Lecture given to the Atheist Society, 11 October 2016
The nature of Islam and its role in modern society is the subject of widespread confusion, misinformation, and wilful denial. Never in history, has an issue, of such critical importance, been the subject of such confusion, by so many, for so long.
An overstaement? I contend not. In what follows, I will at times express my own views, and other times simply convey to you, what is the considered opinion of experts in this field. I hope to distinguish between these presentations.
Firstly, I would like to address myself to Muslims. I do not bear any malice towards you. I sympathise with you in many ways. I recognise that you have been, and are, the victims of injustice and prejudice. I regret that.
However, I am an atheist and will of course criticise what you believe. I recognise that your beliefs may be a part of your culture and your identity and may be deeply held and felt. But these beliefs are your choice. "There is no compulsion in religion", perhaps. But no-one can control what you think in your own mind. Die Gedanken sind frei.
When you identify yourself as a Muslim, you are expressing your allegiance to the religion and to some extent the ideology it represents. You cannot escape that. Of course everything is subject to interpretation. But you are either a Muslim or you are not. Hence I hope you will be able to consider what I have to say as a legitimate point of view, although one you might not agree with.
On the issue of interpretation, and the possible reform of Islam, Maajid Nawaz is a key protagonist and I would like to express my complete support for him and what he hopes to achieve. I wish him the best of luck.
On the issue of deradicalisation, I would like to express my support for the process of Socratic questioning. By asking questions, we help clarify thinking. Doubt is not an obstacle, but a source of knowledge.
While many deradicalisation programmes work on aspects of community involvement and alienation reduction, I do think there is a role for street epistemology*. As Peter Boghossian has said most pertinently: "those who have more doubt about their beliefs are less likely to act on them".
Hence, although I will be outlining views and findings as facts, as best we can determine them, I hope that those who are less disposed to accepting them as such, will at least be able to accommodate the views, as questions that perhaps need research and investigation.
I would like to go back now to my opening remark, about the importance of this issue and the confusion surrounding it. I have taken a big interest in this issue, since September 11, and my concern is a humanitarian one.
The dominance of a religion in a society effects its institutions, which in turn affect its economic and social outcomes. More than a decade ago, United Nations Human Development Reports indicated that Arab countries were under-performing on a whole range of indicators. The causes of the under-performance were all associated with Islam. Things are immeasurably worse now.
Consider these favourable trends. Over recent decades, even in the poorest countries, life expectancy has increased and infant mortality has decreased. The United Nations Millennium Development Goal on poverty, to reduce by half the number of people living on less than $2/day, was achieved. There are more people, less poor, more healthy, and living longer, than ever before.
But at the same time, the level of conflict has increased. Many countries, ravaged by conflict, have disintegrated into failed states, all Islamic: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and before that, Somalia. Millions of children have not been in school and their lives have been traumatised by homelessness and violence. There are now more refugees than at any time since the Second World War. These outcomes are a direct consequence of the type of societies that Islamic ideology creates and the types of behaviours it fosters. The basic problem is the elevation of Islamic law above all else. Islam is a humanitarian disaster, for this and many other reasons, including subjugation of women, which I could elaborate on. Those who suffer most from the consequences of Islam are the Muslims. Those who disagree should perhaps study the situation a little more carefully.
Earthquakes, hurricanes and floods all cause human suffering. But earthquakes last for seconds or minutes, hurricanes may last for hours, floods may last for days. After that, rebuilding and recovery may begin. But the suffering caused by Islam-inspired conflicts lasts for years, with no end in sight and no rebuilding possible. This is far worse than any natural disaster. Islam is the greatest cause of human suffering in the world today.
Despite the reasoned basis of my argument, I have been ridiculed, and libelled even, for making that observation. It is at the very least a seriously important issue, hence the basis for my opening remark. How can this have escaped peopleís attention?
As a critic of Islam, despite explaining my humanitarian concern, and my particular care to be critical of Islamic beliefs, but not to denigrate Muslims as people, I have been accused of bigotry, hate mongering, racism and prejudice. But not so much by Muslims. Almost entirely by fellow free thinkers.
As a Secular Party representative I am consistently selfĖconstrainsed by what a may say. It is a phenomenon that Maajid Nawaz calls the "regressive left". Christianity may be criticised but Islam may not be.
