History, Literature, and Religion

A review discussion of The Quest for the Historical Muhammad  
Edited with translations by Ibn Warraq

Prometheus Books, 2000, 554 pp. $35.95

If ever the edifice of Islam crumbles, as has that of Christianity in the past five hundred years, the roll-call of honour for its undermining will contain the names of but a handful of independently minded scholars and freethinkers. Amongst them will surely be that of Ibn Warraq, whose courage in adversity and indefatigable industry has now produced a third volume in a continuing series on the origins of Islam. Following his Why I am Not a Muslim (1995) and The Origins of the Koran (1998), The Quest for the Historical Muhammad delivers another blow against both unthinking Muslim believers and naive non-Muslim apologists for Islam.

How much this series of books is needed is shown by the fact that it is not only lazy-minded Western journalists eager to demonstrate their broadmindedness and lack of Islamophobia who need to be educated on the origins of Islam. Some of those who really ought to know better by now can still write unforgivable nonsense on the subject. In his introduction lbn Warraq reproduces the following almost incredible quotation from Salman Rushdie: 'The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Muhammad, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We also know a great deal about the political circumstances of the time'. (15-16) Dating from 1996, these remarks betray a total ignorance of the overall drift of scholarship on the origins of Islam in the preceding twenty years. What is now acknowledged by the majority of scholars familiar with the sources, is that we know almost nothing with any certainty about the origins of Islam and the life of Muhammad. All we do know is that the traditional account is wrong , in both outline and detail.

Although the reasons for these skeptical conclusions about the Islamic sources have been demonstrated at length in recent years by such scholars as Wansbrough, Crone, Cook, Hawting and others, the light should really have dawned at the beginning of the century. By 1890 lgnaz Goldziher had demonstrated the wholly factititious nature of the Hadith literature in the second volume of his Islamic Studies, and before the first World War Alphonse Mingana had drawn the conclusion from the non-Islamic sources that the conquered peoples of the Levant were unaware that their masters had any kind of holy book before the end of the first quarter of the eighth century. These facts should have rung alarm bells among historians about the reliability of the Muslim source material, but you cannot do much with a confession of ignorance, so most went along with the traditional account and used the sources to invent hypotheses and build their reputations as Arabic scholars. As the Arabist Gotz Schregle has said, mentally wearing turbans and doing Islamic scholarship rather than scholarship on Islam.

One scholar who fully realized the implications of Goldziher's examination of the Hadith literature was the Belgian Jesuit Henri Lammens (1862-1937). In three essays first published in French 1910-12, and translated here for the first time, Lammens shows in detail how the biography of the Prophet (sira) is nothing but invention from beginning to end. He sets out his radical conclusions at the beginning of the first essay The Koran and Tradition as follows:

The Koran provides the only basis for the sira. As to the assertions found in the sacred text of the Muslims, the Tradition (the Hadith) is neither a confirmation nor does it provide additional information as was thought until now. It is an Apocryphal development . On the fabric of the Koranic text , the Hadith has embroidered its legends, being satisfied with inventing names of additional actors presented or with, spinning out the original them. Its work is limited to these embellishments , considerable and exceeding by far the invention of Christian apocryphal authors (170)

By example after example Lammens shows how the text of the Qur'an has generated virtually every element that Muslim tradition attributes to the life of its Prophet; the method being that: 'One begins with the Koran while pretending to conclude with it'.(179) This leads to the conclusion that the Muslim tradition is in fact: 'one of the greatest historical frauds, whose memory the annals of literature have preserved'.(171)

In the second essay: The Age of Muhammad and the Chronology of the Sira, Lammens shows how every date in the life of the Prophet is utterly spurious and shows no historical knowledge whatever, and in the third essay: Fatima and the Daughters of Muhammad, he shows the unreliability of the purported information about Muhammad's children; in short, Lammens appears to be the complete skeptic.

