Of questionable origins


As I have pointed out many times, Islam is not and has never been any kind of religion of peace. It is, always has been, and always will be a political ideology first, and a religion second. That Islam has been a source of untold suffering, murder, pillaging, conquest, abuse, and horror is neither new nor surprising- at least, not to anyone with eyes and ears and enough grey matter to put two and two together.

What is not so well known, and is far more interesting for a number of reasons (to me, at least), is that the entire canonical origin story of Islam is, as far as the most recent scholarship can tell, completely and totally false. Several superb books, published within the last 15 years by a number of different Western and Arabic authors (some of whom are Christian or Jewish, others secular), have completely upended that story and shed some much-needed illumination on one of the most puzzling periods of human history.

The Canonical Origin Story

Islamic claims to legitimacy stem from the insistence that the "prophet" Mohammed was given a series of revelations transmitted to him directly from the mouth of God Himself, via the Archangel Gabriel. Islam's prophet, and all of his descendants throughout all of the various Islamic caliphates that have existed, claim that Islam is the final and most perfect set of laws of personal and religious conduct, in a tradition stretching all the way back to Mosaic law and the Old Testament.

Indeed, Islam claims to have been derived from the same seed as Judaism, and therefore Christianity, via the descendants of Abraham. The story of Abraham and Hagar is, of course, well-known within the Book of Genesis, but- if I remember my Bible reading correctly- precious little of anything is said about Abraham's son via Hagar, Ishmael. It is from the Ishmaelites that Islam claims its linkage to and descent from the much more ancient Judaic traditions.

The standard story of Islam's beginnings is quite well understood. The basic tale goes something like this:

Mohammed, a wealthy merchant and member of the Hashem clan (yes, those Hashemites), was a pious character who regularly prayed to the old pagan gods outside of the Arabic city of Mecca. Arabia was, at the time, very heavily Christian and Jewish, though the old pagan traditions still held considerable influence over the region. Somewhere around his 40th year, Mohammed was visited by the Archangel Gabriel and received a series of "revelations", which amounted essentially to said angel speaking the words of the holiest of holy books, the Koran, directly to Mohammed. According to the Archangel, the Koran, as transmitted to Mohammed, was "the perfect copy of the perfect book", which had existed simultaneously with Allah since the beginning of time.

This man then made it his mission in life to proselytise these revelations to anyone and everyone who would listen, for he had been given a sacred calling as the last prophet in a line stretching back to Moses. Unfortunately his words were considered blasphemous and heretical by the Jewish and Christian religious authorities in Mecca. He was forced to flee to Medina, in a journey known as the hijra (or hegirah), to take up residence there and begin his true calling as a bloody-handed warlord, whose armies brought Islam to the world through fire and sword.

After Mohammed's death in (roughly) 632 AD, his armies raged out of Arabia in the first great wave of Islamic expansion, conquering Persia to the east and the Levant, most of North Africa, and even Spain and parts of Europe to the west.

Thus has Islam existed ever since- perpetually at war with Dar al-Harb, perpetually riven by backwardness, insularity, a pagan-minded lack of interest in scientific advancement, and deep internal contradictions papered over with bloodshed and violence.

There is just one small problem with this narrative: everything about it, except for the last paragraph above, is categorically and, for the most part provably, FALSE.

In the Name of the "Prophet"

There are a number of good scholarly works that have emerged recently questioning the canonical origin story of Islam with the same depth and rigour that has been applied for nearly twenty centuries to the origins of the Christian faith. But, whereas most serious scholarly investigations of the origins of Christianity and the existence of Jesus generally show that Christ existed much as He is depicted within the Gospels and the Epistles, similar investigations into Islam reveal that not one aspect of the canonical origin story is conclusively supported by the evidence.

The two best works that I have read on the subject are Did Muhammad Exist? An Enquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins by Robert Spencer, and The Impact of Islam by Emmet Scott. It is the latter book upon which I will focus here. I have written previously of Mr. Scott's superb investigative work, Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, in which he looked in very close detail at the accepted history of the Dark Ages and of Islam's impact upon Europe, and found huge holes in the standard narrative that could only be filled by radically revising everything we think we know about that period.

