Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Did Muhammed Exist?

(subtitle: "An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins") a book by Robert Spencer. A quick review with just a couple of observations.

The author's avowed aim of subjecting Muhammed and the Quran to the same sort of rigorous analysis that Jesus and the Christian and Jewish Scriptures have been experiencing for more than a century intrigued me. Given that, as a believing Catholic Christian, a lot of this so-called analysis seems tendentious and poorly grounded in reason, I was curious to see what the author would make of Islam's founder and principle scriptures based on his survey of scholarship.

To recap the classical Muslim understanding of the events: Muhammed is called by Allah from the middle of Arabia to preach a re-purified message to everyone. His locutions are given to him by the Angel Gabriel in perfect Arabic which sayings, stories and pronouncements are gathered together a few decades after his death into the Quran as we now know it. It is perfect and complete and there are no variant versions, such as Christians deal with. And it is perfectly comprehensible.

This is roughly parallel to some Protestant systems of thought that treat the Scriptures as if they were dictated by God, word for word. While Catholicism has the highest regard for the Scriptures (Inspired and, therefore, Inerrant) it doesn't regard the authors of Scripture to be mere transcriptionists. Nor does it deny the thousands of variant versions from the ancient world.

The author aims, in part, to contrast the facile view that Mohammed, the Quran and early Islam happened in the "clear light of history" with his view that, in fact, we know very little about any of them and have little reliable information to base any firm conclusions on.

I was particularly struck by the author's dismissive attitude towards oral tradition, comparing it to the children's game of telephone. First of all, scholars have been and are continuing to study oral tradition in relation to history. In cultures where oral tradition predominates, such as First Century Judea, it can be a highly developed system for reliably transmitting information from one generation to the next. If scholars were to turn their attention to the first three centuries of Islam and study the oral transmission they might come to more meaningful conclusions than the author. The Quran, the biography of Mohammed and the Hadith might all be analyzed in a sober manner. From these studies we could then talk about what we can and can't know about early Islam, its Scripture and it's founder.

Alas, the threats of violence will probably keep most scholars away from any such project. At least for raising these issues, albeit in a flawed manner, the author deserves credit.

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