A rebuttal by Siraj Islam:
An answer to Jay Smith’s “Examining the Newest Historical Research on Islam …”
We recently came across a video, Examining the Newest Historical Research on Islam and the Earliest Quranic Manuscripts. Its author is Jay Smith, a Christian apologist and a known critic of Islam.
The first thing we notice before starting watching this video is: JS has turned its comments section off. This naturally gives his viewers an immediate negative impression that he is unable to face any counterargument about his presentation.
Below we quote Jay Smith’s main arguments together with our answers:
JS finds it weird that the earliest Muslims didn’t write down Muhammad’s life
JS finds it odd that Muhammad’s name appeared in a ‘Dated’ Muslim record for the first time NOT earlier than about ‘60 years’ after his death, during the reign of the Umayyad Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik. He considers it as a big proof that the history of Islam, and therefore Islam itself, starts from the time of ʿAbd al-Malik. He argues that, had Muhammad as known today been a historical figure, his contemporaries would immediately write down the details of the life of their beloved prophet from the very beginning, without leaving his first biography to be compiled by Ibn Hisham after two hundred years (his predecessor Ibn Ishaq’s work was lost).
JS needs to go through, for example, the following link that effectually debunks his above claims and aptly responds to the question about the existence of historical Muhammad, independent of the Quran and Islamic traditions: http://www.islamic-awareness.org/History/Islam/Inscriptions/earlysaw.html. Then the review below briefly explains why the Earliest ‘Dated Muslim Texts’ constantly remember God but never Muhammad: “Unlike Christianity, Islam is not a belief system whose religious formulae and expression are centred on the deification and glorification of a man. To put it another way, Muslims are not “Muhammadans” and Islam is not the worship of Muhammad. This can help to explain why our earliest epigraphic records are not awash with references to Muhammad, instead containing simple pietistic invocations mentioning God. Western scholars whose primary experience is of Judeo-Christian religion, history and culture often fail to appreciate this crucial difference. What these records do emphasise is the worship of one God alone without any partner, his attributes such as mercy and forgiveness are often supplicated for and are found in our earliest inscriptions. … Once the Islamic state started to change in the time of ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705 CE) following a number of battles and wars both internal and external, propaganda efforts were intensified …” (M S M Saifullah & ʿAbdullah David. © Islamic Awareness; words highlighted by the author S. I.)
He finds it weird that the earliest Muslims didn’t record Muhammad’s words/hadiths
JS further maintains that, had Muhammad as known today been a historical figure, Muslims would immediately write down his words (hadiths) from the very beginning (as ‘happened’ in the case of Jesus), without waiting for the first Hadith book to appear after more than two hundred years.
JS fails to realize that Islam, unlike traditional Christianity or Muhammadanism, is not about the deification or glorification of a man. Obviously, it is not keen on a formal biography or personal words of Muhammad the human. From an Islamic perspective, what is important for Muslims is only the revealed words of Muhammad the messenger, i.e. the Quran. JS fails to note that the latter was written down instantaneously as an authenticated, contemporary record of the messenger’s ongoing experience during his prophetic mission. Also, regarding the question why the earlier Muslims didn’t pen Muhammad’s personal words (hadiths), JS doesn’t seem to be familiar with any of the following reasons: https://lampofislam.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/the-quran-prohibited-hadiths/;
https://lampofislam.wordpress.com/2016/03/24/hadith-prohibited-hadith/; https://lampofislam.wordpress.com/2015/08/05/the-first-four-caliphs-prohibited-hadiths/; https://lampofislam.wordpress.com/2019/03/06/earlier-muslims-prohibited-hadiths/; https://lampofislam.wordpress.com/2019/03/31/common-sense-prohibits-hadith/
Then he attempts to dismiss the Muslim belief about Islam’s place of origin
Then JS continues arguing that the key events in the Muslim version of the earlier Islamic history, such as the origin of Islam, are not anchored in historical context. Here he largely relies on Dan Gibson’s outdated work for the claim that the original holy city of Islam was not Mecca, but the city of Petra.
