Were the Arab Conquests a Myth?

by Emmet Scott (September 2013)

In his recently published Did Muhammad Exist? Robert Spencer, quoting some of the most eminent contemporary Middle Eastern scholars and archaeologists, presented a wide variety of evidence suggesting that no Arabian prophet named Muhammad ever existed. He showed for example that the first Arab coins to mention Muhammad, from the time of the Ummayad Caliph Mu'awiya (d. 680), display the figure of a man holding a cross. Since muhammad means “honored one” or “chosen one” in the Syriac and Arabic languages, it is highly likely that the “Muhammad” shown on these coins was none other than Jesus. This is made all the more likely by other evidence, presented by linguists such as Christoph Luxenberg and Günter Lüling, suggesting that the Qur'an began its existence as a Christian devotional text and that it was originally written in the Syriac rather than the Arabic language. The mistranslation of the book into Arabic resulted, said Luxenberg, in almost one third of the Qur'an making no sense whatsoever and the appearance of such strange teachings as the promise of 72 virgins to Muslims who enter heaven, instead of 72 grapes, as it would read in Syriac.

The evidence of coins, combined with the linguistic clues in the Qur'an, completely undermine the whole of early Islamic historiography, and suggest very strongly that the life of Muhammad, as presented in Islamic tradition, is a complete fiction.

It is no secret of course that the Qur'an is profoundly biblical, and this has only emphasized its Christian origins. Günter Lüling has postulated that it was originally a lectionary of the Ebionites or Nazarites, a Judaizing sect which was declared heretical at the Council of Nicea in 325 and thereafter disappeared from history. Most of its adherents are believed to have migrated into Arabia, and there is no question that Ebionitism was the main, or perhaps the only, Christian group with a wide following in Arabia during the fourth to sixth centuries. Indeed its influence in the Arabian Peninsula during these centuries was profound. The Ebionites accepted Jesus as the Messiah but rejected the notion that he was the son of God. They regarded Jesus as a faithful Jew and follower of the Mosaic Law, and they themselves practised circumcision, as well as the various other rules and regulations stipulated in that Law. Aside from accepting Jesus as a prophet, however, this Arab Christianity had almost nothing in common with the Christianity espoused in Constantinople, Antioch, or Alexandria; though it had very much in common with what later became known as Islam. Indeed, we would perhaps be justified in describing this Arab Christianity as “proto-Islam,” and it would appear that the first “Islam” to appear archaeologically, as evinced in the monuments of Mu'awiya, was precisely this Arab version of Christianity.

As Spencer notes, there is no mention of Muhammad, the Qur'an, or even Islam, until around 700 or shortly thereafter. In Did Muhammad Exist? Spencer argues that the whole myth of Muhammad, as a separate person from Jesus, was invented by Arab propagandists between 700 and 730 in order to unify and justify the massive Arab Empire that then existed.

Although Spencer does not go into the question of how that empire came about in the first place, there are very good grounds for believing that it was not originally an Arab creation at all, and that the invention of an Arabian prophet as the spiritual fountain-head of this empire, was motivated by a desire to justify what was essentially the Arab takeover of an imperial machine that was not theirs.

The two greatest powers in the Middle East at the beginning of the seventh century were Byzantium and Sassanian Persia. In 602 the Persian king Chosroes (Khosrau) II went to war against the Byzantine usurper Phocas, who had earlier murdered Chosroes' friend and father-in-law the Emperor Maurice. The war did not end with the death of Phocas (610), but continued into the reign of Heraclius, and was to prove ruinous to the Byzantines. Jerusalem was taken by the Persians in 614, a disaster which was quickly followed by the loss of most of Asia Minor between 616 and 618 and Egypt in 619/20. Chosroes II now equalled the achievements of his Persian predecessors in the sixth century BC, with his forces marching across North Africa to annex the Libyan province of Cyrenaea in 621. The story told by the Byzantines of how Heraclius, in the face of this overwhelming calamity, rallied his armies and reconquered all the lost territories – only to lose the same territories again to the Arabs from 632 onwards – has a ring of fantasy about it, and historians have long viewed it with scepticism. Certainly there is no doubting the power and influence of the Persians in this epoch.

