Monday, 21 May 2012

Sources close to the Prophet

Rome, as any fule kno, was founded by Romulus and Remus, twin brothers, abandoned by their parents as babies. The infants were found and nursed by a she-wolf, until a shepherd discovered them and raised them to adulthood. When Romulus and Remus grew up, they decided to found a city on the spot where the wolf had found them.

According to Virgil, Romulus and Remus were descendants of the Trojan hero Aeneas (who was himself the offspring of a liaison between a cousin of King Priam and the goddess Venus, no less). Aeneas and his followers had to flee Troy after the Greeks overran the city. After an eventful Mediterranean cruise, including an ill-fated holiday romance between Aeneas and Queen Dido of Carthage, the Trojan refugees wound up in Italy, where, after a bit of bother with the locals, Aeneas ended up founding the city of Lavinium, a little way to the south of what would later become Rome.

The Trojan legacy didn't end in Rome. According to Fredegar's 7th-century chronicle of Frankish history, the Franks traced their ancestry back to King Priam of Troy. 'And to prove it, we've still got place names like Troyes and Paris', said people who accepted the Merovingians' Trojan pedigree, knowingly.

The Icelandic Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson also contains this surprising claim:

... the Nordic gods themselves were human Trojan warriors who left Troy after the fall of that city ... According to the Prose Edda, these warriors settled in northern Europe, where they were accepted as divine kings because of their superior culture and technology. Remembrance ceremonies later conducted at their burial sites degenerate into heathen cults, turning them into gods.

Britain itself was, apparently, founded by a member of the Trojan diaspora, namely Brutus of Troy, the founder and first king of Britain, at least according to the medieval historians Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight kicks off with a brief account of Brutus' nation-building exploits before getting down to the serious business of chivalry at the court of King Arthur.

It ought to go without saying that nobody now believes this load of old cobblers about the Trojans turning up everywhere, (with the possible exception of the usual Holy Grail hunters and proponents of the giant-lizards-from-outer-space-have-been-secretly-running-everything theory of history).

Our ancestors, who once believed these stories, weren't stupid - they just didn't have access to the accumulated weight of conscientiously-accumulated historical, archaeological, and even genetic, evidence, research and scholarship that now enables anybody with a vague interest in the past to study more or less plausible accounts of what probably happened and to distinguish these from wildly implausible, evidence-free, fairy tales.

Up to a point, these stories still deserve our interest and attention, not as accounts of what actually happened, but as illustrations of how tribes, cities, nations and empires have concocted stories about their origins, often involving heroic deeds and pedigrees going back to a distant semi-mythical age, in order to bolster their legitimacy, status and sense of identity.

All this stuff about the myths of national origins was prompted by reading In The Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland's fascinating account of the rise of Islam, set against the backdrop of the waning Roman and Persian empires. Holland's book includes some interesting material on how both Imperial Rome and its rival Persian Empire manufactured suitably ancient and heroic foundation myths and pedigrees to lend authority to, and reinforce, their own power and prestige.

It's interesting to note the parallels between national myth-building and the stories that religions tell about themselves and their origins. I've got a passing familiarity with Christianity and how the historical record either coincides with the Gospel stories, contradicts them, or is silent about what happened (in short, there seems to be precious little confirmation, some contradictions over things like dates and who ruled when and quite a lot of silence), but as somebody not brought up in a Muslim household, I don't know a great deal about the Qur'an or the historical context of Muslim scripture, so Holland's book is a bit of a revelation to me.

At first sight, it seems that we know a lot more about Muhammad than we do about Jesus. Holland starts off by quoting Salman Rushdie:

The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Muhammad, we know everything, more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time.

Impressive. Until you begin to examine where this wealth of information comes from. It turns out that the evidence about people and places in the Qur'an itself is pretty sketchy - the text is too concerned with the doings of God, and of angels, demons and the old prophets of the Abrahamic faith to fill in the background of Muhammad's life and times. The name of Muhammad itself only appears four times in the whole text, the name of Mecca once, and there are scarcely any references to independently datable historical characters and events. We might have little evidence for the historicity or otherwise of the Christian Gospels, but at least we have a few historical names like Augustus Ceasar, Quirinius, Herod and Pilate and undisputed locations, like Jerusalem, anchoring the tales to a historical time and place (as well as occasionally calling the accuracy of the Gospels into question).