His second book is not quite as good, simply because much of what he writes is actually quite well known by now; unlike the relatively obscure theories and evidence of Henri Pirenne, anyone who has been paying attention will know full well just how negative Islam's effects upon the world have been. Nonetheless, it serves as a very solid primer on the blood-stained history of Islam and on the serious problems with the accepted narratives about Islam's supposedly "enlightened" golden age.

However, The Impact of Islam's true value lies not necessarily in the book itself- excellent though it is- but in the appendix to that book.

In that appendix, Emmet Scott presents a precis analysis of the latest scholarship into Islam's origins, and provides the reader with a body of evidence that is simultaneously so startling, and yet so difficult to refute, that it requires multiple readings to understand fully.

Simply put, that appendix presents the following ideas for the reader to mull over, and provides a brief overview of the (large) body of supporting evidence for each contention:
  1. The Koran as we know it today could not possibly have been written at the time asserted by Islamic canon and was, in its earliest form, a Christian devotional text written in Syriac (or possibly Aramaic, they're not the same language), not Arabic;
  2. The earliest written, numismatic, and physical evidence for Mohammed shows not the prophet of Islam, but Jesus Christ;
  3. The name "Mohammed" did not exist linguistically in Arabic until well after the death of the prophet;
  4. Islam, at least in its earliest stages, was not a new faith but was in fact an offshoot of a heretical "reform Judaism" branch of Christianity, known as the Ebionites;
  5. The Koran in its current form is in fact an amalgam- and a poorly constructed one at that- of several different aspects of both Judaic and Christian tradition;
  6. The warrior-prophet depicted in the Medinan Suras, the (chronologically) later Suras of the Koran, is not Mohammed nor Jesus but is in fact the Biblical soldier-prophet Joshua;
  7. The first great wave of Islamic expansion was not Arabic but Persian in origin
Any one of these claims would be explosive enough if supported with sufficient evidence to be taken seriously. In fact, all of them, with the possible exception of the sixth, have so much supporting evidence behind them that, in combination, they simply destroy the entire mythology of Islam's origins.

To be sure, there is no small amount of speculative "filling-in-the-blanks" in Mr. Scott's work, and the evidence he presents in his Appendix must be subjected to the full weight of critical inquiry. This is especially true of the sixth point above, which I found rather hard to accept.

However, any honest mind must be willing to go through all of this and ask whether it all holds up to scrutiny.

The Early Physical Evidence

The canonical narrative first runs into serious problems when we look at coins dating back to the first caliphate following the death of Mohammed. Coins found minted in Syria from that Islamic era, typically dated between 647 and 658 AD, have the name "Mohammed" inscribed, to be sure- near a figure carrying a cross.

The significance of this lies in the fact that the Cross is anathema in Islam. Back in the days of Turkish rule, Slavic and Albanian Christians would tattoo the hands of their daughters with the Cross so that roving bands of Turkish soldiers and slave-traders would not capture them and sell them into the harems and slave-markets of the East. It is anathema because, although Jesus is regarded as a prophet within Islam, the Islamic tradition argues that He did not die on the Cross and was never resurrected; because of this strain of thought, the Cross is considered to be a symbol of deep shame.

Then there is the word "Mohammed" itself. As Mr. Scott points out, there is no attestation that this word existed in Arabic as a name for individuals until after the 7th Century- i.e. after the death of the canonical Mohammed. The closest equivalent is the word Munahhemana, which itself translates in both Arabic and Syriac as "the blessed one", or "the chosen one".

How, exactly, did Mohammed's parents know that he was to be the chosen one at the time of his birth, when Islamic tradition plainly states that the prophet only received the revelations at the age of 40?

Mr. Scott goes on to point out that:
The "Muhammad prophecy" of Jesus is referred to by Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad's earliest biographer, who remarked in the Gospel passage where Jesus refers to the coming of the Comforter [Aramaic Muhahhemana], he is actually referring to the coming of Muhammad. Ibn Ishaq explains: "the Munahhemana (God bless and preserve him!) in Syriac is Muhammad; in Greek he is paraclete".
Furthermore, the original bearer of the title "Praised One" in the original Gospels- and remember, these were originally written by native Aramaic speakers who also knew and were literate in Greek- was Jesus Himself.

The result here is that there is a very strong argument to be made that Islamic doctrine, far from being unique, is in fact a skillful manipulation and adaptation of existing Christian theology, which ended up conflating Mohammed with Jesus. And that, as it turns out, is not the end of it; Mr. Scott speculates that not only was Jesus merged into the character of Mohammed, so too was the Biblical leader Joshua.

