Muhammad Sven Kalisch, a Muslim convert and Germany's first professor of Islamic theology, fasts during the Muslim holy month, doesn't like to shake hands with Muslim women and has spent years studying Islamic scripture. Islam, he says, guides his life.
So it came as something of a surprise when Prof. Kalisch announced the fruit of his theological research. His conclusion: The Prophet Muhammad probably never existed.
Prof. Kalisch, who insists he's still a Muslim, says he knew he would get in trouble but wanted to subject Islam to the same scrutiny as Christianity and Judaism. German scholars of the 19th century, he notes, were among the first to raise questions about the historical accuracy of the Bible.
Many scholars of Islam question the accuracy of ancient sources on Muhammad's life. The earliest biography, of which no copies survive, dated from roughly a century after the generally accepted year of his death, 632, and is known only by references to it in much later texts. But only a few scholars have doubted Muhammad's existence. Most say his life is better documented than that of Jesus.
Of course, the poverty of the documentation about the life of Jesus probably makes a homeless guy living under the Brooklyn Brige look like Mark Zuckerberg.
I don't know if this scholar actually believes it, though. He might be more of an agnostic about Muhammad's existence and is simply trying to clean the slate to investigate Muhammad's existence objectively; investigating it without “tak[ing] it for granted that Muhammad existed”. Is Muhammad closer in historical role to someone like Jesus, or someone like Alexander the Great? I have a huge dearth of knowledge about the history behind Islam, but I do recall some Greeks writing about 20 years after Muhammad's death complaining about a madman who had gathered a bunch of Arabs to conquer a bunch of land. The Greek doesn't actually name the guy, but his very brief description seems to match that of Muhammad.
Can the advent of Islam and Islamic conquest be interpreted to make sense without a Muhammad? I don't know. But I do think that Muhammad and Jesus aren't really comparable historical figures. Case in point, from the same article:
To [Prof. Kalisch], what matters isn't whether Muhammad actually lived but the philosophy presented in his name.
Christianity, at least modern Christianity, isn't about the teachings of Jesus. It's about Jesus himself. What strengthens this is the fact that the earliest Christians never appealed to the saving power of Jesus' teachings; they don't put any value on his teachings at all (if he had any to begin with). No, it's all about Jesus as some sort of human sacrifice that is the “good news”. Christianity is all about the first line of Mark: ευαγγελιου Ιησου Χριστου. The good news of Jesus Christ. Not the good news of Jesus Christ's philosophy.
I think that if someone did unite disparate Arab tribes under one banner/religion, and led them in conquering the Arab world, then for all intents and purposes we could call that person Muhammad. It really depends on how you define the role
of Muhammad in history.