This is the fifth installment of a seven part series, examining the challenges, as I see them, and potential solutions, for reforming Islam. I would consider a reform to be meaningful and successful if it resulted in Islam as a personal religion (just a way of relating with God, with no fascist doctrines); if it offered persuasive, comprehensive, and truthful challenges to the version of Islam put forward by the Islamists; and if it became the prevailing view among Muslims.
Challenge: Historical Evidence. To be brief, Islam’s 1400 years of history is riddled with conquest and subjugation . I’ll focus on the earliest history, because Muslims generally believe Mohammed and those who heard his message in person understood Islam the best. If we accept early Muslim sources, we know that Mohammed and his earliest followers conquered everything they could get their hands on, creating a huge empire within one hundred years of Mohammed’s death. If the message of Islam were peaceful, why the rush to conquer the world? To be believed, any reformed Islam would have to be compatible with known history.
What can overcome this challenge?
Frankly, I don’t know. Some apologists put out revisionist histories in which Islam spread peacefully because people far and wide instantly recognized the “truth of Islam,” but it’s hard to put a lot of faith in a deception. In addition, it would dishonor the memory of the conquered peoples to claim they embraced Islam willingly. Ancient peoples lost their lives, religions, and cultures, either quickly or excruciatingly slowly through the pressures of dhimmitude; it would be a further disgrace for them to lose their place in our memory as well. And there’s the old adage: those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.
So, what do we say? Mohammed and his earliest followers all misunderstood Islam? Both Mohammed and his early followers were not only human, subject to error, but actually barbarians, subject to gross error? This would beg the question: why would any compassionate god choose Mohammed to be his final messenger? I don’t know, you tell me.
Ideally, a solution would be consistent with the truth (based on the best information we have available), and provide a foundation for a non-militant, apolitical Islam. That’s a tall order.
There is one possibility that I can see, though it may be a long shot. If we regard all the early Muslim sources sceptically, and look instead at the small amount of evidence available from non-Muslim sources, that evidence appears to cast doubt on virtually all of the Muslim version of their early history. This could then be used to challenge the doctrines of Jihad and Islamic supremacy that were formed in early Muslim history.
There is a “lack of evidence, outside the Muslim literature, for the view that the Arabs were Muslim at the time of the Conquest.”  The earliest mention of the Quran in a non-Muslim source is from the 8th century, not the 7th century when it originated according to Muslim sources . This is a big problem for the traditional Muslim version of events, because Mohammed supposedly mandated that no one was to be conquered until after they were invited to embrace Islam. Even if the conquered peoples did not fully understand Islam, they would have noticed if they’d received a message saying “embrace Islam and you’ll be safe”, and subsequently they were sacked. This would not be difficult to understand. If this were the case, it is virtually inconceivable that word of this would not get out to areas that had not yet been conquered. The Byzantines, for example, would have been very interested in such information.
According to the Quran, the qibla (direction of worship) was changed from Jerusalem to the sacred Mosque in Mecca during the Messenger’s lifetime (2:142-150). However, archeological evidence shows that mosques built after Mohammed’s life were pointed toward Jerusalem, suggesting the qibla was moved much later than the Quran indicates . In addition, there’s no mention of Mecca in non-Muslim sources of that time period Mohammed allegedly lived there. If Mecca were truly a thriving trading hub as described by Muslim sources, the Greeks or Romans would have mentioned Mecca in their records of trade. Also, Mecca is located in a most inhospitable place, miles away from the natural trade route. Together, this evidence in itself casts doubt on not only the integrity of the Quran as Allah’s word, but also on the entire history of the foundation of Islam.
According to Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren, the Arabs were most likely pagans when they began their conquest. Wansbrough believed the Arabs gradually formed Islam after making contact with Rabbinical Judaism outside of Central Arabia ; certain Islamic themes are similar to those of the Samaritans (of central Palestine) . Michael Cook and Patricia Crone have stated it’s possible the Quran was thrown together from various sources after the early Arab conquests . Lammens believes the entire biography of Mohammed was created to explain the Quran , and Wansbrough believes they went to some lengths to give Islam an Arabic identity, distinct from Judaism . According to Schacht, none of the traditions used to support legal doctrines could be taken as authentic .
Some have said they have trouble believing any type of sweeping revision of Islamic history, just because the early Muslims would not have fabricated Mohammed with such a disagreeable character. However, I have another explanation for that. What is disagreeable to us may have been considered admirable by those who wrote the story. To the victors of the Arab conquests, whoever they were, savage ruthlessness could have been a virtue. Having many wives and marrying a child could have been evidence of virility and manliness. They may have seen nothing wrong with torture, raiding caravans, trading in slaves, and raping female captives. It is to us, informed by Judeo-Christian values and the norms of modernity, that this is all quite disgusting. In addition, if the story was written when there was a large empire to keep in line, the rulers could have wanted to justify ruthlessness and savagery for their own purpose: keeping their subjects “subdued” with fear. [Note: All links in this paragraph reference early Muslim sources, or a page which links to early Muslim sources.]
The one exception which I cannot explain in this way is the sorry episode of the Satanic verses, in which Mohammed claimed to have been deceived by Satan (according to early Muslim sources). This episode could have been fabricated to justify the corresponding verses in the Quran (22:52-53, 17:73-75), but how did those verses get in there?
I do not know whether any of the revisionist researchers are correct, but it does seem to be an avenue worth exploring. If even one of these theories is shown to be the best explanation of the evidence, it would provide more than enough basis for Muslim reformers to challenge the authenticity of the ideologies of Jihad and Sharia. The challenge then would be to preserve a viable religion that is harmless yet bears some resemblance to Islam. Middle East expert Daniel Pipes believes Islam can survive these types of scholarly challenges, just as Christianity and Judiasm did, and maybe he’s right.
Part VI of this series will examine Muslim culture.
 Efraim Karsh, Islamic Imperialism: A History (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2007); Andrew G. Bostom, MD, ed. The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims (New York: Prometheus Books, 2005)
 “Methodological Approaches to Islamic Studies” in Ibn Warraq, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, p. 425 (referencing work by Yehuda D. Nevo and Judith Koren)
 Ibn Warraq, ed. The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book (New York: Prometheus Books, 1998) pg. 354
Ibid, pg. 32
 Ibid, pg. 24
 Ibid, pg. 31
 Ibid, pgs. 26-27, 32
 Ibid, pg. 19
 Ibid, pgs. 25, 357
 Ibid, pg. 23