Behind the Myths: A Review
What do Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad have in common? Well besides being the acknowledged founders of the three great monotheistic religions, none of them ever existed. They are each a fictional creation constructed out of myths, rumors, traditions, and hearsay cobbled together by priests, scribes, or ulema decades or, in some cases, centuries after their supposed lifetimes. This is according to John Pickard, who has done the research and marshalled the evidence to substantiate his claims. A working-class scholar, journalist, and the author of Behind the Myths, the Foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Pickard spent many years scouring the latest scholarship and poring over translations of ancient texts in an attempt to cut through the mythology surrounding the origins of these three religions.1 Christian scriptures, the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, the hadiths, and the associated literature have imposed such a tight grip on the popular conception of this history and much of the accepted scholarly interpretation, that the actual history is generally unknown and stubbornly inaccessible.
Christian ideology holds sway over much of American politics, Israeli policies are still influenced by ancient mythological precepts recorded in the Bible, and the Muslim world is torn by war and atrocities carried out in the name of an Islam based on manufactured historical events. Although John Pickard writes as an “infidel for other infidels,” believing that no amount of argument will convince a true believer otherwise, I think it is deathly important that the true nature of religious belief be disseminated, not only for the benefit of atheists, but to aid in the liberation of fundamentalist believers oppressed by thought systems that leave them at the mercy of clerical charlatans and manipulative politicians. Pickard’s work can certainly aid in any possible awakening from fundamentalist delusions.
Of course, each of the three faith-based religions has millions of devoted followers and learned religious professionals supporting the traditional versions presented in official texts and doctrines. Many if not most of these adherents believe these texts to be the word of God, never to be doubted or questioned. Thus for every argument and piece of evidence that challenges the traditional view, reams of counter-argument are produced to oppose them, often along with unfounded allegations meant to defame their authors. In some cases threats and overt acts of violence have been used to silence revisionist historians.
Anyone interested in discovering the real early history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam owes a debt to John Pickard for doing the heavy lifting. He has reviewed the work of hundreds of historians, archaeologists, numismatists, paleographists, and philologists, and arrived at his unorthodox conclusions after an intense and careful scrutiny of the evidence, wading through countless arguments of both scholars and theologians. The result is a detailed, well documented, and exhaustive examination of the best and most recent research that has been done in the field, attempting to answer each argument made against his conclusions. Pickard is also a lifelong socialist whose work is inspired by Marx, Engels, and Karl Kautsky, the three guiding lights of 19th-century historical materialism. Thus he tries not only to present a picture of what actually happened but also to place events within their historical settings and connect them to their underlying social causes, taking to heart the famous line from the Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” We are reminded that the kingdoms and empires of antiquity and the high cultures they produced were based on the super-exploitation of innumerable slaves, peasants, and artisans who toiled their short lives away under conditions of extreme hardship. The wealthy and educated elites that their labor supported were constantly forced to suppress uprisings and ferret out rebellious movements. Their search for effective means of keeping the masses in place played no small role in the origins and development of monotheism.
Pickard establishes this from the beginning of the first part of his book, on the origins of Judaism. As with each of the three studies, he begins with a review of the official origin story as presented in the scriptural and liturgical texts, moves on to an historical examination of the texts themselves and then, through the known evidence gleaned from contemporary sources and archaeology, he constructs the best-case scenario for what actually happened. In some cases the true story may be forever lost in the mists of time, but in many cases the evidence presents a clear picture of the historical reality.
The amount of detail presented to explain the construction of the texts and support his version of the true history is too great to present fairly in a limited space. The history itself covers more than a millennium and is extremely detailed. Pickard’s book in effect offers a course in the history of the ancient Middle East from the 2nd millennium BCE until the 3rd century of the Muslim era. Here I can only sketch an outline of the overall history and the key events within it.
