Clutching at Straws and Tilting at Minarets

Two new books on the origins of Islam suffer from, at best, sloppy, and at worst, dishonest, scholarship

Eric Ormsby

Stéphane Mallarmé once wrote that “every hallowed thing, that means to remain hallowed, enfolds itself in mystery”. Though the aphorism was directed to the obscure impulses of poetic inspiration, it applies with equal force to the origins of religious faith. The beginnings of the great world religions lie swaddled in folds of myth and legend as much as of verifiable historical fact. Much of their power derives from the assuaging shadows in which they have their origins. 

To see this, consider such 19th-century examples as The Church of the Latter Day Saints or Mary Baker Eddy’s First Church of Christ Scientist. Whatever their merits, such faiths lack any sense of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, that overwhelming sense of the numinous that Rudolf Otto, who coined the phrase, discovered at the very heart of belief in the supernatural; no shivers of the uncanny attend their proclamations. This isn’t only because of the content of their creeds; after all, Mormon theology, with its angel Morony and its fabulous golden tablets, is as murky as the most ardent obscurantist could hope for. But divine revelation is harder to credit in churches whose all-too-human beginnings are so well documented.

By contrast, the origins of Islam provide a quite different, perhaps even a unique, case in point. For a long time Islam seemed to have emerged in a rare lucency, as shadowless as the deserts of its origins. The French scholar Ernst Renan felt confident enough, in 1851, to write:

In place of the mystery under which the other religions have covered their origins, Islam was born in the full light of history; its roots are on the surface. The life of its founder is as well known to us as that of any 16th-century reformer. We can follow year by year the fluctuations of his thought, his contradictions, his weaknesses.

This famous pronouncement is held up as a sort of straw man at the outset of Robert Spencer’s provocative new book, Did Muhammad Exist? On the face of it, Renan’s confidence was well-placed. A colossal body of documentation exists in Arabic on the birth of Islam and the life of Muhammad, replete with vivid details about his personality and behaviour; we seem to know virtually everything he said or did during the 30 or so years of his prophetic career. Most of this information is contained in the Hadith, the collections of traditions whose validity is guaranteed by their isnads, or “chain of tradition”. The isnad authenticates a given tradition by linking it with some unimpeachable early witness — the Prophet’s favourite wife ‘A’isha, for example, or his trusted companion Abu Hurayra — down along a chain of equally unimpeachable witnesses, sometimes over generations.  Traditions without such links were deemed “weak” and considered non-canonical; others were declared spurious or even fabricated through a process of careful sifting by medieval Muslim scholars themselves. 

From such traditions we learn, for example, that Muhammad had red hair, that he liked cats (even cutting his cloak apart so as not to disturb a sleeping cat), that he had a weakness for perfume, and that he proffered an abundance of admonitions on everything from the diseases of livestock to the proper use of the toothbrush, not to mention voluminous dicta on prayer, fasting, sexual relations, the treatment of friends and relatives and the proper stance of the believer before God. These traditions in their considerable minutiae constitute the Sunna, that model comportment of the Prophet which all believers are expected to follow and emulate — and from which Sunni Muslims, the mainstream tradition, take their self-description. 

There is also the Prophet’s biography, the Sira, which provides exhaustive detail about Muhammad’s daily life, including his many conflicts with his adversaries, his military campaigns, his pious practices, and his singular personality. Finally, there is, of course, the Koran itself, the scripture containing the revelations accorded to Muhammad, beginning around 612, when the angel Gabriel first appeared to him on Mount Hira near Mecca, and continuing sporadically, until his reported death in 632. The Koran and the Hadith, taken together, form the two sacrosanct sources for Muslim belief and practice; they provide the foundations of sharia, or Islamic law, in its various (often quite disputatious and opposing) “schools”, and so underpin every aspect of Muslim religious and social life.

There is only one problem with this mass of information, and it’s a big problem. Not one shred of it — with the exception of the Koran — is incontrovertibly dateable to the early seventh century. The first biography of Muhammad was compiled by Ibn Ishaq, who died in 773, more than a century after the Prophet’s death, and even that has not survived as Ibn Ishaq wrote it; rather, parts of it were incorporated in the later work of one Ibn Hisham, some 60 years later, to form what we know as the Sira. Thus, almost two centuries separate the Prophet’s lifetime from his official life. As for the Hadith, even Muslim scholars from the tenth century on recognised that many of its traditions were not merely of dubious provenance but had all too often been fabricated or fatally embroidered. Much later, European Orientalists, such as the great Hungarian Jewish scholar Ignaz Goldziher or Joseph Schacht, a pioneering historian of Islamic law, would conclude that virtually all of these traditions were spurious; that is, not necessarily forged or invented — though many were — but simply too late or too dubious to be authentic. Over the last four decades this scepticism, not only about the Hadith but about all the long-accepted sources, has continued to mount. The existing evidence — or rather, the existing non-evidence — has been put searchingly to the test by those whom Robert Spencer calls “a small band of scholars who have dared, often at great personal and professional risk, to examine what the available historical data reveals about the canonical account of Islam’s origins”.

By way of contrast, in his little book Muhammad, in the series “All That Matters”, the well-known journalist and Muslim apologist Ziauddin Sardar provides that “canonical account” of Islam’s origins. Unfortunately, this is not a good book; it is at once drab and tendentious, written in lacklustre prose and much given to witless anachronism. Thus, Sardar defines the Arabic word ummah (literally, “community” but denoting the entire Muslim community) by saying, “The original significance of the term ummah was a multi-religious, one could even say multicultural, community committed to defending its joint interests”. This is arrant nonsense. 

