Did Muhammad Exist? — The Fallout

The following is the new introduction to Robert Spencer’s Did Muhammad Exist? — now out in paperback from ISI Books.

In Did Muhammad Exist? Robert Spencer reminded us that it was time to get back to real scholarship unhampered by political correctness and the corruption of Saudi money. The reaction, however, was predictable.
On the BBC’s Radio 1, host Nihal Arthanayake tried repeatedly to get Spencer to acknowledge that to write such a book was offensive and that the inquiry was objectionable on its face. He cajoled both non-Muslim and Muslim callers to say that they found the very idea of the book offensive, and ended up with what he thought was the coup de grace: Spencer, he said, “quotes Muhammad, then says he doesn’t exist”—as if to quote Shakespeare’s Macbeth would be tantamount to affirming that the uneasy king was a historical personage.

But the BBC is to be commended: it was one of the few mainstream media outlets that dared even to acknowledge the book’s existence. The contrast was stark when Reza Aslan’s Zealot, a revisionist reading of the Gospels, appeared to a rapturous reception from a media that now congratulated itself on its willingness to grapple with difficult and controversial issues.

Aslan has said in an interview that the Gospels are “testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith written many years after the events they describe.” For this he was celebrated and praised for his courage in confronting fervently held religious beliefs. Whatever the merits of Zealot, it was refreshing to see historical criticism of sacred texts receive so much mainstream attention. Yet when Robert Spencer made the case that the earliest Islamic texts were likewise testimonies of faith, not historical records, and that the earliest records of Muhammad’s words and deeds don’t show up until more than a century after his supposed death, the response was a refusal to confront the issue for fear of giving offense, or a dismissal of the thesis itself as intentionally provocative.

Aslan, moreover, was blazing no new trails. Less than a month before Did Muhammad Exist? first appeared, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman published a book with the cognate title Did Jesus Exist?. To be sure, Ehrman was making the case for rather than against the historical Jesus. Nonetheless, his book was new testimony to the long scholarly tradition of inquiry into the historical Jesus, which enjoys mainstream acceptance in academia, while the parallel line of inquiry into the historical Muhammad is often dismissed as the preoccupation of a few “fringe” scholars who flagrantly disregard accepted scholarly norms. Islamic scholar Eric Ormsby called Spencer’s title “inflammatory”; no one is recorded as having leveled a similar charge against Ehrman’s.

The scholars of the historicity of Muhammad do indeed disregard dogmas regarding Islam’s origins that all too many academics today accept uncritically, and in Did Muhammad Exist? Spencer has done an admirable job of marshaling their findings and presenting them in terms that nonspecialists can easily grasp. Yet even that aspect of the book was offensive as far as Ormsby was concerned: he dismissed the book as a “tabloid simulacrum” of the scholarship of Patricia Crone, Günter Lüling, Christoph Luxenberg, and others. Ormsby is perhaps unaware that this is precisely what a popularization such as Did Muhammad Exist? sets out to do: make the scholarly works of such people understandable and digestible to the layman who has neither the time nor the inclination to devote years of study to the field.

Ormsby likewise misses a key point of the book when he asserts: “The lack of written documentation for the period between 632, when the Prophet supposedly died, and 691 when Umayyad coinage or such structures as the Dome of the Rock unambiguously display a Muslim identity—or even the greater gap between 632 and the time of the Prophet’s first biographers—proves nothing in itself; it is simply that, a lack of written evidence. Those who make much of this under­estimate or ignore the role of memory in traditional Muslim culture; for us memory is slippery, fallible, elusive. But for those raised in an oral culture, in which the spoken word weighed more than the written, texts committed to memory were deemed superior to those consigned to mere parchment and ink.”

The point, however, is not that there was simply a lack of written evidence. The point is that even in the written evidence that does exist—the chronicles of non-Muslims who bore the brunt of the Arab conquests, and the coins and monuments that the conquerors left behind—there is not the scarcest allusion to the existence of a new prophet, a new holy book, or a new religion. Surely if the stories of Muhammad that appeared in such proliferation a century later were circulating orally during what is now considered to be the first decades of Islam, there would have been some trace of them left behind in the writings from that period that do exist: some crabbed mention by a Christian chronicler of the conquering Saracens’ love for the supposed prophet—something.

But as Spencer shows, there is nothing. Nothing at all. This is a factual point that deserves attention, rather than burial under a heap of politically correct talking points.

What was missed amid all the indignation and fear of discussing the subject was the fact that in Did Muhammad Exist? Robert Spencer has laid out with exemplary clarity the problems with the traditional account of the Qur’an, the rise of Islam, and the life of Muhammad. In that, he has performed a valuable service.

Ibn Warraq is the author or editor of several books, including What the Koran Really Says and Why I Am Not a Muslim.

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