[II] DOCUMENTARY ANALYSIS
[A] THE QUR’AN’S DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE
Documentary evidence for the Qur’an has always been difficult, due to the paucity of primary documents at our disposal (as was mentioned in the previous section).
The oldest Muslim documents available are the Muslim Traditions, which were initially compiled as late as 765 A.D. (i.e. The Sira of Ibn Ishaq). Yet the earliest documents which we can refer to today are those compiled by Ibn Hisham (the Sira of the prophet), and the large Hadith compilations of al-Bukhari, Muslim and others, all written in the ninth century, and thus 200 to 250 years after the fact. They are much too late to be useful for our study here. Therefore we must go back to the seventh century itself and ascertain what documents are available with which we can corroborate the reliability of the Qur’an.
(1) Doctrina Iacobi and 661 Chronicler:
Two seventh century documents at our disposal are helpful here: a) the Doctrina Iacobi, the earliest testimony of Muhammad and of his “movement” available to us outside Islamic tradition; a Greek anti-Jewish tract which was written in Palestine between 634 and 640 A.D. 1, and b) a chronicle supposedly written by Sebeos in 660 A.D. Both of these documents deal with the relationship between the Arabs and Jews in the seventh century.
The Qur’an implies that Muhammad severed his relationship with the Jews in 624 A.D. (or soon after the Hijra in 622 A.D.), and thus moved the direction of prayer, the Qibla at that time from Jerusalem to Mecca 2. The early non-Muslim sources, however, depict a good relationship between the Muslims and Jews at the time of the first conquests (late 620s A.D.), and even later. Yet the Doctrina Iacobi warns of the Jews who mix with the Saracens,’ and the danger to life and limb of falling into the hands of these Jews and Saracens’ 3. In fact, this relationship seems to carry right on into the conquest as an early Armenian source mentions that the governor of Jerusalem in the aftermath of the conquest was a Jew 4.
What is significant here is the possibility that Jews and Arabs (Saracens) seem to be allied together during the time of the conquest of Palestine and even for a short time after 5.
If these witnesses are correct than one must ask how it is that the Jews and Saracens (Arabs) are allies as late as 640 A.D., when, according to the Qur’an, Muhammad severed his ties with the Jews as early as 624 A.D., more than 15 years earlier?
To answer that we need to refer to the earliest connected account of the career of the prophet,’ that given in an Armenian chronicle from around 660 A.D., which is ascribed by some to Bishop Sebeos 6. The chronicler describes how Muhammad established a community which comprised both Ishmaelites (i.e. Arabs) and Jews, and that their common platform was their common descent from Abraham; the Arabs via Ishmael, and the Jews via Isaac 7. The chronicler believed Muhammad had endowed both communities with a birthright to the Holy Land, while simultaneously providing them with a monotheist genealogy 8. This is not without precedent as the idea of an Ishmaelite birthright to the Holy Land was discussed and rejected earlier in the Genesis Rabbah (61:7), in the Babylonian Talmud and in the Book of Jubilees 9.
Here we find a number of non-Muslim documentary sources contradicting the Qur’an, maintaining that there was a good relationship between the Arabs and Jews for at least a further 15 years beyond that which the Qur’an asserts.
If Palestine was the focus for the Arabs, then the city of Mecca comes into question, and further documentary data concerning Mecca may prove to be the most damaging evidence against the reliability of the Qur’an which we have to date.
To begin with we must ask what we know about Mecca? Muslims maintain that “Mecca is the centre of Islam, and the centre of history.” According to the Qur’an, “The first sanctuary appointed for mankind was that at Bakkah (or Mecca), a blessed place, a guidance for the peoples.” 10 In Sura 6:92 and 42:5 we find that Mecca is described as the “mother of all settlements.” According to Muslim tradition, Adam placed the black stone in the original Ka’ba there, while according to the Qur’an 11 it was Abraham and Ishmael who rebuilt the Meccan Ka’ba many years later. Thus, by implication, Mecca is considered by Muslims to be the first and most important city in the world! In fact much of the story of Muhammad revolves around Mecca, as his formative years were spent there, and it was to Mecca that he sought to return while in exile in Medina.