This line of reasoning was originally started by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, though they themselves later retracted from their hypotheses considering them as unfounded. These have been further refuted by the latest historical scholarship like Donner, Neuwirth and Schoeler. Then came Dan Gibson’s Quranic Geography (2011) with the claim that the Holy City and the birthplace of Islam is really Petra rather than Mecca. To be precise, we do not find in his arguments any real substance to reject the traditional Muslim understanding about the centrality of Mecca which is consistently based on evidences from numerous sources, including the historical works, the marks in the city of Mecca and those indicated in the Quran itself. For example, as Joseph Islam observes, http://quransmessage.com/articles/original%20sanctuary%20FM3.htm. While it is possible that Mecca used to be less important in the earlier Islamic centuries than it is today, we do not think Petra – which lay in ruins in 7th century since it had declined fast after the Roman occupation – had really anything to do with the emergence of Islam. Moreover, we note that the tenets of Islam as found in the Quran are universal and therefore not bound or affected by whether any city or direction is accepted as holy or not (Quran 2:177). For interested readers who are fascinated by Gibson’s Mecca vs. Petra theory but haven’t gone through his actual arguments, here is a brief review and rebuttal of his book: https://lampofislam.wordpress.com/2019/12/01/a-rebuttal-to-dan-gibsons-quranic-geography/.
Finally he arrives at his favourite attack on the Quran, the Manuscript Criticism
Finally JS arrives at his favourite attack, the Manuscript Criticism. He contends that the Quranic claim about its eternality (85:22) can be easily dismissed by the discrepancies of its manuscripts. Also, according to him, the lack of a complete Quranic manuscript from the time of Uthman invalidates the Muslim belief that the Quran was compiled complete in 650 AD and that it remains unchanged since then.
Apparently, JS doesn’t know the difference between the terms quran and mushaf. The word quran means “recitation” and originally refers to the oral recitations uttered by Prophet Muhammad over many years in a variety of situations. On the other hand, mushaf is “written pages” or manuscripts as secondary products (therefore open to possible clerical errors) of the oral recitations. The Quran is not inherently a “book”; it is “spoken word”. Also, while preserved as self-evident signs/messages (ayat) in the hearts of the knowers (29:49, 91:7-8), it never claims to be the entirety of God’s speech or words as it explicitly denies that divine words can ever be exhausted or captured by any human words or script. Thus the Quran constantly confirms that divine signs/messages (ayat), similar to its verses (ayat), are found throughout the Universe as well as human’s own self (31:27, 18:109, 45:2-6, 51:20-21). Here are a few surprising facts to know before reading the Quran. Now, the main instrument and undeniable evidence for the unchanged preservation of the Quran has been its collective memorisation and on-going recital. Initially the verses were memorised and recited by dozens and then hundreds of people in the vicinity and time of the Prophet, following their revelation. If one person were to recite even one word of a verse wrongly, there would be many around him to correct his recitation. This was how the transmission of the Quran became a collective process strictly subject to collective cross-checking – a process that spread across regions and that has continued down to our time. This sort of collective cross-checking is unique for the Quran (which is also unique as the only book that defends itself), compared to any book or compilation in the world, including Hadith and associated traditions. This is further supported by reasoning, for example, like that of Fred Donner, “In the Qur’an, on the other hand, we find not a single reference to events, personalities, groups, or issues that clearly belong to periods after the time of Muhammad – ‘Abbasids, Umayyads, Zubayrids, ‘Alids, the dispute over free will, the dispute over tax revenues and conversion, tribal rivalries, conquests, etc. This suggests that the Qur’an, as it now exists, was already a “closed” body of text by the time of the First Civil War (34-41/656-661), at the latest.” – Fred Donner (Professor of Near Eastern History – University of Chicago), (Narratives of Islamic Origins, 49). Here are some earliest examples of the Quranic manuscripts: https://www.islamic-awareness.org/quran/text/mss/