The sacred texts of Judaism, like those of Christianity and Islam, are taken to be historical accounts of actual events. In reality, however, they are fictional accounts constructed for particular social and political reasons long after the supposed events took place. This can be a jarring revelation to devotees of the religion as well as to the average reader who has accepted the official version as historical fact. The creation story and the account of Noah and the flood presented in the Bible, for example, are versions of myths that were common to many of the peoples of the ancient Near East. Events as central to modern Judaism as the deliverance from Egypt and God’s handing down of the Ten Commandments correspond to elements of Babylonian tradition. The “historical” parts of the first five books of the Bible are nearly all myth, with no archaeological evidence for events such as the flight from Egypt by Hebrew slaves led by Moses, the forty years the Hebrews traveled the Sinai wilderness, or the conquest of Canaan by King Joshua. Rather than occurring at the times recorded in the Bible, 2000 to 1000 BCE, these stories were written down centuries later, as can be seen from the place names used, many of which did not exist before the 7th century BCE.
Physical evidence suggests that the early Israelites did not come down from Egypt and conquer Canaan but were themselves Canaanites. Canaan was a province of Bronze Age Egypt made up of city-states ruled by governors appointed by Egypt. As Egyptian control on the area weakened at the end of the Bronze Age, the local class structure, with an opulent ruling class overseeing a huge caste of farmers, began to fracture. Out of this milieu arose people referred to as the Apiru, rebels on the fringes of Canaanite society, waging a type of guerilla warfare. It is to the Apiru that Pickard attributes the origins of an Israelite culture. Evidence of Bronze Age city-states ruled over by Egypt comes from a trove of cuneiform tablets of correspondence from these city states to the Pharaoh between 1380 – 30 BCE. They record the “shifting military alliances between Egypt and the Hittites to the north.” They tell the story of how a formerly subjected people in the border region between two dueling empires overthrew their puppet ruling class, and established independent settlements in the hill country of Canaan in opposition to the Canaanite city-states. These revolutionary settlements, with somewhat egalitarian social relations, gave rise to the Yahweh cult that would evolve into the God of Israel.
As the Bible was not compiled for five or six centuries after these developments, they appear in biblical history filtered through folktales and oral traditions. Over time, the egalitarian hill settlements developed into a state like the one they had opposed originally, with greater class divisions and a full-time priesthood whose own interests were eventually given biblical expression. Archaeological evidence shows that two states, Israel and Judah, existed at different times, but there is no evidence for the existence of an earlier United Kingdom of David or for the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, which at this time was still a mere hill town. Yahweh may have been the chief god of these Israelites, but he was not the only god. Inscriptions from Sinai have been found that refer to Yahweh and his consort Asherah, a fertility goddess.
Over the next centuries Israel was conquered by a succession of empires, first by Assyria, then by Babylonia, and finally by Persia. The Assyrians and Babylonians murdered or exiled much of the conquered populace, as was typical of the policies of ethnic cleansing prevalent at the time. The Persians brought the elite class and the priests back from their Babylonian exile and established them as a puppet state in Judah to the south of Israel. The new Persian-sponsored elite imposed itself on the indigenous population of Judah and the new Israel claimed legitimacy on the basis of the recently completed Deuteronomic history and other texts that served “to create the fiction of Yahwism as the traditional faith of a previously ‘unified’ Israelite people.” By the end of the Babylonian exile Yahwism had developed from a cult to the full-blown state religion of the Persian-sponsored Jewish elite. It was at this time, in the mid-5th century BCE, that the caste of the Temple priesthood asserted itself and the Temple, which had been rebuilt in Jerusalem, was made the center of religious and political power in Judah. Judah remained a small puppet state of the Persian Empire with Israel/Samaria to the north and Galilee further north still, each with its own temple to Yahweh and its own priestly castes, uncontrolled by the Judaic elite, who nonetheless deemed the Temple in Jerusalem the only true site for the worship of Yahweh.
