[Madoka] Of Body and Soul

“You tricked us, didn’t you.”
“I told you precisely what I wanted from the start: for you to become magical girls. I didn’t explain exactly what form you’d be taking to do that.”

– Miki Sayaka and Kyubey

On April 10th in the year 428, Nestorius, a Syrian monk and preacher, was made the Archbishop of Constantinople. In his new position he began to admonish the use of the term Theotokos (Θεότοκος), or God-bearer, when referring to Christ and insisted that instead people use the term Christotokos (Χριστοτοκος), or Christ-bearer. While Nestorius may not have been teaching the strict two-sons Christology that he is now known for,1 nevertheless his charges were responded to by many theologians of his day. His primary foe was St. Cyril of Alexandria, whose one-person/two natures Christology was vindicated at the 3rd ecumenical council at Ephesus and is the dogma of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and the majority of Protestant churches.

St. Cyril, in explaining his theology, utilized many analogies that tried to show the mystery of two natures that were in one-person, but nevertheless never co-mingled, that is, combined their essences together into a new kind of substance. The Ark of the Covenant’s being made of both wood and gold, the light that emits from a precious stone, the fragrance that comes from a lily, a piece of wood that is ignited by fire, the live, burning coal that was shown to the prophet Isaiah, even the unconsumed Burning Bush itself were all examples of how divinity and humanity co-existed in the one person of Christ. Though the divinity actively interpenetrates the humanity and transforms, or transfigures it, it never changes its essence. Likewise, the divinity does not change into humanity, making Christ a mere human being.

Yet the most powerful of all of St. Cyril’s examples was that of the relation between body and soul. Human nature was neither fully body (as is commonly argued today) or fully soul (as was commonly argued by most Hellenistic philosophies), but rather a union between the two where there was a clear distinction between each essence, and yet a union in that they were intimately connected with one another. None of our acts as human beings is purely of one or the other, even if the degree of which is active may vary from action to action.2 For example, St. Cyril writes in his Scholia on the Incarnation:

And yet, if it is necessary to speak of it, as if in a mirror (2 Cor. 3:18), human sense can have some kind of notion, for the Word was united to the body which had a rational soul, in the kind of way that the soul of a man is united with its own body; for even though this is a different nature to it, the soul still has a habitual communion and union with the body to such an extent that it cannot practically be seen as a different thing to the body, in so far as through the composition of both there is one living creature formed (though as I have said earlier, the Word remained in his own proper nature).3

The point I am drawing from the theological battles between St. Cyril and Nestorius is this very “habitual communion and union” between the body and soul that is so central to Christian anthropology. Man is body and soul, the division between them is abhorrent and unnatural, which is why man is not fully judged until the second coming when the two will be united once again. The communion (I rather like that phrase) between body and soul is a theme that plays out in Madoka, especially in the tragic character of Miki Sayaka.

Sayaka is Madoka’s closest friend, and was with her when she encountered her first witch and was saved by Tomoe Mami. Despite Mami’s cruel ending as a Mahou Shojo, Sayaka’s crush and goodwill for her friend Kyousuke leads her to make a contract with Kyubey and become a Mahou Shojo herself, vowing to be like Mami and protect the people of the world from the evil of the witches. Sayaka, though, quickly deteriorates and becomes filled with grief and despair herself, largely because of the revelation at the end of the sixth episode (This Just Can’t Be Right): that her body is no longer her body as the two have effectively been separated.

Kyubey’s logic behind the separation is pragmatic: the bodies that humans have are incredibly weak, and would break effortlessly. By separating the two essences of a person, one can use magic to maintain their body in battle and do and endure things most people only dream of. “After all…all they really are is a cluster of neurons,” what difference does it make what body they are in? Kyubey himself shows his ambivalence towards the body as he merely integrates his soul into a new one each time the current one is destroyed (especially by that that pesky Homerun-chan). The body doesn’t matter, only the soul. What we have here is an anthropology that is certainly not Christian.