One is therefore surprised when coming across statements such as the following about the Hadith: 'There can be no question of rejecting the whole en bloc. It would mean sacrificing as well the important nuggets of truth which are mixed with the rest" (206) And: '... this collection includes numerous portions of historical truth, without us yet possessing the secret. of filtering out the suspect material'.(183) Which prompts the question: How can he know the Hadith contains truth if he has no method of discerning it? Lammens had no method for finding truth in the Hadith at the beginning of the twentieth century and a hundred years later no one has found one yet. The fact is that despite his skepticism, as a Christian, Lammens wanted to find something discreditable about such figures as Muhammad and Ali, and this come across in the Fatima essay; presumably his method here was that old stand by of those who crave positive results: 'historical intuition'. This lapse in Lammens' otherwise resolute skepticism is pointed out by C. H. Becker in his essay: Matters of Fundamental Importance for Research into the Life of Muhammad, especially translated from the German for this volume by professor G. A. Wells.

Genrally admirable as Lammens' skepticism was he still laboured under several unwarrantable assumptions. The chief of these was the acceptance without question of Mecca in the southern Hijaz as the site for the origin of Islam, the credit for seeing through this fabrication going to John Wansbrough in his Quranic Studies (1975). The second unwarranted assumption was that he unquestioningly regarded Muhammad as the author or origin of the Qur'an, presumably more or less along the lines of how this is depicted in Muslim tradition, even though he had shown that tradition to be false in every respect. If Mahammad's life as we have it in the sira is a fiction based on the text of the Qur'an, there is no longer any reason to regard that text as being a product of the life. This fact has still not dawned on many in Islamic Studies.

Moving on from these pioneers of the skeptical approach to Islam, Part Four: The Modern Period, contains seven essays dating from the 1920s to the 1990s. Arthur Jeffrey, in his: The Quest of the Historical Muhammad (1926), reviews the history of attempts at writing a biography of the Prophet. Joseph Schacht in: A Revaluation of theProphetic Traditions(1949), adds to his famous judgement that: 'the great mass of legal traditions which invoke the authority of the Prophet, originated in the time of Shafi' , and later (360),equally devastating conclusions regarding the sira:

As regards the biography of the Prophet, traditions of legal and of historical interest cannot possibly be divided from one another. The important point is that to a much higher degree than hitherto suspected, seemingly historical information on the Prophet is only the background for legal doctrines and therefore devoid of independent value. ... We find new traditions at every successive stage of doctrine, and the lawyers occasionally object to historical traditions adduced by their opponents, because they are unknown to or not accepted by the specialists on the biography of the Prophet. A considerable part of the standard biography of the Prophet at Medina, as it appeared in the second half of the second century, A.H . , was of very recent origin and is therefore without independent historical value. (364)

In short, Muhammad's 'life at Medina' is every bit as fictional as his 'life at Mecca'.

In Abraha and Muhammad (1987), Lawrence Conrad examines the evidence for a plausible date for the invasion of the Hijaz by Abraha from the Yemen, which Muslim tradition calls the Year of the Elephant, 'An al-fil, and designates as the birth date of Muhammad, 570 A. D. He concludes that the most likely date is actually 552, and that the dating of Muhammad's call to prophethood forty years after his birth is simply a convention based on the sacred nature of the number forty, which appears over and over again in ancient middle Eastern literature. This confirms Lammens' conclusion that we have no reliable date whatever for any event in the life of Muhammad.

In: The Function of Asbab al-Nuzul in Koranic Exegesis (1988), Andrew Rippin examines the so-called 'occasions of revelation' of Quranic texts. In his Quranic Studies, John Wansbrough had expressed the view that asbab material had its major reference point in halakhic works, that is to say, works concerned with deriving laws from the Qur'an. After a lengthy examination of numerous texts Rippin concludes that the primary purpose of the sabab material is in fact not halakhic, but rather haggadic: 'that is, the asbab functions to provide an interpretation of a verse within a broad narrative framework'. This puts the origin of the asbab material in the context of the qussas: 'the wandering storytellers, and pious preachers and to a basically popular religious worship situation where such stories would prove both enjoyable and edifying'. (408) Along the way he notes that the primary purpose of such stories is to historicize the text of the Qurlan in order to prove that: 'God really did reveal his book to humanity on earth' (394), and that in arguments over conflicting asbab reports isnad (chain of transmission) criticism was a tool which could be: 'employed when needed and disregarded when not' (408).

