What is the Historical Revisionism of Islam’s Origin?

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This entry is an introduction to some of the discoveries scholars and critics have recently made which are thought to challenge traditional understandings of Islamic origins. This paper is intended to present the historical revisionist claims and arguments, and then put them in conversation with opposing views of scholars who maintain the traditional narrative of Islamic origins. This conversation will continue over follow-up entries to this post.

What is Historical Revisionism of Islam’s Origin?

Over the last 50 or so years, a number of scholars have proposed a revisionist history of Islamic origins. It is “revisionist” because it brings into question a number of areas within the traditional narrative of Islam’s origins. Scholar and historian of early Islamic history Patricia Cone (d. 2015) explains this in a bit more detail,

“Everyone setting out to reconstruct the rise of Islam has to confront the fact that the first hundred years are short on indisputably authentic information. We have the Quran, some coins, inscriptions, and some non-Muslim statements, but the master narrative dates from some 120 to 150 years after the event. How are we to proceed? Some choose simply to accept the master narrative, suitably modified in places. Others, often called “Revisionists,” reject the master narrative in favor of new reconstructions based on authentic evidence and such information from the master narrative as is compatible with it. Those often called “Revisionists” reject the master narrative in favor of new reconstructions based on authentic evidence and such information from the master narrative as is compatible with it” (1).

This gap within the historical record of Islam’s origin has raised several probing questions. It has generated numerous revisionist views with some scholars, historian Tom Holland being one reputable name, claiming that the Prophet Muhammad had nothing to do with the Qur’an at all (2). Canadian historian Dan Gibson, whose research interests are in the Bedouins and ancient Islamic qiblas, contends that the Prophet Muhammad did not even live in the city Mecca, as suggested by the traditional narrative, but way up north in the city of Petra (3). Other theorists have gone further to doubt that the Prophet existed as a historical figure such as the archaeologist Yehuda D. Nevo (1932-1992) and theologian Sven Kalich. Numerous questions have arisen over the traditional account presented within Islamic sources concerning Mecca and with what historians and archaeologists have come to know about the area through their research.

The Classical Narrative

In its most simplified form the traditional narrative can be outlined as follows: Muhammad was born in 570 CE, met the angel ‘Jibril’ in the Hira cave (610 CE), received ‘Meccan revelations’ (between and including 610 to 622 CE), flew to Jerusalem upon a winged horse where he then ascended into the seven heavens and met Allah (621 CE), moved from Mecca to Medina (622 CE), received ‘Medinan revelations’, conquered Mecca (630 CE), and died (632 CE). This was followed by the leadership of the Caliphs Abu Bakr (632-634 CE), Umar (634-644 CE), Uthman (644-656 CE), Ali (656-661 CE), collectively referred to as the Rashidun Caliphs. It is these major strands of the traditional narrative of Islam’s origin that revisionist theorists are challenging.

What are some of these challenges?

Lack of Early Historical Sources for the Traditional Narrative

Clinton Bennett, a scholar of religion with interests in Islam, writes that “For the chronology of Muhammad and for information about particular events in his life, we are mainly dependent on a genre of literature known as sira” (4). These are biographies of Muhammad’s life that come from Muslim scholars who collected and wrote down stories after his death in 632 CE. The first person to provide an outline of the classical narrative was Ibn Ishaq (d. 768) in the Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (765 CE). Not only is Ibn Ishaq removed from Muhammad’s time of death by a significant 130 or so years, but historians also do not possess Ibn Ishaq’s material, which means that they are dependent on an edited version of his work provided by Ibn Hisham (d. 834). Other Muslim sources for Muhammad include: Ma’mar ibn Rashid (d. 770), Sayf ibn ‘Umar (d. 796), al-Waqidi (d. 823), al-Baladhuri (d. 829), Ibn Sa’d (d. 843), and al-Tabari (d. 923). Finally, Muhammad’s sayings were first written down by Al-Bukahri (d. 870) roughly two centuries post the Prophet’s life.

