Did the Prophet Muhammad Exist?

Several critics of Islam, including a fringe minority of scholars, argue that Muhammad did not exist as a historical person (1). This article will oppose this view and make the case that Muhammad certainly existed historically.

The Problematic Nature of the Sources

Since we are dealing with source materials to learn about the historical person of Muhammad, we should acknowledge the problematic nature of the sources. We can concede that the early non-Muslim source material, which we will produce below, provide very little data on the Prophet when compared to the later Muslim legends that form the traditional, classical account of Muhammad’s life. We will nonetheless argue that these are sufficient for affirming the minimal fact that Muhammad existed as a historical person.

Second, we can admit that the Muslim sources (the hadith and biographies) for the Prophet Muhammad are far from ideal. These sources are late and legendary. They are far removed, by at least 150 years, of the Prophet’s life. The Qur’an, which was composed at a much closer time to Muhammad, is devoid of biographical information on the Prophet, except for a few suras. In this article, we will still argue that at least some of the traditions found in the Islamic tradition are likely true of Muhammad.

Early non-Muslim Sources

Previously we have surveyed early seventh-century non-Muslim sources mentioning Muhammad and his movement. This is valuable information to use to make the case for Muhammad’s historical existence. These sources are early dating within a handful of years of Muhammad’s traditional date of death in 632 CE. Presented here is a summary of this material.

Our earliest source for Muhammad, which is a record of the Arab conquest of Syria composed by an eyewitness, dates to 637 CE (2). For ancient history, a mere five years after the mentioned event or figure’s time of activity is a source as valuable as gold. This source affirms the existence of Muhammad (referring to him as Mūḥmd), a war leader who wreaked havoc in the region.

An account provided by Thomas the Presbyter dating to 640 CE speaks of a battle between the Romans and the Arabs of Muhammad in Palestine twelve miles east of Gaza. This battle is thought to be the Battle of Dathin, which took place in 634 CE, waged between the Rashidun Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire. This is a valuable source for the historical Muhammad. According to scholar Robert Hoyland, this is an early reference and its dating “inspires confidence that it ultimately derives from first-hand knowledge” (3).

Bishop Sebeos is arguably our most valuable source because of the amount of information he provides on the Prophet. Sebeos refers in detail that Muhammad was a merchant during his youth and that he affirmed monotheism. He attempted to convince his fellow Arabs of this belief and to denounce polytheism. Muhammad also led a force that plundered, enslaved, and pillaged. Sebeos says that Muhammad was a preacher who wanted others to recognize the God of Abraham and also refers to some of the legislation Muhammad set down such as “for them not to eat carrion (v.3), not to drink wine (ii.219, v.90), not to speak falsely (xxxix.3, xvi.116, xxxiii.24 etc.), and not to commit fornication (xvii.32, xxiv.2).” The laws are paralleled in the Qur’an (cf. 5:90, 5:3; 24:2) and suggest the accuracy of this report.

The Khuzistan Chronicle, dating no later than forty or so years of the Prophet’s life, in referring to Arabian geography and the reign of Yazdgird, references successful Muslim invasions under the leadership of Muhammad.

The Maronite Chronicle speaks of a king, Mu’awiya (of the Umayyad Empire), intra-Muslim conflict, and mentions Muhammad by name.

Mina the bishop of Pshati commemorates the death of Pope Isaac of Alexandria refers to Arab rule and “Muhamamd [who] is the great messenger (al-rasūl al-kabīr) who is God’s”.

Writing in 688 CE, John bar Penkaye authored a work showing an interest in Arab conquests and Christians living under Arab rule. He refers to Muhammad, depicting him as a guide and instructor and how the Arabs “kept to the tradition of Muḥammad.”

