Historical Facts about the Origins of Islam
Pious Muslims trace the origins of Islam to the beginning of the seventh century – and place an overwhelming emphasis on the events of this century, including the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad and the city of Mecca. In addition to the religious value assigned to the events of the 7th century, Muslim historians (and many complicit western scholars) consider the Islamic rendition of the century to be undisputable historical fact. As will be established however, there is no justification or support for this assertion as the Islamic narrative is wholly dependent on internal, dated and biased sources that fail to account for contradictory (external) sources that undermine the traditional Islamic narrative.
The traditional Muslim account of the seventh century provides us with the following “historical” accounting of the events of that century. Muhammad was born in the year 570 A.D close to Mecca - a city in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula. At the time, Mecca was a wealthy trading city primarily due to its strategic and pivotal location on an overland trading route – a crucial stop on the route to the Mediterranean trading centers of the world, and it would go on to play a prominent role in the rapid spread of Islam. Tradition has it that Muhammad was orphaned at an early age, and was raised by an uncle and other relatives. Furthermore, we are informed that a young Muhammad went to work for a wealthy widow who owned a prosperous international trading company, and that he had the good fortune of ultimately marrying this widow - an event that dramatically bettered his fiscal position and social standing.
In the year 610 A.D., Muhammad began to receive messages from God (a transmission that would continue throughout his life) and through these messages learned that he was God’s Prophet and the bearer of God’s final word to mankind. Never claiming divinity himself, Muhammad did claim that God was speaking through him and that he was the sole conduit for God’s final and perfect instructions to man.
These initial messages from God were subversive to the interests of Mecca’s ruling and trading elite, and they were summarily rejected. Muhammad was forced to flee from his home in Mecca, so he went to Medina, a locale that was more receptive to his messages from God. At Medina, Muhammad established the original Muslim community, and subsequently returned to Mecca and converted its inhabitants to Islam. By the time of his death in 632 A.D. Muhammad and his fellow Arabs had conquered the entire Arabian Peninsula which had been previously occupied by illiterate, pagan tribes. By the turn of the 8th century, Muhammad’s followers had conquered and subdued a vast territory from Spain to India – an unprecedented historical feat.
For the pious Muslim, this amazing accomplishment is easy to understand and explain. The Prophet Muhammad had received and transmitted the final and perfect word of God. Empowered with God’s support and direction, Muhammad established the Islamic state and spread the word of God as commanded by Him. Today, Muslims continue to assert this accounting of the origins of their religion and to rely on them as the basis of their faith.
The most amazing part of this story however, is that Islamic historians, often with the support of western scholars , contend that this story is not only the basis of their religion, but that it is also factually supported and properly documented history as well. Pious Muslims are quick to point out that Muhammad’s many revelations from God were memorized, recorded and ultimately canonized in the body of the Koran during the first few decades following his death in 632. According to the story, the third caliph Uthman employed the scholar Zaid ibn Thabit to compile the “true” Koran and to destroy all remaining copies – rendering the Uthman version the final and perfect word of God as received and transmitted by the Prophet. According to this account, the final, codified version of the Koran that we have today was canonized and formalized no later than 650 A.D. and is an authentic source of history evidenced by the fact that is a perfect literary creation and could only have been only produced by God. Therefore, Muslim historians contend that the Koran itself is a viable and dependable source of history.
In addition to relying on the Koran as an authentic source, Muslim historians also point to the extensively detailed “early” biographies of the Prophet (Sira) and the traditions known as Hadith. While Muslim scholars point to a long list of “valid” biographies, the earliest and most heavily utilized biographies were written by Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Ishan and al-Tabari; the later two relying heavily on the former.
In addition to Sira, Muslim historians also rely on the Hadith – which are thousands of stories and narratives regarding the deeds and sayings of Muhammad (Sunna). Hadith often serve to clarify and explain both the Sira and the contents of the Koran which is often difficult to understand without additional commentary provided by Hadith. According to Muslim scholarship, the Hadith were orally transmitted for the 150 years following Muhammad’s death, and were formally gathered and categorized at the beginning of the 9th century – a process that ultimately resulted in the canonization of those Hadith deemed authentic. Canonical status of Hadith was first conferred upon the collection compiled by the 9th century scholar al-Bukhari.
