Chameleon X vs Peter Townsend
Reply #5 - December 28, 2014, 08:10 PM
It can confidently be stated, on the basis of the material discussed in this section, that far from being ‘born in the full light of history’, the evidence for the traditional view of Islamic history is exceedingly flimsy to non-existent. This leaves us with the question: What are the true origins of Islam? This question is too broad to fully discuss in a book like this. Suffice it to say that the dateable sources that we do have, including documents and archaeological evidence from the period under discussion, indicate a history that is very different from the standard Islamic accounts. The next section will focus on these sources and what they tell us about early Islam.
Archaeological and Documentary Evidence
In the previous section we discussed the evidence supposedly underpinning the traditional account of Islamic history. We found that these sources all date from long after the time of Muhammad and can therefore not be regarded as reliable eyewitness testimony. It is not, however, as if the early period of Islam is a gaping void. People wrote, built buildings and issued coins during this time in the history of the Middle East. The purpose of this section is to look at the books, buildings and coins from this period with a view to finding out what they tell us about early Islam.
Mecca is Entirely Absent from the Ancient Archaeological Record. The most surprising find when the archaeological record of early Islam is examined (although it should not surprise you if you read the previous sections) is the glaring absence of any archaeological evidence supporting the existence of a city called Mecca in the area where Muhammad is supposed to have lived. Any city of the supposed size and importance of Mecca is bound to leave traces, but there is simply nothing to point to the existence of Mecca until more than a century after the supposed time of the Prophet. The lack of archaeological evidence becomes even more glaring when you consider that there are several cities on the Arabian Peninsula that provide ample archaeological evidence of their ancient origins. (These include Qaryat al-Fāw, Al-Ukhdūd, Madā'in Sālih and Al-Shuwayhatiyah.) Why these relatively minor cities are so well attested in the archaeological record, but the supposed ‘Mother of All Cities’ since the time of Adam is absent, is a question that can only be answered by realizing that the 'Mother of All Cities' almost certainly did not exist at all during the time of Muhammad.
The ‘Qiblas’ of the Earliest Mosques Do Not Point Towards Mecca. One of the basic facts that most people know about Islam is that Muslims pray while facing Mecca. Muslims believe that this is mandated in the Qur’an where Allah instructs the faithful to pray in the direction of the “sacred mosque.” (cf. Qur’an 2:142-145 ) Since this statement is in the Qur’an itself, we can assume that all mosques built during the Islamic conquests would have had qiblas (prayer directions) pointing towards Mecca where the sacred mosque is supposed to have been located. The problem, from an Islamic perspective, is that this is simply not the case. The four oldest mosques that have been excavated are in:
● Baghdad (built in the 700s CE)
● Wasit (built 702 CE)
● Kufa (supposedly built in 670 CE)
● Fustat (now part of Cairo, built in 714-719 CE)
Not a single one of these mosques is oriented towards the middle of the Arabian Desert. What is even more intriguing is that the prayer directions of these mosques are not random but seem to converge at a point in Northern Arabia just below Palestine. It would seem, therefore, that the focus of Islamic piety in the early years was hundreds of miles away from the modern location of Mecca (a place, it is worth repeating, for which there is no contemporary archaeological evidence).
The earliest inscriptions related to the Arab conquest contradict the traditional Islamic account. The traditional Islamic account states that Islam emerged fully formed from the Arabian Desert to embark on the conquests for which it became famous. Muslims insist that by the death of Muhammad in 632 CE, all the essential features of the Islamic faith were in place. They furthermore claim that the Arabs conquered with the Shahada (“I testify that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God”) on their lips as they sought to establish societies dominated by Islam as far as they went. However, when the archaeological artifacts and inscriptions associated with the Arab conquests from the mid-7th century onward are examined, the supposedly Islamic nature of these conquests must immediately be called into question. Consider the picture painted by the following pieces of archaeological evidence related to the early years of the Arab conquest:
● Muslims believe that Muhammad was followed by a series of Caliphs (literally ‘successors’). The first of these leaders to definitively appear in traceable archaeological records is Muawiya, the first leader of the Umayyad Caliphate, who acted as Caliph from (661-680 CE). The only problem, from a Muslim perspective at least, is that Muawiya is not presented as a Muslim ruler at all. An inscription on a dam near to Ta'if (in modern-day Saudi Arabia) built around 678 CE simply calls him ‘The Commander of the Faithful’. No mention whatsoever is made to Mecca, to Muhammad or to the Qur’an. This is very surprising in light of the subsequent insistence on the Islamic confession of faith on all official inscriptions.
