Pinning down the prophet: "Muhammad's Ascent into Heaven" from Nizami's Khamsa
Stéphane Mallarmé once wrote that "every hallowed thing, that means to remain hallowed, enfolds itself in mystery". Though the aphorism was directed to the obscure impulses of poetic inspiration, it applies with equal force to the origins of religious faith. The beginnings of the great world religions lie swaddled in folds of myth and legend as much as of verifiable historical fact. Much of their power derives from the assuaging shadows in which they have their origins.
To see this, consider such 19th-century examples as The Church of the Latter Day Saints or Mary Baker Eddy's First Church of Christ Scientist. Whatever their merits, such faiths lack any sense of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, that overwhelming sense of the numinous that Rudolf Otto, who coined the phrase, discovered at the very heart of belief in the supernatural; no shivers of the uncanny attend their proclamations. This isn't only because of the content of their creeds; after all, Mormon theology, with its angel Morony and its fabulous golden tablets, is as murky as the most ardent obscurantist could hope for. But divine revelation is harder to credit in churches whose all-too-human beginnings are so well documented.
By contrast, the origins of Islam provide a quite different, perhaps even a unique, case in point. For a long time Islam seemed to have emerged in a rare lucency, as shadowless as the deserts of its origins. The French scholar Ernst Renan felt confident enough, in 1851, to write:
In place of the mystery under which the other religions have covered their origins, Islam was born in the full light of history; its roots are on the surface. The life of its founder is as well known to us as that of any 16th-century reformer. We can follow year by year the fluctuations of his thought, his contradictions, his weaknesses.
This famous pronouncement is held up as a sort of straw man at the outset of Robert Spencer's provocative new book, Did Muhammad Exist? On the face of it, Renan's confidence was well-placed. A colossal body of documentation exists in Arabic on the birth of Islam and the life of Muhammad, replete with vivid details about his personality and behaviour; we seem to know virtually everything he said or did during the 30 or so years of his prophetic career. Most of this information is contained in the Hadith, the collections of traditions whose validity is guaranteed by their isnads, or "chain of tradition". The isnad authenticates a given tradition by linking it with some unimpeachable early witness — the Prophet's favourite wife ‘A'isha, for example, or his trusted companion Abu Hurayra — down along a chain of equally unimpeachable witnesses, sometimes over generations. Traditions without such links were deemed "weak" and considered non-canonical; others were declared spurious or even fabricated through a process of careful sifting by medieval Muslim scholars themselves.