Last Updated on 7th June 2019
An archeological approach to the early Islamic History
Mohammad Luqman Majoka
MA Islamic Studies
In 2008, interesting news was making headlines in Germany. A prominent professor who was once a Muslim, Mr Kalisch from the University of Münster had openly doubted the very existence of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa. His assertion that there were no scientific or historical proofs of the existence of the Holy Prophetsa led him to renounce Islam, to which he had converted as a teenager (https://en.qantara.de/content/criticism-of-islamic-theologian-muhammad-kalisch-doubt-about-muhammads-existence-poses).
Muslim organisations promptly called for his immediate dismissal from his post as a professor of Islamic theology as he had denied the very foundation of Islam. The controversy lasted for many months, resulting in the ultimate decision by the university to withdraw Professor Kalisch from the faculty of Islamic theology.
However, Mr Kalisch received a lot of support for his “scientific” stance against “conservative Muslim organisations”. Nevertheless, this objection was not novel. Three persons affiliated with the University of Saarbrücken had said the same many times before that (ibid.). This skeptical approach towards Muslim history and Muslim historical sources goes back a century to the time of famous orientalists like Goldziher, Sprenger and Schacht, who had stated then that there were no authentic sources on early Islam at all. (http://inarah.de/sammelbaende-und-artikel/inarah-band-6/grodzki-iii-zur-heutigen-situation-der-islamwissenschaften/#_edn1)
All Muslim sources, according to them, on the seerah (biography of the Prophetsa), Hadith and other historical accounts about the first century were a mere reflection of the debates and theological mindset of the second Islamic century, the time these accounts were written down.
Advancing this same theory, the so-called “revisionist school” in Islamic studies, with prominent scholars like John Wansbrough, Michael Cook and Patricia Crone, state that there are no reliable historical sources from the first Islamic century at all and the first Islamic century remained a mystery (Ohlig Puin: The Hidden Origins of Islam, ). Consequently book titles like The Quest for the Historical Muhammad or Die dunkeln Anfänge (The Dark Beginnings of Islam) were at times very popular, particularly among Islam’s critics.
So, we ask ourselves, aside from the commonly referred to sources, are there any scientific and archaeological proofs for the existence of the Holy Prophetsa?
Before going into the details of the topic, it has to be said here that there is undoubtedly still much research needed on the early history of Islam. The last years have seen many projects focusing on archaeological surveys of the Arabian Peninsula, where Islam originated and first spread, but much damage has also been done to historical sites in the past.
The occupation of the Hijaz by Wahabi forces in the early 20th century led to a vast destruction of sites associated with the Holy Prophetsa and early Muslims. Moreover, the mass construction works in Mecca and Medina have also contributed to the loss of many historical sites, without them being documented properly. This has given an edge to the critics of Islam, providing them the opportunity to not only present wild theories about the beginnings of Islam but also to doubt the very authenticity of Islamic history.
The historical and archaeological research and surveys on the early history of Islam should have been a priority of Muslims themselves, but unfortunately much awareness is still needed. If this had been done earlier, we would have more archaeological evidence on the beginnings of Islam.