● In 688 CE, a canal bridge was constructed in Fustat (near modern Cairo). The inscription states that it was built under the direction of Abd Al-Aziz ibn Marwan the emir, or ruler, of Egypt. Again no mention whatsoever is made to Islam, Muhammad or the Qur'an.
● Another inscription associated with Muawiya is a dedication placed on a bathhouse in Gadara. This can be dated to the year 662 CE. It simply describes Muawiya as ‘The Commander of the Faithful’. There are, again, no references to Muhammad, the Qur'an or Islam. It refers instead to the Arab conquest (not the ‘Islamic Conquest’). Most striking of all is the fact that this inscription is prefaced with a cross! This is surprising, to say the least, in light of the later Islamic detestation of the cross.
The examples listed above do not call into question that there was an Arab conquest in the mid-600s CE, there certainly was. What is questionable is whether this was a specifically Muslim conquest. Nothing whatsoever in these earliest inscriptions support this belief. It must be emphasized that these inscriptions do not stand alongside others that affirm a more traditional Islamic understanding of the early years of the Arab conquest. To put it as bluntly as possible, there is virtually nothing in the earliest archaeological record after the Arab conquest to support the Muslim interpretation of events, namely that the conquest was intimately associated with a fully developed religion called Islam.
Numismatic Evidence: The Coins of the Arab Conquest. Coins are regarded by historians as one of the most reliable types of evidence of the spread of a ruling class or an ideology. This is because coins are almost always produced by properly constituted central authorities. These authorities often use such coins to make a claim for legitimacy and to define the basis of their reign. If the Arab conquests were Muslim in nature, we could therefore expect that the coins produced by the Arab conquerors would bear inscriptions proclaiming Islam and its prophet as the basis of Arab rule. This is not the case at all. Those seeking an affirmation of the traditional Islamic view of history are soon disappointed when the coins of the Arab conquest are studied:
● The earliest coins associated with the Arab conquest (minted from 550-570 CE) simply bear the formula “In the name of God” (Bismillah). Completely absent is the second part of the Islamic confession of faith “Muhammad is the messenger of God”. We can, therefore, at the most ascribe a vague monotheism to the Arab conquerors. Any specific mention of Islam or Muhammad is absent.
● There is one coin that is very significant and that may refer to Muhammad. It was most probably minted in the 650s CE. The implications of this coin are troubling, to say the least, for pious Muslims and their view of the Arab conquests. This coin depicts a human figure with a crown alongside a cross. The letters MUH (in Arabic) also appear on the coin. These letters can obviously be extended to spell Muhammad. This is interesting on many levels. Firstly, the depiction of Muhammad is obviously anathema to observant Muslims yet, if this was indeed Muhammad, it seems the early Muslim rulers had no problems with making him appear on a coin. What is even more striking is the appearance of the cross. The Qur’an emphatically denies the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, so the cross would therefore have been seen as an expression of blasphemy. Islamic history is, in fact, full of instances of the destruction of crosses. Yet here we see a cross triumphantly produced on a coin minted by the Arab conquerors. There can be two possible explanations for this:
a) The religion of the Arab conquerors may have been a vague monotheism which left room for the adoration of the cross. If this is the case this religion was totally unlike fully developed Islam.
b) The figure on the coin may not be Muhammad at all but Jesus Christ instead. The name Muhammad can also be a title meaning ‘The Praised One’ which could in this case possibly have been applied to Jesus.
Neither of these options correspond with the orthodox view of Islamic history since both of them place the cross center-stage in the theology of the Arab conquerors. Such a concept directly contradicts Qur'an 4:157 where it is emphatically stated that Jesus was not crucified.
The evidence cited in this section on the archeology associated with early Islam is absolutely devastating for the traditional understanding of Islamic origins. Not only do we encounter a complete absence of any evidence supporting the existence of Mecca, we are also faced with archaeological artifacts that fail to include any mention of Muhammad, Islam or the Qur'an. It is only with the building of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem that something approximating traditional Islamic theology enters the archaeological record. The Dome of the Rock was built in 691 CE, almost 60 years after the traditional death-date of Muhammad. Prior to this, only a vague non-Islamic monotheism is in evidence as the religion of the Arab conquerors. It would, therefore, again be possible to make a very strong case for later Islamic theology being read back into an earlier period from the 690s CE onward.
