Monday, 12 April 2010

An Atheist's Guide to Mohammedanism; Part III

”Atheists are quite direct….”

From Part II

Sources of Information on Mohammed
Evidence on the life of Mohammed is derived from literary sources, papyri and manuscripts, inscriptions, coins, and archaeology. The literary sources include the Sira (a life of Mohammed written by Ibn Ishaq), the Maghazi (an account of the military acts and bandit raids of Mohammed, ascribed to al-Waqidi, d. 823), the Hadith (originally oral reports about the sayings and deeds of Mohammed), the Qur’an, the tafsir (commentaries on the Qur’an), and the writings of early non-Muslim critics and observers.

The Hadith

Since much of the literary evidence ultimately is derived from the oral traditions captured in the Hadith (or books of traditions), it is well to begin our criticism of the life of Mohammed by inquiring into the reliability of the Hadith. The Hadith are alleged to be the collected records of what Mohammed did, what he enjoined, what he did not forbid, and what was done in his presence. They also contain the supposed sayings and deeds of the prophet's companions. Each item is traced back to Mohammed by means of an isnad, a chain of supposedly honest witnesses and transmitters. The substance of such a report is called a matn, and the total tradition of Islamic law and morals derivable from the accredited Hadith is known as thesunna. Adherence to the sunna for guidance in all matters for which the Qur’an is either obscure or silent is a defining characteristic of the major Muslim sect of the world today, the so-called Sunni. (The other major group of Muslims, the Shi‘ites, do not generally honor the sunna, and trace their origin to a very early dispute over who should have been the immediate successor of Mohammed, siding with Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali and arguing that the leadership should have remained in Mohammed's family.)

The Hadith are especially important in post-9-1-1 America, where constant propaganda in favor of Islam is being broadcast even as part of television news programs. "
Islam is a religion of peace," it is said. "Islam gave rights to women," they tell us, not mentioning Sura 2:282 which accords a woman only half the weight of a man as a witness in court. We are assured that "It is contrary to Islam to commit suicide," and that the kamikaze terrorists were not "true muslims." Repeatedly it is argued that the Qur’an forbids the sort of things that the Sunni E terrorists did to the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. While it is true that a selective reading of the Qur’an can justify this self-serving twaddle, it is nevertheless ignoring a major source that, with very little effort, can be manipulated to justify the moral outrages that have been inflicted on our nation and other parts of the civilized world. That source is, of course, the Hadith. It was the Hadith plus the Qur’an that justified the Taliban in their restoration of the Dark Ages. It was the same two 'moral guides' that propelled the kamikaze martyrs on their one-way flights up to the houris in heaven.

Sunni Muslims accept six collections of Hadith as authentic traditions of Mohammed. These include the compilations of al-Bukhari [d. 870], Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj [d. 875], Ibn Maja [d. 887], Abu Dawud [d. 889], al-Tirmidhi [d. 892], and al-Nisai [d. 915]. In addition to these six collections, there is the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal [d. 855], an encyclopedia which contains nearly 29,000 Hadith! Reminding ourselves that Mohammed died in 632, we must immediately question the authenticity of traditions recorded well over two centuries after his time. To be sure, each Hadith is supported by an isnad tracing its transmission back to Mohammed. Nevertheless, modern scholars have been able to demonstrate that the vast majority of these isnads are fabrications created to serve the theopolitical needs of their inventors. Indeed, the fraudulent nature of most of the Hadith was detected already in olden times. Al-Bukhari, the first of the above-named collectors, traveled from country to country to collect Hadith. He was successful beyond his wildest dreams, discovering that more than 600,000 Hadith were current in his day. 20 Unfortunately, careful study convinced him that of that vast number only around four thousand were authentic - and European scholars would discard at least half of that two-thirds of one percent!

Islamic apologists face a terrible problem in the Hadith. Assuming as they do that the story of al-Bukhari is true, how can they be sure that not even one of those rejected 596,000 Hadith had been authentic? How can they know that all of the four thousand are in fact true reports of Mohammed's words and deeds? Surely, the story of al-Bukhari is a powerful discreditation of the whole idea of Hadith. When we learn that many collectors paid people to cough up new and useful Hadith, and when we read even in Muslim sources that people often created Hadith to support the pet projects and political needs of their masters, it is obvious that we are not likely to find much if any authentic information about the historical Mohammed in the Hadith.

