Chapter 6: ISLAM

 Abrahamica: Chapter Six


In the Abrahamic sequence, Islam ranks as the third major actor. Originally a common noun, the Arabic word “islam” means “submission” (to God). The chief elements of the faith reside in the sacred scriptures known as the Qur’an (“recitation”), regarded as the word of God as dictated to his Messenger, the Prophet Muhammad. The word Muslim, an adherent of Islam, is the active participle of the Arabic verb of which the word islam is the infinitive.

Muslims regard their religion as the final and universal version of a primordial monotheism, a set of beliefs revealed at many times and places before, notably to the prophets Abraham, Moses, and Jesus of Nazareth. Over time, according to the Islamic view, previous revelations and teachings have undergone a process of blurring and corruption. Islam repairs these defects.

Central to the religious practice of Islam as a world religion are the Five Pillars, obligations that every believer must faithfully observe. These duties are Shahadah (profession of faith), Salat (prayers), Sawm (fasting), Zakat (giving of alms) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). In addition, religious law has long been of central importance, encompassing as it does virtually every aspect of behavior and society, from dietary habits and warfare to banking and charity. Muslims do not recognize any distinction between sacred and civil law. Nor do they have any equivalent of the principle of separation of church and state.

The majority of Muslims belong to one of two major denominations, the Sunni and Shi’a. Today, Islam predominates in the Middle East, North Africa, and large parts of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. While Islam is typically perceived as a specifically Arab phenomenon (as it was at the beginning), today only about 20% of Muslims are Arabs. About 13% of the total live in Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country.

With approximately 1.57 billion Muslims, Islam ranks as the second largest religion in the world, after Christianity. According to one calculation, however, Islam is growing 33 percent faster than Christianity, largely because of high birth rates in the Third World countries in which it thrives. Over the last century Islam’s numbers have skyrocketed, going from 12 percent of the world’s population to at least 22 percent today (

These days we hear much of the differences in Islam between the militants, termed Islamists or jihadists, and the moderates, the mainstream Muslims. Yet both groups subscribe to a single narrative of the origins of the faith. The basic toolkit includes the following assertions: that the historical Muhammad was born near Mecca ca. 570 CE of the Arab tribe of Quraysh; that he made his hijra, or flight to Medina in the year 622; that he reconquered Mecca in 630; and he had won all of Arabia to his beliefs by his death in 632.

As a rule, Western scholars have docilely followed their Muslim counterparts in accepting this standard account. Nonetheless, several forms of revisionism have arisen, challenging most of these supposedly secure findings.

At the risk of some simplification one can classify the revisionist endeavors in two main efforts. According to the earlier set of revisionist findings (1.0, so to speak), which goes back to the early twentieth century, the historical Muhammad was a military leader operating in the borderlands of northern Arabia, which had long been a cultural interface between Byzantine Christianity and Arabia proper (Ibn Warraq, 2000). Only gradually, in the generations after the death of this individual, was the movement pan-Arabized by being recentering it on the Hijaz, with its two major cities of Mecca and Medina.

The second, more recent version (2.0) holds that it is useless to search for a precise identity for “Muhammad” (Ohlig et al., 2010). In fact, the term muhammad is a common noun meaning “the praiseworthy one.” Since the meaning is close to the Greek christos (“the anointed one”), the accolade can even be applied to Jesus.

The complex of ideas that later came to form the the nucleus of the Qur’an originated in the hybrid milieu of northern Arabia, specifically in the zone next to, and overlapping with southern Iraq. These Arabs had, many of them, adopted Christianity, but of a non-Trinitarian variety: hence the insistence on monotheism in the Qur’an and other Islamic documents. While these people were Arabic-speaking, they had derived their religious ideas from Syrians, so that their liturgical language was originally Syriac, a Semitic language related to Arabic and Hebrew. Abundant traces, or so it seems, of Syriac words and thought patterns have survived in the Qur’an where they provide tell-tale evidence of this origin. As the Syriac material was adapted to the new Arabic Scripture, where it fused with older Arabic elements, uncertainties arose, leading to the fact that some 20-25% of the Qur’an is in fact unintelligible--though this amount greatly decreases if the Syriac component is restored. Looking at the text through a Syriac lens solves many problems of detail. Accomplishing this task, of course, requires formidable philological skills, which only a few seasoned scholars can muster.

According to this second, truly radical version, what we have come to know as Islam crystalized only some 150 years after the traditional date for the death of the Prophet (632 CE). Only then, about 780 CE, did the divorce between the original base of non-Trinitarian Christianity and the the new religious formation become apparent. The estrangement took place in the context of the consolidation of Nicene Trinitarianism in the Byzantine Empire and Western Europe, triggering a counteremphasis on monotheism in emergent Islam. Even today, however, some descendants of the Arabs who had professed Christianity continue to live in the Middle East; they are the Arab Christians of those lands.

In a nutshell. the first version, 1.0, concentrates on north Arabia and the neighboring regions of Syria and Iraq as the primordial home or Urheimat of Islam. Somewhat surprisingly, the second version, 2.0 makes a small concession to the traditional view in granting an ancillary role to Mecca and Medina. As we have seen, the second version displays its true radicality in questioning the very existence of the historical Muhammad. Nonetheless, there is considerable overlap between the two approaches. Together they make up the historical-critical school of early Islamic studies.

While some nuances exist between versions 1.0 and 2.0, they basically agree in their comprehensive challenge to the received account.

Up to now defenders of the received account have dodged the bullet, but concessions are beginning to appear here and there. In the long run this resistance is unlikely to prevail.  The time is coming when all reasonable observers, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, must come to grips with the questions raised by the new scholarship. Yet as things are too many establishment scholars have chosen to ignore the problem, at best treating it with the utmost brevity so as to return the secure terraine of the conventional wisdom. This chapter contends that this approach, reminiscent of the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, is no longer viable.

Here is the basic contrast in a nutshell.


1a. The facts regarding the life of Muhammad, the Messenger of God, are well-established, as described in the later biographies and the more reliable Hadith collections. versus:

1b. The historicity of Muhammad is murky. His personality, in so far as we can grasp it, is probably a composite, augmented with invented legendary details. In fact, this individual may not have existed at all.

2a. The intellectual foundations of the Prophet and his message reside firmly in his native Hijaz, especially the cities of Mecca and Medina. versus:

2b. A significant, perhaps the major element in the early Islamic movement stems from northern Arabia, where it overlaps Syria. The Syriac Christian contribution is very significant.

3a. As we have it, the Qur’an is a unitary document that faithfully records Muhammad’s recitals over a period of twenty-years in Mecca and Medina. Within broad limits, the individual surahs can be pinpointed to specific periods. versus.

3b. The Qur’an is an amalgam, consisting of at least three strata: 1) a pre-Islamic formation, possibly a Syriac lectionary, with Arabic folkloric admixtures; 2) a secondary body of material, perhaps elaborated by Muhammad at Mecca and Medina; and 3) a layer of accretions, folded in over a period of some 150 years. Subtractions must also be allowed for.

4a. The textus receptus, as we read it in the influential Cairo edition of 1923, and the texts following it, faithfully copies the standard text approved and diffused by Uthman. versus

4b. As we have it, the text of the Qur’an is radically defective, with many passages that are nearly, or completely unintelligible. It is an amalgam of various components, some quite early and others originating after the time of Uthman.


Sociologists have explored the problem of cognitive dissonance, whereby a group or a single individual entertains two contradictory views at the same time. To the extent that we are conscious of such inconsistencies we tend to seek to eliminate them, following the Aristotelian principle of Non-Contradiction. Mathematics provides many familiar examples, as when we determine that, faced with the propositions 2 + 2 + 4 and 2 + 2 = 5, we acknowledge that only one can be true.

Nonetheless, some have held that in more complex matters, sometimes we must work, at least provisionally, with two incompatible theories. To this day, for example, physicists have been unable to resolve the contradictions between quantum physics and relativity theory.

According to one distinguished scientist there are fundamental conflicts in which such resolution is unattainable. Stephen Jay Gould, the noted paleontologist and evolutionary theorist, has proposed that there are two “magisteria,” one scientific and the other religious. We must be content with accepting that each rules within its own sphere. This doctrine, sometimes known as the “two truths,” has been traced back to the thirteenth-century Christian thinker Siger of Brabant, who was seeking to grapple with contradictions posed by the effort to reconcile Aristotle with the Christian faith.

Both sides in the dispute concerning Islamic origins are dead set against compromise. For their part, pious Muslims maintain that the Qur’an, being divinely inspired, is “beyond critique.” At the opposite pole, the critical-historical scholars maintain that nothing must be sacred, dwelling in some special realm beyond the reach of inquiry. Everything is on the table: one should, and indeed must interrogate every element of the traditional litany of Muhammad and the origins of the Qur’an. To be sure, a few Western scholars allied with the traditional approach--Fred Donner of the University of Chicago is a case in point--have rather delicately sought to acknowledge a few critical corrections, while sticking to the basic framework of the established account.

In my view, such gingerly compromises will prove unsatisfactory. Instead one must grapple with the full force of the historical-critical approach, following the facts wherever they may lead.


How have the results outlined above, so seemingly iconoclastic, been achieved? Scholars working along these lines, who mostly reside outside Islamic countries, have taken the logical step of seeking to apply the principles of the Higher Criticism systematically to the Islamic documents. This approach, which attained maturity with Julius Wellhausen and others in nineteenth-century Germany, laid the foundations for all subsequent serious study of the body of Judeo-Christian scriptures known as the Bible. (See Chapters One, Two, and Three, above.)

A useful point of entry is the collection of relevant scholarly essays, classical and contemporary, contained in the volume The Quest of the Historical Muhammad, edited by Ibn Warraq (2000). The book is aptly titled, for the task these scholars have addressed really does resemble the quest for the historical Jesus, as conducted by Albert Schweitzer and others, while at the same time applying themselves to the specific circumstances of Muslim historiography. In fact the questioning of the received view of Muhammad goes back to the work of Henri Lammens a hundred years ago.

Some contemporary scholars go so far in their radicalism as to assert that there is no reliable evidence connecting Muhammad with either Mecca or Medina. In this view, the association with Mecca was forged in order to connect the faith with the cult of the Kaaba, the sacred meteorite housed in that city. Instead, these scholars have concluded, the evidence suggests that the historical Muhammad was a military leader active on the northern border of Arabia, where he came into contact with sophisticated Christian and Jewish ideas. As any reader must acknowledge the Qur’an reverts, almost compulsively, to many events and personalities recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, endowing them of course with its own “spin.”

Another finding is that the individual suras (segments of the Qur’anic text) are a varied lot (Ibn Warraq, 1998, 2002). The Qur’an is not a unitary text, but an amalgam pieced together from various components that originated at different times. They may have assumed their present “canonical” form as late as two hundred years after the death of Muhammad. Thus the text we have can in no sense be regarded as an organic whole. The pious notion that it was dictated by the Archangel Gabriel in accord with an archetype laid up in heaven simply serves to conceal this diversity.

The Qur’an combines precepts that purport to be of universal validity with references to contingent events and persons. As a rule, however, these historical sidelights are unconfirmed by other sources, and thus of questionable authenticity.

To be sure, the conventional wisdom is quite different. In the nineteenth century Ernest Renan maintained that “in place of the mystery under which the other religions have covered their origins, [Islam] was born in the full light of history” (Ibn Warraq, 2000.) Although widely accepted, this view is mistaken. Many adjustments, alterations, and inventions characterized the gradual birth of Islam. In consequence the accepted account comes close to ranking as a “just so” story—if you will, a tale out of the Arabian Nights.

Modifying Renan, we may say that there are two types of religion. Organic faiths (e.g. Judaism and Hinduism) developed gradually from time immemorial. Contrasting with this pattern is the historical type, exemplified by Manichaeism (third century) and Mormonism (nineteenth century). For a long time Islam, its historical foundations securely anchored, seemed to belong to the latter type. One can no longer have confidence in this claim. The origins of the religion now reside in uncertain territory, with each aspect requiring careful weighing as to its historicity.


In Islamic countries, where apostasy may be punished by death, it is not healthy to espouse these revisionist views in Islamic countries today. One need only recall the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie. But slowly the results of the historical-critical examination are trickling through, with the Internet giving a big boost. Reception of these challenges is gradually progressing in the West. Not so in the Muslim world, though. One day, perhaps, a Reformation—so often noted as the missing element in the saga of Islam—will occur. This change would foster a thoroughgoing reexamination of the conventional wisdom regarding the faith.  At present this reexamination is not possible there; the questioning is limited to scholars working in the West.

Even in Western countries, the situation is not altogether conducive to free inquiry about the origins of Islam. Demographic changes in Western Europe have helped fuel the aggressiveness of Islamic militants in those countries. Through violent acts these zealots seek to overturn established Western values of tolerance and free speech. In the face of this assault we are urged to be patient, while honoring Islam as a "religion of peace."

Regrettably, Islam is not a religion of peace because it divides the world into two parts, the Abode of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the Abode of Warfare (Dar al-Harb). It is the task of Believers to reduce the latter to the condition of the former, employing whatever measures may be required. This view spells constant strife in those parts of the world that have not yet submitted to Islam. Islamic militants are simply making this underlying situation clear. In this respect, they are not an aberration.


My concern with Islam--its texts, origins, and character--stems from my overall project of uncovering the intertextual relations linking the three Abrahamic faiths. I would point out that if an outsider like myself can readily assemble the materials making up the main elements of the new critical approach to Islam, Muhammad, and the Qur’an, then other writers--such as the highly regarded Robert Wright and Karen Armstrong--can assimilate this material as well. As to why they have not attempted to do this, I cannot say.

As has been noted above, the conventional account offers a number of ostensibly well-established facts marking the origins of Islam. Muhammad was born in the year 570 CE in a locality close to Mecca, a city in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula. Strategically located, Mecca owed its prosperity to trade. It was also religiously significant because of the polytheistic cults centered on the Ka’ba or sacred stone. For these reasons, we are told, it is not surprising that city would go on to play a prominent role in the rapid spread of Islam. Orphaned at an early age, Muhammad was raised by an uncle and other relatives. The young Muhammad went to work for Khadija, a wealthy widow who owned a prosperous international trading company. In due course, he had the good fortune of marrying this woman, an event that dramatically bettered his fiscal position and social standing. In connection with business matters he traveled with caravans to north Arabia and Syria, where he encountered sophisticated Jewish and Christian ideas.

In the year 610 CE when he was forty years old, Muhammad--or so he believed--began to receive messages from God, a transmission that would continue throughout his life. Conveyed by Jibril (the archangel Gabriel), these messages confirmed the Meccan merchant’s status as God’s Ultimate Prophet, the bearer of God’s final word to mankind. Never claiming divinity himself, Muhammad did maintain that God was speaking through him; he was the human conduit for God’s final and perfect instructions to man.

