Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Book Review - Did Muhammad exist? by Robert Spencer

Did Muhammad exist? : an inquiry into Islam's obscure origins by Robert Spencer

Wilmington Delaware: ISI Books, 2012               ISBN 9781610170611

Robert Spencer is a somewhat controversial author and commentator, perhaps best known for his jihadwatch website, and his polemical books about Islam. This book, while no doubt having controversial things to say, is not a polemic, but a look at the current state of study into the origins not so much about Muhammad himself, but the Koran.

Of the three main monotheistic religions, it is Islam that claims the most historicity for it's origins. Muhammad lived in the late 6th and early 7th century, was a prophet and warrior, and received the Koran in a series of revelations from the Angel Gabriel around Mecca and Medina. The problem with this seemingly historical statement is that the more it is investigated, the harder it is to pin down.

There is no mention in other historical sources of Muhammad, or the Koran itself, for over a hundred years from the supposed date of Muhammad's death. In fact between the date of Muhammad's death and the first mention of the Koran, coins were produced and buildings erected that seem to suggest the local rulers in Arabia were, if anything, Christians of a sort. It is only in the 9th century that something that we would recognise as Islam appeared in the historical record.

How to account for this gap in the story? It is clear that  both the Abbasid and Umayyad Caliphates were keen to enlist God as a partisan on their side, and had seen how religion could unify otherwise separate peoples into a large empire. It is also clear that large parts of the text of what came to be the Koran had existed for some time as separate fragments before being collected into one book. It also seems to be true that there did exist at some time in the 7th century in Arabia a "prophet armed with a sword". Spencer's theory is that the Caliphs were responsible for putting these disparate facts together to create a religion that could justify their rule.

The Koran itself is the major item under scrutiny in this book. Notoriously hard to interpret, recent study is bringing to light several sources of the suras of the Koran and leading to some extraordinary conclusions by some scholars. There can be an argument made that some of the text originated from Christian communities that denied the Trinity. These texts, which would have been in the Syraic language, were adapted as needed, with additions where required, to create the Koran as we have it now. These theories can explain some of the mysteries of the text itself, and also possibly the meaning behind some of the seemingly contradictory statements made in the Koran about Jews and Christians: they are due to the accretions made over time to original Christian sect texts.

Even the name Muhammad itself then comes into question - meaning "praiseworthy", the name itself is only mentioned four times in the Koran, and each time it could possibly be referring to Jesus, or other figures, rather than to a person named Muhammad himself.

The historiography of religious texts is a notoriously fraught business, and possibly no text is more difficult to look at than the Koran, as not only is it seen by Muslims as the literal word of God, but also is seen as a definite historical artifact emanating from a known point in history from a known person. Both the Jewish and the Christian Bibles have been studied historically for a long time, and Koranic studies have a long way to go in this area.

Did Muhammad exist? is an interesting work that gathers together some of the threads of current research into early Islam. There is a decent bibliography for further reading, and both the notes and the index are helpful.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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