Recent findings on the origins of Islam: a key to countering radicalism?

By John L. Perkins, PhD | 7 July 2017
Church and State

Muhammad leads Abraham, Moses, Jesus and others in prayer. Persian miniature.

An earlier version of this article was given as a lecture to the Atheist Society, Melbourne, 11 October 2016.

The nature of Islam and its role in modern society is the subject of widespread confusion, misinformation and wilful denial. Never in history has an issue, of such critical importance been the subject of such confusion, by so many, for so long. An overstatement? I contend not, as I will elaborate.

Firstly, however, I would like to address a comment to Muslims. I do not bear any malice towards you. I sympathise with you in many ways. I recognise that you have been, and are, the victims of injustice and prejudice. I regret that.

However, I am an atheist and will of course criticise what you believe, as I have a right to do. I recognise that your beliefs may be a part of your culture and your identity and may be deeply held and felt. But these beliefs are your choice. “There is no compulsion in religion” – perhaps. But no-one can control what you think in your own mind. It is your choice.

When you identify yourself as a Muslim, you are expressing your allegiance to the religion, and to some extent, the ideology it represents. You cannot escape that, whether or not you entirely subscribe to it. Of course everything is subject to interpretation. But you are either a Muslim or you are not. Hence I hope you will be able to consider what I have to say as a legitimate point of view, although one you might not agree with.

I make these remarks because it is clear that while many people are devoted to their beliefs, a devotion that may consume their whole life, they may be rather less devoted to considerations of why they believe what they do, and whether those beliefs are actually true. This is an important consideration in itself, surely, but in addition I see it a crucial starting point towards resolution of a deeply troubling situation.

We need to gain insight into the nature of religion. Only then will all communities be able to make clear and unbiased decisions about the desirable nature and status of religion in society, and Islam in particular. Only then will Muslims be able to consider clearly possible alternative interpretations of the Koran, and the possible reform of Islam.

On the issue of deradicalisation of Islamic extremists, I cannot see how these epistemic considerations can not be considered relevant. Yet from what I understand of commonly prevalent deradicalisation programmes, they are not. Deradicalisation programmes that only work on aspects of community involvement and alienation reduction will not be sufficient.

We need to engage, to some extent, in the process of Socratic questioning. By asking questions, we help clarify thinking. Doubt is not an obstacle to be feared. Doubt is a pathway on the route to knowledge. We need to engage in “street epistemology”. As Peter Boghossian[1] has said most pertinently: “Those who have more doubt about their beliefs are less likely to act on them.”

Islam and its consequences

Concerning the nature and role of Islam, and particularly its association with violence, I would like to return to my opening remark about the importance of this issue and the obfuscation and confusion surrounding it. I have taken a big interest in this issue, starting from September 11. My concern is a humanitarian one.

The dominance of a religion in a society affects its institutions, which in turn affect its economic and social outcomes. More than a decade ago, United Nations Human Development Reports indicated that Arab countries were under-performing on a whole range of indicators. The causes of the under-performance were all associated with Islam. Things are immeasurably worse now.

Consider these favourable trends. Over recent decades, even in the poorest countries, life expectancy has increased and infant mortality has decreased. The United Nations Millennium Development Goal on poverty, to reduce by half the number of people living on less than $2/day, was achieved. There are more people, less poor, more healthy and living longer, than ever before.

But at the same time, the level of conflict has increased. Many countries, ravaged by conflict, have disintegrated into failed states, all Islamic: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and before that, Somalia. Millions of children have not been in school and their lives have been traumatised by homelessness and violence. There are now more refugees than at any time since the Second World War. These outcomes are a direct consequence of the type of societies that Islamic ideology creates and the types of behaviours it fosters. The basic problem is the elevation of Islamic law above all else. Islam is a humanitarian disaster, for this and many other reasons, including subjugation of women, which I could elaborate on. Those who suffer most from the consequences of Islam are the Muslims. Those who disagree should perhaps study the situation a little more carefully.

Earthquakes, hurricanes and floods all cause human suffering. But earthquakes last for seconds or minutes, hurricanes may last for hours, floods may last for days. After that, rebuilding and recovery may begin. But the suffering caused by Islam-inspired conflicts lasts for years, with no end in sight and no rebuilding possible. This is far worse than any natural disaster. Islam is the greatest cause of human suffering in the world today.

Despite the reasoned basis of my argument, I have been ridiculed, and libelled even, for making that observation. It is at the very least a seriously important issue, hence the basis for my opening remark. How can this have escaped people’s attention?