So, again, what scientific and archaeological evidence of the existence of the Holy Prophetsa do we have? The first historic document in this regard is the Quran itself. We know that codices and manuscripts of the Quran from the first century and probably from the time of the Khulafa-e-Rashideen still exist, as recent carbon dating on Quranic manuscripts in Birmingham or Tübingen (Germany) have shown. (www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/latest/2015/07/quran-manuscript-22-07-15.aspx; www.uni-tuebingen.de/en/university/news-and-publications/press-releases/press-releases/article/raritaet-entdeckt-koranhandschrift-stammt-aus-der-fruehzeit-des-islam.html & www.uni-tuebingen.de/en/university/news-and-publications/press-releases/press-releases/article/raritaet-entdeckt-koranhandschrift-stammt-aus-der-fruehzeit-des-islam.html)
The Quran gives us, besides mentioning the name of the Holy Prophetsa, a considerable amount of biographical information on his life and mission, for example, he was the Messenger of Allah (Surah al-Fath, Ch.48: V.30), a mercy for all peoples (Surah al-Anbiya, Ch.21: V.108), a prophet like Mosesas (Surah al-Muzzammil, Ch.73: V.16), he taught the oneness of God (Surah al-Ikhlas, Ch.112), he criticised the ills of society (Surah al-Ma‘un, Ch.107), he had a family (Surah al-Duha, Ch.93: V.9), he was an orphan (V.7), he discoursed with his religious opponents (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.112), he had a following (Surah al-Fath, Ch.48: V.30), he was persecuted (Surah al-Hajj, Ch.22: V.40-41), he migrated with a companion and sought refuge in a cave (Surah al-Taubah, Ch.9: V.40), he was among the people of Yathrib (Medina) (Surah al-Ahzab, Ch.33: V.14), he had to defend himself against attackers (V.10-46), he had a victory in Badr and Hunayn (Surah Al-e-Imran, Ch.3: V.124 & Surah al-Taubah, Ch.9: V.25) and his followers swore allegiance to him under a tree near Mecca at one occasion (Surah al-Fath, Ch.48: V.19). These are only a few examples of the biographical information that the Holy Quran contains on the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa, making it one of the most important historical sources on the life of the Holy Prophetsa.
The second oldest evidence found, thus far, on the existence of the Holy Prophetsa is interestingly a non-Muslim source. It is a note in a manuscript containing the gospels of Mark and Mathew. The manuscript is kept at the British Library under the shelf mark “BL ADD MSS 14461”. The author writes:
“… and in January, they took the word for their lives [the sons of] Emesa, and many villages were ruined with killing by [the Arabs of] Muhammad [MÙÎmd] and a great number of people were killed and captives [were taken] from Galilee as far as Bēth […] and those Arabs pitched camp beside [Damascus] […] and we saw everywhere […] and olive oil which they brought and them. And on the t[wenty six]th of May went Sacellarius … cattle […] from the vicinity of Emesa and the Romans chased them […] and on the tenth [of August] the Romans fled from the vicinity of Damascus […] many [people] some 10,000. And at the turn of the year the Romans came; and on the twentieth of August in the year n[ine hundred and forty-]seven there gathered in Gabitha […] the Romans and great many people were killed of [the R]omans, some fifty thousand”. (Hoyland, Seeing Islam as others saw it, p.117)
The year 947 AG (Alexandrian Era) in which the battle of Gabitha took place corresponds to the year 636 AD. The battle of Gabitha is known in Muslim sources as the Battle of Yarmuk (Andrew Palmer, The Seventh Century in the West-Syrian Chronicles, Liverpool  p. 4), in which Khalidra bin Walid was commanding the Muslim troops (Tabari, Tarikh ar-Rusul wal-Muluk). With this decisive victory, a path was paved for further advancing in the Levant and eventually Egypt, which were very quickly conquered. The author seems to have lived in that period and may have witnessed the events. He wrote this note apparently knowing the historical significance of these unfolding events. This is one of the oldest dated historical sources mentioning the name of the Holy Prophetsa and was written only four years after his demise.
Another dated Syriac manuscript was written by Thomas, the Presbyter, a Christian priest from the Levant. He writes:
“AG 945, indiction VII: On Friday, 4 February, [i.e., 634 CE] at the ninth hour, there was a battle between the Romans and the Arabs of Muhammad [Syr. tayyaye d-Mhmt] in Palestine twelve miles east of Gaza.” (Hoyland, Seeing Islam as others saw it, p.120)
Here, again, events taking place in Palestine and Syria are described by the author. The Arabs here are mentioned as the Arabs of Muhammad [tayyaye d-Mhmt] identifying them clearly as the followers of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa. The year 945 corresponds to the year 634 or 12 Hijra, which suggests that merely two years after the demise of the Holy Prophetsa, his name was known to this non-Muslim author.
