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An Atheist's Guide to Mohammedanism

By Frank R. Zindler
Mohammedans don't like to be called Mohammedans — that smacks too much of terms such as Christians. As everybody knows, Christians worship Christ as a god. Mohammedans don't want people to think they worship Mohammed (Arabic, Muhammad A - 'Praiseworthy'), and so dislike referring to their religion as Mohammedanism. However, Confucians don't worship Confucius (Chinese, K'ung Fu-tsu — 'K'ung [a family name] the Grand Master'), even though their system is calledConfucianism and often is considered to be a religion. Even so, Mohammedans don't want Mohammed to be viewed as a parallel of the Christ of the Christians.
Mohammed was merely a prophet, they will argue, who disclaimed the ability to do miracles. Mohammed was just a man - albeit the perfect man, leading a completely sinless life which has become the model for all true believers to emulate. Moreover, it will be asserted, Mohammed did not choose to be a prophet; he was chosen by Allah. He did not himself compose the 'revelations' that were spoken from his mouth; they were delivered to him by an angel who got them from the 'Mother of the Book' which has existed in heaven either forever or for just a little bit less.
Mohammed was a passive agent of Allah, simply serving as his mouthpiece or oracle. It is his message that is important, not his biography. He was one of a series of prophets who reported Allah's wishes to men (perhaps even to some women). These prophets included Jesus (Arabic ‘Issa), who, to spite the Christians, is demoted by Mohammedans from non-profit to prophet status. Most importantly, Mohammed was Allah's last prophet. Thus, Joseph Smith was an impostor, and Mormon missionaries are not welcome in Mohammedan territories. (Of course, no missionaries of any kind are welcome in such places, where it is often a capital offense to convert a Mohammedan to 'infidelity'.)
Despite such protestations by the faithful (all non-Mohammedans are infidels), the reverence accorded to Mohammed at times has bordered on the threshold of worship if not actually transgressing it. Very early, his followers came to attribute a number of miracles to him and passed along fabulous tales of supernatural signs and wonders relating to his birth and career. (One night, it is believed, Mohammed set out on a nocturnal journey or Miraj up to the heavens where he communed with Allah face-to-face.) It is still believed by many that at the Last Judgment, Mohammed will be an intercessor like the Virgin Mary and the Catholic saints, pleading for the exculpation of those who have submitted themselves to his teachings.
Among the mystical Sufis (from the Arabic suf, meaning 'wool' - alluding to the woolen hair shirts worn by early Sufis, not to the woolliness of their thinking), exaltation and veneration of Mohammed seems to have reached Christian proportions. In Sufism, Mohammed has become the eternal manifestation of the Divine Light in the world, pre-existent like the Christian Logos, representing the primal, divine force which created and sustains the universe, the only intermediary through whom one may approach Allah and have knowledge of him. For all practical purposes, the Sufi Mohammed (peace be upon him) is a supernatural being, even if not quite a full-fledged god.
Mohammedans prefer to be called Muslims B a term derived from the Arabic ’aslama, meaning 'to resign oneself [to Allah]'. They prefer their religion to be called Islam (from Arabic ’islam, meaning 'submission') rather than Mohammedanism. Most western scholars have gone along with this, rather than risk the wrath of purportedly peaceful members of 'the third great Abrahamic faith'. Nevertheless, Mohammedanism seems to be a perfectly appropriate name for a religion which currently poses so great a threat to secular civilizations throughout the world. Despite this fact, it must be conceded that Islam is easier to spell thanMohammedanism, and Muslim is less tedious to type than Mohammedan. Consequently, these shorter words will be the terms most often employed in the remainder of this guide.
Given the fierce monotheism professed by Muslims and their sometimes violent rejection of all religions other than Islam, one might suppose that intolerance would be the first and most fundamental 'pillar' upon which their religious practice rests. Not surprisingly, however, this greatest of Muslim virtues is not made explicit, but rather is allowed to lurk hidden within the first of the five duties ('pillars') required of all Muslim men.
The first pillar is the recitation (preferably in Arabic) of the creed, orshahada: "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet." If Allah is the only god in the neighborhood, Trinitarian Christians and Hindus are endlessly blaspheming true religion. Despite the occasionally tolerant references in the Qur’an to "People of the Book" (Jews and Christians in addition to Muslims), the non-Muslims need to be eliminated. Convert them or kill them, or make them pay a religious ransom to continue the private practice of their religion. (Of necessity, Muslims must reject the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.) Atheists and Agnostics, who deny the reality of Allah, are also wicked blasphemers. They need to be eliminated also. It is preferable to kill them. Such intolerance, of course, is not unique to Islam. It is a natural attribute of all monotheistic religions.
The second pillar of Islam, salat, is daily ritual prayer. This is mandatory only five times per day (at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nighttime), but extremely religious Muslims such as suicide bombers and aerial terrorists usually pray more frequently. Prayer requires a person to face Mecca and the Ka‘aba, a roughly cubical building containing a magical black stone thought by some to be a meteorite. (Archaeological and other evidence shows, however, that in the early years of Islam, prayers were directed at Jerusalem, not Mecca.) Prayer is preceded by ritual purification and involves a series of bowings, prostrations, and recitations from the Qur’an. On Fridays, prayer is communal and conducted in a mosque (Arabic masjid, 'place for prostration'). Led by an imam (from Arabic amma, 'to walk before'), with worshippers standing in rows behind him, prayers normally are followed by a sermon. (Contrary to common western opinion, it is not mandatory for sermons to contain the slogans "Death to America" or "Death to Israel.") Women do not generally attend these public prayers, and when they do enter into mosques they are segregated from the men. Although this offends the western sense of sexual equality, it is quite understandable. The minds of men bowing down to the ground might wander from thoughts of the singularity of Allah if their noses were merely inches away from the raised derrieres of women kneeling on prayer rugs in front of them. Even if the women were completely shrouded in burqas, their intermingled presence would be a deterrent to patriarchal piety.
The third pillar of Islam is zakat, the giving of a fixed percentage of one's property to the poor and the homeless. Since there usually are no formal arrangements made for collection of zakat, this generally is the least burdensome of the five pillars.
The fourth pillar is the fasting required during the lunar month of Ramadan, which can occur at any season of the year. During this period, no food or drink may be consumed during daylight hours, although pregnant women and certain others may be exempted from this rule. Feasting is obligatory at the end of Ramadan, but with both pork and alcohol being forbidden, this feast offers far less fun than that enjoyed at, say, Irish or Polish Catholic festivals.
The fifth and final pillar of Islam is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca every able-bodied Muslim is required to make at least once in his life. Pilgrims must wear special dress, walk seven times around the Ka‘aba (Arabic ka’bun, 'a cube'), and kiss the talismanic black stone enshrined like an idol in the southeast corner of the edifice. Although probably a meteorite — and thus a truly heavenly stone - the black stone is claimed to be one of the precious stones of paradise given by the angel Gabriel to the patriarch Abraham when he built the Ka‘aba — in Arabia, contrary to Jewish and Christian opinion! Even though the stone has been stolen, burned, and broken, it is the veneration focal point for more than a billion Muslims in the world today. (With so many Muslims required to come to Mecca, the logistics of the Hajj are rapidly bursting the bounds of the possible.) The Ka‘aba temple is widely believed to be older than Mohammed, having housed the pagan Arabian pantheon. All its idols were destroyed when it was adapted to serve the Islamic cultus.