What do we learn about the Prophet Muhammad from these seventh-century sources? We learn the following. First, during his youth, Muhammad was a merchant who traveled (Sebeos). He became known as the great messenger (Pope Isaac) who affirmed monotheism (John bar Penkaye), the worship of this God (John bar Penkaye), and attempted to persuade others against polytheism (Sebeos). He taught a doctrine that included others recognizing the God of Abraham (Sebeos). He instituted laws (John bar Penkaye), some of these included prohibiting followers from eating carrion, drinking wine, and speaking falsely (Sebeos). Muhammad was the leader of a community under which others submitted (A Maronite Chronicle). He was known as the leader of Arab warbands (Gabitha) that terrorized Persia, Syria, and the Byzantines (The Khuzistan Chronicle). Muhammad’s followers fought against the Romans (Gabitha), one battle of which occurred in Palestine and resulted in the death of 4000 villagers (Thomas the Presbyter).

The criterion of Embarrassment

Although we noted above that the Muslim sources for the Prophet Muhammad are late, it is still possible to apply historical criteria to them and derive likely historical data. For example, the criterion of embarrassment can be of assistance in sifting out material that likely goes back to the historical Muhammad and that is unlikely to be later fabrication.

What does the criterion of embarrassment affirm? According to this criterion, an event or statement (S) is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S. The criterion argues that the author mentioning S would not, or is very unlikely to, have created a story that would embarrass its figures, particularly its important figures, or create problems for themselves that they otherwise would not need to face. In light of the inclusion of an embarrassing and problematic detail, the author is likely communicating to readers a genuine historical event (S), rather than a fabrication.

This criterion is well-satisfied when it comes to the later Muslim sources for the historical Muhammad. We must remember that Muhammad and his followers were trying to convince others of his prophethood and the authenticity of his revelation. We can agree that this resulted in fabrication in our Muslim sources. But we would also not expect Muslims to invent embarrassing stories about their Prophet, such as making him look demon-possessed or insane. The best explanation is that we have these stories in our Muslim sources because they happened and are historical.

Before looking at instances of this criterion, we need to exercise caution. This is because some things we find embarrassing in our culture today might not have been embarrassing to those in the day of Muhammad fourteen centuries ago. We would not apply this criterion to such events. For example, many modern Muslims are embarrassed by the stories about Muhammad marrying a young girl, Aisha, at the age of six and consummating the marriage at nine. Many peoples’ modern sensibilities are shocked by this, but this was not unusual in Muhammad’s day and the Islamic sources show no signs of embarrassment that this happened. The sources do not attempt to engage in apologetic efforts to explain Muhammad marrying a young girl because of its controversial and awkward nature. So, in this instance, although this story is embarrassing to modern Muslims, we would not include it under the criterion of embarrassment.

But there are stories that Muslim sources do find positively embarrassing and awkward and that these events are mentioned in Muslim sources suggest there was a historical Muhammad. Here is a list of seven:

[1] When Muhammad first received his revelations in the cave, he thought they were demonic. Muhammad would later be convinced of the authenticity of his revelation in the cave by his wife and cousin. It is unlikely that the author/s of this account would invent such a story when they were motivated to present their religion and Prophet in an appealing way to unite people under the banner of Islam.

[2] Muhammad contemplated suicide. He attempted to kill himself by throwing himself off a cliff. According to Sahih Al-Bukhari,

“… after a few days Waraqa died and the Divine Revelation was also paused for a while and the Prophet became so sad as we have heard that he intended several times to throw himself from the tops of high mountains and everytime he went up to the top of a mountain in order to throw himself down, Jibril would appear before him and say, “O Muhammad! You are indeed Allah’s Messenger in truth”, whereupon his heart would become quiet and he would calm down and would return home. And whenever the period of the coming of the Revelation used to become long, he would do as before, but when he used to reach the top of a mountain, Jibril would appear before him and say to him what he had said before” (6982).

Sahih Al-Bukhari explains that Muhammad tried to kill himself because the divine revelations from God paused. Muhammad was also aggrieved because of the death of Waraqa. We further find Muhammad’s attempt to kill himself in Ibn Ishaq’s biography Sirat Rasul Allah and al-Tabari’s commentary. This is an unlikely detail for Muslim writers to later fabricate. Again, if you are intent on inventing from whole cloth a prophet and founder to your important movement, why would you make him appear so emotionally weak and unstable by wanting to kill himself if this is not based in history?

