Mystery still surrounds the emergence of Islam and the life of Muhammad ibn Abdullah the prophet of Islam. Even the personality of Muhammad himself is shrouded in mystery. The main reason for this is the lack of evidence in Islam’s history that we can rely on. 


THE ARABIC LANGUAGE, the language of the Qur’an, grew from a cradle of the Syriac Aramaic language that was prevalent in the Fertile Crescent region, and the philological development of the Arabic language was still not complete at the time of the advent of Islam. 

At its inception, Arabic was an oral language with no alphabet to enable it to be written down. Even the few Arabs who learned to write used Aramaic letters, and researchers have called this method of writing Garshuni.[1] This method of script has occasioned many errors in the writings that have come down to us, including the Qur’an and works of history. Even after the Arabs settled on their twenty-eight letter alphabet, there were only seven letters that were unambiguously represented, while the rest were guessed at by the reader due to the fact that the letters were not dotted.[2] There was thus no way to differentiate between the letters for b, t and th or between j, h and kh and so on. There was no letter hamza (’) in the middle of words, so we find in the Qur’an, for example, jnt (‘garden’) instead of jnat (‘gardens’). The scarcity of writing, along with errors made in transcription, has made any reliance on what we have received from the Islamic heritage of no historical value.

It is clear that the biography of Muhammad is a late product, one which the storytellers masterfully formulated from a fertile imagination

Moreover, we know nothing certain of the personality of Muhammad himself. The biographical works (sira) tell us that he was born up to four years following the death of his father, because Abdullah Abu Muhammad had contracted marriage on the same day that Muhammad’s grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, was married. Abd al-Muttalib’s new wife then gave birth to a son Hamza – Muhammad’s uncle – who is four years older than him, according to some accounts. If Hamza was four years older than Muhammad, then Muhammad must have stayed in his mother’s womb for four years.

It is for this reason that in Islamic jurisprudence the maximum pregnancy period is ‘four years’.

Muhammad, who was born a poor orphan and was brought by his grandfather Abd al-Muttalib, and then his uncle Abu Talib, was not important enough for others to care about his birth and upbringing. Even when he started his mission in Mecca, people ignored him since he was of no importance to them, and disputed his claims for more than twenty years. The Qur’an itself tells us about the people of Mecca, how they wondered – when Muhammad told them that he had brought a Qur’an from God – “Why was this not revealed to one of the great men from the two villages”. For among these, Muhammad had no great status, and the Qur’an itself has God saying to Muhammad: 

Did He not find you an orphan and give you shelter? Did He not find you destitute and enrich (you)?[3]

How can people historically date a man like Muhammad and memorize the details of his birth and upbringing, how he herded sheep and was suckled by Halima al-Sa’diyya, and how his chest was split open while a child? How can people pass on such stories about him and then not believe him when he tells them that he is a prophet of God? It is clear that the biography of Muhammad is a late product, one which the storytellers masterfully formulated from a fertile imagination, with the aim of glorifying Islam and its Messenger.

And what if we were to ask who was Muhammad, and was Muhammad his real name? Biographical works tell us that his name was ‘Qatham’, and that he subsequently called himself Muhammad and was disobedient. That is, he slaughtered a sacrifice for himself on the day that he called himself ‘Muhammad’ and, on the authority of Anas bin Malik, the Prophet disobeyed after he was sent with the prophecy.[4] The name ‘Muhammad’ was actually used by the Christians in the Arabian Peninsula before the advent of Islam, because it is a name derived from the word hamd meaning ‘gratitude’. An honourable person was called ‘Mahmud’ or ‘Muhammad’ or ‘Ahmad’. For example, there was a Muhammad bin Sufyan bin Mujasha’, one of the bishops of the Banu Tamim, and a Muhammad bin Hamran, a Christian of Madhaj.[5]

So the word ‘Muhammad’ preceded the emergence of Islam. And as for a person who was deemed not praiseworthy, the Bedouins used to call him Mudhammam (‘reprehensible’). 

