Sunday, 15 May 2016

What are they saying about the origins of Islam?

What is secular academia saying about the origins of Islam?

For most of the history of Islam, what muslims have said about the origins of Islam has not been much questioned by western scholars: they had largely left the subject alone, and been content to accept what muslim tradition says. That left the impression that Mohammed’s life and the origins of Islam were well-documented. Over recent decades, the question of Islam’s origins has been of growing interest to secular scholars. Many more in academia are learning to read Arabic and other languages relevant to these studies and are reading sources that have never been translated into western languages before. But a number of things have puzzled them.

Now obviously, these scholars are not muslims. They take a secular approach, so, inevitably, they will be looking to understand the origins of Islam in human terms. If they believed that Islam was a product of divine revelation, they would be on the way to becoming muslims. As they are not muslims, it is not a surprise to anyone that secular scholars are looking to understand these things in a non-muslim way. They are using secular methods of research and evidence analysis and a secular worldview for a secular historical investigation(s). So what are these academics saying about problems they have been encountering in trying to understand the origins of Islam?

I will list a few of the talking points below, so that the general reader can see a quick summary of what is being discussed in secular universities. I don’t pretend to expertise in this subject, and this is only a very rough outline for general interest. One might ask - why discuss things that are painful for many muslims? But these are things that our universities are researching, and this blog is about sharing with the general reader things that scholars know. So the alternative question is, why should the general reader not know what scholars are talking about?

Quality of sources

Secular scholars looking to study the life of Mohammed are bound to look for the earliest texts on the subject. That’s part and parcel of the historical method. So let’s have a comparison so we can understand what the problem is here.

Comparison: if scholars are looking at the origins of Christianity, several letters written by Paul get a lot of attention: this is because these were written within about two decades of Jesus’ life, and include Paul’s eyewitness recollections of meeting Jesus’ disciple Peter and Jesus’ brother James, plus things Paul says as a secondary source on Jesus; and in addition there are the gospels written within a few decades. All of this sheds some light on the origins of Christianity. In all, there are dozens of documents from the first century of Christianity of which we have copies. Nothing I have said there is normally disputed by secular historians.

So secular scholars turned to Islam looking for earliest muslim records of Mohammed and of the arab conquests in Mohammed’s day. As you may know, the arab conquests began in the 7th century. This was led by Mohammed, who died in 632AD, according to tradition. But if you look for 7th century muslim sources telling the story, there are none. 8th century sources? – there are none. Nothing until the 9th century, where we have muslim writings about Mohammed and the origins of Islam. Why the huge gap in time? Why is it not well-documented by muslim authors nearer the time of Mohammed?

This problem cannot be put down to the accessibility of reading and writing in the 7th century. Again for a comparison, consider the origins of Christianity: in the first century, papyrus scrolls would be used for writing – and papyrus survives very patchily where physical conditions allow. It has the survivability of tree bark. Even so, copies were made of early Christian texts, which ensured the survival of copies to this present day, copies even of texts from the 50s of the first century. Why has that not happened in Islam, bearing in mind that the 7th century falls in an era when books were now widely in use and made of more durable materials? Were none written? The arab conquerors had possession of many advanced cities, including bright lights such as Alexandria with a great tradition of writing and learning, so the resources for making written records were very accessible. Were no stories about Mohammed and the 7th century conquests written in that era?

From the Christian west, we have whole books surviving from the 7th century and earlier. But there are no muslims ones on this matter, except the Qur’an. To secular scholars, the gap makes so little sense that an explanation is called for. We have no other muslim book to shed light on this problem, until the 9th century, apart from the Qur’an.

To be fair, some 9th century muslim texts claim to contain bits of 7th/8th writing, and there are secular scholars who are willing to give some weight to that, with due caution because of their late inclusion. The earliest 9th century biography of Mohammed claims to be, in part, a rewrite of an 8th century biography. But what happened to the 8th century version? And what differences does the rewrite make? And again, why nothing for so long? Christianity exploded with texts in its first hundred years. Islam has given us no book but the Qur’an in its first century and more.