Unfortunately, these initial messages from God threatened the interests of Mecca’s ruling elite, so that the new dispensation was summarily rejected. Muhammad’s position Mecca became untenable. In 622 CE he went to Medina (Yathrib), a town that was more receptive to his message. There Muhammad established the first Muslim community. Having consolidated his position in Medina, he was able to return to Mecca, where he succeeded, by an large, in converting the inhabitants to Islam.

By the time of his death in 632 CE Muhammad and his followers had conquered the entire Arabian peninsula, previously the domain of quarreling pagan tribes. By the turn of the eighth century, Muhammad’s followers had subdued a vast realm stretching from Spain to the boundaries of India, a dazzling feat.

For the pious Muslim this stupendous conquest seems only logical, Prophet Muhammad had received and transmitted the final and perfect word of God. Empowered with God’s support and direction, Muhammad established the Islamic state and spread the word of God as commanded by Him. Under the leadership of the four Rashidun, the “rightly-guided” caliphs--Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib--Muhammad’s achievement was consolidated and extended.

Today, Muslims affirm this account of the origins of their religion without question, relying on these seemingly well-established facts as the cornerstone of their faith. Pious Muslims hold that Muhammad’s many revelations from God were memorized, recorded, and ultimately canonized in the body of the Qur’an during the first few decades following his death in 632. According to the story, the third caliph Uthman employed the scholar Zaid ibn Thabit to compile the “true” Qur’an and to destroy all other remaining copies, establishing the Uthman version as the final and perfect word of God as received and transmitted by the Prophet. According to the received account, the final, codified version of the Qur’an, seemingly identical with that we have today, was canonized and formalized no later than 650 CE. This scripture is an authentic source of history as evidenced by the fact that is a perfect literary creation. As such it could only have been only produced by God.

Except for the feature of divine inspiration, Western scholars have generally endorsed this account. At least they have dome so up to recent decades, when a new school of critical scholars has challenged these seemingly solid findings. These scholars, most of whom reside outside Islamic countries, base their case on the application of the principles of the Higher Criticism to Islamic documents.

A few revisionists have gone so far as to assert that Muhammad never lived. This claim probably goes too far. Still, the connection with Mecca and Medina is less substantial than is generally supposed. While it probably reposes on a small core of historical fact, the account was probably extended and embroidered in order to emphasize the connection with the cult of the sacred meteorite housed in that city, the Kaaba. The Mecca-Medina connection needs to be balanced with another that leads to northern Arabia, a borderland region strongly imbued with Christian ideas. The many reminiscences of Biblical persons and ideas found in the Qur’an surely stem mainly from this northern source.

The first cryptic mentions of the name of Muhammad begin to appear no earlier than two generations after his death. From the later biographical sketches many sought to retroject the basic facts of his career into the Qur’an. Yet even a brief examination of that book reveals that it bears no comparison with the Christian gospels, which are lives of Jesus. The Qur’an was never intended to be a biography of Muhammad, and in view of the probable late date of its compilation we cannot cannot take on face value the few details of the prophet’s life that appear there.

The earliest surviving biographies of the Prophet are the two recensions of Ibn Ishaq's (d. 768) Life of the Apostle of God compiled by Ibn Hisham (d. 834) and Yunus b. Bukayr (d.814-815). The original text has not survived. According to Ibn Hisham, Ibn Ishaq wrote his biography some 120 to 130 years after Muhammad's death. After Ibn Ishaq, the most widely used biographies of Muhammad are al-Waqidi's (d. 822) and then Ibn Sa'd's (d. 844-5). While many scholars accept the basic reliability of these late-blooming biographies, the details of their accuracy cannot in fact be ascertained. Even Muslim scholars are not in accord as to the reliability of these texts; Al-Waqidi is often targeted by Muslim writers who claim that that author is unreliable.

These accounts are hardly biographies in the modern sense. The writers did not seek to create an objective account of the life of Muhammad, but rather to describe Muhammad's military expeditions and to preserve stories about Muhammad, his sayings, and the traditional interpretations of verses of the Qur'an.

There are also the Hadith collections, which include accounts of the verbal and physical traditions pertaining to Muhammad. Muslim tradition informs us that many thousands of sayings and accounts of deeds of Muhammad were transmitted from the seventh century.

As with the “biographies” (Sira) just discussed, these often cryptic items are late, recounting earlier events long after their purported occurrence. For example, the compilation considered most authentic, that prepared by the scholar Al-Bukhari, was not organized, compiled, and ultimately endowed with canonical status until the early ninth century. Criteria for authentication have proved very elusive. At the turn of the ninth century there may have been as many as 600,000 Hadith in circulation. Many of these were blatantly false and contradictory. In fact, Al-Bukhari ultimately rejected 98% of the original 600,000.

In addition to being subject to the scrutiny of Muslim scholars, who have generally accepted al-Bukhari’s reduced canon, Hadiths have also attracted critical analysis on the part of western historians. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher completed a fundamental study of the Hadith and the Muslim principles for certifying authenticity. Even in the privileged group, consisting of supposedly authenticated items, Goldziher concluded that the vast majority were unsubstantiated forgeries that sorely lacked corroboration. He held that the Muslim compilers derived the vast majority of their Hadith material from collections compiled around 800 (or later) and not from documents originating in the seventh century.

Several decades later, the legal scholar Joseph Schacht, based at Columbia University, undertook additional Hadith scrutiny. Schacht concluded that early ninth-century schools of law sought to buttress their own biased agenda by ascribing their own doctrines to Muhammad and his companions. Patricia Crone, in her own research on the authenticity of the remaining (canonized) Hadith has similarly rejected the "grain of truth" argument asserted by many Muslim historians. This rejection has been made on basis of the later date of the Muslim sources, together with the evident bias of those proffering them. Simply put, and contrary to Muslim assertions, Hadith can not be relied on as authentic source material.


We return to the Qur’an itself. In fact there is no critical edition of the Qur’an, and currently accepted versions rely upon a text published in Cairo in 1923. Finally, in 2007, a team of researchers at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences began preparing the first installment of Corpus Coranicum, purporting to be nothing less than the first critically evaluated text of the Qur'an ever to be produced. Headed by Professor Angelika Neuwirth of the Free University of Berlin, the German research team is in the process of analysing and transcribing some 12,000 slides of Qur'an manuscripts that have survived from the first six centuries of Islam. This material stems from photographs collected before World War II by Gotthelf Bergsträsser and Otto Pretzl. The project is currently funded till 2025, but could well take longer to complete.

Once that task has been completed, the way will be open--in principle--to producing a reliable text that notes and correlates the variants found in the early manuscripts. Such a project must needs encounter pressures, and there are indications that some bending to the demands of established Islamic opinion has already occurred. In this light some skepticism is warranted as to whether the aims of the ambitious Berlin-Brandenburg project will be fully attained.

At all events, interpretation of the work presents many difficulties. As is typical of early texts in Semitic languages, the oldest versions of the Qur'an offer only the consonantal skeleton of the text. Not only are no vowels marked, some consonants can be read in a number of ways due to the absence of diacritical marks.

It is claimed that we can rely on the stability of the oral tradition to supply us with the correct reading. Comparative studies suggest, however, that oral traditions are anything but stable. They are unreliable because of the so-called “telephone effect,” in which each reciter tends to introduce, whether consciously or unconsciously, subtle changes that are in turn passed on to the next reciter. Nowadays this problem is obviated by the control of a standardized text, but this not available in the early decades. We are told that Muhammad was illiterate, and so too must have been many of his followers. In this way a good deal of variation must have crept in between the time of the original recitations and the final emergence of a standard text. Pious Muslims, who hold that the Qur’an is beyond critique, deny that such corruptions could have taken place. However, objective scholarship must not bow before such taboos. One must go in whatever direction the evidence takes.

As we have it, the Qur'an is often highly obscure. The style is allusive, and the text employs expressions unfamiliar even to the earliest exegetes, or words that do not seem to fit. Some passages seem to present fragments wrested from a larger context that is no longer available. It has been estimated that about 20-25% of the text of the Qur’an is opaque or simply unintelligible.

One explanation that has been advanced for these hermetic features would be that the Prophet formulated his message in the liturgical language current in the religious communities with which he was acquainted, descanting upon revered texts such as hymns, lectionaries, and prayers, many of theme derived from Syriac, another Semitic language.

One scholar, Gerd Puin, has termed the Qur’an a “cocktail of texts.” If one assumes that the individual segments were produced individually over many generations--some perhaps originating a hundred years before Muhammad, and others appearing after his death--the heterogeneity of these scriptures becomes understandable, even if one cannot adequately analyze the component liqueurs, as it were, that make up the cocktail.

A continuing source of difficulty is the geographical problem. Byzantine and Persian writers focused on the northern and the southern ends of the Arabian peninsula, regions that provide considerable ancillary inscriptional evidence. The country’s midriff, where the Islamic tradition places Mohammed's career, was essentially a blank. Everything that we know, or think we know, that was going on there stems from Islamic tradition, which seems to have been quite malleable.

As Patricia Crone remarks, “[it] is difficult not to suspect that the tradition places the prophet's career in Mecca for the same reason that it insists that he was illiterate: the only way he could have acquired his knowledge of all the things that God had previously told the Jews and the Christians was by revelation from God himself. Mecca was virgin territory; it had neither Jewish nor Christian communities.” (Crone, 1987).


The environment presumed by the Qur’an shows a number of disconnects with the sparse setting of the Hijaz. Muhammad’s local adversaries were agriculturalists who cultivated wheat, grapes, olives, and date palms. Yet wheat, grapes, and olives are three staples of the Mediterranean. Date palms flourished further southwards. However, the Mecca region was inhospitable to any kind of settled agriculture, and olives could not have been produced there.

There are also indications of the human landscape that are at variance with conditions in the Hejaz. The Qur'an describes the opponents of the new movement as dwelling at the the site of a vanished people--a town destroyed by God for its sins. Northwest Arabia contains many such sites, unlike the Hijaz. The prophet emphasizes their fate, remarking ominously, with reference to the remains of Lot's people, that "you pass by them in the morning and in the evening." This allusion to the destruction of Sodom takes us to the Dead Sea region. Muhammad and his associates could have seen such ruins in the course of their travels. Yet the only way one can see them habitually is actually to spend time in that area.

Evidence of this kind suggests that we must shift our attention from Arabia Deserta, where later Muslim orthodoxy situates the origins of Islam, to northern Arabia, with its lively intellectual and religious traditions fostered by contact with Syria and Byzantium. Whether this puzzle authorizes us to conclude that Muhammad was a resident of northern Arabia who never saw Mecca and Medina--as some critical scholars assert--cannot be resolved at present. But the evidence suffices to raise considerable suspicion.

Perhaps the answer is less peremptory. Nowadays in America we speak of scholars and creative people as being “bi-coastal,” dividing their time between the East and the West Coasts. Perhaps, by the same token, the historical Muhammad was “bi-Arabian,” with roots in both northern and central Arabia.


How could Muhammad, or someone else of similar characteristics, have actually composed the Qur’an? For a possible answer we turn to Oral Theory, or Oralism.

As a field of study, oral theory traces its origins to the pioneering work of the Serbian scholar Vuk Stefanić Karadžić (1787-1864), a contemporary and friend of the Brothers Grimm, the German folklorists. Concerned about the possible disappearance of folk culture, Karadžić pursued a project of "salvage folklore" in the southern Slav regions which would later be gathered into Yugoslavia. Somewhat later, the turcologist Vasily Radlov (1837-1918) studied the songs of the Kara-Kirghiz people in remote territories of imperial Russia.

A remarkable creative use for such materials was devised by Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884). Trained as a physician, his true passion was the Finnish language. In the course of his duties as a country doctor he collected folk materials from reciters in Finland, Lapland, and Russian Karelia. Lönnrot wove these together in his Kalevala (1835-49). Although this work ranks as the Finnish national epic, it is in fact a clever compilation of disparate folk materials.

The matter took a more objective and scientific turn in the work of the American scholars Milman Parry and Albert Lord. While pursuing a degree in Classics at the University of California, Berkeley, Milman Parry (1902-1935) began to grapple with problems arising from the Homeric poems. Later Parry's work under the noted comparativist Antoine Meillet at the Sorbonne in Paris yielded his crucial insight into role of the "formula," which he originally defined as "a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea." Parry’s work focused on specifics. In Homeric verse, for example, phrases like eos rhododaktylos ("rosy-fingered dawn") or oinops pontos ("wine-dark sea") occupy a certain metrical pattern that fits, in modular fashion, into the six-colon Greek hexameter, and aids the aioidos or bard in extempore composition. Moreover, phrases of this type would invite internal substitutions and adaptations, permitting flexibility in response to narrative and grammatical needs.

Parry held that formulas were not idiosyncratic devices of particular artists, but the shared inheritance of a tradition of singers. They were easily remembered, making it possible for the singer to execute an improvisational composition--in performance. The performance aspect is crucial. Some scholars, more traditionally oriented, opined that Parry’s findings diminished Homer’s genius by treating him as a mere amalgamator, however gifted in that role, who stitched together material that he had purloined from other reciters.

In fact, Parry’s proposal encountered immediate resistance, because it seemed to reduce the two founts of Western literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, to a tangle of clichés. Nonetheless, the approach accounted for such otherwise inexplicable features of the Homeric poems as gross anachronisms (revealed by advances in historical and archaeological knowledge); the coexistence of incompatible Greek dialects; and the almost compulsive recourse to standardized epithets that clashed with the actual context (such as "blameless Aigisthos" for the murderer of Agamemnon, or the incongruous label of "swift-footed Achilles” for the hero when he was portrayed in conspicuously sedentary moments).

Milman Parry’s student Albert Lord (1912-1999) continued the work after Parry's premature death in 1935. Lord took advantage of the thousands of hours of oral performance the two scholars had recorded of epic poetry in Yugoslavia. Lord's later work, especially his 1960 volume The Singer of Tales, kick-started oral poetics as an entire new subdiscipline in literature and anthropology. Because of their use of the comparative method, the work of Parry and Lord offers a useful tool for the broad, cross-cultural study of oral creativity.

What is the bearing of these discoveries on Muhammad and the origins of the Qur’an? The rawi (Arabic: “reciter”) was a professional reciter of poetry in early Arabia. Bearers of an oral culture, the rawis preserved pre-Islamic poetry in oral tradition until it was written down in the eighth century.

One or more rawis attached themselves to a particular poet and learned his works by heart. They then recited and explained the poet’s verse before a wider audience. Such an attachment often became an apprenticeship, and, after mastering the poetic technique, some rāwīs became poets in their own right. The rawis, renowned for their phenomenal memories, eventually came to form an independent class.

Since Muhammad was not concerned with poetry as such, he cannot be termed a rawi in the strict sense. Still during the journeys that characterized his early career, he must have looked forward to quiet evenings when the rahis entertained the caravaneers before they sought their night’s rest. Their performances resembled those of today’s jazz improvisationalists, who take up existing melodies and give them their own particular stamp.