As a critic of Islam, despite explaining my humanitarian concern, and my particular care to be critical of Islamic beliefs, but not to denigrate Muslims as people, I have been accused of bigotry, hate mongering, racism and prejudice. But not so much by Muslims. Almost entirely by fellow freethinkers.

As a Secular Party official, I am consistently self-constrained by what I may say, lest potential supporters be offended. It is a phenomenon that Maajid Nawaz calls the “regressive left”. Christianity may be criticised, but Islam may not be.

The perception is that Muslims in Australia are a minority and need to be protected. We need social harmony. I can understand that. But this must not be at the expense of recognition of the true nature of the problem. Otherwise we are doomed to fail. The rise of right-wing parties and loony populists is a direct result of the mainstream failure to address this issue.

Hence my reference to confusion in my opening remark. But that is not the most significant source of confusion: the most significant source of confusion concerns the basic nature of Islam itself. This confusion applies to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

According to its own doctrines and its own history, Islam is a jihadist religion. The prophet Muhammad himself was a jihadist. This is the single most relevant thing about it. How can this have escaped people’s attention? Note: I am not saying all Muslim are jihadists.

Surely these issues are important. What I will cover for most of the rest of this article is not my opinion, but is the considered opinion of many experts who have devoted their lives to the reasoned study of Islam. I should briefly mention these people.

Accounts of Islam’s origins

Research in the 19th century by the Austrian scholar Aloys Sprenger (1813-1893) uncovered the biography of Muhammad[2]. Hungarian Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921) and German Joseph Schacht (1902-1969) uncovered the unreliability of the Hadith. John Wansborough (1928-2002) identified Islam as a product of the Arab empire. Patricia Crone established that there were no historical records that showed Mecca as a centre of trade.

More recent scholars include Volker Popp, Karl Heinz Ohlieg, Ibn Waraq and Christoph Luxenberg. The latter two are assumed names adopted for their own safety and protection. All of these people have meticulously researched scholarly works, based on their reading and interpretations of the ancient Arabic texts. Volker Popp is a numismatist, who is able to infer much about the power relations in early Islam from his interpretation of the coins and inscriptions.

The above scholars are termed “revisionists” due to their rejection of the traditional Islamic account, which until then had been widely accepted. Volker Popp in particular rejects the historicity of the “prophet of the Arabs”. No-one knows for sure what happened, but in my view, the evidence is on the side of the revisionists.

For an accessible introduction to the subject, a good starting point is the BBC4 documentary produced by Tom Holland: “Islam: the Untold Story”[3]. Holland’s book “In the Shadow of the Sword” is a vivid and entertaining account of the history. Holland accepts the historicity of the Muhammad legend, and does not reference Popp in his book. However, I do not think Popp can be ignored.

Much of what follows is a summary of the arguments in, or a direct extraction from, Robert Spencer’s book, “Did Muhammad Exist?”. This book is a carefully compiled synthesis of much of the other “revisionist” work. His conclusion, in particular, provides a concise summary of the evidence.

Sources

A thorough review of the historical record shows that much, if not all, of what we know about Muhammad is legend, not historical fact. The Koran is not a revelation from the one true god, but was actually constructed from already existing material, mostly from the Jewish and Christian traditions.

Both Judaism and Christianity have been the subject of widespread scholarly investigation for more than two centuries. Islam has not received the same scrutiny. Can Islam survive this challenge?

The main Islamic sources are the Koran itself, the Hadith and the Sira. The Hadith, literally “reports”, are the collections of Muhammad’s purported words and deeds that form the foundation of Islamic law and practice. The Hadith are hugely voluminous, and date from a period considerably after Muhammad’s reported death in 632. The Sira, the biography of the prophet of Islam, was written by Ibn Ishaq (died 773), at least 125 years after the death of his protagonist.

There is little doubt that the political unification of Arabia took place around the time Muhammad is assumed to have lived. Scholars generally agree that the Arabian warriors swept out of Arabia beginning in the second quarter of the 7th century, and within 100 years had subdued much of the Middle East, North Africa and Persia, and had entered India and Spain.

The most heretical assertion, even to many non-Muslim historians, is the contention by Popp, supported by Spencer, that in its earliest use, the term “Muhammad” is an honorific, meaning “the praised one” or “chosen one”, and originally referred to Jesus.

The name Muhammad appears in the Koran only four times, and in three of those instances, according to Spencer, it is used as a title, rather than as a proper name. By contrast, Moses is mentioned by name 136 times and Abraham 79 times. Even Pharaoh is mentioned 74 times. Meanwhile the messenger of Allah appears in various forms 300 times and prophet 43 times[4],[5].