When in Mecca kissing the Ka‘aba, it is also incumbent upon pilgrims to kill an animal in the Mina valley on the tenth day of the month of pilgrimage, since Allah, like the Yahweh of the Jews, is believed to enjoy having animals killed for his viewing pleasure. (It is amusing to imagine what will happen if P.E.T.A. and the Animal Liberation Front ever get wind of this. How Muslims would deal with the threat of animal-rights terrorism would be something worth watching closely.) After killing a goat or other suitable sacrificial species (for some reason, dogs and pigs are deemed unsuitable), most pilgrims then betake themselves to Medina (Yathrib), a city located 210 miles north of Mecca, in order to pray at what is claimed to be Mohammed's tomb. (If there are in fact human remains in the tomb, it would be interesting to see if the DNA could be matched up to that of persons claiming descent from the prophet.) I have been unable to learn whether pilgrims face the tomb or Mecca when performing their Medina prayers.
Although Mohammed is believed to have been born in the year 570 or 571 CE, it is not known what name he was given by his mother.Mohammed ('praiseworthy' or 'highly praised') is obviously an honorific title, not a name. In fact, once in the Qur’an (at 61:6) he is called ’Ahmad, which in Arabic means 'more praiseworthy', and at times his contemporaries are said to have called him al-’Amin, which means 'the trustworthy one'. Despite this problem, Muslims believe that Mohammed - whoever he may have been - was born in Mecca, an Arabian city supposed to have been located at the intersection of major caravan trade routes. Orphaned early in life, when he reached the age of twenty-five (595 CE) he married a wealthy widow named Khadija, fifteen years his senior. According to a traditional account, Mohammed had married his boss - the merchant Khadija having been his employer at the time. Only after her death in 620 did Mohammed begin to practice polygamy, taking perhaps a dozen wives. Only one of his children survived, however, a daughter named Fatima. (She married her father's cousin ‘Ali, making him the ancestor of all the prophet's later descendants.)
Tradition also tells us that in the year 610, while meditating in a cave outside Mecca, a supernatural voice (later identified as the voice of the angel Gabriel, the same heavenly messenger that previously had delivered the results of the pregnancy test to the Virgin Mary) commanded him to "Recite in the name of thy Lord, who created." Thus began the alleged revelations of the Qur’an. This event is revered as the "First Call" of the prophet and has been immortalized as the "Night of Power."
At least at first, Mohammed's 'revelations' were like those of other oracles, soothsayers, and religious con-artists whose utterances took the form of rhymed prose. Mohammed convinced himself that he had been called to be a prophet in the tradition of the Jews and of Jesus. He also convinced a small coterie of relatives and friends that he had tapped into a direct line to Allah. This quickly led to friction with his tribe, the Quraysh, who were custodians of the Ka‘aba, which at the time was a pagan shrine housing all the idols of economic significance to his tribe.
As is necessary for foundation myths of virtually all religions, the first followers of the new faith had to endure persecution, fleeing to Christian Ethiopia around the year 615. While those Muslims-in-the-making were out of town, Mohammed and the disciples who had stayed with him in Mecca were confined under siege - to be starved into submission.
Just in the nick of time, Mohammed received a revelation that helpfully clarified the theopolitical questions at issue for the Meccan guardians of the gods in the Ka‘aba. When Mohammed had reported that Allah was the only god in town, it turned out that he hadn't received the entire satellite transmission. Perhaps Gabriel had mumbled and Mohammed missed part of the message. Wouldn't you know? The three favorite goddesses of Mecca - al-Lat, al-Uzzah, and al-Manat - were also real! This saved Mohammed's neck and all body parts attached thereto, and the exiles were able to return from Ethiopia. Later, when it was safe to do so, this all-important revelation was expunged from the Qur’an and it was explained that the revelation had come from Shaitan (Satan), not Allah. Thus began the legend of the "Satanic Verses," which more than a thousand years later was to prompt the Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa of death against the novelist Salman Rushdie.
To draw attention to the Satanic Verses is to galvanize a still-raw nerve in the body politic of Islam. The Satanic Verses are an acute embarrassment to Mohammedan authorities because they imply that it was Satan, not Allah, who had saved their prophet's life. If Allah was the only god, and if he had previously selected Mohammed to be his last and greatest mouthpiece on this planet, why didn't he save his own appointed prophet? Why would the god of evil want to save his enemy's ambassador? Might not there be more Satanic Verses in the Qur’an — verses that have never been recognized as the handiwork of the prince of devils? Who knows what evils yet may lurk in the Book of Books?
In any event, the Satanic Verses didn't solve Mohammed's problems for the long term, and Mohammed and his gang would have to leave Mecca. On 16 July 622 CE - a date that later would become the starting point of the Moslem calendrical era C — some of his disciples left for the town of Yathrib, several hundred miles to the north. Mohammed and his friend Abu-Bakr followed them, arriving in Yathrib on 24 September 622 and renaming the town Medina (Arabical-Madinah, 'the city' [of the prophet]). Although the house-moving does not seem to have been all that remarkable to a western observer, it was considered to be a foundational event in the history of Islam. In Muslim literature, the migration from Mecca to Medina is referred to as the Hegira (Arabic hijrah 'migration').
While in Medina, Mohammed continued to dictate 'revelations' to various of his disciples, apparently including some who were able to write. (Mohammed is believed to have been illiterate.) More importantly, however, he became a successful politician, contracting many alliances by means of marriages. The most notable of these marriages was with Aisha, the infant daughter of Abu-Bakr, who became the most influential of all the prophet's wives. Many of the 'traditions' of the prophet are claimed to have been transmitted through her.
Once his power base had grown sufficiently, Mohammed took to banditry, attacking a Meccan caravan led by Abu-Sufyan of the Quraysh tribe as it was returning from Syria in the year 624 CE, during the holy month of Ramadan when fighting was prohibited. Somehow, the Meccans learned of this and rushed to the aid of the caravan, meeting 300 Muslims-in-the-making with a thousand Meccan fighters on a battlefield called Badr, approximately twenty miles southwest of Medina. Naturally, a miracle occurred and the prophet's force was victorious. From this time forward, the name Islam ('submission') was to belie the true nature of the militant polity which to this day is an obstacle in the path to planetary peace.
After consolidating his hold on Medina, Mohammed chased the Jews from their farms and divorced his developing system from both Judaism and Christianity. He ordered the faithful henceforth to pray facing Mecca, not Jerusalem as had been the case up to then. In 628 Mohammed obtained a truce with Mecca allowing his followers to make the pilgrimage to the Ka‘aba. Mecca became the religious capital of Islam and Medina remained the political capital. In 630 Mohammed attacked Mecca, conquered it, and smashed the 360 idols in the Ka‘aba. He declared the territory surrounding the shrine to be haram— forbidden - to all non-Muslims. Even today, no Atheist or Christian could visit the taboo area and escape with his life. Indeed, the entire region of Saudi Arabia in which the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located (the Hijaz) is considered by Wahabi Muslims such as Osama bin Laden to be haram and out-of-bounds for American military infidels.
On 8 June 632, Mohammed came down with a truly killer headache and died suddenly. He died in Aisha's apartment and was buried right there. (There is no proof whatsoever that he ever uttered the famous line, "Not tonight, honey, I've got a headache.") Before he died, he had sent forces to attack Syria, beginning a struggle that would not end until a major part of the civilized world was subject to Arabs and their new-fangled religion.
The Qur’an/Koran (Arabic Qur’an, 'reading' or 'recitation'), as everybody knows, is the bible of the Mohammedans. It is the source of their 'knowledge' that there is but a single god, Allah, and that for men (and probably for women as well) after death there will be a limbo-like state leading to the Last Day, the Resurrection, and Retribution. In the thereafter, wicked men such as infidels will suffer damnation. According to Sura 44:43-50, the fruit of the Zuqqum tree will be their food and it will burn in their guts like molten brass and boil like scalding water. They will be dragged into the midst of blazing fire and then, just for good measure, boiling water will be poured over their heads. "In front of such a one is Hell, and he is given for drink boiling, fetid water. In gulps will he sip it, but never will he be near swallowing it down his throat. Death will come to him from every quarter, yet he will not die; and in front of him will be a chastisement unrelenting" [14:16-17]. Islamic Hell would appear to be even worse than 'life' in a Taliban society — which at least can be circumvented by death.
