Was Mohammed a liar?

Hans Jansen1

The tradition teaches that Jesus and his family were from Nazareth but that he was born in Bethlehem. Why again was it that he was born in Bethlehem? Because of Roman Emperor Augustus' order to organize a census. The Bible narrates how this census took place when one Quirinius was Roman Governor of Greater Syria. For this census, we are told, Jesus' parents had to go to Bethlehem, and there his birth took place.

Much in this census narrative is historically unclear or problematic, but one thing is completely beyond dispute: Quirinius became Governor of Syria only in AD 6.

After Jesus' birth, the story continues, his parents fled to Egypt because king Herod the Great threatened to kill all the boys newly born in Bethlehem: the Bethlehem Slaughter of the Innocents. In that story too, much is unclear and problematic, but one thing is completely beyond dispute: this King Herod died in the year 4 BC.

The details of the story narrated by the Gospel writers create a period in which Jesus cannot have been born because his birth must fall before Herod's death (in 4 BC) and after Quirinius' nomination (in AD 6). Such a period does not exist, but in that period Jesus was born!

Yet, most believers do not seriously worry about this. The point for them is not the dates of Quirinius and Herod but for instance the Christian call to charity which forms a healthy corrective in a society full of competition and rivalry.

The ones to ponder over these dates are historians who want to find out what exactly happened at the time. Every scientific reconstruction of what happened around the beginning of the Christian era, selects elements from the traditional narrative, adds other available data, considers the archaeological elements if any exist, and thus tries to construct a coherent story.

The 'scientific', historical-critical reconstruction is not more than an attempt. It is quite possible that a future generation of researchers discovers mistakes in the prevalent construction and comes up with something better. That the traditional narrative cannot be right, is certain.

It is a pity that Christian Fundamentalists are always so obsessively and fanatically concerned with the Creation narrative vs. Darwin; the decade in which Jesus cannot have been born is where our Fundis could really work wonders.

Whoever writes, prints, sells or reads the above, need not fear being murdered by Christian Fundamentalist commandos. Things are harder for a Muslim who collects similar stories about Islam. A US-based, apparently Pakistan-born scholar has consequently published similar considerations under a pseudonym: Why I Am Not a Muslim, by an author who calls himself Ibn Warraq.

The title is an allusion to Bertrand Russell's collection of articles famous (or notorious?) in England and America, Why I Am Not a Christian, first published in its present form in 1957 but mostly written in the 1940s. Russell had naturally made enemies with these articles, but with death he had never been threatened. That, as everyone knows, has happened regularly to people like Salman Rushdie since 1989.

That Ibn Warraq has chosen to use a pseudonym is a pity, but not paranoid. Islam punishes apostasy and insulting the Prophet with death. It takes only one excitable young man of unshakable Islamic and fundamentalist conviction to get that verdict informally carried out.

That millions of other Muslims will seriously disapprove of this murder will certainly provide consolation to the widow, but does not make the death of the victim any less irrevocable. Even in a modem country like Egypt, there have frequently been killings of people because of their alleged apostasy from Islam; the most famous among them is certainly Dr. Farag Foda, killed in 1992, whose witty columns have on occasion been republished in the NRC.2 Ibn Warraq explains that his book is his own contribution to the war against the kind of people who want to murder Rushdie, and that it is his first book. That could well be true, for while the book is written in a fascinating style, it is also somewhat fragmented.

That has one great advantage: when our Prof. Wilhelmus ('Pim') Fortuyn wants to write another little book against Islam, he won't have to just invent it as he did in Tegen de islamisering van onze cultuur, but will have a decent work of reference at his disposal.3

In the episodes of Islamic history which Ibn Warraq describes, he makes no difference at all between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. He thinks both aim at imposing their will on everyone. Does this equation of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism deprive Warraq's thesis of its force?

Perhaps Ibn Warraq is right, that Islam and Islamic fundamentalism are the same, but trying to be boss in a polite and non-violent way is not punishable under any human or divine law. By contrast, using violence to achieve this end does invite punishment.

