I've written before about the obscure origins of Islam. Several authors have questioned the conventional account of Islam's beginnings, suggesting that it is largely or wholly fictional, and was concocted long after the fact to disguise some unpleasant truth. Questions have been raised about whether the so-called prophet Muhammad really existed. Much of the pioneering research in this area has been done scholars in Germany who are part of the Inarah group, based at the University of Saarland. Most of their work is in German and not readily accessible to non-specialists. Popularised accounts of their research have, however, appeared in various English-language books including "Goodbye Mohammed" by Norbert G. Pressburg (see here), "Did Muhammad exist?" by Robert Spencer and "In the Shadow of the Sword" by Tom Holland. Holland also made a Channel 4 documentary on the same theme, which earned him some death threats, after which he made a grovelling apology.
Virtually all of the earliest material proofs of the existence of Islam, as we know it, date from the early 9th century, roughly 150 years after Islam is said to have emerged. What happened to all of the objects, copies of the Koran and the like, from the first century and a half of the religion's existence? It is hard to believe that all could have disappeared through happenstance alone. An absence so complete suggests, rather, a campaign of deliberate destruction.
Indeed, it is known for certain that, at various times, Muslim potentates ordered the destruction of artefacts from an earlier age, including religious texts. But what was the secret so terrible that such extraordinary efforts had to be made to conceal it? Let me, tentatively, and with full acknowledgement that much of this is highly conjectural, offer a hypothesis. The terrible truth about the origins of Islam is: that the first Muslims were Jews. Islam itself could perhaps even be regarded as an errant sect of Judaism.
The similarities in the belief and practice of Islam and Judaism were described by in a speech by Abraham Katsh that I posted recently (see here). Anyone who hasn't read it should do so at this point.
The first mention, in non-Islamic sources, of a significant Arabian leader called Mohammed also comes in connection with Jews. It appears in the chronicle of the Christian Armenian bishop John of Sebeos, believed to have been written sometime in the 660s or 670s. Before quoting it, let us establish the background. The Christian Byzantine [Graeco-Roman] empire and the Persian [Iranian] empire were at war. In this conflict, Jews sided with the Persians against the Christians. Here is a quote from the book God's Crucible by David Levering Lewis.
Somewhat to its own surprise, the veteran Iranian army under the western commander made a stunning breakthrough on the Graeco-Romans’ eastern front. The breakthrough momentum smashed the defenses of Edessa and carried the Iranian armies across the Euphrates and deep into Syria, leading to the capture the following year of Caesarea, stopping place of apostles Peter and Paul. At Ganzak, mountain site of the great Zoroastrian fire temple in Azerbaijan, “the Victorious” and his general staff mapped their campaign for the speedy dismemberment of the Eastern Roman Empire with a precision replicated some thirteen hundred years later by the German Blitzkrieg campaign. In this final conflict of the Asia Minor superpowers, the Sassanian regime had gone to war served by two of the most gifted military talents in its history: Shahrbaraz and Shahin, Khosrow’s Rommel and Guderian, respectively. Field Marshal (Spahbodh) Romizanes was known as Shahrbaraz, “the Boar of the Empire,” a terrifying handle he fully deserved. Shahrbaraz’s army conquered hallowed Antioch, the fourth great see in Christendom, after a lengthy siege in 611; it took Damascus two years later. The psychological shock to Christendom was as terrible as the loss of life and lands. Besides the forty thousand or more men, women, and children Shahrbaraz sent off to Ctesiphon for ransom and forced labor, thousands of Syria’s Christians (including Patriarch Anastasius) were slaughtered by Jews exacting vengeance for three centuries of persecution and wild with joy at this Persian deliverance that evoked the deliverance of their ancestors by Cyrus the Great from the Babylonian Captivity. Massacres of Christians by Jews spread across Mesopotamia.Source: Lewis, David Levering (2009-01-12). God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215
When the Byzantine Christians then recaptured some of the territory they had lost, the Jews were in trouble, as the chronicle of John of Sebeos relates.
Twelve peoples representing all the tribes of the Jews assembled at the city of Edessa. When they saw that the Persian troops had departed leaving the city in peace, they closed the gates and fortified themselves. They refused entry to troops of the Roman lordship. Thus Heraclius, emperor of the Byzantines, gave the order to besiege it. When the Jews realized that they could not militarily resist him, they promised to make peace. Opening the city gates, they went before him, and Heraclius ordered that they should go and stay in their own place. So they departed, taking the road through the desert to Tachkastan Arabia to the sons of Ishmael. The Jews called the Arabs to their aid and familiarized them with the relationship they had through the books of the Old Testament. Although the Arabs were convinced of their close relationship, they were unable to get a consensus from their multitude, for they were divided from each other by religion. In that period a certain one of them, a man of the sons of Ishmael named Muhammad, became prominent. A sermon about the Way of Truth, supposedly at God’s command, was revealed to them, and Muhammad taught them to recognize the God of Abraham, especially since he was informed and knowledgeable about Mosaic history. Because the command had come from on High, he ordered them all to assemble together and to unite in faith. Abandoning the reverence of vain things, they turned toward the living God, who had appeared to their father–Abraham. Muhammad legislated that they were not to eat carrion, not to drink wine, not to speak falsehoods, and not to commit adultery. He said: “God promised that country to Abraham and to his son after him, for eternity. And what had been promised was fulfilled during that time when God loved Israel. Now, however, you are the sons of Abraham, and God shall fulfill the promise made to Abraham and his son on you. Only love the God of Abraham, and go and take the country which God gave to your father Abraham. No one can successfully resist you in war, since God is with you."The chronicle continues with a different translation:
Then they all gathered together from Havilah unto Shur and before Egypt [Genesis 25:18]; they came out of the desert of Pharan divided into twelve tribes according to the lineages of their patriarchs. They divided among their tribes the twelve thousand Israelites, a thousand per tribe, to guide them into the land of Israel. They set out, camp by camp, in the order of their patriarchs: Nebajoth, Kedar, Abdeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadar, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah [Genesis 25:13-15]. These are the tribes of Ishmael…. All that remained of the peoples of the children of Israel came to join them, and they constituted a mighty army. Then they sent an embassy to the emperor of the Greeks, saying: “God has given this land as a heritage to our father Abraham and his posterity after him; we are the children of Abraham; you have held our country long enough; give it up peacefully, and we will not invade your territory; otherwise we will retake with interest what you have taken.The chronicle seems to suggest that the Arabs were willing to accept the idea of their kinship with the Jews as were the Jewish leaders, but the mass of ordinary Jews would not accept it, perhaps (and this is speculative) because of the desire for ethnic purity that lies at the heart of Judaism. Mohammed then came along and somehow overcame these scruples, uniting Arabs and Jews, and forging a new sense of peoplehood. So the initial impulse towards Arab-Jewish unity and thus the creation of Islam came from Jewish attacks on Christians, as they sided with invading Persian armies against the people they had lived among.
I will post more about this topic in future.