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Related to the issue of Muhammad’s historical reality is the date of the Qur’an, supposedly dictated to the Prophet by the angel Gabriel. Yet Spencer’s analysis of the inscriptions inside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, with their mixture of Qur’anic and non-Qur’anic verses along with variants of canonical Qur’anic scripture, suggests rather that the Qur’an came into being later than 691 when the mosque was completed. Indeed, the inscriptions could be referring not to Muhammad but to a version of Jesus believed in by a heretical sect that denied his divinity. At any rate, the first historical inscription that offers evidence of Islamic theology dates to 696 when the caliph Abd al-Malik minted coins without a representation of the sovereign and with theshahada, the Islamic profession of faith, inscribed on them. At this same time we begin to see references by non-Muslims to Muslims. Before then, the conquerors were called Ishmaelites, Saracens, or Hagarians. This evidence, Spencer suggests, raises the provocative possibility that al-Malik “greatly expanded on the nascent Muhammad myth for his own political purposes.” Likewise the Hadith, the collections of Muhammad’s sayings and deeds that form “the basis for Islamic law and practice regarding both individual religious observance and the governance of the Islamic state.” They also elucidate obscure Qur’anic verses, providing “the prism through which the vast majority of Muslims understand the Qur’an.” Yet there is no evidence for the existence of these biographical details of the Hadith before their compilation. This suggests that those details were invented as political tools for use in the factional political conflicts of the Islamic world.
Spencer casts an equally keen critical eye over the early biographies of Mohammad to find the same problems with source authenticity and origins, and their conflicts with other Islamic traditions. These problems, along with the miraculous and folk elements of Ibn Ishaq’s biography, suggest that the latter arose long after the collection of the Qur’an. As Spencer concludes, “If Ibn Ishaq is not a historically trustworthy source, what is left of the life of Muhammad?” The history of Islam and Mohammad recalls the statement of the reporter in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” particularly when the legend was so useful for conquest and the consolidation of power during factional rivalries among Muslim rulers and sects.
So too with the integrity of the Qur’an, the supposedly unchanging and uncreated words of Allah dictated to Mohammad, the perfect copy of the eternal book transmitted in its purity without alteration or addition. Yet apart from fragments, modern Qur’ans are based on manuscripts that date no farther back then the medieval period. The first mention of the Qur’an appears in 710, decades after it allegedly inspired Muslim conquests from Persia to North Africa. Nor is it true that the book has not changed: “Even Islamic tradition shows this contention to be highly questionable, with indications that some of the Qur’an was lost and other parts were added to or otherwise changed.” Such textual variants, revisions, lost passages, numerous influences from Jewish and Christian writings and doctrines, and the presence of words in the Syriac language (likely including the word “Qur’an” itself), along with the fact that about one-fifth of the book is simply incomprehensible––all call into question the idea of the Qur’an’s purity unchanged since it was divinely dictated to Mohammad.
Spencer’s careful, detailed, well-reasoned survey and analysis of the historical evidence offer strong evidence that Muhammad and Islam itself were post facto creations of Arab conquerors who needed a “political theology” delivered by a “warrior prophet” in order to unify the vast territories and diverse religious and ethnic groups now subjected to Muslim power, and to provide a potent basis for loyalty to their new overlords. As Spencer explains, “the empire came first and the theology came later.”
“The full truth of whether a prophet named Muhammad lived in seventh-century Arabia,” Spencer concludes, “and if he did, what sort of a man he was, may never be known. But it would be intellectually irresponsible not to ask the question or consider the implications of the provocative evidence that pioneering scholars have assembled.” The great service Spencer provides goes beyond popularizing the critical study of one of the world’s largest religions in order to advance our knowledge and establish historical reality. At a time when the threat of jihadist violence has silenced many people and intimidated them into voluntarily surrendering their right to free speech and the pursuit of truth, Spencer’s brave book also demonstrates the importance of those quintessential and powerful Western ideals.
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