Turnabout - Islam in the Acid Bath of Historical Criticism
by Joshua Alexander, RC Chapter Director, Shepherd University. The conclusion of a Ratio Christi Series on Islam (see links below).
There is one main reason for not practicing Islam: it is not true. The approaches Christian apologists use to demonstrate this are varied. The ethical approach is a common and quite justified approach that focuses on the character of Muhammad and the negative effects Islam has had throughout history, which we see so clearly in many Muslim nations today. If Muhammad were really the prophet of God, and Islam the true religion, then Muhammad’s life should reflect this and Islam should have a just ethical system that promotes human flourishing.
The theological approach shows that Islam is false by comparing it with Christianity. This approach contrasts the Islamic worldview with the Christian worldview on specific points such as the nature of God (theology proper), man (anthropology), Jesus (Christology), Jesus’ work on the cross (soteriology), and the resurrection and judgment (eschatology), and attempts to show the superiority of biblical theology. The historical approach has generally been to focus on the positive evidence for historic Christianity, which is naturally a strong point of many modern apologists and doesn’t require specialized knowledge of Islam. If Jesus claimed to be God, died on the cross, and rose from the dead, then Islam is false. These approaches each have something to offer and need not be exclusive.
The historical critical approach has been difficult until recently. For the past few centuries, Christianity has been placed in an acid bath of textual criticism, form criticism, and a variety of historical challenges to virtually every aspect of biblical history. Even though apologists continually do a good job of answering the skeptics, this intense criticism has discouraged many Christian believers and inoculated many secular minds against the possibility that Christianity is true. Religious and historical studies of Islam, by comparison, have been primarily descriptive in nature until the last few decades. It is now becoming possible to subject Islam to the same acid bath of historical, textual, and source criticism from which Christianity has emerged.
It is well known that Mecca is the most holy city in Islam and that within Mecca, the Ka’ba is the most holy site. Indeed, two of the Five Pillars of Islam hinge on Mecca and the Ka’ba. The second pillar, Salat, or the praying of the five daily prayers, is one of the most recognizable features of Islam. The prayers of Salat are offered facing the Ka’ba. The fifth pillar, hajj, is the pilgrimage to Mecca which every Muslim is required to accomplish at some point within their lifetime (with some exceptions). Mecca is believed by Muslims to be the oldest and greatest city on Earth.
Unfortunately for Muslims, history does not seem to agree with them. The earliest unqualified historical reference to Mecca outside of the Qur’an appears in a document called Continuatio Byzantia-Arabica, a set of histories appearing in Muslim Spain around AD 740.1 This claim is frequently disputed by Muslims, who look to a purported reference in the philosopher Ptolemy’s writings to a place called “Macoraba.” Even if the Ptolemy reference to Macoraba turned out to be legitimate, it would be underwhelming for such a supposedly important city as Mecca. But as we will soon see, history’s silence on the existence of Mecca is not so surprising.
Historian Daniel Gibson spent two decades in the Levant (an area of southwest Asia) studying the culture, language, history, and peoples of the Arabian Peninsula. He followed this by living for several years among the Bedouin in the deserts of southern Jordan. By paying close attention to the descriptions of people and geography within the Qur’an, Hadith and Islamic histories (al Ṭabarī), and correlating these with ancient genealogies, maps, and written histories, Gibson came to a rather shocking conclusion: Mecca is not the original Holy City described in the Qur’an and Hadith; rather, the Holy City of Islam was originally Petra!
In support of his conclusion, Gibson has documented many features of the Holy City described in the Qur’an and the Hadith. None of these features describe Mecca very well but accurately describe Petra. These include:
• Botanical Features: grass, olive trees, and grapes2
• Geological Features: clay and loam, upper and lower parts of the city, cracks in the rocks through which the city could be accessed, and the presence of a stream bed running between two mountains3
• Structural/Stone Features: city walls, a sacred area marked by large stones, cisterns, and trebuchet stones discovered4
• Cultural Features: Worship of Dushara, games of chance, early evidence of pilgrimage5
• Geographical Features: Attacks on Medina from Mecca always come from the North (Mecca is south of Medina), proximity to Gerar (from which Abraham expelled Hagar), proximity to Damascus, and proximity to Jerusalem6
• Historical Features: Secular history refers to Petra, not Mecca; Muslim history refers to Mecca, not Petra. Nabateans (ancestors of Arabs and the Arabic language) were from northern Arabia near Petra7
To elaborate on each of these features is beyond the scope of this article, but there is a summary available in Gibson’s book, Qur’anic Geography (Independent Scholars Press, 2011).
