"Did you hear about the German Gnostic?"
"He couldn't keep a secret."
Just such a Teutonic mystic is Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch, a German convert to Islam who teaches Muslim theology at the University of Munster. Kalisch recently laid a Gnostic egg in the nest of Islam, declaring that the Prophet Mohammed never existed, not at least in the way that the received version of Islamic tradition claims he did. Given that Kalisch holds an academic chair specifically funded to instruct teachers of Islam in Germany's school system, a scandal ensued, first reported in the mainstream English-language press by Andrew Higgins in the November 15 edition of the Wall Street Journal.
On closer reading, Kalisch offers a far greater challenge to Islam than the secular critics who reject its claims. The headline that a Muslim academic has doubts over the existence of the Prophet Mohammed is less interesting than why he has such doubts. Kalisch does not want to harm Islam, but rather to expose what he believes to be its true nature. Islam, he argues, really is a Gnostic spiritual teaching masquerading as myth. Kalisch's heretical variant of Islam may be close enough to the religion's original intent as to provoke a re-evaluation of the original sources.
A labor of love from inside the fortress of Islamic theology may accomplish what all the ballistas of the critics never could from outside the walls. Koranic criticism, I have argued for years (here and elsewhere - You say you want a reformation? Asia Times Online, August 5, 2003) is the Achilles' heel of the religion. That argument has been made about Christianity for years by Elaine Pagels and other promoters of "Gnostic Gospels", and it is dead wrong. In the case of Islam, though, it might be dead accurate.
Kalisch is a Gnostic, a believer in secret spiritual truths that undergird the myths manufactured for the edification of the peasantry. But he is a German Gnostic, and therefore feels it necessary to lay out his secrets in thorough academic papers with extensive footnotes and bibliography. It is a strange and indirect way of validating the dictum of the great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig: Islam is a parody of Judaism and Christianity.
It is in weird little byways of academia such as Kalisch wanders that the great battles of religion will be fought out, not at academic conferences and photo opportunities with the pope. For example: the Catholic Islamologists who organized the November 4-7 meeting of Catholic and Muslim scholars in Rome envision incremental reforms inside Islam through a more relaxed Turkish version (see A Pyrrhic propaganda victory in Rome Asia Times Online, November 12, 2008 and Tin-opener theology from Turkey Asia Times Online, June 3, 2008). Despite their best efforts at an orderly encounter with Islam, events have a way of overtaking them. Last March, Pope Benedict personally received into the Catholic faith the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam at the Easter Vigil. In September, Kalisch dropped his own bombshell. In a way, it is longer-acting and more deadly.
A small group of Koran scholars, to be sure, has long doubted Mohammed's existence. Their scholarship is sufficiently interesting, though, to question whether it is worthwhile exposing the alleged misdeeds of the Prophet Mohammed, who may not have existed in the first place (The Koranic quotations trap Asia Times Online, May 15, 2007). Earlier this year, I reported on the progress of the critics, as well as belated emergence of a treasure-trove of photocopies of Koranic manuscripts hidden away by Nazi Islamologists (Indiana Jones meets the Da Vinci Code Asia Times Online, January 18, 2008). The Nazis had a Gnostic interest in Islam (call them "Gnazis"). The manuscripts and copies are now under the control of mainstream scholars at the University of Berlin, with deep ties to Arab countries.
Kalisch is the first Muslim scholar to dispute the Prophet's existence, while continuing to profess Muslim. If the Prophet did not exist, or in any case did not dictate the Koran, "then it might be that the Koran was truly inspired by God, a great narration from God, but it was not dictated word for word from Allah to the Prophet", he told a German newspaper. A German Protestant who converted to Islam as a teenager in search of a religion of reason, Kalisch can live with an alternative of reading of Islam. Very few of the world's billion and a half Muslims can.