In this way Muhammad would have become familiar with a long-standing model. It is not too much of a stretch, I believe, to surmise that Muhammad might have adapted the rawi technique to his own sacred recitals. After all, qu’ran means “recital.” He would then have riffed off existing compositions, enhancing them with inspirations of his own. Then, after his death, other sacred reciters took up the models supplied by Muhammad, adding their own extensions and glosses.

The Qur’an has frequent recourse to standard epithets for Allah, including the Compassionate, the Exalted, the Compeller, the Avenger, the Fashioner, and the Generous. The Qur’an is also notable for its self-referential quality, the way in which the text almost stands outside itself in scrutinizing its own content. This last is also a feature of medieval Christian Arthurian literature, where the writers often use the expression “the story tells,” indicating that they are following an earlier model.


At this late date, unprejudiced examination of these matters more needed than ever. Yet in many countries, ones in which the relevant linguistic and theological expertise is concentrated, such inquiry is taboo. In most Muslim-majority nations law and public opinion combine to place limits on any unfettered scholarship regarding the origins of the faith. Even in Western countries the situation is not much better. A visit to an academic bookshop in the United States and Western Europe will show that the store stocks mainly books that echo the conventional wisdom regarding the origins of Islam. Such will be the experience of the ordinary observer.  With the demands on one’s time nowadays, it is hard to advance beyond this status with regard to an intricate and controversial subject.

Why have so many Western scholars, even those equipped to question the official account, gone along with the traditional view? Some are repelled by what they regard as Islamophobia, and are therefore less willing than they otherwise might be to criticize. Then there is the formidable pull of groupthink, what seems to be the consensus. While there is, in principle, much admiration for those who “march to a different drummer,” few in fact have the inclination to do so.

As has been suggested above, the real story is probably very different from the pious fabrication we are offered. A critical review of the meager Muslim sources deployed to explain the events of the seventh century makes it apparent that we must look beyond them. It is essential to examine other, external sources for the truth. Fortunately, in addition to the Islamic sources relied upon by the traditional Muslim arguments to account for the seventh-century developments, we also have several non-Muslim sources that individually and collectively shed significant light on the origins of Islam in the seventh century. Muslim scholars have often deemed these sources hostile and seek to place them out of bounds. Nonetheless, the testimony of these sources has yet to be refuted. In fact, they add much to the unbiased historical reconstruction of the seventh century. These sources have much to say about the authenticity of the Koran and whether we can rely on it as a source for the history of the seventh century.

To start with, we have two contemporary sources that directly undermine the Qur’an’s position regarding early relations between Arabs and Jews. According to the Qur’an, the Arabs and the Jews (living primarily in Medina) experienced a split between the years 622 and 624, that is, immediately after Muhammad’s flight to Medina. Yet two non-Muslim sources provide a significantly different picture regarding relations between the Jews and the Arabs. The Doctrina Iacobi, a Greek anti-Jewish tract that was written between 634 and 640, ranks as the earliest external testimony regarding Muhammad and his movement in the early seventh century. This text warns of a group comprised of both Jews and Saracens (as the Arabs were then called), citing the perils of falling into the hands of this dangerous combine. This view suggests that the two groups, Jews and Arab Muslims--far from being at loggerheads--were actually in cahoots.

Yet another contemporary source, the Chronicle written by Sebeos in 660 also discusses relations between Arabs and Jews during the early years of the seventh century. This non-Muslim source asserts that Muhammad established a community comprised of both Ishmaelites (his own people) and Jews, arguing that that they were united by a common lineage linking them to Abraham (Ishmael and Isaac), a birthright claim on the Holy Land, and a monotheistic commitment.

These contemporary sources paint a very different picture from the one offered by the Qur’an. Instead of a split between the Arabs and the Jews, the two groups are presented as a unit, whose two components were working harmoniously together towards common goals. Of course, the Qur’an, ostensibly the perfect word of God, tells us otherwise.

In addition to the apparent demographic inconsistency between the Qur’an and other contemporary sources, there is another tradition that may be doubted. The original Hijra may not have been directed to Mecca; instead, it may have been focused towards the city of Jerusalem. This finding is indeed startling, for the Hijra narrative (622) is so central to traditional Islam that it forms the starting point of the calendar. Yet two Nestorian ecclesiastical documents from 676 CE and 680 CE respectively tell us that the emigration of the Arabs at the early part of the seventh century didn’t start at Mecca and end at Medina (as the Muslim story goes) but was headed to what was deemed the promised land--Jerusalem. Under the leadership of Muhammad, the exiles may not have made it that far--Medina is on the road to Jerusalem--but the possibility is sobering. We have of course the legend that Muhammad did travel miraculously to Jerusalem on his death bed, where he mounted on a magical steed to heaven.

Yet another significant piece of the traditional Islamic narrative has been weakened recent archaeological investigations done on ancient mosques in present-day Iraq and Egypt. According to these studies, which examined the structures and contents of six structures from the seventh century, the prayer rooms were built such that the direction of prayer could not possibly have been towards Mecca, contradicting later Islamic doctrine. Further corroboration of this assertion is provided by Jacob of Edessa, a contemporary Christian writer who wrote a letter in 705 noting that the Arabs prayed toward the east. This evidence undermines the Koranic instruction that the direction of prayer (qibla) to be towards Mecca, a preference that was (according to Muslim tradition) established no later than 624. The focus eastwards--orientation--is a typical practice in Christian churches.

The combined effect of these pieces of information is to question whether Mecca in fact enjoyed the significance that later tradition has so lavishly accorded it. For defenders of the traditional view, the following conclusion must come as a shock. There is not a single piece of non-Muslim evidence that points to and corroborates this claim for such prominence during the seventh century. In fact, the earliest substantiated external reference to Mecca is in the Continuatio Byzantina-Arabica. a source from early in the reign of the caliph Hisham, who ruled between 724 and 743, one hundred years after the life of Muhammad.

When challenged with this lack of evidence, Muslim historians turn to the second-century Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy and his reference to a city called "Makoraba." The argument is that by Makaroba Ptolemy meant Mecca. However, the Greek writer’s mention was brief and cursory, and, according to several scholars, Makaroba may be assigned to a number of non-Meccan locations. Other than this early, doubtful reference, we simply have no mention of seventh-century Mecca independent of Muslim sources.

Flanked by complex and literate polities--the Byzantine and Persian Empires--it is hard to imagine that Mecca was as influential and significant as claimed. If so, surely there would not be such a dearth of evidence. It is not simply that it is not portrayed as a major center--it is not portrayed at all. Educated seventh-century Greeks and Persians had never heard of a place called Mecca. How then could it have been so prominent? Granted that it probably existed, Mecca was probably just a hick town.

Further diminishing the salience of Mecca as described by Islamic sources is evidence suggesting that the Muslim description of Mecca as a city at the center of trading routes in the seventh century is seriously misleading. In fact seventh-century Mecca was tucked away at a remote part of a huge and desolate peninsula. It requires a lot of special pleading to secure its status as a natural crossroads between a major north-south route and an east-west one. A more natural travel itinerary would have been along the western ridge, skipping a 100-mile detour to barren Mecca. In short, Mecca was not a mecca in those days.

What were the goods that were supposed to have passed through this entrepot? In all likelihood, it was not spices or incense as Muslim historians have claimed. At best, the items traded were humble items of leather and clothing. This trade would not have supported the thriving metropolis of later Muslim legend. In late antiquity Arabia was simply not a major center of international trade. There is no reason it should have been. After the first century, trade between the Gulf of Aqaba and India was entirely maritime. Why would traders go across the land when an easier and cheaper water route was available?

One last category of external, non-Muslim evidence further undermines the traditional Muslim picture of seventh-century conditions. The archaeologist Yehuda Nevo has published a detailed study analyzing numerous rock inscriptions and coins dated to the seventh century found on rocks discovered primarily in the Syro-Jordanian desert (Nevo, 2004). In this material, the earliest reference to Muhammad was found on an Arab-Sassanian coin of Khalid Abdallah dated 690 CE.

Nevo did indeed conclude that there was "religious content" on some of the earlier stone inscriptions recovered and that several of the early seventh century inscriptions did contain "a message of monotheism related to a body of sectarian literature with developed Judeo-Christian conceptions." However, he failed to find a single inscription with a reference to Muhammad, allegedly the most prominent religious figure of the century, concluding that "in all the Arab religious institutions during the Sufyani period (661-684) there is not one reference to Muhammad.” It is hard to imagine that not a single stone inscription attesting to Muhammad’s influence would come to light--unless, of course, the traditional description of Muhammad during the seventh century was simply not accurate. How else to explain this absence of reference to one of the (if not the most) influential and significant characters of the seventh century?

The most prominent monumental inscription in the early Islamic tradition appears on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem; it provides further evidence that undermines the Islamic narrative. The Dome was built as an "Islamic" sanctuary by Abd-al-Malik in 691. It is not a mosque. Muslim tradition holds that it was built to commemorate the night that Muhammad traveled to heaven to meet with Moses and Allah regarding the number of prayers required of believers (the Mi’raj). This traditional claim not withstanding, the inscriptions say nothing of this event at all. Instead, the inscriptions refer to the messianic status of Jesus, the acceptance of the prophets, and Muhammad’s revelations. More telling is the fact that the inscriptions on the Dome--built sixty years after Muhammad’s death--are the earliest references that we have (outside of Islamic sources) that actually include the terms "Islam" and "Muslim." If Islam had been such a prominent and influential seventh-century religious movement that had been formally canonized forty years before the Dome was constructed, how is it possible that the words Islam and Muslim are not mentioned before that time?

Clearly, we need to take a close, critical look at the seventh century and the origins of Islam. What must one conclude from the silence and unreliabiity of the Islamic sources coupled with the telling evidence offered by external sources? To begin with, we simply don’t know exactly what happened during the seventh century. We do know that a group of Arab warriors successfully conquered vast territories within and well beyond the Peninsula, certainly a significant feat. However, apart from their own sources, appropriately identified as "salvation history" and not objective narrative,we don’t know how the development of Islam related to these invasions.

It is reasonable to conclude, supported by the arguments of several revisionist historians, is that Islam as we know it today did not begin to truly "crystallize" until the beginning of the eighth century. At that time, the conquerors realized that they needed a distinctively Arab deity and a system of law to rule a large and diverse group of recently conquered peoples.

Hence the literary creation of Islam. What better means for a small numerical minority to govern a large, diverse, recently conquered territory than with the power of divine direction? Viewed in this light, Muhammad was not the vessel of the final word of God but a political and military leader who unified the Arab tribes and urged them to conquer in the name of their deity. There is much work to be done towards figuring out the historical events of the seventh century. In the view of the critical-historical school,the first step must be to look beyond the biased and inadequate Islamic sources.


Seeking to bring together representatives from several perspectives, Professor Gabriel Said Reynolds, a leading scholar in the field, has organized two international conferences at Notre Dame University in Indiana. The first was held in 2005, the second in 2009. The proceedings of both gatherings have been published.

The 2005 conference dealt with “The Qur’an in Its Historical Context” (Reynolds, 2007). To judge from the printed volume, this conference combined surveys of existing scholarship with more detailed studies, some exploring the Christian and Jewish background.

The second conference, “The Qur’an and Its Biblical Subtext,” received extensive press coverage. As with the previous conference, the newer revisionist perspectives were represented, but in a limited way, in what appears to be a concession to established views.

In keeping with this cautionary note, most of the papers address particular passages or motifs--minutiae in short. Still some general considerations appeared. One of these is this: to what extent does the world view of the Koran continue that of Jewish and Christian sources, especially as expressed in the Syriac (or Aramaic) language? In his recent book Christoph Luxenberg (pseud.) forcefully argues this point. Luxenberg holds that the language of the early compositions found in the Qur'an was not exclusively Arabic, as asserted by the classical commentators, but rather is rooted in the Syro-Aramaic dialect of the seventh-century Meccan Quraysh tribe. Luxenberg’s premise is that the Aramaic tongue--a lingua franca prevalent throughout the Middle East in Late Antiquity and during the early period of Islam--was the language of culture and of the Christian liturgy. As such, it had a profound influence on the scriptural composition and meaning of the contents of the Koran. Luxenberg, who is thought to be a Christian Arab teaching in Germany, has chosen his pseudonym “for safety.” A paper contributed by this scholar was read at the conference (he did not appear in person).

A second question concerns the unity of the text. To be sure, a scrappy impression must inevitably emerge from perusing the received text, as the Suras are arranged by length. Yet even if the texts are rearranged, as by presumed order of composition for example, the sense of disunity persists. One speaker at the conference argued that each Sura is to be taken as a separate discourse. Following this line of thought, it is vain to try to rule on any matter based on the meme “the Qur’an says.” This approach reinforces the conclusion of recent critical scholars that the Qur’an was put together with scissors and paste, so to speak, and not delivered by the angel Gabriel in accordance with some predetermined unity.

An example of how one can be diverted by trivia is the one thing that most people interested in the question know about the research of Christoph Luxenberg. He has suggested that the gathering of the “houri” (white ones) promised to martyrs when they reach Heaven doesn’t actually refer to “virgins.” He argues that instead it means “grapes,” perhaps a metonymic evocation of the bounteousness of Paradise.

On April 22, 2009 the conference was the subject of an oped piece on April 22 in the New York Times ( Nicholas Kristof writes: “One of the scholars at the Notre Dame conference whom I particularly admire is Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, an Egyptian Muslim who argues eloquently that if the Koran is interpreted sensibly in context then it carries a strong message of social justice and women’s rights.

“Dr. Abu Zayd’s own career [Kristof continues] underscores the challenges that scholars face in the Muslim world. When he declared that keeping slave girls and taxing non-Muslims were contrary to Islam, he infuriated conservative judges. An Egyptian court declared that he couldn’t be a real Muslim and thus divorced him from his wife (who, as a Muslim woman, was not eligible to be married to a non-Muslim). The couple fled to Europe. . .

“’The Islamic reformation started as early as the 19th century,’ notes Dr. Abu Zayd, and, of course, it has even earlier roots as well. One important school of Koranic scholarship, Mutazilism, held 1,000 years ago that the Koran need not be interpreted literally, and even today Iranian scholars are surprisingly open to critical scholarship and interpretations.

“If the Islamic world is going to enjoy a revival, if fundamentalists are to be tamed, if women are to be employed more productively, then moderate interpretations of the Koran will have to gain ascendancy. There are signs of that, including a brand of ‘feminist Islam’ that cites verses and traditions suggesting that the Prophet Muhammad favored women’s rights.”

Thus Kristof.

Abu Zayd’s fate shows the perils of embarking on any criticism of Islam and the Qur’an from within the Islamic world. After noting that point, Kristof veers into Polyanna-land. Feminist Islam? Lots of luck.