Gibson makes a striking point that raises concerns about the Qibla (direction of prayer). Surah 2:142 of the Qur’an describes a change in the direction of the prayers, from an unnamed direction to towards Mecca. This change was supposed to have taken place in AD 624, eight years before Muhammad’s death. Gibson surveyed the oldest mosques built in the first two hundred years of Islam. Of the mosques for which the original orientations could be determined, 100 percent of the mosques had their Qibla pointing to Petra, not Mecca, for the first 100 years after the Qibla was supposedly changed. For the next 100 years, things are confused: Gibson found that 12 percent point toward Petra, 50 percent point towards Mecca, and 38 percent are actually parallel to a line drawn from Petra to Mecca. It is only after about AD 822, almost 200 years after the change of Qibla was supposed to occur, that the Qibla is standardized to point to Mecca.
Interestingly, Gibson points out that the earliest (non-Kufic) Qur’ans lack the reference to the change of the Qibla (and some even lack the reference to Mecca in Surah 48:24), suggesting that the reference to the change in the Qibla was added later when the Holy City shifted from Petra to Mecca.
If Gibson is correct and the Holy City of early Islam was Petra and not Mecca, what are we to make of this? While such a change may have theological ramifications for Islam, particularly Salat and hajj, it does not in itself directly disprove Islam. The main issue raised would seem to be, why is there no record of this change? If we can determine that the Holy City was changed, and yet Muslim history makes no mention of this fact, we have good reason to be more skeptical of the traditional accounts of early Islam told by Muslims.
A change in the Holy City would also call into question the accurate transmission of the Qur’an, since we can tell when the change in the mosque Qibla occurred, and yet the Qur’an claims it occurred much earlier (necessarily before the end of Muhammad’s life). Clearly, verses would need to have been inserted into the Qur’an at a later date – a concept anathema to Muslims. This leads directly to the important question of whether the Qur’an has been preserved or corrupted in its transmission.
While space does not permit extensive analysis of this question, we can look to Islamic sources and quickly find an example of material being lost from the Qur’an. In hadith Muslim book 5, 2286, Abu Musa al-Ashari, a companion of Muhammad, recalls part of a surah from the Qur’an that he has forgotten. He says that although this Surah was fairly long (comparable to Surah al-Bara’at, which is 129 verses long), he can recall only a small portion: “If there were two valleys full of riches, for the son of Adam, he would long for a third valley, and nothing would fill the stomach of the son of Adam but dust.” The problem is, no surah in our modern-day Qur’an contains these verses. Doesn’t this mean that we have lost a sizable part of the Qur’an?
Geography and textual integrity are two historical challenges one might raise against the truth of Islam. Yet in just these two challenges we already find a strong contrast to the historical foundations of Christianity which has carefully investigated and verified its own roots – not only in geography and text, but in people, places, and events. Praise God for the things that not just written but carefully recorded so that we may believe!
Consider supporting Joshua Alexander and the students in our chapter at Shepherd University by going here.
1 Gibson, Dan. Independent Scholars Press, 2011. 287.
2 Ibid. 233 – 234.
3 Ibid, 231-233.
4 Ibid. 284, 298-99, 302, 332.
5 Ibid. 303 – 304.
6 Ibid. 311-312, 297-98.
7 Ibid. 281, 287.
Ratio Christi Series on Islam:
A Prophet Like Moses: Jesus or Muhammad?
Islam’s Concept of Sin and Salvation
Women of Islam: Behind the Veil – a Look at Faith and Practice
Conversations with Muslims about Mercy and Miracles
An Interview with a Coptic Christian
Mars Hill and the Muslim
Content in blogs does not necessarily represent Ratio Christi’s views. Details