Sunday, April 24, 2005

Muhammed denial

In my first post I speculated about whether anyone had begun actively denying that Muhammed was a real person. As it turns out, I did not have to look far. His life is being denied on the website of the organization, American Atheists, whose president had argued on Larry King's show against the existence of Jesus. On the home page there is a little statement defining American Atheists as a nationwide movement working to protect the civil liberties of nonbelievers, and there are links to sections about two religions, Christianity and Islam. The latter section has an essay called "Muhammed," which is actually a transcript of a radio talk given in 1969 by the founder of the movement, Madalyn O'Hair; it offers a respectful full-length biography of the Prophet. There is a very long section on Salman Rushdie, and one remaining essay by Frank Zindler, the onetime professor of biology and geology, now a science writer, who wrote the essay denying Jesus an existence. Zindler argues that Islam should properly be called by its traditional name in the West, Muhammedanism, since its adherents are, for all intents and purposes, followers of Muhammed. The essay was posted in January 2002 and could very well have been composed in the months after 9-11. Its title is "An Atheist's Guide to Mohammedanism."

Zindler concedes only this much in his essay: "Even if Mohammed did exist, we can know nothing about him from the existing sources. He might as well have been a myth." Almost exactly the same words used often to deny Jesus. But Zindler does go farther. His central premise is that because he cannot find sufficient ancient attestation to the name of Mecca, then Mecca did not exist, and "the debunking of the Mecca of Muslim tradition makes it now seem likely that Mohammed of Mecca will soon be joining Jesus of Nazareth, the Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan as a resident of Never-Never Land."

Zindler explicitly denies the desire of Muslims that they not be called Mohammedans. Islam may be the only one of the world's great faiths whose adherents named their own religion (I first saw this argument in a terrific book I read in college, The Meaning and End of Religion, by Wilfred Cantwell Smith). Christians were given their name by others who lived in the ancient city of Antioch (see Acts 11:26), while "Hindoo" was a functional term used by Muslims, after they arrived in India, to describe all religious beliefs in that country apart from Islam. Buddha certainly never wanted to make himself a divinity at the head of a religion, and many Buddhists today continue emphasizing the degree to which followers of Buddhism should not worship a divinity so much as practice meditation; but the community left behind by Buddha came in due course to be named after him. The same holds for Confucianism, and for many of the Protestant sects: it was the enemies of Calvin, for instance, who called all those who listened to his ideas "Calvinists."

And so on. Islam is the exception to this cycle because it named itself -- but Zindler will not allow this one religion not to be named and defined by its enemies, even though he admits at the outset that Muslims do not want to be called Muhammedans.

The man I named in my first post, Ibn Warraq, who wrote Why I Am Not A Muslim, turns out to be Zindler's first source. Zindler's other sources are three Soviet scholars who attempted to deny Mohammad's existence in the 1930s. Let me quote this part in full, not to give it credence, but to illuminate how this idea about Muhammad got started:

... a number of Soviet scholars have been able to argue quite coherently that the historical Mohammed is as unreal as the historical Jesus! N. A. Morozov, for instance, propounded the theory in 1930 that Mohammed and the first caliphs were mythical figures and that Islam was a form of Judaism until the time of the Crusades. In the same year, Klimovich published 'Did Muhammad Exist?' and argued that all our information on Mohammed is late and that his life was a necessary fiction springing from the euhemeristic notion that all religions have to have had a founder and that all the gods were once men. Yet another Soviet scholar, S. P. Tolstov, compared the myth of Mohammed with the deified shamans of the Yakuts, et al. and argued that the practical purpose of the Mohammed myth was to prevent the disintegration of a political block of traders, nomads, and peasants which had helped a new feudal aristocracy come to power.

You need to do no research to hear the Marxist tone in this description: it comes as no suprise that the Soviet Union would target Islam as having been the linchpin behind the feudal aristocracy that the Bolsheviks finally overthrew in 1917. It should also go without saying that no study could get published in the Soviet Union that did not toe the Party line, which was, of course, official atheism. And even a passing acquaintance with Islam sinks the speculation about an old belief that all religions had founders and all gods were once men: Islam states explicitly that its Prophet is not a god but a man, while the God of whom Islam speaks, Allah, is never claimed to go back to a man. Apply minimal skepticism to the Soviet claims and they crumble. But a little research reveals more.

