John L Perkins
Lecture given to the Atheist Society, 13 June 20171
There may be as many interpretations of Islam as there are minds to interpret it. But it would be absurd to suggest that belief in any religion would have nothing to do with the documents, the scriptures, that define it.
It is impossible to understand Islam without some reference to the Koran. While there may be diverse variations in professed belief, all Muslims have the same sacred book. The Koran defines not just what Muslims are supposed to believe. It also defines what they should do. The Koran forms the basis of the rulebook of life for Muslims. It is the primary source of sharia law. It is held to be the exact word of Allah, and not to be doubted.
The rise of global Islamism, the desire to implement sharia law politically, has become one of the defining features of the 21st century. The effect has been overwhelmingly negative. In fact, as I argued in my previous lecture, Islam is now the prime cause of decline in human well being.
The main impact on the rise of Islamism has been a loss of democracy, human rights, the rights and status of women, and an increase in violence, civil war and terrorism. Given that, it would be imagined that Islam would be a prime candidate for thorough analysis and critique.
However in our multicultural societies, social norms have arisen that limit or prevent open discussion of religion, Islam in particular. To briefly characterise it, apparently we should not suggest that violence is inherent to Islam, because that may cause a backlash against Muslims, and we should not suggest that Islam is not true, because that may cause a backlash from Muslims.
In my quest for an objective inquiry into these matters, I will not be bound by these constraints. My motive is humanitarian and my policy is honesty. What I contend is this. Firstly, extremist interpretations of Islam, which lead to violence, are not aberrant, they are literal interpretations. This is supported not just by the Koran but in particular, the legend of the Prophet Muhammad. It is dishonest to pretend otherwise. Secondly, the only solution to this problem is to recognise that the Koran should not be taken literally because it is not true, literally. Both the Koran and the legend of the Prophet are based on manufactured myths.
At this stage, I would like to address myself to Muslims. I do not bear any malice towards you. I sympathise with you in many ways. I recognise that you have been, and are, the victims of injustice and prejudice. I regret that.
However, I am an atheist and will of course criticise what you believe. When you identify yourself as a Muslim, you are expressing your allegiance to the religion and to some extent the ideology it represents. I would like to encourage you to think about Islam as a belief system that can be questioned, on the basis of reason and evidence, just like anything else.
The origins of the Koran
The Koran did not originate as a divine revelation by the angel Gabriel the Prophet Muhammad in a cave near Mecca. The companions of the Prophet did not immediately memorise or write down everything the Prophet said as a revelation, preserving it for posterity.
Yet this is what Muslims are required to believe, and to question it is heretical. Whatever contemplation of these matters that may occur in Islamic Studies departments amounts to nothing more than exegesis, or explication of the text within an Islamic context. Even many non-Muslim scholars tend to accept the Koran on face value. Such lack of diligence is negligent.
Ibn Waraq has commented on academics who view the Koran as authentic. "Do they literally believe that Mohammed's revelations were revealed to him by angels? That hundreds of lines of rhyming prose was instantly recalled and written down verbatim? How do revelations operate psychologically and epistemologically? We do not yet possess a usable cross-cultural theory and typology of revelations" (see Waraq, 2002).
Tom Holland on the Koran
For an accessible introduction to the subject, a good starring point is the BBC4 documentary produced by Tom Holland: "Islam: the Untold Story"2. Holland interviews Patricia Crone (since deceased), whose research indicated that there was no evidence that Mecca existed, or was a major centre for pilgrimage, at the time of the purported Prophet's adventures there.
Centuries earlier, there had been trade routes to Yemen, but these went via the coast, perhaps to oases such as Medina or Ta'if, but not to Mecca, which is located in a harsh, dry area. The date at when a shrine was established at Mecca is further investigated in Holland's book, In the Shadow of the Sword which is entertaining account of the pre-Islamic history, and the era of the Arabs, showing maps of the area.
Holland says part of the Koran, at least, can be dated to the 7th Century because the reference to the "two horned one" (18:88-101) is a reference to Alexander the Great. A story circulated at the time that Heraclius, the Byzantine emperor who led the army into battle defeating the Persians, was the new Alexander3.
Pagans, Manichaeans, Jews and persecuted Christians all found refuge in the desert areas. In Najran, in the south of Arabia, there was a Christian Monument, a Kaaba, which honoured the pagan Arabs relish for referencing cubes. Holland shows a picture of this Kaaba in his book.
