Unlike other religions, declared the nineteenth-century French scholar Ernest Renan, Islam “was born in the full light of history.” Renan’s point, of course, was that whereas, for example, Jesus was unknown during his lifetime to the great world beyond Galilee and Judea, and the story of his life was set down, in various versions, only decades after his crucifixion, Muhammed was in his own lifetime a public figure of unparalleled eminence – the prophet of a new religion, the commander of an army that conquered much of the Arabian peninsula in the name of that religion, and the founder of an Islamic empire that, over the century or so after his death, would spread his religion from the western end of the Mediterranean to what is now India, and eventually threaten on more than one occasion to engulf the whole of Europe.
But Renan was wrong. Over the past century, while archeologists, textual scholars, and others have examined the life of Jesus from every conceivable angle – and established beyond any reasonable doubt that the man whose ministry is recounted in the gospels really existed – the relatively few experts on Islam who’ve ventured to scrutinize with open minds the established narrative about Muhammed have discovered major problems with almost every aspect of it, so that questions have arisen, over time, as to whether this historical figure of the first consequence – a man whose rich and adventurous life story had long been recounted in colorful detail (and whom Time magazine, in 1992, named the most influential person in human history) – had ever actually existed at all.
It’s a breathtaking thought, and at first glance it seems outlandish, audacious, impossible. For the overwhelming majority of Muslims, even to entertain the notion that Muhammed might be a fictional character is verboten. Most scholars of Islam don’t want to go near it either, for fear or their lives, or (at the very least) their careers. But the few who’ve dared to do so have emerged with some extremely sensational findings. In 2012, Robert Spencer summed up what had been discovered so far in his remarkable book Did Muhammed Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins. Since the scholarly work in this area has continued without pause – and has produced even more extraordinary evidence that the historical account of Muhammed needs, at the very least, to be radically revised – Spencer has now issued a revised and expanded, and even more devastating, version of his book.
And what a book it is! So you don’t care about Islam? Well, as always, the first answer to that has to be: Islam cares about you. And the second answer is that you don’t have to be interested in Islam to find this book absolutely compelling. If you enjoy mysteries, this book tells the supremely thrilling story of a diverse band of canny sleuths – archeologists, linguists, historians, theological experts – who’ve spent much of their careers trying to solve what may be the biggest mystery ever. To make your way through this book, chapter by chapter, is to feel that you’re seeing the cover being pulled back, layer by layer, on one of the most massive deceptions in the annals of humankind.
Let’s start at the beginning, with the officially received story of Muhammed’s life. Born in Mecca around A.D. 570, he was, in his early years, a merchant, Mecca being a major trading center on an important commercial route; then, in 610, he wrote the Qur’an, which he said had been dictated to him by the Angel Gabriel. He became a prophet, began accumulating followers, and, between 620 and 630, led an army that conquered most of the Arabian peninsula in the name of his new religion. After his death in 632, his successors continued to capture territory and to convert the subjugated peoples to the faith of the Qur’an, which taught them to pray toward Mecca.
So, at least, goes the story. In fact, historical research has shown, first of all, that seventh-century Mecca was not a trading center at all; it was a dusty, remote little town of no particular importance. Also, most mosques didn’t face Mecca until the late ninth century; before that, most of them faced Petra in what is now Jordan. Moreover, while there are ample records of the battles fought by the Arab army – there is no doubt about the historicity of its conquests – scholars have searched in vain for any reference by contemporaries to Muhammed, Islam, or the Qur’an, which were supposedly the impetus for all the warmongering.
On the contrary, coins minted between A.D. 650 and 680 in the conquered Arab territories actually bore the image of the Cross – and no reference to Muhammed or to anything else that we associate today with Islam. Yes, some coins from the second half of the seventh century do feature the word “Muhammed” along with the image of the Cross – a combination incomprehensible under Islam. How to explain this? As Spencer notes, “the figure on the coin could have evolved into the Muhammad of Islam but was not much like him at the time the coin was issued.” Or it could be that Muhammed, which can be translated as “the praised one,” is in this instance not a name but a title, referring not to the prophet of Islam but – yes – to Jesus Christ.