The conference and the ensuing book demonstrates the overaraching problem: one can go some ways in this direction, but prudence urges caution. At Notre Dame some critical points were made, but they were drenched in a dense cloud of minutiae. The persistence of such cautionary camouflage is something that must be noted.

Still, the conference may be a promising start--even though it draws upon research that has been available for decades. As for further developments, we will have to wait and see.


As has been noted, the Qur’an provides only a few scattered pieces of information about the life of Muhammad in Mecca and Medina. The later biographies are a mixture of fact and fiction, with no way of telling for certain which is which. Nonetheless there are certain commonly accepted events and characteristics which tell us something of the way Muslims have chosen to remember the Prophet. They therefore tell us something about Islam itself.

Towards the beginning of this chapter, we rehearsed the basic outline of the life of Muhammad as it is commonly understood, from his birth about 570, the beginning of the revelations when he was about forty years old, the Hijra in 622, and Muhammad’s death in Medina ten years later.

In what follows we focus on some personal details of Muhammad’s life and character.

First, like Joseph Smith of the Mormons and David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, Muhammad had well-developed sexual appetites, and he found religious sanction for giving the free reign. As is well known, according to the Qur’an, Muslims are allowed a total of four wives. Yet Muhammad had eleven or thirteen wives, depending on the source that is followed. Conveniently enough, a revelation gave him a special dispensation to have so many. Reputedly, he moved about in the night, satisfying one after the other. The Prophet had no need of Viagra!

Moreover, one of his brides was extraordinarily young. The Holy Prophet married Aisha when she was six years old, and consummated his marriage with her when she was nine, when he deflowered her. He was then fifty-four years old.

Abu Bakr, Aisha’s father, and Muhammad had pledged to each other to be brothers. According to the customs prevailing at the time Aisha was supposed enjoy the status of a niece to the Holy Prophet. Yet that did not deter him from asking her hand even when she was only six years old. He consummated the relationship when his bride was nine. The Prophet felt free to disregard the rules whenever they stood between him and the satisfaction of his appetites.

Some commentators have questioned Aisha’s age as given in the Hadith accounts. Yet it is generally acknowledged that taking child brides (though not a niece, or one regarded as such) was an established custom in primitive Arabia. Perhaps so, but Muhammad is supposed to have introduced a higher standard of morality. Not in this matter, though.

Muhammad’s lack of ethical scruples is also evident in his relations with local Jews. Muhammad’s relations with the Jews of the Hijaz were complex. From them he learned important details of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish legend. Since he was illiterate, he could not consult written texts, and had to rely on oral report. However, he was deeply disappointed when the Jews of Arabia declined to convert to the supposedly purer monotheism of Islam. Nonetheless, Muhammad married two Jewish woman, Safiyya bint Huyayy, a captive from the Banu Nadir, and Rayhana bint Zayd.

After his move from Mecca to Medina, he established an understanding known as the Constitution of Medina, intended to reconcile the major Medinan factions, including the Jewish tribes of the Banu Qaynuqa, the Banu Nadir, and the Banu Qurayza. The rights of Jews were ostensibly guaranteed as long as they remained supportive. However, Muhammad used their supposed infractions of the agreement as an excuse to harass and persecute these Jewish groups. After each major battle with opponents, there were accusations of Jewish tribal treachery for aiding the enemies of the community in violation of the Constitution of Medina. After two such battles, the Banu Quaynuqa and the Banu Nadir were expelled "with their families and possessions" from Medina.

After the Battle of the Trench (627), the Banu Qurayza Jews were accused of conspiring with the Meccans. The Qurayza were were attacked and defeated in battle. They agreed to the appointment of an arbitrator to decide their punishment. Muhammad suggested Sa’d ibn Mua’dh, a leading figure among the Aws, a Jewish tribe that converted to Islam, whom they believed would judge in their favor. However, the arbitrator decreed an execution sentence against the Qurayza; 600-900 Qurayza men were beheaded (except for the few who chose to convert to Islam). All the women and children were enslaved, and their properties divided up among Muhammad’s followers.

Reputedly, Muhammad met his death at the hands of a Jewish woman, following the conquest of a town called Khaibar, where he took Safiyah, as a wife, and ordered the torture and beheading of her husband Kinnana, the chief of the Jews at Khaibar.

According to the Sahih Bukhari, as narrated by Anas bin Malik, the Jewish woman brought a poisoned (cooked) sheep for the Prophet who ate from it. The effect of the poison killed the prophet. When the woman was asked why she had done it, she replied that if he were a true prophet God would have spared him. He did not.

Some doubt has been cast on the accuracy of these reports of violent hostility between Muhammad and the local Jews. It may be that some of the reports are exaggerated, but surely there is some truth in them. It is true that Muhammad was willing to welcome Jews if they converted. This fact may lend substance to the reports by Christian observers a little later that there was a de facto fusion between Muslims and Jews.


Salman Rushdie got into a great deal of trouble when he published his novel The Satanic Verses in 1988. Rushdie did not invent the notion embodied by his title. It stems, if we are to believe the accounts, from a particularly low point in Muhammad’s career in Mecca.

Even a cursory reading of the Qur’an will show the it strenuously supports absolute monotheism, strongly opposing what it calls “associating,” the idea that some other figure, whether Jesus, Zeus, or Isis can share in the attributes of the divine. “There is no God but God.” (passim). “He begot no one, nor was he begotten.” (Sura 112).

Nonetheless, the Qur’an mentions several non-Allah deities in the Qur’an, among them three female deities: al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat. Each goddess had a shrine of her own in places not far from Mecca. They enjoyed the exalted rank of daughters of God.

As it now reads, the Qur'an--as one would expect--rejects these deities. Yet did the Qur'an and Muhammad always reject them?

During Muhammad’s years in Mecca (until 622), his followers were few. His movement grew slowly and as it did attitudes became sharply polarized. The Prophet felt the pain of estrangement from his tribe. According to the standard biographical and historical accounts (such as the writings of at-Tabari and Ibn Sa’d), Muhammad longed for better relations and reconciliation with his community. God proved accommodating, revealing Sura 53 to Muhammad. This text includes two crucial verses:

“Have ye thought upon al-Lat and al-Uzza
And Manat, the third, the other?” (53:19,20) In the original text two more verses followed (the “Satanic verses”): “These are the exalted cranes (intermediaries)
/Whose intercession is to be hoped for.”

The cranes whose intercession was sought were, of course, the three goddesses. Once this ukase was proclaimed, Muhammad, his followers, and the pagan Arabs all prostrated themselves in unison. Tensions eased, and there was a sense of general satisfaction. So at least we are told.

But the Prophet soon regretted what had happened. How to account for it? Jibril (Gabriel), the angel of revelation, appeared with distressing news: Satan had cunningly exploited Muhammad's desire for reconciliation with the pagan leaders by feeding him the satanic verses. In this way the “interceding cranes” shamelessly flew onto their perches pitched in the very revelation of God.

They were not destined to reside there permanently, though, Not long after, the two offending verses disappeared. As it now reads the sura continues: “Are yours the males and His the females?
That indeed were an unfair division!” (53:21,22)

The sense appears to be this. By custom the Arabs favor male offspring over females, Yet the traditional polytheistic view seems to contradict this principle, for the high God, most unpatriarchally, seems to prefer daughters (the goddesses). Surely this cannot be right. Conclusion? The three goddesses are false.

Two other passages from the Qur'an deal with the compromise between Muhammad and the traditionalists, concluding with Muhammad's eventual rejection of it.

The first reads: “And they indeed strove to beguile thee (Muhammad) away from that wherewith We (God) have inspired thee, that thou shouldst invent other than it against Us; and then would they have accepted thee as a friend.
And if We had not made thee wholly firm thou mightest almost have inclined unto them a little. 
Then had We made thee taste a double (punishment) of living and a double (punishment) of dying, then hadst thou found no helper against Us.” (17:73-75)

The second passage seeks to comfort Muhammad: “Never sent We a messenger or a prophet before thee but when He recited (the message) Satan proposed (opposition) in respect of that which he recited thereof. But Allah abolisheth that which Satan proposeth. Then Allah establisheth His revelations. Allah is Knower, Wise; “That He may make that which the devil proposeth a temptation for those in whose hearts is a disease, and those whose hearts are hardened – Lo! the evil-doers are in open schism.” (22:52-53)

These verses substantiate the satanic-verses conundrum. Whether these events actually happened as described remains, like much in seventh-century Arabia, obscure. But the account was honored by Muslims over many generations. Astoundingly, they affected to believe that Satan had the power to insert subversive verses into the message from God, in the Holy Qur'an itself. Satan suborned the Prophet, making him recite his demonic words as God's words!

In due course God took corrective action. He authorized a 2.0 version, purged of the satanic input.

Satan or no Satan, it seems that like some modern writer, God could edit himself. He could delete an awkward verse or two, replacing them with what hindsight showed was better content: “Such of Our revelations as We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring (in place) one better or the like thereof. Knowest thou not that Allah is able to do all things?” (2:106 ;cf. 16:101).

This is the doctrine of Naskh, or abrogation. which employs the logic of chronology and progressive revelation. Different situations require different strategies, and the newer approach supplants the previous one. A familiar example is the contrast between the relatively peaceful verses ascribed to the Meccan period and the more warlike ones of the subsequent Medina era. The latter abrogate the former. For this reason the familiar apologetic gambit of citing verses from the earlier phase of development to suggest that Islam is a religion of peace is not persuasive. These pacific texts have been superseded by belllicose ones.

The Naskh principle was acknowledged by Muslim theologians of later centuries, who carefully sorted out which Quranic passages were abrogating and which were abrogated.

Today, many Muslims disingenuously seek to deny this principle, rejecting the very possibility that God could cancel out or change his word in any way or form. Unlike mere mortals, God does not change his mind. In their damage-control efforts, they sometimes limit the applicability of Qur'an 2:106 (cited above) to the Qur'an’s abrogation of the previous Scriptures of Moses and Jesus—even though the Qur'an clearly teaches that these Scriptures are also the Word of God. As such they are presumably unchangeable.

Today, the pious tend to resist the idea (once firmly believed) the satanic verses formerly disgraced the Holy Qur'an. Many modern Muslims find it simply inconceivable that Muhammad, even under the severest pressures, would be so weak as to compromise with his Meccan enemies by making concessions to pagan polytheism. Even more insidious is the notion that Satan could somehow "whisper" his thoughts into the substance of God's holy Word, the Qur'an. For if Satan managed this once, could he not have done so on other occasions, yielding other satanic blather that actually lingers in the Holy Book?

If the matter were not so scandalous, this recognition could pave the way for a genuine renewal of Islam, by purging it of inhumane (“satanic”) survivals from the primitive tribal society of early medieval Arabia. Unfortunately, such a project would not enjoy much credit.

Our information about the satanic verses and the circumstances surrounding their revelation stems from the later Muslim accounts of at-Tabari and Ibn Sa’d. As we have noted, critical study suggeststhat these sources are not altogether trustworthy. In this instance, could they not simply have been mistaken? No one can know for sure, but on the microlevel, it seems hard to believe that someone could have come along and invented two spurious verses which fit seamlessly into the texts.

There is a broader issue. Modern Muslims who simply dismiss the account of the early biographers as fabricated and unhistorical must still cope with the scandal that lingers--why was this ludicrous story so long accepted by pious believers?


Islam is a “religion of peace.” So says president George W. Bush in an opinion shared by numerous admirers of Islam, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

This view is simply false. The Quran contains at least 109 verses that call Muslims to war with nonbelievers. Here are a few examples.

"They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks." (Qur’an 4:89)

"The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement." (Qur’an 5:33).

"I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them." (Qur’an 8:12).

"And let not those who disbelieve suppose that they can outstrip (Allah's Purpose). Lo! they cannot escape. Make ready for them all thou canst of (armed) force and of horses tethered, that thereby ye may dismay the enemy of Allah and your enemy." (Qur’an 8:59-60).

"Go forth, light-armed and heavy-armed, and strive with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah! That is best for you if ye but knew." (Qur’an 9:41).

"O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness." (Qur’an 9:23).

"Surely Allah loves those who fight in His way." (Qur’an 61:41).

Apologists for Islam seek to balance these verses with others supporting peace and compromise. Muslim apologists speak of the "risks" of trying to interpret the Qur'an without their assistance. This assistance is usually special pleading.

The key point is this. The relatively peaceful verses all stem from the earlier “Meccan” group according to the traditional reckoning. According to the doctrine of Abrogation, they are superseded by the later, warlike verses that stem from the Medina period. So the “peaceful” verses are null and void.

The matter is summed up by the notorious “sword verse.” “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity [zakat], then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Qur’an 9:5). Unbelievers have two choices: either to suffer continual harassment, and possible death; or to convert to Islam (repent”).

Until recently, substantial minorities of Christians and Jews remained in Islamic countries. However, they were only permitted to live there if they payed a special tax called the jizya. The act of paying this tax was accompanied by harsh humiliation rituals. Other disabilities were imposed as well.

This tolerance, if such it may be termed, is reserved for the “peoples of the book,” Christians and Jews. Other groups have faced a much harsher fate.

For five centuries, beginning about 1000 CE Hindus suffered the brutal slaughter of tens of millions, including the massacre of those who defending their temples from destruction. Buddhists escaped a similar fate only because by that time most of them lived outside the Indian subcontinent. Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia, is a particular object of hatred; it barely survives in modern Iran.

Islam never gives up what it conquers, be it religion, culture, or language. Smugly convinced of its own perfection, it shuns self-examination and represses criticism.

These beliefs are shored up by Islam's dualistic world view that pits Dar al-Islam (the "realm of submission," i.e., the Islamic world), against Dar al-Harb (the "realm of war," i.e., the non-Islamic world). While these struggles are violent, ultimately they will cease--when the latter is swallowed up by the former. This is the real meaning of jihad.

The concept of struggle is highlighted by the following example. Based on the ten-year treaty of Hudaibiya (628), ratified between Muhammad and his Quraysh opponents in Mecca, ten years is, theoretically, the maximum amount of time Muslims can be at peace with infidels. Based on Muhammad's example of breaking the treaty after two years (by citing a sole infraction), the sole function of the "peace treaty" (or hudna) is to buy weakened Muslims time to regroup before going on the offensive once more. In this way oath-breaking and dissimulation became standard practice in dealing with Unbelievers. In the campaign to reduce them to obedience no holds are barred.

Regrettably, human beings, especially men, are subject to an inborn tendency to aggression and violence. Most ethical traditions, and the advance of civilization itself, have sought to curb this proclivity. Yet Islam, given Muhammad's own martial legacy, aggravates and exalts this tendency to hostility.

