The Emergence of Islam

No Prophet Named Muhammad?

"To shed light on the dark beginnings of Islam" is the call of Karl-Heinz Ohlig, editor of the volume "Early Islam". Its authors claim to be able to trace the actual emergence of Islam through recourse to "contemporary sources". Daniel Birnstiel has read the book


New Revisionism: Karl-Heinz Ohlig and his authors argue that in early Islam, <i>muhammad</i> was actually referring to Jesus, and that early Islam was but a variant of Christianity

​​Following Luxenberg's "Die Syro-aramäische Lesart" ("The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Qur'an – A Contribution to the Decoding of the Qur'an") and the anthology "Die dunklen Anfänge" ("The Dark Beginnings"), likewise edited by Karl-Heinz Ohlig, "Der frühe Islam" ("Early Islam") is the third book in a short period of time which seeks to revise the prevalent views on the emergence of Islam.

Its authors advance the view that Islam began as a Christian heresy, having developed in Eastern Iran among Christians who had originally been deported from Mesopotamia (mainly Hatra).

After the downfall of the Sassanian Empire in 622 CE, these Christians are supposed to have assumed power and transplanted their Christology to Damascus and Jerusalem, where, towards the end of the 7th century, texts that had been brought from Iran by the ruler Abd al-Malik were translated from Syrian into a Syro-Aramaic-Arabic hybrid language.

Muhammad, "title of the Messiah Jesus"?

This "proto-Qur'an" was then supposedly enlarged during the course of the 8th, and perhaps also the earlier 9th century. Ohlig et al. allege that "Muhammad" was not a name, but rather a "title of the Messiah Jesus". Thus the development towards an independent religion (reportedly) only took place during the 8th/9th century, during the course of which development this title was reinterpreted as the name of the Arabian Prophet.

Likewise, early Islamic history as found in the traditional Islamic literature of the 9th century is, in the eyes of the authors, only a reinterpretation, while many of the early caliphs are said to be a late invention, since they are not attested in inscriptions.

This "historical-critical reconstruction" appears in some respects like a repetition of John Wansbrough's late dating of the Qur'an to the early 9th century, and it recalls the theses of Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, according to which Islam did not originate in the Arabian Peninsula, but in Palestine.

The consensus of Islamic Studies, however, views things differently: the traditional Islamic report is considered largely historically authentic, while the historical existence of Muhammad, who is reported to have been born around 570 CE and to have appeared as prophet after receiving the call from God, is accepted.

Following rejection and persecution by his tribe, the Quraish, Muhammad is then reported to have emigrated to Medina in 622 CE, where he founded the first Islamic polity.

The first redaction of the Qur'an


The "proto-Qur'an" – a Christian book in Syro-Aramaic? Nonsense, says Daniel Birnstiel

​​The fact that Muhammad, from there and within 10 years, conquered not only Mecca, but most of the Arabian Peninsula, is as much beyond dispute in Islamic Studies as the existence of the first caliphs, under whose leadership the Fertile Crescent, North Africa and Iran were conquered. It is similarly undisputed that the final redaction of the Qur'an as collection of the revelations received by Muhammad was undertaken during the reign of the 3rd Caliph, Uthman.

Some of the main theses brought forward in "Der frühe Islam" are presented below.

Both Volker Popp and Karl-Heinz Ohlig hypothesize that Arabia was located originally in Mesopotamia, while the terms "Arabs" and "Arabic/Arabian" originally referred to Arameans. It was only later that these terms were adopted by tribes originating from the Arabian Peninsula and reassigned to denote Arabs and Arabia in the present day sense.

However, this thesis omits important facts. The names of individuals and deities in Arabic, as we define it today, clearly document not only the existence of an Arabic speaking population in Hatra in the 2nd/3rd century CE, but also the presence of Arab tribes – in the present-day sense –from the 9th century BCE onwards among the nomads of the Syrian desert labelled as Aribi, Arabaya, and the like by the Assyrians.

This term was also used for nomads living in Iran, who were most probably not even Semites. Thus one must assume that this term denoted nomads without any identification of the ethnic or linguistic origin.

First and foremost, however, the same Semitic root was already used in Old South Arabian in the 2nd century BCE for the designation of nomadic tribes from the Peninsula. Thus, the term "Arabs" cannot have been transferred in the course of the 7th or 8th century CE to the Arabs (as understood today).

Arguments on shaky ground

Another argument in support of Popp's notion of a Christian, chiliastic movement in Merv stands on similarly shaky ground: The Pahlavi legend "APD'LMLIK-i-MRWânân" (Popp's rendering) which appears on coins minted there and which has been read as Abd al-Malik Bin Marwân (Abd al-Malik, the son of Marwân), is taken to mean "Abd al-Malik from the people of Merv".

Popp takes this as proof that Merv was a centre of a type of a "traditional" Christianity that had been moved from Mesopotamia.

However, the reading of "i-MRWânân" as "from the people of Merv" is impossible, since the Middle Persian suffix -ân is not used for the derivation of words denoting origin. On the other hand, the reading "Son of Marân" is not only possible, but, moreover, actually represents the only way to render this meaning in Pahlavi.

