Toward a European Islam?
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?"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.
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.
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.