From our own Zimriel:
“Did Muhammad Exist?”
is an essay by anti-Islamic activist and writer Robert Spencer, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
The book was announced on Amazon in February and released, on schedule, in late April. Having been frustrated by Prometheus’s penchant for announcing publication dates and repeatedly delaying them; I commend ISI Books, and the author, for keeping to their promise.
Spencer intends an overview and summary of university research on early Islam, geared toward the book’s argument, and presented before his audience of Islamo-skeptics. His argument is for agnosticism on the question in the title (pp. 7-8) – this title is not, after all, “Muhammad Did Not Exist”. Muhammad as the Prophet of Islam may have existed. But likewise, HP Lovecraft’s Abdul Alhazred may have existed. In logic one cannot prove a negative, and Spencer does not try. His book instead argues that the contemporary evidence fails to prove the positive, and that this evidence further imposes constraints upon the very nature of the Prophet of the Arabs.
Spencer does well at footnoting his work; but for many of these notes, if you want to follow the white rabbit, you will need to write down the full source. The book does not have a bibliography as such. The Further Reading appendix contains almost solely works in book form, with the one journal exception (Grohmann) likely included in error. That section has the air of a recommendations-list cum acknowledgements-annexe.
Spencer acknowledges personal aid from fellow activist-authors Ibn Warraq and Daniel Pipes. The Further Reading annexe recommends also early Patricia Crone, late Fred Donner, Goldziher, Schacht, Margoliouth, Lueling, Wansbrough, Luxenberg, Nevo, Ohlig and Puin, Berg, Small, Powers, and Gilchrist. Some authors are noted elsewhere in the book but strangely absent from that list, like Bashear.
These books are, mainly, where Spencer found his secondary sources. Page 9 notes Sprenger, Bashear, and Ibn Rawandi (and Judith Koren, but she has so far just acted as Nevo’s editor). The footnotes cite Popp and de Premare by way of Ohlig-Puin, and Lammens and Tisdall (and Ibn Rawandi) by way of Ibn Warraq. The book relays Lueling from Ibn Rawandi’s quotes, and Motzki from Berg’s quotes; I think Sprenger is also quoted via someone else. Some more direct reading would have been welcome, at least in the case of Motzki.
(The book could have cited also Juynboll and Calder, but there’s only so much room in it.)
The footnotes turn up that the primary sources are mainly quotes taken from translated excerpts by Hoyland, Mingana, Nevo, Crone, Goldziher, and Powers. On this, though, I cannot complain. Islamic skeptics and apologists have been gnawing on these bare bones for over a century – because those excerpts are almost all we have; now, then, and for the foreseeable future. Even Hoyland, compiling the definitive as-of-the-1990s collection, could not add much useful to what Crone had cited (up to 700 AD), and as of the 2010s I know of little that I would add to Hoyland.
Here’s the bad news. Spencer relies upon works deemed controversial – which is fine, except that several of these works are controverted for good reason, and so require more care than Spencer gives them. The book also does not organise the material in the way I would like. And, in this book, weak conclusions often result from the evidence presented.
Already mentioned is that the book does not quote Harald Motzki directly but only Berg’s quote (and critique) of one of Motzki’s earlier essays. The book’s critique of Mecca as a trade centre and sacred pagan site, in pp. 100-6, mainly comes from Crone; it is good, for what it does, but is incomplete in that it does not cite Crone’s 2007 sheepish admission that Mecca could have existed as a trade terminus (in leather). And the Luxenberg chapter, #8, desperately needs perspective from Luxenberg’s critics.
The book’s organisation is such that it hobbles the argument. The book is supposed to be about Muhammad. Almost half the book, chapters 6-9, concerns the Qur’an. When I first leafed through this book I thought it was scattershot, and so at that point I didn’t buy it. But I don’t think it was Spencer’s intention to “throw everything at the target and see what sticks”. I have come around to accepting that these chapters do help the book’s argument (so I did end up buying the book, on re-reading it more carefully the next week). To work best, those chapters need to be earlier in the book, say switched with chapters 2-5. With the Qur’an debunked as a Muhammadan composition, or at least the relevant suras constrained, the Qur’an’s evidence for Muhammad can apply to the topic in the Qur’an’s own context(s). I’ll have more on that later on; but for now, Nevo and Koren in “Crossroads To Islam” argued persuasively that sura 48 is a forgery of the 700s. That means that sura 48 is contemporary with John of Damascus and the construction of the Sira. That’s the context for which you’d cite that sura.
The ancillary arguments inside the book are of mixed quality. Mainly they make their case, but sometimes they do not. Pages 28-30 present an official letter (the only surviving letter) from the 680s AD Antiochene patriarch Athanasius II of Balad. Spencer successfully argues that this letter refers to pagans amongst Athanasius’s Monophysite flock; Jews, Muslims, and (as Athanasius pointed out here) even Syriac Christians agreed that their respective scriptures prevent them from eating a ritual slaughter that has been strangled. Spencer does not, however, succeed at proving that these pagans were Arabs; the manuscript’s marginal note makes clear that the Syrians copied this letter because it could be applied obliquely to Muslims, but that doesn’t prove that Athanasius the author thought that it must be. Even if there were Arab pagans here, Spencer goes too far in seeing this pagan survival in this border city as proof that the Arabs as a whole ignored what was haram. By then, the Arabs had accepted Jewish-based fara’id for decades. Pseudo-Sebeos in Armenia cited Mahmet’s haram on carrion as far back as the 650s AD. And even more narrowly, if pagans accompanied the Arab armies at Syria, that says nothing about their amirs; Christians fought in those armies as well, like the Taghlib. This subsection does not help and should have been kept only as a cross-check to what Pseudo-Sebeos had said.