[3] Muhammad is said to have delivered revelation from Satan in what is infamously known as the Satanic Verses. When Muhammad delivered chapter 53 in the Qur’an, he claimed that in addition to Allah there are three goddesses that Muslims can pray to: al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. Muhammad revealed these verses to his followers. He and his followers then bowed down in honor of these goddesses. But Muhammad later says that these verses were not actually from God but Satan. He then replaced these words with what we find in the Qur’an today. It is incredibly unlikely that Muslim writers would invent this story. There is nothing at all good about communicating the Prophet’s inability to tell if revelations were from God or Satan, and possibly bringing into disrepute the entirety of Muhammad’s revelations.

[4] Muhammad was a victim of a spell cast by a Jew using a comb. This caused Mohammad a sense of delirium. According to Sahih Muslim (emphasis added),

“A’isha reported: that a Jew from among the Jews of Banu Zuraiq who was called Labid b. al-A’sam cast a spell upon Allah’s Messenger with the result that he (under the influence of the spell) felt that he had been doing something whereas in fact he had not been doing that. (This state of affairs lasted) until one day or during one night Allah’s Messenger made supplication (to dispel its effects). He again made a supplication and he again did this and said to ‘A’isha: “Do you know that Allah has told me what I had asked Him? There came to me two men and one amongst them sat near my head and the other one near my feet and he who sat near my head said to one who sat near my feet or one who sat near my feet said to one who sat near my head: What is the trouble with the man? He said: The spell has affected him. He said: Who has cast that? He (the other one) said: It was Labid b. A’sam (who has done it). He said: What is the thing by which he transmitted its effect? He said: By the comb and by the hair stuck to the comb and the spathe of the date-palm. He said: Where is that? He replied: In the well of Dhi Arwan.” She said: Allah’s Messenger sent some of the persons from among his Companions there and then said: “‘A’isha, by Allah, its water was yellow like henna and its trees were like heads of the devils.” She said that she asked Allah’s Messenger as to why he did not burn that. He said: “No, Allah has cured me and I do not like that I should induce people to commit any high-handedness in regard (to one another), but I only commanded that it should be buried” (26.5428).

If you were fabricating a Prophet to strengthen your movement, would you make up a detail that he was the victim of a spell using an item like a comb with hair in it? Probably not.

[5] Muhammad marries the wife of his adopted son. Zayd ibn Harithah was a former slave who Muhammad freed and adopted as his son. Zayd also had a beautiful wife called Zaynab bint Jahsh who Muhammad one day saw wearing very little clothing. Muhammad then lusted after her (God had made his “heart turn”, according to Sahih al-Bukhari) and Zayd, learning of this, decided to divorce Zaynab so that the Prophet could have her (Sahih al-Bukhari 9.93.516). Muhammad initially resisted this proposal, since such an act was frowned upon, but Zayd divorced Zaynab anyway and Muhammad married her. This resulted in criticism of the Prophet. But then Allah revealed a new verse in the Qur’an (33:37) saying that Allah condoned the marriage because it was him who gave Zaynab to Muhammad.

Critics point out that this is a revelation of convenience. The revelation in Q33:37 provides divine justification to Muhammad’s behavior for lusting after a beautiful woman he saw her scantily clothed. The Qur’an goes to great length to justify Muhammad’s actions because this is an awkward story, which suggests that is not a narrative fabricated at a later point but likely true. Something like this happened.

[6] The manner of Muhammad’s death strikes one as being based on genuine historical tradition. The Prophet died after being poisoned by a Jewish woman as revenge for his attack on the Jewish settlement of Khaibar (Sahih al-Bukhari 3.47.786). The poisoning produced in the Prophet great pain as expressed in his lamenting that it felt like his “aorta is being cut” (Sahih al-Bukhari 5.59.713). At some point, moreover, he required the help of two people to move around because his legs were dragging on the ground behind him (Sahih al-Bukhari 1.11.634).

