Saturday, 22 October 2011

What would a Muslim account of the last 10-15 years look like? Very different from a western account, no doubt. In the era of mass communication, divergent interpretations necessarily rub up against one another to some degree. Screening out alternatives completely is almost impossible. But in an earlier age when communications were more limited, when despotic rulers faced no outside scrutiny of any kind, when manuscripts could be burned en masse, dissident thinkers liquidated and alternative power centres subjugated through conquest, could a fake view of history have prevailed?

This is the thesis advanced in the book “Good Bye Mohammed” by Norbert G. Pressburg, so far available only in German. (I have no knowledge of whether an English translation is forthcoming.) Its scope and ramifications are astounding. Not only does it undermine the foundations of the Islamic religion, but it challenges assumptions that have long since come to be accepted by western historians and even anti-jihadists. If true, it will change everything.

Pressburg believes that Islam arose not in the 7th century AD, as standard historical accounts claim, but in the 9th or even 10th centuries. He believes the Muslims constructed a fake history stretching back hundreds of years, working up a fable of religious revelation and conquest that is now accepted by almost everyone, even those who reject the divine inspiration claimed for it.

The truth, as Pressburg tells it, is that no one called Muhammad existed. The tales of his life and sayings are simple inventions. Even the historical accounts of Muslim battles are invented, he believes. For example, Muslim historiography (and now standard history because the Muslim story has been accepted by everyone) tells of a decisive battle at Yarmuk fought between Byzantine forces and the Muslims. Pressburg notes there is no evidence this battle ever took place. Contemporary Byzantine chronicles say nothing of it: either its aftermath or the extensive preparations the gathering of such a large army would have required. Mohammedan history tells of how Muhammad sent a letter to the Byzantine emperor ordering him to convert to Islam or lose his empire. Byzantine sources say nothing of this.

As Pressburg tells it, the standard Muslim accounts that tell of Caliphs succeeding the Prophet are false. The men today presented as Muslim caliphs were not Muslims at all, but Christians. Later generations of the people we now know as Muslims reinterpreted them into the Islamic tradition. This point is substantiated with historical evidence. Coins minted under the rule of these “caliphs” still exist, for example. They bear the symbol of the Christian cross and the ruler’s boast that he was protector of the remains of John the Baptist in Damascus. This is certainly a curious choice for a Muslim caliph.

According to this interpretation, what we now know as Islam started out as a divergent branch of Christianity, one that spread widely among Arabs. It is undisputed that the theological tumult of the time gave rise to many different branches of Christianity, and that these divergent interpretations of sometimes minor points of doctrine were clung to with a fierceness that now seems strange to us, giving rise to violence and persecution. One of the key points of dispute related to the doctrine of the Trinity and whether Jesus Christ was a manifestation of God or just his messenger. This school of Christianity that flourished in Arab areas scorned the doctrine of the Trinity that achieved ascendancy elsewhere.

Translation mistakes form an important part of Pressburg’s story. According to his account (here drawing on the work of Christoph Luxenberg) a significant part of the Koran is written in Syro-Aramaic. There is speculation that an original version of the Koran (the “Urkoran”) was written entirely in Syro-Aramaic then acquired Arabic accretions and adaptations in the course of time. It may even have begun life as a qeryan, a Syrian-Christian liturgical book containing summarised versions of the Old and New Testament. Because later Koranic interpreters lacked knowledge of Syro-Aramaic, there were parts of the Koran they couldn’t understand. So they used guesswork to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Previous posts have discussed some of the more important Islamic traditions and customs that have derived from these translation errors. But, according to Pressburg, even the name Muhammad may originate in a similar misunderstanding. In Syro-Aramaic “muhamad” means “the Exalted”. The phrase “muhamad abd Allah”, which appears on some monuments and coins and is generally assumed to refer to the Muslim “prophet”, in fact refers to Christ. For example, the profession of faith that appears on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, supposedly the work of the “Muslim caliph” Abd al-Malik, is traditionally interpreted to mean this:
Muhammad, son of Abd Allah, is his Messenger

In Luxenberg’s Syro-Aramaic re-interpretation, however, it means this:
The Exalted Servant of God and his Messenger

The “Exalted Servant of God” is Jesus Christ. Abd al-Malik was not a Muslim. He was a Christian. However, he was a Christian who denied that Jesus was the Son of God. In this heretical branch of Christianity, Jesus was accepted only as the Messenger of God. In time, this doctrinal difference gave rise to Islam.

