Questioning of Prophet's existence stirs outcry
Muslim academic says research leads him to believe Muhammad is a mythical figure
Dec 23, 2008 04:30 AM
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
A noted Muslim scholar has provoked a huge controversy in Europe by openly questioning the existence of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Islamist at the centre of the storm in Germany over whether Muhammad ever existed as an historical figure says he is simply following the conclusions of many years of rigorous research.
Muhammad Sven Kalisch, 42, the chair of Islamic Studies at the University of Muenster and whose duties include training teachers for the rising number of Muslim students in German high schools, has created a furor by stating that in all probability Muhammad was a mythical creation.
He told the Star in a recent phone interview that his research leads him to believe that the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have mythical origins.
German police worried about a possible violent backlash have told the professor to move his offices to more secure premises. But Kalisch says there have been no specific threats and he is far from being "in hiding" as some bloggers and other rumour-mongers have claimed.
However, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany to which the four largest organizations of the country's 3 million-strong Muslim community belong, has stopped its co-operation with the university's Centre for Religious Studies over the professor's stand.
A spokesperson for the council, Ali Kizilkaya, has said if the Prophet Muhammad didn't exist then the Qur'an doesn't exist.
"This would mean that we would have to abolish the religion altogether," Kizilkaya said. "We are convinced the Prophet did indeed exist and that the Qur'an is the word of God."
Michael Marx, a Qur'an specialist at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, has warned his colleagues that Kalisch's views will "make it difficult" for German scholars to work in Muslim lands.
The traditional view of Muhammad is that he was born in Mecca in Arabia, about AD 570 and died in Medina around AD 632. The Qur'an, Islam's holy book, is composed of revelations believed to have been given to him by God through the archangel Gabriel. There are about one billion Muslims in the world today.
"My position with regard to the historical existence of Muhammad is that I believe neither his existence nor his non-existence can be proven," Kalisch said in a statement. "I, however, lean toward the non-existence."
He told the Star he holds the same position regarding Abraham, Moses and the other Jewish patriarchs, as well as Jesus Christ.
There have been threats, campaigns for his dismissal from his post, and dozens of media interviews, commentaries and editorials. According to Der Spiegel magazine, a group of more than 30 German academics have signed a petition supporting Kalisch's right to scholarly freedom of expression.
Kalisch studied and practised law before returning to college to take a Ph.D. in religious studies. He speaks fluent English, Turkish and Arabic as well as German.
He was born in Hamburg of a German father and a mother of Mongolian descent. They were nominal Protestants and when he began early in his teens to follow up on the Asian line of his heritage he decided to learn Turkish.
That led directly to an exposure to Islamic teaching and at 15 he decided to convert. "I was attracted by the emphasis on one God instead of a trinity," he says. "It seemed in many ways a very rational religion."
But, he differed from typical religious converts to a new faith in that he never stopped questioning. "Religion should never contradict reason," he says. "I could never accept any doctrine or belief that goes against my rational mind."
Kalisch said he realized early in 2001 that when the same scientific methods are applied to investigate Muslim claims of historicity as are used on Jewish and Christian origins, similar problems arise at once. He found that traditional theological positions soon collapse once hard evidence is sought. He discovered there is as much "myth-making" in Islam as in Judaism and Christianity. And so his current process of "rethinking Islam" was begun.
Asked whether he thought his public airings of his findings will destroy peoples' faith, he said: "It will destroy a literalist faith, a faith no longer reliable because of reason. But, the God I believe in is not a god of literalists. He is the Ultimate One. God doesn't write books. All the various sacred books are the product of human minds and experiences. They can be helpful but they must be interpreted for today."
Kalisch maintains non-Muslim scholars who agree with his hypothesis but keep silent out of "respect" for Muslims are in fact treating them as though they can't handle the truth.
"That's not respect, it's putting Muslims on the same level as small children who can't think and decide for themselves and whose illusions of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny one doesn't want to destroy."