The earliest Islam, as revealed by archaeology, is in fact profoundly Persian; and indeed the first trace of Islam recovered in excavation are coins of Sassanian Persian design bearing the image either of Chosroes II (d. 628) or of his grandson Yazdegerd III (d. 651). On one side we find the portrait of the king, on the reverse the picture of a Zoroastrian Fire Temple. The only thing that marks these out as Islamic is the legend besm Allah (in the name of God), written in the Syriac script, beside the Fire Temple. (The Arabic script did not then exist). According to the Encyclopdaedia Iranica:

“These coins usually have a portrait of a Sasanian emperor with an honorific inscription and various ornaments. To the right of the portrait is a ruler’s or governor’s name written in Pahlavi script. On the reverse there is a Zoroastrian fire altar with attendants on either side. At the far left is the year of issue expressed in words, and at the right is the place of minting. In all these features, the Arab-Sasanian coinages are similar to Sasanian silver drahms. The major difference between the two series is the presence of some additional Arabic inscription on most coins issued under Muslim authority, but some coins with no Arabic can still be attributed to the Islamic period. The Arab-Sasanian coinages are not imitations, since they were surely designed and manufactured by the same people as the late Sasanian issues, illustrating the continuity of administration and economic life in the early years of Muslim rule in Iran.” (“Arab-Sasanian Coins,” Encyclopdaedia Iranica, at www.iranica.com/articles/arab-sasanian-coins)

Note the remark: “The Arab-Sasanian coinages are not imitations,” but were “designed and manufactured by the same people as the late Sasanian issues.” We note also that the date provided on these artefacts is written in Persian script, and it would appear that those who minted the coins, native Persians, did not understand Arabic. We hear that under the Arabs the mints were “evidently allowed to go on as before,” and that there are “a small number of coins indistinguishable from the drahms of the last emperor, Yazdegerd III, dated during his reign but after the Arab capture of the cities of issue. It was only when Yazdegerd died (A.D. 651) [in the time of the Ummayad Caliph Mu'awiya] that some mark of Arab authority was added to the coinage.” (Ibid.)  Even more puzzling is the fact that the most common coins during the first decades of Islamic rule were those of Yazdegerd's predecessor Chosroes II, and many of these too bear the Arabic inscription (written however, as we saw, in the Syriac script) besm Allah. Now, it is just conceivable that invading Arabs might have issued slightly amended coins of the last Sassanian monarch, Yazdegerd III, but why continue to issue money in the name of a previous Sassanian king (Chosroes II), one who, supposedly, had died ten years earlier? This surely stretches credulity.

The Persian-looking Islamic coins are of course believed to date from the time of Umar (d. 664), one of the “Rightly-guided Caliphs” who succeeded Muhammad and supposedly conquered what became the Islamic Empire. Yet it has to be stated that there is no direct archaeological evidence for the existence either of Umar or any of the other “Rightly-guided” Caliphs Abu Bakr, Uthman or Ali. Not a brick, coin, or artifact of any kind bears the name of these men. Archaeologically, their existence is as unattested as Muhammad himself. The very first archaeological trace of the Caliphs comes with Mu’awiya, who of course reigned after the death of the Persian Yazdegerd III.

Could it be then that these coins were minted not by conquering Arab caliphs but by the men whose names and images appear on them – the Sassanian emperors Chosroes II and Yazdegerd III? Could it be that Chosroes II converted to the Arab version of Christianity, Ebionitism, and that it was he who built the “Islamic” empire?