The Ebionites

Further investigation into the Koran, the hadith, and Ibn Ishaq's sirah show compelling evidence that Islam was in fact a clear derivation of both Judaic and Christian doctrines. Just how much Islam is derived from the latter two religions, though, is only now coming to light.

It is a well-known fact that the Torah, the books of Moses, are accepted completely by Islamic tradition. It is also well-known that, even after the adoption of the Nicene Creed nearly three centuries earlier, large splinter sects of Christianity continued to exist and even thrive in the Middle East and Levant. Among the more well-known of these sects are the Nestorians and the Gnostics. (Don't ask me what the specific differences are, I'm not theologian enough to know.)

These sects accepted Christ as the Messiah, but viewed him as an orthodox Jew (which, actually, He was, given that He had both rabbinical training and- if you wish to ignore the arguments about His divinity- royal blood going back to King David). As a result, these sects accepted Mosaic law in its entirety- large aspects of which Jesus specifically rejected- and did not consider the canonical Gospels to be "correct", using instead texts with much later and less substantiated authorship than the accepted texts in the New Testament.

One of these sects, in particular, is known conclusively to have existed in the Arabian peninsula from the fifth century AD onward. The Ebionites cleaved to doctrines taken verbatim out of the Old Testament, except that Jesus was accepted as the Messiah- but not as the Son of God. (Essentially they subscribed to the Nestorian heresy.)

The specific and extremely detailed laws laid down in the Book of Leviticus concerning marriage and adultery, homosexuality, permissible and forbidden foods, the practice of sanitary rituals, and so on and so forth, were accepted by the Ebionites completely.

Furthermore, Islamic historians accept without reservation that a Nestorian monk, Waraqah ibn Nawfal, was one of the earliest converts to Islam, and it has been known for some time now that some of the most fervent early converts to Islam were in fact Ebionites.

The distinction here between "Nestorian" and "Ebionite" is an artificial one; the Ebionites subscribed to the Nestorian view of Christ as a man, not God made flesh, and also argued concurrently that He was an orthodox Jew, not a radical and rebel against the ancient Judaic traditions.

Thus, argues Mr. Scott, Islam is not "new" at all. It didn't suddenly spring out of nowhere from the mind and words of a lone prophet wandering in the Arabian wilderness. In fact and reality, at least two hundred years before Islam's supposed advent upon the world, there already existed a thriving sect of Christian heretics of the "reform Judaism" persuasion that could easily and reasonably be described as "proto-Islamic".

Mohammed, Jesus, and Joshua

Everything narrated above thus far is backed up by archaeological, scriptural, and liturgical evidence, and there are multiple primary sources that can be used to argue vigourously in favour of those points. However, the most difficult and knotty problem of all lies in explaining exactly how it is that a peaceful and deeply personal religion like Christianity eventually mutated into the violent, intolerant, imperialistic political ideology of Islam.

After all, Christ led no raids, beheaded no one, was not an adulterer, and condemned in the strongest possible terms the killing of the innocent. Christ preached monogamy, chastity, temperance, and virtue. Mohammed, as canonically described in both the Hadith and the Sirah of Ibn Ishaq, did all of the things that Christ did not- and worse, given that he was a documented paedophile within Islamic tradition. And Mohammed was rather less than monogamous, chaste, temperate, or virtuous.

Even if one accounts for the way in which an illiterate desert people can conflate myths, legends, and stories from one era with a completely different one, and even if we account for the heretical Ebionite view of Christ as a non-Divine Messiah, how on Earth do we reconcile what probably started out as a post-Christian heresy with the deeply unstable and bloody-handed final product that we see today?

The answer, according to Mr. Scott at least, lies in a neat trick of etymology.

As he points out, in English (and Greek, and Latin), the words "Jesus" and "Joshua" are completely different- to quote the book, "'Jesus' is the English of the Greek transliteration of 'Yahoshua' via Latin". (You follow all that?)

But in Hebrew, the two names, Jesus and Joshua, often come from the exact same word: Yeshua.

Add to this the fact that Joshua, son of Nun, is a warlord and warrior par excellence in the Old Testament. It is Joshua who leads the Tribes of Israel into the Promised Land- from Arabia, no less. And his acts as a warrior are well documented in the Book of Joshua; it was under his leadership that the Israelites utterly crushed the Amalekites, in accordance with the commands of God.

