Friday, November 29, 2013

Islam and History

Watched this video the other day. It was quite surprising. He makes a case that some major changes occurred to the Muslim religion around the year 691. I had always thought the evidence that Mohammad wrote the Koran was quite good and that the truth of the Muslim faith rested on whether his story about how he got those doctrines was accurate. He points out that Abd al-Malik played a central role as well. That in some ways he might be considered the founder of Islam.

Now one might bring up parallels between what he is doing with Islam and what many are doing with Christianity. That is expressing doubt about the central story of the religion and declaring that there simply isn't enough evidence to believe it. There are some similarities but I wanted to point out that the differences are much more important. A few that I can think of:

Abd al Malik

  1. He names who changed the religion. He suggests a specific time. He suggests a motivation. That makes it a coherent theory. Often skeptics of Christianity just say somebody must have faked this at some point. 
  2. There is actual evidence that this person destroyed pre-existing copies of the  Koran and had it rewritten. 
  3. There is evidence of a significant change in teaching right around this time.Mosques built prior to 691 did not face Mecca but rather a city called Petra.
  4. There is a gap in the data covering the period right after Mohammad's life. Some have talked about this in regards to the life of Jesus but the gap here is much more complete. Jesus and Christianity are mentioned in many documents written in the first century. The gap that is talked about excludes these and talks only about the lack documents that include biographical details of His life. Even this gap needs to assume a later dating of the gospels and thus begging the question. Mohammad and the Muslim faith are not mentioned at all.
  5. Not only is the gap more complete it is also less explainable. Christians were not in power anywhere during the first couple centuries after Jesus was on earth. So documents would be fewer and those that existed would be less likely to survive. Muslims gained power in Arabic lands during Mohammad's lifetime. They should have talked about him and the Islamic faith in much of their written work. There was nobody to hide these documents from and nobody persecuting the Muslim communities and burning their documents. So you would expect these writing to survive in much greater quantities. Yet we have nothing. Zero from the most critical time period.
Even with this  really damaging evidence I don't think the most dramatic conclusions are warranted. Like Robert Spencer's suggestion that Mohammad never existed. I seriously doubt Abd al-Malik would have made up Mohammad out of nothing. Even a powerful Caliph would have trouble pulling that off. Still he could have shaped the story of Mohammad quite a bit. In fact, it is more likely than not that what happened in those critical years from 610 to 632 is quite different from what Muslims have been told since Abd al-Malik's time. 


  1. You linked to it, but have you read Robert Spenser's Did Mohammed exist? I think Spenser is more credible than what Jay Smith presents, but both make similar arguments at times. Spenser also has good YouTube stuff. Here are some points that really intrigued me:

    (1) The Quaran has quotes many "Bible Stories" but does not quote them accurately, and in fact most such quotes are lifted directly from Apocryphal early church writings. In fact, the Quran isn't really a coherent text on its own, at least not in terms of recounting history.

    (2) The Hadith - the Oral Tradition (Sayings of Mohammed) - that accompany and guide interpretation of the Quran are very dubious in how they came about. The second/third generation of Muslim leaders said there were like 40,000 "Hadith" floating around and the early Caliphs had to make an executive decision on which ones were authentic, reducing the "official" number to something like 2,000. That's quite a jump and renders the reliability of Hadith very dubious.

    (3) Along with the Quran and Hadith, the third official source of Islamic teaching is the "Biography of Mohammed," and yet this "Biography" was admittedly (by the author) heavily edited. So there goes the third primary source of information.

    (4) There is no historical documentation and no reasonable explanation (since it's in the middle of a desert) why Mecca was or would be a major trade route, and yet Mecca being a major trade route is crucial to Mohammed rising up and preaching the restored Gospel in the first place.

    (5) Early Christians who lived at that time and that region, such as St John of Damascus, don't mention Mohammed, only that these people claim to be descendants of Ishmael.

    (6) The Dome of the Rock is one of the most sacred sites of Isalm, commemorating Mohammed's one day journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. And yet of all the tons of sacred writing on the Dome's walls, none of it mentions this key event. This, along with other details, suggest the Dome of the Rock was originally built for another reason not related to Isalm at all.

    There are more things like this but I cannot think of them at the moment. I believe these things are valid criticisms and not a double standard even though some of the modern scholarly criticisms is basically the "Historical Critical Method" that Christianity was hit with (and survived). I think this is a story that will eventually become more and more mainstream though and radically change Islam forever.

  2. I have not read Spencer's book. I have heard some talks by him. He seems quite solid but the idea that Mohammad didn't exist at all seems a bit of a stretch. I do wonder how long it will take before these issues become part of mainstream knowledge. Jay Smith seems to indicate a lot of this is pretty recent even for him. The evidence that the Caliphs manipulated the sacred writings is a huge problem. It breaks the link between the events of Mohammad's life and the teachings of Islam today.