Yet, the reaction upon finding this out is not a Platonic detestation for the flesh, nor is it an Buddhist ambivalence towards the body; rather, there is outrage. “Bastard…What have you done?!” growls Kyoko as she grabs Kyubey and screams at him. “You’ve got to be kidding me! So now you’ve made us into zombies, or something?!”4 Madoka weeps, “That’s horrible…too horrible for words.” Kyubey sighs audibly: “You humans always react this way.” But why is that, why do Madoka and Kyoko react that way. They aren’t alone in this, as Sayaka in the dialogue that began this essay accuses Kyubey of tricking the girls, and later on after being told by her friend Hitomi that she too has a crush on Kyousuke, and will give Sayaka one day to initiate a relationship with him, she breaks down in front of Madoka:

I’m going to lose Kyousuke to Hitomi! And there’s nothing I can do, because I’m already dead, because I’m a zombie! I can’t ask him to hold me when I have a body like this! I can’t ever ask him to kiss me!

While it’s probably hard not to laugh only getting the line with a bit of context, the feelings one gets when actually watching the show, especially as this is towards the end of Sayaka’s deterioration, is quite the opposite.

But the key remark she makes to Madoka is that she is “already dead” now that the body and the soul have been separated. Kyubey puts it in even starker terms when he explains the situation to Madoka and Kyoko: “Did you really think you could fight witches with the same fragile bodies that humans posses?” Kyubey’s syntax here has major implications (though of course this point could always be wrong given the original Japanese): the girls themselves are no longer human, as the standalone ‘that’ separates the Mahou Shoujou from mankind. This is furthered when Kyubey remarks how the only thing that matters is the soul anyways, and that is all we really are (rather Platonic, eh?).

This separation is not natural, and the end of episode 7 (Can You Face Your True Feelings) shows the utter abhorrence of their divorce. Sayaka, while battling a witch, is being beaten badly. Kyoko makes her appearance, but her help is denied as Sayaka emotionlessly replies, “Stay out of my way. I can do this alone!” As she beheads the witch she begins to laugh maniacally, and as the latter has a last ditch effort to protect herself, Sayaka mercilessly slashes her again and again, blood spraying everywhere, laughing the whole while. Her words encapsulate the very point I’ve been making: “It’s really true! If I just detach myself I really don’t feel any pain!” As the screen fades to black, we hear Madoka plea: “Stop…please, just stop.” Sayaka’s depravity is effectively what happens if one tears asunder the human person as she herself completes the very dehumanization that Kyubey began.

This makes the final episode (My Very Best Friend) that much more meaningful. If one is careful, they can discern a difference between Sayaka’s ‘death’ in episode 6 with how the girls die in their last moments. When Sayaka’s soul gem went too far away from her human body, she stopped mid-sentence and collapsed. However, after Madoka removes, or takes on, the despair of each magical girl and shatters their soul gem, the girls are still momentarily conscious before their death and often smile. The visual implication is that the union between their body and soul have been restored, and they do not die as ‘zombies’, but as humans. Thus, though Madoka is likely a tale of Buddhism, its anthropology is distinctly Christian, for the girls all have the communion of the body and soul that St. Cyril used to argue that the preexisting Logos Himself became man, both in body and soul.



1 For more on this and the entire Christological controversy of Ephesus, see John McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy. NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004. All relevant information was taken from this book.

2 Ibid., pg. 199.

3 St. Cyril of Alexandria, Scholia on the Incarnation. Trans. John McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy. NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004. pg. 318.

4 I couldn’t help but think of philosophical zombies whenever they brought this up. I wonder if there’s a connection to be made.

Image References (In Order)


St. Theophan the Recluse and Anime

To apply the content to oneself is the purpose and fruit of reading. If you read without applying what is read to yourself, nothing good will come of it, and even harm may result. Theories will accumulate in the head, leading you to criticize others instead of improving your own life.1

– St. Theophan the Recluse

Though St. Theophan is speaking of spiritual readings, such as the Philokalia, in this passage, one can easily see how this applies with anything we watch or read. This hearkens back to St. Basil, that we should take that which edifies and leave the rest. The reading (or in this case watching) without applying no doubts echoes Paul’s own warning that “knowledge puffeth up” without its application of charity (1 Cor 8:1). Perhaps we should be careful watching shows merely for the sake of watching them, for merely being entertained (though, even entertainment has its place in our lives). More importantly, we should take that which comports with our views and apply it to our lives. So we shouldn’t act like Zuko when he was like this:

