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Thursday, February 01, 2007

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Why is Islam a religion - #3 ?

by Ferdinand III

The 20th century’s most universally respected Islamic scholar is Dr. Arthur Jeffery. He headed the Department of Middle East Languages at Columbia University and taught linguistics at the School of Oriental Studies in Cairo. He wrote: "The briefest investigation suffices to reveal that the problem of Islamic sources is relatively simple, for most volumes represent little more than the working over (with fabulous and irrelevant additions and modifications) of perhaps half a handful Arabic texts of primary importance.”

“The earliest Life of Muhammad of which we have any trace was written by Muhammad Ibn Ishaq, who died in 768 C.E. i.e., 130 years after the death of the prophet. The Sirat Rasul Allah of Ibn Ishaq, however, has perished, and all we know of it is what is quoted from it (and these quotations are fortunately considerable) in the works of later writers, particularly Ibn Hisham and al-Tabari. This work of Ibn Ishaq, in addition to being the earliest known attempt at a biography, has a further importance in that, whether because the writer was somewhat of a free thinker, or because he had not come under the influence of later idealizing tendencies, his work contains very much information of a character that is distinctly unfavorable to Islam’s prophet."

To validate his point, Jeffry quotes Dr. Margoliouth’s review of Muhammad’s character from the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (Volume 8, p. 878) that I have shared with you twice before. It begins: "The character attributed to Muhammad in the biography of Ibn Ishaq is exceedingly unfavorable." Moving on, Arthur Jeffry concludes his review of Islamic source material by confirming the validity of what we have read from others. In his The Quest of the Historical Muhammad, he writes: "The first important source that has actually come down to us, therefore, is Waqidi’s Kitab al-Maghazi, or Book of the Raids. Al-Waqidi died 822 C.E. and his book may best be consulted in the translation of the important parts of it given in Wellhausen’s Muhammad in Medina (Berlin, 1882). Waqidi’s work, however, has the serious limitation that it deals only with Muhammad’s campaigns.... Later Arabic biographies are of very secondary value as compared with these. And even these works are not primary sources, as they are themselves based on two sources, Tradition and the Qur’an. The most important collections of Tradition are those of Bukhari (who died in 870 C.E.), and Muslim (who died in 874 C.E.). What value can be placed on the Traditions is questionable because the dates of the Hadith collections are even later than those of the biographies."

For a little more contemporary view, let’s review the sources used by F. E. Peters, as he is considered to be one of today’s most learned scholars on the subject of early Islam. He is Professor and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages, Literature and History at New York University and has authored four insightful books on Islam. Recognizing that the process of defining the sources that comprise Islam is less than inspiring, Peters put his source evaluation in an appendix at the end of his, Muhammad and the Origins of Islam. In it we read: "The earliest integral example we possess of a biography is the Life of the Apostle of Allah composed out of earlier materials [Hadith, or oral traditions] by the Muslim scholar Ibn Ishaq (d. 767). In some ways this, by now standard Muslim Life, looks like a Gospel, but the appearance is deceptive. Ibn Ishaq’s original, before a certain Ibn Hisham (d. 833) removed the ‘extraneous material’ from the work, was more in the nature of a ‘world history’ than a biography. The story began with Creation, and Muhammad’s prophetic career was preceded by accounts of all the prophets who had gone before him. This earlier, ‘discarded’ section of Ishaq’s work can to some extent be retrieved." Ishaq’s discarded Hadith depicting Islamic Creation and Muhammad’s presentation of Biblical patriarchs was retained in Volumes I-V of The History of al-Tabari.

Speaking of the Qur’an’s deficient presentation of Muhammad, Peters said: "We do not have material in the Qur’an to compose a biography of Muhammad because the book is a disjointed discourse, a pastiche [imitation, spoof, parody] of divine monologues that can be assembled into a homily [lecture, sermon] or perhaps a catechism [snippets of dogma] but that reveals little or nothing about the life of Muhammad and his contemporaries.... The Qur’an give us no assurance that its words and sentiments are likely to be authentic in the light of the context they were delivered and in the manner of their transmission. There are no clues as to when or where or why these particular words were being uttered.... The Qur’an is of no use whatsoever as an independent source for reconstructing the life of Muhammad. The Qur’an is not terribly useful even for reconstructing the Meccan milieu much less the life of the man who uttered its words; it is a text without context."

