UNCOVERING EARLY ISLAM
By Dr. Daniel Pipes
(That is like today's Americans debating the Constitution's much-disputed Second Amendment, concerning the right to bear arms, by claiming newly discovered oral transmissions going back to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Obviously, their quotations would inform us not what was said 225 years ago but about current views.)
Since Goldziher's day, scholars have been actively pursuing his approach, deepening and developing it into an full-scale account of early Islamic history, one which disputes nearly every detail of Muhammad's life, as conventionally understood -- born in 570 A.D., first revelation in 610, flight to Medina in 622, death in 632. But this revisionist history has remained a virtual secret among specialists. For example, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, authors of the synoptic Hagarism (Cambridge University Press, 1977), deliberately wrote obliquely, thereby hiding their message.
Now, however, two scholars have separately ended this secrecy: Tom Holland, with In the Shadow of the Sword (Doubleday), and Robert Spencer, with Did Muhammad Exist? (ISI). As their titles suggest, Spencer is the bolder author and so my focus here.
In a well-written, sober, and clear account, he begins by demonstrating the inconsistencies and mysteries in the conventional account concerning Muhammad's life, the Koran, and early Islam. For example, whereas the Koran insists that Muhammad did not perform miracles, the Hadith ascribe him thaumaturgic powers -- multiplying food, healing the injured, drawing water from the ground and sky, and even sending lightening from his pickax. Which is it? Hadith claim Mecca was a great trading city, but, strangely, the historical record reveals it as no such thing.
The Christian quality of early Islam is no less strange, specifically "traces of a Christian text underlying the Qur'an." Properly understood, these traces elucidate otherwise incomprehensible passages. Conventionally read, verse 19:24 has Mary nonsensically hearing, as she gives birth to Jesus, "Do not be sad, your Lord has placed a rivulet beneath you." Revisionists transform this into the sensible (and piously Christian), "Do not be sad, your Lord has made your delivery legitimate." Puzzling verses about the "Night of Power" commemorating Muhammad's first revelation make sense when understood as describing Christmas. Chapter 96 of the Koran, astonishingly, invites readers to a Eucharist.
Building on this Christian base, revisionists postulate a radically new account of early Islam. Noting that coins and inscriptions from the Seventh Century mention neither Muhammad, the Koran, nor Islam; they conclude that the new religion did not appear until about 70 years after Muhammad's supposed death. Spencer finds that "the first decades of the Arab conquest show the conquerors holding not to Islam, as we know it, but to a vague creed [Hagarism, focused on Abraham and Ishmael] with ties to some form of Christianity and Judaism." In very brief: "the Muhammad of Islamic tradition did not exist, or if he did, he was substantially different from how that tradition portrays him" – namely an Anti-Trinitarian Christian rebel leader in Arabia.
Only about 700 A.D., when the rulers of a now vast Arabian empire felt the need for a unifying political theology, did they cobble together the Islamic religion. The key figure in this enterprise appears to have been the brutal governor of Iraq, Hajjaj ibn Yusuf. No wonder, writes Spencer, that Islam is "such a profoundly political religion," with uniquely prominent martial and imperial qualities. No wonder it conflicts with modern mores.
The revisionist account is no idle academic exercise, but, as when Judaism and Christianity encountered the Higher Criticism 150 years ago, a deep, unsettling challenge to faith. It will likely leave Islam a less literal and doctrinaire religion, with particularly beneficial implications in the case of Islam, still mired in doctrines of supremacism and misogyny. Applause, then for plans to translate Did Muhammad Exist? into major Muslim languages and to make it available gratis on the Internet. May the revolution begin.
© Daniel Pipes 2012 All Rights Reserved
Originally Published in National Review Online, May 16, 2012
Republished with the Permission of Daniel Pipes
Reprinted from DanielPipes.org, May 16, 2012
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Dr. Daniel Pipes, a Ph.D. in Islamic History (Harvard University, 1978), is Founder and President of the Middle East Forum, Publisher of Middle East Quarterly, Founder of Campus Watch, Taube Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, a signatory of the Project for the New American Century, a former board member of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a former adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Golden Circle supporter of the U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon, a former member of the U.S. Department of Defense Special Task Force on Terrorism and Technology, and a former lecturer at the U.S. Naval War College, Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Pipes was the Director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute from 1986 to 1993.
Author or co-author of eighteen books, Dr. Pipes is a regular columnist for National Review Online, Front Page Magazine, the New York Sun, and the Jerusalem Post. His analyses of world trends and of forces and developments in the Middle East have appeared in numerous North American newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He frequently appears on American network television, as well as at universities and think tanks, to discuss the Middle East, Islam, and the Islamist threat to the U.S.A. and the West. He also has appeared on BBC and Al Jazeera, and has lectured in approximately twenty-five countries.
Dr. Pipes is a Polish-American Jew whose parents fled Poland in 1939, immigrated to the U.S.A., and assimilated well into
American society and culture. His father is Richard Pipes, an American historian specializing in Russian and Soviet history
and serving as Professor of History at Harvard University from 1950 until his retirement in 1996. During the Cold War, the
worldview of Richard Pipes was strongly anti-Soviet and anti-Communist.
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