It is quite arguable that a difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism does exist. It would lie herein, that Islam is a broad religious tradition which, like every religion, focuses on uncontrollable dimensions such as the hereafter. Fundamentalism in its turn has reduced this religion to an ideology. That ideology reaches for the gun slightly faster than is desirable in the modern age.

According to most researchers, there is a difference between a religion and an ideology, therefore also between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. Religion is no religion if it doesn't also have a message about God's plans with man after his death. A system which only focuses on what should be done on earth is an ideology (whether or not religious). An ideology belongs in the world of politics: ideology and politics are not about the uncontrollable hereafter but about the controllable division of money, power, jobs, housing and everything a man can want.

But even if Ibn Warraq is wrong in equating Islam and fundamentalism, that doesn't render his book unimportant. Ibn Warraq's attack is directed straight against Islamic religion itself, hardly against its modern politicized varieties.

One of Warraq's hardest attacks is on the Quran itself. Is God Himself of speaking in the Quran, as Muslims believe, or has Mohammed (570-632) cheated? Has Mohammed mendaciously ascribed his own human words and views to God? Ibn Warraq makes ruthlessly clear that there is no middle way on this. If the Quran is not God's word, Mohammed is a liar; another conclusion is, in Ibn Warraq's opinion, impossible.

This also has consequences for the Biblical sciences. If God does make statements about the life of Jesus in the Quran, is the modern historical-critical investigation into Jesus' life still necessary? Why are Western scholars plodding on about topics like Jesus' life without even wanting to consider the Quran as a source?

If Bible scholarship has proven beyond doubt that the psalms cannot all be the work of King David (ca. 1,000 BC), while the Quran says they are, has it not been proven then that the Quran is wrong? If the Quran is wrong, can it really be the word of God?

The same reasoning can also be developed concerning for instance the prophet Jonah (of the whale), a prophet in whom the Quran takes an extraordinary interest. After all, the Jonah narrative is about a prophet who, just like Mohammed, predicts the downfall of a city, but the city's inhabitants convert, just like those of Mohammed's city, Mecca. God decides to spare the city which had converted. The theme of the story is the prophecy which had not come true and about the resulting difficulties.

If Western Biblical scholarship shows that Jonah cannot have been a historical character, does this not undermine the truth calibre of the Quran? For the Quran simply assumes Jonah's historicity. The same is true of characters like Noah (of the Flood) and Adam (of Creation).

While discussing these and other matters, Ibn Warraq in passing often gets very angry with modem Western scholars who in his opinion present Islam in an unwarrantedly nice and benevolent light. Ibn Warraq expects of Western researchers a flaming condemnation of what he, Ibn Warraq, finds wrong in it. It is the question whether this expectation is justified.

Things would get very unwieldy when someone writing about history or religion always has to mention that he finds this or that event scandalous, or that he himself certainly does not believe in the religious doctrine just described. Even a writer about a genocide will not want to write in every other line that to him this genocide wasn't really needed. Reporting with precision what exactly happened is already hard enough.

Yet, the scholars whom Ibn Warraq pillories have often formulated their profound findings in such approving terms that it is easy to understand why to a startled ex-Muslim, a bit less would be more than enough. This certainly counts for the popular Scottish professor and prolific writer Montgomery Watt. The laudatory tone in which this pious Christian Islamologist writes about Islamic tolerance for instance can indeed be totally misleading, as Ibn Warraq shows.

This way, Ibn Warraq also discusses what Watt has to say about the sincerity of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam. Did Mohammed invent his revelations? Did he deceive his contemporaries? Was he a cheat who managed to fool millions of people? Such allegations, says Watt, can certainly be laughed off. After all, according to Watt, a successful religion founder is no fraud. Ibn Warraq points out that "laughing off" is not the same thing as providing arguments. Neither has Mohammed convinced millions of Muslims, as Watt seems to believe, but only a few thousands of contemporaries. The rest, according to Ibn Warraq, was a matter of compulsion.