Peters debunks the myth that "the formation of Islam was played out in the clear light of history." He writes: "For Muhammad, unlike Jesus, there is no Josephus to provide a contemporary political context, no literary apocrypha for a spiritual context and no Qumran Scrolls to illuminate a sectarian milieu. From the era before Islam there is chiefly poetry whose contemporary authenticity is suspect, but was nevertheless used as the main vehicle of Arab history in the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods. The fact remains that between the contemporary Greek and Roman sources about Arabia and the later Islamic Traditions about the same place, there is a total lack of continuity. Despite volumes of information supplied by later [9th and 10th century] Muslim literary [and thus not historic] sources, we know pitifully little for sure about the political or economic history of Muhammad’s Mecca or of the religious culture from which he came."

F.E. Peters acknowledges, as do all serious scholars, that "the earliest ‘biographers’ of the Prophet, whose work is preserved by Ibn Ishaq and Tabari, were little more than collectors of oral reports or Hadith on the raids conducted by or under Muhammad. Yet, despite these obvious and serious disabilities, Ibn Ishaq’s Biography of Allah’s Apostle, is on the face of it a coherent and convincing account and gives the historian something to work with, particularly if the latter closes his eyes to where the material came from."

While I could share the source evaluations of another score of Islamic scholars with you, suffice it to say, nothing would change. The Qur’an is regarded as deficient due to its lack of context and chronological order. Ishaq’s Sira is the oldest and most reliable source, but sadly it’s composed only of oral reports a century removed from their authors. Moreover, the Sira has been edited for political consumption so we are reliant on Tabari’s Ta’rikh. It thus provides the oldest uncensored narrative of Muhammad’s words and deeds, his ambition, god, and religion. Bukhari and Muslim are additive but their lack of historical grounding, their late date, and their constant contradictions render them considerably less valuable. But as bad as these are, they are the best Islam has to offer.

Bemoaning the dearth of accurate and contemporaneous source material, Humphreys says: "Muslims, we would suppose, would have taken great care to record their spectacular achievements, and the highly literate and urbanized societies which they subjugated could hardly avoid coming to grips with what had happened to them. Yet all we find from this early period are sources which are either fragmentary or represent very specific or even eccentric perspectives, completely annulling any possibility of reconstructing Islam’s first century." "We have no reliable proof that any Hadith Tradition actually speaks of the life of Muhammad, or even of the Qur’an," Joseph Schacht attests after putting the Hadith through the most rigorous scholastic investigation in history.

Schacht was ingenious. He used the court records from the early ninth century to show that neither defense nor prosecution used Hadiths that have since become the backbone of Islamic law. There is no chance men would have been convicted or exonerated in an Islamic court without referencing the most appropriate Hadith unless they simply didn’t exist at the time. Schacht, therefore, dates the creation of a Hadith to the time they were first used at trial. Not only did he find late dates for most Hadiths, he discovered something very sinister. Hadith with the best isnads were the most suspect.

Humphreys said: "We are asked to believe that these documents written hundreds of years later are accurate, though we are not presented with any evidence for their veracity, outside of isnads, which are nothing more than lists purporting to give the names of those from whom the oral traditions were passed down. Yet even the isnads lack any supportive documentation with which to corroborate their authenticity." Simply stated, insights into Islam’s formation, the Qur’an’s creation, and Muhammad’s life are as black as the message they proclaim.

