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A special review and examination of Robert Spencer’s Did Muhammad Exist?
(Page 3 of 4)
Even in the traditional accounts, there are still events recounted that have embarrassed Muslim apologists of the modern era: perhaps most notably, Muhammad’s marriage to his daughter-in-law Zaynab.
Yet as Spencer notes, “what constitutes a negative depiction is not necessarily constant from age to age and culture to culture” (p. 111). This is certainly true, for example, of the tradition that Aisha married Muhammad when she was six and consummated the marriage with him when she was nine: no one in the traditional accounts is shown having a problem with this betrothal (p. 112).
In any case, Spencer shows that the Zaynab incident is likely to have been a much later invention to explain the fact that there is an apparent doctrine in the Qur’an of a “prophetic bloodline”: that is, “the prophetic office is handed down from father to son” (p. 115).
Since Muhammad is regarded as the final prophet, it had to be emphasized that he did not have any sons — biological or adopted — who reached puberty. Thus, the status of Zayd as Muhammad’s adopted son had to be marginalized, hence the attendant Qur’anic doctrine delegitimizing adoption (Qur’an 33:4) and the emphasis that “Muhammad is not the father of any one of your men” (Qur’an 33:40).
Nevertheless, if the Sira and Ahadith are unreliable, the question arises of where the Qur’an came from. A superficial reading — noting the consistent message of uncompromising monotheism — might suggest that the book is the work of a single author.
On closer examination, however, there are good grounds to hypothesize that the Qur’an developed over the 7th and 8th centuries in the religious and cultural milieu of the Arab conquests, rather than just within Arabia itself during Muhammad’s purported lifetime (570-632 CE).
For one thing, the Qur’an displays a lack of careful organization: frequently there is an abrupt shift in subject matter and grammatical persons, suggesting at the minimum a rather clumsy process of redaction.
Islamic tradition itself hints at early losses of parts of the Qur’an, with one hadith as follows: “Let none of you say, ‘I have acquired the whole of the Qur’an.’ How does he know what all of it is when much of the Qur’an has disappeared? Rather let him say, ‘I have acquired what has survived’” (p. 137).
Also of interest here is the Qur’an’s repeated emphasis that it is a work of “pure” Arabic. This could only be in response to claims that the Qur’an was not wholly Arabic. Indeed, there is evidence of a substantial non-Arabic substrate, as evinced by numerous loan words in both religious and cultural vocabulary. Even the word for God — Allah — is thought to derive from Syriac (p. 156). What follows in Spencer’s book is a nicely summarized exposition of the arguments of recent scholars like Christoph Luxenberg who have theorized that the Qur’an was originally — at least in part — a Syriac Christian liturgical text. This hypothesis does explain many of the linguistic obscurities of the Qur’an.
I am still unsure what to make of this theory, but even if we suppose a text wholly derived from Arabic oral traditions, the canonical accounts of the Qur’an’s origins are not vindicated, for reasons outlined above in this review as regards oral transmission and poetry.
In light of this research vis-à-vis the Qur’an, taken together with the fact that the conquered peoples had no idea of the existence of a Muslim holy book in the mid-7th century, it seems unlikely that the third caliph — Uthman (579-656 CE) — was responsible for the compilation and distribution of the Qur’an as we know it today, despite the claims of Muslim orthodoxy.
There are reputed Qur’anic manuscripts dating back to the 7th century, but since they lack the diacritical marks that are integral to the Arabic alphabet, we cannot tell whether they were written as the Qur’an in the first place, or separate documents later adapted as part of the Qur’an (p. 192). There is also no complete Qur’an dating from the first century of the Arab conquests.
Moreover, it is possible that the Qur’an’s second and longest sura (chapter) was originally a separate book. As late as 730 CE, John of Damascus referred to the “text of the Cow” (p. 196: “The Cow” being the name of the Qur’an’s second sura), implying it was a separate text, which in turn suggests that the Qur’an “was not yet fixed in its present form” even towards the mid-8th century (p. 197). It was noted earlier that the first caliph to invoke Muhammad as a messenger of God was Abd al-Malik.
Thus, “from the historical records available to us, it makes sense that the Qur’an was not collected until Abd al-Malik’s reign” (p. 197), as part of a collaborative effort between Abd al-Malik and Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the governor of Iraq (661-714 CE). The work of Hajjaj in collecting the Qur’an is in fact attested in many Ahadith. The compilation was then traced back to Uthman in an attempt to give the project an authentic feel.
From all these findings, the most plausible conclusion to draw is that Islam as we know it emerged over a protracted period between the 7th and 8th centuries, developed in such a way as to (i) unify the vast empire created by the Arab conquests that conquered a vast amount of territory (stretching from Spain to Sindh by 750 CE) and (ii) justify the expansionism.
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