The Muslim Paradise is decidedly a man's heaven, despite the fact that Sura 9:72 promises to both believing men and women "gardens under which rivers flow, to dwell therein, and beautiful mansions, in gardens of everlasting bliss." Sura 44:51-54 promises believers they will be rewarded in Paradise with houris (Arabic hur) "with beautiful, big, and lustrous eyes." Such damsels are clearly the reward for Jihad-fighting men. That they could also be rewards for burqa‘-wearing women is unthinkable. Occasional proof-texts to the contrary notwithstanding, Mohammed's heaven is a penile paradise. (It is a pity no reliable translation of the Qur’an exists in English; all available English versions have been cleaned up and civilized by apologetic translators.)
As already noted, the Qur’an is supposed to have been revealed to the allegedly illiterate Mohammed over a period of years until his death in 632 CE. (It is possible, of course, that his illiteracy was a fabrication designed to counter charges that Mohammed had written up the 'revelations' himself and had been educated enough to be able to author the supposedly matchless Arabic prose with which they are expressed.) There is a tradition that Mohammed dictated his revelations to his secretaries, who either memorized them or wrote them down on things like palm leaves, stones, and even perhaps camel shoulder blades 1 and other such publication media that existed in the advanced society which the Lord of the Universe had chosen as the model for all subsequent earthly societies. Almost certainly, at the time of Mohammed's death, no single manuscript of the entire Qur’an existed.
There is a tradition that indicates that immediately after the death of Mohammed in 632, during the caliphate of his friend Abu Bakr [632-634], his friend ‘Umar (Omar) became alarmed over the fact that so many Muslims who knew by heart various parts of the Qur’an had been killed during the Battle of Yamama in Central Arabia. Unless all parts of the Qur’an were collected, there was serious danger that irreplaceable rules and regulations for living would be lost forever. Very shortly after the death of the prophet, then, Abu Bakr asked Mohammed's former secretary Zaid ibn Thabit to write down all those dicta still in people's memories, the entire collection then being transcribed onto a more suitable writing material. The Qur’an thus assembled passed from Abu Bakr after he died to his successor ‘Umar, who in turn bequeathed it to his daughter Hafsa. Ultimately, those precious words carried by Gabriel to Mohammed were transmitted to sinful mortals such as we - with perfect fidelity, so that we all can know Allah's whims and wishes without ambiguity and without excuse.
Unfortunately for Islamic orthodoxy, this encouraging tale of Qur’anic origins proves to be a bit more complicated (and less certain) than the mullahs and ayatollahs would have us believe. As is the case when trying to reconstruct the early history of any religion, there are conflicting traditions to be dealt with. There is a tradition which has Abu Bakr first have the idea to collect the Qur’an, but other traditions give the credit to the fourth caliph, ‘Ali - the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin (or brother, in one tradition). (It is from ‘Ali that the Shi‘a sect claims its descent.) Adding to the uncertainty and confusion, there are versions that exclude Abu Bakr completely!
It is implausible, moreover, that such a task could be completed in a mere two years. Furthermore, the warriors who fell at Yamama were apparently mostly new converts who would unlikely have known many verses by heart. On top of this, it seems inexplicable that no publication of the Qur’an thus compiled was carried out. Instead, it was treated as the private property of Hafsa. It seems likely that the tradition of Abu Bakr's collection was invented in order to establish the authenticity of the sacred text - by taking it as close to the time of the Prophet as possible. 2 It has also been suggested that the story was made up in order to take away the glory of Qur’anic creation from ‘Uthman, the third caliph, who appears to have been widely disliked. (This might explain why he was murdered in 656 CE.)
‘Uthman became the third caliph [644-656] a mere dozen years after the time allotted by tradition to Mohammed's death. Tradition credits him also with having collected the Qur’an after being asked to do so by one of his generals, who complained that theological quarrels had broken out among troops from different provinces in regard to the correct readings of the Qur’an. (Tradition is curiously silent as to where these different versions of the Qur’an had come from and who had written them down.)
It will be recalled that in the story of Abu Bakr's Qur’an, it was the prophet's secretary Zaid ibn Thabit who wrote everything down. Apparently unaware that he had done it all before, ‘Uthman commissioned ibn Thabit to prepare an official, standard text. Supposedly, this was done with the aid of three representatives of noble Meccan families, who compared a copy of unknown provenance in the possession of ‘Uthman with the 'leaves' (Arabic suhuf) owned by ‘Umar's daughter Hafsa - the same manuscript that ten years earlier Zaid is supposed to have written out himself!
Copies of ‘Uthman's new version were sent to Kufa, Basra, Damascus, and Mecca some time between 650 and 656, the year of ‘Uthman's death. The 'original' was kept in Medina. All other versions of the Qur’an supposedly were destroyed. Since we know absolutely nothing of the origins or authenticity of these other versions, we have no way to know that ‘Uthman's edition is the truest copy of the heavenly 'Mother of the Book'. The Qur’an emanating from ‘Uthman looks suspiciously like the product of political expediency.
Lest even this analysis be thought to provide too much certainty regarding Qur’anic origins, there are discrepancies even in the traditions from which it has been constructed! In some cases, the number of men on Zaid's commission varies, and men known to have been enemies of ‘Uthman are included on the roster. Without a wink anywhere to be seen among the swarthy swappers of these traditions, men are included in the project who were already dead at the time they were supposed to have been enlisted for the job. Finally, the ‘Uthman traditions seem completely to be unaware of the 'fact' that Zaid ibn Thabit had already transcribed the Qur’an ten years earlier, having himself produced the standard 'leaves' in the possession of Hafsa. (That the compiler of the Qur’an didn't remember he had done it all before, let alone know by heart the entire text of Hafsa's 'leaves' undercuts the apologetic Muslim notion that the early Arabs involved in the transmission of the Qur’anic text had prodigious, 'Oriental' memories.)
From the conflicting welter of traditions regarding the origins of the Qur’an there emerges a picture of somewhat coarse resolution. It would appear that by the time of ‘Uthman there had emerged a theopolitical class that was challenging the authority of the caliphs (Arabic kalifa, 'successor'), who had become the successors to Mohammed's political office and were losing ground as successors to his religious authority. The ubiquitous religious contest between priests and politicians was beginning to develop in what we may call Islam's embryonic period. Competing with the caliphs were the Qurra (Arabic for 'reciters' or 'readers') - men who were the masters of large volumes of Qur’anic verbiage and could recite the supposed revelations when called upon to lead in worship or settle disputes. Many Qurra claimed to have actually learned their verses from Mohammed himself, although many by now were second or even third scholarly generations removed from the Prophet. The fact that the whole application of the Qur’an depended upon memory invited abuse. Verses claiming to be Qur’anic revelations could be - and were - invented to serve the economic and political needs of individual Qurra. (It is likely that some of these recited verses were written down in manuscripts of varying size, but of course, no Qur’anic manuscripts have survived from this period - forgeries to the contrary not withstanding.) To consolidate the power of the caliphate and stop the abuses of the Qurra, it was necessary to eliminate the contradictory oral Qur’ans and replace them with a standardized written text, which could not be manipulated when expedient. Exactly when this happened is not really known, but it may have taken place as early as the reign of the caliph ‘Uthman [644-656], as many traditions record. Even so, Ibn Warraq has argued quite persuasively in his The Origins Of The Koran 3 that both the Abu Bakr and ‘Uthmanic traditions of Qur’anic compilation and standardization are tendentious tales confected in later times.
