– THE SHADOW OF THE SCROLL –
century, on the eve of the Arab conquest of the Middle East, must be said to be exceptionally good’ – but whether the early Muslims distorted his life beyond recognition to suit their theological or political ends, cobbling together ancient stories to create the Prophet’s biography, rather as they used Byzantine models to build their mosques. The gap in the Muslim record allows revisionists to bolster this argument.
One solution means asking tough questions about Muslim veneration of Muhammad. Unlike Christianity, Islam has no divinely sanctioned Life of its founder – no equivalent to the Gospels. Indeed in the early days, it might have been actively hostile to making one. Muslims already had a book recording their founder’s inspired utterances and a hagiography might have threatened the Qu’ran’s supremacy. Arguably these suspicions proved to be well founded: from Ibn Ishaq onwards there proved a vast appetite for entertaining stories about the Prophet to supplement – and even supplant – the austere commands of the Qu’ran. This narrative yearning became more intense when the final companions – known in their time as the living tradition – began dying off. It is not a coincidence that at around the time when Muhammad’s name was first appearing on coins, buildings and early written sources, the last person who could have claimed an acquaintance with him died in 693.
Another possible solution to the mystery of the absent Prophet lies in the archaeological record, a field
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