What emerges from all this is that no matter how far back we try to go in the Islamic tradition, it appears that nobody anywhere, at any time, had any indisputable information about the Qur'an. It is as if at some point it emerged, more or less overnight, and nobody was sure who was responsible for it, or what it really meant. Hence the innumerable conflicting stories that were invented about it.

Methadologicul Approaches to Islamic Studies (1991), by Judith Koren and Yehuda D. Nevo, is perhaps the most important essay in the whole collection, and could be recommended as prescribed reading for all those convinced they know what happened in the past, especially in a religious context. Koren and Nevo make plain the distinction between the 'traditional' and the 'revisionist' approaches to the origins of Islam. The traditional approach takes it for granted that the enormous body of Muslim literature, dating from the mid seventh century onwards, preserves historical facts about the pre-Islamic period, the rise of Islam, and the Conquest. Therefore, by suitable analysis, it is considered possible to reconstruct a reasonably accurate account of the Hijaz at the time of Muhammad, the biography of the prophet, and the general growth and triumph of Islam. The revisionists regard this approach as hopelessly naive in its attitude to the written sources.

The revisionist approach, which derives primarily from the writings of John Wansbrough, regards the written sources as deceptive in promising to give an account of 'what really happened':

They cannot by their very nature, provide 'hard facts' but only the writer's view of what he knows of those facts – i.e., they are literature. The study of them is not history but literary criticism. The information they provide must be corroborated by the 'hard facts' of material remains ... If this is true even of contemporary accounts it is truer still of the Muslim literature which did not start to be recorded till a hundred and fifty years after the events it claims to describe, and most of which was written under a regime with a vested interest to legitimize its own claims to power and to discredit the Umayyads , whose history it purported to record .The Abbasid bias is well-known ; that it might have involved rewriting both political and religious history is worth considering. (424)

In view of these considerations the revisionists suggest three basic methodological requirements:

(1) a source critical approach to both the Koran and the Muslim literary accounts of the rise of Islam, the Conquest, and the Umayyad period; (2) the need to compare these accounts with contemporary ones external to the Muslim sources; (3) the use of contemporary material evidence (archaeology, numismatics, epigraphy) and the acceptance that conclusions derived from it are likely to be more valid than those based on the non-contemporary, literary Muslim accounts of history.(426)

Koren and Nevo then go on to illustrate some of the first fruits of this methodology in the study of the Koran, the Hadith, the non-Muslim sources, archaeology, numismatics, and epigraphy.

Some of the most important results of the revisionist approach to early Islam arise from the non-Muslim sources and the archaeological record, precisely those areas outside the grip of Muslim propaganda. After having studied the political and religious references to the Arabs in all the seventh century sources that mention them, Koren and Nevo conclude that:

The local sources written before the eighth century provide no evidence for a planned invasion of Arabs from the Peninsula, nor for great battles which crushed the Byzantine army; nor do they mention any caliph before Mu'awiya ... The picture the contemporary literary sources provide is rather of raids of the familiar type; the raiders stayed because they found no military opposition. We suggest, on this and other evidence, that what took place was a series of raids and minor engagements, which gave rise to stories among the Arab newcomers of How We Beat the Romans; these were later selected and embellished in late Umayyad and early Abbasid times to an Official History of the Conquest ... Furthermore, if we are to judge from this literature, we must conclude that the mass of the Arab tribesmen were pagan at the time of their influx into the Fertile Crescent, and remained so throughout the seventh century; the governing elite adopted a simple form of monotheism, basically Judaeo-Christian, which may be discerned in an account of official Christian dealings with the Arab governor already from the early years of Mu'awiya's rule (the 640s/20s). Neither the references to the Koran nor the accounts of Muhammad in the non-Arab literature predate the writing of the Muslim account. Moreover one can discern signs, in so late a work as John of Damascus' De Haeresibus (743 C.E.), that the Koran had not yet been canonized. (433)