The earliest account of the compilation of the Qur’an is that of Ibn Sa‘ad [844 CE], followed by Bukhari [870 CE] and Muslim [874 CE]. 4 (Remember, Mohammed is supposed to have died in 632 CE.) Ibn Sa‘ad transmits ten somewhat contradictory traditions in which the 'Companions' of Mohammed had 'collected' the Qur’an during the life of the prophet. Still another tradition has ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan collect the Qur’an, during the caliphate of ‘Umar, not during the lifetime of Mohammed. Still another tradition passed on by Ibn Sa‘ad attributes the collection of the Qur’an in suhufs to the caliph ‘Umar himself!
More important in terms of influence, even though later, is Bukhari. 5He reports a tradition in which the Qur’an was collected during the lifetime of Mohammed by four helpers: Ubai ibn Ka‘ab, Mu‘adh ibn Jabal, Zaid ibn Thabit, and Abu Zaid. In another tradition, Ubai ibn Ka‘ab is replaced by Abud-Darda. Still another tradition 'proves' that the entire Qur’an was compiled under the caliphate of Abu Bakr and was exclusively the product of Zaid ibn Thabit. This is followed in Bukhari's account by the tradition which we have already examined,viz., that Zaid had the help of three Qurayshites, and that all variant versions in the provinces were destroyed. (Even though this account appears 238 years after the death of Mohammed and is 26 years later than the traditions recorded by Ibn Sa‘ad, this is the 'True Account' accepted by most scholars writing before the modern period of skeptical inquiry.)
Yet further traditions about the origins of the Qur’an are found in Arab historians such as Waqidi [d. 207 AH D/823 CE] who says that a Christian slave named Ibn Qumta was the amanuensis of the prophet, along with a certain ‘Abdallah b. Sa‘ad b. Abi Sarh, who reported that "It was only a Christian slave who was teaching him [Mohammed]; I used to write to him and change whatever I wanted." 6
Of course, all the above traditions are wrong, for Hajjaj b. Yusuf Barhebraeus records that his boss the Caliph Abdul-Malik b. Marwan [684-704 CE] was the collector of the Qur’an! 7
In this sand-storm of conflicting traditions, there is no way to descry in Muslim sources just when the Qur’an came into being as a written text. Only an examination of Christian accounts from the early centuries of the Arab conquests can give us a clue. The Monophysite patriarch of Antioch, John I, recording lengthy religious discussions with General ‘Amr b. al-‘As on 9 May 639 CE says nothing that would indicate that the 'Hagarians' or 'Ishmailites' (the earliest non-Muslim names for Muslims) had a sacred book of their own - even though the general had been shown the Torah, the Prophets, and the Gospels of the Jews and Christians. 8 This was, of course, only around seven years after the death of Mohammed, during the fifth year of the caliphate of ‘Umar. Around 647 CE, during ‘Uthman's caliphate, the patriarch of Seleucia, Isho‘yahb III, wrote a letter which betrays no knowledge of the existence of the Qur’an, and scholars familiar with this famous character are certain he would have mentioned or quoted the Hagarian book if he had known of it or even simply had heard of it. 9
More than thirty years later still, in 680 CE, an anonymous writer from the time of the Umayyad caliphate of Yazid ibn Mu‘awiah discussed the Arabs as the simple descendants of Ishmael who still practiced the ancient Abrahamic faith and treated Mohammed as a purely military man, betraying no awareness of any religious function or role played by the conqueror. Even in 690 CE, John Bar Penkaye — although an eyewitness of part of the Arab conquest - knows nothing of any Arabian sacred book existing during the caliphate of ‘Abdul-Malik [685-705]. 10
Quite clearly, Christian historians during the entire seventh century of the common era had no idea that the Hagarite conquerors had a sacred book. Only at the end of the first quarter of the eighth century does the Qur’an become the subject of argumentation by Nestorian, Jacobite, and Melchite Christians. Somewhat later, their polemics are answered by the Muslims.
A lot can be learned from these arguments about Muslim Qur’anic traditions. Of special interest is an apology for Christianity written around the year 835 CE by a certain al-Kindi, whose work was discussed in Alphonse Mingana's "The Transmission of the Koran," which has been reprinted by Ibn Warraq in his extremely useful bookThe Origins of the Koran. 11 Al-Kindi gives details of the stories circulating among the Muslims some two centuries after the death of Mohammed:
It [the Qur’an] was not at first collected in a volume, but remained in separate leaves. Then the people fell to variance in their reading; some read according to the version of ‘Ali, which they follow to the present day [i.e., c835 CE]; some read according to the collection of which we have made mention [a collection made by Abu Bakr himself]; one party read according to the text of Ibn Mas‘ud, and another according to that of Ubai ibn Ka‘ab.
Al-Kindi gives an account of the ‘Uthmanic collection of the Qur’an which is recognizably the same as the one we have examined yet provides some interesting details for the story:
When ‘Uthman came to power, and people everywhere differed in their reading, ‘Ali sought grounds of accusation against him, compassing his death. One man would read a verse one way, and another man another way; and there was change and interpolation, some copies having more and some less. When this was represented to ‘Uthman, and the danger urged of division, strife, and apostasy, he hereupon caused to be collected together all the leaves and scraps that he could, together with the copy that was written out at the first. But they did not interfere with that which was in the hands of ‘Ali [the hero of the Shi‘ites], or of those who followed his reading. Ubai was dead by this time; as for Ibn Mas‘ud, they demanded his exemplar, but he refused to give it up. Then they commanded Zaid ibn Thabit, and with him ‘Abdallah ibn Abbas, to revise and correct the text, eliminating all that was corrupt; they were instructed, when they differed on any reading, word, or name, to follow the dialect of the Quraish.
When the recension was completed, four exemplars were written out in large text; one was sent to Mecca, and another to Medina; the third was despatched to Syria, and is to this day at Malatya; the fourth was deposited in Kufa. People say that this last copy is still extant at Kufa, but this is not the case, for it was lost in the insurrection of Mukhtar (A.H. 67). The copy at Mecca remained there till the city was stormed by Abu Sarayah (A.H. 200); he did not carry it away; but it is supposed to have been burned in the conflagration. The Medina exemplar was lost in the reign of terror, that is, in the days of Yazid b. Mu‘awiah (A.H. 60-64). [Emphasis added]
Thus, by the year 835 CE, three of the four official copies of the Qur’an had been lost. But of course, other versions of the Qur’an were intentionally destroyed:
After what we have related above, ‘Uthman called in all the former leaves and copies, and destroyed them, threatening those who held any portion back; and so only some scattered remains, concealed here and there, survived. Ibn Mas‘ud, however, retained his exemplar in his own hands, and it was inherited by his posterity, as it is this day; and likewise the collection of ‘Ali has descended in his family. [Emphasis added]
Assuming, as devout Muslims do, that the Qur’an contains the very words of Allah, how can one know that the version of the Qur’an surviving today is the correct one? Mohammedans are faced with the same problem Christians must resolve when asked the embarrassing question, "Since there once existed almost a hundred gospels that were sacred to various Christian groups, how do you know that just these four gospels are the right ones?" But the headache for Muslim apologists becomes a migraine, if what al-Kindi wrote is true: 12
Then followed the business of Hajjaj b. Yusuf, who gathered together every single copy he could lay hold of, and caused to be omitted from the text a great many passages. Among these, they say, were verses revealed concerning the House of Umayyah with names of certain persons, and concerning the House of Abbas also with names. Six copies of the text thus revised were distributed to Egypt, Syria, Medina, Mecca, Kufa, and Basra. After that he called in and destroyed all the preceding copies, even as ‘Uthman had done before him. The enmity subsisting between ‘Ali and Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman is well known; now each of these entered in the text whatever favored his own claims, and left out what was otherwise. How, then, can we distinguish between the genuine and the counterfeit? And what about the losses caused by Hajjaj? The kind of faith that this tyrant held in other matters is well-known; how can we make an arbiter as to the Book of God a man who never ceased to play into the hands of the Umayyads whenever he found opportunity?
