The Topsy-Turvy World of Muslim History

I have often written about Islam’s ‘Free Pass’. This is the tendency, very prevalent in the West, to refuse to subject Islam to the hard questions that are routinely asked about other faiths and ideologies. This means that some people who regularly pride themselves in being feminist, pro-LGBTI and open minded will in the next breath fawn about the ‘diversity’ that Islam brings. Never mind that Islam is deeply antithetical to each of those values.

It may come as a surprise to some that this tendency is not only observable on the popular level but even in academia. In countless universities and research institutions the foundational principle of free inquiry has given way to uncritical acceptance of Islam’s truth claims about itself.

Nowhere is this truer than in the field of history. In the very same institutions where deeply critical questions about traditional historical accounts dealing with every conceivable period are being asked, Islam’s history is treated with kid gloves. The very same historians who one moment would say ‘Question everything’ will essentially turn around and sanctimoniously intone Ernest Renan’s famous (and famously wrong-headed) dictum that ‘Islam was born in the full light of history’.

With the desire to give Islam a free pass, standard historiographical principles are turned on their heads. In all other forms of history writing, a focus on contemporary primary sources are seen as the gold standard. Yet, when it comes to Islam, accounts written 200-300 years after the traditional death date of Muhammad are glorified as ‘the best we have’. Even as much earlier documents that can be reliably dated from the days of the Arab Conquest are being resolutely ignored.

The absolute refusal among some historians to ask critical questions about how Muslim history came to be written is more than just a bit of forgivable intellectual laziness. It allows Muslim demagogues to make wildly overblown theological claims based on Muslim history that they can use to whip up the masses to recreate that ‘history’ in the present. The attempts by ISIS to ‘re-establish’ a supposedly vanished perfect Caliphate is a clear example of this.

Let’s be clear. Massive questions can and should be asked about the reliability of Muslim history. Questions that have the potential to shake the theological edifice of Islam to its core. This is a conversation we absolutely need to have. Especially given the challenges Islam is posing to the non-Muslim peoples of the world. May I, therefore, encourage you not to give Islam a free-pass in this area but to educate yourself to ask the hard questions?

My book ‘The Mecca Mystery – Probing the Black Hole at the Heart of Muslim History’ is essentially a re-examination of early Muslim history based on primary sources and would be a good place to start a quest to reappraise what you think you know about Islam’s early years.

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