It was at this time that Yahweh worship began to take on the aspect of modern monotheism, as Yahweh morphed from a principal god among several to the only God. This may have reflected the push by the Judaic elite and the growing mass of priests, retainers, and support staff around the Temple to establish their prominence. The reluctance of the population to support this newly installed ruling class, and the additional material burden it imposed on them in the form of taxes and fees, may be gleaned from the continuation of cultic practices that were repeatedly railed against in the Bible’s books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
By the time of Alexander’s invasion in the 3rd century BCE, this temple–state was firmly entrenched and the canonical books of the Hebrew Bible had taken on their final form. After the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, his empire devolved into rival states ruled by his former generals and their descendants. Jerusalem, on the border between the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt and the Seleucid Empire to the east, changed hands many times in the following century, as these two empires fought no fewer than six wars in the 3rd – 2nd centuries BCE. Compared with the two previous centuries of Persian rule, this was an era of great stress for the Judean population as cities, villages, crops, and thousands of people were destroyed by the exigencies of war. The Jewish elite and the bloated Temple apparatus, however, continued to enjoy privileges and tax exemptions, so long as they followed the policies of their imperial overlords. They also became more and more Hellenized under the rule of these Greek states, adopting the accoutrements of the imperial culture and further exacerbating the divide between the common people and upper classes with their priestly bureaucracy.
As the Seleucid Empire, coming under increasing pressure from the growing power of Rome, sought to extract greater tribute from its dependencies, discontent in Judea mounted, leading to the revolt of the Maccabees in 167 BCE, a guerilla war that in turn led to the establishment of an independent Jewish kingdom under the rule of the Hasmonean dynasty. The Jewish state grew in size, absorbing Samaria and Galilee to the north and Edom and Moab to the south, becoming a minor power in the Middle East with the backing of Rome. The Hasmoneans forcibly converted the areas they conquered, creating a larger area of Jewish faith than had existed previously. The Temple of Jerusalem was the center of the faith and a pilgrimage destination.
Despite its beginnings as a revolt against the Seleucids, the ruling class under the Hasmoneans, and later under the Herodian dynasty, adopted Hellenistic trappings and developed into an elite class of priest-rulers more and more divorced from the common people and very much a client state of Rome. Much of what is known of this period is derived from contemporary writings like that of Josephus, a Pharisee who wrote at the time of the great Jewish revolt of 66 CE, and from the Dead Sea Scrolls—the treasure trove of manuscripts hidden in the Qumran Caves in the 1st century BCE by Essenes, communities of pious Jews, and discovered two thousand years later. From these sources we learn of the conditions and events leading up to one of the most significant events in Jewish history, the revolt against Roman rule, and the resultant destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
This was a time of great social unrest, with widespread banditry and burgeoning apocalyptic and messianic religious movements throughout the countryside. Josephus refers to the proliferation of bandits, such as Eleazar, who led a band of brigands in the mountains, and a robber captain in Galilee by the name of Jesus. Brigands could survive in the countryside for years because they had the support of the peasantry, who were increasingly pressed by the wealthy landowners residing in Jerusalem, the demands of a large priestly caste, and by the mounting tribute exacted by Rome. In this milieu, proto-Christian messianic groups flourished. Their apocalyptic writing was the revolutionary literature of its day. Josephus writes of many self-proclaimed messiahs and false prophets, whom he saw as inciting irresponsible behavior and fomenting revolution among the lower classes. His perspective as a wealthy Pharisee, Pickard points out, did not enable him to recognize the social cause of this revolutionary activity, the severe exploitation of the peasants and urban poor.
After decades of this high level of unrest and lawlessness, full-scale revolution broke out in 66 CE with the uprising of the Jewish population of Judah, the expulsion of the troops of King Agrippa from Jerusalem and the destruction of the Roman garrison there. After a long, bloody siege the city was retaken and ransacked by Roman forces in 70 CE. The defenders were massacred, the Temple was destroyed, and tens of thousands of Jews were enslaved or crucified. Pickard quotes extensively from Richard Horsley whose account of the revolt, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, portrays it as essentially a peasant revolt against their increasing economic burden.2
The destruction of Jerusalem and the razing of the Temple was a significant turning point in Jewish history. Instead of the Temple, with its army of priests and retainers, synagogues took on the role of centers of Jewish communal and religious life. Rabbis, previously teachers of scripture, now became leaders of the community and practitioners of new liturgical services on the Sabbath.
