Monday, April 23, 2012

Did Muhammed Ever Really Exist?

As Spencer traces the story of Muhammed through ancient sources and archaeology, the evidence for the Prophet’s life becomes more and more evanescent. The name Muhammad, for example, appears only 4 times in the Qur’an, as compared to the 136 mentions of Moses in the Old Testament. And those references to Muhammad say nothing specific about his life. The first biography of Muhammad, written by Ibn Ishaq 125 years after the Prophet’s death, is the primary source of biographical detail, yet it “comes down to us only in the quite lengthy fragments reproduced by an even later chronicler, Ibn Hisham, who wrote in the first quarter of the ninth century, and by other historians who reproduced and thereby preserved additional sections.”

Nor are ancient sources outside Islam any more forthcoming. An early document from around 635, by a Jewish writer converting to Christianity, merely mentions a generic “prophet” who comes “armed with a sword.” But in this document the “prophet” is still alive 3 years after Muhammad’s death. And this prophet was notable for proclaiming the imminent arrival of the Jewish messiah. “At the height of the Arabian conquests,” Spencer writes, “the non Muslim sources are as silent as the Muslim ones are about the prophet and holy book that were supposed to have inspired those conquests.” This uncertainty in the ancient sources is a consistent feature of Spencer’s succinct survey of them. Indeed, these sources call into question the notion that Islam itself was recognized as a new, coherent religion. In 651, when Muawiya called on the Byzantine emperor Constantine to reject Christianity, he evoked the “God of our father Abraham,” not Islam per se. One hundred years after the death of Muhammad, “the image of the prophet of Islam remained fuzzy.”

Non-literary sources from the late 7th century are equally vague. Dedicatory inscriptions on dams and bridges make no mention of Islam, the Qur’an, or Mohammad. Coins bear the words “in the name of Allah,” the generic word for God used by Christians and Jews, but say nothing about Muhammad as Allah’s prophet or anything about Islam. Particularly noteworthy is the absence of Islam’s foundational statement “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Later coins referring specifically to Muhammad depict him with a cross, contradicting the Qur’anic rejection of Christ’s crucifixion and later prohibitions against displaying crucifixes. Given that other evidence suggests that the word “muhammad” is an honorific meaning “praised one,” it is possible that these coins do not refer to the historical Muhammad at all.

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