This picture is further confirmed by the archaeological record, that finds the ancient cultures of the Fertile Crescent undefended towards the Arabs in the seventh century, and no confirmation whatever of the Muslim picture of the preIslamic jahiliyya in the Arabian peninsula. It follows from all this that the traditional Muslim account of the origin of Islam, the life of the Prophet, and the early Arab conquests, is false in every respect. A large chunk of accepted history to be found in textbooks and encyclopaedias worldwide is quite simply wrong.

To move from the hard findings and plain speaking of Koren and Nevo to the urbane wafflings of F. E. Peters is to move into a wholly different academic milieu. A world where saying what one really thinks could mean the end of a high-flying career, a livelihood, or even a Iife. The solution is to equivocate, so that in the divide between traditionalists and revisionists no one can be sure where one stands. This is exemplified in Peters' essay: The Quest of the Historical Muhammad (1991).

Peters' starting point is an attempt at a comparison between the quest for the historical Muhammad and the quest for the historical Jesus. The problem with this approach is that the conclusions reached depend upon who is taken as an authority, and on what grounds. For reasons he does not explain, Peters chooses for his authorities on Christianity three committed Christians of a conservative stripe: J. A. T. Robinson, Stephen Neill, and Tom Wright. Not surprisingly, he concludes that the quest for the historical Jesus is not at all hopeless and has made real progress in recent times; we can be sure that he existed and was not unlike the gospel portrait. This situation is contrasted with that of Muhammad and the Qur'an:

Quite simply, there is no contemporary and contopological setting against which to read the Koran. For early Islam there is no Josephus to provide a contemporary political context, and no Scrolls to illuminate a Palestininan 'sectarian milieu'. ... The Koran in fact, stands isolated like an immense rock jutting forth from a desolate sea, a strong eminence with few marks on it to suggest how or why it appeared in that watery desert. ... The fact is that, despite a great deal of information supplied by later Muslim literary sources, we know pitifully little about the political or economic history of Muhammad's native city of Mecca or of the religious culture from which he came. (446)

No revisionist would disagree with these statements, especially the last. So much so that there is no good reason to take seriously the traditional Muslim account of Muhammad at Mecca in any way at all. However, this is precisely what Peters proceeds to do in the rest of his essay. He knows the revisionist view and probably agrees with it, but chooses to play it down by relegating it to asides and footnotes. It is only by taking the traditional views of Christian and Islamic origins at face value as real history that the quests for the historical Jesus and Muhammad can be compared as valid enterprises. From the revisionist point of view both are equally worthless exercises in self-deception.

The amusing thing is how, in order to carry out this exercise in pleasing everyone, Peters appears unaware, or unconcerned, about the contradictions in what he says. For instance: 'The Holy Book of Islam is text without context, and so this prime document, which has a very strong claim to be authentic, is of almost no use for reconstructing the events of the life of Muhammad'.(455) How can we know the Qur’an is 'authentic, whatever that might mean in this context, if we have no life of Muhammad? As we have seen, Lammens has shown how the traditional life of Muhammad is built upon Quranic texts and is thus useless as history, and Peters admits that: 'Lammens' critical attack has never been refuted'. (458) If we have no life of Muhammad we have no idea whatever about the circumstances of the origin of the Qur'an. Yet Peters, referring to the referential style of the Qur'an, says things like: 'These stories were current in Mecca then ...' (450), and even appears to accept the traditional division of chapters of the Qur'an into Meccan and Medinan, so that we can: 'reconstruct to some degree what appears to be an evolution in Muhammad's own thinking about God'. (455) A mode of thinking about Muhammad and the Qur’an that should have been abandoned a hundred years ago. However, a few pages later we are told that.Goldziher, Lammens, and Schacht were all doubtless correct. A great deal of the transmitted material concerning early Islam was tendentious - not only the material that was used for legal purposes but the very building blocks out of which the earliest history of Muhammad and the Islamic community was constructed'. (458) But if this is true, what is the point of pretending to take the traditional Muslim account seriously in order to make a comparison with what is almost certainly an equally tendentious piece of Christian propaganda in the gospels? A much more useful comparison would have been between G. A. Wells' view of the Christian sources and John Wansbrough's of the Islamic.

