Did Muhammad exist? The question startles most people, either because they have taken for granted that he did, or because they are aware that asking such questions can get you killed. My new book, Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins, came out just weeks after New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman published his latest book, Did Jesus Exist? Asked when we would apply the same critical eye to the Qur’an that he has trained upon the Bible, Ehrman replied: “When I no longer value my life.”
And there’s the rub: is it even possible in the Free West today to ask questions regarding the historical support for the Islamic account of the life of Muhammad without drawing threats to one’s life and attacks on one’s character? 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. A scholar who has done groundbreaking work on the text of the Qur’an publishes under a pseudonym, Christoph Luxenberg — an understandable precaution in light of the threats he regularly receives.
Ehrman, for his work questioning the historicity of the New Testament records of Jesus Christ, receives no threats, and is lauded in academia. By contrast, Religion Dispatches has already published a piece claiming that my book on Muhammad will win praise only from the “Islamophobia industry” — implying that the book is in itself a manifestation of hatred and bigotry.
Certainly many Christians have regarded historical-critical investigations of the Gospels as attacks on the Christian faith, and even as attempts by the critics themselves to justify their own unbelief. Yet the Catholic Church and other Christian bodies have also embraced the historical-critical method, and have long since ceased to see it as a threat to their faith. Dozens of books have been written about whether Jesus Christ really ever existed at all, and if he did, what manner of man he was.
Islam is also a faith rooted in history. It makes historical claims. Muhammad is supposed to have lived at a certain time and preached certain doctrines that he said God had delivered to him. The veracity of those claims is open, to a certain extent, to historical analysis. Whether Muhammad really received messages from the angel Gabriel may be a faith judgment, but whether he lived at all is a historical one.
Islam is not unique in staking out its claims as a historical faith or in inviting historical investigation. But it is unique in not having undergone searching historical criticism on any significant scale. Both Judaism and Christianity have been the subject of widespread scholarly investigation for more than two centuries….