Ninth and tenth century Muslims scholars devised an elaborate (scientific) system to verify the authenticity of Hadith. In essence, what they did was to follow the chain of transmitters to a particular narrative and to determine whether this chain was a valid. The chain, called Isnad, contains the name of the eyewitness of the event and the person(s) who recorded the event. Muslims agree that some early Hadith were fabricated falsely but that their system of Isnad was an effective tool in detecting and removing the forgeries thereby rendering the remaining Hadith as valid and supportable sources for the authentic words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad. Today, there are six separate sets of Hadith that have been accepted as the authentic, authoritative and fairly complete record of the formative events of the seventh century.
According to the Muslim scholar, the Sira, the canonized Hadith and the Koran – the “final and absolute word of Allah” provide us with a rich and detailed “history” of the origins of Islam in the 7th century. They tell us what Muhammad did and said, when how and why he did the things he did. And again, to the pious Muslim, these are not stories but facts. A passage from a contemporary introduction of Islam designed to enlighten both young (and potential) Muslims is illustrative of this absolute position: The life of Muhammad is known as the Sira and was lived in the full light of history. Everything he did and said was recorded. Because he could not read and write himself, he was constantly served by a group of 45 scribes who wrote down his sayings, instructions and activities. Muhammad himself insisted on documenting his important decisions. Nearly three hundred of his documents have come down to us, including political treaties, military enlistments, assignments of officials, and state correspondences. We thus know his life to the smallest of details: how he spoke, sat, slept, dressed, walked; his behavior as a husband, father, nephew; his attitudes toward women, children and animals; his business transactions and stance toward the poor, his behavior in battle; his exercise of political authority and stand on power, his personal habits, likes and dislikes – even his private dealings with his wives. Within a few decades of his death, accounts of the life of Muhammad were available to the Muslim community in written form. One of the earliest and most famous biographies of Muhammad, written less than 100 years after his death, is Sirat Rasul Allah by Ibn Ishaq.
Despite the confidence of the believing Muslim however, these sources are simply not adequate to tell us what really happened during the seventh century. The detailed historical picture put forth by the Muslim historian is completely dependant on uncorroborated, late and biased sources. In short, Muslim sources (alone) fail to provide an accurate and authentic picture of the events of the 7th century - a fact that will be displayed with a critical analysis of these “sources.”
To begin, it must be recognized that the sources utilized by Muslim historians to describe the events of the 7th century are not contemporary. Indeed, the sources are extremely late and date from a minimum of 150 to as many as 300 years following the events that they attempt to describe. For example, before the year 750 A.D., there is not a single verifiable document that describes the formative period of the 7th century. The heavily relied on Sira written by Ibn Ishaq, the primary authority for the life of Muhammad, was written at least 100 years after Muhammad’s death. Furthermore, we do not even have an actual manuscript of Ishaq’s Sira. It survives only in the work of a number of later scholars – primarily Ibn Hisham, who relied almost exclusively on his predecessor, and who conceded that he edited it so as to omit “things which are disgraceful to discuss, matters which would distress people and such reports as al-Bakkai told me he could not accept as trustworthy. Hisham lived even later than Ishaq and died in 823 A.D. Hence, his Sira, is even more removed from the facts it attempts to describe. Noted Islamic scholar Patricia Crone describes this situation accordingly:
The work is late: written not by a grandchild, but a great grandchild of the Prophet’s generation, it gives us the view for which classical Islam is settled. And written by a number of the ulama, the scholars who had by then emerged as the classical bearers of the Islamic tradition, the picture which it offers is also one sided: how the Umayyad caliphs remembered their Prophet we shall never know. That it is unhistorical is only what one would expect, but it has an extraordinary capacity to resist internal criticism … characteristic of the entire Islamic tradition, and most pronounced in the Koran: one can take the picture presented or one can leave, but one cannot work with it.
As noted by Crone, the early Sira were not only late, but biased. According to prominent revisionist historian, John Wansbrough all of the early Islamic documentation, including the Sira , the Hadith and the Koran itself is salvation history which is not “an historical account of saving events open to the study of historians, since salvation history did not happen, as it is a literary form which has its own context.” Wansbrough contends that Islam – as we know it today – did not start to take form until the beginning of the 8th century and was not a crystallized movement until well after that. He argues that the invading Arabs had a need to establish a distinctly Arab religion in response to the diversity encountered with the invasions. Following this logic, the authors that “created” the story of Islam had an agenda – and this did not include the recording of accurate facts. These compilers were not historians when they wrote their works, but people who bore witness in that they failed to distinguish “the duty of reporting from the legitimacy of believing. “Salvation history” a phrase coined by Wansbrough to describe the Islamic narrative of the 7th century was written to point to God’s role in directing the affairs of the world, particularly during the time of Muhammad’s life.
