Sunday, July 12, 2015

What do we actually know about Mohammed? PATRICIA CRONE (2008) // Patricia Crone: memoir of a superb Islamic scholar

It is notoriously difficult to know anything for sure about the founder of a world religion. Just as one shrine after the other obliterates the contours of the localities in which he was active, so one doctrine after another reshapes him as a figure for veneration and imitation for a vast number of people in times and places that he never knew.

In the case of Mohammed, Muslim literary sources for his life only begin around 750-800 CE (common era), some four to five generations after his death, and few Islamicists (specialists in the history and study of Islam) these days assume them to be straightforward historical accounts. For all that, we probably know more about Mohammed than we do about Jesus (let alone Moses or the Buddha), and we certainly have the potential to know a great deal more.

There is no doubt that Mohammed existed, occasional attempts to deny it notwithstanding. His neighbours in Byzantine Syria got to hear of him within two years of his death at the latest; a Greek text written during the Arab invasion of Syria between 632 and 634 mentions that "a false prophet has appeared among the Saracens" and dismisses him as an impostor on the ground that prophets do not come "with sword and chariot". It thus conveys the impression that he was actually leading the invasions.
Mohammed's death is normally placed in 632, but the possibility that it should be placed two or three years later cannot be completely excluded. The Muslim calendar was instituted after Mohammed's death, with a starting-point of his emigration (hijra) to Medina (then Yathrib) ten years earlier. Some Muslims, however, seem to have correlated this point of origin with the year which came to span 624-5 in the Gregorian calendar rather than the canonical year of 622.

If such a revised date is accurate, the evidence of the Greek text would mean that Mohammed is the only founder of a world religion who is attested in a contemporary source. But in any case, this source gives us pretty irrefutable evidence that he was an historical figure. Moreover, an Armenian document probably written shortly after 661 identifies him by name and gives a recognisable account of his monotheist preaching.

Patricia Crone's main recent work is Medieval Islamic Political Thought (2004); published in the United States as God's Rule: Government and Islam (2004)

On the Islamic side, sources dating from the mid-8th century onwards preserve a document drawn up between Mohammed and the inhabitants of Yathrib, which there are good reasons to accept as broadly authentic; Mohammed is also mentioned by name, and identified as a messenger of God, four times in theQur'an (on which more below).

True, on Arabic coins and inscriptions, and in papyri and other documentary evidence in the language, Mohammed only appears in the 680s, some fifty years after his death (whatever its exact date). This is the ground on which some, notably Yehuda D Nevo and Judith Koren, have questioned his existence. But few would accept the implied premise that history has to be reconstructed on the sole basis of documentary evidence (i.e. information which has not been handed down from one generation to the next, but rather been inscribed on stone or metal or dug up from the ground and thus preserved in its original form). The evidence that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, on the eve of the Arab conquest of the middle east, must be said to be exceptionally good.

Everything else about Mohammed is more uncertain, but we can still say a fair amount with reasonable assurance. Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qur'an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death – how long after is controversial. But that he uttered all or most of them is difficult to doubt. Those who deny the existence of an Arabian prophet dispute it, of course, but it causes too many problems with later evidence, and indeed with the Qur'an itself, for the attempt to be persuasive.

The text and the message: For all that, the book is difficult to use as a historical source. The roots of this difficulty include unresolved questions about how it reached its classical form, and the fact that it still is not available in a scholarly edition. But they are also internal to the text. The earliest versions of the Qur'an offer only the consonantal skeleton of the text. No vowels are marked, and worse, there are no diacritical marks, so that many consonants can also be read in a number of ways.

Modern scholars usually assure themselves that since the Qur'an was recited from the start, we can rely on the oral tradition to supply us with the correct reading. But there is often considerable disagreement in the tradition – usually to do with vowelling, but sometimes involving consonants as well – over the correct way in which a word should be read. This rarely affects the overall meaning of the text, but it does affect the details which are so important for historical reconstruction.

In any case, with or without uncertainty over the reading, the Qur'an is often highly obscure. Sometimes it uses expressions that were unknown even to the earliest exegetes, or words that do not seem to fit entirely, though they can be made to fit more or less; sometimes it seems to give us fragments detached from a long-lost context; and the style is highly allusive.

One explanation for these features would be that the prophet formulated his message in the liturgical language current in the religious community in which he grew up, adapting and/or imitating ancient texts such as hymns, recitations, and prayers, which had been translated or adapted from another Semitic language in their turn. This idea has been explored in two German works, by Günter Lüling and Christoph Luxenberg, and there is much to be said for it. At the same time, however, both books are open to so many scholarly objections (notably amateurism in Luxenberg's case) that they cannot be said to have done the field much good.

The attempt to relate the linguistic and stylistic features of the Qur'an to those of earlier religious texts calls for a mastery of Semitic languages and literature that few today possess, and those who do so tend to work on other things. This is sensible, perhaps, given that the field has become highly charged politically. Luxenberg's work is a case in point: it was picked up by the press and paraded in a sensationalist vein on the strength of what to a specialist was its worst idea – to instruct Muslims living in the west that they ought to become enlightened. Neither Muslims nor Islamicists were amused… Read more:


The great historian of early Islam, Patricia Crone, died peacefully on July 11 after a long battle with cancer. This memoir by her friend and colleague was written earlier this year for a volume of essays in her honour and links to her outstanding essay on Mohammed

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