What do we know of Muhammad? Can we even be sure that such a historical personage existed? For the vast majority of believing Muslims the question simply does not arise. The Prophet lived in Arabia from the time of his birth in approximately 570 CE till his death in 632, during which time he received and transmitted the revelations from God contained in the Koran, while forging the warring tribes of that region into an all-powerful movement under the banner of Islam.
Building on this formidable religious and political achievement, his immediate successors, the Rightly Guided Caliphs, led the triumphant tribes beyond the bounds of Arabia, inflicting almost simultaneous defeats on the two most powerful Near Eastern empires, the Persian Sassanids, who collapsed completely, and the Byzantines, who lost two of their richest provinces—Syria-Palestine and Egypt. Despite having reservations about the reliability of the oral traditions underpinning the Muslim narrative, most Western scholars have tended to accept its basic premises. There was such a person as Muhammad and it is his utterances—divinely dictated or otherwise—that make up the 114 “suras,” or chapters, of the Koran. According to the generally accepted Muslim account, the holy text acquired its present form under the Caliph Uthman, Muhammad’s son-in-law and the third of his successors as leader of the Islamic community; he reigned from 644 to 656.
There are, however, a number of skeptics, mostly in Western universities, who question the Muslim narrative. Even when accepting that the text of the Koran represents the authentic utterances of Muhammad, they have cast doubt on the details of the Prophet’s life, as recorded in the oral literature known as Hadiths (“traditions” or reports) passed down by the generations following his death. Many of these details, based on stories conveyed through “chains of transmission” of varying reliability, were intended to elucidate the meaning of Koranic passages by reference to “occasions of revelation” in the life of the Prophet.
The earliest written biography of Muhammad, by Ibn Hisham, who died in 833, contains parts of the missing work of an earlier scholar, Ibn Ishaq, who lived from about 707 to 767. The dating of Ibn Hisham’s work, composed nearly two centuries after the Prophet’s death, may be contrasted with that of Mark’s gospel, considered by most New Testament scholars to be the earliest of the three synoptic gospels and to have been written some four decades after the death of Jesus. The story of Jesus has long been subjected to the rigors of form criticism, with scholars such as Rudolph Bultmann claiming that almost nothing can be known about his life or personality, as distinct from the “message…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.