But rather when he was like this:

…Which of course reminded everyone of this:


1Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. E. Kadloubovsky & E.M. Palmer E. M., Ed. T. Ware. The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology. NY: Faber and Faber, Inc., 1966. pg. 130

Picture References

1I can’t seem to find the exact link I used, by I do know it is by the hand of the Pachomian brothers from Mt. Athos

[Madoka] Introduction

“If she gives up, it’s over. But you have the power to change fate itself…”
– Kyubey

The beginning of Puella Magi Madoka Magica (from here on Madoka) gives us a dismal and confusing scene. A pink haired girl carrying some kind of white chibi fox enters into a distorted realm where a lone Mahou Shoujou (Japanese for Magical Girl) battles a seemingly invincible foe. The first words uttered by this pink haired girl set the scene for the rest of the show: “That’s horrible!” The world of Madoka is one of strife, violence, and seemingly inescapable doom. This world is fallen before any kind of original sin has occurred, and yet Madoka says how she’s feels: “this can’t be right!” The fox, Kyubei, tempts her with a promise, that Madoka can “change fate itself,” she can prevent “all this inevitable destruction,” if she would just only make a contract to become a Mahou Shoujou herself. It is not until later that we learn that in this time line Madoka does just that, and by it becomes the most powerful witch the world has ever known, bringing it to utter destruction in just a mere ten days.

The opening scene no doubt bares parallels to the story of Adam and Eve; Kyubei proposes a lie which leads to the destruction rather than the salvation of those Madoka cares about, much like the lie Satan tells Eve, “that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5). Yet, there is something twisted about both Satan and Kyubei’s lies. Mankind was already made in God’s image, and by the incarnation man himself could become defied by walking the path of theosis, evidenced by the common Patristic saying that “God became man so that man could become god.”1 Kyubei, on the other hand, says that Madoka could change the very laws of the world herself, and while this proved to be an utter lie, we see it become true in the final time line – but now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Madoka is a highly praised anime of 2011 which took the idea of the Mahou Shoujo and flipped it on it’s own head. This genre of anime in which young girls’ transformation gives them powers to combat evil is probably best known by Sailor Moon since it was brought over by Toonami in the mid 90’s, giving it a wide audience. While I am by no means an expert on the genre, my understanding is that these shows are characterized by the themes of hope, love, and the triumph of good versus evil. Madoka begins out in this fashion, but in the third episode one of the characters in the midst of fighting with a witch is eaten alive before the protagonist. Blogger TWWK of Beneath the Angels rightly quoted Scamp in that the show was one of despair until the end: “As soon as you entered the world of the Magical Girl, you had lost all hope of returning. You turned into a witch when all hope had been extinguished and you had given up on life entirely.” Mahou Shoujo’s were fated to become the very witches they fought, to infect and destroy the world with the very despair that they meant to defeat with hope. The ending gives the theological response to this problem of despair, but again I keep getting ahead of myself.

These series of posts are going to be using the hermeneutics I had spoken of previously to draw out multiple Christian ideas that can be either read into, or extracted from, the show. Though before I begin to go into anything particular, it is worth addressing the elephant in the room. Is not Madoka actually about Buddhism? In a short answer: yes. We see this particularly in the seventh episode of the show, Can You Face Your True Feelings?, when Kyoko reveals her past to Sayaka. Kyoko was the son of a Priest whose preaching began to deviate from that of the church as “he though in order to save a new generation, we needed to have a new religion.”2 He, naturally enough, was excommunicated. The scene, as TWWK points out, is narrated by Kyoko as she is eating from a bag of apples, the common artistic depiction of the fruit that was eaten by Adam and Eve. The message is implied: Christianity is outdated, it is not the true religion.

