The other day I was watching a YouTube video by David Wood on his channel Acts17Apologetics where he and Robert Spencer were arguing with Islamic scholars that Muhammad was not a real person but was manufactured by later people. Honestly, I was so disappointed watching this video that I didn’t even watch the whole thing. I think David Wood is a hero who risks his life witnessing courageously to Muslims, but arguing that Muhammad didn’t exist seems to me to be sloppy thinking at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.
The primary reason that I was disappointed with the argument that these men were making is that it seems to me to be a distraction from the most important issue. The reason to reject Islam is not because the evidence shows that Muhammad did not exist. The reason to reject Islam is made obvious by an honest examination of who Muhammad was and what he taught. Do you really want to live in a world run by a deity who considers Muhammad to be the most perfect man ever to live? The contrast between the life and teachings of Jesus and Muhammad is where a Christian apologist should focus.
As a secondary issue, I believe that arguing that Muhammad didn’t exist promotes an unscientific and irrational perspective that I call radical skepticism. Radical skeptics are people who recognize that the burden of proof is impossible if you set the bar high enough and use this fact to deceive themselves into believing that they are thinking rationally when they are in actuality deluding themselves. Whenever radical skeptics want to believe something (or, more usually, disbelieve something) they assume that their desired position is correct and insist that only absolute proof will change their mind. This attitude is extremely attractive to juvenile minds and it should not be encouraged by more rational thinkers. It is especially dangerous to encourage this type of irrational thinking because many internet atheists follow the lead of men like Richard Carrier who argue that Jesus Christ did not exist.
The Irrationality of Radical Skepticism
When considering a question like whether or not a person existed in history, the scientific approach does not ask the question, “What evidence would demonstrate this persons existence beyond any possible doubt?” This is the lawyers approach to such a question and is only valid if you are assuming the conclusion that the person does not exist. Rather, the scientific approach to such an investigation would start with the question, “If such a person had existed, then what evidence would I expect to find and does that evidence exist?” Once this question has been asked and answered, a scientific investigation might probe deeper by asking follow up questions such as, “Is there any good reason to assume that the evidence which does exist might have been falsified?” The scientific approach is more rational than the lawyer/radical skepticism approach because it results in a set of predictions that can be tested scientifically while the lawyer/radical skeptic approach is mired in subjectivity.
As an illustration of the irrationality of the non-scientific approach, let us imagine that I am trying to prove my existence to a radical skeptic. If I show my driver’s license to a radical skeptic and say that this proves that I am Robert, the radical skeptic could easily respond, “Every bartender has seen more fake driver’s licenses than you could shake a stick at.” Bringing the radical skeptic a friend to vouch for my identity, the skeptic replies, “Wow! That is really strong evidence. Nobody has ever lied before.” Getting desperate I bring him my mother with her identification and a DNA test showing that we are related and the skeptic replies, “A) DNA tests can be faked. B) I never said you didn’t have a mother, only that you are not who you say you are and C) Her driver’s license could be as fake as yours is.”
Do you see the problem here? No matter what evidence I bring forward, there is no way that I can prove that I exist beyond any possible doubt. I cannot prove that I am human and not some alien or robot cleverly disguised to look human. I cannot prove that I am not a figment of the skeptic’s imagination or the product of an elaborate Artificial Intelligence simulation such as depicted in the Matrix movies. Even if the skeptic grants that I am a real human being who exists outside of his imagination (generous of him) I cannot prove that my name is Robert or that I have had any of the experiences that I have claimed to have. As any reasonable person would have to admit, documents, pictures and genetic tests can all be faked and people have often lied. The power of radical skepticism is that any position defended using such techniques is absolutely unassailable and unfalsifiable. This is the antithesis of rationality and such thinking cannot be encouraged by a Christian apologist.
Did Muhammad Exist?
Using the scientific methodology to investigate the existence of Muhammad, therefore, we ask some important questions. What evidence would we expect to find if a man from a nomadic and largely illiterate culture lived the life described in the Koran? Does this evidence exist? When I investigate the question of Muhammad’s existence in this way, I conclude that it is completely obvious that Muhammad existed.
