Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, spoke to participants in a January 15 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the scarcity of historical evidence that Muhammad, Islam's prophet, actually existed.
Spencer noted that Muhammad is mentioned only four times in the Quran, and those few mentions are vague and devoid of any specifics. Most of the details about Muhammad's life are found in the Hadith, reports about Muhammad's "words and deeds." The Hadith are the foundation for Islamic law followed today and the basis for imitating Muhammad, "most notably by jihadis." The Hadith date primarily from the 9th century, whereas Muhammad, according to Islamic tradition, died in the year 632. For two centuries, "you have this massive empire stretching from Spain to India, and there's virtually no mention of the person who is supposed to be the guiding figure that made those conquests happen."
Islamic apologists typically explain the absence of contemporaneous Arabic accounts of Muhammad by pointing to the fact that the Arabs relied on oral tradition to pass knowledge from generation to generation. But written accounts by various people conquered by the Arabs from the 7th century on are quite voluminous, yet there is little mention of Muhammad in them.
For example, Sophronius, the Christian patriarch of Jerusalem who surrendered the city to Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab in 637 described the invaders as followers of Abraham who came out of Arabia, but did not describe them as Muslims or record them as making claims about Muhammad or a new religion. Other conquered peoples, such as the Persians and the Indians, also wrote of their ordeals, but omitted mention of Muhammad. What early references to Muhammad can be found do not line up with the Hadith canon.
This begs the question, "Why would anybody invent such a person and such a religion?" Spencer said it makes perfect sense given the nature of empires at that time. The predominant religions of the Byzantines, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the Persians, Zoroastrianism, were integral to the cohesion of their empires. Devoid of institutions like parliaments and constitutions that are the glue holding contemporary nation states together, religion defined who merited citizenship in the empire. "The common religion of all the adherents ... was considered to be the unifying principle of the empire."
Arab leaders developed an "aggressive and expansionist" religion fitting the needs of their empire.
Having "stormed out of Arabia and amassed this huge empire," explained Spencer, "the Arabs, who professed a vague monotheism, ... recognized the inadequacy of their religion ... at that point for unifying their new empire." And so "they developed – out of Jewish traditions, Christian traditions, and Zoroastrian traditions, primarily – a new religion" that was "martial, aggressive and expansionist ... in order to perpetuate and defend [their] empire."
This matters, said Spencer, because the "seeds" of 1400 years of Islamic imperialism "are in the Islamic texts themselves ...written in the Quran." The obligation to "fight them until religion is all for Allah" (Qur'an 8:39) "does not come from the time of Muhammad, it comes from the rulers themselves placing that in the holy book in order to justify their own continued aggression."
Recognition by Muslims that Muhammad is "more legend than historical figure" would help facilitate a much-needed Islamic reformation, said Spencer. "Were there to be a liberalized, modernized Islam that proceeded from the basis that Muhammad is more fable than fact," it is "likely that such an Islam would ... discard the doctrines of warfare against, and subjugation of, unbelievers that have ... plagued the world for 1400 years, and still do today."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.