The Persians, it should be noted, had a long history of religious antagonism towards Christianity and towards Byzantium. During the second half of the sixth century Chosroes II's grandfather Chosroes I had gone to the assistance of the southern Arabs whose country Yemen had been annexed by the Christian Abyssinians. And the Sassanians were extremely active during the fifth and sixth centuries building alliances with princes throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Amongst these were the Lakhmids, who occupied what would now be southern Iraq and north-east Arabia, and who converted to Christianity – presumably the Arab or Ebionite version – early in the seventh century. The war between Chosroes II and Heraclius which erupted in 602 had from the very beginning all the characteristics of a religious conflict – a veritable jihad, no less. The Persians, along with numerous contingents of Arab allies, who took Jerusalem in 614, carried out a general massacre of the Christian population; after which they looted the churches and seized some of Christendom’s most sacred relics – including the Holy Cross upon which Christ was crucified. (See Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 46)  As we saw, the story told by the Byzantines of how Heraclius, against all the odds, turned the tide of war and won back the sacred relics, strikes one as fictitious. Persian sources make no mention of Chosroes’ supposed defeat at the hands of the Byzantines. On the contrary, he is known in Iranian tradition as Apervez, (later abbreviated to Pervez) “the undefeatable” or “ever-victorious.” The most important Iranian source, Firdausi's Shahnameh, merely records how Chosroes was killed by his son Shirouyeh, who desired his father’s beautiful wife Shirin.

It would appear then that the Byzantines may have been falsifying history with regard to Heraclius’ later career. An earlier war between Romans and Persians, in the time of Alexander Severus (third century), was equally doctored by Roman chroniclers to make its outcome more palatible, as Gibbon dryly remarks: “If we credit what should seem the most authentic of all records, an oration, still extant, delivered by the emperor himself to the senate, we must allow that the victory of Alexander Severus was not inferior to any of those formerly obtained over the Persians by the son of Philip [Alexander the Great].” However, “far from being inlined to believe that the arms of Alexander [Severus] obtained any memorable advantage over the Persians, we are induced to suspect that all this blaze of imaginary glory was designed to conceal some real disgrace.” (Ibid. Chapter 8)

If the Persians were the real architects of the Islamic Empire, this would explain why early Islam is so thoroughly Persian in character. The Islamic symbol par excellence, for example, the crescent moon enclosing a star, is Persian: the motif is encountered repeatedly on monumental Iranian art and Sassanian coins. And Persian influence is all-pervasive. The great Islamic cities of the time, including Baghdad and Samarra followed a typically Persian ground-plan, with Persian features such as “paradises,” or ornamental gardens. The artwork found at the Mesopotamian city of Samarra, including pottery, painting, and architectural features, is all thoroughly Persian. It is well-known too that the early caliphs ruled largely, if not completely, through a Persian bureaucracy. (See Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe, (1966) p. 142) In addition, archaeologists have found that in Mesopotamia and Iran the transition from Sassanian to Islamic epochs has left no evident destruction layer – in marked contrast to the situation in the former Byzantine territories of Syria, Egypt and Anatolia. In the territories of the Sassanians all indications are of a peaceful transition from Zoroastrian to Islamic civilization. And we remind ourselves that the earliest Islamic coins are straightforwardly Persian, usually with the addition of an Arab or rather Syriac phrase such as besm Allah, and with the name of Chosroes II or his successor Yazdegerd III. But in all other particulars they are indistinguishable from Sassanian currency.

Did then Chosroes II convert to “Islam” or Arab Christianity at the start of his great war against Byzantium?

We know for a fact that Chosroes II did indeed embrace some form of Christianity. Shortly after ascending the throne he faced a rebellion from one of his generals, Bahram Chobin, who proclaimed himself King Bahram VI. In his hour of need Chosroes fled to the Byzantine Emperor Maurice, who put an army at his disposal with which he regained the crown. This fostered a liberal attitude to Christianity, as did his marriage to Maurice's daughter Maria and to the beautiful Shirin, another Christian, apparently from Syria. The Persian Emperor, we are told, adopted the religion of his favorite wife, though the sincerity of his faith was always suspect. Gibbon speaks of “the imaginary conversion of the king of Persia,” which “was reduced to a local and superstitious veneration for Sergius, one of the saints of Antioch, who heard his prayers and appeared to him in dreams.” (Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Chapter 46) But if Chosroes' conversion to Christianity was suspect, his behavior at Jerusalem, where he plundered the most sacred relics of Christianity and ordered the massacre of the city's Christian population, marks him out as a fanatic, and a very violent one at that. The evidence indicates that Chosroes remained a Christian, of sorts, but of a very different kind to that which pertained at Constantinople. His “Christianity” was of a type violently opposed to the Nicean variety.

