A furore in Germany over an Islamic scholar’s claim that Mohammed might not have existed highlights a fundamental difficulty in many religions – that they emphasise faith and dismiss calls for proof while simultaneously basing their beliefs around alleged facts.
The two most problematic faiths in this regard are Christianity and Islam. Both, of course, claim Christ as a once-living prophet. A critical tennet of Christianity – at least for the vast majority of Christians – is that Jesus was the embodiment of god on this earth. Similarly, for Muslims, it is vitally important that Mohammed was a real person who took dictation from the Archangel Gabriel.
There is a fairly long tradition in Christianity of examining the historicity of Christ. We all know that there is no documentary evidence for his existence. Even the biblical ‘evidence’ is contradictory. The Gospels offer conflicting portraits, depending on the agenda behind their creation and subsequent amendments. And the Epistles portray a figure who is far more consistent with a mythological character, ‘existing’ in the lowest realm of heaven (where, according to the theology of the day, demons lived) than a human who walked the same earth as ourselves. In short, no amount of historical research is able to settle the question of whether Christ ever lived, while rational analysis of the texts and the lack of supporting evidence would suggest that he didn’t.
Muhammad Sven Kalisch, chair of Islamic Studies at the University of Münster, has applied similar historical analysis to Mohammed. And he’s come up with a similar result.
“My position with regard to the historical existence of Muhammad is that I believe neither his existence nor his non-existence can be proven,” he said. “I, however, lean toward the non-existence.”
The problem this creates is that it would seem to invalidate the Qur’an. According to Islamic tradition, the Qur’an was the result of Mohammed being visited by the Archangel Gabriel on many occasions, starting in 610CE and lasting until 632CE. Mohammed himself did not write down what was said to him: he was illiterate. At first, Islam was largely an oral tradition, though certain of Mohammed’s followers each wrote down parts of what they heard. It was only two years after the Prophet’s death, when the new faith had already started to factionalise and war had killed many of those who had learned the Qur’an by rote, that the first caliph, Abu Bakr, ordered the whole text to be written in a definitive version. A single copy was created. Twelve years later, the third caliph, ‘Uthman, ordered additional copies to be made. This ‘Uthmanic Codex is regarded by most Muslims as the canonic text. The Qur’an, then, has some advantages over the Christian Bible in terms of textual integrity.
Of course, what the Qur’an actually says is open to wider interpretation. And if Mohammed did not exist, where did the text actually come from? Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the infallible and unalterable word of god. It is important to them that these words were dictated directly from god’s representative and that they have been captured accurately.
Kalisch takes a less literal and more spiritual approach.
“All the various sacred books are the product of human minds and experiences,” he said. God exists and works on a more spiritual level, he insists. Sacred texts should be approached as expressions of our relationship to (and, perhaps, desires for) a deity. They are also products of their time and place (which is why, for example, the flood story in the Old Testament mentions no animal that wouldn’t have been known to inhabitants of the Middle East).
That’s not going to please many Muslims. One of the great attractions of religion is that it offers certainties in an uncertain world. If the canonical texts of your chosen religion turn out to be nothing more than the works of humans striving to find answers and shape their relationships with god, then much certainty is removed. All becomes open to interpretation. The easy answers to difficult questions are taken away.
Once believers acknowledge that there are no facts at the heart of their faith, they must also face the uncomfortable consequence that they can no longer claim superiority. If the New Testament is simply a mythical tale, if the Qur’an is based on ideas spun around a mythical story, that breaks the direct link with god and belief becomes nothing more than a fanciful notion or wishful thinking. And so, believers find themselves insisting on at least one physical truth at the heart of their belief – that Christ and/or Mohammed walked the Earth. It is a shame for them that they are unable to verify even this one basic fact.