People who disagree with the historical investigations discussed in Did Muhammad Exist? have not infrequently sent me this 2008 article by Patricia Crone (who died in 2015), who was one of the pioneering scholars of historical revisionism regarding the standard account of Muhammad’s life, and yet in this article seems to retreat from her previous views and accept the canonical Islamic depiction of Muhammad and Islam’s origins. Since Crone appears to present a formidable case against the points raised in Did Muhammad Exist?, it seemed prudent to me to answer them. Here is the first part of her article, followed by my response. More to come.
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by Patricia Crone, Open Democracy, June 10, 2008:
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….
To say that “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” is to drastically overstate the case. There are Islamic accounts of early historians of Muhammad such as Urwa ibn al-Zubayr (who died in 712) and Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (who died in 741). Some Western historians, notably Gregor Schoeler, take this as evidence that material attributed to them is trustworthy and goes back to people who actually knew and interacted with Muhammad. The problem with this is that we actually don’t have the writings of either man; we only have ninth-century traditions that are attributed to them. There is no possible guarantee that material attributed to them did not undergo legendary elaboration in the intervening period.
As for the claim that “we probably know more about Mohammed than we do about Jesus,” there is virtually no doubt that the four Gospels date from the first century, that is, within 60 to 70 years of the life of Jesus. Within 60 to 70 years of the life of Muhammad, we have nothing about him except a few bare mentions of the name, which may not actually refer to him at all.
It is likewise false that Muhammad’s “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.’” Crone here is referring to the Doctrina Jacobi, which speaks of an unnamed Arab prophet. One thing that can be established from this document is that the Arabian invaders who conquered Palestine in 635 (the “Saracens”) came bearing news of a new prophet, one who was “armed with a sword.” But in the Doctrina Jacobi this unnamed prophet is still alive, traveling with his armies, whereas Muhammad is supposed to have died in 632. What’s more, this Saracen prophet, rather than proclaiming that he was Allah’s last prophet (cf. Qur’an 33:40), was “proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come.” This was a reference to an expected Jewish Messiah, not to the Jesus Christ of Christianity (“Christ” is “Messiah” in Greek).
The Doctrina Jacobi could still be referring to Muhammad. Or it could be referring to a figure whose stories were incorporated into the Muhammad legend. The fact that the details of this unnamed prophet don’t coincide with what Islamic tradition says about Muhammad strongly suggests that it would be hasty to assume that a one-to-one identity between the Saracen prophet and Muhammad. If Muhammad existed and the stories about him recorded in the ninth-century hadiths were circulating in the 630s, why did the Doctrina Jacobi get it all wrong? Maybe he was just stupid, or ill-informed; or maybe many traditions were circulating, some of which became part of the Muhammad legend, and some did not.
The “Armenian document probably written shortly after 661” is a chronicle attributed to the Armenian bishop Sebeos. It portrays a “Mahmet” as a merchant and preacher from among the Ishmaelites who taught his followers to worship the only true God, the God of Abraham. So far, so good: that sounds exactly like the prophet of Islam. But other elements of Sebeos’s account have no trace in Islamic tradition. It depicts “Mahmet” as insisting on the Jews’ right to the Holy Land—in the context of claiming that land for the Ishmaelites, acting in conjunction with the Jews. Many elements in Islamic tradition do show Muhammad proclaiming himself a prophet in the line of the Jewish prophets and enjoining various observances adapted from Jewish law upon his new community. He even originally had the Muslims praying toward the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, before the revelation came from Allah that they should face Mecca instead. It is odd, however, that this account gives no hint of any of the antagonism toward the Jews that came to characterize Muhammad and the Muslims’ posture toward them; the Qur’an characterizes Jews as the worst enemies of the Muslims (5:82).
Sebeos’s account is also wildly unhistorical. There is no record of twelve thousand Jews partnering with Arabians to invade Byzantine holdings, as he describes. And from Sebeos’s account, one gets the impression that as late as the 660s, the Muslims and the Jews were spiritual kin and political allies. This doesn’t correspond to anything in Islamic tradition or the conventional account, and the divergence suggests that Sebeos was writing about traditions that differed from those that coalesced into the canonical Islamic story. If Muhammad were a historical figure who said and did the things the Hadith depict him saying and doing, this divergence becomes hard to explain: either Sebeos had a wildly inaccurate view of those he was writing about, or the codification of Islamic tradition came later.
Find out more in Did Muhammad Exist?.
EDITORS NOTE: This Jihad Watch column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.