How, indeed! It is immensely significant, I believe, that twenty years after al-Kindi, when ‘Ali b. Rabbanat-Tabari was asked by the caliph Mutawakkil to write a counter-apology on behalf of Islam, 13 he addressed not a single one of al-Kindi's charges concerning the transmission of the Qur’an, falling back on a lame - but extremely perceptive - ad hominem: "If such people may be accused of forgery and falsehood, the disciples of the Christ might also be accused of the same."
The Christian apologist receives unexpected corroboration from one of the most famous Muslim commentators on the Qur'an, as-Suyuti [d. 1505 CE], who quoted Ibn Umar al-Khattab as saying, "Let no one of you say that he has acquired the entire Koran, for how does he know that it is all? Much of the Koran has been lost; thus let him say, 'I have acquired of it what is available'." 14 He also quotes ‘Aisha, the favorite wife of Mohammed as having said that "During the time of the Prophet, the chapter of the Parties used to be two hundred verses when read. When Uthman edited the copies of the Koran, only the current [73 verses] were recorded." (Among the alleged verses omitted was that of 'The Stoning', which is supposed to have been Allah's order that "If an old man or woman committed adultery, stone them to death.")
There remain more subtle problems, however, in the story of the transmission of Allah's instructions to mankind after Gabe gave them to Mohammed. Some of the suras of the Qur’an are extremely long chapters. How could Mohammed have kept the whole thing in his head after only one hearing? How could his amanuenses and secretaries have remembered them, perhaps after a single recitation by the ecstatic reporter of Allah's will? And when they wrote those priceless words down on leaves and stones and camels' bones, how reliable was their record? Even today, Arabic is written in a defective script, which does not normally indicate the short vowels in words and makes the reading of Arabic extremely difficult for a non-native speaker of the language. Furthermore, in ancient times, the problem was even greater. For at least a century after the death of Mohammed in 632, Arabic writing was 'unpointed' - that is, the dots now placed above or below certain consonants to distinguish them were not used. This could cause enormous ambiguity, since b, t, and th could not be distinguished from an initial or medial y; f could be confused with q; j,h, and kh would have looked the same; r could not be distinguished from z, s from d, s from sh, d from dh, nor t from z.
So great is the ambiguity resulting from the defectiveness of the Arabic script that even after pointed texts appeared it was necessary to borrow (perhaps from the Arameans) a system for indicating the short vowels in the sacred text. That this was understood to be of extreme theological importance can be inferred from the fact that today the Qur’an is practically the only book in which these vowel marks are employed — apart from Arabic language textbooks and dictionaries used to teach the throat disease believed by pious Muslims to be the language in which the creator of the universe speaks.
The problem of this defective script led to a situation in which different centers of Islamic studies had variant rules concerning the pointing and vocalization of the sacred text. Variant texts survived, despite ‘Uthman's attempts at creating a Procrustean uniformity. Ibn Warraq 15quotes Charles Adams declaration that "It must be emphasized that far from there being a single text passed down inviolate from the time of ‘Uthman's commission, literally thousands of variant readings of particular verses were known in the first three [Muslim] centuries. These variants affected even the ‘Uthmanic codex, making it difficult to know what its true form may have been."
The problem of ambiguity never ceased to plague Muslims who desired an absolutely certain version of Allah's instructions on camel-castrating or whatever. Under the direction of the Qur’anic scholar Ibn Mujahid [d. 935 CE], 16 there was a canonization of a specific consonantal system and a limit was placed on the vowels that could be used. This resulted in seven officially sanctioned systems for reading of the Qur’an, although some scholars accepted ten readings and still others found fourteen of merit. In the end, just three systems prevailed: the Medina system of Warsh [d. 812 CE], the Kufa system of Hafs [d. 805], and the Basra system of ad-Duri [d. 860]. Presently, only two of these seem to be in evidence: the system of Hafs, which was adopted for the Egyptian edition of the Koran issued in 1924, and the system of Warsh, which is used elsewhere in Africa. (Although Muslim apologists often claim that the seven versions pertain only to methods of recitation, this simply is not true.) 17
Clear proof that Qur’anic texts have evolved can be seen from the fact that the first Qur’anic (more accurately, pre-Qur’anic) quotations known are found on coins and inscriptions dating toward the end of the seventh century. Many of these differ from the canonical text. Substantial differences from the canonical text are also found in the ornamental inscriptions decorating the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, executed during the reign of Abd al-Malik in the seventy-second year of the Islamic era [691-692 CE]. Finally, some scholars have concluded that much of the Qur’an actually predates Mohammed, being liturgical material that was used by monotheistic Arabs, perhaps Judaeo-Christians or the mysterious Hanifs to whom Mohammed joined himself early in his career. Much of this material, of course, was unintelligible to later commentators of the Qur’an who had to invent far-fetched explanations for the obscurities.
After this lengthy investigation of the origins and transmission of the Qur’an, we can only come to the conclusion that Muslims have even less grounds for thinking they have the genuine words of a god than do the Christians with their epistles and gospels. In Islam as in Christianity, a god is made to say what is expedient to support the theopolitical claims of the parties that created him - parties that make a living selling him to hapless buyers who have no Better Business Bureau to which they can appeal.
A modern book written for beginning English-speaking Muslims 18very well summarizes the legend that needs to be examined critically:
The life of Muhammad is known as the Sira and was lived in the full light of history. Everything he did and said was recorded. Because he could not read and write himself, he was constantly served by a group of 45 scribes who wrote down his sayings, instructions and his activities. Muhammad himself insisted on documenting his important decisions. Nearly three hundred of his documents have come down to us, including political treaties, military enlistments, assignments of officials and state correspondence written on tanned leather. We thus know his life to the minutest details: how he spoke, sat, sleeped [sic], dressed, walked; his behaviour as a husband, father, nephew; his attitudes toward women, children, animals; his business transactions and stance toward the poor and the oppressed; his engagement in camps and cantonments, his behaviour in battle; his exercise of political authority and stand on power; his personal habits, likes and dislikes - even his private dealings with his wives. Within a few decades of his death, accounts of the life of Muhammad were available to the Muslim community in written form. One of the earliest and the most-famous biographies of Muhammad, written less than [a] hundred years after his death, is Sirat Rasul Allah by Ibn Ishaq.
The fire of these ardent assertions is quenched, however, by the cold water supplied by Professor John Burton, 19 an Islamologist at the University of St. Andrews, as he comments on a translation of al-Tabari's History as it deals with the life of Mohammed:
None will fail to be struck by the slimness of a volume purporting to cover more than half a century in the life of one of History's giants. Ignoring the pages tracing his lineage all the way back to Adam and disregarding the merely fabulous with which the author has padded out his book, is to realize how very meagre is the hard information available to the Muslims for the life of the man whose activities profoundly affected their own as well as the lives of countless millions. Of the childhood, the education of the boy and the influences on the youth, all of which set the pattern of the development of the man, we know virtually nothing. We simply have to adjust to the uncomfortable admission that, in the absence of contemporary documents, we just do not and never shall know what we most desire to learn.
How is an interested observer to choose between these diametrically opposite opinions concerning Mohammed? Only by examining the evidentiary sources upon which every Life of Mohammed must be based can we decide. So we must briefly survey the material that has come down to us.
