The Search for the Historical Mohammed

I want to tell you about a journey I engaged in today. Today’s journey began with this article by British historian Tom Holland about what he experienced when he made a documentary which was aired on the BBC which questioned the historicity of the Mohammed story. Jews and Christians have a lot invested in the historicity of their holy books but those pale in comparison with the investement that Muslims have in the historicity not only of the Qur’an but the entire corpus of stories, traditions, and teachings about Mohammed. Dr. Holland writes:

Never before, though, had it—or, indeed, any other British TV channel—aired a documentary questioning the basis of what most Muslims believed about the origins of their faith. I still remember a feeling of almost physical panic as I stood on the battlements of an abandoned Roman city in the Negev Desert and raised the possibility, on camera, that Muhammad might not have come from Mecca. The director, the brilliant and award-winning filmmaker Kevin Sim, had aimed to make me and my anxieties about what I was doing a part of the film, and he more than succeeded. There is barely a shot in the documentary in which I do not look mildly terrified.

Nevertheless, by the time the program finally aired in late August 2012, I had come to feel more sanguine about its prospects. My book had come out four months before, and I had not felt threatened in any way. Reviews had been mixed, which was no surprise considering how controversial the subject matter was: Some were adulatory, some vituperative. Muslim critics, without exception, had hated it. None, though, to my relief, had disputed my right to subject the origins of Islam to historical inquiry and to publish my conclusions. For that reason, as I looked ahead to the airing of the documentary, I felt tolerably confident that no one would get too upset.

It didn’t take long for me to realize my mistake. Just a few minutes into the broadcast, my Twitter stream was going up in smoke. By the time the show ended, the death threats were coming in thick and fast—and not just against me but against my family as well. Channel 4 was also deluged with protests. A private screening scheduled for assorted movers and shakers had to be canceled after the police warned that they couldn’t guarantee the security of those attending the event. Because many of the invitees had been journalists, this naturally gave the controversy a new lease of life.

I was curious so I began to do a little research. If you’re interested you can watch the documentary yourself on YouTube. However, my curiosity didn’t end there.

Some of the reaction is pretty hyperventilated but not all. One criticism was that Dr. Holland had not taken Muslim sources into account but the criticism I found most most telling was that Dr. Holland had not taken many other non-Muslim sources into account. This list of sources, collected in the Wikipedia article on the book, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It made pretty interesting reading and I plan to look into some of them more deeply. And I found this criticism in The Arab Review pretty sensible:

Anyone who tells you that they know anything for certain about the 7th century is lying to you.
This is the basis of Tom Holland’s recent documentary Islam: The Untold Story, based on his book In the Shadow of the Sword. The documentary – to abridge it considerably – argues that the Prophet Mohammed was not from Mecca, but more likely from the present day Israel-Jordan-Palestine area. Holland also says that Islam, as a fully formed religion, did not emerge until many years after the death of Mohammed.
The reaction on Twitter from the Muslim community has been almost universally negative. Some vitriolic, others more measured in their response, but all agree that Holland’s documentary is either wrong or ill-researched. It is this reaction that has thus far dominated much of the comment about the programme.
I do not want to lie to you so I will not claim any specialist knowledge of the 7th century, but for my part, I still believe that Mohammed came from Mecca. As for the point that early Islam had a fluid identity and traditions about the prophet sometimes differ considerably, I think many Muslims would agree with such an assertion. After all, there is a whole branch of Muslim scholarship that has been dedicated to the sole task of evaluating the reliability of stories about the prophet. This Science of Hadith (sometimes simply called ‘The Science’) devotes all its efforts to finding out which stories are true and which spurious.

I may be misinformed but my impression is that the Qur’an has not been subjected to the intensive sort of analysis to which the Hebrew Bible and New Testament have been subjected over the period of last three or four hundred years.

My own nonbeliever’s and barely informed view is that the Qur’an was probably written by people, may be a compilation of works that had been around in the oral tradition for quite a while, and that, although I believe that Mohammed was a historical person, we’ll never be truly certain where or when he was born. My intuition is that there are aspects of Islam that are reactions to the religious conflicts of the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries AD.

I also suspect that somewhere there are ancient, buried copies of the Qur’an that will someday be unearthed and avoid destruction that will bear out the idea that the Qur’an, like the Bible, developed over time.

26 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    You may be interested in Hagarism, an attempt in 1977 to write the early history of Islam solely through non-Islamic sources. I’ve not read it myself, but probably have summaries of it from Ibn Waraq. The authors may have disclaimed it, and I don’t think its in print any more. I’ve read a few books from Michael Cook, and haven’t found him to be a heated Islamaphobe, but someone with an enthusiastic classicist with an understated eye towards the continuing relevance of the period. I myself would have concern over simply ignoring Islamic sources, as if non-Islamic sources do not have their own biases.

  • PD Shaw Link

    ” . . . somewhere there are ancient, buried copies of the Qur’an that will someday be unearthed and avoid destruction that will bear out the idea that the Qur’an, like the Bible, developed over time.”

    There are Arab coins from the late 7th century inscribed with Koranic passage that deviate from the formal text, though not significantly, but enough to indicate that a final codex had not yet emerged. I believe tradition has it that Caliph Uthman collected the various pieces that would become the Koran in response to a complaint that numerous unauthenticated texts were circulating. I think we’ve found pieces of the Koran that differ from what became the Uthman text, and scholars quoting the Koran using variant language after Uthman’s reign.

  • Ancient — and deviant — version of the Quran have indeed been discovered. French scholar “Christopher Luxenberg” (a nomme de plume) did research on these texts and wrote about them. He asserts, among other things, that much of the text is actually taken from earlier Syriac Christian documents, but also that the Quran contains vocabulary taken from over a dozen different languages.

