, Crone later on disregarded this theory as shown in her contemporary work. Furthermore, Lüxenberg philiological work remains in the realm of possibility, lacking any corroborating evidence that would solidify his claims. However, the worst omission of evidence on Spencer's part is the tombstone of Abassa ibn Guraig, an artifact that dates to 691 A.D. and makes specific references to Allah, Islam, and Muhammed the Prophet. Perhaps there are responses to these claims, perhaps not, but ultimately if one wants to know they will need to search elsewhere.

Is Spencer's book worth reading? I would say yes, purely for the fact that it seems to be an amalgam of revisionist scholarship with a very interesting thesis. I would not venture as to say that all of Spencer's conjectures are off-base, and certainly some of the facts he provides seem startling. At the very least it was an enjoyable read as I was able to learn far more about Islam than I had really ever known (which was close to nothing), though I am sure there are far better books that are actually geared to such a topic. My only other complaint, far less substantial, is that Spencer's tone seems to get harsher as the book goes on, criticizing the morals of the Quar'an, and at one point even making a comparison between Christianity and Islam, stating that the former is a religion of love and the latter is not. While I firmly believe Christianity is a religion of love (I am Eastern Orthodox, after all), such a comparison seems trite and unwarranted to Islam. Even if one does believe that Islam is a religion of hatred, such moral judgments (which Spencer makes many) are not really relevant in a book that is suppose to be a work of history and critical scholarship. ( )
1 vota phyzics | Sep 5, 2012 |
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Are jihadists dying for a fiction? Everything you thought you knew about Islam is about to change. Did Muhammad exist? It is a question that few have thought--or dared--to ask. Virtually everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, takes for granted that the prophet of Islam lived and led in seventh-century Arabia. But this widely accepted story begins to crumble on close examination, as Robert Spencer shows in his eye-opening new book. In his blockbuster bestseller The Truth about Muhammad, Spencer revealed the shocking contents of the earliest Islamic biographical material about the prophet of Islam. Now, in Did Muhammad Exist?, he uncovers that material's surprisingly shaky historical foundations. Spencer meticulously examines historical records, archaeological findings, and pioneering new scholarship to reconstruct what we can know about Muhammad, the Qur'an, and the early days of Islam. The evidence he presents challenges the most fundamental assumptions about Islam's origins. Did Muhammad Exist? reveals: *How the earliest biographical material about Muhammad dates from at least 125 years after his reported death *How six decades passed before the Arabian conquerors--or the people they conquered--even mentioned Muhammad, the Qur'an, or Islam *The startling evidence that the Qur'an was constructed from existing materials--including pre-Islamic Christian texts *How even Muslim scholars acknowledge that countless reports of Muhammad's deeds were fabricated *Why a famous mosque inscription may refer not to Muhammad but, astonishingly, to Jesus *How the oldest records referring to a man named Muhammad bear little resemblance to the now-standard Islamic account of the life of the prophet *The many indications that Arabian leaders fashioned Islam for political reasons Far from an anti-Islamic polemic, Did Muhammad Exist? is a sober but unflinching look at the origins of one of the world's major religions. While Judaism and Christianity have been subjected to searching historical criticism for more than two centuries, Islam has never received the same treatment on any significant scale. The real story of Muhammad and early Islam has long remained in the shadows. Robert Spencer brings it into the light at long last.

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