As historian Hugh Trevor-Roper so sagely noted, when one civilization converts to another's faith, it normally embraces a heresy of that faith: (Trevor-Roper, op cit., p. 57) thus the Roman Empire converted to a heresy of Judaism – Christianity – and thus it would appear that the Persian king and his people converted to a heresy of Christianity.

We are told that Chosroes' wife Shirin was a follower of the Nestorian branch of Christianity, though she later embraced the Syrian Miaphysite doctrine. Yet her exact beliefs are uncertain, and we may justifiably ask: Was it to the Syrian Miaphysite Church or the Syrian (or Arab) Ebionite Church which Shirin, Chosroes' favorite wife, adhered? If it was the Ebionite Church, then it was to a faith which was widespread in Arabia and which shared almost all its beliefs and customs with what we now call Islam. If this is the case, and if Chosroes II followed his wife into the Arab version of Christianity, then a host of hitherto intractable problems solve themselves.

To begin with, the astonishing narrative of the Arab conquests, which supposedly saw a few nomads on camels simultaneously attack and conquer the mighty Persian and Byzantine empires, is revealed as a fiction: it was the heavy cavalry of the Sassanian Persians which created the “Islamic” Empire, an empire which appeared quite suddenly in the middle of the seventh century and stretched from Libya to the borders of India. Secondly, the strange modesty of the “Rightly-guided” caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, and the others, in failing to leave a single coin or artifact bearing their names, is explained by the fact that they did not exist and were invented precisely to disguise the Arab usurpation of the Sassanian Empire. Thirdly, the “Islamic” coins of Chosroes II, a king who died supposedly over ten years before the Islamic conquest of Persia, are no longer a mystery and were minted not by a modest Arabian caliph, but by Chosroes II himself. And finally, the failure of the poet Firdausi to mention either a caliph named Umar or a prophet named Muhammad, is fully  explained, and the war described in the Shahnameh during Yazdegerd's reign was a civil war pitting Islamicized (or Ebionitized) Persians against Arabs.

Huge numbers of Arab troops and irregular fighters had apparently accompanied the Persians in the march of conquest throughout Syria, Egypt and North Africa. The outcome of the Persian or rather “Islamic” civil war was an Arab coup d'etat: An Arab dynasty, under Mu'awyia (the Ummayads), seized control of the Sassanian proto-Islamic Empire. They were able to do this at least partly because of Yazdegerd’s unpopularity and because a majority of the Persian king's subjects were already Arabs, or at least Semite-speakers closely related culturally to the Arabs. The Persian kings themselves were mostly born and raised in Mesopotamia, a land whose Semitic language was very close to Arabic. Furthermore, the regions of the Middle East which they conquered were predominantly Syriac in speech. Even North Africa around Carthage had large populations of Semitic peoples, whose Punic language was also very close to Syriac and Arabic. In addition, we must not forget that the victorious Persian armies contained numerous divisions of Arab allies and these were followed by hordes of nomadic Arabs from Arabia proper, whose privileged position in the new religious establishment gave them influence far beyond their numbers.

The Arab seizure of power led to a realignment and redefinition of the Ebionite or rather proto-Islamic faith. As we saw, even in the time of Mu'awiya and his immediate successors, there was no Islam in the present understanding of the word. Yet in the decades that followed there came a pressing need to justify the Arab seizure of power from the Persians. A new creation-myth, as it were, was needed. Hence, during the time of Abd al-Malik (d. 705) and of his son Al Walid, the last vestiges of Persian influence were removed from the coinage, and Arabic became the official language of the court at Damascus. Along with these measures, it became expedient to “Arabize” the faith, with the invention of an Arabic alphabet and an Arabian prophet quite different from the original muhammad – Jesus. It was then too that the story of an Arab conquest of Persia and the Middle East was invented, along with the conquering caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar, who supposedly carried it out.


Emmet Scott’s latest book is Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited. His next book, The Impact of Islam, will be published by New English Review Press coming this December.


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