Similarly, collections of sayings of Mohammed were not collected in writing until the 9th century, and many thousands of sayings were rejected as inauthentic, in fact the vast majority of them rejected according to muslim tradition. In that light, how robust is a process of selecting authentic sayings made from amongst a vast amount of inauthentic sayings two centuries after Mohammed died? Certainly, the muslim scholars applied a methodology of their time to do so. But how can secular scholars be sure that what seemed genuine in the 9th century would have seemed genuine in the 7th century? And what can a secular methodology make of it now?

(By the way, whenever someone says to me that they are horrified that Mohammed did/said this or that, I like to ask them how they know that – they don’t usually know that they are making their judgment assuming a 9th/10th century writing about a 7th century man to be a true story. And why are they, as non-muslims, making the assumption that they should believe these stories, and use them as a stick to beat the reputation of Mohammed with? It is of course relevant material as many muslims hold the canonical Islamic stories true, but why do non-muslims hold them true? To secular scholars, they are direct evidence of what some 9th/10thcentury muslim scholars held to be important about the values of their religion in their own times, rather than direct evidence of 7th century events.)

Again to compare with evidence for the origins of Christianity, it would be as if no Christian wrote about Jesus for the first 100 years or so, and when they did after a century passed, their works were lost but with excerpts preserved in 3rd century books. If that were the case, the origins of Christianity would arguably be so shrouded in mystery as to be almost a lost cause to uncover. Another analogy: imagine that nobody started writing about the First World War 1914-1918 until today (and that there were no photographs, pictures, etc.), but then what got written in our day was lost, but excerpts were preserved in a book in a future century. This would be a problem for historians of the First World War in the future.

What then can secular scholars make of the origins of Islam? For primary sources from the 7th century, they have to rely on little bits recorded by western writers who saw the arabs conquer their towns, and archaeology (mosques, coins, inscriptions on buildings). Plus later texts that secular scholars might be prepared to give weight to, perhaps some excerpts of earlier texts in 9th century muslim texts - used with due caution because of their provenance. i.e. the context of their inclusion in late texts.

In the secular method, you establish what things are facts (however few), in addition what things are probable, and then conjecture a thesis that best accounts for the facts and probabilities that we can count on.

Here are some of the particular findings that secular scholars are discussing.


Academics are raising questions about Mecca that have serious implications for the traditional narrative that Islam hails from divine revelation in Mecca:

1) Location descriptions in the Qur’an suit the region of the ancient town of Petra, not Mecca. Mecca has a very different climate and geographical features from those descriptions. Mecca is over 1000 km south of Petra. Why do the Qur’ans descriptions not fit Mecca, and why do they fit Petra’s region?

2) 7th century mosques are aligned more or less towards Petra or Jerusalem, not Mecca which is 1000 km south of there. Even when Muslim tradition says they should point to Mecca, the archaeology points to Petra or Jerusalem. By the early 8th century, some – not all - point towards Mecca, but it is generations before all mosques point towards Mecca. Why is Mecca not the focal point till the 8th century? Why is Petra / Jerusalem the focal point?

3) Muslim traditions say Mecca was a major stop on trade routes, and that that accounts for its place in the life of Mohammed and in his early efforts to establish a religion called Islam. But Mecca is not on any map dating before the 9th century. And it is only mentioned once in the Qur’an. Why is that?

So, if valid, that list of problems would have serious implications for the narrative that Islam hails from divine revelation in Mecca. No primary evidence from before the 8th century indicates that the 7th century arabs thought that Mecca was the origin of any kind of divine revelation. The locations in the Qur’an and the alignment of mosques suggest to secular scholars that early narratives of Islam were not structured around Mecca but somewhere else 1000 km to the north, but where does that leave Meccan divine revelation? These are the sorts of questions secular scholars are asking, but what might the answers be?

Motivations of the arab conquerors

Secular scholars also raise other problems with the narrative that arab conquests of the 7th century were motivated by divine revelation. Some findings of their research:

1) The 7th century records by western witnesses of arab attacks make no mention of ever hearing the arabs say words such as Qur’an, Islam, Muslim or Mecca. These words are simply unknown in their accounts. On that basis, secular scholars get the impression that none of the arab conquerors in these places were trying to convince people to join a religion called Islam and become muslims and follow the example of a man from Mecca and listen to readings from a book called the Qur’an. Western sources do not even indicate that 7th century arabs were coming to convert them to a religion. In fact writers of that time found it hopelessly confusing to figure out what the arabs believed. Why does the contemporary record not show that Islam was a motivating factor?

