In a well-known and oft-repeated statement, the French scholar Ernest Renan wrote in 1851 that, unlike the other founders of major religions, the Prophet Muhammad "was born in the full light of history."
Indeed, look up Muhammad in any reference book and the outlines of his life are confidently on display: birth in CE 570 in Mecca, career as a successful merchant, first revelation in 610, flight to Medina in 622, triumphant return to Mecca in 630, death in 632.
Better yet, read the 610-page standard account of Muhammad's life in English, by W. Montgomery Watt, and find a richly detailed biography.
There are, however, two major problems with this standard biography, as explained in a fascinating new study, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, edited by Ibn Warraq (Prometheus Books).
First, the massive documentation about Muhammad derives in every instance from Arabic written sources - biographies, collections of the prophet's sayings and doings, and so on - the earliest of which date from a century and a half after his death.
Not only does this long lapse of time cast doubt on their accuracy, but internal evidence strongly suggests the Arabic sources were composed in the context of intense partisan quarrels over the prophet's life.
To draw an American analogy: It's as though the first accounts of the US Constitutional Convention of 1787 were only recently written down, and this in the context of polemical debates over interpretation of the Constitution.
Second, the earlier sources on the prophet's life that do survive dramatically contradict the standard biography. In part, these are literary sources in languages other than Arabic (such as Armenian, Greek, or Syriac); in part, they are material remains (such as papyri, inscriptions, and coins).
Although the unreliability of the Arabic literary sources has been understood for a century, only recently have scholars begun to explore its full implications, thanks largely to the ground-breaking work of the British academic John Wansbrough. In the spirit of "interesting if true," they look skeptically at the Arabic written sources and conclude that these are a form of "salvation history" - self-serving, unreliable accounts by the faithful.
The huge body of detail, revisionist scholars find, is almost completely spurious. So unreliable do the revisionists find the traditional account, Patricia Crone has memorably written, that "one could, were one so inclined, rewrite most of Montgomery Watt's biography of Muhammad in reverse."
For example, an inscription and a Greek account leads Lawrence Conrad to fix Muhammad's birth in 552, not 570. Crone finds that Muhammad's career took place not in Mecca but hundreds of kilometers to the north. Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren find that the classical Arabic language was developed not in today's Saudi Arabia but in the Levant, and that it reached Arabia only through the colonizing efforts of one of the early caliphs.
Startling conclusions follow from this. The Arab tribesmen who conquered great swathes of territory in the seventh century were not Muslims, perhaps they were pagans. The Koran is a not "a product of Muhammad or even of Arabia," but a collection of earlier Judeo-Christian liturgical materials stitched together to meet the needs of a later age.
Most broadly, "there was no Islam as we know it" until two or three hundred years after the traditional version has it (more like CE 830 than 630); it developed not in the distant deserts of Arabia but through the interaction of Arab conquerors and their more civilized subject peoples. A few scholars go even further, doubting even the existence of Muhammad.
Though undertaken in a purely scholarly quest, the research made available in Quest for the Historical Muhammad raises basic questions for Muslims concerning the prophet's role as a moral paragon; the sources of Islamic law; and the God-given nature of the Koran. Still, it comes as little surprise to learn that pious Muslims prefer to avoid these issues.
Their main strategy until now has been one of neglect - hoping that revisionism, like a toothache, will just go away .
But toothaches don't spontaneously disappear, and neither will revisionism. Muslims one day are likely to be consumed by efforts to respond to its challenges, just as happened to Jews and Christians in the nineteenth century, when they faced comparable scholarly inquiries. Those two faiths survived the experience - though they changed profoundly in the process - and so will Islam.
Nov. 1, 2001 update: In a book published today, Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam, Khaled Abou El Fadl devotes a chapter, "On Revising Bigotry," to this article, condemning my writing with equal doses of disdain and fury. A couple of excerpts convey his charming and stylish craft:
Discharging the White Man's Burden, Pipes, may God bless his merciful soul, advises Muslims that revisionism is a school that they can no longer afford to ignore. According to Pipes, revisionism is a toothache, and those poor pious Muslims, immersed in their delusions and superstition, think that the toothache will disappear on its own. But Pipes, like my kind mother who taught me oral hygiene and the importance of a daily shower, teaches Muslims that toothaches don't just go away. Toothaches, you silly willy-nilly Muslims need doctors, need rationalists, need Pipes because, darn it, they just don't go away on their own! Thank God for Pipes, who like his colonial predecessors, guides us to the truth of history, the falsity of our piety and the fact that the objectivism of science is the cure for our superstitious souls. Without the cant of our masters how could we have ever figured out what to do with toothaches, headaches or any other ache or sore? …
According to Pipes and his revisionists, Muslims have no qualms about inventing, lying or cheating as long as it serves their salvation goals. The second assumption follows from the first. A non-Muslim source is inherently more reliable because non-Muslims have a notion of historical objectivism. Therefore, if, for instance, a hundred Muslim sources say one thing and one Syriac source says another, it is an open and shut case. The Syriac source is inherently more reliable because those pesky Muslims cannot help but lie. …
No, revisionism is not a toothache; it is an insolent attempt to deny a people their very identity, it is the ugliness of Colonialism, and the imbalance of fear and insecurity. Revisionism is the heartache of simple bigotry.
Aug. 31, 2006 update: Patricia Crone provides a readable and reliable summary of what is and is not known on this subject at "What do we actually know about Mohammed?"