Messianic ideas continued to flourish, along with unsuccessful revolts against the Romans, among the dispersed Jewish people, with uprisings in Libya, Cyprus, and Alexandria in 115 CE leading to widespread reduction of the Jewish population in those regions. Another revolt of the Jews of Judea in 132 – 135 CE, the Bar Kokhba revolt, resulted in a ban of all Jews from living in Jerusalem, which then became a gentile city. Rabbinical Judaism continued to develop among the Jews dispersed around the Roman Empire. (It is estimated that the Jewish population in the first centuries of the Christian era was about 10% of the total empire.) The history and development of the Jewish population was an essential feature in the origin and growth of Christianity.
As he did with Judaism, Pickard begins his treatment of Christianity with an examination of the texts on which the religion is founded. He points out some of the problems scholars have had in dating the works and distinguishing original material from later changes made through error or forgery. The earliest-written Christian texts were some of the Epistles of St. Paul (the seven or eight that are attributed to him, as opposed to others considered forgeries), the Gospel of Mark, from which the Gospels of Luke and Matthew are taken, and the Gospel of Thomas, a non-canonical text discovered in modern times. The earlier the text, the less biographical information it contains about the life of Jesus. The authentic Epistles of Paul tell us nothing of the life or ministry of Jesus; nothing of his birth in Bethlehem, his parents, his miracles or his crucifixion and resurrection. The earliest Gospel, that of Mark, has less on the life of Jesus than do the later texts of Matthew, Luke, and John. All of the Gospels were written anywhere from 50 to over 100 years after the supposed events they relate. Pickard understandably takes this as evidence of the life story of Jesus having been created and added to in the later decades of the 1st century. In all the contemporary writings there is no mention of the Jesus who supposedly moved through the country working miracles, preaching to large crowds, and eventually drawing the wrath of Roman officials and Jewish leaders—no mention in the copious records of Jerusalem or Rome, in the extensive writings of Josephus, or in those of Philo, and nothing in all the messianic and apocryphal literature of the time, although there is much about the social upheaval, landless peasants, bands of robbers, itinerant preachers, and religious demagogues endemic to 1st-century Palestine.
These actual historic conditions—the turmoil and religious rebellion that preceded the Jewish revolt of 66 CE—are a far cry from the picture presented in the Gospels of a more or less bucolic Palestine, in which Jesus wandered about the countryside with his disciples preaching to the populace while reciting parables, performing miracles, and curing the sick. Rather, it was a boiling cauldron of revolt against Rome, the Herodian client state, and the Temple priesthood. It was out of this fractious milieu that various Joshua cults arose.
“Jesus” is the Latinized version of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which was a quite common name at that time. The two most famous Joshuas in the Hebrew Bible are associated with salvation, and the name was used as a generic term for salvation by messianic cults, who transformed the idea of a messiah who will establish the Kingdom of God into the idea of a messiah who has already come. It was apparently from one of the many Jewish sects of the time that the proto-Christian Joshua/Jesus cult emerged. There was a definite correspondence between this early Jewish Christianity and the Essenes, who formed communal societies, administered to the poor, and railed against the wealthy. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, messianic and apocalyptic movements fanned out from Palestine with the dispersed Jewish population throughout the Roman Empire. As their literature flourished, some writings made it into the canon of Christianity, but many, although widespread and popular at the time, were excluded by later church fathers. The earliest of these writings, like the earliest parts of the New Testament, do not mention any facts about the life of Jesus, but speak only of “The Lord” who has redeemed mankind—“The Son of Man” and “Christ,” the Greek word meaning “the anointed one” or “Messiah.”
From the various Joshua cults one strain emerged in the decades after the fall of Jerusalem to become the Christianity of later years, with the Apostle James at the center of the Jerusalem community and Paul one of a group of itinerant proselytizers spreading the word around the empire. There had been for many years an interest in Judaism among non-Jews in the Roman Empire, an attraction to what was seen as an exotic and ancient cult. Jewish services were often attended by large groups of non-Jews known as “God-Fearers,” who did not follow the dietary restrictions or submit to circumcision but otherwise followed Jewish rituals. It was partly among this population that Paul preached, converting many to his brand of Christianity, one that did not demand following the Jewish law. This led to a split between the adherents of James and others who insisted on following Jewish traditions, and those who, like Paul, preached a form of what Pickard refers to as “Judaism lite.”