Worse, Sardar engages in some unedifying wriggling over Muhammad’s brutal treatment of the Jewish tribes of Medina; multiculturalism and massacre don’t sit easily together, after all. But when he suggests that perhaps none of it ever happened and that the traditional accounts are spurious, he seems to join the ranks of those whom he elsewhere dismisses as “revisionist historians”. Such scholars, he says, “present the origins of Islam as a massive Muslim conspiracy”. But he ends with a sigh of relief for “this revisionist history has been discredited and debunked by modern scholars”.

Sardar will not be pleased to learn that revisionist history is alive and thriving. Robert Spencer’s book is a sympathetic account of its recent developments. Its inflammatory title as well as its prominent jacket blurb (“Are Jihadists Dying for a Fiction?”) seem to promise sensational disclosures, not least because the author is director of the website Jihad Watch, hardly a guarantee of objectivity on matters Islamic. Moreover, though Spencer describes himself as having “been studying Islamic theology, law and history in depth for more than three decades”, those years of toil don’t seem to have paid off; he doesn’t read Arabic (or indeed, French and German, languages indispensable for any serious work in the scholarly literature). The Arabic sources he cites are all taken from the works of others.

As it turns out, Spencer’s book is clearly written, reasonably objective and refreshingly tentative. In moving from such issues as the historicity of Muhammad (which he doubts), the composition and collection of the Koranic text (on which the most interesting recent work has been done), or the various hypotheses that surround Islamic origins (some — including his own — dafter than others), Spencer strives to represent the work of his “small band of scholars” with a fair degree of accuracy. For anyone who wants to get some sense of recent scholarship on such hopelessly vexed topics, Spencer’s book is probably a good place to start. It is not, however, a good place to stop, and that is for two reasons.

First, despite Spencer’s efforts, there is an immense gulf between his glib summaries and the scholarly studies on which he bases them. To turn from his breezy pronouncements to the work of such historians as Patricia Crone or Fred M. Donner or Günter Lüling or the anonymous scholar of Syriac who writes under the name of Christoph Luxenberg, is to witness the difference between genuine scholarship, with its meticulous, almost ant-like palping of the slightest crumb of possible evidence, together with its respect for the least glimmer of evidence — whether from an inscription or a coin or an archeological site or a snippet of text in Armenian or Syriac or Greek — and the sort of tabloid simulacrum Spencer offers.  

Still, Spencer’s careful scholars can be quite as myopic as he is glassy-eyed. Thus, when “Christoph Luxenberg” concludes that the Koranic word for “virgins”, when construed against its putative Syriac subtext, actually means “grapes”, plain old common sense raises its drowsy head. What scripture, what prophet, would offer those panting for martyrdom a bunch of grapes as a reward? What, not even a pomegranate?  Philology too has its limits.  

Again, none of these scholars, to the best of my knowledge, takes into account in his investigations the parallel and often conflicting traditions of Shi’ite Islam nor, it goes without saying, does Spencer. Some of the earliest accounts we have are from Shi’ite sources and they raise interesting questions that both complement and challenge scholarly assumptions: for example the early Shi’ite claim that the official Koran, supposedly assembled by the Caliph ‘Uthman from fragments scratched on “palm leaves, the shoulderblades of beasts and the hearts of men”, was in fact tampered with and even falsified.  This is the sort of thesis that Spencer should have leapt upon but, like his scholarly sources, his perspective on Islam is narrowly Sunni. He seems unaware, for example, of the magisterial work The Succession to the Prophet (Cambridge, 1997) by Wilferd Madelung, the leading contemporary historian of early Islam, though Madelung’s work is a prerequisite to any discussion of Islamic origins. (Surprisingly too, he seems unaware of Stephen J. Shoemaker’s brilliant The Death of a Prophet, a book that might have shored up some of his wilder speculations.)  

Second, Spencer has an annoying habit of postulating a hypothesis and then later basing an unfounded conclusion upon it. For example, he opines that the early Quraysh, that Meccan tribe of which Muhammad was a member, may have been originally Christian — whatever “Christian” might have meant in seventh-century Mecca (if indeed, Mecca existed at all); he then later uses this to suggest that the Qur’anic inscriptions of the Dome of the Rock, that magnificent construction built in Jerusalem by the Umayyad Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik in 691, may refer to Jesus rather than to Muhammad or to some vague “praised one” — this based on nothing stronger than the fact that the name Muhammad literally means “the praised one” in Arabic. Here, it seems to me, a quick stroke of Ockham’s Razor might have been in order. When Spencer is not clutching at straws, he is tilting at minarets.

Spencer’s hypotheses, as it turns out, are no more plausible than the traditional Muslim accounts, and in most instances, decidedly less so.  The lack of written documentation for the period between 632, when the Prophet supposedly died, and 691 when Umayyad coinage or such structures as the Dome of the Rock unambiguously display a Muslim identity — or even the greater gap between 632 and the time of the Prophet’s first biographers — proves nothing in itself; it is simply that, a lack of written evidence.  Those who make much of this underestimate or ignore the role of memory in traditional Muslim culture; for us memory is slippery, fallible, elusive. But for those raised in an oral culture, in which the spoken word weighed more than the written, texts committed to memory were deemed superior to those consigned to mere parchment and ink.  From the memorisation of the Koran to the learning of thousands of lines of poetry by heart to the retention of hundreds upon hundreds of traditions, Muslim scholars have always been what Jorge Luis Borges termed “memorious”, and to an extent we can hardly grasp. The transmission of detailed lore about Muhammad or early Islam from one scholar to another over generations or even centuries, purely by memory, does not strike me as inherently impossible.  Or might it be that there is something stubborn and uncanny, in me, as in all of us, some memory of mystery, that persuades us to cherish the shadows of all origins? 

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