The perception is that Muslims here are a minority and need to be protected. We need social harmony. I can understand that. But this must not be at the expense of recognition of the true nature of the problem. Otherwise we are doomed to fail. The rise of right wing parties and loony populists is a direct result of the mainstream failure to address this issue.
Hence my reference to confusion in my opening remark. But that is not the most significant source of confusion. The most significant source of confusion concerns the basic nature of Islam itself. This confusion applies to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
According to its own doctrines and its own history, Islam is a jihadist religion. The Prophet Muhammad himself was a jihadist. This is the single most relevant thing about it. How can this have escaped peoples attention? Note: I am not saying all Muslim are jihadists.
Surely these issues are important. What I will cover for most of the rest this talk is not my opinion but is the considered opinion of many experts who have devoted their lives to the reasoned study of Islam. I should briefly mention these people.
Research in the 19th C was done by the Austrian scholar Aloys Sprenger (1813-1893), who uncovered the biography of Muhammad. Hungarian Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921) and German Joseph Schacht (1902-1969) uncovered the unreliability of the Hadith. John Wansborough (1928-2002), identified Islam as a product of the Arab empire, Patricia Crone established that there were no historical records that showed Mecca as a centre of trade.
More recent scholars include Volker Popp, Karl Heinz Ohlieg, Ibn Waraq and Christoph Luxenberg. The latter two are assumed names adopted for their own safety and protection. All of these people have meticulously researched scholarly works, based on their reading and interpretations of the ancient Arabic texts. Volker Popp is a numismatist, who is able infer much about the power relation in early Islam from his interpretation of the coins and inscriptions.
For an accessible introduction to the subject, a good starring point is the BBC4 documentary produced by Tom Holland: "Islam: the Untold Story". Hollandís book In the Shadow of the Sword is an entertaining account of the history.
What I will rely on most, for this presentation, is Robert Spencerís book, "Did Muhammad Exist?" This book is a carefully compiled synthesis of much or the other work. His conclusion, in particular, provides a concise summary of the evidence. I will now continue, summarising the words of Robert Spencer.
A thorough review of the historical record shows that much if not all what we know about Muhammad is legend not historical fact. The Quran is not a revelation from the one true god but was actually constructed from already existing material mostly from the Jewish and Christian traditions.
Both Judaism and Christianity have been the subject of widespread scholarly investigation for more than two centuries. Can Islam survive this historical challenge?
The main Islamic sources are the Quran itself, the Hadith, and Sira. The hadith, literally "reports", are the collections of Muhammad's words and deeds that form foundation of Islamic law and practice. The hadith are hugely voluminous, date from a period considerably after Muhammad's reported death in 632. The Sira, the biography of the prophet of Islam was written by Ibn Ishaq (died 773), at least 125 years after death of his protagonist.
There is little doubt that the political unification of Arabia took place around the time Muhammad is assumed you have lived. Scholars generally agree that the Arabian Warriors swept out of Arabia beginning in the second quarter of the 7th century and within 100 years had subdued much of the Middle East, North Africa, Persia and had entered India and Spain.
The name Mohammed appears in the Quran only 4 times and in three of those instances is used as a title "the praised" one or "chosen one" rather than as a proper name. (The use of the term "Mohammed" as an honorific, predates Islam by a very long time, as Volker Popp writes.)
By contrast Moses is mentioned by name 136 times and Abraham 79 times. Even Pharaoh is mentioned 74 times. Meanwhile the messenger of Allah appears in various forms 300 times and prophet 43 times.
The Quran also refers to Jesus as a messenger (5:75). It's possible that when it refers to Muhammad meaning "praised one" it could be referring to Jesus. Only in the Quran (48:29) where it says "Muhammad is the messenger of Allah" it likely to refer to the prophet of Islam.
The Canonical Story
What follows is an account of what happened according to the traditional an accepted Islamic narrative, again summarising Spencer's account.
There was an Arabian of the Quraysh tribe of Mecca known to the world as Muhammad, a name that means praised one. In the year 610, when he was 40, he was praying in a cave on Mount Hira about two miles from Mecca, when he was suddenly confronted by the angel Gabriel who commanded him to recite.
For the next 23 years until his death in 632 Muhammad recited the messages of Gabriel, presenting them to his followers as the word of God. After his death the memorised revelations received, were collected together into the Quran, (meaning "recitation").