He reminds us that the Jewish population was at this time 10 – 12% of the Empire’s total population, and a much higher percentage in the Near East. Jews had been actively proselytizing for generations and even before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, there were colonies of Jews in most of the major cities of the Empire, where, since the reign of Augustus, they had been granted privileges not accorded to other groups, such as exemptions from sacrifices to civic gods. At the same time that the proto-Christian Joshua/Jesus sects were gaining converts among the gentiles, other Jewish sects were doing the same in a milieu of messianic and revolutionary offshoots. The community support afforded by the synagogues and the social welfare they provided for the poor and needy were fairly unique in the ancient world and were a primary source of the attraction to Judaism and later to its Christian spin-off. Paul’s version of Christianity, which did not require following the rigors of Jewish law, was more popular in the end and won out over both Judaism itself and the Jewish version of the Joshua/Jesus sect led by Peter and James in Jerusalem. It was only after decades that the generic, messianic Joshua became the Jesus figure on whom a cult was centered. The first biography of Jesus, in the gospel of Mark, was most likely produced in the early 2nd century and elaborated by later writers in order to make the message more attractive to the Hellenized world: many of the elements of Jesus’s biography were lifted from Greek and Roman mythology; like many of their heroes, and like the Roman Emperors themselves, he was eventually made into a god.
Pickard focuses on the social conditions that led to the rise of Christianity and transformed it from the egalitarian communalism of the Essenes and early messianic sects, with their criticism of the wealthy and sympathy for the poor, to the more hierarchical structure of appointed Bishops and Deacons that had taken root by the middle of the 2nd century. He sets this story in the crises facing the Roman Empire, as a society based on slave labor replenished by ceaseless war reached its limits. With the support and welfare of a church community and the promise of a heavenly afterlife, Christianity flourished among the slaves, soldiers, and the Lumpenproletariat of the cities, as well as women of all classes. Its growing bureaucracy and rising political power, however, soon became an attractive career path for higher classes.
It was in these first few centuries that Christianity fashioned its official canon out of the plethora of sectarian literature. Much of this material, later repressed by the Church, was unknown or known only from fragments mentioned by Church Fathers until recent discoveries, such as those of the Gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi. From these finds we have learned that the first to fourth centuries in the Roman world harbored a turbulent hodgepodge of messianic sects, mystery cults and religious innovation, intermingling Jewish, Greek, and Christian liturgy, rituals, and theology. This heterogeneous development was quite at odds with the linear progression that later church history proposed. Gradually, the bishops established a more hierarchical structure and imposed uniformity by outlawing early theological movements they deemed heretical, such as Marcionism, which attempted to remove all references to the Old Testament from the gospels, and Montanism, an early Charismatic movement.
The fight over which ideas were acceptable or not was based less on the merits of theological points than on power struggles among the different Church patriarchs in Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. The Bishop of Rome established supremacy by the 3rd century but eventually each of these areas developed their own brand of Christianity: Catholic in Rome, Eastern Orthodox in Constantinople, Coptic in Alexandria, and Nestorian in Antioch and further east into Mesopotamia. These divisions were to have a significant influence on later events in the Near East, particularly as regards the origins of Islam.
As the church expanded in size, its influence within Roman society likewise grew. Its ecclesiastical structure mirrored that of the Roman bureaucracy, in some cases replacing former Roman officials. The church’s distribution of alms to the poor, widows, and orphans took on greater importance as the crises of Roman society intensified. The harsh conditions faced by legionaries made the Christian promise of an afterlife attractive to soldiers. By the time of the Emperor Constantine large numbers of soldiers had converted to Christianity. Constantine’s decision to decriminalize Christianity, and the subsequent declaration of the Emperor Theodosius making it the sole authorized religion of the Empire, transformed the Christian church into a wealthy arm of the state and its bishops into government functionaries, while other religions were suppressed to varying degrees. By the time of the Arab conquests in the 7th century, the Middle East and much of the Arabian Peninsula had long been Christian, although there was still a large Jewish population dispersed throughout the Roman world, including in Arabia.
