Prophet Muhammad: Historical Fact or Fiction?
Despite the very authentic historicity of the life and achievements of Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, vested academic interests have throughout the centuries tried, in vain, to rob him of his rightful place, indeed, his very presence, in the story of human progress. Presented herein under is a compilation of evidences from Western academic sources which reiterate the historic role of the most complete personality that man has known from among his own kind.
“Muhammad is not completely a fiction of later pious imagination, as some have implied; we know that someone named Muhammad did exist, and that he led some kind of movement. And this fact, in turn, gives us greater confidence that further information in the massive body of traditional Muslim materials may also be rooted in historical fact.” ~ Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam, p. 53, University of Chicago, Fred Donner – Professor of Near Eastern History
While it has become popular to question the very existence of Prophet Muhammad and other major religious figures like Moses, Jesus, and Buddha, the historical evidence for Prophet Muhammad existing and living in 7th century Arabia is vast and well-documented. Several examples of the earliest sources documenting the existence and mission of Prophet Muhammad are summarized below:
1. A Byzantine Greek text written within two years of Muhammad’s death in 634CE confirms he existed and claimed to be a Prophet:
“There is no doubt that Mohammed existed, occasional attempts to deny it notwithstanding. His neighbours in Byzantine Syria got to hear of him within two years of his death at the latest; a GREEK TEXT written during the Arab invasion of Syria between 632 and 634 MENTIONS that ‘a false prophet has appeared among the Saracens’ and dismisses him as an impostor on the ground that prophets do not come ‘with sword and chariot.’ It thus conveys the impression that he was actually leading the invasions…If such a revised date is accurate, the evidence of the Greek text would mean that Mohammed is the only founder of a world religion who is attested in a contemporary source. But in any case, this source gives us pretty irrefutable evidence that he was a historical figure.” ~ Patricia Crone (Former Professor of Oriental Studies – University of Cambridge), ‘What Do We Actually Know About Mohammed,’ June 2008
2. A Syrian manuscript folio examined by W. Wright, which dates to 636 AD (four years after Muhammad died), mentions Muhammad and the Arab conquest of Syria. Documented in W. Wright, Catalogue of Syriac Manuscripts in the British Museum Acquired Sincethe Year 1838, 1870, Part I, Printed by order of the Trustees: London, No. XCIV, pp. 65-66.
3. Another Syrian manuscript mentions Muhammad and the Arab conquests and this also comes from the year 634 AD – two years after Muhammad died. See W. Wright, Catalogue of Syriac Manuscripts in the British Museum Acquired Sincethe Year 1838, 1872, Part III, Printed by order of the Trustees: London, No. DCCCCXIII, pp. 1040-1041.
4. The writing of the Syrian Christian Thomas the Presbyter in 640 testifies that Muhammad existed and led a movement. That is just eight years after his death:
“For example, an early Syriac source by the Christian writer, Thomas, the Presbyter, dated to around 640CE – that is, just a few years after Muhammad’s death – provides the earliest mention of Muhammad and informs us that his followers made a raid around Gaza. This, at least, enables the HISTORIAN TO FEEL MORE CONFIDENT that Muhammad is not completely a fiction of later pious imagination, as some have implied; WE KNOW THAT SOMEONE NAMED MUHAMMAD DID EXIST, and that he LED some kind of MOVEMENT. And this FACT, in turn, gives us greater confidence that further information in the massive body of traditional Muslim materials may also be rooted in HISTORICAL FACT. The difficulty is in deciding what is, and what is not, factual.” ~ Fred Donner (Professor of Near Eastern History – University of Chicago), Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam, p.53
5. The Qur’an provides direct evidence of Muhammad. Not only does it mention Muhammad by name, but it mentions and describes Muhammad as a prophet and various events in his life and the life of his community.And the scholarly consensus is that the Qur’an as we have it today certainly contains what Muhammad said and recited in his lifetime:
“Mohammed is also mentioned by name, and identified as a messenger of God, four times in the Qur’an… We can be reasonably sure that the Qur’an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death – how long after is controversial. But that he uttered all – or most – of them is difficult to doubt.” ~ Patricia Crone (Former Professor of Oriental Studies – University of Cambridge), ‘What Do We Actually Know About Mohammed?’ June 2008
And, yet again:
“For example, meticulous study of the text by generations of scholars has failed to turn up any plausible hint of anachronistic references to important events in the life of the later community, which would almost certainly be there had the text crystallized later than the early seventh century C.E. Moreover, some of the Qur’an’s vocabulary suggests that the text, or significant parts of it, hailed from western Arabia. So we seem, after all, to be dealing with a Qur’an that is the product of the earliest stages in the life of the community in western Arabia…The fact that the Qur’an text dates to the earliest phase of the movement inaugurated by Muhammad means that the historian can use it.” ~ Fred Donner (Professor of Near Eastern History – University of Chicago),Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam
6. The Constitution of Medina is preserved in eighth century sources and all scholars accept it as authentic and going back to Muhammad’s own lifetime when he ruled over Madinah (Yathrib):
“On the Islamic side, sources dating from the mid-8th century onwards preserve a document drawn up between Mohammed and the inhabitants of Yathrib, which there are good reasons to accept as broadly authentic; Mohammed is also mentioned by name, and identified as a Messenger of God, four times in the Qur’an.” ~ Patricia Crone (Former Professor of Oriental Studies – University of Cambridge), ‘What Do We Actually Know About Mohammed?’ June 2008
7. Other non-Muslim sources attesting to Muhammad include Christian and Persian writings:
(a)Sebeos, Bishop of theBagratunis (Writing in 660s CE/ 40s AH)
“Moreover, an Armenian document probably written shortly after 661 identifies him by name and gives a recognisable account of his monotheist preaching.” ~ Patricia Crone (Former Professor of Oriental Studies – University of Cambridge), ‘What Do We Actually Know About Mohammed?’ June 2008
One of the most interesting accounts of the early seventh century comes from Sebeos who was a bishop of the House of Bagratunis. From this chronicle, there are indications that he lived through many of the events he relates. He maintains that the account of Arab conquests derives from the fugitives who had been eyewitnesses thereof. He concludes with Mu’awiya’s ascendancy in the Arab civil war (656-61 CE), which suggests that he was writing soon after this date. Sebeos is the first non-Muslim author to present us with a theory for the rise of Islam that pays attention to what the Muslims themselves thought they were doing (see R. G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian, Jewish And Zoroastrian Writings On Early Islam, 1997, op. cit., p. 128). He says the following about Prophet Muhammad:
“At that time, a certain man from along those same sons of Ismael, whose name was Mahmet [i.e., Muḥammad], a merchant, as if by God’s command, appeared to them as a preacher [and] the Path of Truth. He taught them to recognize the God of Abraham, especially because he was learnt and informed in the history of Moses. Now because the command was from on high, at a single order, they all came together in unity of religion.
“Abandoning their vain cults, they turned to the living God who had appeared to their father Abraham. So, Mahmet legislated for them: not to eat carrion, not to drink wine, not to speak falsely, and not to engage in fornication. He said: ‘With an oath God promised this land to Abraham and his seed after him forever. And he brought about as he promised during that time while he loved Ismael. But now you are the sons of Abraham and God is accomplishing his promise to Abraham and his seed for you. Love sincerely only the God of Abraham, and go and seize the land which God gave to your father Abraham. No one will be able to resist you in battle, because God is with you.” ~ Bishop Sebeos, (in R. W. Thomson with contributions from J. Howard-Johnson & T. Greenwood), The Armenian History Attributed to Sebeos Part – I: Translation and Notes, 1999, Translated Texts For Historians – Volume 31, Liverpool University Press, pp. 95-96)
Sebeos was writing the chronicle at a time when memories of sudden eruption of the Arabs were fresh. He knows Muhammad’s name and that he was a merchant by profession. He hints that his life was suddenly changed by a divinely inspired revelation (see R. W. Thomson with contributions from J. Howard-Johnson & T. Greenwood, The Armenian History Attributed to Sebeos; Part – II: Historical Commentary, 1999, Translated Texts for Historians – Volume 31, Liverpool University Press, p. 238). He presents a good summary of Muhammad’s preaching, i.e., belief in one God, Abraham as a common ancestor of Jews and Arabs. He picks out some of the rules of behaviour imposed on the Ummah; the four prohibitions which are mentioned in the Qur’an. Much of what he says about the origins of Islam conforms to the Muslim tradition.
(b) A Chronicler of Khuzistan (Writing c. 660s CE/ 40s AH)
This is an anonymous and short Nestorian chronicle that aims to convey Church as well as secular histories from the death of Hormizd, son of Khusrau, to the end of the Persian kingdom. Because of its anonymity, it is known to scholars as the ‘Khuzistan Chronicle,’ after its plausible geographical location or Anonymous Guidi, after the name of its first editor. Amid his entry on the reign of Yazdgird, the chronicler gives a brief account of the Muslim invasions:
“Then God raised up against them the sons of Ishmael, [numerous] as the sand on the sea shore, whose leader (mdabbrānā) was Muḥammad (mḥmd). Neither walls nor gates, armour or shield, withstood them, and they gained control over the entire land of the Persians. Yazdgird sent against them countless troops, but the Arabs routed them all and even killed Rustam. Yazdgird shut himself up in the walls of Mahoze and finally escaped by flight. He reached the country of the Huzaye and Mrwnaye, where he ended his life. The Arabs gained control of Mahoze and all the territory.” ~ Chronicler of Khuzistan, (R. G. Hoyland,Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian, Jewish And Zoroastrian Writings On Early Islam, 1997, op. cit., p. 186)