The Sira and Maghazi

Well into the second Muslim century, scholarly opinion concerning the birth date of the Prophet was spread over a space of eighty-five years!
Although the names of some seventy historians are known who are believed to have dealt with the life of Mohammed and the prehistory and early history of Islam up to the year 1000 CE, their works have not survived and they are known only from quotations in later historians. TheSira, or biography of Mohammed, is mainly known from a work by Ibn Ishaq [c85/704 —150 AH/767 CE]. Ibn Ishaq was born into a family of Medina that made a living procuring Hadith, and he followed the family trade, ending his career in Baghdad. A number of early Muslim critics held him to be a liar 21 in regard to his Hadith, and it is somewhat ironic that he has ended up being the earliest Muslim historian whose work is relied upon by modern Mohammedan apologists. Unfortunately, his work has not survived in its original form. Rather it has been transmitted in two highly altered and differing recensions: the most popular one made by Ibn Hisham [d. 218 AH/833 CE] and another one made by Yunus b. Bukayr [d. 199 AH/814-815 CE]. Some parts of Ibn Ishaq's work that were suppressed by Ibn Hisham and Yunus b. Bukayr can be found in quotations in the works of fourteen other historians writing 110 to 199 years after the Hegira. As a result, Ibn Ishaq's Sira has to be reconstructed from the works of sixteen later historians! 22Doing so, however, is hardly worth the effort, considering the poor reliability of the entire Sira literature.

The Maghazi, it will be remembered, is the chronicle of Mohammed's bandit raids and military activities. One of the earliest authors known to have collected Maghazi legends wasWahb b. Munabbih, who was born 34 years after the Hegira [654 CE] and lived until the year 110 AH [728 CE]. A fragment of his work has survived in the Heidelberg Papyrus (early third/ninth centuries) which contains Maghazi traditions attributed to him. It is important to note that Wahb did not know about the use of isnads - the chains of transmitters used to establish the authenticity of traditions. 23 It seems likely then, that any isnads found in scraps of early historians are not authentic but were the creations of later historians who wished to give the appearance that their traditions are anchored in the secure moorings of primal Mohammedanism.

Perhaps the major source for this part of Mohammed's life is the Kitab al-Maghazi by al-Waqidi [130/747-207/822-823]. 24 He was a Shiite and is credited with having first established the chronology of the early years of Islam. He made extensive use of Ibn Ishaq's work and is himself cited extensively by the later popular historian al-Tabari [c224-225/839—311/923]. Ibn Warraq sums up the historical significance - or lack thereof- of Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi: 25

Both Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi's reputations have suffered in recent years as a consequence of the trenchant criticisms by Patricia Crone (especially in Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, pp. 203-30), where she argues that much of the classical Muslim understanding of the Koran rests on the work of storytellers and that this work is of very dubious historical value. These storytellers contributed to the tradition on the rise of Islam, and this is evident in the steady growth of information: "If one storyteller should happen to mention a raid, the next storyteller would know the date of this raid, while the third would know everything that an audience might wish to hear about it." Then, comparing the accounts of the raid of Kharrar by Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi, Crone shows that al-Waqidi, influenced by and in the manner of the storytellers, "will always give precise dates, locations, names, where Ibn Ishaq has none, accounts of what triggered the expedition, miscellaneous information to lend color to the event, as well as reasons why, as was usually the case, no fighting took place. No wonder that scholars are fond of al-Waqidi: where else does one find such wonderfully precise information about everything one wishes to know? But given that this information was all unknown to Ibn Ishaq, its value is doubtful in the extreme. And if spurious information accumulated at this rate in the two generations between Ibn Ishaq and al-Waqidi, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that even more must have accumulated in the three generations between the Prophet and Ibn Ishaq."

(…) The earliest sources know little or nothing about their lives, and biographies are built up from 'facts' that successive retailers of tales 'discover' as needed. It has been shown 26 that theSira (and almost certainly the Maghazi as well) depends to a large extent upon the Hadith, which we have already seen are mostly factitious creations of theopolitical propagandists. Moreover, many Hadith have been shown to be etiological expansions of Qur’anic passages, created to provide a causal biographical or historical background for particular 'revelations'. This means that much of the Sira has been inferred from ambiguous or unintelligible passages in the Qur’an! Would-be biographers of Mohammed are faced with a chicken-or-egg conundrum at this point, since the Qur'an itself would appear to be a somewhat special collection of Hadith — many of which appear to have been manufactured for sale.

The unreliability of the Sira as a source of information regarding the life of Mohammed affects even the supposedly foundational datum of his birth having been in the year 570/571 CE. Lawrence Conrad 27 has shown that well into the second Muslim century, scholarly opinion concerning the birth date of the Prophet was spread over a space of eighty-five years! If Muslim scholars during that crucial formative century had not yet decided when Mohammed had been born, what can we believe of the other dates that later became 'facts' of Muslim chronology?

