Since Robert Spencer is a toxic political operative, let me begin by saying that I don't support his agendas, and know very well why he *really* wrote this book. (Clue: Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch, a program of the David Horowitz Freedom Center.)
That being said, "Did Muhammad Exist" is, admittedly, a good introduction to the revisionist view of Muslim origins and early Muslim history. For rather obvious reasons, it doesn't "solve" the issue, but it could be read with some profit by those who simply want a quick overview of it.
Virtually everyone regards Muhammad as a real historical character. The canonical Muslim stories about him certainly seem to have a historical kernel. They portray Muhammad as a persecuted preacher of monotheism in a hostile pagan environment, who after a series of armed confrontations with his adversaries at Mecca and Medina became a political ruler in the period immediately before the Arab conquests of Persia, Syria and Egypt. There is a certain compelling historical logic to this picture. Somebody must have invented Islam and united the Arabs before their successful military-political exploits. The Muslim sources also talk about factional struggles within Muhammad's community after his death, including a budding Sunni-Shia split. This, too, sounds logical. Thus, very few people have questioned the veracity of the Muslim narratives. There doesn't seem to be any particular need to do so. Stripped from their miraculous elements, such as Muhammad's meeting with Gabriel, the stories about his life and times sound like a straightforward historical chronicle.
Of course, the revisionists beg to differ. They point out that the first real biography of Muhammad wasn't composed until 125 years after his death, and is known only from an even later work which quotes it profusely. No contemporary sources mention Muhammad. The earliest Christian accounts of the Arab conquest don't mention Islam, the Koran or Muhammad. They refer to the Arabs as pagans, Ishmaelites, Saracens, Muhajirun or Hagarians, but never call them Muslims. Only the term "Muhajirun" sounds Muslim. (It refers to Muhammad's earliest companions who left Mecca for Medina together with the Prophet. Some of them became caliphs after Muhammad's death, and led the Arab conquests. At least according to the standard, non-revisionist view.) One revisionist, Patricia Crone, even claims that Mecca wasn't a centre of trade and pilgrimage during Muhammad's time. The town was actually a small backwater, yet the story of Muhammad's life claims that he was persecuted by the rich and powerful clans in Mecca due to his criticism of their wealth and pagan practices.
The revisionists also point out that Arab coins and inscriptions don't mention Islam or the Koran during the first six decades of the Arab conquests. The earliest Umayyad caliphs minted coins showing crosses. One coin shows a figure named "Muhammad" wearing a cross! When the caliph Muawiyah demanded the conversion of the Byzantine emperor Constantine the Bearded to the new religion, he didn't mention Islam, the Koran or Muhammad. He simply talked about the God of Abraham.
Finally, the revisionist school also takes apart the Koran itself. It's well known that the Koran is written in a very strange, cryptic and elliptic language, quite unlike any known Arab dialect. (Some modern translations have attempted to mimic this peculiar style, making them extremely difficult to understand.) To Muslims, the strangeness of the Koranic language is simply another proof of its divine origins. However, other interpretations are possible. Apparently, the text of the Koran originally lacked diacritical marks. Since many Arabic letters are identical without them, this would have made the Koran almost impossible to understand, except to a tiny handful of initiates. The scholar Christoph Luxenberg believes that the Koran becomes more understandable if quite different diacritical marks are added to the Arabic letters. Sensationally, Luxenberg claims that parts of the Koran sound like a Syriac-Aramaic Christian lectionary! If true, this would mean that Islam was originally a Christian heresy, a claim also made by some early Christian polemicists, who claimed that Muhammad had been instructed by an Arian monk.
Spencer believes that Islam as we know it today was pretty much invented by the caliph Abd al-Malik and his governor Hajjaj ibn Yusuf during the 690's (about sixty years after Muhammad's death in 632) to serve as the state religion of the rapidly expanding Arab empire. Simultaneously, the Arab language was introduced in place of Aramaic, the earlier lingua franca of the Umayyad caliphate (which was based in Damascus). Even Muslim sources claim that Hajjaj ibn Yusuf collected all extant copies of the Koran, standardized the text and then burned all deviant copies. (A similar procedure is also attributed to the earlier caliph Uthman.) Clearly, something was going on. When the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown by the Abbasids in 750, a new period of orthodox invention began, with the publication of the first biography of Muhammad and voluminous collections of hadiths (stories about the Prophet's words and deeds). To Spencer, this too was a political manoeuvre, to portray the Abbasids as pious and the overthrown Umayyads as heretics.
