The quest for the historical Muhammad has lead nowhere, Jules Gomes writes
Elizabeth II is Indian. In the BBC sitcom Goodness, Gracious Me just about everything noteworthy is Indian. Jesus is Indian as he works for his father, and manages to feed 5,000 people with very small amounts of food. Everyone in the Bible is Indian, except God, as he ‘created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. What kind of Indian doesn’t work Sundays?’
The entire royal family is Indian, claims Sanjeev Bhaskar, playing the Indian immigrant dad. ‘Oh think about it yaar!’ he insists. ‘Descended from Queen Victoria, Empress of India, so Indian,’ he says to his son, played by Kulvinder Ghir. ‘Look at them. They all live in the same family house together – Indian! All work in the family business – Indian! All have arranged marriages – Indian! All have sons, daughters no good – Indian! Children live with their parents until they’re married – Indian! What more do you want? You want them to put on turbans and charm snakes out of baskets? They’re all Indian. All except Prince Charles. He’s African. If he was Indian, he’d have smaller ears.’
Now historians are saying that Queen Elizabeth II is a descendant of Muhammad. Burke’s Peerage, the authority on aristocratic genealogies, first claimed in 1986 that the Queen could trace her lineage back to the Muslim kings of Spain and, through them, to the founder of Islam.
The Moroccan newspaper Assahifa Al-Ousbouiahas revived the theory by producing a family tree tracing Elizabeth II’s bloodline through the Earl of Cambridge in the 14th century, across medieval Muslim Spain, through Abbad al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Abbad, the Muslim king of Seville who died in 1042, to Hasan ibn Ali, the son of Fatima, Muhammad’s youngest daughter.
British historian David Starkey thinks the theory is ‘not at all outlandish’ and ‘rock solid’ as far back as Richard of Conisburgh (1375-1415).Is this a tale from the Arabian Nights or a Saudi sitcom (golly, what an oxymoron)? ‘The blood of Muhammad flows in the veins of the Queen,’ wrote genealogist Harold Brooks-Baker, the former director of Burke’s Peerage, to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
But what if Muhammad never existed? In 2008, Germany’s first professor of Islamic theology, Muhammad Sven Kalisch, concluded that the Prophet of Islam probably never existed. TheWall Street Journal reported that Kalisch’s conclusion had outraged Muslims and non-Muslim colleagues at the University of Münster, even though Kalisch was a Muslim convert who fasted during Ramadan, didn’t shake hands with Muslim women and said that Islam guided his life. Not surprisingly, WSJ has deleted the report from its website and Kalisch has renounced Islam.
Kalisch says he wanted to subject Islam to the same scrutiny as Christianity and Judaism. When I taught Islam at more than one university, I would begin my course by telling students that critical scholarship on Islam was lagging behind critical biblical scholarship by at least 300 years because most scholars were afraid to question the historical authenticity of Muhammad or the manuscript of the Koran.
In biblical studies, the ‘Quest of the Historical Jesus’ has preoccupied academics for two centuries and become a discipline in itself. ‘Why, then, is there such apparent scepticism about retrieving the actual words of Jesus from the Gospels, while there is no similar debate about the Koran, which is generally thought to represent what issued from Muhammad’s mouth as “teachings” in the interval from A.D. 610 to 632?’ asks historian F E Peters.
At first, Kalisch was convinced that Muhammad was a historical figure. Even though he assumed that ‘the Islamic historical narrative regarding Muhammad was very unreliable, I had no doubts that at least the basic lines of his biography were historically correct,’ he says. But then the evidence persuaded him. ‘The more I read, the historical person at the root of the whole thing became more and more improbable,’ he argues.
Historians base their conclusions on the reliability of primary sources, and the sources for the life of Muhammad constitute a major problem. The earliest biography of Muhammad comes from Iraqi scholar Ibn Ishaq, at least 125 years after the death of Islam’s founder. And even this biography exists only in long fragments reproduced by an even later chronicler, Ibn Hisham, writing in the first quarter of the ninth century and others who reproduced additional sections.
The Koran mentions Muhammad’s name only four times, in contrast to Moses, who is mentioned 136 times (which doesn’t necessarily disprove Muhammad’s historicity). However, ‘three of the four times that the name Muhammad is mentioned, nothing at all is disclosed about his life,’ argues Robert Spencer in Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins. Moreover, there is essentially nothing in the Koran about Muhammad ‘beyond insistent assertions of his status as an emissary of Allah and calls for the believers to obey him’.
The Koran also totally lacks the contextual background for Muhammad’s alleged revelations, which the hadiths (reports of statements or actions of Muhammad) make up for by describing the events in his life. But the bulk of the hadiths date from long after Muhammad’s death and each hadith argues its own authenticity based on the reliability of its chain of transmission (isnad). Scholar-Prince Leone Caetani (1869–1935) concluded that there was ‘almost nothing true on Muhammad in the Traditions [i.e. hadiths], we can discount as apocryphal all the traditional material that we possess’.
The most controversial findings have come from research on politics, trade and geography in Mecca. University of London historian John Wansbrough, following his predecessors, argued that the Koran was developed primarily to establish Islam’s origins in Arabia and the hadith was made up to give the Arabian Empire a distinctive religion to foster its stability and unity.
In 1987, Patricia Crone, who taught at Oxford and Princeton Universities, published Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, demonstrating that a main pillar of Muhammad’s biography – its Arabian setting with Mecca as a trading centre – was not supported by contemporary records. On the contrary, the records showed that Mecca was not such a centre.
Crone later recanted her position, but still maintained that ‘everything else about Mohammed is more uncertain’, since the earliest Islamic sources about his life date from ‘some four to five generations after his death’, which few scholars consider ‘to be straightforward historical accounts’.
The explosions of the bombshell dropped on the playground of Islamic studies continues to reverberate, but very few academics (some using pseudonyms such as Ibn Warraq and Christoph Luxenberg) rush in where the more cautious fear to tread.
If cartoons of Muhammad can trigger global riots, there is no telling what the denial of his existence might result in. It is safer glibly to say with Salman Rushdie ‘Whereas for the life of Muhammad, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with.’ It is even safer to joke that Queen Elizabeth is Indian or to speculate that Prince Charles has converted to Islam.
Reprinted with the author’s permission from the Conservative Woman.