The traditional story of the origin of Islam and the Arab conquest comes from scribes or ulema writing 80 to 300 years after the events described. Yet historians have accepted this story, despite the total lack of archaeological evidence for much of the narrative and—as with the life of Jesus—the absence of contemporary mention of Muhammad. The Quran, believed by the faithful to be the word of God, does not reference the life of Muhammad; the stories about his life and times and about the battles and conquests of Muhammad and his successors have been gathered from traditional accounts, collected in thousands of hadiths, written towards the end of the Umayyad Caliphate in the 700s and during the Abbasid dynasty after 750. They are the original source of traditions pertaining to the life of the prophet and the early history of the Arab empire, telling the story of the life of Muhammad, his birth in the Arabian city of Mecca, his revelations from God, and his flight to Medina in 622. In this traditional history, Muhammad, after preaching against idol worship and paganism, establishes a new religion, Islam and, leads his followers in battle against their enemies. Infused with their new faith, the army of Muhammad overcomes attacks from Mecca and in a series of battles gains control of all Arabia, uniting the Arabs under his leadership. After the death of Muhammad in 632, his followers, led by their Caliph, conquer much of the former territory of the Persians and the Romans (referred to as Byzantines by historians from this point on). They soon establish an Islamic empire stretching across the Middle East, Mesopotamia, North Africa, and Hispania.
Revisionist scholarship began questioning this history as early as the 19th century. Pickard reviews the work of these historians, beginning with the Hungarian Islamist Ignác Goldziher, who in 1890 was one of the first to date the hadiths to generations after the events they portray. In the 1940s, Joseph Schacht found that while each hadith has a supposed chain of transmission (isnad) back to the Prophet or his companions, they were mostly inventions reflecting the political climate at the time they were devised. Schacht also traced the evolution of Islamic law and found that it was not until the 750s, over 100 years from the traditional date of Muhammad’s death, that legal authority changed its basis from custom and practice to traditions of the Successors of the Prophet, and another 90 years before legal schools arose based on traditions of the Prophet himself and his companions. Citing the work of revisionist historians John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone, Suliman Bashear, and other contemporary scholars, Pickard traces an alternative narrative to the orthodox Islamic history, one that—unlike the traditional version—is supported by extensive evidence and backed by contemporary accounts.
Because the archeological record is so sparse, it can be difficult to tell what actually happened—but it is far easier to determine what did not happen. There is now a consensus among revisionist scholars that there was not a massive Islam-inspired invasion emanating from Arabia in the early 7th century, but rather a gradual coalescence of an Arab state centered in the area of present day Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Israel—an area that already had a significant population of Arabs, most of whom were Christians. There is also strong evidence that Islam as it is understood today did not arrive full-blown out of Arabia, but rather coalesced from existing Christian, Jewish, and Arabian monotheisms at the very end of the 7th century, not reaching its recognized form until the second half of the 8th century.
Pickard provides historical background for the birth of Islam by describing conditions in the Levant in the late 6th century, when the Persian (Sassanid) Empire was battling the Roman (Byzantine) Empire for control of the region. 622 CE, the year of the Hijrah, the traditional date of Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina and the start of the Muslim calendar, is also the date of a crushing defeat of the Sassanids by the Byzantines that led to the complete collapse of the Sassanid Empire and a period of raiding and plundering, with various warlords vying for control.
Arabs had been migrating into southern Syria and eastern Iraq since the early 3rd century. By the time of the Arab conquest in the 630s, this Arab population had been Christianized for several centuries. (The earliest Arabic inscription, from 512 CE, is in a Christian church in Aleppo.) A large collection of papyri, written in Arabic and discovered in what is now Israel at Nessana in the 1930s, provides clear evidence that the Arab Empire arose not from an invasion out of Arabia but as a decades-long takeover.