The show is also filled, and based upon, Buddhism. The concept of Karma used by Kyubey, the multiple time lines Homura travels through being similar to reincarnation (which Sayaka unknowingly jokes about in the first episode of the show). Enlightenment, Nirvana, etc, are all found in the show and done so with much more solidity than any Christian concept. Blogger Yi’s post does a fantastic job at explaining the show’s Buddhist themes, and is well worth the read. So, again, for a short answer: yes. Madoka is far more likely about Buddhism than Christianity.

And yet, there is this: 

And this: 

Though I suppose I should do more than just show pictures. In the penultimate episode, Madoka’s mother (Junko) is talking with her teacher as she noticed that her daughter has been distanced at late, and it is unnerving her as she is use to being completely open with Madoka. The teacher, while explaining that this is part of her child growing up, notes that during these times “we’ve got no choice but to trust them.” The scene is ended mere seconds later with a picture of the creation of Adam by Michelangelo. Later on, as the seemingly invincible Walpurgis Night descends upon Homura, Madoka goes to join her. She is stopped by her mother who scolds her for her recklessness of going out to try and save her friend during an emergency (Walpurgis’ descent has created a severe storm all around, though it should be noted now that only certain people are able to enter into the realm that witches dwell in. Hence, the storm is a kind of affect whose origin cannot be seen by most people). Madoka tells her mother though, that “It’s because I treasure you all that I must protect you. To do that, there’s some place I need to go right now!” Junko asks, “and you can’t tell me what this is about?” Madoka nods. Her mother asks to go with her, but Madoka refuses. She tells her mother, “will you believe in me now? Will you trust that I’ll do what’s right?” Her mother, after a brief question making sure Madoka is not being deceived by anyone, pushes her playfully on her way. Madoka turns and smiles, “thank you, Mom,” and then makes her way to Walpurgis Night.

This scene takes place in the same episode that Junko and Madoka’s teacher have their talk about trust. This trust is actually faith, having faith in someone. Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” is often misquoted by theists and atheists alike to show that Christians need to be fideists and that any kind of ‘evidence’, be it philosophical or tangible, goes against their faith.α Indeed, how can one have faith if they know for sure God is real? Of course if one seriously believes that this is what Hebrews 11:1 means, they would have to explain why the apostles only believed after they had seen the empty tomb and the Risen Christ, or why countless people in Acts were converted by the miracles wrought in Christ’s name. Indeed, this would mean that my own conversion due to the Shroud of Turin would invalidate my faith.

But if one reads the rest of Hebrews 11, one sees it is talking not about epistemological belief, but rather having faith in God even when the outcome of the circumstances are unknown, trusting Him even when we are uncertain just as the saints of the Old Testament did. To have faith in someone is entirely different than knowing they exist. Indeed, St. Paul says in Romans 1:20 that “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead,” meaning that faith is not ‘blind belief’ that cannot use evidence, but a relationship. The Greek word for faith, pistis (πίστις), as Fr. Andrew Damick rightfully points out,3 implies a continuing relationship and development, not a static ontological switch. This is what we see in this scene; Junko knows Madoka is a good girl, and she certainly believes she exists. Her faith in Madoka is one of trust, one that she has built over a lifetime, one that hopes despite that she can not see why her daughter needs to venture out into a storm alone. The reward for this faith is the ending of the show, the complete ontological rewriting of the universe so that hope ultimately triumphs over despair. This is the mountain-moving faith of the Gospel according to St. Matthew.4 Perhaps this is the spermatikos logos of St. Justin.

In these series of essays I would like to explore a few more ideas, one being on the concept of the relationship between body and soul, another on the multiple allegories one can draw between characters, and finally the theme that most people have picked up on: hope and despair.


1 Sts. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius the Great, Ephrem, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, and Maximus the Confessor. Russel, N. Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis, pp. 38-9. Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in the teaching of theosis, or deification.

2 I am planning to do a post on this in the future as I think this has become an actual problem in certain Christian denominations.

α While I’m going to leave the original text, I would like to make a quick amendment. Some Church Fathers do indeed (or at least seem to) see Hebrews 11:1 as talking about a faith in Christ without evidence, specifically believing in the Resurrection without ever seeing it (St. John Chrysostom for one). That said, the note in the Orthodox Study Bible presents this passage more so in the way that I described. The two readings do not mutually conflict per se so it should not matter one way or another. I do apologize if my statement was too strong; I have seen this thrown in the face of Christians by skeptics in an attempt to prove that they cannot use evidence to uphold their belief. It was this kind of proof-texting that I was reacting to.

