History and legend in the origins of Islam (I)


Since the first half of the 19th century, philologists and historians have been examining the extant evidence about the origins of Christianism and Judaism, particularly studying the books of the Bible with the methods applied to any other old document. Though this research faced strong opposition both from most Christian denominations and from some of the most conservative layers of European and American societies, it is now commonplace (save perhaps within some stubborn Protestant and Jewish sects still attached to the dogma of inerrancy) to assume that the Bible was written by fallible and far from disinterested people, usually a very long time after the events narrated in it: e.g., several centuries in the case of the Pentateuc or Torah, and at least between four to eight decades in the case of the New Gospel. Contradictions, mix of different authors within the same ‘books’, falsifications or mere recollection of previous mythologies, and so on, are now taken as part of the established philological knowledge about the Bible, no matter what moral or religious significance each reader is free to assign to such a fundamental work.

In the case of Islam, however, the situation is completely different, because two reasons that may seem to go in opposite directions. On the one hand, the resistance to take the Qur’an as an object of scientific study has been stronger in more than an order of magnitude in Islamic societies than what Biblical research was in the western countries. The persecution of Nasr Abu Zayd in Egypt, or the fact that some Islamic scholars (like Ibn Warraq 1) have to write under a pseudonym when expressing critical views about the literal truth of the muslim Scripture, are a proof of how difficult still is to advance academic research on the Qur’an, not only in those countries, but everywhere else. But, on the other hand, there is the traditional belief that, contrarily to the case of the Gospels, written by disciples one or two generations after Jesus Christ’s death, Islam was born “under the full light of history” (to use the famous phrase of mid-19th century philologist Ernest Renan): we seem to have a record of the life of Muhammad almost day by day, and of the whole circumstances under which the suras of the Qur’an were transcribed, collected and disseminated through the Islamic world within the following decades. This knowledge was orally transmitted by means of the so called hadiths: sayings about the Profet, recollecting his deeds or words, and certified by a faithful chain (the isnad) of transmitters from some original witnesses.

In spite of this apparent confidence, contemporary scientific research on the origins of Islam is starting to switch off the ‘light’ Renan referred to. Here are, to begin with, some relevant dates to take into account. The Prophet Muhammad is supposed to have been born in Mecca (Arabia) by 570 C.E. The archangel Gabriel would have started to appear to him by 610, transmitting to the Prophet the verses of the Qur’an under the form of a recitation (which is what qur’an means) from that time to almost Muhammad’s death. The Prophet would have formed a small community around him at Mecca, where the ‘living forces’ would have forced them to retire to exile (the Hijra) to Medina by 622, which is the year chosen by the Muslims to start their calendar. Muhammad died in 632, soon after recovering Mecca by the arms within the process of conquering most of the Arabian peninsula. In what is probably the most spectacular episode of conquest in all the human history (only paralleled by the Castilians in America and by Alexander the Great, but with a much bigger success in terms of political endurance), the followers of Muhammad took within the next thirty years (the time of the ‘Orthodox’ Caliphate, i.e., led by Caliphs that have been contemporaries of Muhammad as well as direct relatives of him) all Near East from Lybia to the limits of India, except Anatolia, and in the following four or five decades (the Ummayad Caliphate), the rest of North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and part of the India and Central Asia.

The question is that, in a similar way as the cosmological inflation of the universe seems to have erased almost all traces of what happened before it, making the geometry of space and time equally flat everywhere, the inflationary expansion of Islam during its first two centuries left at the end a vision of its own history that left almost no traces with which to contrast its historical pedigree. And the few things that we have about it are certainly surprising. Let’s see what contemporary Christian sources 23say about; in the next article we will examine the Arabic sources, and in the third part what philology can show about the Qur’an itself.

1) The first known written reference to an ‘Arab prophet’ is certainly almost contemporary of Muhammad, a book known as Doctrina Jacobi written in Palestine by a Christian monk between 634 and 640, who refer to a no-named ‘prophet’ that commanded the ‘Saracene’ conquering army (the term ‘Arab’ started to be used much later), and who complained that true prophets didn’t come with a sword. The main problem is that the author refers to that ‘prophet’ as still living and military active in Palestine, though the book was written after the supposed date of Muhammad’s death. Furthermore, the text mentions that the prophet-commander was announcing the imminent advent of the Messiah as well as his ‘holding the keys of the paradise’, two statements that are hardly part of the posterior Islamic faith.

2) Another book, this time written in Syriac by a monk called Thomas around ten years later, mentioned an army to which he refers as tayyaye d-Mhmt; ‘tayyaye’ is a Syriac name for the Arab nomads, and Mhmt can be, of course, a reference to the one they were following, so that the whole expression can be translated as ‘the Arabs of Muhhamad’. One minor problem here is that the right transcription into Syriac would have been Mhmd, but more important is that the text does not say absolutely anything about this person… assuming that the expression is the name of a person, for Mhmd meant in Arabic just ‘praised’ (more or less like ‘Benedictus’ in Latin), and hence it can be some kind of honorific title, rather than a proper name.

3) Other Christian texts dating from between 640 and 670 depict the invaders as ‘Hagarian’, i.e., descendants of Abraham and his concubine Hagar, mother of Ishmael, and as allied of the Jews, refer to their negation of the divinity of Christ, and even mention a ‘Mahmet’ as an Ishmaelite preacher who taught his followers to worship the God of Abraham, as well as an Arab general’s appeal to the Byzantine emperor himself to embrace some Abrahamic monotheism.

4) The rest of contemporary (i.e., 7th century) Christian references to Arabic conquerors depict them as ‘atheist’ (‘godless’) or ‘pagans’, what is understandable taking into account that they were a hostile force, and make absolutely no reference (except those cryptic ones mentioned in the previous three points) to the invaders having something like a new religion, or being monotheists, or having a sacred book, or following religious practices, or whatever other indications of their being what later would be known as ‘Muslims’. Perhaps this is just a misrepresentation by part of the defeated, or perhaps they took as representative a portion of the ‘Saracene’ army that were still politeists and have not been at that time ‘converted’ to Islam, or simply most of the ‘Muslims’ of the time didn’t follow the practices that were sanctified a century later.

5) Only by 730 (one whole century after the death of Muhammad), in a book On the Heresies written by the theologian John of Damascus, something closely related to the teachings of the Qur’an is commented in detail. The author, however, does not give the impression of those teachings being collected into a signle book, but always refers to individual ‘writings’ that undoubtedly correspond to single suras of the Qur’an.

In the next article we will see what the few standing contemporary Arabic sources say about the invaders themselves.


  1. Ibn Warraq, ed., (2002), What the Koran Really Says, Amherst, Prometheus.
  2. Ohlig, K.H., and G.-R. Puin, eds., 2010, The Hidden Origins of Islam, Amherst, Prometheus.
  3. Spencer, R., (2012), Did Muhammad Exist? An Inqury into Islam’s Obsucre Origins, Washington, ISI Books.

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Jos(eph) MorikaJos(eph) Morika

You mention (very correctly) in your article : ” Mhmd meant in Arabic just ‘praised’ (more or less like ‘Benedictus’ in Latin)”

But there is more

In Christian Liturgy there is the phrase : “Benedictus qui venit in Nomine Domini”
to be translated as : “Praised is (he), who came in the name of the Lord”
(it is, of course, about the Christian savior, Jesus Christ)

The first time “Benedictus” was used as a proper name, it was at the inauguration of pope Benedict, 575 AD

But what do you get if you translate the Latin phrase into Arabic? Then it becomes something like: “Mohammed came in the name of the Lord” and that means the very same as “Mohammed is his prophet”…

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