Taxes, now flowing to Damascus, continued to be collected by the Christian church. Pickard points out that there was also a strong thread of Judaism combining with Arab Christian traditions to form the distinctive brand of Arab monotheism. He draws on the work of Volker Popp, who noted that some of the earliest coins from the Arab era bear the sign of the cross along with the name of Mu’awiya, the first of the Umayyad caliphs. In the fluid religious milieu that existed, Christian, Jewish, and Arab monotheisms were all drawn upon when, in the 1st century of Arab rule, the new rulers felt the need to develop a distinctive Arab theology and liturgy, in order to differentiate themselves and their new state from the empires they had earlier fought for and now replaced.
It was Mu’awiya’s grandson, the Caliph Abd Al-Malik, who established a strong central state, promoted the use of Arabic in place of the earlier Syriac and Aramaic, and began the process of developing Islam as a distinct religion, drawing its texts from those Christian and Jewish writings that had been translated from Syriac, Greek, and Hebrew into Arabic. These early translations from Syriac Christianity developed into the core of the Quran. Abd Al-Malik built the first great monument to the new Arab religion, the Dome of the Rock, on the site of the former Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Its octogonal shape distinguishes it from all later Islamic mosques, evidence, according to Pickard, that the new Arab religion had not yet coalesced into an Islam that would be recognizable today. The second major religious building of the Arab empire, the Great Mosque of Damascus, completed in 715 CE was similarly constructed on the site of a Greek cathedral and incorporated the reliquary of John the Baptist. As Pickard suggests, this utilization of Jewish and Christian sites for key mosques concretizes the foundation of Arab monotheism on the older religions.
Just as there is no contemporary evidence for the existence of Jesus, so too there is no mention in any writings, records, or archeological inscriptions of a Prophet of the Arabs before the late 7th century. The one exception, the inscription on the Dome of the Rock that mentions Muhammad is interpreted by Volker Popp, Christoph Luxenberg, and others as not a proper noun, but an adjective meaning “praiseworthy,” and likely referring to Jesus.
Thus, rather than arising in Arabia, with the teachings of the Prophet inspiring Arab armies to flow north to conquer the Persians and Greeks, Islam developed during the 100 years when an indigenous Christian Arab population established itself as the ruling force in the territory of those collapsing empires. It was not until the Caliphate of Abd Al-Malik that, in the process of establishing and strengthening the Arab identity within their newly conquered lands, this pious form of Arab monotheism adopted the Quran as its official holy book and Muhammad as its Prophet and messenger of God—in order to distinguish itself from its imperial rival in Constantinople.
The Umayyad Caliphate, born out of civil war, reestablished itself 20 years later in a second civil war and collapsed when the Abbasid Caliphate overthrew it in 750 CE. Pickard spends two chapters laying out the causes of the Abbasid revolution, including an oppressive tax structure that favored Arab elites over the conquered peoples and resistance by conquered Arab rulers and populations to conversion from Christianity to the developing Arab religion. In these early years of the Arab empire, the primitive form of Islam was still the private property of the Arab ruling class, but a growing group of the more fortunate among the conquered peoples were able to become clients of the new elite by adopting Arab names, manners, and customs. Known as Mawali, they willingly converted to the new faith, although the conquerors did not always welcome them. These new converts did not receive the same rights and benefits of the Arab rulers and their discontent became a factor in the growing opposition to Umayyad rule.
This opposition was reflected by the group of religious scholars and writers who, at the end of the 7th century, began to compose the hadiths from which Islam developed. It was at this time that problems related to land ownership and inheritance were debated in terms of religion and tradition, and at this time also that the practice began of Islamic jurists writing down and projecting back in time references to the Quran or to Muhammad and his companions to justify their own views, which reflected the interests of a particular social segment. Given the different interests involved, these manufactured accounts of the life of Muhammad and his early followers were often contradictory and confusing in content. Yet they presented a comprehensive narrative of an Arab conquest based on the miraculous intervention of God through his Prophet and Messenger, a narrative justifying the rule of the Arab ethnic minority over the conquered.
