The foregoing lengthy introduction is a summarisation of some of Lüling's theses [1] and reflects his interest in the historical anthropology of Lévi-Strauss and his hostility to classical Orientalism as represented by Julius Wellhausen. I chose it as an indispensable introduction to the beginnings of Islam, especially since the group of researchers of ‘Dark Beginnings’ have completely ignored the role of the Hijaz and Makka and have moved the scene of the early Islamic event to the north, where the events of this were left to play out in a geographical area that extends between Syria and Sassanid Persia. 


THIS IS CONTRARY to reality despite its logical arguments, since the general historical context suggests that the Hijaz was one of the important religious centres of ancient Judaeo-Christianity. Its importance might now also increase due to the failure of archaeological research to determine the geography of the era of the Patriarchs. On the other hand, the Ohlig/Puin group cannot explain for us the large amount of Islamic narrative and jurisprudential records produced in the ninth century AD, and even if we assume that the narratives of the oral tradition are mythical there must exist some mental background to these narratives. These things cannot exist ex nihilo. But before expressing a critical opinion of Karl-Heinz Ohlig’s work I will present here a summary of his views as they were expressed in his writings[2] during the promotion campaign for his book in 2005. Here Ohlig says the following:

In the early sixth century, the prophet Muhammad (570-632) arose; he proclaimed the revelations of Allah in Mecca and Medina and eventually united all the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula into one umma under his religious and political leadership. The life of the prophet, his upbringing and marriages, his work, the Hijra from Mecca to Medina in 622, and his battles are narrated in detail in Muslim publications as well as those concerning the academic discipline of Islamic studies. 

After his death, the story continued with successes in war and in religion. This early period gave birth to large Islamic empires, beginning with the four “rightly guided” caliphs (632-661), continuing under the Umayyad caliphs, with their capital in Damascus (661-750), and culminating under the Abbasids (beginning in 749), who had their political seat in Baghdad beginning in 762. Why, then, “hidden” origins?[3]

Few Islamic scholars have paid attention to the fact that the Qur’ān fails to provide any references to the biography of the Makkan Muḥammad

It is known that few Islamic scholars have paid attention to the fact that the Qur’ān fails to provide any references to the biography of the Makkan Muḥammad (please get used here to these terms, which make a distinction between the Makkan Muḥammad or muḥammad  as an epithet in the sense of an honorific title. 

All the information we have about his biography is to be found in biographies dating from the beginning of the 9th and 10th centuries AD, the first of which is the biography of Ibn Hishām, who died in 768 AD. This was an adaption of a lost biography of Ibn Isḥāq, who also died in 768 AD (and we do not know if this is a fact or an assumption). Then there is the Kitāb al-Maghāzī by al-Wāqidī (ob. 822 AD), the Ṭabaqāt of Ibn Sa‘d (ob. 845 AD), the history of al-Ṭabarī (ob. 922 AD). These are followed by the ninth century Ṣaḥīḥ collections of al-Bukhārī (ob. 870 AD), Muslim (ob. 875 AD), Ibn Dāwūd (ob. 888 AD), al-Talmīdhī (ob.892 AD), al-Nasā’ī (ob. 915 AD), and Ibn Mājah (ob. 886 AD). Personally, I would like to add that the oldest manuscripts currently available for these works date back to the end of the fifth century AH and the beginning of the sixth century, and the strange thing is that the entirety of the Ṣaḥīḥ collections of the Sunnah were composed by a single generation of writers. This is a very important issue.

Ohlig continues:

Following the canons of historical-critical research, these reports, written approximately two hundred years after the fact, should be taken into consideration only with great reservations. They were collected at a time when Muhammad was the paradigm of identification for a large and powerful empire; consequently, the reports about him were appropriately stylized. Their legendary character forces itself on the reader who comes to the text uncritically; certain questions are asked in ways that become thematic, despite the fact that some of the questions could not have played a role during the suggested lifetime of the prophet.[4]

These sources selected or omitted elements from the biography of Muḥammad in order to conform to what was in the Qur’ānic text

These sources attributed the biography to the Makkan and Madīnan Qur’ān, meaning that the ninth century codification selected or omitted elements from the biography of Muḥammad in order to conform to what was in the Qur’ānic text, naturally through a specific interpretation of this text. Noticeable is the fact that in the Qur’ān the name of Muḥammad is mentioned only four times, and there is also a conspicuous absence of details concerning names and times with a few exceptions such as: the Masjid al-Ḥarām in Bakkah, the Masjid Al-Aqsā and a few other names. But even these can also be the result of interpretations made during the process of the religious codification. He then adds:  

The shape of the Arabian prophet and his life remains historically in shadow. To put the issue more sharply, the problem of the sources casts doubt on the entire question of Muḥammad’s historicity.

