In the British Library sits a collection of Syriac New Testament fragments of manuscript throughout history. Of these, lays a version of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark, known as Addition 14,461. Scribbled inside the pages, is a note from what is thought to be around the time just after the battle of Gabitha in 636 CE that reads:
“…and in January, they took the word for their lives did [the sons of] Emesa, and many villages were ruined with killing by [the Arabs of] Mụhammad”
– This is the earliest non-Islamic mention of a man named Muhammad, written just four years after his death.
It is without doubt that Islamic literature covering the life, the actions, and words of the Prophet Muhammad, is vast, and along with the Qur’an, the bedrock of Islam. From biographies, to commentaries, to translations and constant reinvention to suit a more ‘acceptable’ modern narrative (the age of Aisha, springs to mind); it goes without saying, that the intrusions into every facet of the life of the founder of one of the Worlds largest religions, is central to the Islamic faith.
It is truly difficult to know where to start, what we actually know for certain, when trying to figure out just who Muhammad was. Wading through legend, and interpretation rather than fact, is a tiresome venture. But one name crops up as perhaps the most important in the institutionalisation of Islam and the beginnings of forging the legend of the Prophet; Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan.
The first thing to note, for the sake of this article, is the importance of religion, in carving a successful empire. Reza Aslan, in ‘No God but God’ notes:
“Your religion was your ethnicity, your culture, and your social identity, it defined your politics, your economics, and your ethics. More than anything else, your religion was your citizenship.”
– The significance of this will be clear by the end of this article.
The very first biography of the Prophet was produced by Ibn Ishaq; Sīrat Rasūl Allāh. The most notable problems with this, are that Ibn Ishaq was born around 704ad, approximately 70 years after the Prophet had died. He was born two decades after the fifth Umayyad Caliph, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan worked to marry together the new Arab Empire, his own legacy and dynasty (the first dynasty of the Arab empire), with a religious identity of its own. Ibn Ishaq’s biography – a collection of oral traditions – was therefore written around 100+ years (traditionally, 120 years) after the Prophet had died, and just after the Caliphate had indulged in a Public Relations effort. Not only that, but Ibn Ishaq’s work has since been lost to history. We know that Ishaq’s work was edited by al-Bakka’i, whose copy has also been lost to history. al-Bakka’i edit was then edited by Ibn Hisham, whose work (in copies) are the basis for all inquiries into the life of the Prophet that we have today. Everything else, is pieced together from Hadith, that happened to come about even further removed than Ibn Ishaq. For the basis of the life of the Prophet, Ibn Ishaq is often (though not always) taken at his word that he is trustworthy, which obviously means we must take al-Bakka’i’s word that he is trustworthy, and we must take Ibn Hisham’s word that he is trustworthy. And yet, even Islamic scholars throughout history have questioned Ibn Ishaq’s reliability:
“Imam Malik was not the only contemporary of Ibn Ishaq’s to have problems with him. Despite writing the earliest biography of Prophet Muhammad, Scholars such as al-Nisa’I and Yahya b. Kattan did not view Ibn Ishaq as a reliable or authoritative source of Hadith.”
If we cannot be certain of the legitimacy of all Hadith, and we place the collection of Hadith at a time that follows a systematic effort to institutionalise Islam by marrying its history to that of the Ummayad rulers, then I see no reason why we can be certain of the legitimacy of any Hadith. If we cannot be certain of the legitimacy of the entire biography by Ibn Ishaq, and cannot be certain of the legitimacy of integrity of Ibn Hisham’s edit, then I see no reason to trust any of it. Both of these contentions have far reaching consequences not just for Muslims, but for those of us who are critical of the Prophet. My criticisms of the Prophet come from the traditions presented of him, through the Qur’an and Hadith. My judgement that he was misogynistic and violent, are based on interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith. If neither can be trusted, than all criticism falls away. I am left with criticism of a legend; but given the structure and practice of belief that legend has inspired and the power it now has over the World, I think it less of a problem to be critical, than it is to believe.
So what do we know of the Prophet Muhammad?
Well, if we cross reference early Islamic writings of Ibn Ishaq (though again, we rely on Ibn Hisham for this) with the writings of those outside of Islam, we may get a more accurate picture of Muhammad, than relying purely on the biases of either.