What accounts then for the successful wave of Arab conquest during the time that Pressburg claims Islam had not yet come into existence? Its roots lay in the shattering of the Persian empire. Byzantium and Persia had duelled for Middle Eastern supremacy for centuries, each controlling vast tracts of land, some of which would change hands occasionally in the wake of fighting. In the early 7th century AD the struggle finally reached a decisive conclusion, however. Led by the emperor Heraclius himself, Byzantium marshalled its forces and delivered a crushing blow to the Persian empire. The year the crucial series of battles began was 622, the same year that the Muslims consider to be year zero of their calendar, dated from the time they claim Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina. Now referred to in inscriptions as “The Year of the Arabs”, the standard interpretation is that this refers to the birth of Islam; according to Pressburg, however, it refers only to the Arab occupation of territory that had been vacated by the shattered Persian empire. The Arabs were Christians and were tributaries of Byzantium. They were acting with Byzantine permission. In part, then, the Arab “conquests” were not really conquests at all; they were nothing more than Arab armies filling the vacuum left by the Persians. Because the Arabs were Christians occupying Christian territory, the resistance was not as intense as it might otherwise have been. Later, doctrinal differences led to tensions and then conflict with Byzantium.

A flowering of Arab national consciousness occurred as the Arabs spread beyond the bounds of the defunct Persian empire. The Arabs resented the fact that they had no prophet of their own as the Christians and Jews did. Part of their heretical set of Christian beliefs may also have involved predictions of an imminent apocalypse, an End to All Things occurring around the end of the 8th century AD. The non-fulfilment of these predictions may have provided some of the impetus for the reworking of the old religion (a Christian heresy) into a new one: Islam.

Pressburg claims that many of the highly regarded philosophers and scientists of the “Islamic Golden Age”, such as Avicenna or Averroes, were in fact not Muslims at all. Their free thought flourished in an environment that was only partially Islamised. Islam had only recently been invented and had not yet achieved its demonic ascendancy over the Arabised areas. As Islam spread, freedom of thought died and Arab civilisation, now at last truly Islamic, saw its intellectual achievements wither away.

This has been a bare-bones presentation of Pressburg’s argument. In later posts, I will expand on it and include some critique and commentary. Its implications are clearly breath-taking. If accepted, we would have to revise our understanding not only of Islam but of much of history. Stated simply, the Pressburg hypothesis is this: the Muslims rewrote history and their rewritten version of history has come to be accepted as authentic even by non-Muslims.

8 comments:

Johnny Rottenborough said...

Fascinating and important. It’s vital to attack Islam on all fronts, and even though Pressburg’s version of events will be dismissed by Muslims they open non-Muslim eyes to the reality of Islam.

Cheradenine Zakalwe said...

Yeah, the thesis is mind-blowing. I'm still processing it. Even our own perceptions of anti-jihad history - for example the Battle of Tours - would have to change if it was true.

Anonymous said...

The above article gives a good summary, but for those who can read German there is even more at
http://www.islamfacts.info/Islamfacts/Start.html
Let us hope that Good Bye Mohammed will soon be available in English. - Mike in Austin, Texas

Cheradenine Zakalwe said...

Since I made this post, two books have appeared in English exploring some of the same ideas: Robert Spencer's "Did Muhammad Exist?" and Tom Holland's "In the Shadow of the Sword".

Anonymous said...

An English version of this book by Norbert Pressburg is now available. It is titled:

"What the modern Martyr should know: 72 grapes and not a single virgin. The new picture of Islam."

Anonymous said...

The book mentioned is now available in English:
http://www.islamfacts.info/Islamfacts/English_Edition.html

Anonymous said...

This book comes also in English:
http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_0_22?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=what+the+modern+martyr+should+know&sprefix=what+the+modern+martyr%2Caps%2C356

Zimri said...

I've been reading it. Note: this hypothesis is not Pressburg's as such. It is a distillation of the Inarah Institute, mainly Volker Popp and Johannes Thomas.

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