Did Muhammad exist? It is a question that few have thought to ask, or dared to ask.
For most of the fourteen hundred years since the prophet of Islam is thought to have walked the earth, almost everyone has taken his existence for granted. After all, his imprint on human history is enormous.
The Encyclopedia Britannica dubbed him “the most successful of all Prophets and religious personalities.” In his 1978 book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, historian Michael H. Hart put Muhammad in the top spot, explaining: “My choice of Muhammad to lead the list of the world’s most influential persons may surprise some readers and may be questioned by others, but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular level.”
Other historians have noted the extraordinarily rapid growth of the Arabian Empire in the period immediately following MuhamÂmad’s death. The Arabian conquerors, evidently inspired by his teachÂing, created an empire that in fewer than one hundred years stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to India. Not only was that empire immense, but its cultural influence””also founded on Muhammad’s teaching””has been enduring as well.
Moreover, Islamic literature contains an astounding proliferation of biographical material about Muhammad. In his definitive two-volume English-language biography of Muhammad, Muhammad at Mecca (1953) and Muhammad at Medina (1956), the English histoÂrian W. Montgomery Watt argues that the sheer detail contained in the Islamic records of Muhammad, plus the negative features of his biography, make his story plausible.
However sharply people may differ on the virtues and vices of Muhammad, and on the value of his prophetic claims, virtually no one doubts that he was an actual person who lived in a particular time and a particular place and who, more to the point, founded one of the world’s major religions.
Could such a man have never existed at all?
There is, in fact, considerable reason to question the historicity of Muhammad. Although the story of Muhammad, the Qur’an, and early Islam is widely accepted, on close examination the particulars of the story prove elusive. The more one looks at the origins of Islam, the less one sees.
This book explores the questions that a small group of pioneering scholars has raised about the historical authenticity of the standard account of Muhammad’s life and prophetic career. A thorough review of the historical records provides startling indications that much, if not all, of what we know about Muhammad is legend, not historical fact. A careful investigation similarly suggests that the Qur’an is not a collection of what Muhammad presented as revelations from the one true God but was actually constructed from already existing mateÂrial, mostly from the Jewish and Christian traditions.
The nineteenth-century scholar Ernest Renan confidently claimed that Islam emerged in the “full light of history.” But in truth, the real story of Muhammad, the Qur’an, and early Islam lies deep in the shadows. It is time to bring it into the light.