Opposition to the Damascus regime of the Umayyads grew throughout the early 8th century, fueled by Mawali resentment of the denial of full citizenship. Discriminatory policies also inflamed divisions within the landed aristocracy. Opposition was particularly acute in the eastern sections of the empire in Iraq and Iran, where a new caste of religious scholars, the ulema, began to develop a tradition that idealized a romantic Bedouin past—to such an extent that “Iranians became more Arab than the Arabs.” It was from these traditions that the legends of Ali and Shi’ism developed, reflecting class upheaval in the last years of the Umayyad regime, and the opposition that was to result in the Abbasid revolution—the most important event in Arab history. It was the Shia movement that coalesced among the Iranians into a religious force that fueled a revolution against the Syrian dynasty. But, as Pickard points out, it was not Shi’ism that created the revolution, but the revolution that created Shi’ism.
Mawali, slaves, and soldiers formed the backbone of the revolt that began in Iran, led by a former weaver, Abu Muslim. But as soon as the Abbasid forces consolidated their power, the hopes of the downtrodden revolutionaries were crushed, and new governors and officials established their control over the same sources of revenue as their predecessors. The Abbasids soon abandoned their Shia trappings and reestablished Sunni Islam at the court in their new capital, Baghdad, and at the center of government. It was at this time that the large collections of hadiths were first gathered together and published. The views of the Abbasid rulers are reflected in these hadiths, while other hadiths that illuminated the Shia traditions around Ali were kept alive in Iran and the eastern parts of the empire. The Abbasids completed the process begun by the Umayyads of building Islam into a religion that could compete with the imperial religion of the Byzantines, and rival the traditional monotheisms of Judaism and Christianity. The ruling Abbasid elite wanted to establish themselves not only as the political rulers of the empire, but as the representatives of God on earth. Pickard quotes Ignác Goldziher: “Now religion was not only a matter of interest to the state, it was the state’s chief business.”
We see, then, that the history of Islam is a continuation of the evolution of the theocratic state. The theocracy established in Jerusalem in the mid-5th century BCE as a Temple state led eventually to the adoption of Christianity, an offshoot of Judaism, by the Roman Empire. Once the entire empire was converted to some form of monotheism, rival priesthoods established dueling heresies ruling over their own territories. By the time of the Arab conquest, monotheism was universally accepted as an essential element of imperial rule. What had begun centuries before as an obscure cult of the god Yahweh had grown into a powerful cultural mechanism for social control by elites over the slaves, peasants, and artisans, who were the source of their wealth and power.
It is essential to remember that the sacred texts of every religion belong to the clerics that control them. Each religion feels that it owns its story—and in a sense it does—but this is not the case for history, which belongs to those who produced it, the broader human race. The mastery of history is of vital importance to all of us. History is the only laboratory we have for the scientific study of human society, and is therefore an essential tool for figuring out new social configurations—something that we must do if there is to be any hope of coping with our current crises. The history of the origins of the three great monotheisms should be the common possession of humanity, not the exclusive property of any one religion or clerical authority.
History writing like Pickard’s demonstrates the ways in which social crises have manifested themselves across social spectrums. Institutions that have long played important roles in a given society break down or are transformed suddenly. In the current crises of the world’s capitalist society, the major institutions are being stressed in just this way as nationalism, organized religion, and public education face increasing pressure to fulfill the roles assigned to them in a rapidly developing social, environmental, and economic crisis. The guardians of power continue to use these institutions in novel formations, in attempts to retain their function as social control mechanisms, even as the conditions in which they originated and evolved continue to change. It is only if these institutions can be transformed to meet the requirements of international cooperation, universal human rights, and a democracy that extends to all the social relations that organize our human interactions and reproduce our daily life, that we can hope to survive as a human civilization. This transformation requires full access to knowledge, science, and reason, and implies liberation from belief systems that impose internal and external hindrances to such access. To understand the origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as human-created, institutionalized thought systems is an important step in this direction; John Pickard has provided a valuable aid to this understanding.
- John Pickard, Behind the Myths, the Foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2013).
- Richard A. Horsley, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (London: Bloomsbury, 1999).
ContributorPeter St. Clair
PETER ST. CLAIR was born and raised in Brooklyn and served thirty-three years on the Somerville, Massachusetts Fire Department before retiring as a Deputy Chief in 2010.