The picture of the life of Muhammad that one gets from Islamic sources is based on some very, very weak reeds from a historical standpoint. (I hope to be writing about this problem and its implications in much greater detail in the future.) But the historical criticism of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures that academics have engaged in for centuries has never been undertaken in an Islamic context, for reasons that should be obvious. The Qur’an is a book never to be doubted, never to be questioned: when one Islamic scholar, Suliman Bashear, taught his students at An-Najah National University in Nablus that the Qur’an and Islam were the products of historical development rather than being delivered in perfect form to Muhammad, his students threw him out of the window of his classroom. Christoph Luxenberg, who has done groundbreaking work in this area, publishes under a pseudonym.
Of course, in this the stakes are very high for Muslims. There is no Liberal Islam or Reform Islam that distills moral precepts out of material that is not considered to be historically true and thus has no literal application. Maybe it could be created, at least by a faction, if it became widely known and accepted that the authoritative story of Muhammad and the Qur’an rests on such weak historical foundations, but we are very, very far from that today.
And that is what makes Muhammad Sven Kalisch all the more remarkable. Saying this could get him fired. It could get him killed. It could, and probably already has, interfered with his personal outlook on life. But this is the result of his researches, and he is sticking to it. Whether he is right or wrong, and there is a great deal to support his view, he is at very least uncompromisingly honest.
How refreshing it is to see an honest man, and that even rarer bird, an honest academic, and that rarity of rarities, an honest professor of Islamic studies.
“Professor Hired for Outreach to Muslims Delivers a Jolt,” by Andrew Higgins for the Wall Street Journal, November 15 (thanks to all who sent this in):
MÃœNSTER, Germany — Muhammad Sven Kalisch, a Muslim convert and Germany’s first professor of Islamic theology, fasts during the Muslim holy month, doesn’t like to shake hands with Muslim women and has spent years studying Islamic scripture. Islam, he says, guides his life.
So it came as something of a surprise when Prof. Kalisch announced the fruit of his theological research. His conclusion: The Prophet Muhammad probably never existed.
Muslims, not surprisingly, are outraged. Even Danish cartoonists who triggered global protests a couple of years ago didn’t portray the Prophet as fictional. German police, worried about a violent backlash, told the professor to move his religious-studies center to more-secure premises.
“We had no idea he would have ideas like this,” says Thomas Bauer, a fellow academic at MÃ¼nster University who sat on a committee that appointed Prof. Kalisch. “I’m a more orthodox Muslim than he is, and I’m not a Muslim.”
That’s nothing, Professor Bauer. There are so many non-Muslim professors like you, they can’t even be counted.
When Prof. Kalisch took up his theology chair four years ago, he was seen as proof that modern Western scholarship and Islamic ways can mingle — and counter the influence of radical preachers in Germany. He was put in charge of a new program at MÃ¼nster, one of Germany’s oldest and most respected universities, to train teachers in state schools to teach Muslim pupils about their faith.
Muslim leaders cheered and joined an advisory board at his Center for Religious Studies. Politicians hailed the appointment as a sign of Germany’s readiness to absorb some three million Muslims into mainstream society. But, says Andreas Pinkwart, a minister responsible for higher education in this north German region, “the results are disappointing.”
No, they’re not. Honesty is not and cannot rightly be disappointing. The truth may be disappointing. The facts may be disappointing. But that is something that everyone will have to deal with in his own way.
Prof. Kalisch, who insists he’s still a Muslim, says he knew he would get in trouble but wanted to subject Islam to the same scrutiny as Christianity and Judaism. German scholars of the 19th century, he notes, were among the first to raise questions about the historical accuracy of the Bible.
Many scholars of Islam question the accuracy of ancient sources on Muhammad’s life. The earliest biography, of which no copies survive, dated from roughly a century after the generally accepted year of his death, 632, and is known only by references to it in much later texts. But only a few scholars have doubted Muhammad’s existence. Most say his life is better documented than that of Jesus.
That is a widespread view, but it is simply not true. The Gospels date from the first Christian century; there are hardly any scholars remaining who date them later than that. But the first biography of Muhammad, that of Ibn Ishaq, dates from 150 years after Muhammad’s death, and even that book is lost and survives only in large fragments reproduced in even later writings.
“Of course Muhammad existed,” says Tilman Nagel, a scholar in GÃ¶ttingen and author of a new book, “Muhammad: Life and Legend.” The Prophet differed from the flawless figure of Islamic tradition, Prof. Nagel says, but “it is quite astonishing to say that thousands and thousands of pages about him were all forged” and there was no such person.
All the same, Prof. Nagel has signed a petition in support of Prof. Kalisch, who has faced blistering criticism from Muslim groups and some secular German academics. “We are in Europe,” Prof. Nagel says. “Education is about thinking, not just learning by heart.”…