Around the year 660, the Armenian bishop and historian, Sebeos, writes more biographical details on the Holy Prophetsa. Sebeos’ historical accounts were most probably written between 656 and 661 because he mentions in them the first civil war, the so-called first fitna, during the time of Muawiyyara. This means that these accounts were written around 30 years after the demise of the Holy Prophetsa at a time when many of the Companionsra were still alive. Sebeos writes:
“In that period a certain one of them, a man of the sons of Ishmael named Mahmed, became prominent. A sermon about the Way of Truth, supposedly at God’s command, was revealed to them, and Mahmed taught them to recognise the God of Abraham, especially since he was informed and knowledgeable about Mosaic history. Because the command had come from on High, he ordered them all to assemble together and to unite in faith. Abandoning the reverence of vain things, they turned toward the living God, who had appeared to their father Abraham. Mahmed legislated that they were not to eat carrion, not to drink wine, not to speak falsehoods, and not to commit adultery. He said: God promised that country to Abraham and to his son after him, for eternity. And what had been promised was fulfilled during that time when God loved Israel. Now, however, you are the sons of Abraham, and God shall fulfill the promise made to Abraham and his son on you. Only love the God of Abraham, and go and take the country which God gave to your father Abraham. No one can successfully resist you in war, since God is with you.” (ibid.)
Sebeos gives us, although still very sketchy, more information about the events taking place in Arabia and the new religion, showing very clearly that people outside of Arabia were familiar with the new religion and the new prophet who had appeared among the Arabs. They even knew some basic information about his teachings.
The next interesting evidence mentions the Holy Prophetsa indirectly. It is a papyrus letter sent by a Muslim administrator in Egypt to one of his subordinate officials, admonishing him to be mindful of his duties, saying:
“In the name [of God] the Merciful, the Compassionate. From [Bayyan ibn] Qays to Yazid ibn al-Aswad and ‘Ubayd All[ah] ibn […]. Pea[ce] upo[n you. I praise God beside Whom] there is no other god. God does not like wrongdoing or corruption and as regards you, I did not appoint you to a job for you to act sinfully and behave unjustly in it […]. That which you will be sorry for and will suffer for is […to you]. […] and [… ] taking possession. Indeed, your way of thinking is despicable, (namely) that […] and you take the (financial) worth of it, even though I have […], for as regards Yazid ibn Fa‘id there is not due to him […] due to him payment, and the people of Nessana have the protection of God and the protection of His mess[eng]er. So do not reckon that we acquiesce to your corruption and injustice in respect of it.” (R Hoyland, The Earliest Attestation Of The Dhimma Of God And His Messenger And The Rediscovery Of P Nessana 77 (60s AH / 680 CE) in: B Sadeghi, AQ Ahmed, A Silverstein, R Hoyland, Islamic Cultures, Islamic Contexts – Essays In Honor Of Professor Patricia Crone, Brill )
The phrase “protection of God and the protection of His messenger” (dhimmat Allah wa-dhimmat rasulihi) is a very common phrase that we also find in other Islamic sources. It is reported to have been used in many of the letters the Holy Prophetsa sent to different tribes and kings (Bayhaqi, Sunan al Kabir lil Bayhaqi, Bab hukm al-jizya). Also it is reported in a very famous Hadith of Bukhari:
“Whoever prays like us and faces our qibla and eats our slaughtered animals is a Muslim and is under Allah’s and His Prophet’s protection [dhimmatu Allahi wa-dhimmatu rasulihi]. So do not betray Allah by betraying those who are in His protection.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Bab fadhl istiqba al-qibla)
This letter from Egypt interestingly also shows that much emphasis was laid on good governance during the early Islamic period. Was someone found ignoring or disregarding their duties, they were very harshly admonished and threatened with severe punishment. This piece of papyrus is dated to 60 AH, just 30 years after the demise of the Holy Prophetsa and is one of the oldest existing Islamic sources of the world.
