Our longtime reader and commenter Wild Iris sent an interesting review of Norbert Pressburg’s book on what Modern Martyrs need to know.
After reading the book twice and performing due diligence on the reviews, he has added information to share, including a suggested revision for the title. Everyone who reads “Modern Martyr” finds the publisher’s choice (it was not the author’s idea) not only lacking gravitas, but sadly demonstrating publishers’ views of the IQ of their readers.
Wild Iris uses the principles of mathematics to make some of his points, a strategy that is particularly useful when attempting to establish parameters on a slippery slope such as historical identity.
This one is sure to please our readers; I am grateful to Wild Iris for his fortitude and patience. If you have any questions leave them in the comments and W.I. will respond.
Christianity, Modern Arianism, and Islam
by Wild Iris
From the hard sciences to the humanities, a vice that is part and parcel of academia’s DNA is the perennial appearance of a few individuals that, by their reputations and positions of influence, become gatekeepers. Graduate students, hoping for a professional career, recognize instinctively that to go outside the boundaries set by these gatekeepers is career suicide. With her recent book Diana West crossed such an academic boundary, and caught the full censure for her efforts.
The historical study of early Islam has atrophied under the same academic process. Islam’s own narrative about its early history has been taken at face value by academia for generations. With virtually no exceptions, the early history of Islam was held to be a golden age of culture and learning. Meanwhile, Western Europe was seen as falling into a dark age that it was only able to rise out of thanks to the learning that was kept alive by the Arab-Islamic world.
But what Diana West has done to our historical perspective regarding Soviet influence on USA’s foreign policy during the Roosevelt years is now happening with regard to our understanding of the history of early Islam.
Robert Spencer’s Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins questions the very existence of a historical Mohammed. Emmet Scott’s Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy goes even further and shows, based on archeological research, that there was no Arab/Muslim Golden Age of the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries at all, but rather the Arab world of North Africa and the Levant had fallen into a Dark Age at the same time as Western Europe during those centuries.
The pseudonymous Christoph Luxenberg’s work, The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran showed that 20% or more of the Qur’an consisted of mistranslations of earlier Syro-Aramaic Christian documents. In fact, the word Qur’an derives from the Syro-Aramaic word “qeryan” which was a lectionary containing selected texts from the Old and New Testaments.
Into this breach another pseudonymous author has thrown him/herself. Norbert Pressburg’s, What the Modern Martyr Should Know: 72 Grapes and not a single virgin both extends and complements the historical research by the above-mentioned authors. This book is rich in technical and footnoted detail and should be considered a must-read for anyone intrigued by this kind of historical scholarship. And it is this new book that I would like to share my thoughts on with the readers here at Gates of Vienna.
First, regarding a comprehensive review of Norbert Pressburg’s new book, I wish to compliment Chiu ChunLing for a job well done. I can’t imagine being able to write a more complete and faithful review than his. So what follows should be read not as an alternate review of the book, but as a supplement to Chiu ChunLing’s original post. For this reason I will ask any reader that is not familiar with that original post to first revisit it before reading further.
After reading Chiu ChunLing’s review, I knew I had to read this book.
It arrived from Amazon after Christmas; I sat down and read it at one sitting. Then I returned to Chiu ChunLing’s post, along with all of its attendant comments. I also read through the reader reviews posted at Amazon Books. Finally, using all of these comments and reviews as a sort of study guide, I read Norbert Pressburg’s book a second time.
Regarding some of the critical comments posted on Amazon, the only one I found myself in agreement with is that the book’s title doesn’t match the contents. However, having read the book twice I can better appreciate how an editor might have come up with the title he did. But as it is, this title fails to communicate to the reading public what they are actually going to find once inside the book’s covers.
The biggest challenge in creating an accurate title for this book is that its contents are so out of line with the mainstream historical narrative regarding Islam. There isn’t any simple catch-phrase which (1) captures the essence of the book’s message while (2) also managing to make sense to the modern reader unfamiliar with the rules of theological rhetoric and Western religious history.
