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Monday, May 28, 2012

Review of "In Search of Muhammad" by Robert Spencer

This is from a review and summary of the book, In Search of Muhammad by Robert Spencer.  The review comes from the American Spectator.
Without indulging in polemics or pushing a partisan political agenda, the author simply investigates the question of whether we can really trust the traditional Islamic accounts for the life of Muhammad and the supposed early days of Islam during the Arab conquests.

To be sure, serious scholarship on Islamic historiography dates back to the latter half of the 19th century -- with the works of the Belgian Jesuit Henri Lammens and the acclaimed Geschichte des Qorans by Theodor Noldeke, to name just two pioneers of the field -- and Spencer makes no pretense to originality.

Yet a traditional problem with Islamic historiography has been the intended audience: that is, the academic specialist assumed to have extensive background knowledge, rather than the general reader. Thus, Spencer's book serves a useful purpose, for it flows nicely while providing the reader with a firm grounding for delving deeper into the subject. Indeed, the author provides a handy "Further Reading List" (pp. 239-40) for anyone interested in consulting specialist works. Spencer also deserves credit for integrating his sources nicely into his writing, avoiding the practice of simply quoting verbatim large chunks from other authors.

SO WHAT ARE THE MAIN arguments against the historicity of the traditional Islamic accounts of Muhammad's life and the subsequent rise of Islam through the Arab conquests?

To begin with, contemporary non-Muslim sources of the 7th century do not corroborate the canonical story. For example, the Doctrina Jacobi (a document dating to 634-40 CE and probably written by a Christian living in Palestine; p. 20), an account of the Arab conquest of Jerusalem by Sophronius -- the patriarch who is said to have surrendered the city in 637 -- and a letter written in 647 by the patriarch of Seleucia make no reference to the Arab conquerors as Muslims, or show any awareness of a religion called Islam.

The earliest account that can reliably be taken to refer to Muhammad is a chronicle by the Armenian bishop Sebeos, dating either to the 660s or 670s but containing material that sharply diverges from the traditional Islamic accounts: thus he has Muhammad "insisting on the Jews' right to the Holy Land -- even if in the context of claiming that land for the Ishmaelites, acting in conjunction with the Jews" (p. 32).

Only by around 730 CE, nearly one hundred years after Muhammad's death in 632 CE according to the canonical story, do we see an account by John of Damascus make detailed reference to parts of the Qur'an, but even then he does not name the Qur'an or allude to the existence of a complete holy book for those he calls "Hagarians," "Ishmaelites" or "Saracens" (but not Muslims).

Instead, we have reference to Qur'anic chapter titles like "The Women" (this is the fourth Sura of the Qur'an today), implying that he was drawing on fragments of text that were later incorporated into the Qur'an.

Arabic epigraphic evidence from the 7th century similarly fails to validate the canonical account. An inscription attributed to the first Umayyad caliph -- Muawiya -- in 677 or 678 CE makes reference to belief in God but gives no indication of belief in Muhammad as his messenger or the Qur'an as revealed scripture.

On coins from this period, we do find the word "Muhammad" inscribed, but curiously the inscription comes under kingly figures bearing a cross, a symbol of Christianity that is totally antithetical to traditional Islam (pp. 43-4).

Bearing in mind that "Muhammad" can also mean "the chosen/praised one," the coins could well be conveying the idea that the ruler is praised or chosen in God's name (p. 45). Alternatively, they could be referring to Jesus -- at a time when the religion of the Arab conquerors was still a vague monotheism -- or a proto-Muhammad figure still very much unlike the man depicted in the traditional accounts of his life. Even the inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock -- completed in 691 CE and often thought to be the first elaborations on traditional Islamic theology -- could be referring to Jesus, explaining how he ("Muhammad") is a mere messenger and not divine as orthodox Christianity held (pp. 56-7).

IT IS ONLY TOWARDS the middle of the 8th century (735 CE onwards) that we begin to see very clear epigraphic evidence referring to Muhammad as we know him from the Ahadith (plural of hadith) and Sira (pp. 61-2). This observation leads nicely to an examination of the reliability of biographical material from the Ahadith and Sira concerning the sunna (i.e. example) of Muhammad. The centrality of the Ahadith and Sira in interpreting various Qur'anic verses, whose meaning would otherwise be entirely obscure, cannot be overstated.
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