In addition, it must be noted that ancient Judaism was not the quiet and self-contained faith back then that it is today. Judaism has had the ability to proselytise beaten and persecuted right out of it over the past 2,000 years- much of it, incidentally, due to the extreme damage that Islam did and continues to do to Jews. But originally, Judaism was an aggressive, even at times expansionist, faith that saw no distinction between Church and State- see, for example, Leviticus and Numbers for the laws governing both secular and religious existence, and Judges, 1st and 2nd Kings and 1st Chronicles for examples of these laws being put into action by the rulers of Canaan and Judea.

As noted above, the Ebionites accepted ancient Jewish traditions entirely, including the aggressive promotion of the faith, but also accepted Christ as a Messiah to spread that faith. It stands to reason that the figures of Jesus and Joshua could have been commingled through later revisions of past history by politically motivated rulers.

And finally, as Mr. Scott points out, in the New Testament, the Virgin Mary is a completely distinct figure from Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron (obviously). However, in the Koran, they are considered one and the same. Maryam, mother of Isha (Jesus), is stated as being the "sister of Aaron" (and therefore of Moses) in Islamic literature.

This part of Mr. Scott's work is, in my opinion, the most confusing and difficult to accept. It would appear, based on admittedly circumstantial but nonetheless compelling evidence, that early Islamic doctrine has seriously and completely confused events and people separated by well over a thousand years (or more).

Yet it is difficult even for a cynical person like me to believe that early Islam could have gotten things that backasswards as to turn Jesus, Joshua, and possibly an actual historical merchant-prince in Mecca into a single figure called Mohammed.

On the other hand, as Robert Spencer points out in his book, the best evidence that we have available tells us that Mohammed, as described in the canonical story, simply didn't exist- we know that part by now- but, more importantly, if Mohammed DID exist in any form, he was essentially a composite of three, maybe four, actual historical figures. The narrative provided by Mr. Scott certainly fits that bill.

I leave it to the reader to decide whether to accept or reject Mr. Scott's assertions. For my part, I need more convincing before I'm willing to fully accept what he writes, but I cannot deny that the argument is compelling.

The Scriptural Argument

Returning to the actual contents of Islamic theology, Mr. Scott points out that the Koran, when read in isolation, simply doesn't make much sense. Roughly 20% or so of the text is completely incomprehensible. Even if you throw in the Hadith- a truly enormous collection of sayings and deeds and stories of Mohammed that explain much of the obscure nature of the Koran- it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Or at least, it doesn't if you read the Koran in Arabic.

This is a crucial problem. The Koran, as canonically accepted by Islamic tradition, was transliterated to Mohammed in Arabic and is supposed to be read in that language. Any non-Arabic translation of the Koran is not considered to be an actual Koran, but merely an "imitation" of the holiest of holy books.

To put this into perspective for a Christian, this would be like arguing that the Old Testament can only ever be read in Hebrew, and the New Testament can only ever be read in Greek. This would be downright ridiculous to any modern reader of either text, since both books have been translated into almost every major language with no real loss of fidelity in terms of the message or meaning.

However, if you read the Koran in Syriac- a language similar to but not the same as Arabic- a great many of the contradictions and obscure passages of the Koran suddenly fall away. Mr. Scott gives a few examples of this and refers the reader to more specialised texts that look into this issue in much more detail, but the argument is highly convincing nonetheless. The lengthiest one concerns a rather odd episode in the Koran called the "Night of Power", which makes very little sense when read in Arabic- but reveals itself to be a clear reference to the Nativity of Christ when read in Syriac.

Furthermore, recent evidence clearly shows that the Koran could not possibly have been written when Islamic doctrine says it was. According to Islamic scholarship, the Koran was memorised and passed down orally until about 650 AD, roughly 20 years after Mohammed's death. But the Birmingham Koran's pages have been dated to the actual canonical lifetime of the prophet.

This, combined with the point about its Syriac origins and clear indications that it started as a Christian lectionary text, provide significant evidence that the Koran simply is not a unique revelation at all, but is in fact an evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) Christian heresy.

The Persian Origins of the First Caliphate

Perhaps the most interesting claim made by Mr. Scott, and the one most clearly supported by conclusive archaeological evidence, is that the supposed "Arabic" victories of early Islam were actually Persian in nature.

