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A special review and examination of Robert Spencer’s Did Muhammad Exist?
(Page 2 of 4)
However, as Spencer points out, it is notable that the invocation of Muhammad’s example begins with the same caliph who had the Dome of the Rock built and issued the first coins invoking Muhammad as the Prophet of God: Abd al-Malik (p. 69), whose successors would do likewise.
Since Muhammad now became such an important figure as a paragon of moral virtue, there naturally arose a need for people to know what the Prophet said and did in various matters of life. The Ahadith in particular then became political weapons, liable to be completely fabricated. Even in the first half of the 8th century, one Islamic scholar wrote that the “emirs forced people to write hadiths” (p. 71).
Factionalism is an especially noteworthy phenomenon here behind the invention of Ahadith.
For example, in the midst of the dispute between the followers of the caliph Muawiya, who Shi’a believe usurped the place of Ali’s son and designated successor Husayn, and Ali’s followers who would later become the Shi’a, a hadith arose in which Muhammad declared that Ali’s father was burning in hellfire (p. 73), while Ali’s partisans invented a hadith in which Muhammad declared, “I go to war for the recognition of the Qur’an and Ali will fight for the interpretation of the Qur’an.”
It is little surprise that in light of all these disputes, the Ahadith are riddled with contradictions.
To be sure, Muslim scholars did try to devise criteria by which to separate forgeries from Ahadith they deemed to be authentic: for instance, how well a hadith is in accordance with the Qur’an. Yet however reasonable such a criterion may be, “it doesn’t get us any closer to what Muhammad actually said and did” (p. 81).
Another devised standard was the supposed reliability of an isnad (chain of oral transmission from the Prophet to the narrator), but this is even more dubious.
While Arabia may well have had “an established practice of memorizing poetry” (p. 84), the Ahadith are not pieces of poetry, and in any event must have been plagued by “embellishment, clarification, or alteration of any kind until the hadiths were finally collected and written down in the ninth century” (p. 85).
In fact, I would add that even if we suppose that we are dealing with poetry in an oral culture, it is erroneous to think that oral poets can transmit verses with perfect recall, word-for-word. Oral poetry is constantly subject to reworking and improvisation.
Hence, for example, the Iliad and the Odyssey were certainly not transmitted through generations of oral poets until they were finally written down. Rather, we understand each of these epics to be the work of a single poet, who would have picked up numerous “formulaic phrases” and stories and then improvised and reworked his material numerous times, while striving for an artistic structure.
In all probability, the poet had his work dictated to a scribe. If the Iliad and Odyssey were subsequently memorized wholesale by bards, the bards were working from written texts, not via oral transmission of the poems.
If the Ahadith cannot be taken as a reliable guide to what Muhammad said and did, then what are we to make of Ibn Ishaq’s Sira? It is often noted that Ibn Ishaq’s biography, which does not in fact survive intact and is only partially preserved by later transmitters, dates over 100 years after Muhammad’s death in 632 CE. Tradition tells of earlier historians, but their purported works have not survived and little is known about their lives.
That Ishaq’s work dates so long after the time in which Muhammad supposedly lived is not proof of the Sira’s unreliability, but the fact is that Ibn Ishaq would undoubtedly have been working from oral material that would have been embellished and fabricated.
Many of the stories transmitted by Ibn Ishaq would have been tailored to convince the audience that Muhammad was a prophet of God, hence tales of Christians already recognizing him as a prophet in his youth before his prophetic career began (p. 96).
NOW COMES A CRUCIAL PART of the book. One of the key reasons many critics of Islam think that the traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life are rooted in historical reality is the argument from embarrassment: that is, Muhammad is presented as doing things that might be deemed abhorrent to pious sensibilities. Ibn Hisham states that his own transmission of Ibn Ishaq’s work omits “things which it is disgraceful to discuss” (p. 88).
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