The Koran also refers to Jesus as a messenger (5:75). It is possible that when it refers to Muhammad, meaning “praised one”, it could be referring to Jesus. Spencer notes instances in the Koran where Muhammad, the messenger, is referred to in identical terms to Jesus, the messenger.

The canonical story

What follows is an account of what happened, according to the traditional and accepted Islamic narrative, again summarising Spencer’s account.

There was an Arabian of the Quraysh tribe of Mecca known to the world as Muhammad, a name that means praised one. In the year 610, when he was 40, he was praying in a cave on Mount Hira about two miles from Mecca, when he was suddenly confronted by the angel Gabriel, who commanded him to recite.

For the next 23 years until his death in 632, Muhammad recited the messages of Gabriel, presenting them to his followers as the word of God. After his death, the memorised revelations received were collected together into the Koran, (meaning “recitation”).

Muhammad’s preachings were unpopular with the polytheistic Quraysh, and threatened their trade arising from the annual pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca.

In 622 Muhammad left Mecca with his followers, the Muslims, and settled in the city of Yatrib. This emigration was the Hijra, and the date marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Yatrib became known as the city of the prophet, Medina.

Muhammad then called on his followers to take up arms in defence of the community, and subsequently to fight offensive wars against non-believers. Muhammad himself led the Muslims into battle against the Quraysh and other pagan tribes.

These battles illustrate the core of Islamic salvation theology: that obedience to Allah brings success, and disobedience brings punishment.

After Muhammad’s death, his Muslim warriors were energised by the prophet’s exhortations to jihad, and embarked on conquests unprecedented in their breadth and swiftness: Syria and the Holy Land by 637, Armenia and Egypt in 639, Cypress in 654, North Africa in the 650s and 660s. By 674 the Muslims were threatening Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. A century after the death of the warrior prophet, they controlled a vast Empire stretching across the Middle East and North Africa.

This account is largely taken for granted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. However it is clear that apart from the Arab conquests, virtually none of the standard account could have happened as stated.

A revisionist scenario

Here is what we know, using Spencer’s summary account:

  • No record of Muhammad’s reported death in 632 appears until more than a century after that date.
  • A Christian account, apparently dating from the mid 630s, speaks of an Arab prophet, armed with a sword, but who is still alive.
  • The early accounts, written by the people the Arabs conquered, never mention Islam, Muhammad or the Koran. The conquerors are called Ishmaelites, Saracens, Muhjirun and Hagarians, but never Muslims.
  • The conquerors, in their coins and inscriptions, don’t mention Islam, or the Koran, for the first six decades of their conquests. Mentions of Muhammad are non-specific and could refer to the “praised one”, an honorific. On at least two occasions, inscriptions are accompanied by a cross.
  • The Koran, even by the canonical account, was not distributed in its present form until the 650s. Contradicting this, however, neither Arabs, Christians nor Jews mention the Koran until the early 8th century.
  • During the reign of the caliph Muawiyah, 661-680, at least one public building was constructed with an inscription headed by a cross.
  • We begin hearing about Muhammad the prophet of Islam, and about Islam itself, in the 690s during the reign of caliph Abd al-Malik.
  • Abd al-Malik claimed to have collected the Koran.
  • At this time, the governor of Iraq, Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, distributes copies of the Koran to the provinces, something that Uthman is supposed to have done decades earlier.
  • In the middle of the 8th century the Abbasid Dynasty supplanted the Umayyad line of Abd Al-Malik. The Abbasids charged the Umayyads with impiety on a large scale. In the Abbasid period, biographical material about Muhammad began to proliferate. The first biography appeared 125 years after Muhammad’s reported death.
  • The biographical material that emerged places Muhammad in an area of Arabia that was never the centre for trade and pilgrimage that the canonical account depends on it to be.

Volker Popp refers to inscriptions that refer to dates “in the year of the Arabs”. He ascribes the start date of the Arab calendar not to a “Hijra”, which is never mentioned in early sources, but to a date in 622, when the Arabs first gained their independence from the Byzantine Empire. At this time, the Byzantines had a decisive victory over the Persians, but then withdrew, leaving their allies, the Arabs, in charge.

There is little room for the prophetic legend in this scenario. The lack of confirming historical detail, and the delayed development of the biography, suggest that whatever Muhammad figure may have existed, he was quite different from what the legend portrays.

