The historicity of Muhammad, Aisha and who knows who else

Copenhagen, May 2011

Muhammad, as you all know, is the prophet of Islam. The word ‘prophet’ comes from Greek, and in Greek the word ‘prophet’ originally meant ‘spokesman’. Islam, we have to understand, teaches that Muhammad was God’s spokesman and that he died in the year 632 in Medina, a town located in a geographical area that is now part of modern Saudi-Arabia.

Islam commands Muslims to follow Muhammad’s example down to the smallest details. The obligation to imitate Muhammad makes it important to Muslims that they should know how exactly Muhammad behaved, and which acts and deeds he forbade, recommended, commanded or tolerated. Moreover, whatever he did is a legal precedent. He was, after all, God’s spokesman.

About Muhammad’s way of life, Islam offers a large number of stories to the interested. Apart from these stories, the believers are blessed with the possession of voluminous and even canonized collections of his sayings. We are urged to believe that these sayings and these stories embody Muhammad’s example. That may be true, or it may not be true.

It would be reassuring if we had archaeological evidence that supported the official Muslim version of some of the events that these sayings and stories narrate or obliquely refer to – but there is no such evidence. This, however, does not necessarily mean that such evidence does not exist. It might still be hidden in the sands of Arabia.

Nevertheless, this lack of archaeological confirmation is astonishing, but what is even more so is that the peoples and cultures with whom the armies of Islam came into contact in the first half of the seventh century of our calendar, do not mention Muhammad in their writings. Even the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ appear to have been unfamiliar until a relatively late date.

Please note that these cultures were advanced and literate. We here are talking about the Jews, the Armenians, the Greeks, the Syrians and the Persians. None of these cultures has produced anything that comes even close to being a reliable testimony about Muhammad that dates from the period in which Muhammad supposedly lived, or from a period reasonably close to it. Here too it has to be noted that such testimony may, in theory, be recovered in the future.

It may sound crazy but it is not as crazy as it sounds: a number of scholars consequently suspect that Muhammad is not a historical figure, but a literary character that was created by ancient Arab storytellers, perhaps early in the eighth century of our era. Or even later. If these scholars are right, it may become emotionally and intellectually much more difficult to take the reports about Muhammad’s deeds as setting an absolute authoritative example of truly Islamic behaviour, as Muslims ought to do. It goes without saying that in the eyes of a true believer, the authority of a human storyteller can never equal the divine authority of the Messenger of God.

It can be defended perfectly well that the stories and sermons about Muhammad’s deeds have been created simply in order to give divine sanction to the man-made rules which these stories embody. These stories enjoy religious authority, but they nevertheless may have little or no basis in historical reality. They are edifying, they may even be wise and good, like the Story of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament, but are they history? Modern unbelievers will not lose any sleep about this question, but true believers would definitely feel cheated if the canonical stories about Muhammad were fiction, and possess no historicity.

Nobody will as yet dare to uphold that we are forced to reject the historicity of the prophet of Islam, but doubt is perfectly justified, and it is difficult to see why Muslims do not set up research projects to clear up at least some aspects of this historicity question. It cannot be that they are afraid of what they will find out. Or are they?

Of course no amount of scholarship could possibly answer the question of whether Muhammad was really the Messenger of God, but archaeology might tell us a number of things about ancient Arabia we would very much like to know and that would confirm or contradict the official Islamic general picture of the period.

It would be too courageous to reject the historicity of Muhammad, and Aisha, and who knows who else, on the basis of the existing lack of evidence. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that it often is obvious that the storytellers of early Islam do not sound like real historians. It is their aim to convince their audience of political, legal and religious values. They do not try to report about a past that they remember although it may sometimes look as if they do.

For instance, Koran 4:34 orders men to beat their wives, wa-Dribuuhunna. This, of course, is embarrassing. Beating women is not a particularly brave thing to do. So, when the storytellers describe Muhammad’s last public appearance before his death, they make him say that men should beat their women only lightly. Their story may represent historical memory, but, on the other hand, it is much more probable that it serves a different aim: to exonerate the Holy Book of Islam of preaching violence against unarmed women.