Though Robert Spencer and David Wood make much of the fact that many of the Hadiths that depict the life of the prophet are contradictory and the earliest manuscript copies date from significantly after the events they describe, this is not at all surprising given the circumstances. A man from a largely illiterate and nomadic culture claims to be a messenger from Allah and that he has been granted divinely inspired utterances. While his early followers earnestly believe what he is teaching, they only rarely write things down preferring to pass on the teachings of the prophet using oral story telling around the camp fire as was common in that culture. As the religion becomes more successful among more literate cultures, the teachings are compiled and written down by different authors using the conflicting oral accounts and the scraps of written material that were available. This is exactly what you would expect if Muhammad existed and lived the life described in the Koran and this is generally what we find when we examine the manuscript evidence.
Even beyond the question of manuscript evidence, however, Muhammad’s existence is established by what logician’s call the inference to the best explanation. What is the best explanation of the religion of Islam? Did some committee decide to create a new religion and fake a series of documents? Has this ever happened in human history? We have many examples of religions that have sprung up in the modern era such as Scientology or Mormonism and we can study the evolution of these religions. Doing this study, we can see that the best explanation for the religion of Islam is a man named Muhammad claiming to be a prophet and living the life described in the Koran and the other Islamic writings. To argue otherwise is to deny the obvious.
The Existence of Jesus Christ
Having considered the existence of Muhammad, let us now consider the existence of Jesus Christ. Is it rational to believe that a man named Jesus Christ lived in first century Palestine? Or do radical skeptics like Richard Carrier have a point when they say that there is a legitimate question as to the existence of Jesus Christ?
As should be clear by this point, I think questioning the existence of Jesus Christ is an extremely irrational position championed by men so blinded by bias that they are unable to see the obvious. First of all, in order to believe that Jesus never existed one has to dismiss the hundreds of pieces of manuscript and archaeological evidence that date from the first few centuries as being “whole cloth” fabrications without a shred of truth to them. The men who claimed to have met and heard Jesus Christ were not merely gullible fools deceived by a false teacher, they were actively complicit in making up untrue stories about a person who they were fully aware never existed. This would make Christianity far and away the most elaborate hoax ever perpetrated in human history. Such a belief might come easy to those who deny the Holocaust or believe that Neil Armstrong never landed on the moon, but to those of us who are more reasonable it would be very difficult to believe for two primary reasons:
- The moral teachings of the New Testament.
- The testimony of the blood of the martyrs.
I have studied the writings of the New Testament for the majority of my adult life and I think that any fair-minded critic would have to admit that I have applied a great deal of skepticism to the claims made therein. As I have studied the epistles and the gospel accounts, the one thing that stands out to me more than anything else is the high standard of morality that is taught by the men who wrote these documents. They are honest about their failures, their moral teachings are extremely difficult and they are familiar with the struggles that naturally arise as a human being with human flaws attempts to live according to these teachings. As one comes to respect and admire these men through an intimate understanding of their writings, the notion that the whole project was a gigantic hoax becomes laughably absurd. This is especially true when you consider the historical circumstances under which these men were said to have created this fabrication.
While modern critics of Christianity can easily point to televangelists and say, “Christianity was faked by profiteers who wanted to make money off of gullible people”, such a statement can only be believed in absolute ignorance of the facts of history. Prior to Augustine, the Roman government used the common religion of Emperor worship to unify people in support of Roman authority. Because pacifying the provinces through a common religion was extremely important to the Romans, they could be absolutely brutal when it came to dealing with those who refused to accept this practice. Under these circumstances, what could possibly lead a group of people to refuse Emperor worship on behalf of something they knew to be a fiction? While being a Christian preacher in modern times can make you rich, being a Christian preacher in the early centuries of Christianity could get you killed in a painful way. There is absolutely no incentive that could be strong enough to cause someone to knowingly fabricate the stories of the New Testament under such circumstances and the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan is powerful evidence of this fact.
After writing this essay, I came across another video where David Wood debates with Robert Spencer arguing for the existence of Muhammad. It turns out that his views and mine are actually fairly close together. In view of this fact, I have considered removing this essay or rewriting it but it seems to have enough value to warrant leaving it as is.
When I first wrote this essay, I forgot what I knew about the archaeological and manuscript evidence for the reliability of the New Testament and made the false claim that the evidence dated from the first century. In actuality the earliest manuscript and archaeological evidence dates from the second century and the reliability of the New Testament can only be established by extrapolation. Since the early church community was widely distributed, the earliest copies of the New Testament all come from different manuscript lineages and the similarity of the earliest surviving copies from different lineages demonstrates that we have the New Testament essentially as it was written.