Page 1 of 2 SPENGLER Scandal exposes Islam's weakness
"Did you hear about the German Gnostic?"
"He couldn't keep a secret."
Just such a Teutonic mystic is Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch, a German
convert to Islam who teaches Muslim theology at the University of Munster.
Kalisch recently laid a Gnostic egg in the nest of Islam, declaring that the
Prophet Mohammed never existed, not at least in the way that the received
version of Islamic tradition claims he did. Given that Kalisch holds an
academic chair specifically funded to instruct teachers of Islam in Germany's
school system, a scandal ensued, first reported in the mainstream
English-language press by Andrew Higgins in the
November 15 edition of the Wall Street Journal.
On closer reading, Kalisch offers a far greater challenge to Islam than the
secular critics who reject its claims. The headline that a Muslim academic has
doubts over the existence of the Prophet Mohammed is less interesting than why
he has such doubts. Kalisch does not want to harm Islam, but rather to expose
what he believes to be its true nature. Islam, he argues, really is a Gnostic
spiritual teaching masquerading as myth. Kalisch's heretical variant of Islam
may be close enough to the religion's original intent as to provoke a
re-evaluation of the original sources.
A labor of love from inside the fortress of Islamic theology may accomplish
what all the ballistas of the critics never could from outside the walls.
Koranic criticism, I have argued for years (here and elsewhere -
You say you want a reformation? Asia Times Online, August 5, 2003) is
the Achilles' heel of the religion. That argument has been made about
Christianity for years by Elaine Pagels and other promoters of "Gnostic
Gospels", and it is dead wrong. In the case of Islam, though, it might be dead
Kalisch is a Gnostic, a believer in secret spiritual truths that undergird the
myths manufactured for the edification of the peasantry. But he is a German
Gnostic, and therefore feels it necessary to lay out his secrets in thorough
academic papers with extensive footnotes and bibliography. It is a strange and
indirect way of validating the dictum of the great German-Jewish theologian
Franz Rosenzweig: Islam is a parody of Judaism and Christianity.
It is in weird little byways of academia such as Kalisch wanders that the great
battles of religion will be fought out, not at academic conferences and photo
opportunities with the pope. For example: the Catholic Islamologists who
organized the November 4-7 meeting of Catholic and Muslim scholars in Rome
envision incremental reforms inside Islam through a more relaxed Turkish
version (see A
Pyrrhic propaganda victory in Rome Asia Times Online, November 12, 2008
theology from Turkey Asia Times Online, June 3, 2008). Despite their
best efforts at an orderly encounter with Islam, events have a way of
overtaking them. Last March, Pope Benedict personally received into the
Catholic faith the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam at the Easter
Vigil. In September, Kalisch dropped his own bombshell. In a way, it is
longer-acting and more deadly.
A small group of Koran scholars, to be sure, has long doubted Mohammed's
existence. Their scholarship is sufficiently interesting, though, to question
whether it is worthwhile exposing the alleged misdeeds of the Prophet Mohammed,
who may not have existed in the first place (The
Koranic quotations trap Asia Times Online, May 15, 2007). Earlier this
year, I reported on the progress of the critics, as well as belated emergence
of a treasure-trove of photocopies of Koranic manuscripts hidden away by Nazi
Jones meets the Da Vinci Code Asia Times Online, January 18, 2008). The
Nazis had a Gnostic interest in Islam (call them "Gnazis"). The manuscripts and
copies are now under the control of mainstream scholars at the University of
Berlin, with deep ties to Arab countries.
Kalisch is the first Muslim scholar to dispute the Prophet's existence, while
continuing to profess Muslim. If the Prophet did not exist, or in any case did
not dictate the Koran, "then it might be that the Koran was truly inspired by
God, a great narration from God, but it was not dictated word for word from
Allah to the Prophet", he told a German newspaper. A German Protestant who
converted to Islam as a teenager in search of a religion of reason, Kalisch can
live with an alternative of reading of Islam. Very few of the world's billion
and a half Muslims can.
Islam cannot abide historical criticism of the sort that Judaism and
Christianity have sustained for centuries. "Abie, if you're here, then who is
that there in my bed?," responds the Jewish wife in the old joke when her
husband catches her in delicto flagrante. No one can offer an
alternative explanation for the unique persistence of the Jewish people after
30 documented centuries of Jewish life. "If Moses didn't exist," the Jews
respond to skeptics, "then who brought us out of Egypt?" Told that perhaps they
didn't come out of Egypt, the Jews will respond, "Then what are we doing here
Christians, by the same token, read the writings of numerous individuals who
either met Jesus of Nazareth or took down the accounts of people who did, and
who believed that he was the only begotten Son of God. Proof of Jesus'
divinity, though, is entirely beside the point. If the Christian God wanted to
rule by majesty and power, he would not have come to earth as a mortal to die
on the cross. The Christian God asks for love and faith, not submission before
majesty. The Christian is not asked to prove the unprovable, but to love and
believe. Muslims have a different problem: if Mohammed did not receive the
Koran from God, then what are they doing there to begin with? Kalisch has the
sort of answer that only a German academic could love.
"We hardly have original Islamic sources from the first two centuries of
Islam," Kalisch observes in a German-language paper available on the Muenster
It is fascinating reading, and since it is not yet available in English I take
the liberty of translating or summarizing a few salient points. Responsibility
for any errors of translation of interpretation is my own.
Kalisch continues, "And even when a source appears to come from this period,
caution is required. The mere assertion that a source stems from the first or
second century of the Islamic calendar means nothing. And even when a source
actually was written in the first or second century, the question always
remains of later manipulation. We do not tread on firm ground in the sources
until the third Islamic century."
This, Kalisch observes, is extremely suspicious: how can a world religion have
erupted in a virtual literary vacuum? A great religion, moreover, inevitably
throws off heresies: where are the early Islamic heretics and Gnostics? Later
Islamic theologians knew the titles of some of their works, but the content
itself was lost. "The only explanation for the disappearance is that it had
long since become unusable theologically," he alleges of certain Shi'ite
Kalisch draws on the well-known work of Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds, whose
criticism of the received version have a distinctly minority position in
It is a striking fact that such documentary
evidence as survives from the Sufnayid period makes no mention of the messenger
of god at all. The papyri do not refer to him. The Arabic inscriptions of the
Arab-Sasanian coins only invoke Allah, not his rasul [messenger]; and the
Arab-Byzantine bronze coins on which Muhammad appears as rasul Allah,
previously dated to the Sufyanid period, have not been placed in that of the
Marwanids. Even the two surviving pre-Marwanid tombstones fail to mention the
The great scandal of Islamic tradition is the absence of