Robert Spencer, professional Islamophobe, has a new book coming out in which he attempts to show the historical problems with the historical record of Muhammad and Muslims. Unfortunately, the Islamophobia industry will likely get the book wide exposure.
A press release about the book, lays out several “questions” about Muhammad and the origins of Islam. I show below why the book is really a “so what” rather than a “oh wow.”
How the earliest biographical material about Muhammad dates from at least 125 years after his reported death.
Yep. Any decent historian or scholar of religion will tell you this. It’s like asking why earliest biographical material* about Jesus dates from at least two generation after his life. Welcome to the wonderful world of pre-modern history. Literacy is not such a big deal. A good resource for learning about this is Monty Python’s “Holy Grail.” It’s probably a more accurate portrayal of Medieval English history than anything Spencer concocts.
How six decades passed before the Arabian conquerors—or the people they conquered—even mentioned Muhammad, the Qur’an, or Islam.
Seems like an odd claim, since there’s a whole academic sub-speciality that deals with non-Muslim accounts of the early Muslim period. Perhaps one of the most important of these works is written by St. John of Damascus, who writes about how his family served the Muslim empire from within 20 years of Muhammad’s death. He uses the term “Ishmaelites” as opposed to “Muslim,” so perhaps that is Spencer’s technically correct claim, but St. John is clearly writing about Muslims.
The startling evidence that the Qur’an was constructed from existing materials—including pre-Islamic Christian texts.
Yup. The Qur’an says it is talking about and with earlier revelation, which it considers itself part of. In fact, the Qur’an even footnotes the Talmud (5:35). Amazingly, for scholars of other Abrahamic scriptures, they point to these scriptures borrowing from earlier sources, whether Gilgamesh or Mithra.
How even Muslim scholars acknowledge that countless reports of Muhammad’s deeds were fabricated.
Yup. It’s part of the science of hadith collection. The Muslims who collected sayings of Muhammad knew that people were making things up and created checks and the best methodology that they could at the time to stop it. Modern scholars are revisiting the existing corpus with new tools and methods.
Why a famous mosque inscription may refer not to Muhammad but, astonishingly, to Jesus.
Stumped by this one. No idea what it refers to.
How the oldest records referring to a man named Muhammad bear little resemblance to the now-standard Islamic account of the life of the prophet.
But, but earlier Spencer says we don’t have any early proof of Muhammad’s existence. Which is it? Anyway, if you read the Gnostic Gospels** and look at the Gospels, there are very different versions of the life of Jesus. Talmudic stories are also very different from Torah studies. Is it really a surprise that people take stories and make them mean things to themselves?
The many indications that Arabian leaders fashioned Islam for political reasons.
Duh. Constantine, David, Solomon, etc.. Welcome to the wonderful world of reality.
What Spencer’s press release shows is that he is divorced from the academic field that he uses for his legitimacy. These are not new or provocative questions. They are the bread and butter of the field. There are truly challenging books that come out of the academia, including Steven Wasserstrom’s Between Muslim and Jew and Fred Donner’s Muhammad and the Believers, a recent book that deals with many of the questions Spencer raises, but that actually engages with primary material and that has been challenged by other experts in the field. My fear is that the new Islamphobic strategy is to simply edit solid scholarship like Donner’s into fear-mongering drivel and repackage it as their own. It’s the problem when you want money over truth or knowledge. And it works because Spencer is banking on the fact that his audience won’t apply the same questions he asks to their own faith traditions.
Spencer’s work may in fact be one of the best arguments for religious studies.
*A few readers point out that there is early historical record of Jesus’ life. I am not denying that. There is also early historical evidence for Muhammad. I am attempting to draw a parallel between the sira (biographical) literature of Muhammad and the Gospels.
**My fingers went faster than my head and typed “Dead Sea Scrolls” instead of Gnostic Gospels. Thank you to @JeremiahBailey for tweeting this correction.