Till present, the oldest discovered coin mentioning the name of the Holy Prophetsa is from 66 AH. It is a dirham by Abdul-Malik ibn Abdullah, the Governor of Persia, during the short reign of Hazrat Abdullahra bin Zubair. The Arabic inscription on the side of the coin reads, “bismillah Muhammad Rasul Allah”, translating as, “In the name of Allah, Muhammad is the prophet of Allah” (H Gaube: Arabosasanidische Numismatik  Handbücher Der Mittelasiatischen Numismatik, Vol. 2, Klinkhardt & Biermann: Braunschweig, p. 62).
From 71 AH Egypt, we come across an Umayyad period tombstone from Aswan. It reads:
“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. The greatest calamity of the people of Islam [ahl al-Islam] is that which has [be]fallen them on the death of Muhammad the Prophet; may God grant him peace. This is the tomb of ‘Abassa daughter of Juraij […], son of […]. May clemency forgiveness and satisfaction of God be on her. She died on Monday fourteen days having elapsed from Dhul-Qa‘dah of the year one and seventy, confessing that there is no god but God alone without partner and that Muhammad is His servant and His apostle, may God grant him peace.” (JL Bacharach, S Anwar, Early Versions Of the Shahada, A Tombstone From Aswan Of 71 AH, The Dome Of The Rock, And Contemporary Coinage, in: Islam  Vol. 89, pp. 60-69)
From the same period, we also have two very interesting Arab-Sassanian coins mentioning the name of the Holy Prophetsa in a foreign language. In Middle-Persian, the inscription of the 70 AH Coin reads:
“MHMT PGTAMI Y DAT” (AS Eshragh: An Interesting Arab-Sasanian Dirhem in: ONS Newsletter  Vol. 178, pp. 45-46)
“Muhammad is the prophet of God.”
The second coin is a 72 AH dirham with the inscriptions:
DWHPT‘T – Seventy-two
YZDT‘-I BR’ ‘LH – One God, but He
‘HRN YZDT‘ L‘YT‘ – another god does not exist
MHMT‘ PTGMBI Y YZDT‘ – Muhammad is the Messenger of God
(MI Mochiri, The Pahlavi Forerunner Of The Umayyad Reformed Coinage in: Journal Of The Royal Asiatic Society Of Great Britain And Ireland  No. 2, pp. 168-172)
The Dome of the Rock inscriptions are another important source mentioning the name of the Holy Prophetsa from the first century. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was built by the Umayyad ruler Abdul-Malik in 72 AH and is one of the earliest testimonies of Islamic art and architecture. It contains many inscriptions referring to the Holy Prophetsa, for example, an inscription says:
“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. There is no god but God. He is One. He has no associate. Unto Him belongeth sovereignty and unto Him belongeth praise. He quickeneth and He giveth death; and He has Power over all things. Muhammad is the servant of God and His Messenger. Lo! God and His angels shower blessings on the Prophet. O ye who believe! Ask blessings on him and salute him with a worthy salutation. The blessing of God be on him and peace be on him, and may God have mercy.” (For more details see: Andreas Kaplony, The Haram of Jerusalem, 324-1099: Temple, Friday Mosque, Area of Spiritual Power)
Another interesting document mentioning the Holy Prophetsa is an Arabic-Greek bilingual papyrus document from the year 90 or 91 AH, the time of the Umayyad Caliph Walid I. It mentions the name of the Holy Prophetsa in Greek as follows:
“maamet apostolos theou …”
[Muhammad is the prophet/apostle of God.] (Grohmann, Arabic Papyri, in: The Egyptian Library, Vol. I, Egyptian Library Press: Cairo  No. 13, pp. 23-25)
This is probably the first Greek translation of the phrase Muhammad Rasul-Allah.
