The Quríanís 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. (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
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
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
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
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;
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 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. (Crone 1987:29). 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
(Crone 1987:7). 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 (Crone 1987:29).
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 (Crone
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 (Crone 1987:11,41-42). 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 (Crone 1987:11). 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 (Crone 1987:42), and
much of what has been written concerning Mecca would have been corrected long
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 (see the discussion on the evolution of the Meccan site in
Crone & Cook's Hagarism 1977:23,173). 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 (van Ess 1971:16; see also Muhammad
b. Ahmad al-Dhahabi 1369:343). 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
Permission kindly granted to Faith & Reason Forum by Abrahamic-Faith (www.abrahamic-faith.com).