The Myth of Mecca
By Jack Wheeler
The most sacred spot on earth to all members of the Islamic religion is the Holy City of Mecca, revered as the birthplace of Mohammed. It is one of the five basic requirements incumbent upon all Moslems that they make (if their health will allow it) a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lives (the other four: recognize that there is no god but Allah, that Mohammed is Allah's prophet, ritually pray five times a day, and give alms to the poor).
The founding events of Islam are Mohammed's activities in Mecca and Medina, a city north of Mecca. The life of Mohammed, known as the Sira, is popularly accepted to be fully documented historically, that everything he did and said was accurately recorded. According to one hagiographer, although Mohammed "could not read or write himself, he was constantly served by a group of 45 scribes who wrote down his sayings, instructions and activities.... We thus know his life down to the minutest details."
The evidence for this is "the earliest and most famous biography of Mohammed," the Sirat Rasul Allah (The Life of the Prophet of God) of Ibn Ishaq. The dates given for Mohammed's life are 570-632 AD. Ibn Ishaq was born about 717 and died in 767. He thus wrote his biography well over 100 years after Mohammed lived, precluding his gaining any information from eyewitnesses to the Sira as they would have all died themselves in the intervening years.
However, no copies exist of Ibn Ishaq's work. We know of it only through quotations of it in the History of al-Tabari, who lived over two hundred years after Ibn Ishaq (al-Tabari died in 992). Thus the earliest biography of Mohammed of which copies still exist was written some 350 years after Mohammed lived.
It is curious, therefore, that there seems to have been so little serious scholarly research of the historical evidence for how Islam came to be. Yet what seems to be isn't so. A number of professional academic historians, both Western and Moslem, have produced a large body of research on the origins of Islam. For reasons best known to the pundits and reviewers who should be aware of it, this research remains publicly unknown.
Dr. Patricia Crone, who received her doctorate under Prof. John Wansbrough at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, was Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Oxford and Cambridge, and is currently History Professor at Princeton University, is an example. In her book, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, Dr. Crone demonstrates that Islam did not originate in Mecca.
Mecca is located in the Hejaz region of what is today Saudi Arabia. It is portrayed by traditional belief as a wealthy trading center, full of merchants trading goods by caravan from Yemen in the south and Syria and the Byzantium empire in the north. Crone shows that Mecca was in fact way off the incense route from Yemen to Syria, which bypassed where Mecca is today by over 100 miles. Further, there is no mention whatever of Mecca in contemporary non-Moslem sources:
"It is obvious that if the Meccans had been middlemen in a long-distance trade of the kind described in (traditional Islamic) literature, there ought to have been some mention of it in the writings of their customers... who wrote extensively about the south Arabians who supplied them with aromatics. (Despite) the considerable attention paid to Arabian affairs there is no mention at all of Quraysh (the tribe of Mohammed) and their trading center (Mecca), be it in the Greek, Latin, Syraic, Aramaic, Coptic, or other literature composed outside Arabia ." (p. 134)
An exhaustive examination of all available evidence and sources leads Crone to conclude that Mohammed's career took place not in Mecca and Medina or in southwest Arabia at all, but in northwest Arabia. Agreeing with her is Islamic historian Mohammed Ibn al-Rawandi. He observes that it took some 150-200 hundred years after the Arab Conquest which began in the 620s for places that had gone unremarked and unregarded to become places of reverence associated with the Prophet. Mohammed's supposed birthplace in Mecca, for example, was used as an ordinary home until al-Khayzuran, the mother of the first Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid, made it a house of prayer some 150 years after Mohammed's death.
For an increasing number of Islamic historians, the tradition of Mohammed being the source and explanation of the Arab Conquest, wherein Arab tribesmen on horseback emerged out of the Arabian deserts to conquer Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, and Spain in less than 80 years (636-712), stands history on its head. They demonstrate that the story of Mohammed uniting various Arab tribes like Genghiz Khan did for the Mongols, and providing them with the religious fervor to conquer in the name of Islam, is "sacred history," rather than real history. Historian Gordon Newby explains:
"The myth of an original orthodoxy from which later challengers fall away as heretics is almost always the retrospective assertion of a politically dominant group whose aim is to establish their supremacy by appeal to divine sanction."
