June 28, 2017 The Memorial of Saint Irenaeus
Over the past six months or so I have been reading the work of several scholars and writers who are reexamining the events of the middle part of the first millennium in the Middle East that gave birth to the thing we know as Islam. I confess that I had simply taken the Muslim story for granted i.e. that things pretty much did happen the way they said, except that I didn’t believe that the revelation was divine. It seemed to me that the Muslim accounts of the events of the seventh century could be relied upon to give a basic framework of what took place if you took certain of their embellishments with a very large grain of salt.
But maybe that isn’t the case. In my ignorance I was completely unaware that the first biography of Muhammad was not even written until a century after his reported death in 632 A.D. and the establishment of the Arab empire in the Middle East, and that we only possess even this biography in very large fragments from a book that was penned a lifetime after that, in the early 800s.
And the copious and many time self contradictory hadith that give Muslims the details of their prophet’s life and form the basis for their understanding of how they should live their own lives and that I have quoted from in other posts on this site were only compiled during the middle part of the 800s, some two hundred years after the man’s reported death.
So what is going on here? A pious believing Muslim would tell us that, sure, all of these written records were indeed compiled when you say they were compiled but all of the information contained in them were passed down orally (and the Arab culture of the time was essentially an oral culture) and faithfully through the many lifetimes that intervened between the time of Muhammad and the time that the events of his life were committed to writing. Really?
And before you say “It is the same thing with the Gospels! They were based on a vague oral tradition and only written centuries after the life of Jesus, whoever he was, if he even existed, so if you don’t believe what the Muslims tell us about Muhammad on that basis then why should I ever believe anything you say about Jesus?” I will tell you that the textual evidence from inside the Gospels, not to mention the parts of the Acts of the Apostles written in the first person by someone who obviously took part in some of the events he was recording and who also wrote the Gospel of Saint Luke about the life of Jesus, indicates that they are the product of eyewitness testimony and were all, save Saint John, composed in the decades immediately following the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. So spare me, and spare yourself, all of the fairy tales about Q and J and D and E and P and X and Y and Z, and leave the fantasies of modern ‘scholars’ who have spent their lives searching for highbrow sounding excuses to justify their unbelief on the side of the road where they belong. Just read the Gospels themselves.
But back to the Muslims. To believe that these memories were transmitted faithfully over so many generations then you really do have to believe that Muhammad was a divine messenger and that the Qur’an is divine revelation. Because Divine protection is the only way of securing accurately and in great detail a message from the Most High (or anything else for that matter) that is transmitted among men across so many generations. But was Muhammad a divine messenger? What is the evidence?
You can already guess what my answer to that question will be, but there are a billion people in the world who think otherwise. So let’s look at the evidence. I was intrigued by the title of Robert Spencer’s book Did Muhammad Exist? so I read it and that in turn lead me to a collection of essays on the same subject entitled Early Islam and edited by Karl-Heinz Ohlig.
I will say first off that I do not agree with many of the conclusions of these authors. Robert Spencer’s concern is politics. He seems to see everything through the lens of the contemporary conflict of the last few decades between radical Islamic ideology and the secularist and functionally atheistic republics who have since the end of the 18th century dominated life in the formerly Catholic world. Ohlig and the authors that he publishes are largely German and still in love with the so called ‘enlightenment,’ despite all of the terrors and misery that it has brought to our world. The evince a loathing for every bit of evidence anywhere and on any subject that even indirectly points to the remotest possibility that there is an objective Truth outside of their own opinions and that this Truth has somehow revealed Himself in our world. In other words they are completely hostile to even the idea of any sort of revealed religion anywhere in our world.
This hatred for Divine Revelation clouds their viewpoint and all of the conclusions they reach. The people who lived during the time they are discussing, whether Christian or not, did not share this hatred, in fact the vast majority of them felt exactly the opposite and thus a chasm of misunderstanding opens up between our scholars and the people they are discussing. Thus they are led to some of the most preposterous conclusions imaginable.
For example, the basic thesis of Ohlig and his companions seems to be that there was no real Arab conquest of the Middle East during the seventh century. They posit that the Byzantines, after fighting an almost thirty year war against the Persians to first protect and then to get back the provinces of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine and the holy city of Jerusalem, then just decided to give them up, these the richest and most valued provinces of their empire, and hand them over to some Arab governors who became Arab kings and who were supposedly the real founders of the Arab empire. Does that even make any sense?
Second they posit that, based on that assumption, there was no charismatic figure who united the peoples of the Arabian peninsula, there was no sudden conquest out of nowhere that shook the world. No, it was all very gradual and in fact nobody even really noticed the change at first. Really? The historical memory in the bones of every Christian would belie that point. But those men are not Christians.
So why do I bring all of this up? Why even listen to these men?
Because something happened in the seventh century. But what? The canonical Muslim sources date from many lifetimes later, but there are other sources that come from that time, and these authors do an excellent job of cataloging them, even if they misuse and draw wrong conclusions from them.
Something happened in the seventh century somewhere in Arabia that has perpetrated and has been made to perpetrate a fraud that has now captured the hearts of a billion people. They deserve to hear the truth because they all share in the Human Nature of Jesus Christ and they are all sons of his holy Mother just like us, and they have the same right to know the Gospel as we and as our ancestors have had.
The evidence that this new seventh century ‘revelation’ to the Arabs, whatever they thought of it at the time, was not new and was not a revelation is all over their holy book and the history of those times. But to understand it one must understand the Catholic Church and one must understand her enemies both in the other world and in this world. And one must understand her history to understand the history of those enemies.
I have no letters after my name, and I work in a humble profession , but I have gleaned the knowledge of some things about history and about religion and about languages and about the history of the Church during my life. Therefore I intend, God willing, to make the case here that to really understand the history of Islam we have to begin by going back three centuries to the days of Constantine, when the authority of a single Roman Caesar still held sway over the whole territory from Palestine to the borders of Scotland, and we must begin our discussion with a certain Libyan priest who took up his career in Alexandria named Arius, because the doctrines that he and his successors spread throughout the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean world are where Islam really began. In the next post I intend to examine what we know of the history of Arianism and its doctrines and to examine the possibilities of a relationship between those doctrines and the doctrines that form the foundation of what is called Islam.
I entrust this effort to the protection of Our Lady of Fatima, fifteen days after the hundredth anniversary of the revelation of of her Immaculate Heart, and I beg her intercession with her Divine Son that whatever is done here may serve his inscrutable purposes and his Holy Will.