Muhammad's preachings were unpopular with the polytheistic Quraysh and threatened their trade arising from the annual pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca.
In 622 Muhammad left Mecca with his followers, the Muslims, and settled in the city of Yatrib. This emigration was the Hijra, and the date marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Yatrib became known as the city of the prophet, Medina.
Muhammad then called on his followers to take up arms in defence of the community and subsequently to fight offensive wars against non-believers. Muhammad himself led the Muslims into Battle against the Quraysh and other pagan tribes.
These battles illustrate the core of Islamic salvation theology that obedience to Allah brings success and disobedience brings punishment.
After Muhammad's death, his Muslim warriors were energised by the Prophetís exhortations to jihad and embarked on conquests unprecedented in their breadth and swiftness. Syria and the Holy Land by 637, Armenia and Egypt in 639, Cypress in 654, North Africa in the 650s and 660s, and by 674 the Muslims were threatening Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. A century after the death of the Warrior Prophet, they controlled a vast Empire stretching across the Middle East and North Africa.
This account is largely taken for granted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. However it is clear that apart from the Arab conquests, virtually none of the standard account could have happened as stated.
A revisionist scenario
Here is what we know. Again, this section is a summary of Spencer's account.
* No record of Muhammad's reported death in 632 appears until more than
a century after that date
* A Christian account, apparently dating from the mid 630s, speaks of an Arab prophet, armed with a sword, but who is still alive.
* The early accounts, written by the people the Arabs conquered, never mention Islam, Muhammad or the Quran. The conquerors are called Ishmaelites, Saracens, Muhjirun, and Hagarians but never Muslims.
* The conquerors, in their coins and inscriptions, don't mention Islam, or the Quran, for the first six decades of their conquests. Mentions of Muhammad are non-specific and could refer to the "praised one", an honorific. On at least two occasions, inscriptions are accompanied by a cross.
* The Quran, even by the canonical account, was not distributed in its present form until the 650s. Contradicting this however, neither Arabs, Christians nor Jews mention the Quran until early 8th century.
* During the reign of the caliph Muawiah, 661-680, he constructed at least one public building whose inscription was headed by cross
* We begin hearing about Muhammad the prophet of Islam, and about Islam itself in the 690s during the reign of caliph Abd al-Malik.
* Abd al-Malik claimed to have collected the Quran
* At this time the governor of Iraq, Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, distributes copies of the Quran to the provinces, something that Uthman is supposed to have done decades earlier.
* In the middle of the 8th century the Abassid Dynasty supplanted the Umayyad line of Abd Al-Malik. The Abyssisds charged the Umayyads with impiety on a large scale. In the Abbasid period, biographical material about Muhammad began to proliferate. The first biography appeared 125 years after Muhammad's reported death.
* The biographical material that emerged situates Muhammad in an area of Arabia that never was the centre for trade and pilgrimage that the canonical account depends on it to be.
Adding to Spencerís account here, Volker Popp refers to inscriptions that use to dates "in the year of the Arabs". Thus, the Arab calendar does not date from the Hijra at all, but to a date in 622 when the Arabs first gains their independence from the Byzantine empire.
The lack of confirming historical detail and delayed development of the biography suggest that whatever Mohamed figure may have existed, he was quite different to what the legend portrays.
What really happened?
The Arabs built a mighty empire. Every Empire of the day was anchored in a political theology.
The Christological controversies of the early church threatened to tear Byzantine the empire asunder. After four Ecumenical councils, Christian groups that were regarded as heretical left the Empire.
The earliest Arab rulers appear to be have been adherents of Hagarism, a monotheistic religion centred around Abraham and Ishmael. (Hagar, was a Abraham's concubine, and the mother of Ishmael according to legend. We should note, of course, that Abraham et. al. are not historical figures.)
The Arab rulers frowned on the Christian doctrines the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. Hence Muawiya's letter to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine calling on him to renounce Jesus and serve the god of Abraham.
They regarded Christ as the servant of Allah and his messenger. They embraced Jesus as a prophet and thus had crosses on coins and inscriptions. They saw themselves as encompassing both Judaism and Christianity.