Taking these materials together, historians are dealing with source materials, biographical and other, well over a century removed from the Prophet’s life, and in many cases two to three centuries removed. It therefore took 200 years of oral tradition before Muslim authors took to penning accounts of Muhammad, and it is this information that has been used to construct the traditional narrative. This certainly raises questions on reliability, especially concerning the possibility of the distortion of memory that might have taken place as these stories were in circulation over the centuries. One might wonder why it took so long for these accounts to be composed in light of the fact that to these Muslim writers Muhammad was the greatest prophet in the history of humankind and the revealer of God’s truth.

Geographical Challenges to the Classical Narrative

The Qur’an is home to 65 geographical references, and according to which the Prophet has contact with three tribes: ‘Ad’ (23 times), Thamud (24 times), and Midian/Midianites (7 times) (5). However, these tribes are located in northern Arabia, over 960 kilometers (600 miles) north of Mecca. The concern this raises is that it would not have been possible for the Prophet to have had contact with these tribes on so many occasions given their great distance from each other, unless, of course, they lived close to one another. But if this was the case then the Islamic sources are inaccurate for they place Muhammad in Mecca, the wrong location. If so, then the Qur’an itself provides strong impetus for re-evaluating what we know about Islamic history.

The Challenge of Meccan Topography to the Classical Narrative

Mecca is certainly an important city to Islam. The Qur’an refers to the city as the “mother of all settlements” (6:92, 42:5), and it is also the place where Abraham and Ishmael built the Kaaba at the center of Islam’s most important mosque (2:127, 22:26). It is also, according to Islamic tradition, the location where Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden by God. In the Qur’an (7:24), the Garden of Eden was not on Earth, and according to tradition, it was Mecca where Allah threw Adam and Eve down to, thus suggesting it to be the first place where human beings existed. Mecca is also where, according to the classical account, Muhammad was born, and the city he would later return to conquer in 630 CE. Mecca also became the center for the qibla in 624 (2:145-149). One further learns from Islamic sources that Mecca is located in a valley (Ibn Ishaq; al-Bukhari 2:645, 2:685, 2:815, 2:820, 3:891, 4:227), with a stream (al-Bukhari 2:685), fields (al-Bukhari 9:337), has trees, grass, fruit, and loam (Sahih al-Tirmidhi 1535; al-Bukhari 4:281, 9:337; al-Tabari VI 1079, p. 6), olive trees (Qur’an 16:11, 24:35, 69:103), and grapes (al-Bukhari 2:685 4:281). However, if one were to take these sources at face value then it seems that these details do not correspond with knowledge of Mecca: the city has no valley, no stream runs through it, no grass grows there, no cultivable land exists near it, and olive trees do not grow in Arabia, but do in the Mediterranean world, over 600 miles north of Mecca (6).

The Challenge of No Early Maps Mentioning Mecca

There appears to be no reference to the city of Mecca until 741 CE, as discovered by Patricia Crone on a document called the Byzantine-Arab Chronicle (or Continuatio Byzantia Arabica), roughly 110 years after the Prophet’s life. This is concerning for the traditional story given the prominence the city is said to have had in the area, but no trade route map covering Arabian trade routes ever mentions it (7). This includes omissions on a 6th-century map, as well as several 7th-century maps including a Byzantine and an Arabian one. However, one would expect these maps to mention the city given its reputation within later Islamic sources that claim it to be a prominent caravan trade route (see Sahih Muslim 19:4330, Sunan Abu Dawood 14:2672, Ibn Ishaq Sirat Rasul Allah, p. 95, etc.). Although it would be unreasonable to expect these trade maps to mention every settlement in the area there does seem to have been a good reason to have mentioned Mecca. But the first map to mention the city is in 900 CE, well after the early 7th-century when the Prophet died. Crone finds this problematic because we are left without a context to Muhammad’s life,

“Not a single source outside Arabia mentions Mecca before the conquests, and not one displays any sign of recognition or tells us what was known about it when it appears in the sources thereafter. That there was a place called Mecca where Mecca is today may well be true; that it had a pagan sanctuary is perfectly plausible (Arabia was full of sanctuaries), and it could well have belonged to a tribe called the Quraysh. But we know nothing about the place with anything approaching reasonable certainty. In sum, we have no context for the prophet and his message. The suspicion that the location is doctrinally inspired is reinforced by the fact that the Qur’an describes the polytheist opponents as agriculturalists who cultivated wheat, grapes, olives, and date palms. Wheat, grapes and olives are the three staples of the Mediterranean; date palms take us southwards, but Mecca was not suitable for any kind of agriculture, and one could not possibly have produced olives there” (8).