We know 'everything' about Muhammad and his world, only through a disparate collection of thousands of anecdotes, stories and maxims, or hadiths, compiled from a multitude of sources at unknown times in the centuries following Muhammad's death. One famed Muslim scholar, al-Bukhari,, was said to have collected and studied 600,000 hadiths, eventually concluding that all but 7,225 were fakes. Modern scholars haven't been able to come up with any convincing evidence that those anecdotes now accepted as valid by the faithful actually date back to the time of the Prophet. Yet this multitude of proverbial sayings and Chinese whispers of unknowable provenance, collated by later clerics and scholars, has produced the widely-accepted, apparently detailed, account of Muhammad's life and times.

Mixed in with the plausible-sounding biographical details and sayings of the Prophet are hadiths relating mythical stories that make the tale of Romulus and Remus sound quite believable by comparison. Here's the one about Muhammad having his body cut open and washed, before mounting a white, donkey-like, beast called the Al-Buraq, that takes him to heaven:

The Prophet said, "While I was at the House in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness, (an angel recognized me) as the man lying between two men. A golden tray full of wisdom and belief was brought to me and my body was cut open from the throat to the lower part of the abdomen and then my abdomen was washed with Zam-zam water and (my heart was) filled with wisdom and belief. Al-Buraq, a white animal, smaller than a mule and bigger than a donkey was brought to me and I set out with Gabriel. When I reached the nearest heaven. Gabriel said to the heaven gate-keeper, 'Open the gate'. 

From al-Bukhari's collection of hadiths.

 If this was history as we now understand it, nobody would have any difficulty in identifying this as an obviously made-up story, superseded by evidence-based scholarship, rather like those stories about kids suckled by wolves, or ancient aristocrats who sired heroes after bedding goddesses.

But this isn't history, it's religion, so instead of being taken seriously by nobody but a few barmy grail-questing Indiana Jones wannabes, and David Icke, Islam's founding myths, and the authority of those preaching them, are taken terribly seriously by some one and a half billion people.

The lack of any compelling reason to suppose that religion's founding myths have any basis in literal truth as it's commonly understood, seems to be unimportant to those who proclaim those myths loudly and frequently. And it will probably continue to be so, as long as important people's authority is tied up with self-serving stories of doubtful authenticity that were put together precisely to establish and embed such people's authority.

Which isn't really a very good reason why the rest of us should defer to the faithful and grant their quaint notions the sort of free ride we wouldn't give to any other set of ideas:

We try to persuade people that their ideas about science, politics, philosophy, art, medicine, and more, are wrong: that they're harmful, ridiculous, repulsive, or simply mistaken. But when it comes to religion, trying to persuade people out of their ideas is somehow seen as horribly rude at best, invasive and bigoted and intolerant at worst. Why? Why should religion be the exception?

Why, indeed?


Correction and update: "Sahih Bukari" changed to "al-Bukhari" (the "Sahih Bukhari" is the name of the collection of hadiths compiled by the scholar al-Bukhari not, as I'd mistakenly thought an alternative form of the guy's name.

Also, this was written quite a while before I finished Tom Holland's book. Having finished, I can see that I've oversimplified things quite a bit here - my main point, that the whole superstructure of religious tradition and commentary is built on the sand of fantastic tales that, in any other context we'd immediately recognise as being myth rather than literal truth. I contend that religion is similar to journalism, as portrayed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ('When the legend becomes fact, print the legend').

Having finished In the Shadow of the Sword, I can see that this process of dogma-creation in Islam is far more nuanced and differs in some quite interesting ways from the way Christian traditions and dogmas evolved from their millenarian roots to serve the needs of an imperially-approved, status quo-maintaining religion - but more of that in a future post.