John Wansbrough has already been mentioned several times in this review, and the fifth and final section of this collection is devoted entirely to the significance of his ideas and methods, with essays by Herbert Berg and G. R. Hawting. It is to Wansbrough that the credit must go for breaking the stranglehold of both traditional Muslim and Western forms of Islamic Studies, allowing radically new hypotheses to be formed. The problem with Wansbrough's approach is not simply that he removes the ground from beneath the feet of all those who accept the traditional account, but that he chooses to express himself in uniquely terse and technical language, making it difficult for even English speaking readers to be clear about what he is saying.

All those wishing to familiarize themselves with Wansbrough's ideas would do well to begin by reading Herbert Berg's essay: The Implications of, and Opposition to, the Methods and Theories of John Wansbrough (1997), especially section four: 'A Summary of Wansbrough's Theories and Their Implications'. Berg summarizes the implications of Wansbrough's Quranic Studies (1997) as follows:

Neither the Koran nor Islam is a product of Muhammad or even Arabia. During the early Arab expansion beyond Arabia, there is no evidence that the conquerors were Muslim. Almost 200 years later 'early' Muslim literature began to be written by the Mesopotamian clerical elite. The implication may be that the hitherto secular polity discovered and adopted a new movement which, though a non-Jewish, non-Christian movement, was a product of a Judaeo-Christian sectarian milieu. This movement and its history were soon Arabicized. The Koran, however, took somewhat longer to be canonized - not until circa 800 CE. (495)

In summarizing Wansbrough's The Sectatian Milieu (1978) Berg notes that the biography of Muhammad is not history but salvation history:

Its narrative techniques are: exegetical in which serial or isolated Koranic extracts provide the framework for a longer narrative; parabolic, in which the narrative itself is the source for frequent illusion to logia ( not verbatim, but in terms of diction and imagery); and paraphrastic, in which logia are presented in the form of anecdotes replete with scriptural keywords. In this way, salvation history was produced. Wanshrough sees some twenty-three topoi in this literature, all of which derive from a Judaeo-Christian milieu. (495)

Berg also notes that in his chapter on 'authority' Wansbrough shows how Islamic salvation history invested authority in both the word of Allah in the Koran, and in an entirely separate body of literature known as the Sunna, the paradigmatic conduct of the Prophet. It is this latter body of literature that became the main source for Islamic law, which meant that: 'considerable effort was expended on elaborating and harmonizing these originally disparate scriptural and apostolic forms of authority'. (496)

Wansbrough's literary analysis of the Muslim sources completely demolishes the traditional account of the origin of Islam, the life of its Prophet, and the genesis of its holy bool It is hardly surprising that it has met with opposition, not only from Muslims, but from scholars who had made their reputations from taking the Muslim account at face value. However, this opposition has mainly taken the form of ignoring the implications of what Wansbrough has achieved and carrying on as if nothing had happened, rather than any kind of carefully argued rebuttal. Meanwhile, an increasinnumber of scholars have adopted Wansbrough's methods and applied them furthe'rj. One of these is G. R. Hawting.