St John of Damascus, writing before any Hadith were compiled, wrote:
“There is also the superstition of the Ishmaelites which to this day prevails and keeps people in error, being a forerunner of the Antichrist. They are descended from Ishmael, [who] was born to Abraham of Agar, and for this reason they are called both Agarenes and Ishmaelites. They are also called Saracens, which is derived from Sarras kenoi, or destitute of Sara, because of what Agar said to the angel: ‘Sara hath sent me away destitute.’ These used to be idolaters and worshiped the morning star and Aphrodite, whom in their own language they called Khabár, which means great. And so down to the time of Heraclius they were very great idolaters. From that time to the present a false prophet named Mohammed has appeared in their midst. This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy.”
– St John’s birth year is contentious. Some sources insist around 675, others like Daniel J. Sahas suggest 652. Either way, he lived at a time when the Arab Empire had surged northwards and taken control of his homeland. He would be familiar with stories of Muhammad (Muhammad never stepped foot in Damascus). He lived through the iconoclast controversy, and he was a boyhood friend of the future Caliph Yazid I. He had a keen interest in people of other faiths. Interestingly, in his writings, he never refers to the new occupiers as “Muslims”. There is no “Islam”. No system of laws. The ‘heresy’ wasn’t new, Muslims are referred to as ‘Saracens’ (The Byzantines decreed that because of his supposed heresies, John of Damascus was himself of ‘saracene opinions’) and Muhammad was simply a leader of that old tradition. The chapter itself is called “Heresy of the Ishmaelities”.
St John was writing just before the accumulation of Hadith began. Around 100 years after Muhammad’s death, and well into the centralising of control toward Damascus, by the Ummayad dynasty. His writings suggest that whilst this new band of ‘heretics’ existed and were linked to a man named Muhammad by the 8th Century, they were not known as Muslims, nor were they considered a brand new religious order, separate from Christianity, with a system of values and laws of their own.
However, much of that is St John’s Christian bias. The Arabs did not consider themselves to be a heretical Christian sect. Here we see two coins. The coin on the left, is the coin of Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. The coin on the right, is the Umayyad coin, modelled on the earlier Byzantine coin…. but with the cross missing:
– The Umayyad coin is dated to around 690, during a dispute with the Byzantines. The minting of new coins lead directly to war with the Byzantine Empire. And here we see the beginnings of what would become a very centralised, political Islam, through, in my estimation, the single most important Caliph in the history of the Arab Empire.
The Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan established the entity that would become an Islamic state, rather than simply conquered lands. In short, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, was brilliant. A master of empire building. A political genius. He came to power upon the death of his father, during a civil war that was tearing the fragile Empire apart. He most feared the rise of the alternative Caliph Abd-Allah ibn al-Zubayr and his followers. The besieging of Mecca, in 692, with over 10,000 Syrian troops, shows just how serious Abd al-Malik believed the situation had become for the future of his dynasty. Eventually the rebellions, as well as the Byzantines were defeated, and so the next step is to unify the Empire. To further the plan of unification, he needed to solidify his own claims to the Caliphate. It is around this time, that coins start to be inscribed with the name of Muhammad, linked directly to the Caliph. It is also no surprise that the Sana’a manuscripts (the earliest Qur’anic manuscripts we have) are calligraphically dated to the era of Abd al-Malik.
He had the coin above created to include an image of himself, defiantly holding onto his sword, as a warrior. Poetry of the time calls the Caliph, the ‘deputy’ of God. They go to great lengths to push this idea, and it is most prominent during the reign of Abd al-Malik.
The urgency to ensure the strength and growth of the new Arab Empire – an Empire that had already experienced civil war, and was in the midst of new uprisings – depended on creating a history of its own, intrinsically tied to the new Caliph (This happens with all dynasties of old who have spurious claims to power. Augustus adopted the title ‘Caesar’, King Henry VII of England, named his first son Arthur, linking his dynasty to the reign of the legendary King Arthur). It is the result of the attempts to centralise power more concisely and distinctly than any previous Caliph, and to solidify the new Empire, by Abd al-Malik, at a period in history by which the survival of a new state entwined majestically with the growth of the religion that it was based on. Without a powerful religious context, alongside a manipulated legend-based history, a state struggled to survive.