Ibn Ishaq said: The Quraysh used to call the Messenger of God – may God’s prayers and peace be upon him – Mudhammam and insulted him; so the Messenger of God – may God’s prayers and peace be upon him – would reply: “Were you not amazed when God shielded me from harm from the Quraysh who were insulting me as Mudhammam, while I am Muhammad…?[6]

The God of the Qur’an did not then address His Prophet by the name ‘Muhammad’, yet when addressing Noah said: Oh Noah, come down, and when addressing Abraham said: O Abraham, you have fulfilled the vision, and to Jesus: Oh Jesus, I will take you to death and raise you up to me, just as He addressed Moses as: O Moses, do not be afraid.[7] So why did He not address the Prophet of Islam with ‘O Muhammad’? In fact, when the Qur’an had Moses referring to Muhammad, it stated: a prophet will come after me whose name is Ahmad, and did not say ‘Muhammad’. Consequently, it was also possible for Muhammad to call himself ‘Mahmud’ instead of Muhammad. What is more, Muhammad was not known by simply the one name, as he said to his Companions “I am Muhammad, I am Ahmad, I am al-Mahi, I am al-Hasher, and I am Al-Aqib”.[8] The name Muhammad is an assumed name, not the name by which the Prophet of Islam was known, before the advent of Islam.

The name Muhammad is an assumed name, not the name by which the Prophet of Islam was known

Then we come to the name ‘Abdullah’. The kings of Iran believed that rulership in the kingdom of Iran – Eran-Shahr – should be of the family of Sassan, since these were the the descendants of the gods. When Queen Boran, daughter of Chosroes II, ascended the throne she minted a gold medal on which was inscribed Boran i yazdan tohm winardar. Following the defeat of the Sassanids by Emperor Heraclius in 622, Arab Christians began to rule in Syria and Iran. The first thing that the Arab Christian rulers did was to try to remove the concept that the rulers were descendants of the gods, and so they introduced the term Abd Allah (‘Servant of God’) for the ruler.[9]

The Christians in Syria did the same. In fact, the Christians of Syria used to say that Jesus is God’s Servant and Messenger. This was a Syrian Christian habit dating back to the first century AD. There is the epistle Clement I written to the Christians in Corinth at the end of the first century A.D. that says ‘There is one God, Creator of the universe, and his beloved Servant Jesus Christ, our Lord’. So the term ‘Abd Allah’ preceded the emergence of Islam and Muslims took it over from the Christians. The phrase ‘Muhammad Abd Allah’ or ‘Abd Allah Muhammad’ does not denote an Islamic belief, but rather a Christian one.

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When did Islam emerge? – 2

Biographical works tell us that Muhammad was born in the Year of the Elephant, the exact date of which we do not know, and historians said that it was the year in which Abraha the Abyssinian attempted to invade Mecca from his base in Yemen in 570 AD, and that Muhammad began his call in the year 610 in Mecca at the age of forty years. He was taken on a journey from Mecca to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on the back of Al-Buraq[10] before he migrated to Medina in the year 622. The journey must have taken place around the year 615 AD or shortly thereafter, because the first five years of the call are described as a period that was full of apprehension, one in which the revelation stopped after the death of Waraqa ibn Nawfal, and a period in which Muhammad attempted suicide by throwing himself from a high place, and a period in which he had no followers until ‘Umar converted to Islam, in the fifth year of the call.

Non-Islamic history books, however, tell us that the Sassanian Persians took advantage of the dispute between Christian Byzantium and the eastern Christians of the Levant, and so they invaded Syria and Palestine in 614 –  that is, four years following the emergence of Muhammad’s call. The Persians gifted Jerusalem to the Jews, who had suffered persecution under the Roman Empire in Byzantium. The Jews then demolished the churches of Jerusalem and destroyed a large portion of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the year 614.[11] So it must be that Muhammad was conveyed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre after the Jews had destroyed it. One may wonder how it was that Muhammad led all the messengers and prophets to the demolished Church of the Resurrection, and that God did not restore it for them in honour of all that gathering of prophets and messengers.

