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What Were the True Origins of Islam?
On September 9, 2017, there was a conference in Copenhagen about the origins of Islam. It was a collaboration between the International Free Press Society in Denmark plus the organizations Humans Rights Service and Document from Norway.
The speaker was Professor Robert Martin Kerr. He participates in Inarah, a research network that is engaged in a scientific historical-critical, philological investigation into the Koran, the origins of Islam and its early history.
Around 50 or 60 people attended this lecture. Not much, but still pretty good for a dense, six-hour lecture about ancient stone inscriptions and languages many people have never heard of. Multiple policemen stood guard outside. Even in Scandinavia, you now need armed police to protect you while listening to details about Aramaic grammar. Freedom is slowly slipping away in Western Europe.
Professor Kerr doesn’t seem to believe that Muhammad, the alleged founder of Islam, is a historical figure. Perhaps he never existed at all. As he points out, we have no contemporary evidence for the existence of Muhammad. None. The word “Muhammad” could be a title meaning “the praiseworthy one,” not a personal name.
Sunni Muslims believe that after Muhammad’s death, the leadership of Muslims passed to the four so-called rightly guided caliphs (successors) who had known Muhammad personally: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. Shias only recognize Ali, who was Muhammad’s son-in-law through his marriage to Fatima.
Sunnis and Shias alike take for granted that these individuals really lived. However, yet again we have no physical proof that any of these first caliphs ever existed. They may be fictional characters. We have no coins struck by any of these rulers. As far as we know, coins were not struck in Mecca or Medina until the ninth century AD. That is two centuries after Islam and the Islamic empire was supposedly born there.
Ibn Ishaq, who wrote the first purported biography of Muhammad, did so more than a century after Muhammad supposedly lived. Serious questions have been raised about the validity of this biography. The hadith literature about what Muhammad allegedly said and did was collected later. Even Muslims admit that many hadith were outright fabricated. Without these sources, we know practically nothing about Muhammad.
We know that there were big Arab conquests in the seventh century, from Persia to the Iberian Peninsula. Yet we do not know exactly what these Arabs believed in, what triggered the conquests or where they began. Non-Muslim chroniclers writing at the time of the early conquests made no mention of the Koran, Islam or Muslims, and scant mention of Muhammad. Perhaps Islam as we now know it was created after the Arab conquests, not before. Of course, that leaves the unanswered question of what was the real cause of the expansion.
The Arab conquerors themselves didn’t refer to the Koran during the first decades, quite possibly because it did not then exist in a recognizable form. A fully developed Arabic script did not yet exist at the time when the Koran was supposedly collected, either. This further introduces substantial sources of error.
According to Robert Martin Kerr, parts of the Koran may well predate the supposed life of Muhammad. Even educated, native speakers of Arabic find parts of the Koran difficult to understand. This was the case even one thousand years ago. The author Ibn Warraq has written some excellent, albeit detailed, books on this subject.
Certain sections of the Koran deviate from traditional Arabic grammar. This could be because some parts of the Koran were not originally written in Arabic. They were written in Aramaic, a related, but different Semitic language that was widely used among Christians in the region. Christoph Luxenberg belongs to those scholars who believe that longer sections of the Koran as we know it were originally written in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. Syriac was widely used in and near Syria, but much less so in the Arabian Peninsula. The Koran seems to be a mixture of Jewish and Christian sources plus some added Arab material that is unique to Islam.
It is possible that certain Christian texts that were quoted in the Koran were written by an Eastern sect that rejected the Trinity. Some chapters of the Koran are somewhat more tolerant than others, but if we believe this non-traditional reading of history, maybe these were inspired by pre-existing Jewish or Christian texts.
Professor Kerr further noted that the important hadith collectors (for Sunnis) al-Bukhari and al-Muslim never went to Mecca or Medina to look for source material about Muhammad’s life. As Patricia Crone and other scholars have noted, Mecca is situated in a desert, not close to any river or major waterways. There are no non-Islamic sources indicating that Mecca was in important source of trade in the early seventh century AD. Given the centrality of Mecca in Islamic history, this casts the entire story of the origins of Islam into doubt.
