Muhammad: The Man Who Wasn’t There
By Robert Spencer
When I mention the title of my new book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins, many are startled, as they had no idea that there was any question that such a larger-than-life character might be legendary rather than historical. But in reality, no one who interacted with those who conquered the Middle East in the middle of the seventh century ever seems to have gotten the impression that a prophet named Muhammad, whose followers burst from Arabia bearing a new holy book and a new creed, was behind the conquests.
This may seem to be an odd claim. After all, there are the well-known accounts of the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. Those depict the caliph Umar meeting Sophronius and treating him respectfully, even magnanimously declining to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre so that his followers will not be able to seize the church and convert it into a mosque. Umar and Sophronius conclude a pact that forbids Christians from building new churches, carrying arms, or riding on horses, and that requires them to pay a poll tax, jizya, to the Muslims; but Christians are generally allowed to practice their religion and live in relative peace. This is the foundation of the Islamic legal superstructure of dhimmitude, which denies equality of rights to non-Muslims in the Islamic state and is oppressive in numerous ways by modern standards, but which in the seventh century was comparatively tolerant.
This “Pact of Umar,” however, is of doubtful historical authenticity. The earliest reference to it comes in the work of the Muslim historian Tabari, who died nearly three centuries after these events are supposed to have taken place, in 923. Much earlier, however, are the extant writings of Sophronius himself. The most striking difference is that Tabari’s account is unmistakably written within the Islamic milieu; it begins with the familiar Islamic invocation of Allah the compassionate and merciful, and refers matter-of-factly to Muhammad as the prophet of Allah. By contrast, Sophronius, writing at the time that Umar actually conquered Jerusalem, shows no awareness that the Arabians had a prophet at all or were even Muslims.
Instead, Sophronius lamented the advent of “the Saracens who, on account of our sins, have now risen up against us unexpectedly and ravage all with cruel and feral design, with impious and godless audacity.” In a Christmas sermon in 634, Sophronius declares that “we, however, because of our innumerable sins and serious misdemeanors, are unable to see these things, and are prevented from entering Bethlehem by way of the road. Unwillingly, indeed, contrary to our wishes, we are required to stay at home, not bound closely by bodily bonds, but bound by fear of the Saracens.” He laments that “as once that of the Philistines, so now the army of the godless Saracens has captured the divine Bethlehem and bars our passage there, threatening slaughter and destruction if we leave this holy city and dare to approach our beloved and sacred Bethlehem.”
It is not surprising that a seventh-century Christian like Sophronius would refer to the invaders as “godless.” After all, even if those invaders had come brandishing the holy book of the deity they proclaimed as the sole true creator of all things, Sophronius denied that god’s existence. Still, he makes no mention, even in the heat of the fiercest polemic, of the conquerors’ god, their prophet, or their holy book. In all his discussion of the “Saracens,” Sophronius shows some familiarity with their disdain for the cross and the orthodox Christian doctrines of Christ, but he never calls the invaders “Muslims” and never refers to Muhammad, the Qur’an, or Islam.
It is an extraordinary omission, and a telling one – moreover, it is matched in all the other extant literature. For sixty years after the Arab conquests began in the 630’s, there is no indication either in the existing records of the conquered people or of the conquerors themselves of them coming with a new religion, a new holy book, or a new prophet. Until the 690s, the conquered people refer to the conquerors as Hagarians, Saracens, Taiyaye, or other names, but never as “Muslims,” and give no hint, even in religious polemic, that they came with a new religion. Nor do the Arab conquerors themselves, in their coinage, monuments, or anything else, ever refer to Islam or the Qur’an.
If Muhammad is a figure more of legend than of history, and was constructed to serve a political agenda – as I argue in my book -- the implications are enormous for the evaluation of Islam as a political system rather than solely a religious one in the American public square today. It will be interesting to see in the coming weeks whether such questions can even still be discussed in today’s politically correct America.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and author of the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book, Did Muhammad Exist?, is now available.