It would have been preferable, instead of attempting to be clever, to put the point simply and clearly. Thus, a more accurate title might be The Origins of Islam: A Christian Heresy Among the Arabs. In truth, Norbert Pressburg’s book covers lot more than just this topic. But the most important thing he demonstrates is that Islam was originally a Christian heresy. It is this contention that is the most foundationally disruptive aspect of the book.
There were other critical comments posted at Amazon that addressed issues of style, typos and translation. But if you read a book such as this while keeping your emphasis on facts, figures, dates, places, and etc. (rather than focusing on stylistic elements in a translation) then these kinds of critical points become irrelevant.
Having read the book now, I will have to respectfully disagree with the fallback position Chiu ChunLing takes in his review regarding the existence of a historical Mohammed. That is, that the “absence of evidence shouldn’t be taken as evidence of absence”. Rather, I find that Norbert Pressburg has provided evidence for the much stronger case: the historical Mohammed, as described in the Hadiths and The Qur’an, could not have existed.
This might seem like a quibble of his point, but this difference goes to the heart of how we define a logically reasoned argument. In the discipline of mathematics if one cannot, by a direct method, prove a statement, then one can fall back on a technique known as “proof by contradiction.” That is, one takes the logical opposite of the statement one is trying to prove. Then, if one can show that this complementary assumption leads to a contradiction, the original statement must be true by the “Law of Excluded Middle”.
Now apply this to the question of an historical Mohammed.
We can’t prove directly, using historical and archeological data, that the Mohammed of the Hadiths and The Qur’an didn’t exist. However, we can try the alternate approach and assume for the moment that someone fitting Mohammed’s description actually did exist. We can then ask what kind of footprints in the historical record would we expect such a person to have left? What if we look for such footprints in the places where they should be and end up not finding them? In that case we have a logically valid proof for the non-existence of such an individual.
Just to list a few of the accomplishments credited to the Mohammed of the Hadiths and The Qur’an:
- he was a desert warlord.
- a leader of men in battle,
- a raider of caravans,
- responsible for the killing and enslavement of hundreds,
- a destroyer of pagan idols across Eastern Arabia,
- and he took over and renamed the Jewish city from Yathrib to Medina
While the Arab culture of the time may have been an illiterate one, the world of the Levant was not. A man like this, whose deeds would have so drastically altered the lives of many thousands of those living around him, if he existed most certainly would have left a trail somewhere in the written records from that time period. But when we examine extant written records, we find nothing on the Prophet Mohammed.
This is the case that Norbert Pressburg develops in his book. Not only is there no record (outside of Hadiths and The Qur’an) for an historical Mohammed, neither is there any historical evidence of any kind, nothing that can be dated to the 7th century which points to anyone whose life/deeds could have formed the archetype for a Mohammed-like figure. Via this route of examination we arrive at a solid proof by contradiction for the non-existence of the historical Mohammed of the Hadiths and The Qur’an.
Now the Prophet Mohammed of the Qur’an and Hadiths during his time would have first and foremost been regarded as an accomplished military figure; and it is this version of an historical Mohammed that we are explicitly saying couldn’t have existed.
But we need to be careful on this point because we do have a historical record from the 8th century that refers to a person called Mohammed, “The Praised One”, who was considered the founder of a heretical Christian religious sect among the Arabs.
Norbert Pressburg only briefly mentions the existence of a statement made by one Johannes Damascenus. In the Orthodox Church this person is known as Saint John of Damascus (676-749), and here is the relevant quote from his “Critique of Islam”:
“There is also the superstition of the Ishmaelites which to this day prevails and keeps people in error, being a forerunner of the Antichrist. They are descended from Ishmael, [who] was born to Abraham of Agar, and for this reason they are called both Agarenes and Ishmaelites. They are also called Saracens, which is derived from Sarras kenoi, or destitute of Sara, because of what Agar said to the angel: ‘Sara hath sent me away destitute.’ These used to be idolaters and worshiped the morning star and Aphrodite, whom in their own language they called Khabár, which means great. And so down to the time of Heraclius they were very great idolaters. From that time to the present a false prophet named Mohammed has appeared in their midst. This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy. Then, having insinuated himself into the good graces of the people by a show of seeming piety, he gave out that a certain book had been sent down to him from heaven. He had set down some ridiculous compositions in this book of his and he gave it to them as an object of veneration.”