That the year 622 CE was indeed of early significance to the evolving religion has been confirmed from coins which mark it as the beginning of a new era. Nevertheless, there is no seventh-century source that identifies this year as the year of the Hegira. Two Nestorian Christian documents of 675 and 680 designate it as the year of "the rule of the Arabs." Casting yet another shadow on the doctrine of the Hegira as being a migration that took place in 622 CE is the Apocalypse of Samuel al-Qalamun, written in the eighth century. In this Coptic Christian prophecy, despite its having been composed in Arabic in Egypt, the term Hijra(Hegira) is employed for the Arab conquerors themselves, not for their move from Meccato Medina!

So completely has the critical examination of Muslim sources revealed the unreliability of theSira as a biography and the weakness of all available biographical data, a number of Soviet scholars have been able to argue quite coherently that the historical Mohammed is (…) unreal (…)! N. A. Morozov, 28 for instance, propounded the theory in 1930 that Mohammed and the first caliphs were mythical figures and that Islam was a form of Judaism until the time of the Crusades. In the same year, Klimovich 29 published "Did Muhammad Exist?" and argued that all our information on Mohammed is late and that his life was a necessary fiction springing from the euhemeristic notion that all religions have to have had a founder and that all the gods were once men. Yet another Soviet scholar, S. P. Tolstov, compared the myth of Mohammed with the deified shamans of the Yakuts, et al. 30 and argued that the practical purpose of the Mohammed myth was to prevent the disintegration of a political block of traders, nomads, and peasants which had helped a new feudal aristocracy come to power.

It is not necessary to agree that Mohammed is a myth in order to understand the practical significance of the fact that such a view could be advanced in serious scholarly circles. Even if Mohammed did exist, we can know nothing about him from the existing sources. He might as well have been a myth.

The Witness of the Infidels

After considering the records of early non-Muslim sources that reported on the Arab conquest or ancient writers who wrote about the caravan trade before or during the supposed time of Mohammed, a writer styling himself "Ibn al-Rawandi" 31 integrated those dates into his deep understanding of the Muslim sources for their version of Islamic history and concluded that

Once the Arabs had acquired an empire, a coherent religion was required in order to hold that empire together and legitimize their rule. In a process that involved a massive backreading of history, and in conformity to the available Jewish and Christian models, this meant they needed a revelation and a revealer (prophet) whose life could serve at once as a model for moral conduct and as a framework for the appearance of the revelation; hence the Koran, the Hadith, and the Sira, were contrived and conjoined over a period of a couple of centuries. Topographically, after a century or so of Judaeo-Muslim monotheism centered on Jerusalem, in order to make Islam distinctively Arab the need for an exclusively Hijazi origin became pressing. It is at this point that Islam as we recognize it today - with an inner Arabian biography of the Prophet, Mecca, Quraysh, Hijra, Medina, Badr, etc. - was really born, as a purely literary artefact. An artefact, moreover, based not on faithful memories of real events, but on the fertile imaginations of Arab storytellers elaborating from allusive references in Koranic texts, the canonical text of the Koran not being fixed for nearly two centuries. This scenario makes at least as much sense of the sources as the traditional account and eliminates many anomalies.

From the vantage point of this skeptical analysis the narrative related in the Sira, that purports to be the life of the Prophet of Islam, appears as a baseless fiction. The first fifty-two years of that life, including the account of the first revelations of the Koran and all that is consequent upon that, are pictured as unfolding in a place that simply could not have existed in the way it is described in the Muslim sources.Mecca was NOT a wealthy trading center at the crossroads of Hijazi trade routes, the Quraysh were NOTwealthy merchants running caravan up and down the Arabian peninsula from Syria to the Yemen, and Muhammad, insofar as he was anything more than an Arab warlord of monotheist persuasion, did his trading far north of the Hijaz; furthermore, Mecca, as a sanctuary, if it was a sanctuary, was of no more importance than numerous others and was not a place of pilgrimage.

Space will not allow examination of all the non-Muslim sources and other evidence that led al-Rawandi to these startling opinions. However, a few points can be noted. The tenth-century Armenian historian Thomas Artsruni (Ardsruni) understood Mohammed's base of operation to be in Midian, not in South Arabia, and identified Mecca with the Pharan located in Arabia Petraea, which comprised modern Jordan down into the Sinai peninsula.32

Information on the qibla, the direction in which early Muslims prayed, comes from the tenth-century Coptic bishop of Ashmunein in Egypt, Severus b. al-Muzaffa 33 and from the Muslim historian Baladhuri, 34who tells us that the qibla in the first mosque at Kufa (in Iraq) was westward, instead of south-southwest as would be the case if present-day Mecca were its focus. Added to other information that Jerusalem, not Mecca, was the focus of early Muslim worship, the archaeological discovery THAT an ancient mosque under the Great Mosque of Wasit was not oriented toward Mecca adds weight to the thesis that the Muslim movement started in northern, not southern, Arabia, and that the traditional story of Mohammed's movement from Mecca to Medina and back is a foundational myth concocted to completely Arabize a conquest history which found it necessary to distance itself from Judaism and Christianity for theopolitical reasons.