2) These 7th century sources say that arabian conquerors called themselves other names, eg Ishmaelites or Hagarites. There is no evidence in these sources that the 7th century arab conquerors called themselves muslims. Why is that?

3) In primary Arabic evidence - coins, inscriptions of the 7th century - a Mohammed-centred narrative only starts to appear in Arabic sources in the 680s AD, when arab rulers put Mohammed’s name on coins instead of their own faces, under Abd-Al Malik’s reign. But this is more than half a century after Mohammed is said to have died. Why is that narrative so late in appearing in the record (whereas arab rulers were content to put their own identities on coins up to that point)?

So, if valid, those concerns would raise concerns about what events before the 8th century had to do with Islam, Muslims, the Qur’an, Mecca. or how Mohammed figured in it all. He is said by tradition to have died in 632AD. In light of the absence of early evidence, what do modern readers really know about the motivations and beliefs of the 7th century arab conquerors? These are the sorts of questions secular scholars are asking.

Islamic law

What are secular scholars questioning about Islamic Sharia law? Muslim tradition holds that this is based on the example and sayings of Mohammed. Questions arise because for example:

1) In the Qur’an, regular prayer is practiced three times a day (similar to old Christian tradition). But in Islamic law, it is five times a day (similar to Zoroastrian tradition). Why is the earlier writing, the Qur'an, not in direct line with the later writing of Sharia law? Could Islamic law have been drafted in part by 9th century literate Zoroastrian converts to Islam, keeping their own Zoroastrian traditions alive by attributing them to Mohammed?

2) In the Qur’an, the punishment for adultery is whipping. But in Islamic law it is stoning (similar to Jewish law). Again, why is the earlier writing, the Qur'an, not in direct line with the later writing of Sharia law? Could Islamic law have been drafted in part by 9th century literate Jewish converts to Islam, keeping their own Jewish traditions alive by attributing them to Mohammed?

3) Why does Islamic law have features that are like other legal codes of towns and cities in the 9th century, rather than something that makes more sense in the nomadic culture of 7th century arabs? Again, these are the sorts of questions secular scholars are asking, but the answers are elusive.

The Qur’an

Taking a secular approach means from the outset, of course, that scholars are looking for human explanations for the book, not a divine explanation. I’m sure no muslim would expect secular scholars to be doing anything different. So what are secular scholars asking about the Qur’an?

Their questions include (but are not limited to): who wrote it? when were its parts written? how much has it changed over the years and why? and where did its contents come from?

On the last question, some of its sources seem obvious to secular scholars. For instance, the Qur’an includes the Christian legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and other Christian and Jewish literary traditions. Quite a bit of the Qur’an comprises such traditional stories.

The issue of past changes to the Qur’an is particularly sensitive for many muslims. Westerners don’t always realise this. The way the Qur’an is regarded in Islam is quite different from how the Bible is held in Christianity, where challenges to the Bible’s origins are openly raised and answered and answers challenged and so on. If anything, muslim reverence for the Qur’an is a little bit more like Christian reverence for Jesus. Therefore any questioning of it can be painful for many muslims. 

Secular scholars are nevertheless bound to approach the Qur’an academically as with any other subject, with secular methods of research and evidence analysis. One issue unfolding is over textual variants. For many years, scholars were told by muslims that all of the oldest copies of the Qur’an are identical, and this was not challenged (and this was held to be evidence of its heavenly qualities by muslims). However, in recent years, muslim scholars have been more open about publishing data on the oldest copies of the Qur’an, revealing that they are not identical. Some are significantly longer than others, and there are many textual variants. Secular scholars have therefore started to think through what they regard as the evolution of the text over time. It seems that changes are sufficiently limited to suggest that the book was held as holy and carefully copied from quite early on, but some scholars see what they regard as some kind of evolution. Their work is ongoing and so we cannot assume that they have reached all the conclusions about it that might be drawn.

Further implications

I have not really done secular scholars – or the historical sources - justice. I have only written a very sketchy outline of the sorts of questions academia is asking. There is a great deal more nuance and skill in their handling of the evidence than you could tell from my very rough outline here. I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject – not even remotely! - and am only trying to share with visitors to this blog a rough outline of some of the questions being asked by secular scholars and why they are being asked.