Heraclius was the Byzantine Emperor during the years 610-641. So this places the Mohammed mentioned by Saint John into the correct time period. But this Mohammed is most definitely not the historical Mohammed of the Hadiths and The Qur’an.
Saint John’s Mohammed was a literate man, knowledgeable in the Old and New Testaments, sophisticated enough in theology to understand the arguments that underlie Arian Christianity, the producer of the Qur’an himself, and a man, not of military accomplishments, but one of feigned piety.
The continuation of this quoted text is well worth reading, since it leaves no doubt that the Syrian Christian world at that time considered the followers of Mohammed as nothing more than Christian heretics.
If this critique of early Islam wasn’t salt enough in the wound, Norbert Pressburg further shows from the archeological record that the Ka’aba, that center of Muslim devotion, is actually the walled up shell of an earlier 4-5th century Yemeni-style Christian Church.
Norbert Pressburg continues to add to the work of Emmet Scott and Robert Spencer in making the case against the historically accepted reality of a rapid conquest, beginning in the mid-7th century, of North Africa and the Levant by invading Muslim armies.
There are, in fact, no reliable historical records, dating to that time period, that indicate any such thing happened. What we do know is that time period corresponds to the collapse of the Persian Empire along with a withdrawal of the Byzantium Empire from many of the areas that it formerly controlled. There was no need for an Arab conquest. With the collapse of the Persian and Byzantine Empires, the power vacuum left behind would have been more than enough to account for local Arab leaders moving from previously minor roles to being the big bosses of their regions. Moreover, this transition to local Arab rule would have essentially happened overnight, without a single army marching or a single major battle being fought.
Going the next step further, since Islam, as we know it today, didn’t yet exist in the 7th and 8th centuries; there couldn’t have been any “Muslim” conquests either. One of our big mistakes when looking back at that period of history has been in making the assumption that Arab equates with Muslim. We therefore end up mistakenly crediting to a religion we call Islam, a historical shift that was no more than the resurgence of Arab rule into the power vacuum left by the collapsing and withdrawing Persian and Byzantine Empires.
The embryonic early history of Islam makes perfect sense when viewed as a heretical Christian movement that was originally founded by a charismatic individual whose theology began as a hodge-podge of various Christian heresies. This heretical Christian movement then grew and matured during the 7th and 8th centuries within the Arab populations; eventually it appeared fully formed on the world stage as the religion of Islam.
Islam is the bastard love child of Gnostic Christian thought with pagan Arab religiosity. While this idea might seem totally off-base to anyone accustomed to a modern accepted understanding of Christianity, it cannot be emphasized enough that the Christian world of the 4th through the 8th centuries would be almost unrecognizable by anyone experiencing it from a modern point of view. For this reason, a strong recommendation to anyone planning on reading Norbert Pressburg’s book is to first review the history of the various classic heresies that were prevalent in the Syrian Christian world of that time, notably Arianism and Nestorianism.
Here are two good starting points. Both will have further bibliographies:
If you stop to think about it, you’ll realize that virtually everything we think we know about the history of the Arab world of the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries has come down to us in the form of written narratives based on second-hand, third-hand, and even more distant sources. These sources were not written down until generations or even centuries after the time of the purported events.
But if you ask, “Are there any first-hand accounts that can be reliably dated to a time contemporary to the events they record, and that corroborate the accepted narrative surrounding the early history of Islam?” …you come up empty handed.
This is the new direction in Islamic scholarship represented by the authors Norbert Pressburg, Emmet Scott, Christoph Luxenberg, and Robert Spencer. They all start with the assumption that the historically accepted narratives are suspect, and then attempt to rebuild a view of history using only sources and methods that they know from their own areas of expertise to be reliable.