Ibn Warraq's preference for subjective descriptions sometimes makes him invoke 19th century authorities, who saw no need to spare Muslim sensibilities but who are naturally also obsolete here and there. But even if they are not obsolete: every scholarly historical-critical reconstruction or correction is not more than a note in the margin of Islam's traditional self-history. As Bernard Lewis, the famous Anglo-American scholar, once said: the official story of Church and Mosque is certainly wrong, but the scholarly story is uncertain.

Ibn Warraq pits modem Bible scholarship against Islam, but he doesn't stop there. Islamic law, to which public opinion in Muslim countries attaches great value, is pilloried as well. Ibn Warraq denounces in strong terms the rule that non-Muslims cannot testify against Muslims. Such rules demonstrate, in his opinion, that Islamic judges are not interested in finding the truth, merely in confirming the superiority of Muslims over non-Muslims.

In an Islamic world where day in and day out, all the media extol the superiority of Islam, such a remark is incredibly hard-hitting. For this remark alone, it is already unthinkable that this book will be made available for sale in any country with a Muslim majority. And even in the Netherlands, enemies of the freedom of expression could still create a mighty upheaval.

In the pages which Ibn Warraq devotes to the position of women, he bases himself very largely on the work of the Dutch researcher Ghassan Ascha, who works at Utrecht's Theology faculty. It is an open question whether Ascha should be happy about this, but the choice proves that Ibn Warraq knows his subject, for Ascha is indeed the most authoritative publishing researcher in this field.

Ibn Warraq shows that it is simply untrue that some Quran verses ("Ladies, stay within the house"!) can also be explained as pro-woman (as Professor Fortuyn seems to believe). The Quran and Islam simply prescribe a veil, at least to the Prophet's wives, not to the female subscribers of HP/DE Tijd; but the Quran argues for this commandment with the claim that the Prophet's wives would be "purer" when they go veiled. Now, in the reasoning of Muslim jurists, when the Prophet's wives are "purer" when they veil themselves, doesn't this count all the more strongly for ordinary women? So, the veil is a must for all women.

Unfortunately Ibn Warraq does not show us that to those who care to look for them, the Bible contains similar women-unfriendly passages. Women are not to exercise authority over men, women must obey their husbands, and monogamous marriage was defended with the argument that woman is a bad thing of which you'd better have as little as possible. (I am aware that a different explanation is possible.) Apparently women-unfriendliness lies not in the exact text of the holy scripture, but in the hearts of the believers.

Ibn Warraq's book will either be ignored with deadly thoroughness or cause an enormous riot. It shows that the Muslim world is not a closed front - not any more than the "free world" is. The book contains precisely that which many Muslims assume is in Rushdie's Satanic Verses: a direct attack on the claim to veracity of the teachings of Islam.



1 Prof. Hans Jansen teaches Arabic and Islamic history at the prestigious State University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He contributed this review of Ibn Warraq's Why I Am Not a Muslim to the Dutch Weekly HP/DE Tijd, The Hague, 4 April 1997. The English translation with footnotes has been provided by Koenraad Elst.

2 NRC = Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant/Handelsblad, Holland's leading quality newspaper. Even more famous than Farag Foda is Egypt's Nobel Prize winner Nagib Mahfouz, who barely survived a knife attack in 1994 after his public criticism of the Islamicist movement.

3 Prof. Jansen's point is that every "fragment" in Ibn Warraq's book briefly restates the basic facts about every separate aspect of Islam. Prof. Pim Fortuyn's book, "Against the Islamization of our Culture" (1996), is a right-minded but amateurish warning against the tendency to concede Islamic demands (e.g. in 1992 some Dutch policy-makers considered allowing female circumcision as a matter of multiculturalism, a move aborted by protest from Somali women saying that that they hadn't fled to such an enlightened country to see their daughters subjected to this barbaric practice). Like the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), Fortuyn confused religious and national aspects of the matter, by assuming that Enlightenment values are part of the "Dutch" heritage (though the Dutch parliament still includes several Christian Fundamentalist parties which reject the secular state and women's rights on Biblical grounds) while Arabs or Pakistanis are intrinsically Islamic. In reality, the Dutch had to free themselves from the grip of revealed religion, and the Arabs and Pakistanis are or will be going through the same process.


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