The Koran does not contain any evidence of Muhammad's "idol-smashing", Holland says, but it does contain descriptions of the unfaithful as having herds of oxen, cows and sheep. It also mentions gardens of vines, olives and pomegranates. From this, the origin of the Koran cannot have been in Mecca, which is a notoriously dry, barren and inhospitable place.
The Koran's origin is much more likely to have been south of Palestine in Nabatea or the Negev, Holland says. The Koran describes the defeat of the Romans in "a nearby land", which would not be in Arabia.
Another key feature in the Koran, locating it in the near South of Palestine, is a reference to Lot, and the petrified remains of the Sodomites, which you pass by "in the morning and in the night" (37:133). In this case, they must have lived there. This is in the southern end of the Dead Sea.
John of Damascus (676-749) is reported as referring to the Arab texts "The woman", "The cow" and "God's she-camel", but does not refer to the Koran. The first two of these may refer to chapters of the Koran, so it appears that by around 730, it had still not been consolidated as a single book. John also refers to a "false prophet" called Muhammad as being the author of the works4. He also says the Saracens condemn the worship of Jesus as the Son of God, which is a consistent theme throughout all the historical accounts.
Robert Spencer on the Koran
The inscriptions on early coins cast great doubt on whether the word "muhammad" originally referred to the Prophet of the Arabs. Some of the first coins to use the word also picture a figure bearing a cross. The word can mean "praised one", and could refer to any revered figure including Jesus.
The Koran says "Muhammad is nothing but a messenger; messengers have passed away before him" (3:144), and also "The Messiah, the son of Mary, is nothing but a messenger; messengers have passed away before him" (5:75). It is highly plausible that when the Koran uses the word Muhammad it refers to Jesus.
The Koran insists that it is entirely Arabic, but much of it is derived from Jewish and Christian sources. In the Koranic story of creation, the angels are ordered to prostrate themselves before Allah, but Satan refuses. This story is not found in the Bible but is in Jewish apocryphal and rabbinical literature.
Similarly the Koranic passage about unjust killing is taken from Jewish tradition. "We laid it down for the Israelites that whoever killed a human being, except as punishment ... , shall be regarded as having killed all mankind" (5:32). The Jewish derivation of the Koran seems apparent here. The Arabic nature of the Koran is a later development and not a feature of the original text.
Spencer notes, quoting other authors that much of the Koran is incomprehensible, and that literally translated it contains many grammatical infelicities and linguistic oddities. It also contains nonce words, which have no meaning in any known language, for example the word sijill in 83:7.
The Koran has many non-Arabic loan words, especially from Syro-Aramaic (Syriac). Arabic was replacing Syriac as the lingua franca in the 7th century, but Syriac was still the language used in church. The proper names of biblical personages are used in their Syriac form in the Koran. This includes Solomon, Pharoah, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Noah, Zachariah and Mary. Almost all the religious terms in the Koran are derived from Syriac.
The origin of the Koran was not Arabic at all but was rendered into Arabic. It was essential that the Arab empire had a holy book in Arabic. Spencer says that a clue to what the Koran may have originally been is in sura 25: Al Furqan. This name has been translated as "criterion" (of right and wrong) but in Syriac it means "redemption" or "salvation".
A more precise translation of (25:1) would be "blessed is he who sent down the redemption on his servant that he might be a sacrifice for the peoples". Hence this is Christian statement referring to Jesus. The Christian origins of the Koran are consistent with the fact that the early Arabs had crosses on their coins.
Unfortunately the earliest manuscripts of the Koran do not contain most diacritical marks these are essential to make sense of the Arabic text. Diacritical marks may have been purposely omitted. Perhaps guidance was a secret only to the initiated. Some scholars speculate that the diacritical marks themselves caused the incoherence in the Koran. The marks can completely change the meaning of words.
Some scholars suggest that the Koran was a liturgical text designed for cultic recitation in public and private services. Gunther Lueling suggests that about one third of the Koran was originally a pre-Islamic Christian text. Christoph Luxenberg states that if the Koran really means lectionary then it should be understood as a liturgical book with selected texts from the scriptures, (the Old and New Testament) and not at all as a substitute for the scriptures.
Luxenberg translates (12:1) as "We have sent it down as an Arab lectionary so that you may understand it." So it is not surprising that Jesus (Isa) is cited 25 times in the Koran and that he is there referred to as the messiah 11 times. The Arabic of (19:24), describing the birth of Jesus involving a "rivulet" or "brook" has puzzled Arabic scholars. Luxenberg however finds that this is a mistranslation from Syriac and the passage simply says "Do not be sad your Lord has made your delivery legitimate".