Similarly, an Arabic inscription on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, completed in A.D. 691-2, is today routinely translated as “Muhammad is the servant of God and His messenger.” But it makes more grammatical sense to read it as “praised be the servant of God and His messenger” – a reference, again, not to Muhammed of Mecca but to Jesus of Nazareth. As for textual evidence, not a single surviving seventh-century document contains the word “Muslim” or “Islam” – a bizarre finding, given that by the year A.D. 700 Arab forces had conquered the entire Middle East and beyond, supposedly in the name of the new faith. Muhammed’s name does appear in one Christian chronicle dated A.D. 690, but it doesn’t mention the Qur’an, and its account of the religious beliefs of the Arab warriors makes it sound very unlike the Islam we know today.
The history textbooks record that Islam had become established across the Arabian peninsula by the time of Muhammed’s death in 630. Yet it’s impossible to find any record of contemporaries describing the conquerors as Muslims – instead they called them “Ishmaelites,” “Saracens,” “Muhajirun,” and “Hagarians.” Not until the reign of the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik, which lasted from 685 to 705, do references to “Muslims” and the Qur’an begin to appear in the historical record, along with “accounts of the heroic life and exemplary deeds of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam” (in other words, the hadith, a veritable library of stories about Muhammed that are considered secondary only to the Qur’an as sacred texts of Islam, and that, Spencer and his sources propose, were concocted by a range of players for a range of self-serving reasons). And the first mention of Muhammed’s death doesn’t turn up until more than a century after it’s said to have taken place.
In short, the more the evidence accumulates, the more it looks as if the soldiers who subdued the Arabian peninsula, supposedly in the name of Islam, were not Muslims at all but pagans who’d never heard of Muhammed or the Qur’an. Which means that the prophet who we think of as having been their commander, and the book that we think of as having provided them with the inspiration for their military triumphs, were both late seventh-century creations, products of the imagination of Abd al-Malik and others in his circle. And why were they created? The theory, at least, is that they were a means of providing the subject peoples of the fast-growing Arab empire – who were Zoroastrians and adherents of various Christian heresies – a sense of common confessional identity. As Spencer puts it, the empire “needed a common religion – a political theology that would supply the foundation for the empire’s unity and secure allegiance to the state. This new prophet needed to be an Arab, living deep within Arabia. If he had come from anywhere else within the new empire’s territory, that place could have made claims to special status and pushed to gain political power on that basis.”
For centuries, school children have been taught that Muhammed and the Qur’an gave rise to the triumph of the Arab empire. Is it instead the case that the triumph of the Arab empire led to the invention of Muhammed and the Qur’an? Can it be that, in Spencer’s words, “the empire came first and the theology came later”? If Islam was in fact born out of political necessity, it would certainly help explain, as Spencer points out, why it’s always been a uniquely political faith that instructs its adherents “to be the instruments of divine justice on earth” and that contains “martial and imperial” elements that are inextricable from its theological core. And if you think it seems unlikely that a Big Lie on this scale could never have worked, recall what the Democrats accomplished with the Russian collusion hoax – and ponder what they might have been able to pull off in an era of mass illiteracy and zero mass media.
Robert Spencer is quick to underscore that this book is the product of decades of discoveries by many different individuals. But by bringing this material together so cogently and coherently and putting it into the hands of an audience of general readers, Spencer has made an invaluable contribution to knowledge. This is, to be sure, only the latest addition to the long bookshelf of volumes about Islam that he’s produced over the last two decades, thereby providing an urgently needed corrective to the deceptions and distortions of glib fabulists like Karen Armstrong and Tariq Ramadan. Still, none of Spencer’s books is potentially more consequential than this one, which offers readers a singularly spectacular experience: to read it is, quite simply, to see the mighty edifice of Islam, in all its glory and grandeur, slowly and silently vanish before one’s eyes.