The elevation of Muhammad (continuing from Spencer)
Abd al-Malikís 691 inscription on the Dome of the Rock is an anti-Trinitarian treatise in which the word Muhammad likely refers to Jesus as the praised one. (see Popp).
As the religion of Islam developed the inscription on the Dome of the Rock lent itself well to the adoption of a new Arab figure, distinct from Jesus, and became identified with what were, by then, just rumours of an early Arab prophet.
The concept of a legendary hero would be politically useful for the new Arab Empire. The new prophet needed to be an Arab, living deep within Arabia. He had to be a warrior prophet for the new Empire was aggressively expansionistic. This prophet would have needed a sacred scripture to lend him authority.
Much of the Quran shows signs of being borrowed from Jewish and Christian traditions indicating the founders of Islam fashioned it's scripture from existing material.
An Arabic prophet and Revelation was needed but Abd al-Malik and his fellow Umayyad caliphs were not centred in Arabia but in Damascus. Hence it is not surprising that the Quran has many Syriac influences and non-Arabic influences (see Luxemberg).
Quran has furious warnings of judgement and jihadist exhortations and holds Muhammad as an excellent example for all Muslims to follow, but has little detail on what the prophet actually said or did. Hence there was a great need for such material.
The great canonical hadith collections were all compiled in the 8th century after the Abbasids replaced the Umayyads. The minting of hadith then proliferated. The Umayyads, Abbasids and Shiites all issued hadiths criticising the other factions and supporting their own positions.
They also needed to convince the people that the stories of the prophet of Islam and his new religion or not actually new. The Abbassids blamed the Umayads for not obeying the prophet and not being religious. The Abbasids then claimed the credit for revealing the true nature of the Arab prophet.
This reconstruction explains the curious silence of the Arab conquerors about Muhammad and the Quran. It explains why Islam arrived on the scene long after the Arab conquests.
Islam, by it's nature is a political faith. Unlike its Abrahamic forerunners, it considers its adherents as the instruments of divine justice on Earth. The Quran prescribes agonising punishments for disbelieving infidels, and exhorts Muslims to wage war against those infidels, apostates and polytheists.
The political, military and imperial components are intrinsic to the Islamic faith, and they are evident from the earliest records. This alternative scenario explains the unique political nature of Islam. The theology was created to justify and perpetuate the Arab Empire.
Did Muhammad exist?
There may have been a prophet of the Arabs, but not one who received the perfect eternal book from the supreme god. The details of Muhammad's life, his alliances, his wives, are a creation of political ferment dating long after that the time that he was supposed to have lived. Records indicate strongly that the Quran, as such, did not exist until long after it was supposed to have been delivered.
The brave scholars who have sought answers to the questions described here have been relatively few in number. A serious quest for the historical Muhammad is long overdue. Islamic forces have clashed with Empires for centuries. Islamists are now terrorising unbelievers and seeking subversion through the implementation of Sharia law.
Despite the differences between Islamic, Jewish and Christian theology, few have bothered to investigate how the Islamic tradition, and what it might tell us about the clash of civilisations, what has continued for more than a millennium.
Islam was not born in the full light of history, as claimed, but now is the time to usher it into the light. The truth matters. We need to be aware of it now, more than ever.
* For an alternative approach to decradicalisation see The Centre for Understanding and Deradicalisation (http://www.cundra.org.au)
Crone, Patricia, and Martin Hinds, Godís Caliph, Religious authority in the fist centuries of Islam, CUP, 2003.
Gabriel, Richard, Muhammad: Islamís First Great General, UOP, 2007
Holland, Tom, In the Shadow of the Sword: the Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, Anchor Books, 2012.
Ohlig, Karl-Heinz, and Gerd-R Puin, (ed.), The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into its Early History, Prometheus Books, 2010.
Ohlig, Karl-Heinz, (ed), Early Islam: a Critical Reconstruction based on Contemporary Sources, Prometheus Books, 2013.
Spencer, Robert, Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islamís Obscure Origins, ISI Books, 2012,
Warraq, Ibn, (ed.), What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text & Commentary, Prometheus Books, 2002.
Warraq, Ibn, Why I am not a Muslim, Prometheus Books, 2003.
Warraq, Ibn (ed.), Christmas in the Koran: Luxenberg, Syriac, and the Near Eastern Judeo-Christian Background of Islam, Prometheus Books, 2014.
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