Their questions are leading scholars to discuss how much modern notions of Islam have to do with the historical Mohammed who is said to have died in 632. We can’t say that there isn’t a connection between Mohammed and the complex religion of Islam. There is just no direct evidence contemporary with him that there is such a clear connection, and many intriguing problems that make the connection debatable, when applying secular research and evidence analysis methods.

By no means have secular scholars arrived at a consensus as to a complete explanation for the evidence. The narrative of a revised history of the 7th century is not agreed, not least because of the gaps in the historical record. Scholars have only been doing this work for a few decades. The origins of Christianity have been subjected to this kind of scrutiny by secular scholars a lot longer (hundreds of years). 

There are various suggestions of a thesis that best accounts for the early evidence. A successful thesis would be an attempt to try to answer questions like these:

If Islam were thought by scholars to be substantially forged together under arab rulers of the 8th and 9th centuries, then why did those rulers feel this need to forge a new religion anyway and to hold all of their empire to this one religion, from Spain to India? And why forge this religion in a way that makes it stand in opposition to the Byzantine empire with its empire-wide Christianity?

And if the Qur’an and early mosques indicate a narrative of divine revelations in the region of Petra or somewhere near, why did muslims shift the focus of the religion 1000 km south to Mecca?

And what about Mohammed’s biography which arrived in the world in written form so relatively late? Was it delayed by problems? What problems? Why could not the literate cities conquered by the arabs provide the resources to produce one? Could it be that some of the stories about Mohammed were created in the 8th or 9th centuries to give context to the Qur’an’s divine utterances which don’t have a context on their own (as historian Tom Holland ponders)? Could it be that known stories of Mohammed were not necessarily consistent with the development of Islam in the 8th and 9th centuries, and that potential biographers were not sure what to say at first (the theory of some Christian apologists)? I don’t have the answers. Secular scholars will be working on these questions for many years to come.

If such secular ways of thinking about the subject were more widespread in muslim communities, this would of course raise particular problems for fundamentalist versions of Islam, which are predicated on knowing exactly what Mohammed did, and said, as a 7th century muslim reciting the Qur’an and spreading Islam. Some muslims who are less literal about the 9th and 10th century claims about Mohammed would find these sorts of questions more accessible to discuss. It should by no means be assumed that these sorts of difficult problems would mean the same things to different muslims in different forms of Islam. However, nor should it be assumed that the work of non-muslim scholars is a panacea for extremism, nor a medicine for a religion of which they are no part. Faith issues are more complex than that, as the scholars themselves would acknowledge, I'm sure. The endeavour of secular historians is to write good history, not a political solution to the world's problems. 

Where might these scholars' endeavours lead for those in Islam for whom the work of such secular scholars is of interest? I don't know if it would ever have practical implications. Stretching one's imagination: is it possible to imagine that some - any? - muslims would follow an Islam in which the focus has shifted away from Mecca, towards Petra or Jerusalem?; where it is no longer dogma that Mohammed is necessarily the one who first recited everything in the Qur’an?; and where it is no longer held that we know enough about Mohammed to make what he may have said and did into the rulebook for the life of a muslim?; where it is no longer held that the arab conquests of the 7th century were done in the name of Islam? I do not know if that kind of Islam is possible. I do not have the answers to the questions. For many muslims this would no doubt be very difficult; while for other muslims it may not have any practical impact on their lives, if perhaps unsettling; while for others the debate may be an interesting quest for truth that they could join in with. But to what degree could it happen in the foreseeable future? It is not for me to say. I am only imagining as a non-muslim, as an outsider trying to understand these things, what possibilities the future might hold in store, and I write these questions in humility knowing that others will have a much better idea of what is possible.