As if the archaeological case against the traditional version of Islamic history is not devastating enough, plenty of documentary sources can also be cited to definitively disprove the idea that Islam emerged fully formed from the Arabian Peninsula in the 630s CE. It is to this documentary evidence that we now turn
In the previous section, the sources for the traditional account of Islamic history were discussed. It was pointed out that most of the sources date from more than 200 years after the events that they claim to describe. They can therefore in no way be regarded as the earliest documentary evidence related to the origins of Islam and the Arab conquest. There are, however, many other well-attested documents that describe this period of the Arab conquest. This is because the Arabs conquered territories (including Egypt, Syria and Persia) where literacy was firmly established among the elites. We can, therefore, turn to the writings of these conquered societies to gain a contemporary perspective on the conquest. It should, by now, not be surprising to find that these sources paint a very different picture of the early origins of Islam from the one presented in the traditional Islamic accounts.
In this section, I will profile some of the most important and accurately sourced early documents that discuss the Arab conquests. The basic question that I will be addressing is, once again, whether these documents support the idea that Islam emerged fully formed from the Arabian Desert in the 630's CE. It will quickly become apparent that they do not.
• The Doctrina Jacobi (written between 634 and 640 CE). This is perhaps the earliest document that came down to us in which some of the elements of the Arab conquest are described. A key passage reads: “And they were saying that the prophet had appeared, coming with the Saracens, and that he was proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come. I, having arrived at Sykamina, stopped by a certain old man well-versed in scriptures, and I said to him: "What can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens?" He replied, groaning deeply: "He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword. Truly they are works of anarchy being committed today and I fear that the first Christ to come, whom the Christians worship, was the one sent by God and we instead are preparing to receive the Antichrist. Indeed, Isaiah said that the Jews would retain a perverted and hardened heart until all the earth should be devastated. But you go, master Abraham, and find out about the prophet who has appeared." So I, Abraham, inquired and heard from those who had met him that there was no truth to be found in the so-called prophet, only the shedding of men's blood. He says also that he has the keys of paradise, which is incredible (i.e. ‘unbelievable’)”
A few details immediately catch the attention of the reader. It is, firstly, the case that the prophet of the Saracens (i.e. the Arab invaders) is presented as still being alive, despite this text having been written at least two years after Muhammad supposedly died. Secondly, the prophet of the Arabs seems to be proclaiming some version of Christianity, note especially the references that he foreshadowed the Christ who was to come and that he has the keys of paradise. So whoever this prophet was, his actions and beliefs clearly do not correspond to the traditional account of who Muhammad was. The way in which he is presented also contradicts a crucial aspect of the traditional account of Muhammad's biography, namely that he died in 632.
• Sophronius Patriarch of Jerusalem (died 639 CE). Sophronius was the Patriarch (senior Christian religious leader) of Jerusalem during the Arab invasion. He wrote at length about the plight of the Christian community in Jerusalem under the Arabs and portrays the fall of Jerusalem as part of the judgment of God on a community that strayed from His ways. His accounts are interesting both in terms of how the invaders are portrayed and also in terms of what is absent from this description. Traditional Muslim versions of the story of the capture of Jerusalem by the Arabs state that they were particularly magnanimous and treated the Christian population with the greatest respect. This is certainly not the perspective of the patriarch! He portrays the Arab invasion as an utter calamity and describes their conduct in the bleakest and darkest of terms. Far from respecting the Christians, it seems the Saracens (as he habitually refers to the Arab invaders) even went as far as pulling down churches. This is significantly at odds with the way Muslim sources would later come to interpret these events. What is perhaps more significant for our purposes is the fact that Islam is entirely absent from the descriptions of the Patriarch. He calls the Saracens ‘godless’ and ‘Fighters against God’, but there is no indication in any of these writings that the Arabs had a specific prophet, a specific book or a specific religion called Islam. This is a remarkable omission, given the traditional Muslim account of these events. It is even more so because Sophronius is writing to strengthen his community and to help them to withstand the pressures that the Arabs are applying against them. In this context, it would have made perfect sense to address features of the religious beliefs of the Arabs in order to equip his flock to better interact with them. Yet, in none of the writings of Sophronius that have come down to us is there any indication whatsoever that such a thing as Islam even existed! This is utterly remarkable because it comes from a source that was an eyewitness to the conquest and who lived cheek-by-jowl with the Arabs over an extended period.