    While Hadith Studies is indeed a senior science, I find it very, very weak, with many of the accepted hadith written hundreds of years after Mohammed’s life (I do accept a historical Mohammed). There are some hadith that are just too politically and temporally convenient to have been passed on from the 7th C.

    And no, deep criticism has not yet been undertaken in Islam as it has in other religions. It’s exceptionally dangerous for academics — particularly Muslim academics — to do so. I know of at least one Egyptian who found himself forcibly divorced from his wife by a religious court for having undertaken such study. (They fled Egypt for a European country, btw.)

  • steve Link

    Interesting. I had assumed they had their own Council of Trent.


  • PD Shaw Link

    This is a pretty good article: What Do We Actually Know about Mohammed?

    One of the controversial conclusions reached by focusing on non-Islamic sources is that it appears that Mohammad is a militant profit that is leading a mixed Jewish/Arab group in Northern Arabia, near the borders of Palestine. He would have preached an Abrahamic right to the land for both his Israeli and Jewish descendants to motivate an attempted (and presumably failed) attempt to conquer Jerusalem. There are Hadiths which indicate that the direction of prayer was changed from Jerusalem to Mecca, so the notion is not far-fetched. Also, the re-tellings of stories from the Bible appear to be from Samaritan Jews, and there appear to be Syriac borrow words that may be explained by an origin closer to Palestine (though the alternative theory would be the influence of Jewish merchants)

    The irony is that the Koran does not mention Jerusalem (a Hadith later places the miraculous night journey as taking the Prophet to Jerusalem), yet in popular views Jerusalem is a holy city of three faiths. Under the more radical reading, Jerusalem was a very important holy city at the outset, but it was largely scrubbed in favor of moving events to Mecca.

  • Thanks, PD. It’s an interesting article. Presumably you are aware that the author of the article, Patricia Crone, is frequently cited as the source of Tom Holland’s hypothesis.

    I found this passage:

    The purpose of such reports was to validate Islamic law and doctrine, not to record history in the modern sense, and since they were transmitted orally, as very short statements, they easily drifted away from their original meaning as conditions changed. (They were also easily fabricated, but this is actually less of a problem.) They testify to intense conflicts over what was or was not true Islam in the period up to the 9th century, when the material was collected and stabilised; these debates obscured the historical nature of the figures invoked as authorities, while telling us much about later perceptions.

    particularly interesting since it echoes my tentative hypothesis that much of the Hebrew Bible is a defense of the Jews’ right to the land of Canaan. In other words it is instrumental rather than historical and I see no reason to believe that the Qur’an is different in that respect.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I’ve not yet listened the movie, but Crone was a co-author of Hagarism, so its not surprising.

    I think the Hadiths which ended up defining the Koran were ultimately of an Apocalyptic nature, something probably borrowed more from Christianity. These were written at a time when the object was Constantinople, not Jerusalem. Encouragement for continuing the fight and assurance that women and children left behind will be protected by Allah’s care.

  • something probably borrowed more from Christianity

    We’re getting a bit far afield but there are many Jewish apocalypses, some of which pre-date Revelations. Notable are

    The Secrets of Enoch
    Assumption of Moses
    II Esdras
    Apocalypse of Baruch
    Sybilline Oracles
    Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
    Life of Adam and Eve
    Book of Jubilees
    The Apocalypse of Moses
    Shepherd of Hermas

    The first two of those almost certainly pre-date Revelations, the next three are contemporaneous with it, and the balance were written over the period of the next several hundred years. There was certainly a highly developed tradition of apocalyptic literature in Judaism and it would be remarkable if they didn’t influence Mohammed.

    Daniel is included among the Ketuvim, “Writings”, but although most of the rest are considered canonical in some Christian church I think they’re all all considered apocryphal by most Christian churches.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I didn’t mean to imply that there were no Jewish apocalyptic writings, though its my understanding that they are relatively late and I’m only familiar with Daniel. By late I mean not something that consumes much of the Hebrew Bible. These could have influenced Mohammad, but if it’s true that he had contact with Samaritans, maybe not. The Samaritans claim to have not been corrupted by the Babylon Exile, which I associate new theological thinking, including eschatology. Part of the reason the Samaritan connection is considered persuasive is that the Koran references a number of Hebrew Bible stories, but none outside the Pentateuch.

    OTOH, Christianity is expansive at this time, but not necessarily the variations that took root in the West.

  • Apocryphal and pseudo-canonical Jewish and Christian works are a sort of hobby of mine.

  • I’m not crazy about all of Crone’s work. She tries to argue in one book that Mecca is a latter-day invention, that it had no purpose (and thus no reality) in the 7th C.

    That’s contradicted by histories about trade in gold and incense commented upon by non-Arab historians and, for me, calls her academic prowess into serious question.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Burgess, I’ve not read any of Crone’s books, but my understanding of Hagarism is that there is no non-Arab reference to Mecca in relation to Muhammad. From this I think it is asserted that Muhammad’s activities actually took place closer to the borders pf Palestine where non-Arab attestations of Muhammad do exist, but a more reasonable inference is that non-Arabs were more interested in their borders. (The Greeks tended to be awful at describing the Celts, except where they bordered the Hellenic world, leading to ambiguities about where the Celts existed.)

    I think looking solely at non-Arab sources was an intellectual exercise, just like reading the Koran in Syriac. It expends our understanding of what is possible, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily probable.

  • roslli Link

    Hahah…you guys either stupid or illiterate or dumb asses. did you all read the quran cover to cover? Dont assume, dont believe until you can prove your points theory whatever. Read the book entirely…then come up with fairer just unbiased judgement conclusion about the quran muhammad and islam.

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