Islam cannot abide historical criticism of the sort that Judaism and Christianity have sustained for centuries. "Abie, if you're here, then who is that there in my bed?," responds the Jewish wife in the old joke when her husband catches her in delicto flagrante. No one can offer an alternative explanation for the unique persistence of the Jewish people after 30 documented centuries of Jewish life. "If Moses didn't exist," the Jews respond to skeptics, "then who brought us out of Egypt?" Told that perhaps they didn't come out of Egypt, the Jews will respond, "Then what are we doing here today?"
Christians, by the same token, read the writings of numerous individuals who either met Jesus of Nazareth or took down the accounts of people who did, and who believed that he was the only begotten Son of God. Proof of Jesus' divinity, though, is entirely beside the point. If the Christian God wanted to rule by majesty and power, he would not have come to earth as a mortal to die on the cross. The Christian God asks for love and faith, not submission before majesty. The Christian is not asked to prove the unprovable, but to love and believe. Muslims have a different problem: if Mohammed did not receive the Koran from God, then what are they doing there to begin with? Kalisch has the sort of answer that only a German academic could love.
"We hardly have original Islamic sources from the first two centuries of Islam," Kalisch observes in a German-language paper available on the Muenster University (website). It is fascinating reading, and since it is not yet available in English I take the liberty of translating or summarizing a few salient points. Responsibility for any errors of translation of interpretation is my own.
Kalisch continues, "And even when a source appears to come from this period, caution is required. The mere assertion that a source stems from the first or second century of the Islamic calendar means nothing. And even when a source actually was written in the first or second century, the question always remains of later manipulation. We do not tread on firm ground in the sources until the third Islamic century."
This, Kalisch observes, is extremely suspicious: how can a world religion have erupted in a virtual literary vacuum? A great religion, moreover, inevitably throws off heresies: where are the early Islamic heretics and Gnostics? Later Islamic theologians knew the titles of some of their works, but the content itself was lost. "The only explanation for the disappearance is that it had long since become unusable theologically," he alleges of certain Shi'ite sources.
Kalisch draws on the well-known work of Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds, whose criticism of the received version have a distinctly minority position in Koranic scholarship:
It is a striking fact that such documentary evidence as survives from the Sufnayid period makes no mention of the messenger of god at all. The papyri do not refer to him. The Arabic inscriptions of the Arab-Sasanian coins only invoke Allah, not his rasul [messenger]; and the Arab-Byzantine bronze coins on which Muhammad appears as rasul Allah, previously dated to the Sufyanid period, have not been placed in that of the Marwanids. Even the two surviving pre-Marwanid tombstones fail to mention the rasul.
The great scandal of Islamic tradition is the absence of Islamic formulations from coins and monuments dating from the its first two centuries, as well as the presence of material obviously incompatible with Islam. "Coins and inscriptions are incompatible with the Islamic writing of history," Kalisch concludes on the strength of older work, including Yehuda Nevo and Jutith Koren'sCrossroads to Islam
The oldest inscription with the formulation "Mohammed Messenger of Allah" is to found in the 66th year of Islamic reckoning, and after that used continuously. But there also exist coins found in Palestine, probably minted in Amman, on which the word "Muhammed" is found in Arabic script on one side, and a picture of a man holding a cross on the other. Kalisch cites this and a dozen other examples. Citing Nevo/Koren and other sources, Kalisch also accepts the evidence that no Islamic conquest occurred as presented in much later Islamic sources, but rather a peaceful transfer of power from the Byzantine empire to its local Arab allies.
"To be sure," Kalisch continues, "various explanations are possible for the lack of mention of the Prophet in the early period, and it is no proof for the non-existence of an historical Mohammed. But it is most astonishing, and begs the question of the significance of Mohammed for the original Muslim congregation in the case that he did exist."
The numismatic, archeological, source-critical and other evidence against acceptance of the received version of Islamic history was well developed by other scholars. But it was never accepted by mainstream Orientalists. Cynics might point to the fact that most Middle Eastern studies programs in the West today are funded by Islamic governments, or depend on the good will of Middle Eastern governments for access to source material. Academia is not only corrupt, however, but credulous: the question arises: if Mohammed never existed, or did not exist as he is portrayed, why was so much effort devoted in later years to manufacturing thousands of pages of phony documentation in the Hadith and elsewhere?