Furthermore, one needs to ask why someone would wish to stress his origin in his home town of all places, and how a Christian "heresy" should have been able to exist there undetected, given the fact that Merv was already a bishop's see in the 4th century CE and later became an archbishopric of the Apostolic Church of the East (commonly – and mistakenly – referred to as the Nestorians).

Zoroastrian concepts in Qur'an and Islam?

Also dubious is the means by which Popp arrives at his conviction that the title "amîr al-mûminîn" does not mean "commander of the faithful", but rather "commander of the security officers", which he regards as some kind of reeve.

The corresponding Middle Persian on the Arabo-Sassanian coins is "AMÎR-i-Wurroyishnikân" (Popp's rendering). However, "wurroyishnikân" can only mean "the faithful" and derives from "wurroyishn", i.e. "faith".

This is a term that appears in Zoroastrian religious texts. Elsewhere, however, Popp claims, particularly in his contribution "Der Einfluss persischer religiöser Raster auf Vorstellungen im Qur'an" ("The Influence of Persian religious patterns on concepts in the Qur'an"), to detect a number of Zoroastrian concepts in Qur'an and Islam.

"The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Qur'an"

The author of the book "Die Syro-aramäische Lesart" ("The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Qur'an – A Contribution to the Decoding of the Qur'an"), Christoph Luxenberg, attempts in his article to demonstrate that the diverging orthographies of early Qur'anic manuscripts presuppose an original in Syriac script.

However, the reasons brought forth are hardly convincing. It is highly questionable whether his reading of šay' "thing, something" as ša'n "matter, issue", due to the use of a retroflexively written letter y, which he regards as representing a Syriac n, does in fact make more sense.

It is incomprehensible that "issue" should be semantically more all-encompassing than "thing, something", when the sentence "God has power over every issue" is far less encompassing than the statement "God has power over every thing". It is not for nothing that šay' has developed in many Arabic dialects into an indefinite and interrogative pronoun meaning "something, what, whatever".

Adventurous statements, such as that the intensifying particle la- as well, apparently, as the negation were borrowed from Aramaic – despite being attested in all branches of the Semitic languages – raise serious doubts about Luxenberg's Semitistic and linguistic abilities.

Science as a self-fulfilling prophecy

More than once, one gets the impression that Luxenberg's discoveries are not the result of a re-reading of the Qur'an, but rather that, on the contrary, the text is interpreted in such a way that it will deliver the desired result.

It is especially striking that he makes recourse to Aramaic orthographic traditions of any kind, as if the different Aramaic dialects can simply be interchanged arbitrarily. A "proto-Qur'an" in Syriac script, therefore, cannot in any way be considered a proven fact.

The reading of Markus Gross's contribution gives a similar sense of a selective use of linguistic facts to support a preconceived opinion.

Gross argues that orally transmitted texts in general cannot be reduced to a single urtext; the textual variants of the Qur'an, however, supposedly go back to alternative (mis-) readings of a single, underlying, authoritative text skeleton (rasm).

Although the number of variants going back to alternative vocalisations or consonant readings of the same skeleton is indeed large, there are nevertheless – and he does not mention this – many variants that presuppose a different rasm.

Furthermore, Gross claims that it is objectively impossible to derive a true, aesthetic pleasure from the Qur'anic text; yet more recent works of literary criticism that have exposed the compositional strategies and the different stylistic devices in the Qur'an (such as Neal Robinson's "Discovering the Qur'an") were not consulted.

Strange reasoning

His thesis that early Qur'anic orthography constitutes some kind of cryptographic script, due to its lack of precision, appears rather strange, considering the fact that pre-Islamic inscriptions are equally imprecise despite their rather profane content.

Also the main thesis, repeatedly argued in this volume, that muhammad is not a name, but a Christologial title, is ultimately baseless.

Popp regards it as a loan word from Ugaritic with the meaning "the chosen one, the elected one". As evidence for this he uses a textbook translation of Ugaritic m.h.m.d as "the best, choicest", which, of course, has nothing at all to do with "being chosen, being elected".

Ohlig, on the other hand, suggests that a Syriac word mahmed "the praised one" –which came to be read and pronounced as mehmad in Arabic – is as alternative source for the word muhammad. As a matter of fact, however, there is no evidence at all for the root hmd in Syriac. Ohlig's Syriac word turns out to be non-existant.

Although the correct meaning of this root in Northwest Semitic, namely "to desire", is mentioned by Gross, he nevertheless wrongly declares the root to be extant in Syriac, to which he adds a misconstructed participle form. His argument that Hebrew mahmād, "object of desire", is borrowed from Ugaritic has no basis.

It is only in South Semitic, namely in Arabic and South Arabic, that we find the root hmd with the meaning "to praise, to laud". In these languages, this root is also used for the derivation of proper names; a name m.h.m.d is attested in Safaitic and Sabaic inscriptions in pre-Islamic times.