And there is more. In Islamic law, the penalty for apostasy is death. Since Islam is conceived as a community and not an aggregation of individuals, it follows that apostasy is treason. The four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence, in concert with Shi’a scholars, concur in their conclusion that a sane adult male apostate must be executed. A female apostate may be put to death, according to the majority view, or imprisoned until she repents, according to others.

Some apologists have suggested that such harsh penalties are characteristic only of a bygone age, that of primitive Islam. As societies have progressed, they have been discarded. This claim is belied by recent evidence. Over and over again, radical elements of Islam issue accusations of apostasy and demands that it be punished.

Today of 57 Islamic countries, six make apostasy from Islam a crime punishable by death: Afghanistan, Saudia Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia. According the US State Department, there have been no reports any executions carried out for this crime by the government of Saudi Arabia for several years. However, this absence may simply reflect the severity of the regime. No Saudi would even dare think of declaring himself an apostate, and in any case there are no churches or synagogues there for such a person to join. In Pakistan, however, vigilante attacks against alleged apostates are common.

In Afghanistan, the recent case of Abdul Rahman has achieved particular notoriety. In early 2006, Rahman was arrested and held by Afghan authorities on charges that he converted from Islam to Christianity, a capital offense. Muslim clerics in the country pushed for a death sentence, but after international pressure, he was released and secretly conveyed to Italy, where he was given asylum.

In 1993, an Egyptian Muslim professor named Nasr Abu Zayd was divorced from his wife by an Egyptian court on the grounds that his controversial writings about the Qur'an demonstrated his apostasy. He subsequently fled to Europe with his wife. Another Egyptian professor, Farag Foda, was killed in 1992 by masked men after criticizing Muslim fundamentalists and announcing plans to form a new movement for Egyptians of all religions.

The case of the British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie has had enormous international resonance. His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), ignited a major controversy because of a supposedly disrespectful portrait of Muhammad. (Rushdie’s heritage is Muslim.) The novel drew protests in a number of countries, some of them violent. In February 1989 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him. For his own safety Rushdie had to go into hiding for a number of years.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born Dutch intellectual and writer. An apostate, she is a prominent critic of Islam, and her screenplay for Theo Van Gogh’s film Submission led to death threats. Hirsi Ali currently serves as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. Even in the United States she can move about only under the protection of armed guards.


In Islam, zakat, or the obligatory giving of alms, is the Third of the five pillars of Islam. Various rules attach to the practice, but in general terms, a Muslims is required to give donate 2.5% of ones savings and business revenue, as well as 5-10% of ones harvest. In principle, the recipients include the destitute, the working poor, those who are unable to pay off their own debts, stranded travelers, and others who need help. "The alms are only for the poor and the needy, and those who collect them, and those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to free the captives and the debtors, and for the cause of Allah, and (for) the wayfarers; a duty imposed by Allah. Allah is knower, Wise." (Qur'an 9:60). A pious person may also give as much as he or she pleases as sadaqa, and does so preferably in secret.

This charity is one of the proudest traditions of Islam. However, only Muslims are eligible for this assistance.

Zakat is not to be paid to a non-Muslim ruler. Today those Muslims who live in a non-Muslim country such as the United States and the United Kingdom, do not pay zakat to the government of that country. Instead they pay their share as charity to Muslim organizations like CAIR in the US or the Al Mujahiroun in UK. In practice it has proved difficult to cordon off these funds from those that are allocated financing global terrorism. Other charitable funds are devoted to madrassas, which often teach extremist views.

Muslim ideas about taxation are very different from those that prevail in Western democracies. The American Revolution relied on the principle “no taxation without representation,” with the idea that constitutional equality was a precondition for the sovereign exercise of levying taxes.

In Western countries taxes are levied without regard for one's communal origins. The tax one pays grants the payer entitlement to the full protection of the state, and thus full and equal citizenship. The goal of the tax is the same with everyone: it permits the state to provide for the security and well being of all its citizens.

This is not the case under dhimmitude, the subordinate status imposed on non-Muslims who dwell in the Dar al-Islam, the “house of submission.” Dhimmis were required to pay a special tax, the jizya. This practice has its origins in Sura 9:29 of the Qur’an, where it is explicitly revealed as a mark of the subjugation of conquered non-Muslims. The tax was levied annually, and special rites of humiliation, including striking and physical harassment, prevailed.

Islamic law makes it clear that the jizya is punitive. As a symbol of subjection, the jizya delivers the message that the state is not the common property of all its permanent residents: it belongs only to Muslims. As conquered outsiders, dhimmis must be regularly reminded of their inferior condition. The tax also punishes them for their disbelief in Islam.

In an Islamic State, the non-Muslims are in a worse situation than prisoners out on parole, since they are still being punished, and will continue to be so all long as they do not convert to the True Faith. However exemplary their conduct, they do not rank as “good, law-abiding citizens. Their crime is their faith.

The jizya tax has a unique status. Unlike Western taxes, payment does not grant equality and liberty to the payee, but rather merely temporary permission to survive for another tax period. Failure to pay may result in death.

The term dhimmitude was coined by the British scholar Bat Ye’or in 1983 to characterize the legal and social conditions of Jews and Christians subject to Muslim rule. The expression comes from dhimmi, an Arabic word meaning "protected". Dhimmi was the name applied by the Arab-Muslim conquerors to indigenous non-Muslim populations who surrendered by a treaty (dhimma) to Muslim domination. Islamic conquests expanded over vast territories in Africa, Europe and Asia, for over a millennium (638-1683), leading to the acquisition of ever-new territories in which the principles of dhimmitude applied.

Dhimmitude is a broad term, encompassing the relationship of Muslims and non-Muslims at the theological, social, political and economical levels. It also incorporates the relationship between the numerous ethno-religious dhimmi groups and the culture of oppression that they have necessarily developed to cope with an inferior status that lasted for centuries. The effects persist in Muslim countries today, leading to a large emigration of Christians and Jews form those nations.

Dhimmitude is a comprehensive, integrated system, based on Islamic theology. Its nature cannot be gauged merely by examining the specific position of any one community at a given time and in a given place. Dhimmitude must be appraised according to its overall laws and customs, irrespective of circumstances and political contingencies.


According to Muslim belief, Ibrahim (the biblical patriarch Abraham) is a major prophet. He was the son of Azar and the father of Ismail (Ishmael)—his first born son—and Is'haq (Isaac), his second born, both of whom rank as prophets in Islamic tradition. Ismail is considered the father of some of the Arabs—specifically Father of the Arabized Arabs, peoples who became Arab—and Isaac is considered the Father of the Hebrews

As the first of the line, Ibrahim/Abraham enjoys an exalted status as the Father of the Prophets. He is also commonly termed Khalil Allah, or “Friend of God.” Ostensibly, Ibrahim is the person who gave Muslims that name (“those who submit to God”). He is considered the archetype of a hanif, that is a faithful monotheist. Abraham is discussed or mentioned in 25 of the Qur’an’s 114 suras, more than any other hallowed individual, with the exception of Moses.

For Jews, Abraham figures as the founder of Judaism. Christians essentially agree, though regarding Abraham as the initiator of a religious evolution that would eventually achieve its triumphal completion in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. For Muslims the matter is entirely different. Abraham/Ibrahim founded a pure monotheism, which gradually became corrupted. After many centuries of error and confusion, the unalloyed monotheism he championed was restored. thanks the the revelations vouched to the Messenger of God, Muhammad.

As discussed in Chapter One, the people who follow the faith of Abraham--ostensibly the same as that of Islam--are called Millat Ibrahim.

The importance of Abraham in Islamic tradition transpires in the five daily prayers of Muslims. Apart from Muhammad, Abraham, is the only other prophet of God who is mentioned by name four times in each of the five daily prayers that Muslims perform. This is done during the Durood recitation of the prayer where Muslims send their blessings to Muhammad.

The Qur'an treats Abraham as the spiritual father of all the believers. He is mentioned as an upright person who was neither a polytheist nor a Christian nor a Jew (Qur’an 3:67). According to the Qur'an, Abraham reached the conclusion that anything subject to disappearance could not be worthy of worship, and thus became a monotheist (Qur’an 6:76-83). Some Sunni Muslims believe that Azar the idol-maker was the father of Abraham, while other Sunnis and Shias hold that Tarakh was his father and Azar was Abraham's uncle.

Echoing a Jewish legend, Abraham is alleged to have broken Azar's idols, calling on his community to worship the true God instead. The Qur’an also mentions a confrontation between a king, not mentioned by name, and Abraham (2:258). Following Jewish sources, Muslim commentators identify Nimrod as the king. In Abraham's confrontation with his royal adversary, the prophet maintains that God is the one who gives life and gives death. The king responds by bringing out two people sentenced to death. He releases one and kills the other in a rather gross attempt to make the point that he also brings life and death. Abraham refutes this claim by asserting that God brings the Sun out from the east, and so he asks the king to bring it from the west. The wicked king is then perplexed and angered.

This tale was evidently culled from a rich deposit of Jewish legend. First, it should be noted that according to the Hebrew Bible there is a gap of seven generations between them, Nimrod being Noah’s great grandson while Abraham was ten generations removed from Noah. Nevertheless, later Jewish tradition brings the two of them together in a cataclysmic collision, a potent symbol of the cosmic confrontation between Good and Evil, and specifically of monotheism against paganism and idolatry.

This tradition first appears in the writings of Pseudo-Philo, continues in the Talmud, passing through later rabbinical writings in the Middle Ages. In some versions, as in Josephus), Nimrod is a man who sets his will against that of God. In others, he proclaims himself a god and is worshipped as such by his subjects, sometimes with his consort Semiramis honored as a goddess at his side.

A celestial portent tells tells Nimrod and his astrologers of the impending birth of Abraham, who would put an end to idolatry. Nimrod therefore orders the killing of all newborn babies. However, Abraham's mother escapes into the fields and gives birth secretly (in some accounts, the baby Abraham is placed in a manger). At a young age Abraham recognizes God and starts worshipping Him. He confronts Nimrod, advising him face-to-face to cease his idolatry, whereupon Nimrod orders him burned at the stake. In some versions, Nimrod has his subjects gather wood for four whole years, so as to burn Abraham in the biggest bonfire the world had seen (a story possibly inspired or confused with Nimrod's building of the Tower of Babel). Yet once the fire is lit, Abraham walks out unscathed, recalling the escape of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three men from the fiery furnace (Daniel, chapter one).

Such are the Jewish legends which provided a quarry of sources for this and other Qur’an accounts of worthies of earlier times. Borrowings of this kind raise serious questions about the originality and authority of the Qur’an. 
At all events, the well-known but non-canonical Qisas al-Anbiya (“Stories of the Prophets”) by Ibn Kathir records other purported details of Abraham’s life.

Abraham has an important role in the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Abraham's footprint is displayed outside the Kaaba, where it is protected and guarded by the Saudi Arabian Mutawa (Religious Police). The annual Hajj, the fifth Pillar of Islam, ostensibly retraces Abraham's, Hagar's, and Ismail's journey to the sacred site of the Kaaba. Islamic tradition narrates that Abraham's subsequent visits, after leaving Ismail and Hagar to reside in Arabia, were not only to visit his son Ismail but also to construct the first house of worship for God in conjunction with the Kaaba in fulfillment of God's command.

A principal aspect of the Hajj is remembering God's test of Abraham where he was asked to sacrifice his first-born son Ismail. Also commemorated is his path to the altar where Iblis (the Devil) attempted to dissuade him three times. Those places where Satan appeared are marked with three symbolic pillars where pilgrims throw stones. Moreover a part of the Hajj is a commemoration of the sacrifice and efforts of Abraham’s wife Hagar to find water in the desert for her son Ismail, when he was near death with thirst. She ran between two hills, Al-Safa and Al-Marwa, seven times in search of help. This ritual, known as Saaee in Arabic (which means seeking or searching), is mandatory for all pilgrims to Mecca. Finally, on Mount Marwa, Hagar saw the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) sheltering her son Ismail from the sun as a spring of water emerged from beneath his feet. That spring became the basis of founding the city of Mecca, since fresh water was scarce in that barren land. The water from the spring, known to Muslims as Zam Zam, is still running, as it has been for thousands of years, purportedly since this event took place.

The Qur'an states that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son. The son is not however named in the Qur'an (e.g., 37:102–113). Early Islamic days saw a dispute over the identity of the son. However, Some Muslim scholars came to endorse that it was Ismail but some others--notably Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, one of the first exegetes of the Qur’an--held that it was clearly Isaac and not Ishmael. Eventually, it was generally agreed that Ismail was the son whom God wished Abraham to sacrifice.

The whole episode of the sacrifice is regarded as a trial that Abraham had to face from God. As such it is celebrated by Muslims on the day of Eid al-Adha, or “festival of sacrifice.” 


Most observers of the violence perpetrated by today’s Islamic extremists would agree that this turbulence is in part a response to a series of ongoing frustrations. Among them are a sense of humiliation engendered by the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq; the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli struggle; the grievances (justified or not) of the Muslim diaspora in Western Europe; and the corruption and incompetence of their own governments.

Yet a proper appreciation of the disturbances requires a much longer time frame. In a nutshell that is as follows. Today the West is powerful; Islam is nearly powerless (and would be completely so, if it were not for petroleum). This is not the way things were supposed to work. Supplanting Judaism and Christianity and taking its place as the final, perfected version of the Abrahamic religious tradition, Islam must also foster the most advanced society.

That conclusion would seem logical. Why have things not turned out that way?

The centuries following the Islamic conquests beginning in the seventh century saw the prevalence of an easy superiority—or so we are told. Islam led the world in the arts and sciences and overall quality of life. Then something mysterious happened. Islam was knocked off its throne, and the West usurped its place. In this way, to use crude language, Islam went from being a "top" to a "bottom," while the West ceased to be a bottom and became a top. This is quite a reversal.

This metamorphosis has elicited various explanations. The geographical situation of the West turned out to be more advantageous, especially with regard to colonizing the New World. The challenges of a cold climate and a relatively undeveloped agriculture caused Westerners to rise to the challenge, in a way that the more easy-going situation of a semitropical environment did not. Islam became increasingly the prey of civil disturbances and foreign incursions, especially by the Mongols and Turks. Or perhaps the answer lies in the realm of ideas. The West experienced the Reformation, ushering in an age of religious pluralism. By contrast, Islam has never had a Reformation.

My own answer is that the question is largely a pseudo-problem. Islam was never so advantageously seated with regard to the West as is commonly believed. By the year 1300 the population of Europe attained, demographers have estimated, one hundred million people. Reliable estimates are hard to find in the far-flung realms of Islam, but I suspect that core Muslim lands, much of them desert, also held about one hundred million people.

Unaccountably absent in this balance sheet is China. The population of Song and Yuan China was in fact more than one hundred million, and Sinic society had achieved countless technological advances, from printing and ceramics to gun powder and large seagoing vessels guided by the compass. China had successfully exported its civilization to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Today this heritage forms the basis of he mighty engines of the East Asian economies. So it is not just the West that has shown up the pretensions of Islamic triumphalism, but even more the East, which, being for the most part neither Christian, nor Jewish, nor Muslim, had no benefit of the Abrahamic heritage.