Why, indeed, was the Mohammed story invented, by whom, and to what end? The story of the Hegira, Mohammed's flight from Mecca to Medina allegedly in 622, provides a clue, according to Kalisch. "No prophet is mentioned in the Koran as often as Moses, and Muslim tradition always emphasized the great similarly between Moses and Mohammed," he writes. "The central event in the life of Moses, though, is the Exodus of the oppressed Children of Israel out of Egypt, and the central event in the life of Mohammed is the Exodus of his oppressed congregation out of Mecca to Medina ... The suspicion is great that the Hegira appears only for this reason in the story of the Prophet, because his image should emulate the image of Moses."
Furthermore, "the image of Jesus is also seen as a new Moses. The connection of Mohammed to the figure of Jesus is presented in Islamic tradition through his daughter Fatima, who is identified with Maria ... The Line Fatima-Maria-Isis is well known to research. With the takeover of Mecca, Mohammed at least returns to his point of origin. Thus we have a circular structure typical of myth, in which beginning and end are identical. This Gnostic circular structure represents the concept that the soul returns to its origin. It is separated from its origin, and must return to it for the sake of its salvation."
Kalisch concludes that Islam itself began as a Gnosis, a secret teaching much like the Gnostic Christian sources rejected by the Church Fathers. "The myth of Mohammed ... could be the product of a Gnosis, which wanted to present its theology in a new and original myth with a new protagonist, but actually is the old protagonist (Moses, Jesus). For the Gnostics it always was clear, that the issue was not historical truth, but rather theology. Moses, Jesus and Mohammed were only different characterizations of a mythic hero or son of god, who would depict an old spiritual teaching in mythical form."
In the Islamic Gnosis, Muhammed appears along with [his family members] Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Hussein as cosmic forces ... the Gnostic Abu Mansur al Igli claimed that God first created Jesus, and then Ali. Here apparently we still have the Cosmic Christ. If a Christian Gnosis was there are the origin of Islam, then the Cosmic Christ underwent a name change to Mohammed in the Arab world, and this Cosmic Mohammed was presented as a new edition of the Myth of Moses and Joshua (=Jesus) as an Arab prophet.
Thirst for secret wisdom drew Kalisch to Islam as a teenager, and keeps him within the faith despite his devastating critique. As he writes,
The teachings of Islamic mysticism are not specifically Islamic. They are a new minting of the perennial philosophy, which is found everywhere in the world in various traditions ... For me, this perennial philosophy is what the Koran means when it speaks of a teaching that God brought to humankind in all epochs.
My own views on the subject of Islamic mysticism are contained in a recent essay, (Sufism, sodomy and Satan
Asia Times Online, August 12, 2008). Kalisch, it should be noted, adheres to a minority sect within the minority Shi'ite current in Islam, the Zaydi variant. His conclusions will convince few in the Islamic mainstream. But his work points to the great vulnerabilities of Islam. As I wrote some months ago, the German Jesuits who advise the Vatican on Islamic matters invested heavily in the supposedly moderate establishment of Sunni Islam in Turkey, and the theology department of the University of Ankara in particular (Tin-opener theology from Turkey
Asia Times Online, June 3, 2008).
Of far greater interest may be the wide assortment of variant and quasi-heretical trends within Islam. Something very ancient and entirely genuine long buried within Islam may be struggling to the surface, a cuckoo's egg, as it were, waiting to hatch. It is noteworthy that Germany's Alevi community (immigrants from Turkey's 5-to-15 million strong Alevi population) expressed solidarity with Kalisch when he came under attack from other Muslim organizations.
Coming from a minority within a minority, Kalisch has offered a new and credible explanation of the motive behind the great reshuffling of Islamic sources during the second and third centuries of the religion. I cannot evaluate Kalisch's handling of the sources, but the principle he advances makes sense. It is another crack in the edifice of Islam, but a most dangerous one, because it came from the inside.