Here I also wish to mention some inscriptions which prove the correctness of some very important events from early Islam reported to us by Muslim historians of the second century. The first is what has become known as the “Zuhayr” inscription which reads:
بسم اللّٰه انا زهير كتبت زمن توفى عمر سنة اربع وعشرين
[I, Zuhayr, wrote, at the time Umar died, the year 24.] (Ali Ghabban, R Hoyland, The inscription of Zuhayr, the oldest Islamic inscription (24 AH/AD 644–645), the rise of the Arabic script and the nature of the early Islamic state )
This inscription was found in 1999 by Ali ibn Ibrahim Ghabban and his wife during a field research in the area of Ula in northern Saudi Arabia. The content of this inscription is of great importance. Firstly, this dated inscription was written during the era of the Rashidun Khulafa and more precisely, just after the election of the third Caliph Hazrat Usmanra.
The Zuhayr inscription has more historical significance. It clearly states that in the year 24, Umarra, the second Caliph, died and thus confirms the accounts given to us by the later Muslim historians, thus showing that Muslim historical accounts are reliable and do represent an important source when reconstructing early Islamic history.
Secondly the inscription shows also that diacritical marks on consonants were written even at that early age in the Arabic script, counter to the popular belief that punctuation to differentiate consonants were only very lately introduced to the Arabic script.
There also exist two papyrus documents from the time of Hazrat Umarra, one is a bilingual dated letter from the 22 AH Egypt containing a receipt of provisions given to the Muslim army (A Grohmann, I Arabische Chronologie, II Arabische Papyruskunde, Handbuch Der Orientalistik, EJ Brill). The other is a recently discovered letter by Prof Donner, which is interestingly addressed to three people, one of them being Hazrat Umarra (https://news.stanford.edu/2015/03/03/early-days-islam-030315/). The letter is still under research and is a very promising new find.
Another similar inscription mentioning the death of the third Caliph Usmanra was found in the Tayma Region of Saudi Arabia some years ago. It says:
انا قیس الکاتب ابو کتیر لعن اللّٰہ من قتل عثمان ابن عفان و من احت قتلہ تقتیلا
“I am Qays, the scribe of Abu Kutayr. Curse of God on [those] who murdered Usman ibn Affan and [those who] have led to the killing without mercy.” (F Imbert, Califes, Princes et Poètes Dans Les Graffiti du Début de l’Islam in: Romano-Arabica  Vol. 15, pp. 65-66 and p. 75)
This inscription, although not dated, is most probably from the time of Hazrat Alira around the year 655. It is the first inscription confirming the events leading to the death of Hazrat Usmanra in Medina. The writer of this inscription, Qays, was much disturbed by the tragic events and therefore sent God’s wrath on those who were responsible for the Caliph’s death.
Lastly, there is another interesting inscription found some years ago near the famous city of Taif in Saudi Arabia. It reads:
“Al-Rayyan bin Abdullah testifies that there is no god but God and he testifies that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Then [he] reiterates to those to come to testify to that, God have mercy on al-Rayyan. May He forgive him and cause him to be guided to the path of Paradise and I ask him for marytrdom in his path. Amin. This was written in the year the Masjid al-Haram was built in the seventy-eighth year.” (Nasir b Ali Al-Harithi, Naqsh Kitabi Nadar Yu‘arrikhu Imarah Al-Khalifah Al-Umawi Abd Al-Malik B. Marwan lil-Masjid Al-Haram ‘Am 78 AH, Alam Al-Makhtutat Wa Al-Nawadir  Vol. 12, pp. 533-543)
Masjid al-Haram was indeed rebuilt in 78 AH after the military expedition led by the Ummayad governor Hajjaj bin Yusuf against Abdullahra ibn Zubair in Mecca. During the siege, Hajjaj had used catapults which inflicted damage to the Haram area, so much so that it had to be rebuilt or renovated (See Tabari: Tarikh ar-Rusul wal-muluk). This inscription confirms these events as mentioned by Muslim historians of the second century.
These are only few of the many archeological pieces of evidence we have to support the existence of the Holy Prophetsa and the accuracy of later Muslim historical accounts.
Beginning just shortly after the demise of the Holy Prophetsa till the late first century, the Holy Prophetsa is mentioned in many Muslim and non-Muslim sources, making him one of the best documented prophets in history.
Nevertheless there is more research needed to shed light on the early Islamic history.