Modern scholars like Patricia Crone have questioned whether Mecca as an important trading city and center of pilgrimage truly existed by the year 600, as Islamic sources claim. Its location makes no sense if it was supposed to be located on the trade routes between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Europe. No non-Muslim historian mentions it in any accounts of trade from the sixth or seventh centuries. Given the centrality of Mecca in traditional history, this casts the entire canonical story of the origins of Islam into doubt.
The Koran claims to be written in clear Arabic, but even educated Arabs find parts of it hard to understand. The German philologist Gerd R. Puin, whose pioneering work is quoted by Ibn Warraq in What the Koran Really Says, states that up to a fifth of it is just incomprehensible.
Perhaps one of the reasons why the Koran stresses its Arabic nature may be, ironically, that portions of it were not originally written in Arabic at all, but in related Semitic languages.
Christoph Luxenberg has suggested that some sections of it were originally written in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic that had long been used as a literary language in much of the Middle East and the Fertile Crescent. He demonstrates convincingly that certain puzzling Koranic verses make more sense if you read them in Syriac. The virgins that brave Muslim men are supposed to enjoy in Paradise (Koran 44:51-57, 52:17-24, 56:27-40) may not be virgins at all, but rather white raisins, or perhaps grapes. Yes, fruit.
It’s possible that some of these Christian Syriac texts were written by a heretical group that rejected the Trinity of mainstream Christianity. It’s certainly true that a few Koranic chapters as we know them are somewhat more tolerant than others, but if we believe this non-traditional reading of history, some of them were based on pre-existing Jewish or Christian texts.
In the final section of the book, Spencer sums up the findings to date. He suggests that Muhammad may have existed as a semi-legendary figure, comparable to Robin Hood, King Arthur or William Tell, whose exploits were greatly elaborated upon by later generations. Yet the traditional account of him as Islam’s founder is riddled with gaps and inconsistencies.
The Arab conquerors may have known some vague monotheism partly inspired by Christians and Jews, but in the generations and centuries after the conquests they abandoned this and developed a more militant creed that came to function as a vehicle for Arab nationalism and imperialism. Perhaps the conquests shaped Islam more than Islam shaped the conquests.
But if someone more or less invented Muhammad, wouldn’t they want to invent a more sympathetic character than the very ruthless and brutal man we see emerge from the traditional accounts? Possibly yes, but as Spencer comments, the Arabs of this age may have thought that such a ruthless character was an inspiration for conquest and empire-building.
It’s open to serious debate whether Muhammad ever existed, but I lean towards concluding that he did, at least in the vague sense of a militant Arab leader who helped unify different tribes and redirect their tribal energy outwards towards the goal of external conquest. This would not be substantially different from the way Genghis Khan managed to unify squabbling Mongolian tribes into a viable Mongol nation capable of conquering a vast empire.
The major difference is, of course, that a new religion was not built around the personality of Genghis Khan. Perhaps we should be grateful for that. Otherwise, the largest voting block at the United Nations might now have been the Organisation of Mongolian Cooperation, and the BBC and the New York Times would warn us against the dangers of Genghisophobia.
Robert Spencer possesses a special talent for presenting complex issues in a way that is accessible and understandable to an educated mainstream audience. His latest work is no exception. Did Muhammad Exist? is a competent and readable introduction to some of the most vexing riddles regarding the true birth of the creed we now know as Islam.
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