3 cf. his podcast Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, specifically those on the Reformation, at ancientfaith.com

4 cf. Matthew 17:20

Orthodoxy, Anime, and Hermeneutic

“Do not be surprised if to you, who go to school every day, and who, through their writings, associate with the learned men of old, I say that out of my own experience I have evolved something more useful. Now this is my counsel, that you should not unqualifiedly give over your minds to these men, as a ship is surrendered to the rudder, to follow whither they list, but that, while receiving whatever of value they have to offer, you yet recognize what it is wise to ignore. Accordingly, from this point on I shall take up and discuss the pagan writings, and how we are to discriminate among them.”

– St. Basil the Great, Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature

Why bother reading or watching things that do not align with our own worldviews? There are numerous answers to such a question: to understand the worldview of others, to gain appreciation for another culture, to analyze and deconstruct the ideas of others, for pleasure, for wisdom, for edification, etc. The answers will no doubt vary depending on one’s beliefs (or lack thereof), cultures, dispositions – in total, it will vary from person to person since persons are individuals. After all, we do not all like the same shows, or mediums of entertainment.

So then, for Orthodox Christians, why bother reading things that may not comport with our worldview? Anime is notorious for not understanding Christianity (and thinks that Christianity is just Roman Catholicism),1 and is generally suspicious, if not hostile, to ‘organized religion’ in general. So then, what use is there from watching such cartoons? Surely there is a lot that one could object to from a Christian viewpoint: the excessive violence, the rampant fan-service, the differing stances on sexuality, the general vapidity of the medium, so on and so forth.

Yet, anyone who has spent any time watching anime above the intellectual level of Digimon or Bleach2 know that these shows can carry thematic views that are, though while no means as deep as Dostoevsky, are nevertheless profound and powerful. Many non-anime fans have tipped their hats to Cowboy Bebop for its maturity and ability to deal with more adult subjects, while others (though they vie vigorously in the ‘hate’ and ‘love’ camps) have recognized the interplay between Freudian psychology and Judeo-Christian symbolism in Neon Genesis Evangelion. Just as with any medium of art, one can cultivate their own reading of an anime, be it religious or not. While we could spend ages arguing which reading is more valid than another (I tend to side with authorial intent), this is not my point: regardless of the validity of a reading, one can see their own values in any artistic work regardless if they were purposefully put there or not. Thus an Orthodox Christian could watch anime for any of the reasons listed above, all centered around their apostolic faith in Christ. It in this regard I would like to speak of two interpretive hermeneutics as seen in the saints.

The quote that I began this essay with was from St. Basil the Great, a 4th Century Bishop and one of the three Cappadocian Fathers who help to solidify the terminology behind the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Basil’s point in his address is that pagan literature, though written at a time before Christianity, no doubt contains many things that align with Christian faith. His metaphor of the bee gathering from flowers has become a staple in this regard:

“For just as bees know how to extract honey from flowers, which to men are agreeable only for their fragrance and color, even so here also those who look for something more than pleasure and enjoyment in such writers may derive profit for their souls. Now, then, altogether after the manner of bees must we use these writings, for the bees do not visit all the flowers without discrimination, nor indeed do they seek to carry away entire those upon which they light, but rather, having taken so much as is adapted to their needs, they let the rest go. So we, if wise, shall take from heathen books whatever befits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest.”3

This, undoubtedly, is the most efficient hermeneutic as it allows us to pick up that which comports with the faith and leave out that which does not. Obviously one should not ignore the context of the original writings, but since Basil’s address was primarily for spiritual edification and not dialogue, such contexts play far less a role. This will be the main hermeneutic that I utilize.