Luxenberg won international attention for his interpretation of the Koranic references to the virgins. "White-eyed virgins" does not make sense, but white grapes does. References to grapes were common in the hymns of the Syrians. The passages referring to boys in paradise also referred to grapes.
The Koran's Christian substratum can be seen in sura 96, which is regarded as the first chronologically. It has the angel Gabriel appearing before Muhammad and exhorting him to recite. The sura does not make sense.
It can be sensibly interpreted as a Christian hymn. The final section "bow thyself and draw nigh" is a call to receive the Eucharist (i.e. the symbolic bread and wine). The Koran of (5:114), where Jesus prays for the lord to send a table from heaven is also an example of Christian Eucharist theology.
The Koran's Christology, both Islamic and pre-Islamic, is defiantly anti-Trinitarian. Lueling argues the terms pagan and polytheist actually refers to Trinitarians. The Koran speaks of hanifs (3:67) in this sense.
Many of the Koran's small obscure passages begin to make sense when read in light of its having a foundation in Christian theology. Sura 97 refers to the "night of power". Muslims associated this with the first appearance of Gabriel to Muhammad. In light of its Syriac Christian roots, this sura actually of refers to Christmas.
The liturgical Christian practice connected with the birth of Jesus was later adopted by Islam but reinterpreted by Islamic theology to mean the descent of the Koran.
Luxenberg interprets the word al qadr or power in the Syriac form where it can mean a star. This is a further textual reference that connects the night of power with Christmas.
Timeline of events
It is difficult enough to know what happened thirteen centuries ago, but regarding early Arab history the difficulties are compounded by the influence of religious mindsets that bias interpretations. Even without that, there are widely differing views amongst historians, depending perhaps, on the emphasis placed on conflicting aspects of the evidence.
While no-one doubts that the Arabs were able to construct a great empire in the seventh century, opinions vary considerably on how they did it, and the role of Islam in the process. The critical issue is exactly when the transition from vehemently anti-Trinitarian Christian Arabs to strident new-religion Islamic Arabs occurred. The traditional view is that the clock of Islamic history started in 622, with the Hijra. A non-Muslim consensus view is that this happened, or at least was consolidated, around 700, during the time of Abd al-Malik. A more revisionist view is that it happened as late as 820, during the time of Al-Mamun.
The traditional characterisation is largely based upon the ninth century publication by Ibn Hisham, of Ibn Ishaq's eighth century biography of the early seventh century exploits of the Prophet Muhammad. This is apocryphal. It has the warrior Prophet leading a series of battles that gave rise to a band of Arabs storming from Arabia and miraculously conquering the great Byzantine and Persian empires.
A more plausible scenario is that the Arabs, in areas that were formerly the lands of the Ghassanid kingdom in the west, and the Lakhmid kingdom in the east, united to form a unified state. These areas already enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy from the Byzantines and the Persians. As the Byzantine empire weakened, and the Persian empire collapsed, the Arabs assumed control of the local garrisons, despatched the remnants of the empires without much trouble, and carried on the administration as before. This is born out by a lack of evidence of any conquest from Arabia, and by the administrative continuity, as apparent in the coins.
The Monophysite Arab Christians of the west united with the Nestorian Christians of the east in an alliance against the religiously repressive Byzantines and Zoroastrianism of the Persian regime. They conceived of a version of Christianity that denounced the concept of Jesus as Son of God, which they regarded as polytheistic.
The key events in the timeline appear to be battleground victories of the Byzantines in 622 and 627, led by Heraclius. Effectively, the defeat of the Persians gave the Arabs their independence. The fact that the events were considered momentous is witnessed by their reference in the Koran. Many other events and leaders in the traditional narrative are attested only from the Islamic literature derived from Ibn Ishaq. I tend to agree with Popp that these should be considered apocryphal.
A critical piece of evidence is Muawiya's inscription, in Greek, on a bath house in Gadara (Hammat Gader) in Palestine in 662. Muawiya is purported to be the fifth or sixth caliph after the Prophet Muhammad. The inscription starts with a cross. It then begins "In the days of Muawiya, the servant of God, the leader of the protectors". It names that Roman year and refers to "the year 42 following the Arabs". It is not in Arabic, there is no mention the Prophet, the Koran, Islam, or the Hijra. If Muawiya was devout Muslim, following the Prophet, or any kind of Muslim at all, this is simply inconceivable. Muawiya also had crosses on his coins.
Most historians play down the significance of this, including Holland. They say it is an example of Islamic tolerance, and that Muawiya had to be mindful that most citizens were still Christians. Nonsense. They totally ignore the significance of the date as being in the "era of the Arabs". The learned scholars and professors have their collective heads in the sand. Muawiya was a Christian. The religion of Islam had not yet been invented. The Hijra of the warrior Prophet did not happen. The era of the Arabs dates from their effective independence in 622.
