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Author Robert Spencer, founder of the major website Jihad Watch, recently published a book with the provocative title Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins.
The foreword was written by the eminent scholar Johannes J. G. (Hans) Jansen, an Arabist and a Professor of Modern Islamic Thought at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands until his retirement in 2008. Among his other accomplishments, he has translated the Koran into Dutch. Jansen points out that what sparse information and physical evidence we do have does not seem to confirm the traditional Islamic accounts of the sixth and seventh centuries.
In fact, archaeological findings contradict the traditional picture. Only further archaeological work in present-day Arabia and Greater Syria can shed more light on these issues. In Saudi Arabia, such excavations are forbidden, and Wahhabi hardliners have actively destroyed some sites. Furthermore, the religious authorities may not be interested in bringing to light findings that might contradict their religious views or undermine Saudi Arabia’s central status in Islam.
As Jansen states, “An Iraqi scholar, Ibn Ishaq (c. 760), wrote a book that is the basis of all biographies of Muhammad. No biographical sketches of Muhammad exist that do not depend on Ibn Ishaq. If an analysis of Ibn Ishaq’s book establishes that for whatever reason it cannot be seen as an historical source, all knowledge we possess about Muhammad evaporates. When Ibn Ishaq’s much-quoted and popular book turns out to be nothing but pious fiction, we will have to accept that it is not likely we will ever discover the truth about Muhammad.”
Moreover, a fully developed Arabic script did not yet exist at the time when the Koran was supposedly collected for the first time, which further introduces substantial sources of error. The Koran itself was probably far less stable and collected much later than Muslims believe.
Finally, the hadith collections which elaborate upon the personal example of Muhammad were developed many generations after the alleged events of his life had taken place, and are considered partially unreliable even by Muslims. It is likely that a great deal of this material was fabricated outright in a process of political and cultural struggle long after the first conquests.
Spencer does not claim to be an original scholar in these matters, but credits such individuals as Ignaz Goldziher, Theodor Nöldeke, Arthur Jeffery, Henri Lammens, Alphonse Mingana, Joseph Schacht, Aloys Sprenger and Julius Wellhausen, as well as more recent researchers such as Suliman Bashear, Patricia Crone, Volker Popp, Yehuda Nevo, Michael Cook, Ibn Warraq, Judith Koren, Ibn Rawandi, Günter Lüling, David S. Powers and John Wansbrough.
Several contemporary critical scholars — Christoph Luxenberg, for example — have been forced to write under pseudonyms due to persistent threats against their lives. This virtually never happened to scholars in Christian Europe who critically examined the Bible or the historical Jesus during the nineteenth century, but it happens frequently to those who question Islam and its traditions.
One might suspect that the main reason why many Muslims often tend to react with extreme aggression against anyone questioning their religion is because it was originally built on shaky foundations and could collapse if it is subjected to closer scrutiny.
Non-Muslim chroniclers writing at the time of the early Arabian conquests made no mention of the Koran, Islam or Muslims, and scant mention of Muhammad. The Arab conquerors themselves didn’t refer to the Koran during the first decades, quite possibly because it did not then exist in a recognizable form.
Islamic apologists love to talk about the supposedly tolerant nature of these conquests. Yet as historian Emmet Scott has demonstrated in his well-researched book Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited, the archaeological evidence clearly indicates that the Arab conquests caused great devastation to the conquered regions. Furthermore, we must consider the possibility that Islam as we know it simply did not exist at the time of the initial conquests.
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