In short it is important to bear in mind that there were three major players in the Old World—China and Far Eastern civilization; Islam; and the Christian West. The Crusaders had tried their hand at overthrowing Islam, and eventually failed. But the East succeeded, through the fury of the Mongols. When Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad in 1258, it was clear that religious superiority, presumed or real, was no magic talisman, protecting Islam from unbelievers. Today, many think, it is East Asia, not Islam, that will supplant the West. The jihadists and Muslim supremacists may defeat the West, but then they will have to reckon with an even more formidable rival in East Asia, one which does not present the "soft underbelly" of compliant liberal institutions.

Here is the picture in a nutshell. In the high middle ages the three societies were roughly equal. Then the West became dominant. In the event, Islam turned out to an "also ran," poor marks for the True Faith.

Viewed as it is in a cracked mirror, this world-historical disappointment fuels much of the rage of the Muslims. The rage will continue, but the imbalance is not likely to be addressed. There is no way of generating prosperity and intellectual freedom where the conditions of these are lacking.

Let us look more closely at the supposed triumphs of medieval Islam, when it was supposedly on top (though in reality probably China was). We must address the myth of the Islamic Golden Age.

Medieval Islamic science is thought to be its crown jewel. The essential prerequisite for this accomplishment was the great translation movement in starting in the eighth century. Most of the translators were Christians and Jews who were bilingual (Greek and Arabic) or trilingual (Greek, Syriac, and Arabic). A few translators, responsible for transmitting Indian science were Persians, working with Pahlevi works rendering Indic originals.

In this way, Islamic science was always eclectic. The relationship with the Qur’an was always problematic. It has been said, with some justification, that Islamic science triumphed despite Islam. Or perhaps more accurately, that it operated in a situation that was compartmented so as to separate itself from the privileged realm of religion.

At all events for several centuries production was intense, producing literally thousands of manuscripts, most of which remain unpublished (Dallal, 2010). The institutional setting for this flowering remains unclear. In fact, the popular notion of great universities in medieval Islamic countries is a myth. What did exist were madrasas or religious colleges. However, as George Makdisi remarks, “[n]neither the madrasa nor its cognate institutions harbored any but the religious sciences and their ancillary subjects.” (Makdisi, 1981). This situation contrasts with the early European universities; from the start, places like Salerno and Padua offered advanced studies in such fields as medicine and law.

Islamic science seems to have enjoyed some patronage from individual rulers and grandees. What made it vital, however, was networking. Sometimes the investigators traveled, impelled by curiosity and desire to avoid local turmoil. Mostly, however, they communicated by commerce, making their working processes a kind of Internet, but in slow motion.

Probably the greatest triumphs of Islam were in mathematics, including algebra and trigonometry. Even here they erected their edifice on foreign foundations. Geometry, systematized by Euclid, was Greek. Moreover, the "Arabic" numbers were originally Indian. It was the Indians who invented the all-important concept of zero. Significantly, math is the field of study least likely to collide with established religion.

In astronomy the Muslim scientists were never able to free themselves from the dominance of Ptolemy’s Almagest, with its geocentric concept of the universe. (The notion that Copernicus borrowed directly from Islamic sources is a myth.) Of course there was progress in detail, and Islamic toponymics has left significant traces in the star map: Aldbeberan, Betelgeuse, Rigel.

What is usually termed Islamic philosophy consisted mainly of footnotes to the Greek thinkers. Philosophy always had a precarious situation, threatened by the perception of any encroachment on religious orthodoxy. Restrictions on freedom of thought are summed up by the concept of the "closing of the gate of Ijtihad." Somewhat loosely, one can render ijtihad as "freedom of thought." In the light of this event, which may have occurred as long as a thousand years ago, there is no longer any room for debate on many key questions. Today the Muslim intelligentsia, the ulema, is extraordinarily diffuse in its distribution. Yet the melancholy truth is that this body of thinkers has achieved uniformity on such subjects as homosexuality, the status of women, and the lending of money for interest. For a long time, there has been no room for debate on these matters.

But what about those accounts of Western scholars traveling to Moorish Spain to study and translate Islamic versions of the Greek scientific classics? Such reports are true, but in due course Europe learned that there were better versions of these texts, in the original Greek, housed in the libraries of Byzantium.

And what about those numerous, well-stocked libraries of Andalusia that we hear about? Once again, this claim is misleading. By and large the "libraries" consisted of locked cabinets in madrasas containing a few battered Korans and commentaries thereupon. Moorish civilization was in fact a condominium, established on both sides of the straits. Morocco, not ravaged by the Catholic kings, had a similar culture and similar wealth. If there were great libraries they should have flourished in Morocco as well as in al-Andalus. Where are Morocco’s great libraries?

In art the flourishing craft traditions fostered the creation of many beguiling objects in metalwork, pottery, illuminated manuscripts. Yet Islam created no Giotto or Raphael; no Rembrandt or Rubens. This was not because of a supposed ban on images—there are plenty of images in illuminated manuscripts, but because painting as such never developed as a major art.

So the fabled Golden Age of Islam is a mixed bag. But what about the West? Wasn’t it shrouded in darkness, dependent on cultural imports from Islam? Not very much. Gothic architecture, one of the most splendid achievements of Europe’s "Dark Age,"was not originally "Saracen." Scholars have long exploded that claim. And the intricate rhymes and strophe patterns of Provençal poetry, so far from being derived from Islam, served in fact as the model for Arabic works of similar character in Andalusia. Paper, it is true, came to us from Islamic lands, but the Muslims had purloined the technique from the Chinese.

In the theory and practice of politics, Islam never developed any tradition of representative government or a doctrine of the separation of powers. Religious and secular authority were inextricably mixed in Islam. In Islamic tradition the concept of the rule of law as we know it is absent, as this requires a powerful tradition of secular law. With its mixture of Roman law and the common law, the West successfully forged such an instrument. Islam only created Shari’a law, which, bizarrely, its adepts wish to impose on Western Europe. Until the recent controversial insistence on introducing this religious law, the Western tradition of jurisprudence remained the norm throughout the world, including such countries as Turkey, India, and Japan.

Perhaps the least known accomplishment of the West lies in its ability to bridge science, on the one hand, and daily life on the other. Wind mills and water mills were already known in ancient times. Yet they proliferated only after 1000 in Western Europe. Experiments with their gears and drives led to the creation of a host of other machines. In a development that culminated in the Industrial Revolution, Europe became a culture of machines. Burdened by a fatuous sense of its own superiority, Islam was very slow to accept Western technology.

Why did the West become so mechanically conscious? The answer lies in large measure in social structure. Although there were large serf populations, slavery as such died out in Western Europe (unlike Islam, where reputedly the peculiar institution survives until this day). Absence of slaves (yielding a labor shortage, abetted eventually by the Black Death), required substitutes of a nonhuman variety. To tend these machines a new class of artisans arose, outside of the normal triad of clergy, nobles, and serfs.

Eventually the advance of the interests of the artisans and the cultivation of machines became inseparable.

Such was the accomplishment of "Dark Age" Europe.

The earlier part of this section places the idea of the Islamic Golden Age under the microscope. This field of study has a long history of embellishment. Beginning with the European Enlightenment, it became conventional wisdom to laud Islam’s splendor in contrast to the West’s squalor.

Whence did the complementary notion of Europe’s Dark Ages arise? Historians of ideas have traced it back to the Renaissance, whose adepts sought to differentiate themselves in this manner from the preceding Gothic period. However, the notion of the Dark Ages only really came into its own in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, when writers like Edward Gibbon and Voltaire sought to exalt Islam (Golden Age myth and all) as a counterweight to Christianity.

Nineteenth-century Romantics shifted attention to Moorish Spain, viewed in its full pathos as one of history’s great lost causes. A well-known American example is the Tales of the Alhambra (1832) by Washington Irving. To be sure, the expulsion of the Moors, following that of the Jews, served to impoverish the cultural life of the Peninsula, as Germán Arciniegas and others have emphasized. What is often forgotten, however, is that starting in the eleventh century much of the brilliance of Moorish civilization had been extinguished by two puritanical Berber groups, the Almoravids and Almohads.

For different reasons, then, Westerners and Muslims alike have had an interest in promoting the myth of Golden Age Islam. The former were seeking to castigate certain trends in their own society; the latter to recover a glorious past. It is time, though, to take off the rose-colored glasses.

Let us resume the main points. 1) The European Middle Ages were not simply a horrible nightmare of barbarism and ignorance, as the Enlightenment would have it. Its achievements, particularly in the realm of technology, were extraordinary. 2) The accomplishments of the Islamic Golden age were also substantial. But they were not suit generis. 3) The record has been distorted by the omission of a third major player, China. Kenneth Pomeranz (The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy, 2000) has argued, convincingly I think, that that the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was the most advanced of its day, outpacing both Islam and Europe. Those who extol medieval Islam charge doubters with ethnocentrism. They themselves are guilty of this fault, because they regularly omit China.


In various ways, the above text has sought to trace the effects of the effort, currently ongoing, to subject the founding texts and traditions of Islam to the solvents of the Higher Criticism. These inquiries are, it is fair to say, taboo throughout the Islam world. Some of the scholars who are conducting them have found it prudent to hide their names under pseudonyms.

Still, these findings cannot be kept bottled up forever. Eventually the critiques must spread wider, at first among some circles of the Muslim diaspora, then into the Abode of Islam itself. Moderate Muslims must ask themselves what position is appropriate to assume about these matters, affecting beliefs they profess to be of central importance to them. The orthodox will respond with fury. At the very least the controversy will give the West some breathing room. It may even spark the long-desired Islamic Reformation, though this outcome is a long shot.

Regrettably, the discussion of fundamentals will not contribute much one way or the other to the spread of democracy in the Islamic world. Under present circumstances that is largely a fantasy in certain circles in the West. On the other side, we have the essentialist notion of the "Arab mind," monolithic and unchanging. The Arabs, and Muslims more generally, do change, but not usually in the ways we would desire.

Nor will the controversy do much to dissipate the historical belief in the world dichotomy between the Abode of Islam, the territories that have submitted, and the Abode of Warfare, where we have the misfortune to live. This dichotomy makes problematic the "can’t we all just get along" line of argument. Yes, we can get along, provided we agree to Muslim rule.

Looking at the matter in the most general perspective, there are two problems with Islam. The first has to do with the concern that growing Muslim populations in Western Europe will erode the traditions of tolerance and liberalism that have won at great cost there over the centuries. If we are not careful, the pessimists tell us, Europe will be transformed into Eurabia. I will not seek to assess this present-minded literature here.

The second problem has to do with the nature of Islam, the character it assumed at the time of its formation and in the course of the first conquests in the Middle East.

Responses to this question belong to two factions, which I tentatively dub the Rodney King School (he of “can’t we all just get along”); and the I’m from Missouri School, which challenges the claim that Islam is fundamentally a religion of peace and tolerance. Members of the first school run the risk of being dubbed cheer-leaders and naive apologists, while those of the latter persuasion can seem grim, prosecutorial, and relentless. As we shall see, the latter group is also commonly termed “right-wing.”

By common consent, the dean of the pro-Islamic faction is John (Louis) Esposito (born 1940), who is a professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, where he is also the director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Esposito also works as a Senior Scientist at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, where he co-authored “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” published in March 2008. His establishment status has been confirmed by his service as editor-in-chief of a number of Oxford University Press reference works, including The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, The Oxford History of Islam, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, and the five-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World.

Critics allege that Esposito’s career tracks Edward Said’s ideas, as seen in the fashionable, but flawed book Orientalism of 1978. Disregarding recent critical scholarship, Esposito swallows whole the official account of the origins of Islam, even though many of its claims cannot possibly be true. He also tends to construe the nature of Islam as peaceful, tolerant, malleable, and accommodating, downplaying many textual and historical evidences to the contrary. He believes that Western fears of Islamic extremism and terrorism are exaggerated. For example, Esposito claimed in 2001 that "focusing on Usama bin Laden risks catapulting one of the many sources of terrorism to center stage, distorting both the diverse international sources and the relevance of one man." His overall vision is one of cooperation and even fusion of Islam and the West.

Esposito’s polar opposite is Bat Ye’or (Hebrew for “daughter of the Nile”), the nom de plume of Gisèle Littman, née Orebi, a British independent scholar. Born in Cairo into a middle-class Jewish family, she and her parents were forced to leave Egypt in 1957 after the Suez Canal War, arriving in London as stateless refugees. She attended University College, London, and the University of Geneva. There is no doubt that her difficult personal narrative, and her grief at the destruction of the venerable Jewish community in Egypt, have shaped her point of view.

In 1971 she published her first historical study (writing under the Arabic pen name. "Yahudiya Masriya," meaning "Egyptian Jewish woman"), The Jews of Egypt, in which she chronicled the history of the Jewish community in that country.

Bat Ye’or is best known for two coinages: “dhimmitude” and “Eurabia.” In a series of books beginning in 1980 she provided extensive documentation of the theological and legal texts regulating the state of inferiority to which non-Muslims have been relentlessly subjected in Islamic lands. These facts incontrovertibly expose the fable of Islamic tolerance as just that.

Bat Ye'or has characterized dhimmitude as the "state of fear and insecurity" that is the lot of non-Muslims in Islamic countries, who are labeled infidels and required to "accept a condition of humiliation." She holds that "the dhimmi condition can only be understood in the context of Jihad." The jihad policy, she argues, "was fomented around the 8th century by Muslim theologians after the death of Muhammad and led to the conquest of large swathes of three continents over the course of a long history." She states: “Dhimmitude is the direct consequence of jihad. It embodie[s] all the Islamic laws and customs applied over a millennium on the vanquished population, Jews and Christians, living in the countries conquered by jihad and therefore Islamized. [We can observe a] return of the jihad ideology since the 1960s, and of some dhimmitude practices in Muslim countries applying the sharia law, or inspired by it. I stress ... the incompatibility between the concept . . . expressed by the jihad-dhimmitude ideology, and the concept of human rights based on the equality of all human beings and the inalienability of their rights.” In this way, Bat Ye’or views jihad and dhimmitude as complementary and inseparable.

While the historical record is clear, many would question her claim that there is a serious danger of Muslim clerics and their supporters imposing dhimmitude on Western Europe today. Bat Ye’or’s recent book “Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis” explored the history of the relationship from the 1970s onwards between the European Union and the Arab states, tracing what she saw as connections between radical Arabs and Muslims, on the one hand, and fascists, socialists, and neo-Nazis, on the other, in what she perceives as a growing influence of Islam over European culture and politics. While she did not invent the term “Eurabia,” she has popularized it as part of her campaign to raise the alarm about growing Islamization (as she sees it) in Europe.