"Muslims maintain that the late dates of the primary sources can be attributed to the fact that writing was simply not used in such an isolated area or at that time. This assumption is completely unfounded, however, as writing on paper began long before the seventh century. Paper was invented in the fourth century, and used extensively throughout the civilized world thereafter. The Umayyad dynasty of Islam’s first one hundred years was headquartered in the former Byzantine area of Syria, not Arabia. Thus, unlike Arabia, it was a sophisticated society which used secretaries in the Caliphal courts, proving that manuscript writing was well developed. Yet nothing has been found to support the religion of Islam. Not a single Hadith or Qur’an fragment dates to this time or place. The Muslims who had managed to conquer and tax much of the world during Islam’s first 100 years couldn’t manage to write a single scroll, surah, Sira, or Sunnah during those same 100 years.

"So we must ask how we came by the Qur’an if there was no Muslim scribe, cleric, or scholar capable of putting pen to paper before the eighth century? Muslims claim the existence of a number of codices of the Qur’an shortly after the death of Muhammad. The Uthmanic text, for example, had to have been written, otherwise it wouldn’t be a text, right? Writing was available, but for some reason, no record was written prior to 750 A.D." As I am sure you’re aware, these are very serious accusations. And ultimately they will lead us to a singular, undeniable, and very dire conclusion.

"Muslim scholars maintain that the absence of early documentation can be blamed on old age. They believe that the material upon which the primary sources were written either disintegrated over time, leaving us with no examples, or wore out and so were destroyed. But this argument is dubious. In the British Library we have ample examples of documents written by individuals in communities near Arabia. And they predate Islam by centuries. On display are Renewed Covenant manuscripts such as the Codex Syniaticus and the Codex Alexandrinus, both of which were written in the fourth century, 400 years before the period in question! Why have they not disintegrated with age?

"Where this argument is especially weak, however, is when we apply it to the Qur’an itself. The ‘Uthman text,’ the final canon supposedly compiled by Zaid ibn Thabit under the direction of the third Caliph, is considered by all Muslims to be the most important piece of literature ever written. According to surah 43:2, it is the ‘Mother of all Books.’ It is considered to be an exact replica of the ‘Eternal Tablets’ which exist in heaven (surah 85:22). Muslim Traditions claim that all other competing codices and manuscripts were destroyed after 650 A.D. Even Hafsah’s copy, from which the final recension was taken was burned. If this Uthmanic text was so important, why then was it not written on paper, or other material which would have lasted? And if the earliest manuscripts wore out with usage, why were they not replaced with others written on skin, like so many other older documents which have managed to survive?

"‘We have absolutely no evidence of the original Qur’an,’ say Schimmel, Gilchrist, Ling, and Safadi. ‘Nor do we have a surviving fragment from the four copies which were made of this recension and sent to Mecca, Medina, Basra and Damascus.’ Even if these copies had somehow disintegrated with time, there would surely be some fragments we could refer to. By the end of the seventh century Islam had expanded right across North Africa and up into Spain, and east as far as India. The Qur’an (according to tradition) was the centerpiece of their faith. Within that enormous sphere of influence, there should be some Qur’anic documents or manuscripts which have survived. Yet, there isn’t even a scrap from that period. There is literally nothing from the first three generations of Islam to suggest that the Qur’an existed.

"While Christianity can claim more than 5,500 known Greek fragments and manuscripts of the Renewed Covenant, 10,000 Latin Vulgates and at least 9,500 other early versions, adding up to 25,000 Renewed Covenant sources still in existence (McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict), most of which were written between 25 to 350 years after the death and resurrection of Yahshua (or between the 1st and 4th centuries), Islam cannot provide a single manuscript until well into the eighth century (Lings, Safadi, Schimmel). If Christians could retain so many thousands of ancient documents, all of which were written centuries earlier, at a time when paper had not yet been introduced, forcing the dependency on papyrus which disintegrated more rapidly, then one wonders why Muslims were unable to forward a single manuscript from this much later period? This renders the argument that all the earliest Qur’ans simply disintegrated with age, absurd to the extreme."

The evidence, or lack thereof, leads us to a solitary rational conclusion. The reason no one has found a single surviving Qur’an or Hadith fragment, manuscript, or scroll dating to within a hundred years of the time they were allegedly revealed is they never existed. The Qur’an and Hadith, and therefore Islam, were born in Baghdad, not Mecca or Medina in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, not at the cusp of the seventh.

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