Apart from the obvious difficulty in finding any documentary or archaeological evidence that Abraham ever went to or lived in Mecca, the overriding problem rests in finding any reference to the city before the creation of Islam. From research carried out by both Crone and Cook, except for an inference to a city called “Makoraba” by the Greco-Egyptian geographer Ptolemy in the mid-2nd century A.D. (though we are not even sure whether this allusion by Ptolemy referred to Mecca, as he only mentioned the name in passing), there is absolutely no other report of Mecca or its Ka’ba in any authenticated ancient document; that is until the early eighth century 12. As Crone and Cook maintain the earliest substantiated reference to Mecca occurs in the Continuatio Byzantia Arabica, which is a source dating from early in the reign of the caliph Hisham, who ruled between 724-743 A.D. 13.
Therefore, the earliest corroborative evidence we have for the existence of Mecca is fully 100 years after the date when Islamic tradition and the Qur’an place it. Why? Certainly, if it was so important a city, someone, somewhere would have mentioned it; yet we find nothing outside of the small inference by Ptolemy 500 years earlier, and these initial statements in the early eighth century.
Yet even more troubling historically is the claim by Muslims that Mecca was not only an ancient and great city, but it was also the centre of the trading routes for Arabia in the seventh century and before 14. It is this belief which is the easiest to examine, since we have ample documentation from that part of the world with which to check out its veracity.
According to extensive research by Bulliet on the history of trade in the ancient Middle-East, these claims by Muslims are quite wrong, as Mecca simply was not on any major trading routes. The reason for this, he contends, is that, “Mecca is tucked away at the edge of the peninsula. Only by the most tortured map reading can it be described as a natural crossroads between a north-south route and an east-west one.” 15
This is corroborated by further research carried out by Groom and Muller, who contend that Mecca simply could not have been on the trading route, as it would have entailed a detour from the natural route along the western ridge. In fact, they maintain the trade route must have bypassed Mecca by some one-hundred miles 16.
Patricia Crone, in her work on Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam adds a practical reason which is too often overlooked by earlier historians. She points out that, “Mecca was a barren place, and barren places do not make natural halts, and least of all when they are found at a short distance from famously green environments. Why should caravans have made a steep descent to the barren valley of Mecca when they could have stopped at Ta’if. Mecca did, of course, have both a well and a sanctuary, but so did Ta’if, which had food supplies, too” 17.
Furthermore, Patricia Crone asks, “what commodity was available in Arabia that could be transported such a distance, through such an inhospitable environment, and still be sold at a profit large enough to support the growth of a city in a peripheral site bereft of natural resources?” 18 It wasn’t incense, spices, and other exotic goods, as many notoriously unreliable earlier writers have intimated 19. According to the latest and much more reliable research by Kister and Sprenger, the Arabs engaged in a trade of a considerably humbler kind, that of leather and clothing; hardly items which could have founded a commercial empire of international dimensions 20.
The real problem with Mecca, however, is that there simply was no international trade taking place in Arabia, let alone in Mecca in the centuries immediately prior to Muhammad’s birth. It seems that much of our data in this area has been spurious from the outset, due to sloppy research of the original sources, carried out by Lammens, “an unreliable scholar,” and repeated by the great orientalists such as Watts, Shaban, Rodinson, Hitti, Lewis and Shahid 21. Lammens, using first century sources (such as Periplus and Pliny) should have used the later Greek historians who were closer to the events (such as Cosmas, Procopius and Theodoretus) 22.
Had he referred to the later historians he would have found that the Greek trade between India and the Mediterranean was entirely maritime after the first century A.D. 23. One need only look at a map to understand why. It made little sense to ship goods across such distances by land when a water-way was available close by. Patricia Crone points out that in Diocletian’s Rome it was cheaper to ship wheat 1,250 miles by sea than to transport it fifty miles by land 24. The distance from Najran, Yemen in the south, to Gaza in the north was roughly 1,250 miles. Why would the traders ship their goods from India by sea, and unload it at Aden where it would be put on the backs of much slower and more expensive camels to trudge 1,250 miles across the inhospitable Arabian desert to Gaza, when they could simply have left it on the ships and followed the Red Sea route up the west coast of Arabia?