Among those who have aligned themselves with Bat Ye’or are the historian Robert Spencer; the gay scholar and activist Bruce Bawer; Steven Emerson (author of Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the US); the late Italian journalist Orianna Fallaci; and, most imposingly, Ibn Warraq, who has written and edited a number of probing volumes on the history and nature of Islam. I strongly recommend the books of Ibn Warraq, whom it was my pleasure to hear speak recently at Columbia University

Moorish Spain is a venerable touchstone of the “romance of Islam.” This rosy view informs a new book by David Levering Lewis God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215. Lewis has been previously known mainly as the biographer of the black leader W.E.B. Dubois and a scholar of the Harlem Renaissance. The historical background of the culture extolled by Lewis may be briefly stated. Beginning in 636 CE the Arab armies marched against the Eastern Empire of Byzantium, and shortly thereafter against the Persian Empire, which they annihilated. After other Muslim conquests had crested, Tariq ibn-Ziyad guided his small but highly disciplined force to land at Gibraltar in 711. Western Europe seemed doomed to fall under the Islamic yoke--to be reduced, in short, to dhimmitude. And indeed most of Visigothic Spain (renamed al-Andalus) fell to the invaders. Yet when they sought to extend their dominion into France, the Moorish armies were defeated by Charles Martel at the battle of Tours (or Poitiers) in 732.

Despite this repulse, Lewis insists that the Islamic culture of al-Andalus decisively shaped that of Western Europe, very much for the better. In fact, David Levering Lewis has attempted something very ambitious: an alternative history of medieval Europe. While Charles Martel and Charlemagne figure as founders of the oppressive class structure of feudalism, Abd al-Rahman emerges as the ruler of a tolerant, multiethnic realm which mentored Europe’s intellectual flowering in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

While such raptures may seem extreme, they mesh with a current trend to hail Muslim Spain as the domain of “convivencia,” a Spanish word that Lewis glosses as the “cultural and civic collaboration among Muslims, Jews and Christians in al-Andalus.” Again we hear the old refrain of “Islamic tolerance.” In reality, Christians and Jews were required to pay a special tax or jizya. Other religions, such as that of the pagans surviving in remote areas, were not allowed at all.

And of course “convivencia,” such as it was, did not last. The warlord known as al-Mansur marched against the surviving Christian enclaves, sacking the holy city of Santiago de Compostela in 997. The Christian Reconquista, which eventually ensued, was a response to the violent Islamic implementation of jihad. In the meantime, of course, al-Andalus had fallen victim to the Islamic fundamentalist regimes of the Almoravids and Almohads.

Truncating this later history, which is inconvenient to his purpose, Lewis makes bold to compare the brief Moorish “Golden Age” to Christian Europe. “The new Carolingian order,” he writes, “was religiously intolerant, intellectually impoverished, socially calcified, and economically primitive. Measured by these same vectors of religion, culture, class and prosperity, Abd al-Rahman’s Muslim Iberia was at least four centuries more advanced than Western Christendom in 800 CE.”

Then why did it fall behind? This problem is a subset of the larger issue of Islamic decline by comparison with a supposedly far-inferior Christian Europe. As I have noted above, this is a pseudo-problem, induced by Wunschbilder of Islam’s splendor, combined with unwarranted disparagement of the genuine accomplishments of medieval Europe.

Still, Lewis is enthralled by his counterfactual fantasy that Europe’s fate would have been a better one had the Moors triumphed at Tours/Poitiers in 732. In his view, the actual outcome was a sad portent, whereby “the peoples of the West were obliged to accept the governance, protection, exploitation, and militant creed of a warrior class and clerical enforcers, an overlordship sustained by a powerful military machine and an omnipresent ecclesiastical apparatus. The European shape of things to come was set for dismal centuries following one upon the other until the Commercial Revolution and the Enlightenment molded new contours.”

This conclusion is wildly overstated. The concept of feudalism has been subjected to keen analysis by historians. It is not unproblematic. To the extent that the notion of feudalism is valid, the institution may be detected in many cultures, from medieval Japan to contemporary Islamic states themselves. Surely Lewis is not trying to maintain that contemporary Islamic feudalism is an import from the West.

Medieval Western Europe was much more vibrant and creative than Lewis admits. Despite the supposedly crushing hegemony of “feudalism,” it was Western Europe that created the basis for a civil society that is governed by a balance of powers and the rule of law. Where is the Islamic equivalent of the Magna Carta of 1215? Of course there is none. Arab states today are still struggling to escape the burden of tyranny. Despite a considerable program of translations from Greek, Aristotle’s “Politics” was never rendered into Arabic until modern times. This neglect is unfortunate, as that foundational text would definitely have helped.

Quite soon Western technology took the lead, entering into paths where Islam could not follow. As late at the seventeenth century, as Bernard Lewis (no relation to David Levering Lewis) has noted, Muslims were puzzled by Western mechanical clocks. They saw no need for such devices. In fact, as historians of technology such as Jean Gimpel and Lynn Whyte have shown, the achievements of medieval mechanics are the indispensable precursors of the Industrial Revolution.

Eyeglasses were invented in Venice about 1300 CE. This discovery created the basis for two further inventions: the telescope and the microscope. We owe them much of our knowledge about the cosmos. These creations were not bequeathed us by Islam.

The antidote to Lewis’ fantasies has now appeared. It is a brilliant French-language book by Sylvain Gouguenheim, Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne (Paris, Seuil, 2008). A professor at Lyon, Gouguenheim directly confronts the hoary cliché of an enlightened Islam, transmitting westward the knowledge of the ancient Greeks through Arab translators and opening the path in Europe to mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and philosophy. "This thesis has basically nothing scandalous about it, if it were true," Gouguenheim writes. "In spite of the appearances, it has more to do with taking ideological sides than scientific analysis."

His book boldly challenges the notion that we in the West owe a vast debt to the “Arabo-Muslim world” dating from the year 750. This claim ascribes to Islam an essential part of Europe’s identity. (While the view is currently fashionable, as we have seen with Lewis’ book, it has roots that go back to the 18th-century Enlightenment, when the idea was floated as a device for the disparagement of Christianity.)

Rejecting the broader claim that there is an ongoing clash of civilizations, Gouguenheim holds that Islam was impermeable to much of Greek thought, By and large Arabs never learned Greek, utilizing translations that were mostly the work of Arabic-speaking Syrian Christians. With refreshing and convincing originality, the French scholar demonstrates that a wave of translations of Aristotle began at the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel in France fifty years before the Latin versions of the same texts appeared in Moorish Spain. These renderings were conducted under the leadership of James of Venice, an accomplished Greek scholar.

Gouguenheim attacks the thesis of the West's indebtedness advanced by such historians as Edward Said, Alain de Libera, and Mohammed Arkoun. He says that it replaces formerly dominant notions of cultural superiority professed by Western orientalists with "a new ethnocentrism, oriental this time" that sets off an "enlightened, refined, and spiritual Islam" against a brutal West.

At the hands of our own apologists of Islam, contemporary Europe has been plunged into a sea of self-denigration. Yet as another writer (E. de Brague) notes, “curiosity about the Other is a typically European attitude, rare outside of Europe, and exceptional in Islam.”

Gouguenheim also exposes the falsity of the legend of the “great Islamic universities” of the Middle Ages. He notes that the scope of the Bayt al-Hikma, or the House of Wisdom, said to be created by the Abassids in the 9th century, was limited to the study of Koranic studies, excluding philosophy, physics and mathematics, as understood in the speculative context of Greek thought.

He asserts that much of Aristotle's work was disregarded or unknown to the Muslim world, being basically incompatible with the Koran. Europeans, he says, "became aware of the Greek texts because they went hunting for them, not because they were brought to them."

Gouguenheim terms the Mont Saint-Michel monastery, where the Hellenic texts were translated into Latin, "the missing link in the passage from the Greek to the Latin world of Aristotelian philosophy." Apart from a few exceptional thinkers--Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Abu Ma'shar, and Averroes--Gougenheim avers that the "masters of the Middle East" retained from Greek teaching only what did not contradict Koranic doctrine.

Needless to say, Gouguenheim’s arguments do not sit well with Western enthusiasts for Islam, who accuse him of right-wing leanings. His appendix, however, preemptively blunts that accusation. He offers his book as an antidote to the approach to Islam's medieval relations to the West exemplified by the late Sigrid Hunke, a German polemicist, who has been described as a former Nazi and friend of Heinrich Himmler. Fawningly, Hunke evokes a pioneering, civilizing Islam to which "the West owes everything." In his telling analysis, Gouguenheim asserts that her slapdash work from the 1960s continues as a hidden reference point that unfortunately still "shapes the spirit of the moment."

As with Bat Ye’or’s findings, an effort is being made to reject Gouguenheim’s book because it supposedly aids the Right. Instead of hurling such ad feminam/ad hominem charges, these critics need to look more carefully at the evidence. Are these two insurgent scholars right? My considered conclusion is that in the main they are.


By law seven Islamic countries today stipulate the death penalty for homosexual behavior: Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Nigeria (capital punishment applies to the twelve northern provinces that observe sharia law).

Other evidence points in a different direction. In parts of Muslim Central Asia and Afghanistan the traditional practice of Basha Bazi (“boy play”) still survives. A bacha, typically an adolescent of twelve to sixteen, is a dancer trained in the performance of erotic songs and suggestive dancing. Wearing resplendent clothes and makeup, the dancing boys are appreciated for their androgynous beauty but was also available for sexual services. The boys are generally taken, sometimes by force from the lower classes. Each one is generally attached to one wealthy man, their owner. Once their beard begins to grow they are dismissed. Occasionally the boy will marry his lover's daughter when he comes of age, but most must endure a humbler fate.

Soviet rule had considerable success in eliminating the practice in Central Asia, but it thrives in northern Afghanistan, where many men keep the boys as status symbols. In that country the authorities are attempting to crack down on the practice as "un-Islamic and immoral," but such efforts are impeded by the fact that many of the men are powerful and well-armed military commanders. In early 2010 the PBS program Frontline aired a documentary about the Afghan boy-love practice by Najibullah Quraishi.

How can these two things be reconciled--the death penalty and the cult of dancing boys? The answer is that adult-adult homosexuality has always been forbidden in Islamic law, without exception. By contrast, Islam has seen, at some times and places, a de facto toleration of pederasty, a type of relationship in which one of the participants is a boy. Nonetheless, the status of pederasty is itself precarious and has been coming under increasing restriction through most of the Islamic world.

The most notorious country for executions of homosexual men is the Islamic Republic of Iran. From 1979, the year of the revolution, to 1990, there have been at least 107 executions on homosexual charges, according to the Boroumand Foundation. According to Amnesty International, at least five people convicted of "homosexual tendencies," three men and two women, were executed in January 1990.

There are several instances in which perceived religious unorthodoxy seems to have played a role in securing convictions. In April 1992 Dr. Ali Mozafarian, a Sunni Muslim leader in Fars province, was executed in Shiraz after being convicted on charges of espionage, adultery, and sodomy. In November 1995 Mehdi Barazandeh, otherwise known as Safa Ali Shah Hamadani, was condemned to death. Ostensibly, Barazandeh's crimes were repeated acts of adultery and "the obscene act of sodomy." The court's judgment was carried out by stoning.Barazandeh. Barazandeh belonged to the Khaksarieh Sect of Dervishes (Sufis).

In July 2005 the Iranian Student News Agency covered the execution of Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni in Mashahd, and event that drew international attention when disturbing photos of the hanging were widely distributed. Somewhat bizarrely the human rights community was divided as to whether the executions were a gay issue. However, there was general agreement in condemning the hangings on the grounds that they were for crimes allegedly committed when the boys were minors. The initial report from the ISNA, a government press agency, had stated that they were hanged for homosexuality; after the international outcry, the Iranian government alleged that the hangings were primarily for raping a boy.

The roster goes on and on. In November 22005 two men were hanged publicly in the northern town for homosexual acts. in November 2005. In July 2006 two youths were hanged for homosexuality in northeastern Iran. On November 16, 2006, the state-run news agency reported the public execution of man convicted of sodomy in the western city of Kermanshah. According to the Iranian gay and lesbian rights group Homan, the Iranian government has put to death an estimated 4,000 homosexuals since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

There is a strange exception to this savagery, an exception of a sort. Since the mid-1980s the Iranian government has legalized the practice of sex-change operations, with medical approval, and the subsequent changing of all legal documents. The basis for this policy stems from a fatwa by the leader of Iran's Islamic Revolution, Ayatolla Ruhollah Khomeini, declaring sex changes permissible for "diagnosed" transsexuals. Some Iranian gay and bisexual men are being pressured to undergo a sex change operation and live as women in order to avoid legal and social sanctions. Is this an example of “Islam, the merciful?”


Islamic Sharia law stems from both the Qur'an and hadiths. Islamic legal scholars expand upon the principles they detect therein, which are regarded as the laws of Allah. In this tradition homosexual conduct is not only a sin, but a “crime against God.” There are some differences in interpretation among the four mainstream legal schools, but they all agree that homosexual behavior must be severely sanctioned. In the Hanafi school of thought, the homosexual is first punished through harsh beating; if he or she repeats the act, the death penalty is to be applied. In the Shafi`i school of thought, the homosexual receives the same punishment as adultery (if he or she is married) or fornication (if not married). This means that if the person accused of homosexual behavior is married, he or she is stoned to death; if single, he or she is whipped 100 times. In this way the Shafi`i approach compares the punishment applied in the case of homosexuality with that of adultery and fornication, while the Hanafi tradition differentiates between the two acts because in homosexuality, anal sex--prohibited, regardless of orientation-- typically occurs, while in adultery and fornication, penis-vagina contact (reproductive parts) are involved. Some scholars based on the Qur'an and various hadith hold the opinion that the homosexual should be thrown from a high building or stoned to death as punishment, while others believe that they should receive a life sentence. Another view that in the case of two males, the active partner is to be lashed a hundred times if he is unmarried, and killed if he is married; whereas the passive partner must be executed regardless of his marital status.

Some apologists have attempted to blame the importation of Western disapproval of homosexuality for these harsh measures. This claim is preposterous.

As with the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, whenever the Qur’an explicitly mentions homosexuality it is condemnatory.

Central to many of these imprecations is the story of Lot and Sodom, as narrated in the book of Genesis. However, the Muslim interpretation of the story more clearly focuses on its same-sex aspect than does the original telling.

“We also (sent) Lut: He said to his people: ‘Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practise your lusts on men in preference to women : ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.’ And his people gave no answer but this: they said, ‘Drive them out of your city: these are indeed men who want to be clean and pure!’ But we saved him and his family, except his wife: she was of those who legged behind. And we rained down on them a shower (of brimstone): Then see what was the end of those who indulged in sin and crime!” (Qur’an 7:80).