These omissions certainly raise questions. For instance, what is one to then make of Islamic sources mentioning Muhammad to have been married to Khadija who was said to be to a manager of caravans of camels? Or of the prophet’s uncle who is said to have regularly sent caravans on trading missions? What about the stories of Muhammad raiding Meccan caravans? Crone wonders why Mecca would ever have been a likely trading station in the first place,

“Mecca was a barren place, and barren places do not make natural halts, and least of all when they are found at a short distance from famously green environments. Why should caravans have made a steep descent to the barren lands of Mecca when they could have stopped at T’if? Mecca did, of course, have both a well and a sanctuary, but so did T’if, which had food supplies, too. What commodity was available in Arabia that could be transported such a distance, through such an inhospitable environment, and still be sold at a profit large enough to support the growth of a city in a peripheral site bereft of natural resources” (9).

The Challenge of the Qibla Direction to the Classical Narrative

A qibla is an architectural feature in mosques with the purpose of providing a clear indication to Muslims of the direction of Mecca for when they pray. According to the traditional narrative, Muslims first prayed facing Jerusalem before this was changed by Muhammad in the direction of Mecca. According to Dan Gibson, the author of Quranic Geography (2011) and Early Islamic Qiblas (2017), the traditional narrative of Islamic origins does not accord with the archaeological evidence, which was a conclusion he arrived at after visiting mosques to examine their archaeological features as well as through satellite imagery analysis and cataloging. The only evidence that Muslims ever actually prayed facing Jerusalem and then changed to face Mecca comes from source materials (see al Bakhari book 6, vol. 60, hadith 18) centuries removed from the Prophet’s time of death (632 CE). There is indeed a mention of this change in the Qur’an (2:136-144) but the Qur’an does not provide any of the details found in these late sources. Consider the relevant text from sura 2,

“The foolish among the people will say, “What has turned them away from their qiblah, which they used to face?” Say, “To Allah belongs the east and the west. He guides whom He wills to a straight path. And thus we have made you a just community that you will be witnesses over the people and the Messenger will be a witness over you. And We did not make the qiblah which you used to face except that We might make evident who would follow the Messenger from who would turn back on his heels. And indeed, it is difficult except for those whom Allah has guided. And never would Allah have caused you to lose your faith. Indeed Allah is, to the people, Kind and Merciful. We have certainly seen the turning of your face, [O Muhammad], toward the heaven, and We will surely turn you to a qiblah with which you will be pleased. So turn your face toward al-Masjid al-Haram. And wherever you [believers] are, turn your faces toward it [in prayer]. Indeed, those who have been given the Scripture well know that it is the truth from their Lord. And Allah is not unaware of what they do.” (emphasis added)

According to sura 2 the location mentioned is al-Masjid al-Haram, the new place to which Muslims are instructed to face when they pray. But this name does not provide readers with any information. Gibson explains,

“We can discover the word qibla in sura chapter 2, and it’s very plain that the qibla direction was changed from its original direction to Masjid al-Haram. That’s all it tells us. It does not mention the Kaaba, the Kaaba is not mentioned there. The black rock is not mentioned there, it simply is to turn your face now to a qibla that God has given to them. This is a good qibla, this is something you’ll be happy with. Turn towards Masjid al-Haram, and so that is all the instruction we are given” (10).