This is where all of the threads and strands above are tied together. We could argue until kingdom come about how and where and when Mohammed got started, and about whether Islam started out as a Christian offshoot, and if the Koran actually says what we think it says. But we know that Islam spread through fire and sword during and after Mohammed's lifetime into the Middle East, the Levant, Africa, and Persia. The evidence shows this, categorically; the destruction and devastation wrought by Islamic expansion was so severe that it literally brought the Dark Ages to Europe.

Now, the canonical story of this expansion says that Islam expanded through epic victories and conquests by the Arabic converts to Islam under the flag of the prophet. But careful examination of the evidence says otherwise.

Consider first the puzzling problem of how a loosely held confederation of illiterate nomads were somehow able to attack and overthrow the most powerful, wealthy, and- this is critical- populous empires of their day. The notion that the Arab tribes, outnumbered and outgunned to such a massive extent, could conquer both the Byzantine and Persian empires- the superpowers of their day- is simply ridiculous on its face once you actually think about it. Yet that is what we are told is true.

Second, the early archaeological evidence shows that the earliest Islamic empire was actually thoroughly Persian in nature. The reason given by Mr. Scott for this is that, essentially, the Persian king Chosroes (Khosrau) II converted to "Islam"- or rather, the Ebionite offshoot of Christianity that became Islam- and then engendered an alliance between the vast Persian empire and the much smaller Arabian empire under the first Ummayyad caliphs. It was this alliance that attacked and overthrew Byzantine rule, and it was the Arab part of this alliance that eventually gained power through internal intrigues and took over the Persian empire, and then began "Arabising" the origin story of Islam.

Putting the Puzzle Together

Taken separately, each of these things is a fairly devastating critique of specific aspects of Islam. But that just means that there are things about Islam that are questionable. Well, so what? There is plenty of reason to question the historicity of large parts of the Old Testament- for example, Joshua is not generally considered by historians to be an actual historical figure. Nor, for that matter, is Moses. Indeed, many of the characters in the Old Testament are considered by modern historians to be either outright fictions, or composites of several different historical figures.

Turning to Christianity, no one has ever been subjected to scrutiny the way that Christ has. While the conclusions from the search for the historical Jesus generally agree that He existed and was a profoundly important religious figure, there is sharp disagreement over exactly who He was and what He actually may or may not have said.

So what's the big deal if Mohammed is fictional and the Koran is not actually a unique revelation text? Why not just live and let live, and allow people to believe whatever they want?

The key lies in the massive difference between Islam and other faiths.

Islam is not merely a religion. It is a totalitarian political ideology wrapped up in the mantle of religion. I use the word "totalitarian" in its most literal sense; Islam provides extremely precise, pedantic, and even OCD laws and prescriptions about almost every possible aspect of Man's moral, physical, and spiritual existence through a truly bewildering array of commands, laws, and examples. Even the Hindu faith, with its impossible convolutions and contortions and offshoots and millions of Vedic gods, is not so prescriptive.

More than this, though, Islam is a violently supremacist ideology that preaches eternal war against unbelievers, "protective" slavery for Jews and Christians, and mass slaughter for idolaters. Its entire history has been one of intolerance, brutality, mass murder, pillaging, anti-intellectual closed-mindedness (and the exceptions are precisely that- exceptions), and extreme suffering for those unlucky enough to find themselves under an Islamic regime.

The question that therefore begs answering is: why is Islam what it is?

And now, suddenly, all of the pieces come together.

Once you add up everything that Emmet Scott and others have investigated about Islam's obscure origins, you realise that Islam is what it is because it started out as a militant heretical offshoot of Christianity that was rapidly adapted and mutated for political purposes by conquerors intent on changing history to suit their own ends.

And that is why it matters. That is why taking a critical view of Islam's origins is so important. If it can be conclusively shown that the entire canonical structure of Islam is in fact largely fictional, and that Islam's supposedly unique history is in fact not unique, that is a very powerful weapon to use to rally the resistance to Islamic expansionism.

Make no mistake- that expansion is well underway, right now. The third great wave of the expansion is crashing against European and American shores, and Christendom is under attack as never before- from within as well as without. We'll need every possible weapon we can get to push back that tide. Emmet Scott has provided a powerful rhetorical and factual arsenal for doing precisely that.

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