"’Of all the creatures in the world, will ye approach males, And leave those whom Allah has created for you to be your mates? Nay, ye are a people transgressing (all limits)!’ They said: ‘If thou desist not, O Lut! thou wilt assuredly be cast out!" He said: "I do detest your doings. O my Lord! deliver me and my family from such things as they do!" So We delivered him and his family,- all Except an old woman who lingered behind. Then afterward We destroyed the others. We rained down on them a shower (of brimstone): and evil was the shower on those who were admonished (but heeded not)!” (Qur’an 26:165).

“(We also sent) Lut (as a messenger): behold, He said to his people, ‘Do ye do what is shameful though ye see (its iniquity)? Would ye really approach men in your lusts rather than women? Nay, ye are a people (grossly) ignorant!; But his people gave no other answer but this: they said, ‘Drive out the followers of Lut from your city: these are indeed men who want to be clean and pure!’ Then We saved him and his household save his wife; We destined her to be of those who stayed behind. And We rained down on them a shower (of brimstone): and evil was the shower on those who were admonished (but heeded not)!” (Qur’an 27:54).”

“And (remember) Lut: behold, he said to his people: ‘Ye do commit lewdness, such as no people in Creation (ever) committed before you. Do ye indeed approach men, and cut off the highway?- and practice wickedness (even) in your councils?’ But his people gave no answer but this: they said: "Bring us the Wrath of Allah if thou tellest the truth.’ He said: ‘O my Lord! help Thou me against people who do mischief!’ When Our Messengers came to Abraham with the good news, they said: ‘We are indeed going to destroy the people of this township: for truly they are (addicted to) crime.’” (Qur’an 29:28).

There is also this more general commandment. “If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, Leave them alone; for Allah is Oft-returning, Most Merciful.” (Qur’an 4:16).

Although the Qur’an is ambiguous about the exact punishment for same-sex conduct, the death penalty may be inferred (see also 26:165-173).

An uncertain theme in the Qur’an is that of the Ghilman, adolescent boys who serve the faithful in the afterlife. For example, “round about them will serve boys of perpetual freshness” (56:17; see also 52:24 and 76:19). While at first sight these young men would appear to be counterparts of the maidens (houris), mainstream Muslim opinion holds that they are merely servants; they do not bestow sexual favors.

The Hadith are much more explicit about what should be done. Here are a few examples:

Narrated by Ibn 'Abbas: “The Prophet cursed effeminate men; those men who are in the similitude (assume the manners of women) and those women who assume the manners of men, and he said, ‘Turn them out of your houses.’ The Prophet turned out such-and-such man, and 'Umar turned out such-and-such woman.’” (Sahih Bukhari 7:72:774; repeated at 8:82:820)).

Narated by Abdullah ibn Abbas: “The Prophet said: If you find anyone doing as Lot's people did, kill the one who does it, and the one to whom it is done.” (Abu Dawud 38:4447).

Narated by Abdullah ibn Abbas: “If a man who is not married is seized committing sodomy, he will be stoned to death.”

Narrated by Abu Sa'id al-Khudri: “The Prophet said: A man should not look at the private parts of another man, and a woman should not look at the private parts of another woman. A man should not lie with another man without wearing lower garment under one cover; and a woman should not be lie with another woman without wearing lower garment under one cover.” (Abu Dawud 31:4007).

Narrated by Abu Hurayrah: “The Prophet said: A man should not lie with another man and a woman should not lie with another woman without covering their private parts except a child or a father.” (Abu Dawud 31:4008).

“Whoever is found conducting himself in the manner of the people of Lot, kill the doer and the receiver.” (Tirmidhi 1:152). Narrated by Jaabir: "The Prophet said: 'There is nothing I fear for my ummah [commmunity] more than the deed of the people of Lot.'" (Tirmidhi 1:457).

Nor were these admonitions purely theoretical. The Qur’anic condemnation of homosexuality was naturally adopted by Muhammad’s later successors. Abu Bakr, the father of Aisha, had a wall thrown down upon suspected sodomites, a punishment that is being reprised in the Middle East today. Ali, the fourth caliph, had sodomites burned.

What then of the seemingly flourishing pederastic subculture of the Islamic Middle Ages. Is this simply a myth? No it is not, but the phenomenon is mainly a matter of particular sectors, often those that stand apart from the Sunni mainstream.

More generally, the de facto toleration of pederasty is linked to the Islamic tendency to the seclusion of women, leading to their removal from public life. Another factor, though one that is hard to assess, is survival of the traditions of Greek pederasty. This trend may account for the use of the wine boy (saqi) as a symbol of homoerotic passion.

Persia may also have made a contribution. Certainly in Islamic times Persian poetry has served as a major vehicle for declarations of pederastic attraction. Even in that realm, though, the practice was not without its critics, such as the poet Sanai of Ghazni who mocked the pederastic practices of his time, embodied in the doings of the Khvaja of Herat, who is depicted as resorting to a mosque for a bit of sub rosa action with a boy:

Not finding shelter he became perturbed, The mosque, he reasoned, would be undisturbed.

But he is discovered by a devout man, who, in his revulsion, echoes a traditional attack on same-sex relations:

"These sinful ways of yours," —that was his shout— Have ruined all the crops and caused the drought!

This exchange is interesting for its evocation of the motif, traceable back to Justinian in the sixth century CE, that homosexual acts bring on natural disasters.

Some of the poems discuss the contrasting merits of truly beardless boys and downy-cheeked youths. One the beard had begun to grow, however, the individual was off limits, however attractive he might have seemed previously.

The connection with Sufism is ambiguous. Such attractions are commonly regarded as chaste, finding their place in Islamic mysticism in a meditation known in Arabic as nazar ill’al-murd, "contemplation of the beardless," or Shahed-bazi, "witness play" in Persian. This fascination is rationalized as an act of worship intended to help one ascend to the absolute beauty that is God through the relative beauty that is a boy (quite possibly a reminiscence of Plato).

To be sure, not all Sufi adepts followed the teachings to the letter. Some observers suspected the motives of dervishes who professed to love only the appearance of the boys. For their part, conservative Muslim theologians condemned the custom of contemplating the beauty of young boys. Their suspicions may have been justified, as some dervishes boasted of enjoying far more than "glances", or even kisses. Thus Ibn Tamiyya (1263-1328) complained: "They kiss a slave boy and claim to have seen God!"

In contradiction to these currents, mainstream hatred of homosexuality has continued in Islam down to the present. Even among “moderate” Muslims residing in Western countries, homosexuality is generally condemned as something that is vile and unacceptable. For example, a Gallup survey carried out in early 2009 found that British Muslims have zero tolerance for homosexual behavior. Not a single British Muslim interviewed for the survey was willing to grant that homosexual acts were morally acceptable. According to a Zogby International poll of American Muslims taken in November and December of 2001, a massive 71 percent opposed "allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally." Another worrying statistic to be found among Muslims in the UK: although they comprise just 2% of the total British population, they commit 25% of all anti-homosexual crimes (gay bashing).

So, with the rise of Islam in the the United Kingdom, Western Europe and other non-Islamic countries, we witness an appalling return to the primitive moral concepts of seventh-century Arabia, with Muslim gangs roaming the streets of England and the Netherlands, carrying out violent attacks on gays. For their part, mosques labeled as “moderate” calling for the murder of homosexuals at the hands of their congregation.

Even in secular Indonesia, we see that owing to pressure from the growing conservative Muslim communities some local jurisdictions are now adopting Islamic legal principles, criminalizing homosexual behavior. In India, with its Hindu majority, attempts to abrogate the old British sodomy law so as to decriminalize homosexuality are being hindered by Muslim clerics, who assert that homosexuality is an offence under Sharia Law and “haram (prohibited) in Islam." Bizarrely, these self-righteous South Asian representatives of an intruder culture claim that decriminalization of homosexual behavior is somehow an attack on Indian religious and moral values. As we have seen with the career of Mohandas Ghandhi, Indian steadfastness has had a worldwide effect. What would these bigoted Muslims know about Indian religious and moral values?

In fact, intolerant pronouncements can be found emanating from all sorts of Muslim organizations, government and apologists. Here are three contemporary examples, one from a Muslim expert in the United State; the second active in Canada; and the third in Pakistan.

“Homosexuality is a moral disorder. It is a moral disease, a sin and corruption.” Homosexuality “is utterly contrary to every natural law of human and animal life.” “Homosexuality is unlawful in Islam. It is neither accepted by the state nor by the Islamic Society. Qu’ran clearly states that it is unjust, unnatural, transgression, ignorant, criminal and corrupt. [...] Muslim jurists agree that, if proven of guilt, both of them should be killed.”

With the widespread acceptance of such expressions of hatred it is little wonder that life can be grim--and short--for homosexuals in Muslim countries.


In 2005, seemingly out of the blue, came the furor unleashed by a dozen cartoons depicting Islam’s Prophet. The basic facts are these. The Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy began after twelve editorial cartoons, most of which depicted Muhammad, were published in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005. The newspaper indicated that this publication was meant as a contribution to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and the question of censorship.

Danish Muslim organizations reacted furiously with public protests. In whole or in part, the cartoons were reproduced in more than fifty other countries, aggravating the controversy. This led to protests across the Muslim world, some of which escalated into violence with police firing on the crowds (resulting in a total of more than 100 deaths). Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran were attacked, and Muslim boycots of Danish products were initiated. As a countermeasure, some groups in Western countries launched “Buy Danish” campaigns as displays of support.

Critics of the cartoons labeled them Islamophobic and racist. For their part, supporters of the right to publish the cartoons hold that they illustrate an important point in a period that has witnessed the rise of Islamic terrorism. They argue that their publication was a legitimate exercise in the right of free speech. They question the assertion that images of Muhammad per se are offensive to Muslims, in as much as thousands of illustrations of Muhammad have appeared in books by and for Muslims.

The matter might have been of lesser significance if it had not been magnified by other issues that have been festering in the longer term. 1) There is increasing tension between large Muslim minorities and the host societies in Western Europe. The Muslims are perceived as wanting the host society to adopt their standards, rather than vice versa—the general pattern of immigrants who, the logic of the situation suggests, must assimilate the core values of their new countries. Until recently, European intellectuals and the authorities in those nations have tended to look the other way, even when the oppression of women and homophobia were involved. Implicated in this neglect are political correctness, ethical relativism, and simple cowardice and laziness. Now the mood seems to be changing: hence the cartoons. 2) The other underlying factor is the perception among Muslims that the main purpose of the Iraq war is to weaken Islam. Polls have shown this view to be prevalent from Morocco to Indonesia, and it is clearly shared by many Muslims in Western Europe as well. These two factors created a tinderbox in which an otherwise somewhat trivial set of drawings created a furor that ricocheted from one country to another.

A common view is the following: under Islamic teachings, any depiction of Muhammad is blasphemy; that is so even if the depictions are not negative. Such claims are historically unfounded, as Islamic illuminated manuscripts, whose orthodoxy has never been questioned, offer a plethora of portraits of the Prophet. In passively accepting such generalizations proffered by poorly informed Muslim informants the press is not doing its job.

Readers can verify the truth of my assertions by acquiring a handsome book. I was delighted to see that a wonderful facsimile is still available from Amazon at an advantageous price. It is The Miraculous Journey of Mahomet, published by Braziller, with an essay by Marie-Rose Seguy. Made in Herat, Afghanistan, in 1436, the original, a text of the Miraj Nameh, is one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts of all time, with much use of gold and a ravishing ultramarine blue. The Prophet is shown no less than 56 times, sometimes in the company of various other worthies, including, Adam, David and Solomon, and John the Baptist. Contrasting with some other depictions, Muhammad's face appears unveiled in every scene.


Recent controversies have brought a new portmanteau term to the fore: Islamofascism. The equation of the two is not convincing.

Historically the fascist regimes have shown the following characteristics. A single maximum leader rules over a unified territory and people, the Volk. This group is regarded as racially superior to all others. Only one political party is permitted, and the media are strictly controlled.

Obviously these characteristics do not prevail today. Currently there are twenty-two members of the Arab League. Other sometimes-troublesome Muslim states, such as Iran and Pakistan, are not Arab. Within the Arab league is a range of polities, from traditional monarchy as in Saudi Arabia and Morocco to a (slowly) modernizing authoritarianism, as in Egypt and Syria. Libya remains unclassifiable. There is no single political party. In fact, with the collapse of the Baath, there is no party that operates outside the bounds of a single nation-state. With competing television channels, and newspapers published in London and elsewhere, there is a good deal of media diversity. The Internet makes it impossible for any regime to exercise total control over the media. Moreover, Islam is not limited to Arabs, but has been adopted by members of many ethnic groups.

In short, Castro’s Cuba much more clearly resembles the historical profile of a fascist state. It has one maximum leader for life, ruling through a single party over a single territory populated by a single people. The Cuban media are strictly controlled.

Twenty years ago, I encountered students who suggested that I was a fascist for insisting on required reading and scheduling regular examinations. The epithet fascist was a left-anarchist maid of all work. For its part, Islamofascism seems to be more in vogue among neoconservative circles, together with the ineffable Christopher Hitchens. So much then for the slogan of Islamofascism, which is completely without merit.

Recently the columns of various conservative publications have been filled with exhortations against Islamic totalitarianism. For the reasons given above, contemporary Islam is not totalitarian either. The purpose of this expression seems to be to imply that we are locked in a struggle similar to that against the Soviet Union, which was indeed totalitarian. But the Arab and Islamic states are not at all like the old Soviet Union.

What we are confronted with is a murderous nationalist conspiracy, working to gain its ends as the Irish Republican Army and the Basque ETA terrorists have. These are, we are told, fringe groups. Yet in Spain the Basque Assembly has voted, in principle at least, for independence. So the danger is not a monolithic opponent that stands against us in unified fashion. Rather we are dealing with fanatical minorities, whose cause may nonetheless prove infectious.


Even though it was the last to appear in the sequence, Islam retains more archaic traits than do its sister religions of Judaism and Christianity. This archaism stems the circumstances of its origin in a marginal, quasi-primitive region of dying antiquity. As a result Muslim adjustment to the challenges of the modern world has been problematic.

Despite these handicaps, Islam is suffused with supersessionism: the view that through Muslim purity and dedication Judaism and Christianity have been definitively surpassed. The only role these two precursor faiths deserve to enjoy is to be preserved as museum pieces attesting, willy nilly, to the superiority of Islam.

Yet the longings of the faithful remain unfulfilled. Christians and Jews, adherents of religions that are supposedly obsolete, are prospering, mightily so, while Muslim-majority societies linger in backwardness. Absent oil deposits, there is little hope of their attaining anything else.

This cognitive dissonance lies at the root of today’s jihadist violence. Because the ideal and the reality are so different, the anger and violence will not soon abate.


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[Abrahamica] [Contents] [Introduction] [Chapter 1] [Chapter 2] [Chapter 3] [Chapter 4] [Chapter 5] [Chapter 6] [Bibliography]