Investigation of the role of Mecca in the origin and early evolution of Islam leads to the startling conclusion that the Mecca of Muslim tradition never existed (…). In the Mohammedan sources, Mecca is depicted as a wealthy trading center, a natural crossroads for caravan shipment of goods by prosperous merchants not only from Yemen in the south to Syria and theRoman empire in the north, but also for east-west trade as well. 35 Unfortunately, the classical geographers who showed considerable interest in Arabia knew nothing about it. (The Macoraba of Ptolemy, which some Muslim apologists claim to have been Mecca, is derived from a different root and clearly was not relatable to the present-day city in the southern Hijaz.)36. The only place name in Ptolemy which conceivably could be related to the name 'Mecca' is Moka, a town in Arabia Petraea in present-day Jordan. Patricia Crone 37 sums up the evidence of non-Muslim sources as it pertains to the myth of Mecca:

It is obvious that if the Meccans had been middlemen in a long-distance trade of the kind described in the secondary literature, there ought to have been some mention of them in the writings of their customers. Greek and Latin authors had after all, written extensively about the south Arabians who supplied them with aromatics in the past, offering information about their cities, tribes, political organization, and caravan trade; and in the sixth century they similarly wrote about Ethiopia and Adulis. The political and ecclesiastical importance of Arabia in the sixth century was such that considerable attention was paid to Arabian affairs, too; but of Quraysh and their trading center there is no mention at all, be it in the Greek, Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic, or other literature composed outsideArabia before the conquests. This silence is striking and significant.

This silence cannot be attributed to the fact that sources have been lost, though some clearly have. The fact is that the sources written after the conquests display not the faintest sign of recognition in their accounts of the new rulers of the Middle East or the city from which they came. Nowhere is it stated that Quraysh, or the "Arab kings," were the people who used to supply such-and-such regions with such-and-such goods; it was only Muhammad himself who was known to have been a trader. And as for the city, it was long assumed to have been Yathrib. Of Mecca there is no mention for a long time; and the first sources to mention the sanctuary fail to give a name for it; whereas the first source to name it fails to locate it in Arabia. [The Continuatio Arabica gives Mecca an Abrahamic location betweenUr and Harran.] Jacob of Edessa knew of the Ka‘ba toward which the Muslims prayed, locating it in a place considerably closer to Ptolemy's Moka than to modern Mecca or, in other words, too far north for orthodox accounts of the rise of Islam; but of the commercial significance of this place he would appear to have been completely ignorant. Whatever the implications of this evidence for the history of the Muslim sanctuary, it is plain that the Qurashi trading center was not a place with which the subjects of the Muslims were familiar.

With the disappearance of Mecca from the list of documentable facts concerning the origins of Islam and the life of Mohammed, the character known as Mohammed of Mecca becomes (…) problematic (…).

The present essay has been greatly dependent upon the excellent books written or compiled by Ibn Warraq and published by Prometheus Books. Readers wishing to attain a solid understanding of the difficult subject of Mohammedan origins are urged to obtain and read these books - the first of which can be obtained from American Atheist Press: Why I Am Not A Muslim, by Ibn Warraq. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York: 1995.
The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, edited and translated by Ibn Warraq. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York: 2000. (Includes articles by early-modern and recent critical scholars concerned with the origins of Islam)

The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam's Holy Book, edited by Ibn Warraq. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York: 1998. (Includes articles by early-modern and recent critical scholars concerned with the origins of the Qur'an)