• The Armenian Chronicle (written around 660-670 CE). This chronicle is attributed to an Armenian bishop named Sebeos. Here for the first time we have a reliably sourced reference to Muhammad (called ‘Mahmet’ in the chronicle), a full thirty years after he was supposed to have died. Even so, the picture presented of Muhammad is, once again, significantly at odds with the traditional Islamic account. It depicts Muhammad as being in alliance with the Jews right up to the end of his life and furthermore, implies that Arabs and Jews are still (by 660-670 CE) the closest of allies. According to standard Islamic history, Muhammad broke off all relationships with the Jews in the 620s CE, and the Qur’an even calls the Jews the “worst enemies of the Muslims.” (Qur’an 5:82 ) The chronicle, one of the most detailed discussions that we have of the Arab conquests, once again contains not a single reference to Islam, Muslims or the Qur’an. Instead, we once again encounter a vague, ill-defined Arab monotheism.
• References to Paganism in Arabia after the Arab Conquest. The traditional Islamic account states that paganism was eradicated in the Arabian Peninsula around the year 633 CE, and that after this date Islam was totally dominant with no pagan remnant to contend with. Yet, there is plenty of evidence for the survival of paganism among the Arabs long after the last pagan tribe was supposed to have been defeated by Muslims. A Nestorian Christian Synod held in 676 CE declared, for example, that believing women among the Arabs should avoid living with pagans. It then goes on to describe the practices of these pagans (including elaborate funeral ceremonies, which have no place in Islam), leaving us in no doubt that the reference here is to real pagans and that ‘pagans’ is not just a slur aimed at the Muslims.
Along the same lines, Athanasius II Patriarch of Antioch (683-686 CE) warns his flock to disassociate from the pagans (in an area where they are not supposed to be at all if the Islamic account is to be believed.) It is, again, clear that he refers to actual pagan practices (and not Islamic ones) as he mentions the strangulation of animals that are sacrificed by these pagans. Strangulation of animals is not something that is a feature of Islamic worship. These two examples, and others could be added, make it clear that paganism survived in the very areas where it was supposed to have been eradicated according to the Islamic account. This is just one more example of how unreliable these Islamic traditions are and how little they correspond with the actual historical reality on the ground.
Taken together, the documentary evidence against the traditional Islamic account of the early history of the Arab conquest is devastating. Many other sources besides those listed above can be added and from all of them a picture emerges of a conquest by the Arabs that was vaguely monotheistic (but certainly not Islamic) in character. Before the 690s, there is no mention at all of the fact that these conquerors had a religion called Islam or that they had a holy book called the Qur’an. The one or two references that there are to Muhammad are ambiguous and do not correspond to the Islamic picture of who he was, i.e. describing him as being in alliance with Jews or being alive in 634 CE long after he was supposed to have died. It is really only with the construction of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (691 CE) where something approaching what we now regard as Islam begins to make an appearance. Its inscriptions contain several quotations from the Qur’an although it seems to play fast and loose with the supposedly holy text by adding words and changing the grammar.
By 730 CE, the Christian theologian John of Damascus wrote a polemic work against Islam. He identified certain key elements that we would now recognize as being in line with how Islam developed. But even at this late stage, and despite John living in the heart of the Islamic empire, it seems that certain aspects of Islam were still very fluid. John, for example, had no idea of the existence of a single work called the Qur’an and instead seems to regard the Muslims as possessing separate writings which they base their faith on. This, more than a century after the Qur’an was supposed to have been compiled and standardized.
So did Islam ‘emerge in the full light of history’? The reader would have to agree, based on the evidence presented above that this is simply not the case. When the archaeological and documentary record is examined, all that we hear regarding the early years of Islam is a deafening silence. No mention of Muslims, of the Qur'an or of a religion called Islam can be found in the earliest documents or on the earliest inscriptions. In reality, it appears that Islam developed in a radically different way than how its early origins are described in standard treatments of the period. It is beyond the scope of this document to offer theories on how exactly what we now regard as Islam come into being. Suffice it to say, for our purposes, that almost nothing of the traditional account can withstand critical historical examination.
Now the onus is on you to prove the worth and reliability of your 'oral sources' against the overwhelming weight of historical and archaeological evidence. Once I am satisfied that they are reliable enough to admit as evidence in our debate we can continue.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Can anyone provide me with a decent challenge?