A less than proof positive reading

image: Hans Schiler Verlag
Cover "Der Frühe Islam" ("Early Islam")

​​Muhammad also appears unambiguously as a proper name on Arabo-Sassanian coins minted in 686 and 701 CE, in other words contemporaneously with the inscription from the Dome of the Rock, in the re-reading of which Luxenberg claims elsewhere to have found the proof for the Christological title.

However, neither here nor anywhere else is Jesus identified by name with muhammad or even mentioned in the same sentence. Luxenberg's reading is anything but proof positive.

On the other hand, the Muslim credo appears in bilingual papyri in Greek. In these papyri a person named mamet is referred to as apostolos theou, i.e. Messenger of God. It is therefore rather difficult to interpret it as something other than a proper name.

The reviewed work does therefore not comply with the call "to shed light on the dark beginnings of Islam".

The authors' fully justified criticism that the sources, especially contemporary Christian ones, have hitherto been (mis-) read in accordance with the Islamic tradition proves to be a farce in the face of their equally biased use of these sources to accord with their own theories.

In the meantime, the "chosen" or "praised" muhammad-Jesus remains a far-fetched object of revisionist "desire".

Daniel Birnstiel

© Qantara.de 2007

Karl-Heinz Ohlig (Hg.): Der frühe Islam. Verlag Hans Schiler, Berlin 2007. (only available in German)

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Comments for this article: No Prophet Named Muhammad?

Having read the English translation of this volume, and having researched it on the Internet, I felt compelled to respond to Mr. Birnstiel's review. I was not, overall, convinced by Early Islam's thesis. Yet the authors made many good and interesting points. I do not think any objective reader can come away, having read both the traditional and revisionist accounts of Islam's emergence, with the belief that either has any good sense of what actually happened during "Early Islam." Those who, like the authors of Early Islam and like Birnstiel himself, claim otherwise and invoke an air of certainty are simply misleading you. Almost nothing at all is certain about Islam's emergence. It is a fabulously complicated mystery. I am sorry if certain individual's scholarly careers are premised on a different and more dogmatic view. But that's the truth.

At any rate, setting aside the somewhat mediocre merits of "Early Islam," I found Birnstiel's review of the book to be consistently inaccurate and unfair.

The problems are apparent at the outset. To start out his review, Mr. Birnstiel makes a list of allegedly undisputed conventions of Islamic Studies, and asks us to accept them, thereby casting Early Islam as an outsider to supposed informed scholarly consensus. For example, "It is similarly undisputed that the final redaction of the Qur'an as collection of the revelations received by Muhammad was undertaken during the reign of the 3rd Caliph, Uthman."

Nonsense. That claim is categorically false. One might refer the interested reader to Gabriel Said Reynold's fine recent volume "The Emergence of Islam," a general introduction to the field, which summarizes both the traditional narrative of the Qur'an's compilation that Birnstiel slavishly recounts and the problems that modern scholars have found with the alleged "Uthmanic" source and nature of that compilation; that scholars CALL the text Uthmanic by convention does not mean they AGREE with traditional Islamic pieties regarding its compilation. Moreover, even if one believed that Uthman compiled the Qur'an (setting aside that the earliest version of Qur'anic texts found so far, the Sanaa lower palimpsest, is decidedly NON-uthmanic), Birnstiel's recount gives one the false impression that it was thus fixed in final form, ignoring the defective nature of the scriptio defectiva used in those earliest manuscripts -- and how it gave rise to the very problems and issues that Luxenberg et al are centrally concerned with in Early Islam. Birnstiel does the interested reader such a disservice, in his dogmatic pronouncements about what scholars "know" regarding early Islamic history, that he effectively highlights the grievances that the authors of Early Islam make about the uncritical and mindless obeisance of much of Western Islamic scholarship.

This scholarly debate does not, again, mean that the Qur'an was NOT compiled as the traditional account alleges, but rather that there are numerous scholars who disagree, and the idea that any side of the debate is 'certain' is something you would expect from a salesman, not a scholar. Scholars should not make such misleading claims to the public.

Without going through a point-by-point refutation of the entire review, Birnstiel simply does not fairly or properly address the contributions in "Early Islam." He could have; they have weaknesses. But he doesn't. For example, he criticizes Gross's attack on the aesthetics of the Qur'an for failing to take into account one particular recent article. How is that any response? There are thousands of sources on the aesthetics of the Qur'an. It is an ancient subject. If Gross had made some sort of misstep, point it out, but don't vaguely allude to some non-described article and suggest that, in some unstated way, it somehow rebuts his point. That's the move you make when you have no argument, and want to be unfair.

Finally, I would note that Birnstiel's current position as a post-doctorate (looked up online, since this review does not disclose it) at a decidedly "soft and politically correct" institute of Islamic Studies should be considered when assessing his views. That bias does not mean his commentary is wrong, of course, but one should take his partisan advocacy with a spoonful of critical care, just as one should read "Early Islam" with the same; the field is irrevocably pervaded with bias, which does not mean we shouldn't listen to everyone, but rather that we should be careful.

Michael Rover12.01.2014 | 06:59 Uhr