A In transliterating Arabic, Hebrew, and other Semitic languages several special characters are required for sounds that either are not found in English or are not recognized as separate sounds having their own alphabetic characters. The character | ’ | is used to represent the glottal stop - the brief constriction of the throat that occurs when one pronounces a vowel at the beginning of an isolated word, but which is often absent when the word is preceded by an. Thus, we have ’apple, pronounced with a glottal stop, but ’an apple which, when smoothly pronounced, lacks the glottal stop before the second a. In Semitic languages, the glottal stop is given a symbol of its own and has the honor of being the first letter of the alphabet - alef- although in Arabic it carries a special diacritical mark called hamza to make it clear that the glottal stop is actually pronounced. Modern Arabic and ancient Hebrew have another special sound, a deep-throated, laryngeal glide, which is lacking in English but is considered to be a separate letter of the alphabet -ayin- and is transliterated with the special character | ‘ |. The difference between alef | ’ [ and ayin | ‘ | can be illustrated by two rather undignified examples. A string of alefs (glottal stops) is pronounced when one imitates the sound of a machine-gun: ’aa!-’aa!-’aa!-’aa!-’aa! The ayin, on the other hand, is the dipping glide one makes when imitating the sound of an automobile engine being started up when it's ten below zero: ‘aah ‘aah ‘aah ‘aah ‘aah. Arabic, like most Semitic languages, has three gradations of aitch. The lightest of them, transliterated ash, is identical to the aitch of English. The harshest of them, usually transliterated as kh, is like thech in the German nameBach. The middle aitch, transliterated with the special character h, is pretty much like the sound one makes when breathing heavily on bifocals to fog them for cleaning.

Web article note: the web version of this article uses open and close single quotes to represent ayin and alef. A small number of other marks have been omitted

B The term Muslim is classical Arabic, whereas Moslem is colloquial Arabic, where u has changed to o, and I has changed to e. Thus, Mohammed is the colloquial equivalent ofMuhammad, and Umar becomes Omar
C The Muslim calendar, like the Jewish calendar, is a lunar calendar - the year consisting of six months of 29 days and six months of 30 days each. This adds up to only 354 days, creating a discrepancy with the solar year of a little over three years per century. Unlike Jewish calendrical practice, no attempt is made to bring the Moslem year into accord with the solar year (the Muslim calendar falls behind eleven days every solar year), intercalary days are added every three years or so to make up for the fact that a lunation is a bit more than 29.5 days lone.
D AH = Anno Hegirae, 'In the year of the Hegira', reckoned from 16 July 622 CE

E Most of the terrorists, especially those from Arabia, have been members of a fundamentalist Sunni sect known as the Wahabis. Founded by Mohammed ibn-‘Abd-al-Wahab [1703-1791 CE] of the Najd region of Central Arabia, it is noted for its rejection of all 'novelties' absorbed by Islam, rejecting music and the wearing of silk or jewelry. Wahab rejected consensus of opinion as a source of authority. By marriage he became allied with the family of Saud - the ruling family of Saudi Arabia today. Recently, an Internet news site made the unconfirmed claim that the great majority of imams who lead American mosques are Wahabis
1 Alphonse Mingana, The Transmission of the Koran," in The Origins of the Koran, edited by Ibn Warraq, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1998: 108
2 Ibn Warraq, "Introduction," in The Origins of the Koran, 11
3 Ibid., 13
4 Mingana, op. cit., 98
5 Ibid., 99.
6 Ibid., 102.

7 Ibid., 102-103

8 Ibid., 104-106.
9 Ibid., 106.

10 Ibid., 107

11 Ibid., 108-109
12 Ibid., 109
13 Ibid., 110.
14 Ibn Warraq, Koran, 14

15 Ibid, 15
16 Ibid, 16.
17 Ibid, 17.

18 Z. Sardar and Z. A. Malik, Muhammad for Beginners, 1994, quoted by Ibn al-Rawandi, "Origins of Islam: A Critical Look at the Sources," in The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, edited and translated by Ibn Warraq, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000: 89-90.

19 Ibn al-Rawandi, op. cit., 90.

20 Ibn Warraq, "Studies on Muhammad and the Rise of Islam," in The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, 44-45.

21 Ibid., 27.

22 Ibid., 27-28.

23 Ibid., 26.

24 Ibid., 28.

25 Ibid., 29.

26 Ibid., 48.

27 Quoted by Ibn al-Rawandi, op. cit., 102-103.

28 Cited by Ibn Warraq, Muhammad, 49.

29 Cited ibid., 49

30 Ibid., 49
31 Ibn al-Rawandi, op. cit., 104-105
32 Ibn Warraq, Muhammad, 33.
33 Ibid., 33.

34 al-Rawandi, op. cit., 96.

35 Ibid., 98.

36 Ibid., 98.

37 Patricia Crone, quoted by al-Rawandi, op. cit., 99

Formerly a professor of biology and geology, Frank R. Zindler is now a science writer. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the New York Academy of Science, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Schools of Oriental Research. He is the editor of American Atheist. His book The Jesus The Jews Never Knew: Sepher Toldoth Yeshu and the Quest of the Historical Jesus in Jewish Sources will be published by American Atheist Press in the spring of 2002.



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