Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch, has released a new book titled, Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins. On April 24th, Mr. Spencer spoke on his book at a joint meeting of the Middle East Forum and Gatestone Institute in New York City.
Did the Prophet Muhammad really exist, or was he a sacred myth fashioned by the Koran decades after his purported death? Robert Spencer has addressed this thorny question with a dual intent:
- To serve the interests of freedom of expression as a rebellion against the tyranny of censorship by the likes of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation and the leftist idolatry for political correctness, which attempt to silence any debate on Islamic issues.
- To play in the Islamic world the same positive role that non-religious, scientific research played in Judaism and Christianity, triggering a rational debate that can lead to the rejection of strict literalism.
Blinded by dogmatic thinking, one could dismiss the question as pure provocation, ignoring the abundance of historical evidence supporting this thesis. Particularly intriguing is the absolute absence of a mention whatsoever of Muhammad, Islam or the Koran, either by the Arab conquerors or the conquered, in written records, inscriptions, coins, etc. during 630-690, i.e. to the period of Muslim conquests following the (alleged) death of Muhammad.
Furthermore, the life of Muhammad is shrouded in mystery given that the first biographies were written no sooner than 125 years after his death, and it is well acknowledged by Muslim scholars, among others, that many of the hadiths which hand down sayings and actions of the Prophet are false, artfully created for political reasons.
Nor is the Koran itself a more reliable source: it is supposed to have been collected and distributed in its standard edition no later than in 653, but one cannot find any mention of it until the 690s, and the traces of Aramaic and Christian traditions inside the text indicate a well established contact with the conquered territories.
In conclusion, historical evidence tells a very different story from the traditional one, namely that of political and military events which occurred at a time when some Arabian tribes expanded at the expense of the "sick men" - the Persian and Byzantine empires - and which necessitated a glue to bind them together and to form a central focus of identification. And what could offer a better nucleus for the nascent Arab empire than religion?
According to Spencer, such a study is of paramount importance because demonstration of the political circumstances of Islam's birth enables the contextualization of some of its elements in the framework of a political and military agenda, thus making possible a distinction between the religion and its secular, political, violent outcomes. This doesn't infringe on religious freedoms of Muslims: why aren't writers questioning Jesus' existence branded as "racist"? The search for the truth is never a provocation.
Summary account by Tommaso Virgili, intern for The Legal Project, an activity of the Middle East Forum