Unsurprisingly, the first mention of the Prophet Muhammad on any coin, was issued a year after the accession to the Caliphate, in 686, and in the midst of rebellion and civil war….. of Abd al-Malik. The coin reads: “shahāda: bism Allāh Muḥammad rasūl Allāh (“In the name of God, Muḥammad is the Messenger of God”)”. This again, coincides with the Caliph’s attempts to solidify the power of the new Empire, and link his dynasty and his Empire back to the early days, and to Muhammad. Abd al-Malik, is forging a history for his dynasty. The legend of Muhammad was the next stage in the strengthening of the dynasty through forged history.
Between 685, and 715, the dynasty that controlled the Caliphate was in the middle of perhaps one of the greatest and most impressive Public Relations ventures the World has ever seen.
Earlier Arab coins, during the period between Muhammad’s death, and the 5th Umayyad Caliph, show no mention of anything that could be linked to the Islam that evolved over the following century. No mention of Islam, or of the Prophet. They include generic phrases like “bism Allah rabbi” (In the name of God, my Lord).
Coins are one way to strengthen an Empire, but by far the most impressive, is through Architecture. Abd al-Malik oversaw the symbolic building of the Dome of the Rock, in centre of Jewish Jerusalem, on the legendary site of Temple Mount. It stands high above Church of the Holy Sepulchre, dwarfing the old Christian Church. A symbol of great power to the new Monotheism in town. Nothing says the coming of a new age, and a new dynasty, quite like crushing the old one. A symbol of authority, and wealth; great architecture is woven into the fabric of the building of Empire. This was used to stunning effect by the great architects of the Abd al-Malik era.
His son, al-Walid, upon accession to the Caliphate, continues his father’s legacy, by building the great Umayyad Mosque at Damascus, over the old Christian Basilica of Saint John the Baptist. al-Walid also became the Patron of great artists and poets at the time. The Umayyad’s were creating a brand new culture, that centred around themselves. It is for this reason perhaps that Islam, is an extremely political religion. It was necessary, for the time period.
Coins emphasising the link between Abd al-Malik’s dynasty, and Muhammad, forging the legend of Muhammad to add weight to the early days and linking it to the history of his dynasty, huge beautiful buildings on the sight of religions of conquered Empires, codifying laws through the Qur’an; this all took place to strengthen Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan’s claim to the Caliphate. He oversaw the centralising of power from reliance on tribal leaders, to a system of bureaucracy (which resulted in the Arabisation of the language of state). He reformed the military, creating official ranks of non-Arab fighters. We can trace the legends of Muhammad to, and directly following his reign. Prior to that time period, all we have are sparse references to a man named Muhammad who was simply a leader of the Arabs. What he said, and what he did, was of little to no significance. Imperial authority, Islamic authority, all resulted from Abd al-Malik’s imperial & dynastic goals.
Three things are clear. Firstly, the sudden and impressive Arab conquests around the 7th century, included and was most likely lead by a man called Muhammad, though whether his words and deeds were important to this new faith, is unlikely given that it took over a century to decide it might be wise to document his words and deeds, and over 60 years before he even appears on a coin. Secondly, Muhammad preached a Monotheism that differed to that of Christians and Jews, and was considered a heresy by non-Muslims of the period. And Thirdly, by the late 7th Century, Muhammad’s name was suddenly being used to strengthen a fragmented, and fragile political Umayyad state and to solidify the claims of one particular Caliph; coins appear with Muhammad’s name on it; Hadith are being collected in order to provide a legal framework for the new empire; Muhammad suddenly becomes a legendary and much needed figurehead for the reign of Abd al-Malik, upon his accession to a largely fragmented and warring empire.
What we do not know, and what is pure speculation at best, is the Prophet’s life before his supposed revelations, what actually happened in the cave outside of Mecca (if anything), any aspect of his life, what he ever said, and how he treated others. We simply do not know. It is far more likely that Muhammad, as presented in Islamic literature, was a figure whose legend began to be moulded by the truly brilliant Abd al-Malik, and was further added to in order to suit the goals of later Caliphs.
Islam as we know it, was intrinsically linked to the Umayyad dynasty. It was all political, all spin, all PR, and based on the geopolitical climate of the late 7th Century. The early Arabs were not Muslims as we know them today. The Fifth Umayyad Caliph carved a political empire. Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan was the great spark that lit the fire of the legend of the Prophet Muhammad.