In several places the book wonders if “Muhammad” was the name of our Arabian prophet, or if it was an adjective applied to some other prophet or messiah – say, Jesus (the book is not consistent as to which adjective: chosen, praised, or blessed). Pages 18-19 and 45 note a correspondence between Q. 3:144 and 5:75. The former says: Muhammad is but a messenger, and messengers have died beforehand. The second says the same, word for word, about Jesus. The book sees Q. 5:75 as the original version and Jesus as the original subject. But to say that for certain, one should look at the contexts of the verses in each sura. In this part of sura 3, the sura is consoling the community for the losses both of “Muhammad” and, also, a battle. In that part of sura 5, the sura is arguing religious dogma (on the integrity of sura 5 as a unitary document, see Robinson, “Hands Outstretched”). What in this verse is shared between these suras is, in my view, more relevant to a sect which has lost its messenger recently. For that, the closest context in what survives of the literature is that context in sura 3. That means that sura 5 evoked Q. 3:144 as scripture, to allude to Muhammad’s death as equal to Jesus’s (ignoring, for now, that sura 4, like the Christians but in a different way, leaves open the question of Jesus’s death). Admittedly, this is original research on my part – but the point of this exercise is that, when evaluating what a verse means, you have to start by looking to its context(s). The book didn’t do that.
Following on from Muhammad’s presence in sura 3, apparently written right after his death, is that this sura assumed that Muhammad did exist – as the warlord of sura 47. This brings us to chapter #5, on the “embarrassment” of Muhammad. This is the topic to which Spencer devoted his best book to date, “The Truth About Muhammad”.
If Muhammad were a faith-based fiction, then the authors of the fiction should have made him look like the perfect man of that faith. If there is a contradiction, then – so Tertullian and Ehrman teach us – the Dissimilarity Principle takes effect, and we should “believe it because it is [Islamicly] absurd”. Spencer’s “The Truth” has a lot of this – it is basically a reconstruction of Ibn Ishaq’s Sira and/or the ‘Abbasid understanding of Muhammad, critiqued from a Christian standpoint. Indeed, for a Christian (and for a Jew), the Muhammad of the Sira acts contrary to God’s morality. Spencer early in “Did Muhammad Exist?” admits that, before researching this, he thought that Ibn Ishaq was generally accurate.
The chronologically first embarrassment of which Spencer is aware is the account of Zayd and Zaynab. That is noted in John of Damascus. This means it annoyed the Muslims back in Umayyad times. The chapter mainly deals with that account, explaining its origins via the work of Powers. Spencer dismisses its absurdity and, so, dismisses the whole story. The remaining two pages deal with other “embarrassments” from the canonical hadith collections which are, also, not absurd in context.
But it’s not enough. The chapter prior to this one had noted other embarrassments in Ibn Ishaq’s Sira. This is where Muhammad tortured Kinana the Jew of Khaybar (p. 90). As Spencer points out, Islamic apologists nowadays want us to believe that Ibn Ishaq got this account from the Jews. In that chapter, Spencer’s argument was that historians have no way of evaluating this account, because the Jews did not pass that on to anyone else – like to other Jews. But historians do have such a way to evaluate. They have the Dissimilarity Principle. They can see that Muslims today don’t like this story, and that Muslims argue that it’s contrary to Islamic principle today. Historians can also prove that Ibn Ishaq did rely on Jewish sources – as W Arafat noted in 1976 about the siege of the Banu Qurayza. Now, that particular tale of the Banu Qurayza was proven to be a retelling of Masada. But that’s not the point. The point is that Ibn Ishaq transmitted legends of the Jews without (significant) alteration. There might be other accounts in the Sira that are not mere fables. As Masada happened, the outlines of the Kinana story also likely happened. If Muslim skeptics deny Muhammad’s responsibility for the latter, they need to find an alternate suspect.
To address the fundamental question about Muhammad’s existence, we need to go earlier than the canonical Hadith – even than the later Umayyads and John of Damascus. We need to go back to the earlier Umayyads – to the time of Pseudo-Sebeos. The Armenians knew that the Messenger’s name was “Mahmet” and that he was a trader (as sura 25 implies). There exist other traditions in Islam – as Spencer knows via Lammens and Ibn Warraq – that Muhammad was called by an earlier name, “Qutham”. This tradition is absurd in Islam and so we should consider it. Also in the days of Pseudo-Sebeos, the amirs were commanding the believers that trade was a middle-class pursuit, unfit for the warrior and the Arab. Suliman Bashear (“Arabs and Others”) would have enlightened Spencer here. That Qutham started as a trader is absurd in earliest Islam and so we should believe it. Inasmuch as the Christian historian Bar Penkaye noted in 686 AD (bitterly) that the Arabs had been tolerant to Jews for decades, certain of the Jewish stories in the Sira also contradict later-first-century Islam and so are also credible.
In conclusion, the book contains some severely-wounding flaws. I would not, however, use the word “crippling” for those flaws. The discussion of Athanasius’s letter, although broken, was worthwhile in its earlier parts. The book pointed me to some worthwhile articles I had not read before now: like Deroche (p. 236 n. 16) and Donner (233 n. 3). The book’s central argument – that “Did Muhammad Exist?” is a serious question – remains sound. And for the Muslim and for the infidel: they may not be aware of any of this literature, and they need to be aware of it. I recommend this book to them.