What really happened?

According to Spencer, what happened was this: the Arabs built a mighty empire; every empire of the day was anchored in a political theology; the Christological controversies of the early church threatened to tear the Byzantine Empire asunder; after four ecumenical councils, Christian groups that were regarded as heretical left the Empire.

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

The earliest Arab rulers appear to be have been adherents of Hagarism, a monotheistic religion centred around Abraham and Ishmael. Hagar was Abraham’s concubine, and the mother of Ishmael, according to legend. (We should note, of course, that Abraham et al. are not historical figures.)

The Arab rulers frowned on the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. Hence Muawiyah’s letter to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine calling on him to renounce Jesus (as a god) and serve the god of Abraham.

They regarded Christ as the servant of Allah and his messenger. They embraced Jesus as a prophet, and thus had crosses on coins and inscriptions. They saw themselves as encompassing both Judaism and Christianity.

The elevation of Muhammad

Abd al-Malik’s 691 inscription on the Dome of the Rock is an anti-Trinitarian treatise in which the word Muhammad likely refers to Jesus as the “praised one”, Spencer argues, following Popp.

As the religion of Islam developed, the inscription on the Dome of the Rock lent itself well to the adoption of a new Arab figure, distinct from Jesus, and became identified with what were, by then, just rumours of an early Arab prophet.

The concept of a legendary hero would be politically useful for the new Arab Empire. The new prophet needed to be an Arab, living deep within Arabia. He had to be a warrior prophet, for the new empire was aggressively expansionist. This prophet would have needed a sacred scripture to lend him authority.

Much of the Koran shows signs of being borrowed from Jewish and Christian traditions, indicating that the founders of Islam fashioned its scripture from existing material.

An Arabic prophet and revelation were needed, but Abd al-Malik and his fellow Umayyad caliphs were centred not in Arabia, but in Damascus. Hence it is not surprising that the Koran has many Syriac and non-Arabic influences (see Luxenberg).

The Koran has furious warnings of judgement and jihadist exhortations and holds Muhammad as an excellent example for all Muslims to follow, but has little detail on what the prophet actually said or did. Hence there was a great need for such material.

The great canonical hadith collections were all compiled in the 8th century after the Abbasids replaced the Umayyads. The minting of hadith then proliferated. The Umayyads, Abbasids and Shiites all issued hadiths criticising the other factions and supporting their own positions.

They also needed to convince the people that the stories of the prophet of Islam and his new religion were not actually new. The Abbasids blamed the Umayyads for not obeying the prophet and not being religious. The Abbasids then claimed the credit for revealing the true nature of the Arab prophet.

This reconstruction explains the curious silence of the Arab conquerors about Muhammad and the Koran. It explains why Islam arrived on the scene long after the Arab conquests.

Islam, by its nature, is a political faith. Unlike its Abrahamic forerunners, it considers its adherents as the instruments of divine justice on earth (as Spencer puts it). The Koran prescribes agonising punishments for disbelieving infidels, and exhorts Muslims to wage war against those infidels, apostates and polytheists.

The political, military and imperial components are intrinsic to the Islamic faith, and they are evident from the earliest records. This alternative scenario explains the unique political nature of Islam. The theology was created to justify and perpetuate the Arab Empire.

Did Muhammad exist?

There may have been a prophet of the Arabs, but not one who received the perfect eternal book from the supreme god. The details of Muhammad’s life, his alliances, his wives, are a creation of political ferment dating from long after the time when he was supposed to have lived. Records indicate strongly that the Koran, as such, did not exist until long after it was supposed to have been delivered.

The brave scholars who have sought answers to the questions described here have been relatively few in number. A serious quest for the historical Muhammad is long overdue. Islamic forces have clashed with empires for centuries. Islamists are now terrorising unbelievers and seeking subversion through the implementation of Sharia law.

Despite the differences between Islamic, Jewish and Christian theology, few have bothered to investigate how the Islamic tradition, and what it might tell us about the clash of civilisations that has continued for more than a millennium.

Islam was not born in the full light of history, as claimed, but now is the time to usher it into the light. The truth matters. We need to be aware of it now, more than ever.

The example of the prophet Muhammad that derives from his biography, including his insurgency against the Meccans, his exile and beheading of Jewish tribes, his six-year-old wife, and his use of captured women as sex slaves, is not commonly acknowledged by most Muslims. However, it certainly inspires violence and terrorism by those who are motivated to take it, and the violent injunctions of the Koran, literally.

