What Does It Mean To Say Muhammad Existed?

July 14, 2011

Agamemnon. Robin Hood. Jesus. Muhammad. Many stories are told about individuals with these names. Did any of these individuals actually exist?  To answer that question, we must first address some logically prior ones:  What does it mean to assert that an individual existed?  Are there certain key statements about a person which must be true before we can conclude the claim of existence has been confirmed?

My reflections on this issue are motivated, strangely enough, by an article that first appeared in 2008, but that, for whatever reason, has been reposted recently on a number of different sites. The article references Germany’s first professor of Islamic theology, Sven Kalisch (formerly Muhammad Sven Kalisch), who announced back in 2008 that Muhammad probably never existed. (The Wall Street Journal article first reporting this development can be found here.) Applying the same critical historical tools that previously have been applied to the Bible—and which have raised serious doubts about the historicity of both Moses and Jesus—Kalisch concluded that the figure of Muhammad is based more on legend than fact.  Kalisch observed, among other things, that no biography of Muhammad existed until a century after his death, and that no copies exist of this work.  We know of it only by references to it in later texts. 

Kalisch left Islam about a year ago, and dropped the name "Muhammad," but apparently, he and other scholars are continuing to pursue their research on the historical roots of Islam.

It’s encouraging to find Islamic scholars willing to apply critical reasoning to the doctrines of Islam. It’s often been lamented that Islam has failed to have its Enlightenment. Perhaps we’re witnessing the start of one now—although I confess I’m not especially optimistic.

In any event, if one hopes to argue convincingly either that Muhammad did or did not exist, one should determine in advance of any analysis of the evidence which facts are essentially associated with Muhammad. Otherwise, one’s conclusions are likely to be dismissed as question-begging. Many assertions may have been made about Muhammad that are incorrect, but do these false assertions establish there was no Muhammad or only that there are some false claims about Muhammad?

Let me illustrate my point by discussing the less controversial figure of Agamemnon. Our sources for Agamemnon are ancient Greek literature, principally the Iliad (which itself is based on earlier, orally transmitted stories). How much of what is set forth in the Iliad must be false before we are willing to asset that Agamemnon never existed? Does it matter if most of the events happened, but we have “Agamemnon’s” name wrong? (It was actually “Fred.”) Does it matter if there was no Achilles or no dispute over Briseis? Does it matter if there was no Menelaus or Helen? No Odysseus, Paris, Priam or Hector? If a coalition of armed forces from what we now call the Peloponnesus was led by a ruler of Mycenae and attacked a city or cities in northwest Asia Minor in the period somewhere between 1400 and 1200 BCE, is that sufficient to warrant the assertion that “Agamemnon” existed, but most of what the Iliad says about him and the Trojan War is false?

There may be no clear answer here, in part because we may not have a consensus on what is essential to being Agamemnon, other than perhaps that for Agamemnon to have existed, he, or someone with a similar name, must have been a ruler of the city-state now identified as Mycenae in the years between 1400 and 1200 BCE. But if the threshold is set that low, it is both easily met and entirely uninformative about the life, character, and accomplishments of Agamemnon.

Of course, for figures such as Agamemnon or Robin Hood, it is not that important at the end of the day whether such individuals existed or not. Sure, a lot of ink and film footage have been devoted to their stories, but few build their lives around the sayings and wisdom of Robin Hood or Agamemnon.

This is not the case with Jesus or Muhammad.  The actions, events, and statements attributed to these alleged individuals have influenced and continue to influence millions.

So what is essential to Jesus or Muhammad? What facts would establish definitively that Jesus or Muhammad did not exist? These are difficult questions to answer, but it would seem to me, for example, that whether there actually was a Roman census that required Judeans to travel to their ancestral homes is not critical to the existence of Jesus (which is a good thing for believers, because this claim is surely false.) Similarly, if Jesus never taught in the synagogues of Galilee (because there were no synagogues in Galilee), or never turned water into wine, these facts do not establish that Jesus did not exist. They show Gospel accounts are inaccurate, but that’s not equivalent to establishing that Jesus did not exist. There still could have been an itinerant preacher in Judea circa 30 CE who said some of the things attributed to Jesus, acquired a bit of a following, and who was later crucified. But would that be enough to show there was a Jesus?

The reality is that questions about the existence of Jesus or Muhammad are never likely to be resolved definitively. Not only is the available empirical evidence exceedingly thin— and barring some unforeseen discovery will remain so—but whatever evidence is offered will be filtered through the prism of one’s pre-existing beliefs. For many believers, the existence of these figures is as much a matter of faith as it is of fact.

This is not to say that the search for the historical Muhammad is a pointless exercise any more than the search for the historical Jesus has been. Merely to raise the question about the existence of Muhammad is to break taboos that have severely restricted Islamic scholarship. Serious investigation of the historical roots of Islam could result in an Islam that is more tolerant, more open to skepticism and criticism, regardless of any resolution of the issue of Muhammad’s existence. The journey can sometimes be more important than the destination.