Was Mu’awiya really a Muslim and a writer down of the Revelation?

Works in the Islamic heritage also tell us that Muhammad migrated to Yathrib in the year 622-623 AD, the year in which Emperor Heraclius invaded Armenia and defeated the Persians, and in which peace was concluded between Byzantium and the Persians and Roman lands occupied by the Persians in Egypt, Palestine and Syria were returned. According to the Qur’an the believers were supposed to rejoice in this great victory of the Romans over the Persians, while the biographers tell us that the believers at the time in the lowest of conditions, since their prophet had fled in the middle of the night to Yathrib, and the rest of the believers were in Abyssinia enjoying the hospitality of the Christian king Najashi.  Of course this was not a time of celebrations and sword displays at this great victory. But at the very least, the Believers began their Islamic calendar with this year, the year in which the Romans were victorious, and called it the Hijri Calendar[12], while the Syrians and the Greeks termed it the ‘Arab Calendar’ in reference to the beginning of Arab rule in the Sassanian kingdom.

According to Islamic history Muhammad died in 632, and Abu Bakr succeeded him for a period of two years. The caliphate then devolved to ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, in whose time the Levant, Egypt and Persia were conquered and Mu’awiya Ibn Abi Sufyan appointed ruler of the Levant. Mu’awiya, accordingly, must therefore be a Muslim, although the biographies tell us that both he and his father, Abu Sufyan bin Harb, engaged in enmity with Muhammad until the conquest of Mecca about the year 630 AD – that is, two years before the death of Muhammad. Was Mu’awiya really a Muslim and a writer down of the Revelation?

After the death of Emperor Heraclius in the year 641 AD, the Arab Christians seized power in Syria and at their head was a man called Mu’awiya – an Aramaic name that means ‘the weeper’, that is, one who weeps a lot, and this adjective is usually bestowed upon clerics who fear God. Christian history books do not mention that he is the son of Abu Sufyan. Museums now have coins bearing the term MAAWIA that were minted in Darabjird in Persia in the year 41 of the Arab calendar.[13] Along with MAAWIA, these coins bear the adjective wlwyshnyk’n, which means ‘the faithful’, ‘the loyal’, ‘the sincere’.[14]

Even if we say that Mu’awiya was ‘the Commander of the Faithful’, there is no evidence that he is a Muslim, since the Christians believe in Jesus, and He is their Leader. It is the same epithet accompanying the name ‘Maauia’ engraved on a reservoir near Taif, and dated to the year 58 AH. The same inscription is found in Greek on the Hammat Gadara baths in Palestine, where the first line of the inscription bears the sign of the cross. Muawiya was not a ruler of Taif, and there would have been no reason to write his name in Greek on the baths in Palestine and put the cross at the beginning of the inscription if he had been a Muslim ruling in the Levant. But since Mu’awiya was the first of the Christian Arab rulers to seize power in the Sassanian kingdom after the defeat of the Persians in 622, the Christians celebrated him in Persia, in Taif and elsewhere, and inscribed his name and epithet on buildings and on coins.

The text of the 9-line inscription on the baths in Greek language runs:

  1. In the days of Maauia the servant of God, the leader
  2. of the believers (ΑΜΗΡΑ ΑΛΜΟΥΜΕΝΗΝ – amēra almoumenēn) the hot baths of the
  3. people there were preserved and rebuilt
  4. by ʿAbd Allāh son of Abuasemos (Abū Hāshim) the
  5. governor, on the fifth of the month of December,
  6. on the second day (of the week), in the sixth year of the indiction,[15]
  7. in the year 726 of the colony, in the year 42 according to the Arabs (kata Arabas)
  8. for the healing of the sick, under the care of Ioannes,
  9. the official of Gadara.