The author then deals with the passage by Rudy Paret with which he opens his famous translation of the Qur’ān:

We have no reason to accept the idea that even one single verse in the Whole Koran does not stem from Muḥammad. But why? How does he know this to be true? On what sources does he build his argument? Such a claim highlights many issues, including: the many tensions within the Qur’an; the placement alongside one another of varying, sometimes even contradictory, traditions; [5]

Inscriptions on coins and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem have been shown to concern Christian texts and symbols, which document Syrian-Arabian theological ideas

These indicate the work of later pens, and this is shown by the ancient written copies of the Qur’ānic text, and the existence of very late evidence of the Prophet (i.e. the late appearance of his name on inscriptions and coins). Here he cites the most important scholar of early Islam, Josef van Ess: 

There are only a few early witnesses and, for the first century after the Hijra, only a few inscriptions, such as those on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, on the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, and in numismatic legends. Further, he admits, that all (later) Islamic texts stand “under suspicion of projection”. Consequently, he refuses to present the first century at all; rather, he begins with the second, although he also states that the same problems exist for this century, in that there are hardly any “original texts” to be found. In other words, the first two “Islamic” centuries lie in the shadows of history, and it remains inexplicable how the development of a large Islamic empire could have left behind no witnesses whatsoever, even among groups from whom we might expect such traces, such as the enemies of the Arabs, the many Byzantines known for their literary skills and output, and the Jews and Christians living under the alleged Islamic authority.[6]

He also points out here that the book Dark Beginnings is an attempt to draw the pathlines of these two centuries through the few dated evidences (such as coins and inscriptions). He adds that these inscriptions on coins and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem have been shown to concern Christian texts and symbols, which document Syrian-Arabian theological ideas. 

In short, Karl Ohlig says that the inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock and coins indicate a Syrian Christian attempt 

to demarcate from Byzantine conceptions of the Trinity and of Christology. They document the proud attempt of an Arabian Christianity and the empire shaped by it to create and defend their own identity. In addition, it will become clear that long before the appearance of the idea of a Hijra there was an Arabian-Christian reckoning of time, which began with the year 622 and was only later converted to a Muslim meaning. Until approximately the end of the eighth century, so it seems, Arabian Christian tribal leaders governed the regions of the Near East End of North Africa – indeed, the Umayyad leaders and even the early Abbasids were Christians. 

It was not until the second century after the Hijra that the idea of Muhammad seems to have been loosened from its original connexion (namely, to Jesus) and then isolated as a conception unto itself … in the eighth century, and more fully in the ninth, the developing independence of the Mohammed idea made it possible to bind it with (or to establish it as the foundation for) the idea of an Arab prophet of this same name … and this also bound the Mohammed idea to the Arabian holy places of Mecca and Medina … At this time, then, the biographical works and the collections of Hadith about the Sunna appeared. All of the available traditions concerning earlier Arabian rulers and controversies were then woven into a continuing history of the Islamic religion and the development of its empire.[7]

It took an additional century for their Islamic legal formulation to take shape. This formulation happened in Iraq when the entire surrounding region was still Christian (and Jewish)

And this fascinating process is exactly what the editors of the Pentateuch did, when they projected events back onto bygone times, which they then explained, interpreted and legitimised. He adds that the copies of the Qur’ān in the eighth century contained Biblical errors, and it then took an additional century for their Islamic legal formulation to take shape. This formulation happened in Iraq when the entire surrounding region was still Christian (and Jewish).

He concludes by referring to Christoph Luxenberg’s The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Qur’ān,[8] which sought to demonstrate that the grammatical structure of the Arabic of the Qur’ān betrays Syro-Aramaic influence, and that completely new readings and expressions can emerge from these investigations into the Qur’ānic text, by resolving the confusing errors of punctuation through taking back their meaning to their Aramaic linguistic roots. What is new is Luxenberg’s revelation of the errors caused by the close similarity of four letters of the alphabet in the Arabic and Aramaic scripts, which though similar in form differ in their pronunciation. This similarity led to confusing the meanings when the original Syriac text was transferred into Arabic script. 

Suggested Reading

When did Islam emerge? – 1

He concludes by saying that Arab Christianity composed writings and commentaries on the Old and New Testaments in Syro-Aramaic illustrating their conceptions, and these were transmitted to Arabic during the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik (ob. 705 AD) or his successor al-Walīd (ob. 715 AD), who made Arabic the official language of the state. The references to the destruction of all Qur’ānic texts that were divergent and the retention of the ‘Uthmānī text date back to the ninth century AD and mean in fact the destruction of the original Syrian texts that had remained in use until the beginning of the eighth century AD.


[1] Günter Lüling , Ein neues Paradigma für die Entstehung des Islam und seine Konsequenzen für ein neues Paradigma der Geschichte Israels, (a draft essay presented to the University of Cambridge in 1985). 

[2] Karl-Heinz Ohlig, Die Anfänge des Islam, Neue Thesen und Erkenntnisse.

[3] Karl-Heinz Ohlig, The Hidden Origins of Islam, New research into its early history, p.7. See this work in the Almuslih Library here. (Ed.)

[4] Op. cit., p.8.

[5] Ibid., pp.8-9.

[6] Op. cit., p.9.

[7] Ibid., pp.9-10.

[8] See this work in the Almuslih Library here.

Main image: Inscription on the Dome of the Rock interior: “O ye who believe! Ask blessings on him and salute him with a worthy salutation”.

See Part One of this essay here