This literalism, in the form of Islamism, is having a diabolical and destabilising effect globally, causing immense suffering. Yet the role model on which it is based is very likely to be almost entirely fictitious. Incredibly, the fictitious nature of the theology is not generally considered to be important, relevant or mentionable. I return to my opening assertion: Never before in history has humanity generally been so wilfully blind. A new phase of enlightenment must surely dawn soon.

End notes

[1] Street Epistemology: The Basics | StreetEpistemology.com
https://streetepistemology.com/publications/street_epistemology_the_basics

[2] The biography of the prophet was not well known in the Arab world until 1927 when it began to be widely copied in Cairo. This may well have given impetus to the Muslim Brotherhood, and triggered the wider radicalisation of Islam that has since continued, increasing significantly in the last couple of decades. This has occurred because of both the example it sets, and the more radical interpretation of the Koran it motivates.

[3] The documentary caused considerable controversy, predictably perhaps, on the grounds that it was “anti-Islam”. This is despite the fact that Holland, and his interviewee Patricia Crone, argued their case very cautiously. Holland allowed another interviewee, Professor of Islamic Studies Seyeed Hossain Nasr, ample opportunity to comment on their propositions. However his attitude appeared to be one of indignation that non-Muslims should even comment on Islam’s origins.

[4] Fred Bonner, (not a Popp-style revisionist) notes that the word “believer” occurs in the Koran nearly 1000 times. He refers to the early period as a “believers’ movement”, encompassing Jews and Christians, with the anti-Trinitarian Arabs midway in between. See for example Qur’ânicization of Religio-Political Discourse in the Umayyad Period, https://remmm.revues.org/7085?lang=en

[5] Mingana points out that all the proper names of biblical personages are used in their Syriac form in the Koran. Almost all the religious terms in the Koran are derived from Syriac. See Alphonse Mingana, “The Syriac Influence on the Style of the Koran”, in Ibn Waraq ed., What the Koran Really Says.

References

Crone, Patricia, and Martin Hinds, God’s Caliph, Religious authority in the fist centuries of Islam, CUP, 2003.
Gabriel, Richard, Muhammad: Islam’s First Great General, UOP, 2007
Holland, Tom, In the Shadow of the Sword: the Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, Anchor Books, 2012.
Ohlig, Karl-Heinz, and Gerd-R Puin, (ed.), The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into its Early History, Prometheus Books, 2010.
Ohlig, Karl-Heinz, (ed), Early Islam: a Critical Reconstruction based on Contemporary Sources, Prometheus Books, 2013.
Spencer, Robert, Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins, ISI Books, 2012.
Warraq, Ibn, (ed.), What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text & Commentary, Prometheus Books, 2002.
Warraq, Ibn, Why I am not a Muslim, Prometheus Books, 2003.
Warraq, Ibn (ed.), Christmas in the Koran: Luxenberg, Syriac, and the Near Eastern Judeo-Christian Background of Islam, Prometheus Books, 2014.

Dr. John L. Perkins is an economist, mathematical modeller and software developer. He works on issues of world trade, resource depletion and global warming. He has qualifications from universities in Melbourne and London, and is a member of the Humanist Society of Victoria, the Rationalist Society of Australia, the Australian Skeptics, is a Public Relations team member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, and is the founding President of the Secular Party of Australia.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. This article has some very interesting poibts and is extremely well thought out and historicaly accurate. However, the entire premise is laughable. Does the writwr of this really believe that muslims will simply read this, say “ooh i gues mohamad dddnt really exist, lets stop terror and violation of womans rights”. This article is spot on as to a problem but its solution is comical to the point of insanity.

  2. Mr. Becker.
    It appears that you have been unable to grasp the purpose of the article, that of exposing truth.
    Whether or not a convinced Islamist will give it any credence is irrelevant.
    Its relevance is to the commonly held beliefs by the laity in Islam and the explanations which they present to themselves that their religion is one of peace, and that their scriptures are historically accurate.
    The same rationale can be applied to Christianity and Judaism.
    Those “heretics” who are unconvinced by the absolute certainties of religious doctrine will find the material presented supportive.
    There is little or no historical nor archeological evidence for any of the three Abrahamic religions.
    On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that all three religions have been created and developed as means of control by the elite few over the general populations.

  3. A really interesting argument hidden inside some lazy writing. Such a strong statement as “Islam is the greatest cause of human suffering in the world today” is buried in the text, if the article began with this statement the reader could agree or disagree but would at least know what you’re on about. Article could be one third the word-count and not lose any meaning, impact would be far greater.

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