All over the world, believers in the canonical story of Islam’s origins are structuring their lives around the teachings of the Qur’an and Muhammad, and waging jihad warfare against unbelievers in accord with those teachings. If they cared to look into the strange history of the origins of Islam, however, they might think twice — as a landmark book, Norbert Pressburg’s What the Modern Martyr Should Know, abundantly illustrates.
Pressburg demonstrates that even the controversy over Islam’s canonical story has for centuries been wrongly framed. According to that story, Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, received his first revelation from Allah in a visitation by the angel Gabriel in the year 610. For the next twenty-three years, until his death in 632, he received more revelations periodically.
Armed with his new holy book, even as large portions of it then existed only in the memories of various of his companions, teachings, and his own teachings, his followers stormed out of Arabia after his death and conquered huge expanses of territory in the Middle East, North Africa, and Persia, bringing these conquered lands within the fold of the new religion.
Meanwhile, in 653, the caliph Uthman, Muhammad’s third successor as the leader of the Muslim community, gathered together all those who had memorized portions of the Qur’an or preserved parts of it in writing, had it all written and collated, and ordered the variants burnt.
Islamic apologists claim that Allah miraculously guided all of this process, protecting the Qur’an from error from the time of Muhammad’s first revelation to this day. Non-Muslims throughout history have disputed this by pointing to the book’s abundant obscurities; numerous grammatical, historical and factual errors; and its doctrines of warfare against unbelievers, oppression of women, and the like, in order to portray Muhammad as a false prophet, a liar, a con man, or worse.
Pressburg, however, demonstrates in this book that there is very good reason to think that Muhammad was neither a prophet nor a false prophet, but a work of fiction, an invention of the early Arabic conquerors: an Arabic prophet and an Arabic religion for their Arabic empire. Pressburg examines numerous anomalies that cast the canonical story into serious doubt: the use of crosses on official inscriptions by the caliph Muawiya, who was supposed to be the leader of a religion whose prophet and holy book abhorred and rejected crosses; the minting of coins around the same period that appear to use muhammad not as a proper name, but as a title: “the praised one,” often applied to Jesus Christ.
In fact, Pressburg notes, the philologist Christoph Luxenberg “provides evidence that muhamad is a gerund and could, under no circumstances, be understood as a name — it would be a grammatical impossibility.” What’s more, there is no trace of the superabundance of finely detailed biographical material that has come down to us about Muhammad — all of it dates from the eighth and ninth centuries, and there is no indication dating from the seventh century that anyone knew it even existed.
And so what of the prophet of Islam? “It is certainly impossible,” Pressburg correctly notes, “to prove the nonexistence of a person. But it is, however, possible to verify the information that exists about a person. And, for Muhammad, the attempt at verification has failed. Up to this day, we still have nothing, not a single proof in our hands, as scientists like Weil, Goldziher, Blachere, Luxenberg, and others have demonstrated. Beyond the religiously motivated assumptions, there is not even the slightest trace of a real-world Prophet in sight.”
But surely there is archaeological evidence — notably, early mosques such as the Dome of the Rock, built late in the seventh century, no? No. Pressburg shows that the Dome of the Rock was actually built as a church, and became a mosque only as Muhammad began first to be invoked as an individual, a prophet, and the founder of a new religion — fully six decades and more after he is supposed to have lived.
The Qur’an, as Pressburg elucidates in detail, underwent a similar period of revision and development before it became the centerpiece of the new religion, and the stories about Muhammad were fabricated in the wake of its codification — often by squabbling parties within the new Islamic community, hoping to gain support for their position on a disputed issue by putting their view into the mouth of the newly minted Prophet.
Pressburg’s myth-busting doesn’t end there. He concludes with an excursus on the “Golden Age of Islam,” demonstrating that a great deal of the intellectual achievements that are commonly attributed to Islam today are actually the work of Arabic-speaking non-Muslims, and that the much-vaunted Islamic philosophers were actually decried as heretics within the Islamic world. After that Pressburg likewise explodes the “Myth of al-Andalus,” showing that Muslim Spain was not the paradise of proto-multiculturalism it is taken for granted as having been today, but a place of oppression and untold misery for dhimmi Jews and Christians subjugated under the rule of Islamic law.
The reader thus comes away from What the Modern Martyr Should Know with the wholly justified impression that virtually everything that is taught and taken for granted today in the West about Islam’s origins, teachings and history is false. Reality is murkier and darker, clouding over the sunny picture of Islam that Western leaders are so desperate for their citizens to accept today with a record of deception, violence, and supremacism stretching back far longer than most Western analysts have dared imagine.
Pressburg’s book, consequently, should be issued to all policymakers who have had any hand in formulating the stance toward Islam of any Western government; they would find it enlightening and disquieting in equal measure — but we could hope that at least some would take it as a foundation for formulating saner policies more conducive to the defense of human rights for all people. What the Modern Martyr Should Know was originally written in German, and the translation is sometimes infelicitous, marred with spelling and grammatical errors; they do not, however, overshadow either the book’s points or its importance. This book would make a perfect Christmas gift for the uncritically accepting multiculturalist in your life.