Oh, what a question? How could you even ask that? But, yes, this is exactly the kind of question Islam should be subjected to. For the last 200 years, beginning in the late 18th century, Christianity has come under critical scrutiny like no other faith. And yet, in the 21st century, questioning any aspect of Islam is commonly viewed as Islamophobia, pure and simple. Interestingly, the word Christophobia has yet to be coined.
Now if you are going to question Islam, there are two great places to start: the Qur’an and Muhammed himself. Others are doing a pretty good job of questioning the former. Spencer has chosen the latter.
And he hasn’t done a bad job at all. If anyone is wondering what Yasir Qadhi’s infamous “holes in the narrative” are, Spencer’s book is a great place to start. There are holes galore.
The obvious place to start is with Islamic writings about Muhammad. There’s scant reference to him in the Qur’an (if at all) and so we turn to the Hadith where there are literally tens of thousands. There’s a lot in here that is quite shocking concerning the kind of person he was (so much so that Muhammad’s first official biographer Ibn Ishaq admitted to leaving parts out that would “distress certain people”), but Spencer is more concerned about whether he was at all.
Seeing how rapidly and extensively Arab armies conquered their known world, it is surprising how little and how late any references to Muhammad occur in external sources known to us today. Some of these references are puzzling. For example, for someone of such apparently monumental contemporary importance, there is no specific mention of him until 90 years after his death. In fact, the date of his death doesn’t surface until over 100 years after 632, the date in Wikipedia. A couple of the vague mentions of him are accompanied with illustrations of crosses, not something you’re likely to see down your local masjid these days.
After trolling through pretty much all the historical sources he can find, Spencer summarises his argument in the final chapter. Based on the fact that it wasn’t until the late 7th century that specific references to Muhammad as we understand him today emerge, he proposes that the Umayyad’s found it politically expedient to place him as a figurehead hero of their movement. Thus, from that point on and in particular under the Abbasids, he becomes a central figure, in stark contrast to any reference to him prior to that in any sources, Islamic or otherwise.
It’s an interesting theory and one which makes sense. Whether it’s true or not is impossible to prove. But this is exactly the same dilemma historians have about Muhammad’s life: much of it is impossible to prove. While many might argue that warring tribes have little time to sit down and write up their diaries at night, contemporary historians have little else to refer to except text. It’s an historical necessity if we are to be certain of what was what.
As Spencer concludes:
“Did Muhammad exist? As a prophet of the Arabs who taught a vaguely defined monotheism, he may have existed. But beyond that, his life story is lost in the mists of legend, like those of Robin Hood and Macbeth. As the prophet of Islam, who received (or even claimed to receive) the perfect copy of the perfect eternal book from the supreme God, Muhammad almost certainly did not exist. There are too many gaps, too many silences, too many aspects of the historical record that simply do not accord, and cannot be made to accord, with the traditional account of the Arabian prophet teaching his Qur’an, energizing his followers to such an extent that they went out and conquered a good part of the world.”p. 214 – 215
Scholarly criticism of Islam is currently gaining slow but sure momentum in the west, spurred on, no doubt, by the glasnost of the Interwebs. But vehement opposition to, say, even the idea of applying the historical-critical method to the Qur’an, continues to plague anyone who dares step into the arena.
“Even raising the question of whether Muhammad existed challenges the very premise of their belief system. No Muslim authorities have encouraged such scholarship, and those who have pursued this line of inquiry often labor under threat of death.”p. 216
Those who are willing to walk that path though have started to publish some interesting results. It’s definitely a fascinating space to watch as scholarship, Muslim or not, takes bolder steps in that direction though.