Evidence on the life of Mohammed is derived from literary sources, papyri and manuscripts, inscriptions, coins, and archaeology. The literary sources include the Sira (a life of Mohammed written by Ibn Ishaq), the Maghazi (an account of the military acts and bandit raids of Mohammed, ascribed to al-Waqidi, d. 823), the Hadith (originally oral reports about the sayings and deeds of Mohammed), the Qur’an, thetafsir (commentaries on the Qur’an), and the writings of early non-Muslim critics and observers.
Since much of the literary evidence ultimately is derived from the oral traditions captured in the Hadith (or books of traditions), it is well to begin our criticism of the life of Mohammed by inquiring into the reliability of the Hadith. The Hadith are alleged to be the collected records of what Mohammed did, what he enjoined, what he did not forbid, and what was done in his presence. They also contain the supposed sayings and deeds of the prophet's companions. Each item is traced back to Mohammed by means of an isnad, a chain of supposedly honest witnesses and transmitters. The substance of such a report is called a matn, and the total tradition of Islamic law and morals derivable from the accredited Hadith is known as the sunna. Adherence to the sunna for guidance in all matters for which the Qur’an is either obscure or silent is a defining characteristic of the major Muslim sect of the world today, the so-called Sunni. (The other major group of Muslims, the Shi‘ites, do not generally honor the sunna, and trace their origin to a very early dispute over who should have been the immediate successor of Mohammed, siding with Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali and arguing that the leadership should have remained in Mohammed's family.)
The Hadith are especially important in post-9-1-1 America, where constant propaganda in favor of Islam is being broadcast even as part of television news programs. "Islam is a religion of peace," it is said. "Islam gave rights to women," they tell us, not mentioning Sura 2:282 which accords a woman only half the weight of a man as a witness in court. We are assured that "It is contrary to Islam to commit suicide," and that the kamikaze terrorists were not "true muslims." Repeatedly it is argued that the Qur’an forbids the sort of things that the Sunni Eterrorists did to the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. While it is true that a selective reading of the Qur’an can justify this self-serving twaddle, it is nevertheless ignoring a major source that, with very little effort, can be manipulated to justify the moral outrages that have been inflicted on our nation and other parts of the civilized world. That source is, of course, the Hadith. It was the Hadith plus the Qur’an that justified the Taliban in their restoration of the Dark Ages. It was the same two 'moral guides' that propelled the kamikaze martyrs on their one-way flights up to the houris in heaven.
Sunni Muslims accept six collections of Hadith as authentic traditions of Mohammed. These include the compilations of al-Bukhari [d. 870], Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj [d. 875], Ibn Maja [d. 887], Abu Dawud [d. 889], al-Tirmidhi [d. 892], and al-Nisai [d. 915]. In addition to these six collections, there is the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal [d. 855], an encyclopedia which contains nearly 29,000 Hadith! Reminding ourselves that Mohammed died in 632, we must immediately question the authenticity of traditions recorded well over two centuries after his time. To be sure, each Hadith is supported by an isnad tracing its transmission back to Mohammed. Nevertheless, modern scholars have been able to demonstrate that the vast majority of these isnads are fabrications created to serve the theopolitical needs of their inventors. Indeed, the fraudulent nature of most of the Hadith was detected already in olden times. Al-Bukhari, the first of the above-named collectors, traveled from country to country to collect Hadith. He was successful beyond his wildest dreams, discovering that more than 600,000 Hadith were current in his day. 20 Unfortunately, careful study convinced him that of that vast number only around four thousand were authentic - and European scholars would discard at least half of that two-thirds of one percent!
Islamic apologists face a terrible problem in the Hadith. Assuming as they do that the story of al-Bukhari is true, how can they be sure that not even one of those rejected 596,000 Hadith had been authentic? How can they know that all of the four thousand are in fact true reports of Mohammed's words and deeds? Surely, the story of al-Bukhari is a powerful discreditation of the whole idea of Hadith. When we learn that many collectors paid people to cough up new and useful Hadith, and when we read even in Muslim sources that people often created Hadith to support the pet projects and political needs of their masters, it is obvious that we are not likely to find much if any authentic information about the historical Mohammed in the Hadith.
Although the names of some seventy historians are known who are believed to have dealt with the life of Mohammed and the prehistory and early history of Islam up to the year 1000 CE, their works have not survived and they are known only from quotations in later historians. The Sira, or biography of Mohammed, is mainly known from a work by Ibn Ishaq [c85/704 —150 AH/767 CE]. Ibn Ishaq was born into a family of Medina that made a living procuring Hadith, and he followed the family trade, ending his career in Baghdad. A number of early Muslim critics held him to be a liar 21 in regard to his Hadith, and it is somewhat ironic that he has ended up being the earliest Muslim historian whose work is relied upon by modern Mohammedan apologists. Unfortunately, his work has not survived in its original form. Rather it has been transmitted in two highly altered and differing recensions: the most popular one made by Ibn Hisham [d. 218 AH/833 CE] and another one made by Yunus b. Bukayr [d. 199 AH/814-815 CE]. Some parts of Ibn Ishaq's work that were suppressed by Ibn Hisham and Yunus b. Bukayr can be found in quotations in the works of fourteen other historians writing 110 to 199 years after the Hegira. As a result, Ibn Ishaq's Sira has to be reconstructed from the works of sixteen later historians! 22 Doing so, however, is hardly worth the effort, considering the poor reliability of the entire Sira literature.
The Maghazi, it will be remembered, is the chronicle of Mohammed's bandit raids and military activities. One of the earliest authors known to have collected Maghazi legends was Wahb b. Munabbih, who was born 34 years after the Hegira [654 CE] and lived until the year 110 AH [728 CE]. A fragment of his work has survived in the Heidelberg Papyrus (early third/ninth centuries) which contains Maghazi traditions attributed to him. It is important to note that Wahb did not know about the use of isnads — the chains of transmitters used to establish the authenticity of traditions. 23 It seems likely then, that any isnads found in scraps of early historians are not authentic but were the creations of later historians who wished to give the appearance that their traditions are anchored in the secure moorings of primal Mohammedanism.
Perhaps the major source for this part of Mohammed's life is the Kitab al-Maghazi by al-Waqidi [130/747-207/822-823]. 24 He was a Shiite and is credited with having first established the chronology of the early years of Islam. He made extensive use of Ibn Ishaq's work and is himself cited extensively by the later popular historian al-Tabari [c224-225/839—311/923]. Ibn Warraq sums up the historical significance - or lack thereof- of Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi: 25
Both Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi's reputations have suffered in recent years as a consequence of the trenchant criticisms by Patricia Crone (especially in Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, pp. 203-30), where she argues that much of the classical Muslim understanding of the Koran rests on the work of storytellers and that this work is of very dubious historical value. These storytellers contributed to the tradition on the rise of Islam, and this is evident in the steady growth of information: "If one storyteller should happen to mention a raid, the next storyteller would know the date of this raid, while the third would know everything that an audience might wish to hear about it." Then, comparing the accounts of the raid of Kharrar by Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi, Crone shows that al-Waqidi, influenced by and in the manner of the storytellers, "will always give precise dates, locations, names, where Ibn Ishaq has none, accounts of what triggered the expedition, miscellaneous information to lend color to the event, as well as reasons why, as was usually the case, no fighting took place. No wonder that scholars are fond of al-Waqidi: where else does one find such wonderfully precise information about everything one wishes to know? But given that this information was all unknown to Ibn Ishaq, its value is doubtful in the extreme. And if spurious information accumulated at this rate in the two generations between Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that even more must have accumulated in the three generations between the Prophet and Ibn Ishaq."