In Emmet Scott’s case, he falls back on archeology and finds that not only doesn’t the archeological record of that period support the historically accepted narrative surrounding Islam; it stands in direct contradiction to it.
Christoph Luxenberg applies linguistic analysis to the text of the Qur’an based on his knowledge of the Syro-Aramaic language and finds an extensive presence of older Syro-Aramaic passages and phrases.
Likewise, Norbert Pressburg falls back on the science of linguistic analysis and uses it to examine extant Arabic and Qur’anic writings from the 7th and 8th centuries that pre-date the first known complete copy of the Qur’an. And again, like Emmet Scott, he is led to conclusions that stand in direct contradiction to the historically accepted narratives surrounding Islam.
If this alternate view of history, as it is developing in the above mentioned books, continues to hold up under further examination, then the implication is that everything we’ve been accepting as historically true about Islam during the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries is completely wrong.
There was no historical Mohammed. There was no Muslim-Arab conquest of North Africa and the Levant; there was not even an Arab conquest of those regions. The religion of Islam didn’t even appear, as we know it today, until sometime around the mid 9th century, so it would have played no role in the history of that earlier time period either.
No wonder then, when it comes to the issues of Islam’s impacts on Western Society, we never seem to be able to win a debate on the matter. It’s because, before the debate even begins, we’ve already been unwittingly accepting as our starting point Islam’s false narrative about itself.
But once you accept the fact that the commonly accepted early history of Islam and the Muslim world is a complete fantasy, the temptation that comes next is to start creating a new narrative building from your own speculations. If there is any cautionary lesson to be learned from the works by Norbert Pressburg, Emmet Scott, and Robert Spencer, it is that we really don’t know anything for sure about the historical period of the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries, and we shouldn’t be making any assumptions at all at this point.
Not every reader would necessarily notice this, but Saint John of Damascus’ singling out of Arianism as the source of Mohammed’s heretical view of Christianity provided for me one of those proverbial “aha” moments.
Arianism was the first of the Gnostic heresies to arise in the early church. It postulated Christ as a creation of the Father, hence he could not be equal with the Father. It was this sticking point, the Trinitarian view of Christianity, which eventually prevailed over Arianism. Thus, anytime you hear new-age-spirituality describing Jesus as just another prophet, a wise teacher, an enlightened master, this is simply a modern echo of that early Arian heresy. And if you go to any of the mainline Protestant churches today, the ones who have fully embraced politically-correct multiculturalism, listen to the clergy: you will discover that these churches have incorporated into their theology elements of Arianism as well.
All of the Germanic/Gothic barbarian tribes, as they progressed from paganism to Trinitarian Christianity, went through a stage where they were first Arian Christians. One notable exception was the Vandals; they remained Arian throughout their stay in the historical record. Is it only a coincidence that the Vandals ended up in North Africa where several centuries later the religion of Islam became dominant? Is it also coincidence that the Arian Christian Vandals practiced forced conversions under threat of death, just as the followers of Mohammed later would?
There appears to be a special resonance between the pagan barbarian mindset and the Arian version of Christianity. The early Church Fathers lived in a world much of which was still pagan. And they had firsthand experience dealing with the Germanic/Gothic barbarian ways of thinking. Were they seeing, in the way the pagan barbarians embraced Arianism, an especially toxic combination?
Looking back in history, we see that the First Council of Nicaea was adamant in eliminating the Gnostic heresy of Arianism from the early church. The Nicene Creed was worded precisely to exclude the Arian view of The Christ. Did they know something back then that we should be paying attention to today?
Arianism shows up as a common thought pattern shared by both Islam and by those segments within the Christian faith that have embraced PC/MC. After my old ELCA Lutheran Church called a new pastor, one of the first things she did was cut the recitation of the Nicene Creed from our regular service. On the other hand, those within the Christian faith that seem to be immune to the effects of PC/MC are those that still confess the traditional Trinitarian view of The Christ. All this leaves me wondering if there isn’t something very important going on here. But I not sure what exactly it might be.