In addition to the apparent limitations of the Sira as authentic historical documents, the historical value of the vast majority of the Hadiths must be described as tenuous as well. As discussed, the Islamic rendition informs us that thousands of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad were orally transmitted from the seventh century and authenticated by a reliable process developed and utilized in the eighth and ninth centuries. However, there are many reasons to reject the Hadith as reliable sources.
To start, as with Sira, the Hadith “sources” are quite late and describe events at least 150 years following their occurrence. For example, the compilation considered most authentic – those prepared by the scholar Al-Bukhari’s was not organized, compiled and ultimately ascribed with canonical status until the early 9th century. Hence, we are completely reliant on the oral tradition for the transmission of 7th century events that must also be subject to Wansbrough’s notion of salvation history.
Furthermore, the system of authentication can not be relied on either. At the turn of the 9th century it is estimated that that there were as many as 600,000 Hadith, and that many of these were blatantly false and contradictory. Indeed, al-Bukhari ultimately rejected 98% of the original 600,000. The “chain” of authority is entirely dependent upon corroboration and veracity – not available with the Muslim sources. Furthermore, another problem was that the science of Isnad only started in the 10th century, long after the Isnads had apparently been compiled. In sum, we simply don’t and can’t know whether the names on the Isnad list truly passed accurate information that we can use today to recreate the events of the 7th century. Like Sira, Hadith simply can not be relied upon as an authentic source for history. Like Sira, this exclusively Muslim source must also be considered far too late and removed from the subject events and most likely biased as well.
In addition to being subjected to the scrutiny of Muslim scholars, who have accepted al-Bukhari’s rendition of authenticity, Hadiths have also been increasingly challenged by western historians. At the turn of the 20th century, a scholar by the name of Goldziher completed a vast study of the authenticity of the Hadith and the Muslim system for determining authenticity and determined that the vast majority of them were unsubstantiated forgeries that sorely lacked corroboration. Goldziher concluded that the Muslim compilers took a vast majority of their hadith material from collections compiled around 800 (or later) and not from documents written in 7th century. Several decades later, additional Hadith scrutiny was undertaken by Schact who explored how early Islamic legal tradition was transmitted via Hadith. Schatt concluded that early 9th century schools of law authenticated their own biased agenda by arguing that their doctrines came initially from Muhammad and his companions. Hence, according to Schact, the compilers satisfied their agenda of authenticating laws and traditions by linking them to the prophet. In this way, Hadith were a valuable source for exploring legal codes for early Islamic societies, but should not be relied upon as authentic sources for what really happened. Crone, in later research on the authenticity of the remaining (canonized) Hadith has similarly rejected the “grain of truth” argument asserted by many Muslim historians due to the age of the Muslim sources coupled with the transparent bias of the authors. Simply put, contrary to Muslim assertions, Hadith can not be relied on as authentic source material.
Based on this critical review of the exclusively Muslim “sources” relied on to explain the events of the seventh century it is apparent that we must look beyond them. According to Wansbrough, we must look at additional, external sources for the truth. Fortunately, in addition to the Islamic sources relied upon by the traditional Muslim arguments to account for the 7th century, we also have several non-Muslim sources that individually and collectively shed significant light on the origins of Islam in the 7th century. Muslim scholars have often deemed these sources hostile and refused to consider them, however, they have yet to be refuted and add much to the unbiased historical reconstruction of the 7th century. These sources have much to say about the authenticity of the Koran and whether we can rely on it as a source for the history of the 7th century.
To start, we have two contemporary sources that directly undermine the Korans instructions regarding early relations between Arabs and Jews. According to the Koran, the Arabs and the Jews (living primarily in Medina) experienced a split between the years 622 and 624 soon after the Hijra to Medina. However, two non-Muslim sources illustrate a significantly different picture regarding relations between the Jews and the Arabs. The Doctrina Iacobi, a Greek anti -Jewish tract was written between 634 and 640 provides the earliest external testimony regarding Muhammad and his movement in the early 7th century. In sum, this writing warns of a group comprised of both Jews and Sacarens (what the Arabs were called) and the perils of falling into the hands of this ethnically mixed dangerous group. Significantly, the writing refers to the group as containing both Jews and Arabs – and they were considered one group.
Yet another contemporary source, the Chronicle, written by Sebeos in 660 also describes the relations between Arabs and Jews during the early years of the seventh century. This non-Muslim source describes how Muhammad establishes a community comprised of both Ishmaelites and Jews and argues that that they were united by a common lineage to Abraham (Ishmael and Issac), a birthright to the holy land and a monotheistic genealogy. Collectively, these contemporary, unbiased sources paint a starkly different picture than that presented in the Koran. Instead of a split between the Arabs and the Jews, the two groups are presented as a harmonious unit – working together towards common goals demonstrating the good relations between Jews and Arabs. The Koran – the perfect word of God tells us otherwise.
