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The Quríanís Documentary Evidence

(Part 3)



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. (Brock 1982:9; Crone-Cook 1977:3), 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 (Sura 2:144, 149-150). 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' (Bonwetsch 1910:88; Cook 1983:75). 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 (Patkanean 1879:111; Sebeos 1904:103).


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 (Crone-Cook 1977:6).


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 (Sebeos 1904:94-96; Crone-Cook 1977:6). 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 (Sebeos 1904:94-96; Crone-Cook 1977:8; Cook 1983:75). The chronicler believed Muhammad had endowed both communities with a birthright to the Holy Land, while simultaneously providing them with a monotheist genealogy (Crone-Cook 1977:8). 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 (Crone-Cook 1977:159).


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.


(2) Mecca:


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." (Sura 3:96) 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 (Sura 2:125-127) 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 (Cook 1983:74; Crone-Cook 1977:22). 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. (Crone-Cook 1977:22,171).


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 (Cook 1983:74; Crone 1987:3-6). 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." (Bulliet 1975:105)


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 (Groom 1981:193; Muller 1978:723).


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" (Crone 1987:6-7; Crone-Cook 1977:22).


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?" (Crone 1987:7) It wasn't incense, spices, and other exotic goods, as many notoriously unreliable earlier writers have intimated (see Crone's discussion on the problem of historical accuracy, particularly between Lammens, Watts and Kister, in Meccan Trade 1987:3). 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 (Kister 1965:116; Sprenger 1869:94).


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 (Crone 1987:3,6). 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) (Crone 1987:3,19-22,44).


Had he referred to t