Look up the Prophet Muhammad in any reference book and the outlines of his life are confidently on display: birth in C.E. 570 in Mecca, career as a successful merchant, first revelation in 610, flight to Medina in 622, triumphant return to Mecca in 630, death in 632. There are, however, two major problems with this standard biography, as explained in this fascinating collection of essays. First, the massive documentation about Muhammad derives in every instance from Arabic written sources - biographies, collections of the prophet's sayings and doings, and so on - the earliest of which date from a century and a half after his death. Second, the earlier sources on the prophet's life that do survive dramatically contradict the standard biography. In part, these are literary sources in languages other than Arabic (such as Armenian, Greek, or Syriac); in part, they are material remains (such as papyri, inscriptions, and coins).
Although the unreliability of the Arabic literary sources has been understood for a century, only recently have scholars begun to explore its full implications. They look skeptically at the Arabic written sources and conclude that these are a form of "salvation history" - self-serving, unreliable accounts by the faithful. The huge body of detail, revisionist scholars find, is almost completely spurious. For example, an inscription and a Greek account leads Lawrence Conrad to fix Muhammad's birth in 552, not 570. Patricia Crone conclude that Muhammad's career took place not in Mecca but hundreds of kilometers to the north. Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren find that the classical Arabic language was developed not in today's Saudi Arabia but in the Levant, and that it reached Arabia only through the colonizing efforts of one of the early caliphs.
Startling conclusions follow from this. The Arab tribesmen who conquered great swathes of territory in the seventh century were not Muslims, according to Judith Koren and Yehuda Nevo; perhaps they were pagans. The Qur'an is a not "a product of Muhammad or even of Arabia," John Wansbrough suggests, but a collection of earlier Judeo-Christian liturgical materials stitched together to meet the needs of a later age. Most broadly, Ibn al-Rawandi concludes, "there was no Islam as we know it" until two or three hundred years after the traditional version has it (more like C.E. 830 than 630); it developed not in the distant deserts of Arabia but through the interaction of Arab conquerors and their more civilized subject peoples. Patricia Crone and Michael Cook go yet further, doubting even the existence of Muhammad.
Though undertaken in a purely scholarly quest, the research made available in Quest for the Historical Muhammad raises basic questions for Muslims concerning the prophet's role as a moral paragon; the sources of Islamic law; and the God-given nature of the Qur'an.