In his essay: John Wansbrough, Islam and Monotheism (1997), Rawting explains the difficulties involved in taking seriously the Muslim picture of an Islam that originated in Western Arabia. The main difficulty is that this sets Islam apart, both geographically and theologically, from Judaism and Christianity, with which it has much in common, and which originated and flourished much further north in the Fertile Crescent. After a hundred years or so of fruitless speculation on how Muhammad could have been the source of a religion so clearly dependent on the Judaeo-Christian tradition, while supposedly living in an area where that tradition was, as far as we can tell, totally absent, the time has clearly come for a new hypothesis on the origins of Islam.

Hawting points out that Wansbrough's work is based on two facts about Islam that have long been recognized, but the implications of which have not been fully drawn, namely, that there is no Muslim literature which can be dated in the form available to us before 800 C. E., and that Islam as we know it is a complex phenomenon that must have taken many generations to establish itself In view of the lateness of the Muslim literature from the events it purports to describe, and in the absence of information from independent sources, Wansbrough deliberately eschews any attempt at a reconstruction 'of what really happened'. Instead, he proposes: 'The concept of Islam as an evolution from the sectarian monotheism of Mesopotamia in the wake of Arab migration and the establishment of Arab rule; the analysis of that evolution as a gradual elaboration of a series of ideas, practices, and institutions expressive of the independent identity of the community; and the understanding that an elaboration of an account of its own origins is a part of that evolution'. (521) This may not make exciting reading for those who enjoy a good story full of sensational, though inherently unverifiable ideas, but is probably all we have any right to expect when dealing with a period of the past only available to us through the fog of salvation history.

In addition to the essays mentioned above this collection also includes: Recovering Lost Tcxts, Some Methodological Issues (1993), in which Lawrence Conrad examines the materials available to, and the principles required by, anyone attempting to reconstruct a biography of Muhammad; Muhammad and the Origins of Islam (1851), a previously untranslated essay by Ernest Renan, in which Islam is described for the first time as being 'born in the full light of history'; and Origins of Islam: A Critical look at the Sources, in which Ibn al Rawandi draws attention to two basically different ways of approaching Islam: the rational/analytic and the mystical/romantic, which have produced two separate bodies of literature that barely acknowledge each other's existence. Preceding all there is an extended essay by Ibn Warraq which introduces the reader to all the problems inherent to the Muslim sources, and how numerous recent and contemporary scholars have dealt with them. He ends with a call for a long overdue return to scholarship which we can wholly endorse.

In conclusion it can be said that the potential effect of this book is explosive. It could, eventually, change the world-view of a large section of humanity, but that might not be a peaceful process. For these reasons it many not even be allowed to reach those whom it most concerns. A large library association has already refused to recommend it for purchase for fear that it might offend Muslims. What, it might be asked, is so special about Muslims? The effects of John Wansbrough's methods and conclusions on the purported historical origins of Islam are similar to those of P.R. Davies on Judaism and G. A. Wells on Christianity, should libraries withdraw their books too for fear of offending Muslims? Each of the three monotheist traditions have been in the habit of reading literature as history, text as event, and have as their foundations not real history but salvation history, the product of largely anonymous, imaginatively self-justifying scribal elites, inventing origins rather than recording them. Pointing this out may threaten cherished beliefs, but in a free society should not for that reason be censored, no matter how surreptitiously.

What is at stake here is the freedom of scholarship to pursue its methods wherever they might lead, and not be stifled by a pseudo scholarly consensus which is in fact apologetics for a universalist eirenic ecumenism. A world in which all beliefs are true and history is whatever it needs to be to sustain the beliefs. As Bruce Lincoln says, writing of history in general: 'When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one's interest in the temporal and the contingent, or fails to distinguish between 'truths', 'truth claims', and 'regimes of truth', one has ceased to function as historian or scholar'. If the result of these scholarly methods is the realization that whole civilizations can be built on little more than imaginative conceits and self-serving delusions, then some progress will have been made. It may leave us on the brink of an abyss, but at least we will have no illusions about where we stand.

David Hall