Gibson explains that in the first 100 years of Islamic history not a single mosque faced towards Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In fact, a number of the early mosques for which there is archaeological evidence, Gibson found them to face towards the city of Petra. The two earliest mosques, The Quba Mosque and The Mosque of the Prophet, which both date to 622 CE, have changed to the extent that it is not possible to examine their original foundations so as to determine the direction of their qiblas. However, the earliest mosque to show evidence of a direction is the Masjid al-Qiblatain (Mosque of the Two Qiblas) dating to 626 CE. But Gibson found the foundation stones of the mosque faced north towards both Petra and Jerusalem which are in almost exactly the same direction. Numerous other early mosques face a similar direction: The earliest surviving mosque in China, The Great Mosque of Guangzhou (627 AD), faces Petra. The Mosque of ’Amr ibn al-’A (constructed 641 CE), despite its original form undergoing numerous restorations, has its qibla pointing too far north and had to be corrected later under the governorship of Qurra ibn Sharik. The Umayyad Palace (located in Jordan, constructed 700 CE) is oriented northeast, which is in the direction of neither Mecca nor Jerusalem, but in the direction of Petra. At a later stage, a smaller outside mosque was built with a qibla pointing closer to Mecca. The Great Mosque of Ba’albek’s (located in Lebanon, constructed in 700 CE) original foundations are facing closer to Petra than to Mecca. At no point, up until the year 727 CE, was a mosque’s qibla ever facing toward Mecca. The first to face Mecca’s direction was located in Bhanbhore in modern-day Pakistan (727 CE), which was then followed by Amman Palace (730 CE), Qasir Bayir (743 CE), Mosque of Mansur (762 CE), and Qasr Ukhaydir (764 CE). According to Gibson,

“What we do have is over twenty structures out of about another twenty more that have been destroyed from the first one hundred years of Islam. That’s a lot of buildings that have survived from that time to now and all of those qibla seem to point to the city of Petra” (11).

What are the implications of this information?

If the theories and claims of the revisionists, such as Patricia Crone, Dan Gibson, Tom Holland, and others are true then it casts doubt upon the major Islamic sources, written a few centuries post the Prophet’s life, historians have traditionally used to construct early Islamic history and that informs the traditional narrative outlined above. It would suggest several points. First, it would mean that these sources have placed the Prophet within the incorrect geographical location: instead of Mecca, he’s meant to be somewhere far up north, possibly in Petra. If so, these sources are further brought into question because they are full of supposed stories and details mentioning the Prophet’s companions, wives, enemies, his raids, major events in his life such as his exodus to Medina and his later conquer of Mecca where he is believed to have destroyed the pagan idols and made Islam the religion of Arabia. If the revisionists’ claims are historically authentic then it is possible that Mecca did not even exist until a much later date post the Prophet’s life. Then how could Muhammad have been born in a non-existent city where he grew up, or have worked on the caravans there when he was young? This would certainly raise other poignant questions concerning the Prophet himself. For example, is the Prophet and his life story little more than a legend or based upon theological grounds as opposed to history? Is the Prophet even accessible through the historical record or lost to the dark depths of history itself? If pushed to its furthest extents it would seem that revisionist theories would suggest that it is nearly impossible to be historically certain about anything concerning the Prophet himself, which would certainly have ramifications for the Islamic religion.

References

1. Crone, Patricia. 2010. Among the Believers. Available.

2. Holland, Tom. 2012. In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire. New York: Doubleday; also see Holland’s documentary Islam: The Untold Story.

3. Gibson, Dan. 2017. Early Islamic Qiblas: A Survey of Mosques Built Between 1AH/622 C.E. and 263 AH/876 C.E. Canada: Independent Scholars Press.

4. Bennett, Clinton. 1998. In Search of Muhammad. London: A&C Black. p. 17.

5. FOCLOnline. 2016. Examining the Newest Historical Research on Islam and the Earliest Quranic Manuscripts – Jay Smith. Available.

6. Townsend, Peter. 2018. The Mecca Mystery: Probing the Black Hole at the Heart of Muslim History. Peter Townsend Publications. p. 110-113.

7. Gibson, Dan. 2018. A&I 6 Mecca on Ancient Maps. Available.

8. Crone, Patricia. 2008. What do we actually know about Mohammed? Available.

9. Crone, Patricia. 1987. Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. Piscataway: Gorgias Press. p. 6-7.

10. Gibson, Dan. 2019. Qibla Story #1. Available.

11. Gibson, Dan. 2019. Ibid.

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