Next is St. Justin Martyr, a pagan philosopher who converted to the Christian faith in the 2nd Century. When speaking of differing philosophies, he used the philosophical concept of the spermatikos logos (σπερματικός λόγος), that within all men there was a ‘seed’ of the truth that could be found despite their personal errors. It is worth quoting the 13th chapter of his second apology in whole:

“For I myself, when I discovered the wicked disguise which the evil spirits had thrown around the divine doctrines of the Christians, to turn aside others from joining them, laughed both at those who framed these falsehoods, and at the disguise itself and at popular opinion and I confess that I both boast and with all my strength strive to be found a Christian; not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of Christ, but because they are not in all respects similar, as neither are those of the others, Stoics, and poets, and historians. For each man spoke well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic word, seeing what was related to it. But they who contradict themselves on the more important points appear not to have possessed the heavenly wisdom, and the knowledge which cannot be spoken against. Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians. For next to God, we worship and love the Word who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since also He became man for our sakes, that becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might also bring us healing. For all the writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them. For the seed and imitation impacted according to capacity is one thing, and quite another is the thing itself, of which there is the participation and imitation according to the grace which is from Him.”4

This ‘spermatic word’ has traditionally been understood in that it was imparted to man by the Word so that they could “think and live in accordance with the Logos.”5 Indeed, this seems to be apparent in the above Chapter when St. Justin says that “each man spoke well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic word.” However, as Fr. John Behr points out, Justin rejects such a natural connection in his conversion story in the Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, but shows instead that this spermatikos logos was a result of one’s knowledge of the Scriptures, which makes sense since St. Justin held the opinion that the Hellenistic philosophers had both read and taken from Moses.6 While it is unlikely that the majority of those writing anime have ever read the Bible, they may at least have some basic knowledge of Christianity, and thus these ideas may influence their works at a subconscious, if not conscious, level. This is obviously a far harder hermeneutic since it is asserting something about authorial intent, though the important point, that “whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians,” does not conflict with the looser hermeneutic set forth by St. Basil.

Finally, I would like to say one thing about drawing comparisons; I believe that one rarely will find a perfect correspondence between an idea and symbol in an anime and be able to link it up perfectly with a Christian concept in every single fine detail. There will be gaps and holes, some large, others small. In this regard, I would like to quote a section from St. Theophylact’s commentary on John 16:19-22:

“Do not attempt, O reader, to find an event in Christ’s life to match each detail of the parable…Certain elements of the parable may have no particular significance except to link together the story. If every single detail corresponded to the reality being described, we would no longer be dealing with a parable but with the thing itself.”7

Perhaps I could have summarized this all by saying that through anime, I am trying to find “the law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:15).



1 There is a great example of this in the second season of School Rumble when the character Sarah Adiemus, who though being a high school student is also a Catholic Nun (last time I checked novice’s remain in the monastery until they know which path to pursue, so whether she’s tonsured or not is already irrelevant to this blunder). While developing a crush on one of the male characters, she sits down to hear his confession in the confessional booth. I may not be Roman Catholic, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that hearing confessions is for the priesthood.

2 To be fair, I’m not saying that people who like these shows are stupid. I’m just saying they’re not the most intellectually or thematically driven anime.

3 St. Basil the Great. Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literaturehttp://www.ccel.org/ccel/pearse/morefathers/files/basil_litterature01.htm

4 St. Justin Martyr. The Second Apologyhttp://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0127.htm

5 Behr, John. The Way to Nicea: The Formation of Christian Theology. NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001. pp. 106

6 Ibid., pp. 107-108

7 St. Theophylact of Ochrid. The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to St. John. MO: Chrysostom Press, 2007. pp. 252

[Review] Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins

“Did Muhammad exist? The full truth of whether a prophet named Muhammad lived in seventh-century Arabia, and if he did, what sort of a man he was, may never be known. But it would be intellectually irresponsible not to ask the question or consider the implications of the provocative evidence that pioneering scholars have assembled.”

Though this is the penultimate paragraph of Rober Spencer’s Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins, it is nevertheless the sole paragraph that should be taken away from this book. Spencer articulates this largely in the beginnings of his work, explaining that Islam should be subject to the same higher criticism that both Christianity and Judaism have undergone for centuries already. With this point, I am in complete accordance; the God debate in America is usually limited to Christianity since, after all, historically America has been predominately Christian in its religion of choice. However, being one the world’s most adhered to religions, Islam should not be an exception to this dialogue – and by no means am I saying it has not been at all. Unfortunately, some scholars who had probed this ground have all too predictably (and sadly) been the target of death threats (and, let me be upfront now that I obviously do not believe that all Muslims act in this fanatic demeanor. I have had the pleasure of having both kind, and compassionate Muslim co-workers, as well a close friend since my youth).

