Some sceptical scholars claim that Muhammad did not exist and that Islam is a fabrication made up in later centuries. But Leiden University’s Petra Sijpesteijn has demonstrated from her work on Arabic papyrus manuscripts that their claim is not true.
What was the origin of Islam and what went on at the dawn of Islamic history? In the past, scholars who wanted to research the subject had to rely on the official Islamic version of events which was only written down about 200 years after Muhammad’s death. Only relatively recently has interest grown in more objective but less accessible sources such as coins, inscriptions and texts written on papyrus.
Petra Sijpesteijn, professor of Arabic language and culture at Leiden University, says that this last source is especially important. “The papyri are in fact the only contemporary source for the first 200 years of Islamic history.”
Papyrus manuscripts have been found in their thousands in the sand and at ancient rubbish tips all over the Middle East but especially in Egypt. Dr Sijpesteijn explains that they are often difficult to read because they are partially destroyed, badly written out or in dialect. “But if you can read them, they offer a unique glimpse of ordinary life at the dawn of Islam.”
The study of Arabic papyri is in its infancy. Only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of available manuscripts have been studied. As far as the work done so far is concerned, the Muslim faithful can set their minds at ease: Dr Sijpesteijn says the texts largely confirm the official Islamic version of events.
Dr Sijpesteijn distances herself from the small group of polemical colleagues, known as the ‘revisionists’, who assert that the Prophet Muhammad probably did not exist. They say the Arabic conquerors were actually a disorganised horde of Bedouins who gained control of half the known world more or less by chance. Islam is said to have been dreamt up 200 years later in Iraq.
“From the papyri, it appears that the Arab conquests were indeed carefully planned and organised and that the Arabs saw themselves as conquerors with a religious mission. They also appear to have held religious views and followed customs which contain important elements of the behaviour and beliefs of later Muslims.
Dr Sijpesteijn says for example that, shortly after Muhammad’s death, there is already mention of a pilgrimage (hajj) and a tax to collect money for the poor (zakat). She has also come across a papyrus text written around 725 which names both the prophet and Islam.
Even so, her discoveries form a potential threat to the image some modern Muslims have of their history. The papyri contradict the belief held by many of today’s Muslims that Muhammad delivered Islam as a sort of ready-made package. “It looks as though Islam in its first centuries developed a form gradually. There was an awful lot of discussion about precisely what it meant to be a Muslim.”