Thus, the biography of Mohammed is very much like that of Jesus Christ: the later the biographer, the more he 'knows' about his character. The earliest sources know little or nothing about their lives, and biographies are built up from 'facts' that successive retailers of tales 'discover' as needed. It has been shown 26 that the Sira (and almost certainly the Maghazi as well) depends to a large extent upon the Hadith, which we have already seen are mostly factitious creations of theopolitical propagandists. Moreover, many Hadith have been shown to be etiological expansions of Qur’anic passages, created to provide a causal biographical or historical background for particular 'revelations'. This means that much of the Sira has been inferred from ambiguous or unintelligible passages in the Qur’an! Would-be biographers of Mohammed are faced with a chicken-or-egg conundrum at this point, since the Qur'an itself would appear to be a somewhat special collection of Hadith — many of which appear to have been manufactured for sale.
The unreliability of the Sira as a source of information regarding the life of Mohammed affects even the supposedly foundational datum of his birth having been in the year 570/571 CE. Lawrence Conrad 27 has shown that well into the second Muslim century, scholarly opinion concerning the birth date of the Prophet was spread over a space of eighty-five years! If Muslim scholars during that crucial formative century had not yet decided when Mohammed had been born, what can we believe of the other dates that later became 'facts' of Muslim chronology?
That the year 622 CE was indeed of early significance to the evolving religion has been confirmed from coins which mark it as the beginning of a new era. Nevertheless, there is no seventh-century source that identifies this year as the year of the Hegira. Two Nestorian Christian documents of 675 and 680 designate it as the year of "the rule of the Arabs." Casting yet another shadow on the doctrine of the Hegira as being a migration that took place in 622 CE is the Apocalypse of Samuel al-Qalamun, written in the eighth century. In this Coptic Christian prophecy, despite its having been composed in Arabic in Egypt, the term Hijra (Hegira) is employed for the Arab conquerors themselves, not for their move from Mecca to Medina!
So completely has the critical examination of Muslim sources revealed the unreliability of the Sira as a biography and the weakness of all available biographical data, a number of Soviet scholars have been able to argue quite coherently that the historical Mohammed is as unreal as the historical Jesus! N. A. Morozov, 28 for instance, propounded the theory in 1930 that Mohammed and the first caliphs were mythical figures and that Islam was a form of Judaism until the time of the Crusades. In the same year, Klimovich 29 published "Did Muhammad Exist?" and argued that all our information on Mohammed is late and that his life was a necessary fiction springing from the euhemeristic notion that all religions have to have had a founder and that all the gods were once men. Yet another Soviet scholar, S. P. Tolstov, compared the myth of Mohammed with the deified shamans of the Yakuts, et al. 30 and argued that the practical purpose of the Mohammed myth was to prevent the disintegration of a political block of traders, nomads, and peasants which had helped a new feudal aristocracy come to power.
It is not necessary to agree that Mohammed is a myth in order to understand the practical significance of the fact that such a view could be advanced in serious scholarly circles. Even if Mohammed did exist, we can know nothing about him from the existing sources. He might as well have been a myth.
After considering the records of early non-Muslim sources that reported on the Arab conquest or ancient writers who wrote about the caravan trade before or during the supposed time of Mohammed, a writer styling himself "Ibn al-Rawandi" 31 integrated those dates into his deep understanding of the Muslim sources for their version of Islamic history and concluded that
Once the Arabs had acquired an empire, a coherent religion was required in order to hold that empire together and legitimize their rule. In a process that involved a massive backreading of history, and in conformity to the available Jewish and Christian models, this meant they needed a revelation and a revealer (prophet) whose life could serve at once as a model for moral conduct and as a framework for the appearance of the revelation; hence the Koran, the Hadith, and the Sira, were contrived and conjoined over a period of a couple of centuries. Topographically, after a century or so of Judaeo-Muslim monotheism centered on Jerusalem, in order to make Islam distinctively Arab the need for an exclusively Hijazi origin became pressing. It is at this point that Islam as we recognize it today - with an inner Arabian biography of the Prophet, Mecca, Quraysh, Hijra, Medina, Badr, etc. - was really born, as a purely literary artefact. An artefact, moreover, based not on faithful memories of real events, but on the fertile imaginations of Arab storytellers elaborating from allusive references in Koranic texts, the canonical text of the Koran not being fixed for nearly two centuries. This scenario makes at least as much sense of the sources as the traditional account and eliminates many anomalies.
From the vantage point of this skeptical analysis the narrative related in the Sira, that purports to be the life of the Prophet of Islam, appears as a baseless fiction. The first fifty-two years of that life, including the account of the first revelations of the Koran and all that is consequent upon that, are pictured as unfolding in a place that simply could not have existed in the way it is described in the Muslim sources. Mecca was not a wealthy trading center at the crossroads of Hijazi trade routes, the Quraysh werenot wealthy merchants running caravan up and down the Arabian peninsula from Syria to the Yemen, and Muhammad, insofar as he was anything more than an Arab warlord of monotheist persuasion, did his trading far north of the Hijaz; furthermore, Mecca, as a sanctuary, if it was a sanctuary, was of no more importance than numerous others and was not a place of pilgrimage.
Space will not allow examination of all the non-Muslim sources and other evidence that led al-Rawandi to these startling opinions. However, a few points can be noted. The tenth-century Armenian historian Thomas Artsruni (Ardsruni) understood Mohammed's base of operation to be in Midian, not in South Arabia, and identified Mecca with the Pharan located in Arabia Petraea, which comprised modern Jordan down into the Sinai peninsula. 32
Information on the qibla, the direction in which early Muslims prayed, comes from the tenth-century Coptic bishop of Ashmunein in Egypt, Severus b. al-Muzaffa 33 and from the Muslim historian Baladhuri, 34who tells us that the qibla in the first mosque at Kufa (in Iraq) was westward, instead of south-southwest as would be the case if present-day Mecca were its focus. Added to other information that Jerusalem, not Mecca, was the focus of early Muslim worship, the archaeological discovery THAT an ancient mosque under the Great Mosque of Wasit was not oriented toward Mecca adds weight to the thesis that the Muslim movement started in northern, not southern, Arabia, and that the traditional story of Mohammed's movement from Mecca to Medina and back is a foundational myth concocted to completely Arabize a conquest history which found it necessary to distance itself from Judaism and Christianity for theopolitical reasons.
Investigation of the role of Mecca in the origin and early evolution of Islam leads to the startling conclusion that the Mecca of Muslim tradition never existed - perhaps being as fictional as the Nazareth in the foundation myth of Christianity. In the Mohammedan sources, Mecca is depicted as a wealthy trading center, a natural crossroads for caravan shipment of goods by prosperous merchants not only from Yemen in the south to Syria and the Roman empire in the north, but also for east-west trade as well. 35 Unfortunately, the classical geographers who showed considerable interest in Arabia knew nothing about it. (The Macoraba of Ptolemy, which some Muslim apologists claim to have been Mecca, is derived from a different root and clearly was not relatable to the present-day city in the southern Hijaz.)&ngsp;36 The only place name in Ptolemy which conceivably could be related to the name 'Mecca' is Moka, a town in Arabia Petraea in present-day Jordan. Patricia Crone 37 sums up the evidence of non-Muslim sources as it pertains to the myth of Mecca:
It is obvious that if the Meccans had been middlemen in a long-distance trade of the kind described in the secondary literature, there ought to have been some mention of them in the writings of their customers. Greek and Latin authors had after all, written extensively about the south Arabians who supplied them with aromatics in the past, offering information about their cities, tribes, political organization, and caravan trade; and in the sixth century they similarly wrote about Ethiopia and Adulis. The political and ecclesiastical importance of Arabia in the sixth century was such that considerable attention was paid to Arabian affairs, too; but of Quraysh and their trading center there is no mention at all, be it in the Greek, Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic, or other literature composed outside Arabia before the conquests. This silence is striking and significant.
