Does archaeology support the Qur'an?
Muslims are adamant in asserting that the Quran is the final true word of God. However the historical reliability of Islam has been challenged by contemporary scholarship. Manuscript, documentary and archaeological evidence all fail to confirm many of the claims of Islam. Let's explore the mounting case against Islam from external documentary sources and modern archaeology.
However, non-Muslim sources, the Doctrina Iacobi and the Armenian Chronicle of 660 AD, maintain the Arabs and the Jews were allies as late as 640 AD, during the conquest of Palestine. Muhammad established a community of Ishmaelites and Jews based on their common birthright to the Holy Land. This relationship endured at least 15 years beyond the qur'anic date.
Yet there is no archeological corroboration for this. Such a great ancient city would surely have received a mention in ancient history. However, the earliest reference to Mecca as a city is in the Continuato Byzantia Arabica, an 8th century document. Mecca is certainly not on the natural overland trade routes- it is a barren valley requiring a one hundred mile detour. Moreover, there was only maritime Graeco-Roman trade with India after the first century, controlled by the Ethiopian Red Sea port Adulis, not by the Arabs. If Mecca was not even a viable city, let alone a great commercial centre until after Muhammads time, the Quran is seriously in doubt.
The Qibla of the first mosque in Kufa, Iraq, constructed in 670 AD, pointed west instead of due south. Likewise, floor plans from two later Umayyad (650-750 AD) mosques in Iraq, demonstrate their Qiblas were oriented too far north. The Wasit mosque is off by 33 degrees, the Baghdad mosque by 30 degrees. The Amr b. al As mosque near Cairo, again pointed too far north and had to be corrected under a later governor.
Jacob of Odessa, a Christian writer and traveller, was a contemporary eye-witness writing in Egypt around 705 AD. His letter in the British Museum maintains the Mahgraye (Greek term for Arabs) in Egypt prayed facing east, towards their Kaba, the place of their patriarchal origin- in other words towards Palestine, not Mecca.
Thus the evidence points to a sanctuary located not in Mecca, but in northern Arabia or even Jerusalem, until the early 8th century. It cannot be that the early Muslims wrongly estimated the direction of Mecca. They were desert traders and caravaners, adept at travelling by the stars. How else did they perform the obligatory Hajj, which was also canonized at this time? There is a serious discrepancy between the Quran and modern archaeology. Crucially, Walid I, who reigned as Caliph between 705 and 715, wrote to all the regions ordering the demolition and enlargement of all mosques. Could it be the Qibla only then shifted to Mecca?
Dome of the Rock
In the city centre lies the Dome of the Rock, an imposing structure built by Abd al-Malik in 691 AD. It is considered the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. It seems to have been intended as a sanctuary rather than a mosque, as there is no Qibla and its octagonal design indicates it was used for circumambulation. Muslims believe it commemorates the Miraj, the night Muhammad went up into heaven to speak to Allah and Moses regarding the number of prayers required of believers.
Yet the inscriptions on the walls of the building say nothing of the Miraj but are polemical quranic quotations, aimed primarily at Christians. Perhaps this imposing building was built instead as the early sanctuary of Islam, before the adoption of Mecca. This is logical given Muhammads intention to reclaim the land of his birthright.
Certainly Muslim tradition suggests the Dome of the Rock may have been the early religious centre for Islam. The caliph Suleyman, who reigned up to 717 AD, went to Mecca to ask about the Hajj. He was not satisfied with the reply, and chose instead to follow Abd al-Malik, travelling to the Dome of the Rock.
Could it be that the Qiblas of the early mosques were aligned to the Dome of the Rock until the edict of Walid I in the early 8th century?
In the Arab religious texts from the earliest Sufyani period (661-684 AD) there is a monotheistic creed but a complete absence of any reference to Muhammad. His name is only found on Arab inscriptions after 690 AD. The formula Muhammad rasul Allah (Muhammad is Gods prophet) occurs first on an Arab-Sassanian coin from 690 AD, struck in Damascus. More importantly, the first appearance of the Triple Confession of Faith including the Tawhid (God is one), Muhammad rasul Allah (Muhammad is his prophet) and rasul Allah wa-abduhu (the human nature of Jesus) is in Abd al-Maliks inscription at the Dome of the Rock, dated 691 AD. Before this the Muslim confession of faith cannot be substantiated.
Hence, for a full 60 years after the death of Muhammad, the official Arab religious confession did not include Muhammad in its set formulae. Instead it revealed a monotheistic belief, developing Judaeo-Christian concepts in a particular literary style. When the Muhammadan creed is introduced, during the Marwanid period (after 684 AD) it appears almost overnight as the only form of official religious declaration in formal documents. It seems that Muhammads elevation to the status of universal prophet did not occur until the late 7th century, long after his death.
This suggests the Quran we now read is not the same as that which was supposedly collated and canonized in 650 AD by Uthman. The earliest quranic manuscripts in our possession today (dating from 790 AD) would appear to reflect an evolution in the quranic text. This challenges the Muslim contention that the Quran contains the original and exact revelation of Allah, as recited by Muhammad and hence strikes at the very heart of the Islamic faith. The Quran has in the past been protected by a kind of doctrinal embargo- but can Muslims ignore the mounting tide of evidence to the contrary?
(Copyright © 1999 by Peter Saunders based on other content from Jay Smith.