If you want an accessible read on these questions – rather than a dense academic tome - Tom Holland’s book In the Shadow of the Sword is very readable. If you don’t have time to read it, Tom Holland’s related Channel 4 documentary is online here.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

What Paul says about the earthly pre-resurrection Jesus – a summary list

I have often heard, from non-historians, a claim that St Paul knew nothing about a human Jesus, only a heavenly Jesus. This time around, instead of setting out background information as I’ve done elsewhere, this blog is just a summary list for easy reference (since the claim often comes up). (This blog collects into one place – in shorter form – material from across some of my other blogs.)
So: of the things Paul was taught about the earthly human Jesus, which does he mention in his letters?
In answering that question, I’m relying here only on letters which are generally undisputed as authentic by secular scholars, letters written by Paul around the 50s of the first century within about two decades of when Jesus is said to have died.
Some selected things Paul gives us:
  • Jesus’ birth (out of a woman, he says, with no mention of a human father - Paul does not give names of parents – neither his own nor, unsurprisingly therefore, Jesus’ parents)
  • Jesus’ location (Judea)
  • Jesus’ childhood included having brothers and being in a family of observant Jews
  • era in which Jesus lived (first half of first century - see timeline)
  • Paul also references moral teachings in a way consistent with someone who knew they were Jesus’ teachings
  • he also references Jesus’ apocalyptic views in a similar way
  • he mentions Jesus’ betrayal (although he does not care to name his betrayer, just as he mentions ‘the twelve’ without bothering to name most of them)
  • Paul calls Jesus the 'Son of Adam', which in Hebrew of course is exactly the same as 'Son of Man' (ben-'adam), the name by which Jesus called himself
Some of those things are unpacked more below.
Timeline – life story of Jesus
Following the timeline of Jesus’ life, I pick out the following from those letters by Paul:

Jesus’ genealogy and birth

          Jesus was an Israelite and he was descended from the family of King David (Romans 1:3).

  • Indeed: "To them [the Jews] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Messiah" (Romans 9:5)
          Jesus arrived ‘out of a woman’ (Gal 4:4), so was undoubtedly a human with a mother as far as Paul was concerned!
Family and upbringing
          Jesus was born into a family of observant Jews (that is clear because he was born under the Jewish law, which Jews call the Torah) (Galatians 4:4).
          In his biological family, Jesus had a brother named James (Gal 1:19), and he had other brothers (who had wives – 1 Corinthians 9:5).
          Jesus’ life was in the first half of the first century.
o          Paul was writing in the 50s of the first century (the date is calculated from dating information in Paul's letters), and Jesus' brothers were adults with wives and clearly still alive in the 50s: this means Jesus' life can be dated to the first half of the first century.
Jesus’ ministry
          Jesus had a ministry specifically to Israelites: "Christ became a servant of the Jews" (Romans 15:8-9). Again, to be clear, this is a human Jesus ministering to fellow Israelites as a member of their race: "To them [the Jews] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Messiah" (Romans 9:5)
Jesus’ Passion Week (the last week of his life)
          Jesus spent time in the land of the Judeans, homeland of Israelites, and this is where he died (1 Thessalonians 2:15).
          Jesus was betrayed at night-time, during a gathering which extended from before supper till after supper, at which Jesus handled some of the food and a cup (1 Cor 11:23).
          Some people of Judea caused Jesus’ death (1 Thess 2:15): “You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches [in Judea] suffered from the Judeans, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.” –
o          That’s a bit of a scrapbook of incidents – the sufferings in Judea of churches and Jesus and Paul and his friends, as well as ancient prophets who Paul drags into the subject!
          Jesus’ death was by crucifixion (1 Cor 2:8), which means the execution was carried out by the Romans (Paul would have known that it was the Romans, not Jews, who practised crucifixion in Judea). 
          His death was no later than the 30s of the first century. (The date is calculated from dating information in Paul's letters.)
          Jesus’ body was buried (1 Cor 15:4).
And there’s more…
In addition, Paul says other things about Jesus that you would expect him to say if he were talking about a human Jesus. (Whether you choose to believe Paul here is describing the pre-resurrection Christ, or the post-resurrection Christ (or both!), we can't say that the sort of comments that should be made about the personality of a real person are totally missing - they're not.) So Paul speaks of:
Jesus’ personality
    • servant – and this was towards circumcised people (that is to say, Jews) (Romans 15:3, 8)
    • Jesus chose a life of poverty, and Paul describes Jesus as meek and gentle (2 Corinthians 8:9; 10:1

Jesus having disciples
  • 'the twelve' (1 Cor 15:5). Paul just assumes that the reader knows what he means by 'the twelve'.

Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings
          In 1 Thessalonians 4:15, Paul starts off declaring stuff "in the word of the Lord". Whatever "in the word of the Lord" means, what Paul says next does actually align with the apocalyptic teaching of the gospels' Jesus. Thus:
    • 1 Thess 4:15-16 = Matthew 24:31 (note the mention of the trumpet)
    • 1 Thess 4:17 = Matthew 25:5-7 (note the mention of meeting Jesus)
    • 1 Thess 5:3-7 = Matthew 24:42-43 (note the mention of the thief in the night) 

Jesus’ moral teachings 
          In 1 Corinthians, repeatedly when Paul says he has a teaching from the Lord, it does actually align with the gospels' Jesus. So:
  • 1 Cor 7:10-11 = Mark 10:9-12 (on marriage and divorce)
  • 1 Cor 9:14 = Luke 10:7 (on labourers for the Lord being paid)
  • There is a general alignment too with a good deal of Jesus' ethical teaching, and it is striking that out of all the alternatives in Paul's world, this finds its way into his letters. So in Romans:
    • Romans 12:14 = Matthew 5:44
    • Romans 12:17 = Matthew 5:38-48
    • Romans 13:7 = Mark 12:17
    • Romans 13:8 = Mark 12:31
    • Romans 14:13 = Mark 9:42
    • Romans 14:14 = Mark 7:15
    • Romans 14:20 = Mark 7:19
One thing you may have noticed is that these are not haphazard scatterings of teachings in Paul’s letters. They come in packages such as 1 Thess 4-5 and Romans 12-14. They are known to Paul as chunks of teaching. 

Glen Miller provides more example here

Taking all the above together, to claim as if it were a fact that Paul knew nothing about the earthly Jesus would be sheer ignorance. Paul is an important secondary source on the historical Jesus, and our earliest. He was a contemporary of Jesus who was writing within about two decades of Jesus’ death, which is nothing really. And his sources weren’t bad: he knew Jesus’ brother James, and also Peter and John – people reputed to be eyewitnesses of the historical Jesus. Which is why Paul is an important secondary witness to Jesus. Historians of ancient history deal with secondary sources all the time – they are bread and butter of a historians’ work, along with primary sources.

What debt does secular humanism owe to Christianity, and English Christianity in particular?

Some secular humanists think they are saving the world from Christianity. But have they got this wrong? The thing is, western secular humanism is shot through with tacit Christian values, values that are alien to some other societies even today:

  • Such as all people being lovable [to God] irrespective of status and therefore all worthy of respect and rights
  • Or such as the separation of church from lawmakers being a good thing
  • And the development of democracy from the Puritan individual's conscience and congregationalist practice

Secular humanism owes a debt to Christianity for these things. Not all cultures share these values. One example that springs to mind to which these values are antithetical is Sharia law, but one could just as easily think of some of some of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Islam has not produced a secular humanism. It arose out of societies with deep Christian roots, even it if likes to present itself as anti-Christian in some quarters.

We could go further about the debt owed to Christianity. How about:

  • The Christian innovation of the concept of children having a ‘childhood’, an idea that is so cherished today:
  • The practice and methodology of subjecting ancient religious texts to scholarly scrutiny. Secular academia has kept the Christian methodology which hails from early Christian times, but has simply now stripped the methodology of its Christian content. This methodology came out of ancient Christian scholars comparing four gospels, comparing the Old and New Testaments, and their various books, sifting and weighing them. Christians have got used to secular academia applying this methodology to the Bible for that reason. (The Christian attitude to holy texts differs, say, from many muslims' attitudes to holy texts. When the same method of historical methodology is applied to the Quran, this is much more unsettling for many muslims. For them, it is harder to apply this Christian-originated methodology to their holy texts.) Secular scholars owe such rigorous scholarly methodology to Christianity. Historian Tom Holland explains more about this here:

If society chips away at its Christian values, it is cutting off the branch it is sitting on. Without a coherent Christian worldview, there is no saying that these great benefits will last, as these values are increasingly confronted by other worldviews that don’t share those values. Fundamentalist Islam is only one example. How can secular humanism stand up to it when we are chipping away at our own Christian foundations? The future is not bright without Christianity at the heart of public discourse.