DID MUHAMMAD REALLY EXIST, OR IS HE A MYTH? Western scholars have taken upon themselves to prove the latter and disprove what 1.5 billion people believe, which is that their prophet was flesh and blood. This is a strange, self-defeating trend in Western Islamic scholarship, and such odd conclusions have been drawn from their work that the only way to deal with it properly is to bring Monty Python into the discussion.
The new scholarship speculates that Muhammad may have been a myth created by Arabs to give an Arab face to a religion that evolved far away from Western Arabia as an offshoot of Christian sect that rejected the divinity of Jesus. These scholars attempt to put the cart before the horse: Arab followers of this sect conquered wide swathes of territory, then conspired to justify their violent, expansionist practices by creating the character of a warlord founder who communed with the divine and preached the violent imposition of their true religion of God.
This line of inquiry is only made possible by ignoring the vast body of the original literature of Islam, which these scholars happily do in order to make their case. Their arguments are built on loose soil and turn largely on the fact there was little mention of Muhammad outside of Islam’s canonical literature for a generation or two after his death; crude period coins that seem to display a mix of Islamic and Christian symbols; that it is a fact that the Koran was compiled and edited after Muhammad’s death and contains oddities that raise the question of insertions of apocryphal material; confusions about the meaning of Koran verses caused by the primitive way Arabic was written in 7th century Arabia compared to the more complete orthography of later times; and other arcane arguments.
These ideas were given space in an article by Steve Chambers published in American Thinker on May 11. Chambers was critical of the recent Muhammad cartoon contest held in Garland, Texas, that was attacked by a couple of Muslim fanatics. The violence provoked by the event motivated Chambers to write about the new line of Islamic scholarship in order to promote it as an alternative to confrontational art. In his view, the publicizing of cartoons of Muhammad was a mistake because the reaction it brought about was predictable, and it did “nothing substantial to undermine the ideology of radical Islam that plagues the earth.”
Instead, he offered the idea of pairing intellectuals with moderate Muslims and media bigwigs to debate questions about Muhammad’s historicity in seminars and panel discussions. Jim Lehrer could even be called in to moderate, he suggested. Calling into question the foundations of Islam by questioning whether Muhammad ever existed would somehow pull the rug out from under the extremists. As rebels without a cause, they would have to lay down their arms. Islam would settle down into respectable, peaceful patterns like all other religions, and we would live from then on free of terrorists because they would no longer be able to justify their terrorism. How could they if Muhammad never existed?This is where Monty Python comes into the discussion. This was a team that knew how to cut to the heart of the matter with skits that could say it better than an avalanche of books and articles. So what would Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, and the other members of the Monte Python crew have to say about this new scholarship and the idea that it could be used to tame Islam? Perhaps they would come up with a skit along the lines of Monte Python and the Holy Grail, something like the following:
It would begin atop the battlements of a castle with worried knights peering into the distance as a Muslim horde prepares for a siege. The occupants of the castle are distressed. Some are even crapping in their pants, but the valiant knights come up with a solution. A group of them prance out of the gate, banging coconut shells together to make it sound like they are actually riding steeds of war.They caper up to the enemy line and halt in front of burly cutthroats who are mounted on powerful war horses. Sir Oliver, the leader of the knights, looks up at the barbarians and says, “Dear Sirs, we have come to you with a proposal. From our extensive studies in areas outside of your literature, we have uncovered evidence that the man you hold to be the creator of your religion might actually be a mythical character, and this is something that all of us, knights in shining armor and unwashed Muslim hordes both, should give due consideration to and discuss in a setting that is more conducive to discussion than this. Think about this Dear Sirs: Much of your Koran makes no sense unless you strip the diacritical marks from it the way it is currently written in your language, but if you do so you find that you are reading Syriac, not Arabic. And so you then see that the Koran may have actually been translated into Arabic from another language, which suggests that it was composed outside of your land, and therefore it can be argued the story of Muhammad in Mecca and Medina was created to make it seem like it was of Arab origin.” Sir Oliver flashes a winning smile and finishes by saying, “My dear friends, what I propose is that you join us in a forum, in panel discussions, to talk about these highly interesting matters. I am certain we could enlist Sir James Lehrer to serve as moderator. Come, join us in this. We can learn so much from one another.” Grunts come from the horsemen. They glance at one another. When their leader draws his sword, they all draw their swords. It is unlikely Steve Chambers would want to be there, or Gerd Puin, Karl Heinz Ohlig, Christoph Luxenberg and other new trend scholars he mentions in his article.