The Soviet Union was formed after the Bolshevik Revolution, during which the Muslim nations of Central Asia -- Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan -- tried to escape from Russia's rule, though ultimately their independence was crushed. The old Russian rulers had been despotic Christians, but the new rulers, of course, were despotic atheists, many times more murderous. (How striking that American Atheists should be promoting scholarship sponsored by a tyrant who committed so much violence in the name of atheism, and that this organization says nothing to distance itself from such historical movements). Mosques were destroyed and shut down, while millions were killed in Moscow's efforts to crush independence, outlaw religion, and collectivize the peasants. Kazakhstan alone suffered more than 1 million dead in the early 1930s, when collectivization brought on famine as well as widespread arrests and executions of those who resisted or tried to escape the famine (this was at the same time that 5 million were deliberately starved to death in the Ukraine). It was only with the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991 that these nations, except Chechnya, regained their independence.

The first Soviet scholar mentioned above, Nicolai A. Morozov, like Zindler, was a scientist of the hard sciences. If you Google him, he turns up at a page,, where a new chronology is being proposed for human history. The underlying premise is that ancient writings come to us only in the form of copies made later "under suspicious circumstances" and therefore cannot be trusted. The page reports that Morozov used the "latest discoveries in mathematics, astronomy, linguistics, philology and geology" to establish that all of the history that we know actually took place after the year 300; nothing that we regard as historical took place before then. To my mind, this intellectual project resembles the destruction of identity and memory described in Orwell's 1984.

It may be worth noting here how old our Biblical records are. Manuscripts discovered in 1947 and known today as the Dead Sea Scrolls contain copies of the Jewish Bible, and date to before the time of Christ. The oldest surviving fragment of the New Testament contains a few verses from the Gospel of John copied in the year 125. But all of this should go without saying against such nonsense.

Why are there such theories about our great religious figures, theories so desperate that they must be constructed on foundations of this kind? Prejudice is not off the mark as an answer. Need it be racism? In the case of Muhammed, maybe. In the case of Jesus, who was both Jewish and nonwhite, perhaps racism can also be invoked. Maybe hatred. But any description of human beings, according to some collective identity, which only condemns them and fails to say even one positive thing about them, or simply treats them as a collective without individuals, faces, or names worth keeping, is a prejudice in my book. Whether the victims of the prejudice are identified according to their skin color, religion, creed, party, nationality, wealth or other status matters to some degree, but it does not matter centrally.

I would want to leave this topic to Muslim apologists, for they would know far better than I how to handle, for instance, the question of ancient witnesses to the name of Mecca. And it will have to be Muslim or other religious apologists, because there are no "neutral" observers when it comes to our great religious figures. These men and women were not just historical figures, so when they're denied or affirmed, it will come from those who either wish to deny or affirm the religion. It cannot be otherwise. That two men named Jesus and Muhammed lived is by itself of very little importance -- what is really significant is what Christians and Muslims say that these men did. There are, to be sure, many historians who are skeptical of Christianity and look on the Jesus-myth theory as a fringe idea well beyond the data -- for instance, Greco-Roman historian Michael Grant, as well as a famous history professor and skeptic, Morton Smith -- but the fact remains that secularists generally do not care enough about Jesus or Muhammed to be first in line to debunk these theories. The task falls, actually, to those who do have a religious interest -- and yet that should be no strike against them. That a Catholic priest is responsible for the definitive work on the historical Jesus, an admirably non-dogmatic work called A Marginal Jew, should cause no more suspicion than if a NASA employee challenged the theory that the U.S. never landed on the moon. Of course a NASA employee will never look at the facts competently or honestly; of course a committed Christian or Muslim would never look at the facts competently or honestly; of course we never went to the Moon, anymore than we ever met Jesus or Muhammad. It's all so obvious. And so wrong.


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