Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Toward a European Islam?

Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch
Not what Tariq Ramadan had in mind . . .
(Image from Wall Street Journal)

Tariq Ramadan has famously called for a European Islam, but he probably didn't intend someone like Münster University Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch -- a convert to Islam at age 15 and now Germany's first professor of Islamic theology -- who doubts that Muhammad ever existed.

He didn't start out with such radical ideas and in fact appeared to adhere to rather conservative views on Islamic law . . . but that impression was superficial:
In private, he was moving in a different direction. He devoured works questioning the existence of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Then "I said to myself: You've dealt with Christianity and Judaism but what about your own religion? Can you take it for granted that Muhammad existed?"

He had no doubts at first, but slowly they emerged. He was struck, he says, by the fact that the first coins bearing Muhammad's name did not appear until the late 7th century -- six decades after the religion did.

He traded ideas with some scholars in Saarbrücken who in recent years have been pushing the idea of Muhammad's nonexistence. They claim that "Muhammad" wasn't the name of a person but a title, and that Islam began as a Christian heresy.

Prof. Kalisch didn't buy all of this. Contributing last year to a book on Islam, he weighed the odds and called Muhammad's existence "more probable than not." By early this year, though, his thinking had shifted. "The more I read, the historical person at the root of the whole thing became more and more improbable," he says.

He has doubts, too, about the Quran. "God doesn't write books," Prof. Kalisch says.
This is interesting to hear about, and it's useful for opening up academic debate as well as for raising the level of scholarly discourse among Muslim intellectuals in Europe -- unless Kalisch is beheaded for apostasy, which tends to have a silencing effect on discussion -- but I have to admit to maintaining skepticism about the good professor's arguments for Muhammad's supposed nonexistence.

Not that I know his specific arguments . . . and he's the scholar, not I.

But I do have one arrow in my quiver, the famous "criterion of dissimilarity," popularly known as the "criterion of embarrassment," which roughly says that any 'embarrassing' statement about or by a respected religious founder occurring in a pious work written at an early period in the history of the religion is probably true. The sira (biography) and sunnah (deeds) contain so many 'embarrassing' reports of words and deeds attributed to Muhammad that I find difficulty in accepting that such words and deeds were later invented by pious Muslims. The more likely conclusion is that Muhammad really existed and that he said and did some 'embarrassing' things.

The most famous of embarrassments is the disputed "Satanic Verses" incident, in which Muhammad is reported -- in the early, pious Muslim literature -- to have recited Satanically inspired verses praising three pagan goddesses as daughters of Allah. Of this report, one eminent scholar of Islam has written:
"Muhammad must have publicly recited the satanic verses as part of the Qur'ān; it is unthinkable that the story could have been invented by Muslims, or foisted upon them by non-Muslims." (William Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Mecca, Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 103)
Since such an embarrassing story exists in the early Muslim literature, and since this literature was written from pious motives, then the story would not have been invented. Muhammad must really have recited such embarrassing verses, and he could only have done so if he had existed. Therefore, Muhammad really did exist, despite the scholarly opinion of Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch.

This, of course, is the simple argument. Scholars of Islam may widely disagree.

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At 1:49 PM, Anonymous azate said...

I guess you found this story via Spengler, who in turn got it from the WSJ. In any case, there is some speculation on the forums that Kalisch got this "gnostic" version of Islam from Yevo/Koren/Crone/Wansborough. Well, he didn't; even said as much himself in the german press. I'm surprised to find Spengler so out of the loop on German scholarship.

No, the reason Kalisch now says what he does are the three works of the "Saarbrücken group".

And the reason this filters into English discourse right now is that the first of the three books has now been translated into English (Amazon link). I don't think this is a coincidence.

The topic is now well advanced in German-language academic discourse. Don't listen to what Spengler insinuates about "the control of mainstream scholars at the University of Berlin, with deep ties to Arab countries". The head of the department is quite a "gnostic" herself and her successor in spe is a great scholar and a sceptic and not one to be bought out by "Arab countries". Papers are emerging left and right -- the topic is here to stay. Not everybody is yet in the boat by far, but at least there is now widespread acknowledgment that this is indeed a boat, and not a dead duck, as many thought initially. Hell, even Hizbollah's tv channel gave the theory a very fair and not unsympathetic airing.

At 3:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Azate, I've not visited Spengler's forum or the Asia Times recently, so I missed that. No, I just happened to see it blogged about on one of my regular forays into the blogosphere.

But now that you mention Spengler, I'm curious . . .

To be perfectly frank, I'd heard of this theory years before. When I was a Naumann Fellow between 1992 and 1995, I first heard rumblings of it at a Naumann seminar where I spoke to a fellow about Islam, and he remarked that early Islam was an offshoot of Christianity.

Or something like that. A distant rumbling, I admit.

I next heard about it from online in the latter 1990s, when I was in Australia and then in Jerusalem, for I had contact with a man who called himself "Christoph" but said it was a pseudonym (perhaps the Christoph?) and who told me that there were arguments that Muhammad had never existed.

I gave the same argument from 'embarrassment' that I've provided in my blog, and he acknowledged the point but maintained his position.

Anyway, thanks for the links. I'll take a look.

Jeffery Hodges

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