There were other problems as well. Had Lammens researched his sources correctly he would have also found that the Greco-Roman trade with India collapsed by the third century A.D., so that by Muhammad’s time there was not only no overland route, but no Roman market to which the trade was destined 25. He would have similarly found that what trade remained, was controlled by the Ethiopians and not the Arabs, and that Adulis, the port city on the Ethiopian coast of the Red Sea, and not Mecca was the trading centre of that region 26.
Of even more significance, had Lammens taken the time to study the early Greek sources, he would have discovered that the Greeks to whom the trade went had never even heard of a place called Mecca 27. If, according to the Muslim traditions, and recent orientalists, Mecca was so important, certainly those to whom the trade was going would have noted its existence. Yet, we find nothing. Crone in her work points out that the Greek trading documents refer to the towns of Ta’if (which is south-east and close to present-day Mecca), and to Yathrib (later Medina), as well as Kaybar in the north, but no mention is made of Mecca 28. That indeed is troubling for the historicity of a city whose importance lies at the centre of the nascent Islam.
Had the later orientalists bothered to check out Lammens’ sources, they too would have realized that since the overland route was not used after the first century A.D., it certainly was not in use in the fifth or sixth centuries 29, and much of what has been written concerning Mecca would have been corrected long before now.
Finally, the problem of locating Mecca in the early secular sources is not unique, for there is even some confusion within Islamic tradition as to where exactly Mecca was initially situated 30. According to research carried out by J.van Ess, in both the first and second civil wars, there are accounts of people proceeding from Medina to Iraq via Mecca 31. Yet Mecca is south-west of Medina, and Iraq is north-east. Thus the sanctuary for Islam, according to these traditions was at one time north of Medina, which is the opposite direction from where Mecca is today!
We are left in a quandary. If, according to documentary evidence, in this case the ancient Greek historical and trading documents, Mecca was not the great commercial centre the later Muslim traditions would have us believe, if it was not known by the people who lived and wrote from that period, and if it could not even qualify as a viable city during the time of Muhammad, it certainly could not have been the centre of the Muslim world at that time. How then can we believe that the Qur’an is reliable? The documentary evidence not only contradicts its dating on the split between the Arabs and the Jews, but the city it identifies as the birthplace and cornerstone for the nascent Islam cannot even be identified with any historical accuracy until at least a full century later? Do these same problems exist with the Bible?
- Brock 1982:9; Crone-Cook 1977:3 ↩
- Sura 2:144, 149-150 ↩
- Bonwetsch 1910:88; Cook 1983:75 ↩
- Patkanean 1879:111; Sebeos 1904:103 ↩
- Crone-Cook 1977:6 ↩
- Sebeos 1904:94-96; Crone-Cook 1977:6 ↩
- Sebeos 1904:94-96; Crone-Cook 1977:8; Cook 1983:75 ↩
- Crone-Cook 1977:8 ↩
- Crone-Cook 1977:159 ↩
- Sura 3:96 ↩
- Sura 2:125-127 ↩
- Cook 1983:74; Crone-Cook 1977:22 ↩
- Crone-Cook 1977:22,171 ↩
- Cook 1983:74; Crone 1987:3-6 ↩
- Bulliet 1975:105 ↩
- Groom 1981:193; Muller 1978:723 ↩
- Crone 1987:6-7; Crone-Cook 1977:22 ↩
- Crone 1987:7 ↩
- see Crone’s discussion on the problem of historical accuracy, particularly between Lammens, Watts and Kister, in Meccan Trade 1987:3 ↩
- Kister 1965:116; Sprenger 1869:94 ↩
- Crone 1987:3,6 ↩
- Crone 1987:3,19-22,44 ↩
- Crone 1987:29 ↩
- Crone 1987:7 ↩
- Crone 1987:29 ↩
- Crone 1987:11,41-42 ↩
- Crone 1987:11,41-42 ↩
- Crone 1987:11 ↩
- Crone 1987:42 ↩
- see the discussion on the evolution of the Meccan site in Crone & Cook’s Hagarism 1977:23,173 ↩
- van Ess 1971:16; see also Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Dhahabi 1369:343 ↩