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.

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