This account of the Prophet’s death strikes one as shameful, degrading, and unremarkable. His death involved being poisoned by a Jewish woman that resulted in him needing to be carried around while dragging his legs like a wounded animal. If later Muslim writers were inventing their Prophet from scratch they would likely invent for him a more honorable death. Further, why make the individual responsible for the Prophet’s death a Jewish woman? Why not make it a man in an era in which women had less value than men? Does it put Muhammad in a favorable light to have been outwitted by a woman? Further, why not give Muhammad a more remarkable death? Why not make him die in battle and perhaps give him a dramatic vision of heaven before breathing his last? Or, why not just make him die of old age in a state of maturity and great wisdom? Many more questions can be asked, but it seems that given the shameful and unremarkable nature of Muhammad’s death, this is likely a tradition based on a historical fact.

[7] We find insults thrown at Muhammad that would not be fabricated by later writers. In the Qur’an, for example, Muhammad is often accused of merely repeating legends of old (6:25-27; 8:30-31; 68:15-16; 83:13-17; 16:24-25) when providing revelation. Given the revelation in the Qur’an is of extreme importance to Muslims, we would not expect later writers to invent this.

Taken together, these points make a strong case for the existence of the historical Muhammad. These narratives are most likely true and go back to the Prophet’s life. It is very difficult to accept that later Muslim writers would fabricate and invent such a central figure in their religion who showed traits such as being demon-possessed, contemplating killing himself, thinking a revelation from Satan was sent by God, and being a victim of a spell cast using a comb. There are, moreover, verses in the Qur’an seeking divine justification justifying Muhammad’s lusts and desires, making a mistaken prophecy, and dying in a miserable and unremarkable way.

Some details in the Muslim sources present details about Muhammad lack embellishment. If Muhammad was being invented by later writers, we would not expect these details given the writers would have had the opportunity to make up any stories, including grand ones. Instead, we are told that Muhammad couldn’t perform miracles (Q2:118; the Qur’an being his only miracle) like other great figures or prophets. Only much later are grand miracles ascribed to Muhammad in Muslim sources. In fact, many of these miracles seem to be inspired by miracles performed by Jesus Christ, such as healing an eye with spit (cf. Mark 8:22-26), healing the sick and curing the blind (cf. Mark 7:31-37, 7:33, 8:22-26; Matthew 20:29-34, 12:22, 21:14; Luke 7:22, 18:35-43; John 9:6), the day becoming dark on upon his death (cf. Mark 15:33; Matthew 27:45; Luke 23:44-45), and providing food supernaturally (cf. Mark 6:31-44; Matthew 14:13-21; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14).

Further, Muhammad’s lack of miracles was one of the early criticisms he faced (cf. Qur’an 6:37, 6:109, 10:20, 13:7); after all, if he was God’s true messenger, why couldn’t he work any supernatural or grand deeds? This provided the impetus for later writers to ascribe miracles to Muhammad. But the fact that early Muslim writers provide details on Muhammad that lack embellishment suggests we are dealing with genuine history that goes back to the Prophet himself.

In conclusion, there are several lines of evidence that demonstrate the historical Muhammad really existed. First, he is mentioned in multiple early seventh century and non-Muslim sources that can be pieced together to provide a very general outline of the Prophet’s activities. Second, the criterion of embarrassment can be applied to Muslim sources. This suggests that at least some of the later Muslim sources include information on the Prophet that is more likely to be historical than fabricated. Third, some of the data lack embellishment, such as Muhammad’s rather tame representation of not being able to perform grand miracles when such could have been ascribed to him if later writers invented him out of whole cloth.

References

  1. Higgins, Andrew. 2008. Professor Hired for Outreach to Muslims Delivers a Jolt. Available; Spencer, Robert. 2012. Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins. Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute.; YouTube. 2020. DEBATE: Did the Muhammad of Islam Exist? (David Wood vs. Jay Smith). Available.
  2. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. Darwin Press. p. 196 (Scribd ebook format)
  3. Hoyland, Robert. 1997. ibid. p. 200 (Scribd ebook format)

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