Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Did Muhammad Exist?

A Book Review

What a strange question. Everybody assumes that Muhammad existed. Does not Islam affirm his existence? Why would anyone question it? Strangely enough there are many questions about Muhammad, the Qur’an, and the hadiths (traditions) that arose about Muhammad that led some scholars and researchers to the conclusion that Muhammad really did not exist. What is the cause of this doubt?

A recent book by Robert Spencer has the title, Did Muhammad Exist? The book1 is well-researched and deals with many historical issues. He describes the “canonical” story, that is, the common story told by Muslims, of Muhammad and then deals with the problems of supporting the story. The conclusion is that there is little to support the Muslim claims concerning the existence of Muhammad historically.

What are the sources of information about Muhammad?

First, we must examine the Qur’an, the sacred book of Muslims. There is little information about Muhammad in the Qur’an. The word “Muhammad” appears 4 times in the Qur’an. In three of the cases it could merely refer to a title, “the praised one,” or “chosen one.” Other names like Abraham appear 79 times, Moses 136 times, Pharaoh 74 times. The title “messenger of Allah” appears 300 times. Surah 33:40 is certainly a reference to a person, but it tells nothing about the life of Muhammad. Surah 48:29 also names Muhammad as a messenger of Allah.

Spencer concludes that “we can glean nothing from these passages about Muhammad’s biography. Nor is it even certain, on the basis of the Qur’anic text alone, that these passages refer to Muhammad, or did so originally.” (p.19)

Second, there are the hadiths, traditions, that are voluminous in quantity, often contradictory in nature, and most of them fabrications due to the lack of information about Muhammad. The hadiths arose much later after Muhammad supposedly died in 632.

Third, there is the Sira, an Arabic term for the traditional biographies of Muhammad. “The earliest biography of Muhammad was written by Ibn Ishaq (d.773), who wrote in the latter part of the eighth century, at least 125 years after the death of his protagonist, in a setting in which legendary material about Muhammad was proliferating. And Ibn Ishaq’s biography does not even exist as such; it comes down to us only in the quite lengthy fragments reproduced by an even later chronicler, Ibn Hisham, who wrote in the first quarter of the ninth century, and by other historians who reproduced and thereby preserved additional sections. Other biographical material about Muhammad dates from even later.” (p.19)

One of the earliest non-Muslim sources to possibly mention the prophet of Islam is a document known as the Doctrina Jacobi which was written by a Christian between 634 and 640. The document mentions the Saracens coming with an army and the prophet leading them. The writer was stopped by an old man well versed in Scripture and he inquired, “what can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens? He replied, groaning deeply: ‘He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword.’ (p.21) This unnamed prophet mentioned in the Doctrina was travelling with his army. Muhammad had died already. Moreover the full document speaks with reference to the anointed one, the Christ who was to come.”

“… there is not a single account of any kind dating from around the time the Doctrina Jacobi was written that affirms the canonical Islamic story of Muhammad and Islam’s origins.” (p.22)

The conquest of Jerusalem in 637 is mentioned by Sophronius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, who turned the city over to Umar, the conquering leader, but nothing is said about a holy book, or Muhammad, only that they were Saracens who were “godless.”

The first reference to the term Muslim comes in 690 by a Coptic Christian bishop, John of Nikiou. He wrote: “And now many of the Egyptians who had been false Christians denied the holy orthodox faith and lifegiving baptism, and embraced the religion of the Muslims, the enemies of God, and accepted the detestable doctrine of the beast, that is, Muhammad, and they erred together with those idolaters, and took arms in their hands and fought against the Christians.”

“There is, however, reason to believe that this text as it stands is not as John of Nikiou wrote it. It survives only in an Ethiopic translation from the Arabic, dating from 1602. The Arabic itself was a translation from the original Greek or some other language. There is no other record of the terms Muslim and Islam being used either by the Arabians or by the conquered people in the 690’s, outside of the inscription on the Dome of the Rock, which itself has numerous questionable features…” (p.36)

After pursuing various issues Spencer sums up what we know about the traditional account of Muhammad’s life and the early days of Islam.