And no, I haven't checked any of the claims of "Did Muhammad exist". Yet!
One problem with the book is that Spencer can't make up his mind about what actually happened before Abd al-Malik's supposed invention of Islam. Sometimes, he suggests that early Islam was really a form of Arian Christianity originally based in Syria. At other times, he claims that the Arab conquerors were outright pagans. A third option is that they were a kind of monotheists in general, and had been so for a considerable time before the invasions began. Perhaps it's uncharitable to accuse a short, popularized overview of containing too many loose ends, but "Did Muhammad exist" *does* contain too many of those...
Personally, I veer towards the traditional scenario. The Umayyads saw Islam as an exclusive, elitist religion for the Arab conquerors. Instead of converting the Christians, they simply superimposed their own rule on top of remaining Byzantine structures. Many people at Muawiyah's court in Damascus were Christians, so the usage of the Aramaic language rather than Arabic would have been natural. The crosses at "Muslim" coins were probably a form of clever statecraft, since most Umayyad subjects were still Christians. In a similar manner, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (who was a Christian) originally appeased the pagans by promoting the sun cult alongside Christianity. A more trivial possibility is that the Arab rulers simply reused Byzantine coins! To us, who are used to fanatical Wahhabis, this sounds unbelievable, but it's neither more nor less strange than, say, Peter and Paul worshipping in the Temple at Jerusalem, something later generations of Gentile Christians may have found pretty weird indeed. That the early Umayyads had different religious sensibilities than later Umayyads, Abbasids or Wahhabis doesn't necessarily disprove that they were Muslims. As for Christian writers not mentioning Islam, perhaps they simply weren't interested in the details of the religion of their conquerors. Besides, the Christian accounts of the alien creed certainly sound compatible with Islam: they mention the Muhajirun, a prophet with a sword, polygamy, the important role played by Hagar and Ishmael, etc. What's the problem, really?
Spencer implies that Aisha, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali were fictitious personages, just like Muhammad, but what on earth would be the point of inventing them? Who would invent Aisha, who came close to being a female ruler in an intensely patriarchal culture? Muawiyah became caliph immediately after Ali, yet Spencer seems to be suggesting that Ali was an invented figure. Nobody denies that Muawiyah existed. Is it really likely that the dividing line between fiction and historical fact is this neat?
That being said, I don't doubt that Islam has changed its character several times during its history. All religions do, and there is no reason to believe that Islam was any different. As already mentioned, Muslim tradition says that Uthman burned alternative versions of the Koran. This would have been only a few decades after Muhammad's death. Apparently, a similar feat is attributed to Hajjaj ibn Yusuf at a somewhat later point. This suggests that Islam split in different groups early on, much like Christianity, Mormonism, Theosophy or any other religious group we're familiar with. Burning the works of "heretics" is standard practice, when the "heretics" themselves aren't available. Christians did the same thing.
Indeed, even the Koran itself suggests early changes in Muslim beliefs and practices. Originally, Muhammad and his supporters prayed facing Jerusalem, kept the Sabbath and wore Jewish dress! Later, they began to face Mecca, had their main prayers on Fridays, and changed their manner of dress. Interestingly, Muhammad wanted the Jews to accept him as a prophet in the Old Testament tradition, but rejected their legacy after violent conflicts with Jewish tribes in Medina. This suggests that Islam was originally a Jewish or Judaizing sect, which adopted a more distinctive Arabic style only after Muhammad's elevation to Arab "national" ruler.
Another strange anomaly in Islam is the role of Jesus. According to Muslim tradition, Jesus was born of a virgin, worked miracles and ascended to Heaven á la Elijah and Enoch. On Judgment Day, Jesus will return and set up a kind of millennial kingdom in Jerusalem. Read more ›