Spencer’s book is a reconstruction of Islam’s history based upon a critical review of the evidence. Rather than adhering to the canonical story of Islam’s origins, Spencer uses the contemporary data of the time to hypothesize that the earliest Muslims were actually an ambiguous monotheistic group who held to both Judaism and Christianity, albeit with Arian overtones (Arianism is the heresy that Christ was not co-equal with God the Father in his divinity, and was the subject of the first two Ecumenical Councils). To buttress his position, Spencer shows that there was no mention of a Quar’an, Muhammed, or Islam within the first many decades of the Arabs conquest, and that contemporary accounts on both sides fail to mention these items. Furthermore, Arab coinage originally had shown a figure (already a prohibition of Islam’s iconoclasm) with a crown carrying a cross, and it was not until later that the coins no longer bore such images. To add to this, he surveys the lack of any corroboration of Mecca in the purported time that Muhammed began his religious quest, not to mention the plethora of warring hadiths in the 7-8th centuries. Most interesting is his chapter on the Quar’an itself; Spencer argues that the Quar’an, far from being purely Arabic in origin, was originally a Syriac Lexicon that had morphed over time. He relies heavily off of the work of Christoph Lüxenberg to show how the diacritical marks which were non-existent in the oldest copies of the Quar’an, were likely misplaced, and that when redone come out with heavily Christian passages, going as far to include a liturgical reference to the Eucharist. Such claims are hard to take a face value, but Spencer goes in passage by passage to explain where the mistakes were made. If all this is true, then it would undoubtedly be devastating for Islam.

But that is exactly where the problem is.

Spencer’s work relies heavily off of fringe, revisionist scholarship, which while it should not be dismissed outright, should also be examined against more mainstream scholarship – but this view is missing from Spencer’s work. Thus, it seems convincing, but one is unsure of what the response would be. In other words, this is as if one had merely picked up any Jesus Mythicist book and uncritically accepted all the facts within. There is one reviewer on Amazon that has taken issue with Spencer in this regard, and has done a fair job in opposing his claims. For example, one of the works Spencer utilizes in his reconstruction is Patricia Crone’s Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, a work “in which she [Crone] demonstrated that one of the principal foundations of the canonical Islamic biography of Muhammad – its Arabian setting, with Mecca as a center for trade – was not supported by any contemporary records.” (pg. 13) However, Crone later on disregarded this theory as shown in her contemporary work. Furthermore, Lüxenberg philiological work remains in the realm of possibility, lacking any corroborating evidence that would solidify his claims. However, the worst omission of evidence on Spencer’s part is the tombstone of Abassa ibn Guraig, an artifact that dates to 691 A.D. and makes specific references to Allah, Islam, and Muhammed the Prophet. Perhaps there are responses to these claims, perhaps not, but ultimately if one wants to know they will need to search elsewhere.

Is Spencer’s book worth reading? I would say yes, purely for the fact that it seems to be an amalgam of revisionist scholarship with a very interesting thesis. I would not venture as to say that all of Spencer’s conjectures are off-base, and certainly some of the facts he provides seem startling. At the very least it was an enjoyable read as I was able to learn far more about Islam than I had really ever known (which was close to nothing), though I am sure there are far better books that are actually geared to such a topic. My only other complaint, far less substantial, is that Spencer’s tone seems to get harsher as the book goes on, criticizing the morals of the Quar’an, and at one point even making a comparison between Christianity and Islam, stating that the former is a religion of love and the latter is not. While I firmly believe Christianity is a religion of love (I am Eastern Orthodox, after all), such a comparison seems trite and unwarranted to Islam. Even if one does believes differently, such moral judgments (which Spencer makes many) are not really relevant in a book that is suppose to be a work of history and critical scholarship.