This applies to the Arab Conquest, says al-Rawandi, because for some two hundred years the Arab conquerors were a minority amongst a non-Moslem majority. For al-Rawandi, Islam is an invention for the purpose of providing a religious justification for Arab Imperialism. The Conquest is the reason and explanation for Islam, not the other way around. While there may well have been a historical individual named Ubu'l Kassim who was later entitled Mohammed ("The Praised One"), who raised followers and participated in the initiation of the Arab Conquest, he likely came from northeast Arabia in what is now southern Jordan. The deity that Ubu'l Kassim chose to follow was Allah, a contraction of al-Lah, the ancient Arab God of the Moon [note: which is why the symbol of Islam to this day is the crescent moon]. Ubu'l Kassim died, however, some years before the Arab Conquest was fully underway (the traditional date is 632). Al-Rawandi summarizes what then happened:
"Once the Arabs had acquired an empire, a coherent religion was required in order to hold that empire together and legitimize their rule. In a process that involved a massive backreading of history, and in conformity to the available Jewish and Christian models, this meant they needed a revelation and a revealer - a Prophet - whose life could serve at once as a model for moral conduct and as a framework for the appearance of the revelation. Hence (Ubu'l Kassim was selected to be the Prophet), the Koran, the Hadith (Sayings of the Prophet), and the Sira were contrived and conjoined over a period of a couple of centuries. Topographically, after a century or so of Judaeo-Moslem monotheism centered on Jerusalem, in order to make Islam distinctively Arab... an inner Arabian biography of Mecca, Medina, the Quraysh, the Prophet and his Hegira (flight from Mecca to Medina alleged in 622, Year One in the Islamic calendar) was created as a purely literary artifact. An artifact, moreover, based not on faithful memories of real events, but on the fertile imaginations of Arab storytellers elaborating from allusive references in Koranic texts, the canonical text of the Koran not being fixed for nearly two centuries." (p.104)
Al-Rawandi concludes that the Sira, the life of Mohammed in Mecca and Medina is a myth, a "baseless fiction." This is the conclusion of a substantial number of serious academic historians working on Islamic Studies today. They include Mohammed Ibn al-Warraq, Mohammed Ibn al-Rawandi, John Wansbrough, Kenneth Cragg, Patricia Crone, Michael Cook, John Burton, Andrew Rippin, Julian Baldick, Gerald Hawting, and Suliman Bashear. Yet they and their research are virtually unknown.
Not any longer. In committing The Atrocity of September 11, Islamic terrorists did far more damage to their religion than to New York City or the Pentagon. As U.S. Special Forces teams hunt them down and put them to death, they and all the Bin Ladens of the Moslem Terrorism network should know that the world is soon to learn about the Myth of Mecca.
We don't know about the Myth of Mecca because we are afraid to. We, Americans and Westerners and participants of civilization, have been intimidated and frightened into examining the historical truth regarding Islam. Dare to criticize Islam and some crazed ayatollah will issue a fatwah calling for your death. Well, if there is one thing that we must learn from The Atrocity is that we cannot, we dare not be afraid any longer. The Atrocity was committed exclusively by Moslems in the name of Islam. True enough, President Bush, in his magnificent speech to Congress, said their actions blaspheme and insult Islam. But throughout the Arab world, from cafes in Beirut and Cairo to the streets of Nablus and Gaza, people laughed and celebrated their religion's slaughter of thousands of Americans. So we should feel no need to refrain from exposing that this slaughter was committed in the name of a make-believe myth.
The Moslem Terrorists who committed The Atrocity have put all of their fellow Moslems on the defensive. We see full-page ads in newspapers taken out by Moslem governments and Moslem organizations, expressing their sympathy and condolences. These are welcomed and their sincerity need not be questioned. But words are not enough. Actions are what count. What is required of Arab-Americans is not words, but for them to locate the several thousand agents of Bin Laden and the Moslem Terrorist Network reputed to be in this country, and turn them in to the FBI. What is required of Moslem communities the world over is the same: identify, locate, and turn advocates of terrorism in to the appropriate authorities.
Yet much more is now required of the adherents of Islam: the reinvention of their religion. No longer can the words of the Koran be considered inerrant, infallible, and those of Allah himself . The words must be read thoughtfully and critically, and the wisdom they contain extracted with reflection, not reflexively. Christianity emerged from its Dark Ages when its sacred texts were considered infallible and criticism condemned (often to death) as heresy, to subject itself to historical examination and rational discussion. It is stronger for it. For a religion's strength does not lie in fanatical belief, in an unquestioned assumption that disagreement or criticism of it is an incomprehensible perversion. A religion's strength lies in the goodness it does for people's souls.
As Al-Rawandi puts it:
"The claims of Islam do not depend on historical origins, but on an inner knowledge of God, the accompaniment and reward of piety. What makes Islam true is the spiritual life of Moslems, not religious history but religious experience."
These are the teachings of a school of Islamic thought known as Sufism. How Islam must reinvent itself to emerge out of the Islamic Dark Ages it has inhabited for the last several hundred years, and join and flourish in the civilized world, is to combine the teachings of Sufism with those of Jadidism, the attempt by Central Asian Islamic scholars 100 years ago to make a revitalized Islam compatible with the modern world. While Jadidism was snuffed by the Soviets, its revival, combined with the inner peace and truths provided by Sufism, could reinvent an Islam prepared to participate and prosper in the 21st century.
The combined synergy of Sufism and Jadidism would be the salvation of Islam. Today it stands in dire need of being saved. I hope that dedicated Islamic scholars will appear on the scene to create such a salvatory synergy. In the meantime, none of us any longer needs to be afraid or intimidated by the Myth of Mecca.
Al-Rawandi, I.M. Origins of Islam: A Critical Look at the Sources. Prometheus, 2000
Crone, P.M. Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. Oxford, 1987.
Newby, G.D. The Making of the Last Prophet: A Reconstruction of the Earliest Biography of Mohammed. Columbia, 1989.
Wansbrough, J. Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation. Oxford, 1977.
Warraq, I. M. The Quest for the Historical Muhammad. Prometheus, 2000.
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