Share on facebook
Share on twitter

WAS THERE AN HISTORICAL MUHAMMAD?

The question concerning Muhammad’s existence is not irrelevant, as many might think at first glance. First, consider an example closer to home: the case of Lindsay Mathis. She was an American physician who served in war zones during World War I and died in 1938. She traveled on foot for hundreds of miles, suffered hunger and thirst, and often endured harassment from lustful men. A hero, she treated every one of the wounded warriors she met. Some say she was so pious and godly that she performed supernatural healings. She died of leprosy after treating many with the same disease.

We know of her only because of a notebook found in Nebraska in 2010 in the basement of an abandoned house. The notebook is allegedly a copy of another copy of Lindsay’s own diary, which is now lost. The copies were made by the grandchildren of Lindsay’s lesser known sister, Sara. No eyewitness testimony or other document mentions Lindsay Mathis. Did she really exist? We have no evidence. We cannot say for sure. In fact, I made this whole story up.  There was no Lindsay Mathis. My goal in telling the story is to point out the importance of credible evidence, such as an eyewitness account or contemporary documentation of an event.

So what about Muhammad? The question of his historicity is controversial. Of course, Muslims emphatically believe in a historical Muhammad whose character, deeds, and teachings are documented in the numerous Islamic sources. However, these Muslim sources are generally late (some were written centuries after Muhammad’s death) and full of contradictory information about Muhammad’s life. This is one reason why many non-Muslims doubt the claims advanced by Muslim sources, including Muhammad’s existence.

In particular, archaeologist Yehuda Nevo (1932-92) argues that there is a lack of independent evidence to indicate the existence of Muhammad. Nevo concludes, based on archaeological, epigraphical, and non-Muslim historical literature, that Arabs were pagans, not Muslims, when they conquered Byzantine lands many years after Muhammad’s reported death. If this is true, then Arab leaders were idol worshipers–not followers of Islam, as preached by someone named Muhammad–who led armies and conquered Christian lands. Nevo claims that after pagan Arab commanders subdued those lands, they sought to adopt a set of beliefs similar to that of the conquered people, who were mostly monotheistic. Nevo regards this as one reason for the similarities between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. While many scholars have commended Nevo’s rigorous research and the solid methodology he employed, some view his claims as radical due to the fact that Muhammad’s existence is reported in a few contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous non-Muslim accounts.

One way to examine the historicity of Muhammad is to consider sources written by the people who lived around Arabia during his supposed lifetime (ca. 570-632). If the Muslim sources were written too long after Muhammad’s death to be considered reliable, what about those from the seventh-century Syria, Egypt, Persia, and so forth? Do they reference the Arabian individual whom Muslims identify as their prophet? In the first few decades after Muhammad’s death, non-Muslim sources depict Muhammad as a trader, a monotheist preacher, a conquest initiator, a king, a lawgiver, or a false prophet.

Recent academic research identified the first explicit reference to Muhammad in a non-Muslim source dating precisely to Friday, February 7, 634. This reference attributed to Thomas the Presbyter, a seventh-century Middle Eastern Christian: “There was a battle between the Romans and the Arabs of Muhammad…. The Romans fled, leaving behind the patrician bryrdn, whom the Arabs killed. Some 4000 POOR villagers of Palestine were killed there, Christians, Jews and Samaritans. The Arabs ravaged the whole region.”1 A few years after Muhammad’s death, another Christian preacher wrote of “the prophet who has appeared with the [Arabs]” and identified him in negative terms: “HE IS FALSE, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword.”2 It appears that non-Muslims around Arabia had heard news regarding an Arabian prophet who was active in battle. Moreover, a sermon preached in 636 or 637 (four or five years after Muhammad’s death) by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius. Details “the Arabs’ atrocities and victories,” as they “overrun places which are not allowed to them, plunder cities, devastate fields, BURN DOWN VILLAGES, SET ON FIRE THE HOLY CHURCHES, OVERTURN SACRED MONASTERIES.”3 Patriarch Sophronius identified them as “vengeful and God-hating” Arabs “who insult the cross, Jesus, and the name of God, AND WHOSE LEADER IS THE DEVIL.” 3 Furthermore, Middle Eastern Syriac evidence from 637 (again five years after Muhammad’s death) mention Muhammad’s name explicitly and refers to the fact that the “Arab troops decisively defeated the Byzantine forces” and that “many villages destroyed through the killing by [the Arabs of] Muhammad.”4 Not only does his name appear, but it is also identified in association with military battles and religious opposition to the God worshiped by the conquered Christians.

The question remains: Did Muhammad exist? The answer is elusive. It depends on which Muhammad you mean. We should distinguish between the existence of Muhammad and the historicity of Muhammad. Non-Muslim historical accounts–contemporary or near-contemporary with Muhammad’s life and career–establish a case for his existence. However, not only are these accounts scarce but they also paint various depictions of Muhammad, so to speak. When we compare these Muhammads to the Muslim accounts written centuries after his death, we are left with a confusing image of an Arabian prophet and statesman. Therefore, while Muhammad likely existed, his historicity is debated. (Ayman S. Ibrahim, A Concise Guide to the Quran [BakerAcademic, Grand Rapids, MI 2020], Part 1: The History of the Text of the Quran, 6. Did Muhammad Really Exist?, pp. 17-20)

  1. Robert Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1997), 120.
  2. Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It, 57
  3. Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It, 72-73.
  4. Michael Penn, When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 22-24. (Ibid., p. 19)

Related articles

Muhammad

Allah