[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.