There are now many copper coins in museums that bear the names of Mu’awiya, Abd al-Malik bin Marwan, Salim bin Ziyad, and ‘Ubayd Allah bin Ziyad. There is a coin struck in 41 bearing the name of Ziyad bin Abi Sufyan. All of them bear the sign of the cross or the Jewish stone (House of God) Yegar Sahadutha[16], and some coins bear the word ‘Muhammad’ with the seven-stick Jewish menorah, and later changed to the five-stick menorah. None of the coins discovered so far bear the Islamic crescent. Researchers have not found any currency bearing the name of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar or ‘Uthman. In none of the inscriptions or coins from Mu’awiya’s time do we find mention of the word Islam, Abu Bakr, ‘Umar or ‘Uthman.

There is no evidence that the Umayyad rulers were in fact Muslims.

[1] See Christoph Luxenberg, The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, p.114. See the Almuslih Library here, and also for other works on this them in the section: Qur’anic Vorlage thesis. (Ed.)

[2] The dots are used to differentiate similar looking letters in the alphabet. The philological term for this is scriptio defectiva. (Ed.)

[3] Qur’an XCIII (al-Duha), 6,8.

[4] Ibn Rushd al-Qurtubi, Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa-Nihayat al-Muqtasid, p. 329.

[5] Louis Cheikho,  النصرانية وآدابها بين عرب الجاهلية (‘Christianity and its Literature among the Pre-Islamic Arabs’), p.251. See this work in the Almuslih Library here.

[6] Ibn Hisham, Sirat Rasul Allah, p.204.

[7] Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan bi-‘Ulum al-Qur’an, p.282.

[8] Sahih al-Bukhari 4896. The full text runs: “I heard Allah’s Messenger saying, ‘I have several names: I am Muhammad and I am Ahmad, and I am Al-Mahi with whom Allah obliterates Kufr (disbelief), and I am Al-Hashir (gatherer) at whose feet (i.e. behind whom) the people will be gathered (on the Day of Resurrection), and I am Al-Aqib (i.e. the follower, or last of the prophets)”. (Ed.)

[9] Volker Popp, The Early History of Islam, following  Inscriptional and Numismatic Testimony in Karl-Heinz Ohlig and Gerd-R Puin (Edd.), The Hidden Origins of Islam, p. 25. See this work in the Almuslih Libraryhere.

[10] For the full tale of the mythical being Buraq, see Almuslih article: The Prophet Muhammad between al-Isra’ and al-Mi’raj. (Ed.)

[11] Volker Popp, Op. cit., p.22.

[12] The date of the hijra, or ‘flight’ of Muhammad from Mecca to Madina.

[13] Volker Popp (Op. cit. p.28) notes that these coins bore inscriptions not in Arabic, but Aramaic letters following the Sassanian practice, and that the name on the coins – MAAWIA – could be an epithet that had an apotropaic role as a nomen boni auguris, warding off the evil eye through being deceptively negative and unchallenging. (Ed.)

[14] Volker Popp (Ibid) gives the formula in full as Amir-i wlwyshnyk’n which mixes Arabic and Pahlavi, and that it is represented in the script employing an Aramaic ideogram with a Pahlavi ending: HYMNNstn. The HYMNN element contains the Aramaic root h-m-n (‘to trust’), which becomes mhaymen in Christian works, now represented by the Arabic term mu’min. (Ed.)

[15] An indiction is a cycle that renews every 15 years according to ancient Roman history.

[16] The Yegar-Sahadutha (יְגַר שׂהֲדוּתָא  ‘heap of testimony’) is the Aramaean name given by Laban the Syrian to the heap of stones which he erected as a memorial of the compact between Jacob and himself. (Genesis 31:47). (Ed.)

Main image: Greek Inscription in The Baths Of Hammat Gader, 42 AH / 662-63 AD, with the first mention of a hijri date and the name Mu’awiya (ΜΑΑΥΙΑ) and the term ‘commander of the faithful’ (ΑΜΗΡΑ ΑΛΜΟΥΜΕΝΗΝ – amēra almoumenēn).

Human representation in an Umayyad palace: Khirbat al-Mafjar near Jericho, early 8th c. AD. (Rockefeller Museum)