  • 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” who seems to be still alive.
  • The early accounts written by the people the Arabs conquered never mention Islam, Muhammad, or the Qur’an. They call the conquerors “Ishmaelites,” “Saracens,” “Muhajirun,” and “Hagarians” but never “Muslims.”
  • The Arab conquerors, in their coins and inscriptions, don’t mention Islam or the Qur’an for the first six decades of their conquests. Mentions of “Muhammad” are non-specific and on at least two occasions are accompanied by a cross. The word can be used not only as a proper name but also as an honorific.
  • The Qur’an, even by the canonical Muslim account, was not distributed in its present form until the 650’s. Contradicting that standard account is the fact that neither the Arabian nor the Christians and Jews in the region mention the Qur’an until the early eighth century.
  • During the reign of the caliph Muawiya (661-680), the Arabs constructed at least one public building whose inscription was headed by a cross.
  • We begin hearing about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and about Islam itself in the 690’s, during the reign of the caliph Abd al-Malik. Coins and inscriptions reflecting Islamic beliefs begin to appear at this time also.
  • Around the same time, Arabic became the predominant written language of the Arabian Empire, supplanting Syriac and Greek.
  • Abd al-Malik claimed, in a passing remark in one hadith, to have collected the Qur’an, contradicting Islamic tradition that the collection was the work of the caliph Uthman forty years earlier.
  • Multiple hadiths report that Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, governor of Iraq during the reign of Abd al-Malik, edited the Qur’an and distributed his new edition to the various Arab-controlled provinces--- again, something Uthman is supposed to have done decades earlier.
  • Even some Islamic traditions maintain that certain common Islamic practices, such as the recitation of the Qur’an during mosque prayers, date from orders of Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, not to the earlier period of Islamic history.
  • In the middle of the eighth century, the Abbasid dynastic 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 Mohammed began to proliferate. The first complete biography of the prophet of Islam finally appeared during this era—at least 125 years after the traditional date of his death.
  • The biographical material that emerged situates Muhammad in an area of Arabia that never was the center for trade and pilgrimage that the canonical Islamic account of Islam’s origin depend on it to be. (pp.205-206)

Given these huge problems for the history of Islam, how does Spencer explain the rise of Islam? He proposes the need for a political theology that would reflect Arabic culture, Arabic language, and Arabic religion. When warriors from Arabia encountered the conquered cultures they observed that the Roman empire had a political theology for the purpose of binding the empire together. “The earliest Arab rulers appear to have been adherents of Hagarism, a monotheistic religion centered around Abraham and Ishmael.” (p.208) It was not as anti-Christian as Islam developed later since there were Arab coins with crosses on them. This religious model reached its height in 691 and there began to emerge a defiantly Arabic one.

By the end of the seventh century and the beginning of the eight, “the Umayyads began to speak more specifically about Islam, its prophet and eventually its book.” (The Umayyad dynasty ruled from 661 to 750.) The Dome of the Rock’s inscription referring to the “praised one” no longer could refer to Jesus, but to Muhammad. Even if Muhammad did not exist his name would be politically useful since the Arabs needed an Arab prophet who would also have a scripture in Arabic. Since much of the Qur’an has been borrowed from Jewish and Christian sources of some kind it was easy to plagiarize them and change them for their own uses.

The lack of historical documents seems to be blamed on the Umayyad party who were replaced by the Abbasids in 750. The Umayyads were regarded as irreligious, failing to appreciate the history of Islam. With the new Caliph, the Abbasids, there begins a massive attempt to fill in the gaps of ignorance about the past, about Muhammad, and the manufacture of hadiths (traditions) began in earnest. Many of the hadiths blame the Umayyads, and the Umayyads created their own hadiths blaming the Abbasids. There are 600,000 hadiths, all of them forgeries by competing groups. Even the Shia have their own hadiths affirming the claim of Ali as successor to Muhammad.

Essentially, Spencer maintains that the Arabian empire came first, the theology came later.

He concludes: “A careful investigation makes at least one thing clear: The details of Muhammad’s life that have been handed down as canonical—that he unified Arabia by the force of arms, concluded alliances, married wives, legislated for his community, and did so much else—are a creation of political ferment dating from long after the time he is supposed to have lived. Similarly, the records strongly indicate that the Qur’an did not exist until long after it was supposed to have been delivered to the prophet of Islam.”

“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.” (pp.214-215)

How will Muslims respond to this book? Some may seek to curse the author. They may respond in outrage. But that will not disprove the facts presented here. Islam is supposed to be a religion based in history. It is supposed to be a religion of reason. But if history will not support the claims of Islam, is it time for Muslims to rethink the legitimacy of Islam? Blind commitment to the teachings of the local imam will not be enough in this age of instant information and verification of facts.

Spencer makes a compelling argument that Muhammad did not exist. One may view the debate between Spencer and David Wood, who affirmed that Muhammad did exist. Wood did not fill in the gaps to make the case for his existence without great doubt. That debate can be viewed here.

Those who read Spencer’s book with an open mind may be angry with indignation of being misled all of one’s life about the origin of Islam. Perhaps many will conclude that it is time to check out the Gospel story of Jesus who is the Savior with the promise of forgiveness and everlasting life in the presence of Yahweh that can be known right now.

Review by Dallas M. Roark



1 Robert Spencer, Did Muhammad Exist? (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2012)

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