Did Mohammed Exist?

For the last two centuries, secular and skeptical scholars have attempted to learn about the “historical Jesus”, the actual person behind the Gospel accounts, and to develop a secular explanation for the origin of Christianity. This effort necessarily involves some degree skepticism about the traditional accounts of the life and words of Jesus and the apostles found in scripture. There has not really been much of an effort to find the “historical Mohammed” and to reconstruct the early history of Islam.

The historian who wishes to investigate the origin of Islam suffers from two disadvantages that the historian of Christianity does not. First, while the evidence for Jesus’ life outside the New Testament is scanty, Jesus and the early Christians lived in a literate culture and the earliest Christians writings and non-Christian references to the new religion begin to appear within decades of Jesus’ death. Islam, on the other have, began in an almost completely illiterate, predominately oral, culture. The earliest written accounts of the life of Mohammed do not appear until more than a century after his death. These are largely those collections of Mohammed’s sayings and deeds called the Hadith, which were transmitted orally for several generations, and even Muslim scholars concede that many are spurious. The Koran is supposed to have been roughly contemporary with Mohammed, but there is good reason to suppose that it too was not collected until more than a century after Mohammed.

The second disadvantage that the skeptical scholar of Islam faces is the fact that he literally endangers his life by making inquiries that the followers of the religion of peace disapprove of. For this reason, several scholars are obliged to use pseudonyms or invest in security. Less daring investigators prefer to study less dangerous subjects, such as the origins of Judaism or Christianity, whose followers are noticeably less inclined to murder them when they are offended.

For this reason, we have good reason to be thankful that Robert Spencer is willing to take on the subject of the origin of Islam in his latest book, Did Mohammed Exist?  Robert Spencer is not a scholar and offers no original research in writing Did Mohammed Exist.  Instead, he has presented the works of those scholars who have questioned the traditional origin story of Islam in a clear, easily understood manner and convincingly makes the argument that Mohammed, at least in the sense of being the prophet from Mecca, did not exist.

Did Mohammed exist?  It may seem an odd question to ask. Surely, there is as much evidence that Mohammed existed as Jesus or Socrates. Even a non-Muslim must concede that, even if he does not believe Mohammed is a prophet. In fact, as Spencer shows, the evidence for Mohammed’s life is sparse. As I mentioned above, Muslim accounts of his life are not found until more than a century or more after his death. Non-Muslim chroniclers, although they describe the invasions of the Arab armies, make no mentions of the Arab prophet or of the Koran. Coins minted by the earliest caliphs are more likely to show Christian symbols, rather than quotations from the Koran.

Spencer also notes that the Koran is a very strange book in that it is very disordered and many Arabic words don’t actually make any sense. This is due, in part, to the fact that the earliest Arabic alphabet did not make distinctions between certain letters and if some of the letters are changed, the text makes more sense. Spencer also notes that much of the Koran may, in fact, have been written in Syriac, a language closely related to Arabic, and again if some words are actually Syriac, than the text makes more sense. (For one thing, those virgins that martyrs are promised are more likely to be white raisins.)

As for Mohammed, that name only appears a few times in the Koran. The name means “one who is highly praised” and could be a title rather than a proper name. While it is likely that there was a warlord or prophet with that name or title, the Mohammed of Islam almost certainly did not exist. Spencer shows that the historical evidence simply cannot confirm the traditional accounts. There is much that is contradictory in these accounts and there is much that does not match what is known of the conditions in Arabia in the time that Mohammed is said to have lived. It seems more likely, according to Spencer, that the legend of Mohammed and much of the religion of Islam was created, out of Jewish and Christian traditions in the first century of the Arab Empire as an attempt to provide an Arabic religious ideology to unify the diverse conquered peoples. Whether the reader ends up agreeing with Robert Spencer’s thesis or not, they are sure to find Did Mohammed Exist? A thought provoking exploration of the story behind the origins of one of the largest religions.


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