The storytellers intended to convince their public that Muhammad has indeed been a prophet from God. In order to do so, they assured their public that already Christians, even monks, had recognized him as such. They had no real memory of such an event, but they wanted to convince their public that to recognize Muhammad as the prophet of God was a good thing. If a neutral, Christian authority had already recognized Muhammad, they must have argued, how much more should others do so!

In this case, the storytellers could only get their message across if they could create a setting in which Muhammad might have actually met a monk. Hence, they tell several stories of how Muhammad as a child went to Syria, together with one of his uncles. There he met his monk, and the monk recognized him. The many stories about Muhammad’s travels to Syria are not the product of real historical memory, however vague, but a creation that was made necessary by the theological need to have Muhammad recognized as a prophet by Christians, preferably a monk.

The story about the meeting of Muhammad and the monk is improbable, it appears in many contradictory versions, but it served its purpose. For the same reason, the storytellers convey stories about a journey to Ethiopia which the early Muslims undertook. These stories contain no details, but if they do, the details are contradictory, an indication that they may have been invented – at least partly so, or perhaps, completely. It is difficult to say.

Men who preached that Muhammad has been the Messenger of God created the corpus of stories about Muhammad’s life, and some of these stories may have been true. But which ones? For some incidents, three or four versions are reported. Should scholars try and figure out which of the four versions is the ‘true’ one? Or, perhaps, the only true one, version five, has simply been forgotten? We do not know these things, and we never will. However, the possibility that one of the versions they were familiar with might be the true one, strongly motivated the scholars of early Islam to preserve every story they could lay their hands on. This added to the chaotic state of the corpus of their stories.

It is not only the lack of archaeological confirmation and the peculiar literary character of the Islamic official version of the early history of Islam that evokes uneasy questions. Even the names of some of the principle characters are suspect. Can it be coincidence that the names of Muhammad’s two most prominent wives, Khadiga and Aisha, have meanings that are each other’s opposite? Arabic khadiiga means ‘stillborn’, hence ‘dead’, whereas Arabic 3aa2isha means ‘living’, ‘alive’. Similar suspicions concerning the names of lesser figures abound.

And then, lastly, the most delicate problem: the chronology. The chronology of the early history of Islam is uncertain, if only because at the time people did not have calendars or agendas. More seriously, not long before the death of Muhammad Islam completely changed the way in which years and months are counted. Both the Koran and the collections of sayings and stories report this reform of the calendar extensively.

The storytellers, however, frequently date their stories to a month of the present Muslim lunar year, but not once to one of the leap months of the previous system. Would Muhammad and the early Muslims have remained completely inactive in such a leap month? Did nothing fit to print or to report happen in any of these leap months? This is difficult to imagine.

Only one conclusion is possible. The storytellers appear not to have taken this well-attested reform of the calendar into account. Why is this worrying? At this reform, in 632, the leap months of the earlier system were abolished. Not even the names of the ancient leap months have been preserved. The absence of leap months in the stories strongly suggests that the stories, in their present form, date from a period in which the earlier leap month calendar had been completely forgotten. This means that the stories in their present form could be quite late.

We have to live with even more coincidences. The symmetry of the chronology of the official version of the early history of Islam is absolutely amazing. Muhammad spent ten years as a preacher in Mecca, followed by ten years as a statesman in Medina. Ten years before Troy, ten years travelling back to Ithaca. It is not impossible, but probable it is not.

The earliest storytellers might have emphasized that Aisha was young when Muhammad died. The next generation of storytellers might have improved on the story. If she was young when Muhammad died, she might actually have been only 18 in the year 632, the year Muhammad died. But then she was only nine when Muhammad first slept with her in 623! Other storytellers might have made an additional point: Look at the beauty of the symmetry this creates: the number of years she lived with Muhammad as her husband after their marriage is equal to the number of years she lived without him previously.