Aside from the weakness of the scholarly arguments, there are two major problems with this line of academic inquiry. The first is that for it to work it must dismiss the vast body of Islamic literature as collections of contradictory and dubious legends and therefore of little value for establishing the historicity of Muhammad. There is indeed a lot of nonsense that bulks up the original materials, but the literature is like a vast tapestry, and if you step back enough to get a good look, the nonsense and contradictions get absorbed into the background and you can clearly see the picture.
It is not possible to invent someone like Muhammad because along with him you would have to invent the epic cast of cronies and enemies who stand out in the original literature as believable, three-dimensional people. Take Ali, for instance. Do these scholars question Ali’s existence? In the literature, he is the first cousin of Muhammad who grew up in his household and became the fourth successor to the throne of Islam. His claim that the rulership to Muhammad should follow the blood line of Muhammad is the foundation upon which Shia Islam was built. These scholars would have to deny his existence because if they do not, they have the thorny problem of explaining his sermons, letters, and sayings that were later published in an 800-page book, The Peak of Eloquence, in which he frequently quotes Muhammad or alludes to him. Were these fictions, inventions of a later period?
What about Muhammad’s child wife Aisha? According to the literature, he died when she was 18 years old, and she died 46 years later after providing early Muslim interviewers with 2,210 traditions about Muhammad. Was she an invention too? Were the stories she told of her relations with Muhammad and her memories of what he had to say fabrications? If Aisha and Ali are fictions, then a host of characters — friends and enemies of Muhammad — would have to be inventions as well: Umar, Abu Bakr, Uthman, Zubayr, Zayd, Khalid, Abu Sufyan, Hind, Yazid, Muawiya, and hundreds more.
What is remarkable about the foundational literature of Islam are the extraordinary measures the early Islamic scholars took to vet the anecdotes they collected about Muhammad. Bukhari (810-870), whose collection is considered one of the most reliable, was said to have compiled 300,000 traditions, yet he only certified 7,563 as authentic. These scholars vetted their materials by scrutinizing the chain of people who narrated them, starting with the person who originated the story. Part of their methodology was to rank each of the narrators according to their personal qualities such as reliability of memory, reputation for integrity and piety, and other factors that included their degree of closeness to Muhammad and his companions. Certainly a lot of nonsense filtered through anyway, but it is ludicrous to dismiss this entire body of work as fabrication because of the nonsense or contradictions that can be found in it.
The second problem with this line of inquiry, certainly the more serious, is that it is the equivalent of disarmament in the middle of a war. To turn Muhammad into a myth is to throw away a potent weapon to use against Islam. Islam is at war with everything that is not Islam. It has been at war for the last 1400 years, and it is now gearing up for another phase of violent expansion — now with the aim of global domination. How do people defend themselves against it? Do they turn to someone like Barack Hussein Obama? People have to take up their own defense, and within the original literature of Islam is the perfect weapon: the truth about Muhammad. All people have to do it to grab this powerful weapon and do something with it.As found in the literature, the image that emerges of Muhammad is grotesque. His is the story of an exceedingly sick and vile man who committed almost every crime imaginable as he forced his cult on people. This is potent stuff, particularly if people who understand the need for defense against Islam get up enough gumption to turn these facts about him — as found in the original literature — into film. Films, from docudramas to full-length feature films, are powerful in their ability to quickly disseminate ideas and influence large numbers of people. That is what it will take for an effective defense against Islam, large numbers of informed people.
It will never be polite conversation and collegial debate about whether or not Muhammad existed that will undermine radical Islam or halt the advance of the religion that enables it. What it will take is the kick in the gut that can come from movies that show this “prophet” send off hitmen to kill his critics, mass murder people who refused to join his religion, and scream “Kill! Kill! Kill!” as he and his followers attack the caravans, towns, villages, and camps of people who rejected him.
This is the ultimate weapon for defense against what Muhammad started, and these scholars want to throw it away.
A word of caution for such intellectuals. You should resist yielding to the temptation to bang coconut shells together and prance up to the enemy with offers to debate if Muhammad ever existed with them. It may be the last temptation you ever yield to.
A version of this article was first published by American Thinker. It may be reproduced in whole or in part provided the following attribution is given: F. W. Burleigh is the author of It’s All About Muhammad, a Biography of the World’s Most Notorious Prophet. He blogs at www.itsallaboutmuhammad.com.