In addition to this apparent inconsistency between the Koran and other contemporary sources, we also have reason to doubt that the original Hijra was to Mecca and suspect it may have been towards the city of Jerusalem. Central to the Islamic story is the event of “Hijra” where according to traditional Muslim sources Muhammad and his followers left Mecca for Medina in 622. This journey is at the heart of the Islamic religion. However, two Nestorian ecclesiastical documents from 676 AD and 680 AD respectively tell us that the emigration of the Arabs at the early part of the 7th century didn’t start at Mecca and end at Medina (as the Muslim story goes) but was headed to what was deemed the promised land – Jerusalem! If true, the original Hijra was in fact outside of Mecca and even Arabia and completely undermines the rendition offered by Muslim historians.
Yet another significant piece of the traditional Islamic narrative is rendered suspect by recent archaeological research done on ancient mosques in present day Iraq and Egypt. According to these studies, which examined the structures and contents of six 7th century structures, the prayer rooms were built such that the direction of prayer could not possibly have been towards Mecca - a blatant and transparent inconsistency with Islamic doctrine. Indeed, of the six ancient mosques examined, not one was constructed so that prayers could be directed to Mecca as commanded by the Koran. Further corroboration of this assertion is provided by Jacob of Edessa, a contemporary Christian writer from 705 who wrote a letter (still in existence) noting that the Arabs prayed toward the east. This evidence completely undermines the Koranic instruction for the direction of prayer (Qibla) to be towards Mecca – that was according to Muslim tradition canonized no later than 624. With this information one must ask whether Mecca was indeed the place of significance that it has been accorded. Furthermore, we must re think our position on the validity of the Koran as a source of history.
Further undermining the traditional Islamic description of the seventh century derived from the Koran and the Hadith is information concerning Mecca – a city central to the Islamic narrative. Indeed, Mecca can be described as the heart of early Islam, as it still is today. In the Islamic tradition, it is described as a vibrant and wealthy trading center located at the center of trading routes. Furthermore, it is the place of Muhammad’s birth and the location from which the Hijra took place. Simply put, there is no more prominent city than that of Mecca in the early story of early seventh century Islam.
Despite this prominence however, there is not a single piece of (non-Muslim) evidence that points to and corroborates this claim for such prominence during the seventh century. In fact, the earliest substantiated reference to Mecca is in the Continuatio Byzantia Arabica - a source from early in the reign of the caliph Hisham who ruled between 724 and 743 - 100 years after the life of Muhammad. When challenged with this absence of evidence, Muslim historians strenuously point to the 2nd century Greco-Egyptian geographer Ptolemy and his reference to a city called “Makoraba.” The argument is that Ptolemy intended Makaroba to be Mecca. However, Ptolemys’ mention was brief and cursory, and, according to several scholars may have been intended to describe any number of locations that were not Mecca. Other than this brief (and early) description, we simply have no mention of 7th century Mecca – independent of Muslim sources. Surrounded by complex and literate empires, such as the Byzantine Empire, it is hard to imagine that if Mecca was as influential and significant as claimed, that there would be such a dearth of evidence regarding its existence. The educated 7th century Greeks had never heard of a place called Mecca. How then could it have been so prominent?
Further diminishing the prominence of Mecca as described by Islamic sources is evidence suggesting that the Muslim description of Mecca as a city at the centre of trading routes in 7th century is incorrect. One scholar has noted that 7th century Mecca was “tucked away at the very edge of the peninsula and that only by the most tortured map reading can it be described as a natural crossroads between a north-south route and an east-west one.” Accordingly, a stop at Mecca would have involved a 100-mile detour from the natural route along the western ridge. Furthermore, Patricia Crone describes Mecca as a barren place, and argues that such places do not make natural halts, and “least of all when they are found at a short distance from famously green environments.” Crone asks critically “Why should caravans have made a steep descent to the barren valley of Mecca when they could have stopped at Taíf … which had a well, a sanctuary and food supplies as well?”
Compounding this inquiry, Crone critically asks “what commodity was available in Arabia that could be transported such a distance, through such an inhospitable environment, and still be sold at a profit large enough to support the growth of a city in a peripheral site bereft of natural resources? According to Crone, it WASN’T spices or incense as Muslim historians have claimed. No, according to Crone, Arabs engaged in a far more humble trade consisting of items like leather and clothing - and that such a trade couldn’t and didn’t support a large commercial empire, such as described by the Muslim historians.