The standard Islamic version of the history of early Islam is blessed with many such coincidences. These might, at the time, have helped believers to believe, which is a good thing, but modern sceptics find no pleasure in such coincidence, only suspicion. We can easily see that some stories have sequels by simply reading them carefully. Other stories even have prequels. This is amazing, and it only makes our suspicions stronger.

If the chronology is defective, it is consequently highly improbable that Aisha was actually 9 years old when Muhammad started to sleep with her, as the Muslim sources report.  This is not without legal consequences. If the chronology of such reports is open to question, is it reasonable to use them as legal precedents? Can specialists on Muslim law justify the marriage of very young girls to old men with an appeal to the reports on the life of Muhammad? The case looks extremely doubtful.

We know a lot about, for instance, the Roman emperors, and this from a wide variety of sources. We know almost nothing about the earliest Muslims. We certainly know very little about the chronology of the first century of Islam. The stories we are asked to believe, display a degree of symmetry that is pleasing, but the real world is only very rarely symmetrical.

Muhammad, as you all know, is the Prophet of Islam. But we do not know much more than that, whatever the religious leaders of Islam claim to be the case.

In reply to some of the reactions:


I understand that my doubt about the historicity of Muhammad and who knows who else caused some concern amongst a number of responsible, well-known intellectuals. I understand this concern but I cannot share it.

Also, a strong similarity has been noted with the doubts about the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Scholars generally agree that the reports about Jesus that we read in the New Testament are not historically reliable. These reports may equally be nothing but sermons that intend to spread the good news, even if they are perhaps sometimes based on vague historical memories.

There are, however, important differences between the study of early Islam and the study of early Christianity. First of all, early Christianity is openly and freely discussed in the West, whereas discussions of early Islam are absent in the Muslim world. Secondly, the general picture of the period and the region as suggested by the texts of the New Testament, more or less fits in with what is known about Palestine in the first century. This is not the case with the general picture the Koran and the Traditions present of ancient Arabia. On the contrary, the little that is known may even contradict the traditional Islamic picture.

Tilman Nagel is one of the most authoritative German orientalists, but his judgment does not outweigh that of others. One of the first scholars who put into print that the traditional Islamic version of the history of early Islam is not based on normal sources but a theological construction was the Danish scholar Patricia Crone, as far back as 1986, in her book Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. Like her teacher John Wansbrough, she based herself mainly on the literary character of the sources.

Others have made similar arguments, e.g. G.R. Hawting, in his The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam, 1999.  Much earlier, the Scottish scholar John Burton had shown convincingly that the stories and traditions about the collection of the Koran were not history in any secular sense of that word. These stories were similarly created in answer to urgent theological necessities: his The Collection of the Qur’an, 1977.

Archeological evidence has been collected and analysed by Yehuda D. Nevo and Judith Koren. Philological studies of the Koran that were undertaken by Christoph Luxenberg looked incredible when they first appeared around the turn of the century, but are confirmed more and more by ancient Arabic inscriptions that have been published almost a century ago.

Luxenberg advanced the hypothesis that, for instance, Koranic ‘he gave into marriage’, zawwaga, is a misreading of rawwaHa, ‘he [God] gave rest’, the equivalent of ‘May he rest in peace’. Zawwaga, or perhaps rawwaHa, occurs in Koran 55:20 and 44:54, and perhaps there is a link with Matthew 22:30. Most people will know by now that Luxenberg’s hypothesis implies that there are no virgins waiting for the martyrs. Not even one, and certainly not seventy or seventy-two.

Of course something must have happened somewhere, since Islam exists. But we know very little about what that something may have been. This has an important day-to-day practical consequence: to use a report about Muhammad’s example as a legal precedent, as Islamic sharia law prescribes, is a risky thing to do.