Kerr and some other scholars believe that the true origins of the Arab expansion lie further north. Not in Mecca and Medina in the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula, but maybe closer to present-day Syria and Jordan.
Kerr also notes that none of the early mosques in North Africa have a qibla (direction of prayer) towards Mecca. Neither does the Umayyad mosque in Cordoba, Spain. Even traditional Islamic sources have a tradition stating that the very first direction of prayer was facing Jerusalem, not facing Mecca.
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.
This subject was touched upon in my review of Robert Spencer’s book Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins. The foreword was written by the (now late) Dutch scholar Hans Jansen, a gifted Arabist and a Professor of Modern Islamic Thought. He points out that what sparse information and physical evidence we do have does not confirm the traditional Islamic accounts of the sixth and seventh centuries.
In fact, archaeological findings contradict the traditional picture. Only further archaeological work in present-day Arabia and Greater Syria can shed more light on these issues. In Saudi Arabia, such excavations are forbidden. Wahhabi hardliners have actively destroyed a number of sites. Furthermore, Saudi religious authorities may not be interested in bringing to light findings that might contradict their religious views or undermine their country’s central status in Islam. If the history about Muhammad in Mecca and Medina is not true then Saudi Arabia is just an irrelevant desert, which unfortunately has a lot of oil.
Robert Spencer suggests that Muhammad may possibly 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.
But if someone invented Muhammad, wouldn’t they want to invent a more sympathetic character than the brutal warlord we see emerge from the traditional accounts? Possibly, yes. However, the Arabs of the age may have thought that such a ruthless character could serve as an inspiration for more conquest and empire-building.
It’s open to serious debate whether Muhammad ever existed. Maybe 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 Organization of Mongolian Cooperation, and the BBC and the New York Times would warn us against the dangers of Genghisophobia.
Some of the traditional stories about the early days of Islam and its greatest Prophet cannot possibly be true. What effect has this critical research had on the minds of devout Muslims? So far, very little. They go on basing their lives on largely fictional accounts of something that may or may not have happened 1,400 years ago. Muslims also threaten to kill people who insult the dignity of a man who perhaps never existed at all.
|1.||www.document.no/2017/08/08/heldagskonferanse-om-siste-innen-islam-forskningen-i-kobenhavn-lor-9-september/ Bli oppdatert på ny, oppsiktsvekkende forskning om islam og Koranen! August 8, 2017. www.trykkefrihed.dk/muhammed-blev-foerst-profet-ca.-200-aar-efter-sin-doed.htm Muhammad blev først profet ca. 200 år efter sin død. September 11, 2017.|
|2.||inarah.net/mission Inarah mission statement, checked online in September 2017.|
|3.||Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, a 1987 book by Patricia Crone, at Gorgias Press.|
|4.||islamqa.org/hanafi/darululoomtt/52354/change-of-qiblah-from-jerusalem-to-makkah Change of Qiblah from Jerusalem to Makkah. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qibla#History English language Wikipedia on qibla, checked in September 2017: “According to the traditional Muslim view, the Qiblah originally faced the Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem. This Qiblah was used for over 13 years, from 610 CE until 623 CE. Seventeen months after the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s 622 CE arrival in Medina — the date is given as 11 February 624 — the Qiblah became oriented towards the Kaaba in Mecca.”|
|5.||www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/130504/unmasking-muhammads-dubious-existence-fjordman Unmasking Muhammad’s Dubious Existence. By Fjordman, May 1, 2012.|
|6.||Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins. A book by Robert Spencer, published in 2012 by Intercollegiate Studies Institute. The foreword was written by the Dutch Arabist and author Johannes or Hans J. G. Jansen.|
|7.||Did Muhammad Exist? Page 214, hardback, first edition.|
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