Finally, Crone concludes that there was no international trade in Arabia – never mind Mecca during the centuries prior to Muhammad’s’s life, contrary to conclusions reached by both Muslim and prominent western historians. According to Crone, reliance on later Greek historians – those that were closer to the events in question – like Cosmas, Procopius and Theodoretus would have made this picture clear. She notes that the 7th century Greek trade between India and the Mediterranean was entirely maritime after the 1st century. Why would traders go across the land when a far cheaper water route was available? It would have been foolish for the trader’s ship from India to drop off at Aden and caravan for the rest of the 1200 mile journey when you could complete the journey by sea all the way up via the Red Sea. Mecca as a vibrant and wealthy trading center simply doesn’t make sense.
Mecca is at the heart and soul of the Islamic account of the 7th century origins of Islam. But, as this evidence shows, the Koran and the Islamic tradition did not portray the city even close to accurately. Mecca was not the great trading city as described, nor was it even known by contemporary and civilized Greek sources. This invokes challenging and difficult questions for the “historic” Muslim tradition.
One last category of external, non-Muslim evidence further undermines the traditional Muslim account of the 7th century. Archeologist Yehuda Nevo completed a detailed study where he analyzed numerous rock inscriptions and coins dated to the 7th century found on rocks that had been discovered primarily in the Syro-Jordanian desert and the and the Nevo desert. The earliest reference to Muhammad was found on an Arab-Sassanian coin of Xalid Abdallah dated 690 A.D. Nevo concluded that there was “religious content” on many of the earlier stone inscriptions recovered and that several of the early 7th century inscriptions did contain “a message of monotheism related to a body of sectarian literature with developed Judeo-Christian conceptions.” However, he also failed to find a single inscription with a reference to Muhammad – the most (allegedly) prominent religious figure of the century and concluded that “in all the Arab religious institutions during the Sufyani period (661-684) there is not one reference to Muhammad. It is hard to imagine that not a single stone inscription attesting to Muhammad’s’ influence could be found. Unless, of course, the traditional description of Muhammad during the 7th century was simply not accurate. How else to explain this absence of reference to one of the (if not the most) influential and significant characters of the 7th century?
The most prominent rock inscription in the Islamic tradition is one the Dome of the Rock and it provides further (and final) evidence that undermines the Islamic narration. The Dome was built as an “Islamic” sanctuary by Abd-al-Malik in 691. According to Muslim tradition, it was built to commemorate the night that Muhammad traveled to heaven to meet with Moses and Allah regarding the number of prayers required of believers (Mi’raj). Despite this assertion however, the inscriptions on the Rock say nothing of this event at all. Instead, the inscriptions refer to the messianic status of Jesus, the acceptance of the prophets, and Muhammad’s revelations. More telling is the fact that the inscriptions on the Dome - built sixty years after Muhammad’s death - are the earliest references that we have (outside of Islamic sources) that actually refer to the terms “Islam” and “Muslim” If Islam had been such a prominent and influential 7th century religious movement that had been formally canonized 40 years before the Dome was constructed, how is it possible that the words Islam and Muslim are not mentioned before that time? Clearly, we need to take another, critical look at the seventh century and the origins of Islam?
What to conclude from the exposed failures of the Islamic sources coupled with the telling evidence offered by external sources that significantly undermine the traditional Muslim narrative of the origins of Islam in the seventh century? To start, we simply don’t know exactly what happened during the seventh century. We do know that a group of Arab invaders successfully conquered vast territories within and well beyond the Peninsula – for certain a significant feat. However, apart from their own sources – appropriately identified as biased “salvation history,” we don’t know how the development of Islam related to these invasions.
My estimate, supported by the conclusions of several revisionist historians, including Wansbrough and Crone, is that Islam as we know it today did not begin to truly “crystallize” until the beginning of the 8th century. At that time, the conquerors realized that they needed a distinctively Arab deity and a system of law to rule a large and diverse group of recently conquered peoples. Hence, the literary creation of Islam. What better means for a small numerical minority to govern a large, diverse, recently conquered territory than with the power of divine direction? As Crone notes, “Muhammad had to conquer, his followers liked to conquer, his deity told him to conquer – Do we need any more?” In this regard, Muhammad was not the conduit of the final word of God but a political and military leader who unified the Arab tribes and urged them to conquer in the name of their deity. There is much work to be done towards figuring out the historical events of the seventh century. The first step is to look beyond the biased Islamic sources.