Can we even ask if Muhammad never existed?
By Robert Spencer
Did Muhammad exist? The question startles most people, either because they have taken for granted that he did, or because they are aware that asking such questions can get you killed. My new book, Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins, came out just weeks after New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman published his latest book, Did Jesus Exist? Asked when we would apply the same critical eye to the Qur’an that he has trained upon the Bible, Ehrman replied: “When I no longer value my life.”
And there’s the rub: is it even possible in the Free West today to ask questions regarding the historical support for the Islamic account of the life of Muhammad without drawing threats to one’s life and attacks on one’s character? When one Islamic scholar, Suliman Bashear, taught his students at An-Najah National University in Nablus that the Qur’an and Islam were the products of historical development rather than being delivered in perfect form to Muhammad, his students threw him out of the window of his classroom. A scholar who has done groundbreaking work on the text of the Qur’an publishes under a pseudonym, Christoph Luxenberg – an understandable precaution in light of the threats he regularly receives.
Ehrman, for his work questioning the historicity of the New Testament records of Jesus Christ, receives no threats, and is lauded in academia. By contrast, Religion Dispatches has already published a piece claiming that my book on Muhammad will win praise only from the “Islamophobia industry” – implying that the book is in itself a manifestation of hatred and bigotry.
Certainly many Christians have regarded historical-critical investigations of the Gospels as attacks on the Christian faith, and even as attempts by the critics themselves to justify their own unbelief. Yet the Catholic Church and other Christian bodies have also embraced the historical-critical method, and have long since ceased to see it as a threat to their faith. Dozens of books have been written about whether Jesus Christ really ever existed at all, and if he did, what manner of man he was.
Islam is also a faith rooted in history. It makes historical claims. Muhammad is supposed to have lived at a certain time and preached certain doctrines that he said God had delivered to him. The veracity of those claims is open, to a certain extent, to historical analysis. Whether Muhammad really received messages from the angel Gabriel may be a faith judgment, but whether he lived at all is a historical one.
Islam is not unique in staking out its claims as a historical faith or in inviting historical investigation. But it is unique in not having undergone searching historical criticism on any significant scale. Both Judaism and Christianity have been the subject of widespread scholarly investigation for more than two centuries.
The higher criticism transformed the Christian world, changing the course of several major Christian communions and radically altering how others presented the faith. Similarly, investigations into the origins of Judaism and the historical material contained within the Hebrew scriptures have affected the Jewish tradition. In Judaism as in Christianity, traditions developed that rejected literalism and reevaluated numerous elements of traditional orthodoxy. Reform Judaism, like the liberal Protestant denominations, generally rejected traditional understandings and the literalism that underlay them.
Yet Judaism and Christianity still live, and in many areas they thrive. They have survived the challenge. Can Islam survive the same historical-critical challenge?
No one knows, for it has never received this treatment on nearly the same scale. Yet why should Islam and its leading figure be exempt from the scrutiny that has been applied to other religions? Have political correctness and the fear of violent Muslim retaliation advanced so far in the West that the freedom of speech and the search for the truth must be curtailed?
Maybe. We will see in the coming weeks, in the reaction to my raising the question of whether the enigmatic figure of Muhammad is a historical one. The reaction will reveal in microcosm the health of the freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry in these politically correct days.
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.