The Judeo-Christian Origins of Islam
by Ibn Warraq
As Patricia Crone once put it, “new religions do not spring fully fledged from the heads of prophets, old civilizations are not conjured away.” Islam did not somehow emerge fully developed, as the Islamic traditional accounts would have us believe, but slowly, over a long period of time, as the Arab conquerors came into contact with the far older cultures and civilizations, which pushed the Arabs to question and forge their own religious and cultural identity. Ever since the Nineteenth Century, when Western scholars, especially German, but also Italian, French, Hungarian, and British, began to examine Islam and the Koran in the same manner that they had begun examining the Old and New Testament, the debate has been as to determine whether it was Judaism or Christianity that contributed most to the creation of Islam. As Richard Bell, in his The Origin of Islam in Its Christian Environment [Edinburgh, 1925], expressed it, “That both Judaism and Christianity played a part in forming the doctrine of Islam and in preparing the spiritual soil of Arabia for its reception has long been recognised. How much influence is to be attributed to the one, and how much to the other, is difficult to decide. For much is common to both, and we have to remember that there were many forms of Christianity intermediate between the orthodox Church of the seventh century and the Judaism out of which it sprang, and it was in the East, on the confines of Arabia, that we know these Judaistic forms of Christianity to have longest maintained themselves. Some things in the Qur'an and in Islam which appear specially Jewish, may really have come through nominally Christian channels. But even with that allowance there is no doubt about the large influence exercised by Judaism.”
A. CHRISTIANITY: APOCRYPHA
Adolf von Harnack [1851-1930], in his Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten [The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries] (1902, revised 1906, 1915, and finally 1924), wrote, “The large regions south of Palestine, Damascus, and Mesopotamia which bear the name of 'Arabia' were never civilized -- they were not even subdued -- by the Romans, with the exception of the country lying east of the Jordan and several positions south of the Dead Sea. Consequently we can look for Christians during our epoch only in the districts just mentioned, where Arabian, Greek, and Roman cities were inhabited by people of superior civilization. Immediately after his conversion Paul betook himself to 'Arabia' (Gal. 1.17), i.e., hardly to the desert, but rather to the province south of Damascus. Arabians are also mentioned in Acts 2.11…. There are no Arabic versions of the Bible previous to Islam, a fact which proves irrefragably that in its primitive period Christianity had secured no footing at all among the Arabs. Indeed it never secured such a footing, for the Arabic versions were not made for Arabs at all, but for Copts and Syrians who had become Arabians.”
Nonetheless, the Christian churches on the confines of Arabia exercised a certain amount of influence, and this influence came primarily from Syria in the north-west, Mesopotamia in the north-east, and Abyssinia in the west. The latter center may have exercised its influence across the Red Sea, but more probably by way of Yemen in the south, which was under Abyssinian rule for a while. However, as ever, scholars are divided as to the extent of the Christian presence in the Hijaz, that is, that part of Saudi Arabia that accommodates the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. For example, J.S. Trimingham, in his Christianity among the Arabs in pre-Islamic Times [London, 1979], remarks that: “Christianity was non-existent among the Arabs of western Arabia south of the Judham tribes.” In a chapter headed “Christians in the Hijaz,” after describing the history of Mecca according to the Muslim sources, plus its geographical location, he concludes that “these factors are sufficient to explain why Christianity in any of its available forms could have no influence upon its inhabitants.” Whereas another scholar, Irfan Shahid, in his Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century, observes that “Places with distinctly Christian association, such as Maqbarat al Nasara, the cemetery of the Christians, are attested in Mecca in later Islamic sources and these could not possibly have been fabricated.”
I believe that it is inadvisable, fruitless and unnecessary to rely upon late sources to establish the presence of Jews or Christians in Arabia, since, if the arguments of the revisionists inspired by the work of John Wansbrough are correct, Islam developed not in Arabia but much further north in the “the Sectarian Milieu” of Palestine and Syria. Thus we need only to examine the Koran itself to see that it is full of stories and motifs derived from the Old and New Testament. But such a scrutiny also yields further surprising results: many of the stories in the Koran, especially of Mary, mother of Jesus, have been taken from the apocryphal Gospels, which in turn derived them from older Buddhist texts.