Following the example of Spencer, I have prepared a timeline of events5 where the traditional accounts of events, that are not historically attested, are italicised. I have augmented Spencer's timeline with that of Holland, and also a sequence of events as espoused by Popp. In the light of Popp's account, I have italicised some of the events that are described by Holland as historical.
The truth: does it matter?
Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz has described the current upsurge in Islamism and terrorism as "a global jihadist insurgency". Much of the inspiration for it comes from the insurgency and the jihad described in the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, backed up by quotations from the Koran. Attempts to counteract the insurgency largely consist of attempts to deny the nature of what is causing it. Incredibly, the actual authenticity of the legend of the Prophet, and of the Koran as the exact word of Allah, is not considered to be relevant.
Apparently, the truth does not matter. It is now a "post fact", "post truth" world. But the truth does matter. Civilisation depends on it. Religions and postmodernism have seriously undermined the respect for truth, Religions are the original fake news. Religions are imposture.
In 1603, describing scientific method, Francis Bacon wrote of the need to seek "the Truth", by studying similarities and "subtler differences", using "patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to reconsider", without preference for old or new, but with a "hatred of every kind of imposture".
It is possible to understand how it would have been difficult to identify religions as imposture 400 years ago, but not now. We can't blame everyone for not knowing the truth. It is inherently elusive, although it is certainly not always unknowable. But we can blame those who should know better, probably do, but still wilfully propagate the imposture.
This includes anyone who claims to know about Islam, and religions in general, after having studied them, especially in universities. Perhaps university funding should be made conditional on diligent pursuit of the truth. Where there are relevant truth criteria, they should be considered, not ignored. The fraud of post modernism should end.
In society, we need secularism. Instead of being protected and promoted, religions should be de-funded and taxed. Religious schools should not receive government funding. Children should not be indoctrinated in schools. Children will have religious freedom when they are free to make up their own minds without any kind of religious coercion.
Deradicalisation of Islamist extremists will not work without referencing the truth. To wilfully ignore the truth is not delusion, it is deception. George Orwell said that in time of mass deception, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. We need a truth revolution now.
Bacon, Francis, 1603. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/134667-for-myself-i-found-that-i-was-fitted-for-nothing
Holland, Tom, In the Shadow of the Sword: the Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, Anchor Books, 2012.
Ohlig, Karl-Heinz, and Gerd-R Puin, (ed.), The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into its Early History, Prometheus Books, 2010.
Ohlig, Karl-Heinz, (ed), Early Islam: a Critical Reconstruction based on Contemporary Sources, Prometheus Books, 2013.
Spencer, Robert, Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins, ISI Books, 2012.
Warraq, Ibn, (ed.), What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text & Commentary, Prometheus Books, 2002.
Warraq, Ibn, Why I am not a Muslim, Prometheus Books, 2003.
Warraq, Ibn (ed.), Christmas in the Koran: Luxenberg, Syriac, and the Near Eastern Judeo-Christian Background of Islam, Prometheus Books, 2014.
1. This is the text of the lecture I would have given,
had I been slightly better prepared ;-)
2. The documentary caused considerable controversy, predictably perhaps, on the grounds that it was "anti-Islam". This is despite the fact that Holland, and his interviewee Patricia Crone, argued their case very cautiously. Holland allowed another interviewee, Professor of Islamic Studies Seyeed Hossain Nasr, ample opportunity to comment on their propositions. However his attitude appeared to be one of indignation that non-Muslims should even comment on Islam's origins.
3. Holland dated this to the year 630 when Heraclius entered Jerusalem restoring the true Cross. Volker Popp refers to the two great victories Heraclius had over the Persians, in Armenia in 622 and Nineveh in 627.
4. Karl-Heinz Ohlig suggests that early references to Muhammad such as this may be later insertions. See: Ohlig, Karl-Heinz, and Gerd-R Puin, (ed.), The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into its Early History,
Prometheus Books, 2010.
Early Islam - Timeline
List of Early Caliphs
Transcript, with comments: Islam: The Untold Story
Reading notes/ selected exerpts: Tom Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword,(Chapters 6 & 7)
Reading notes / selected exerpts: Robert Spencer: Did Muhammad Exist?
Reading notes / selected exerpts: Volker Popp: Early history of Islam following Inscriptional And Numismatic Testimony
Lecture notes: Fred Donner, How Islam Began