This silence cannot be attributed to the fact that sources have been lost, though some clearly have. The fact is that the sources written after the conquests display not the faintest sign of recognition in their accounts of the new rulers of the Middle East or the city from which they came. Nowhere is it stated that Quraysh, or the "Arab kings," were the people who used to supply such-and-such regions with such-and-such goods; it was only Muhammad himself who was known to have been a trader. And as for the city, it was long assumed to have been Yathrib. Of Mecca there is no mention for a long time; and the first sources to mention the sanctuary fail to give a name for it; whereas the first source to name it fails to locate it in Arabia. [The Continuatio Arabica gives Mecca an Abrahamic location between Ur and Harran.] Jacob of Edessa knew of the Ka‘ba toward which the Muslims prayed, locating it in a place considerably closer to Ptolemy's Moka than to modern Mecca or, in other words, too far north for orthodox accounts of the rise of Islam; but of the commercial significance of this place he would appear to have been completely ignorant. Whatever the implications of this evidence for the history of the Muslim sanctuary, it is plain that the Qurashi trading center was not a place with which the subjects of the Muslims were familiar.
With the disappearance of Mecca from the list of documentable facts concerning the origins of Islam and the life of Mohammed, the character known as Mohammed of Mecca becomes as problematic as the character Jesus of Nazareth. Despite the claims of some Christian archaeologists otherwise of good repute, the archaeological and literary evidence shows that the place now known as Nazareth did not exist as an inhabited town during the first centuries BCE and CE. Without a Nazareth to come from, Jesus of Nazareth now seems as historical as the Wizard of Oz. Unexpectedly and quite surprisingly, the debunking of the Mecca of Muslim tradition makes it now seem likely that Mohammed of Mecca will soon be joining Jesus of Nazareth, the Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan as a resident of Never-Never Land.
The present essay has been greatly dependent upon the excellent books written or compiled by Ibn Warraq and published by Prometheus Books. Readers wishing to attain a solid understanding of the difficult subject of Mohammedan origins are urged to obtain and read these books - the first of which can be obtained from American Atheist Press: Why I Am Not A Muslim, by Ibn Warraq. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York: 1995.
The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, edited and translated by Ibn Warraq. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York: 2000. (Includes articles by early-modern and recent critical scholars concerned with the origins of Islam)
The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam's Holy Book, edited by Ibn Warraq. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York: 1998. (Includes articles by early-modern and recent critical scholars concerned with the origins of the Qur'an)
A In transliterating Arabic, Hebrew, and other Semitic languages several special characters are required for sounds that either are not found in English or are not recognized as separate sounds having their own alphabetic characters. The character ’ is used to represent the glottal stop - the brief constriction of the throat that occurs when one pronounces a vowel at the beginning of an isolated word, but which is often absent when the word is preceded by an. Thus, we have ’apple, pronounced with a glottal stop, but ’an apple which, when smoothly pronounced, lacks the glottal stop before the second a. In Semitic languages, the glottal stop is given a symbol of its own and has the honor of being the first letter of the alphabet - alef - although in Arabic it carries a special diacritical mark called hamza to make it clear that the glottal stop is actually pronounced. Modern Arabic and ancient Hebrew have another special sound, a deep-throated, laryngeal glide, which is lacking in English but is considered to be a separate letter of the alphabet - ayin - and is transliterated with the special character ‘ . The difference between alef ’ [ and ayin ‘ can be illustrated by two rather undignified examples. A string of alefs (glottal stops) is pronounced when one imitates the sound of a machine-gun: ’aa!-’aa!-’aa!-’aa!-’aa! The ayin, on the other hand, is the dipping glide one makes when imitating the sound of an automobile engine being started up when it's ten below zero: ‘aah ‘aah ‘aah ‘aah ‘aah. Arabic, like most Semitic languages, has three gradations of aitch. The lightest of them, transliterated as h, is identical to the aitch of English. The harshest of them, usually transliterated as kh, is like the ch in the German nameBach. The middle aitch, transliterated with the special character
B The term Muslim is classical Arabic, whereas Moslem is colloquial Arabic, where u has changed to o, and i has changed to e. Thus,Mohammed is the colloquial equivalent of Muhammad, and Umarbecomes Omar.
C The Muslim calendar, like the Jewish calendar, is a lunar calendar - the year consisting of six months of 29 days and six months of 30 days each. This adds up to only 354 days, creating a discrepancy with the solar year of a little over three years per century. Unlike Jewish calendrical practice, no attempt is made to bring the Moslem year into accord with the solar year (the Muslim calendar falls behind eleven days every solar year), intercalary days are added every three years or so to make up for the fact that a lunation is a bit more than 29.5 days lone.
D AH = Anno Hegirae, 'In the year of the Hegira', reckoned from 16 July 622 CE.
E Most of the terrorists, especially those from Arabia, have been members of a fundamentalist Sunni sect known as the Wahabis. Founded by Mohammed ibn-‘Abd-al-Wahab [1703-1791 CE] of the Najd region of Central Arabia, it is noted for its rejection of all 'novelties' absorbed by Islam, rejecting music and the wearing of silk or jewelry. Wahab rejected consensus of opinion as a source of authority. By marriage he became allied with the family of Saud - the ruling family of Saudi Arabia today. Recently, an Internet news site made the unconfirmed claim that the great majority of imams who lead American mosques are Wahabis.
1 Alphonse Mingana, The Transmission of the Koran," in The Origins of the Koran, edited by Ibn Warraq, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1998: 108.
2 Ibn Warraq, "Introduction," in The Origins of the Koran, 11.
3 Ibid., 13.
4 Mingana, op. cit., 98.
5 Ibid., 99.
6 Ibid., 102.
7 Ibid., 102-103.
8 Ibid., 104-106.
9 Ibid., 106.
10 Ibid., 107.
11 Ibid., 108-109.
12 Ibid., 109.
13 Ibid., 110.
14 Ibn Warraq, Koran, 14.
15 Ibid, 15.
16 Ibid, 16.
17 Ibid, 17.
18 Z. Sardar and Z. A. Malik, Muhammad for Beginners, 1994, quoted by Ibn al-Rawandi, "Origins of Islam: A Critical Look at the Sources," in The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, edited and translated by Ibn Warraq, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000: 89-90.
19 Ibn al-Rawandi, op. cit., 90.
20 Ibn Warraq, "Studies on Muhammad and the Rise of Islam," in The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, 44-45.
21 Ibid., 27.
22 Ibid., 27-28.
23 Ibid., 26.
24 Ibid., 28.
25 Ibid., 29.
26 Ibid., 48.
27 Quoted by Ibn al-Rawandi, op. cit., 102-103.
28 Cited by Ibn Warraq, Muhammad, 49.
29 Cited ibid., 49.
30 Ibid., 49.
31 Ibn al-Rawandi, op. cit., 104-105.
32 Ibn Warraq, Muhammad, 33.
33 Ibid., 33.
34 al-Rawandi, op. cit., 96.
35 Ibid., 98.
36 Ibid., 98.
37 Patricia Crone, quoted by al-Rawandi, op. cit., 99.
Formerly a professor of biology and geology, Frank R. Zindler is now a science writer. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the New York Academy of Science, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Schools of Oriental Research. He is the editor of American Atheist. His book The Jesus The Jews Never Knew: Sepher Toldoth Yeshu and the Quest of the Historical Jesus in Jewish Sources will be published by American Atheist Press in the spring of 2002.