Muslim tradition tells us that Islam appeared as a heavenly revelation via the prophet Muhammad over a 20 year period that ended in 632AD. That these divine revelations were directed to a polytheistic people at Mecca, deep in Saudi Arabia. We are told that Muhammad then inspired an army to fight infidels in the name of his new religion, and with divine blessing, the went on to conquer the Middle East after his death.
This narrative is at odds with the growing objective evidence we have of the slow evolution of religious thought from one of Christian sectarianism to a new religion over a period of a hundred and fifty years. To find the truth we have to look beyond the traditional Islamic narratives and to the clues left behind by history: Rock inscriptions, coins, trade receipts, construction plaques, graffiti, building inscriptions, maps and the like. These tell their own irrefutable story. A growing army of researchers is slowly unearthing this evidence and helping us find out what really happened between the years 600 and 750AD, how Islam really came into the world. One of those researchers was Yehuda Nevo.
Yehuda Nevo (1932-1992) was an Israeli archaeologist and scholar who discovered over 400 ancient Kufic script rock inscriptions in the Negev Desert from the era just prior to and just after the rise of the Arab Empire in the 7th Century.
After thoroughly examining these inscriptions and cataloguing each according to its age, he was struck by the lack of verification they gave to the traditional view of Islamic history and theology. He found that the evidence these inscriptions told, and especially what they didn’t tell, spoke powerfully of a slow theological evolution away from a Middle Eastern version of Christianity at war with the Byzantine version of Christianity, and toward a new religion for a new Arab empire. The inscriptions were a powerful and convincing demonstration that the first glimpses of Islam did not emerge until some 70 years after the traditional accounts tell us, and that it took another hundred for it to reach what we would call orthodoxy.
After a long battle with cancer, Yehuda Nevo died before his ground-breaking work could be published. An Israeli librarian, Judith Koren, took up the task of completing the research and published his findings in a book called Crossroads to Islam: The Origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State. The notes that follow are largely summarised from Yehuda Nevo’s own journal article, Toward a Pre-History of Islam. A link to his full article is provided here. However, I have also included in this essay extra information on coinage and building inscriptions that I have researched from other sources.
DESCRIPTION OF INSCRIPTIONS
Yehuda Nevo found that the rock inscriptions of the Negev were chronologically divided into three major groups and six subgroups, these being:
Common, basic and second class inscriptions: From 600-690AD
- 640-660AD: The common inscriptions occur all over the Middle East during the earliest period in the evolution of the Arab Empire. They contain no creeds of any type, whether Judaic, Islamic or Christian. They also mention no prophets, whether Jewish, Christian or Islamic.
- 640-660AD: The basic inscriptions share the same time frame as the common inscriptions and are probably a subset, but all come from the Sde Boqer archaeological site. They are distinguished by their style and come from only a few authors, most of which appear many times. They contain references to Moses and Jesus but nothing that is Islamic.
- 660-700AD: The second class of inscriptions, which immediately follow the basic class of inscriptions through to the end of the 7th Century.
Muhammadan Inscriptions: From 690-725AD
- 685-725AD: The Marwanid Muhammadan inscriptions which cannot be precisely dated but fit into the timeframe given.
Muslim Inscriptions: From 725-820AD
- 700-743AD: The Marwanid Muslim inscriptions, which are somewhat later than those just mentioned. They are definitely Islamic. But not all are orthodox in the modern sense.
- 750-820AD: The Orthodox Muslim Abbasid inscriptions, though still not in perfect harmony with modern Islamic orthodoxy, they coincide with the first written traditional accounts of orthodox Islam such as the Hadiths and the Al Sira.
These inscriptions give us a very rare and purely objective form of evidence as to the theological evolution that was happening in the first 150 years of the Arab Empire. The earliest inscriptions exhibit no Islamic awareness. The next level, the basic and second class inscriptions, begin to use religious references. The Muhammadan inscriptions introduce us to the new prophet and the final Muslim inscriptions introduce us to the Qur’an. The Muhammadan and Muslim inscriptions of the Negev Desert have a large number of religious formulaic statements on them. They are in many ways proto-Quranic phrases, doctrines and verses. Some of these turn up in the Qur’an, some in the hadiths, some on the Dome of the Rock Mosque, and some disappear from history.
Below are examples from the Negev rock inscriptions that point to the roots of Islam’s doctrines, and to an emerging theology. We get our first glimpse visible of this theology from the inscription inside the Dome of the Rock Mosque, completed in 691AD. The Negev inscriptions show us that the final structure of the theology takes another hundred and fifty years to bed down.
The common inscriptions through to 660AD tell their own unique story, one of theological silence. This is because they are devoid of any references to Muhammad and the Qur’an. In fact they are devoid of any religious references at all. There is no Islamic creed. The term Jannah, meaning garden or paradise, is mentioned but the concept it expresses is unclear. The only religious term is the word Allah, also referred to as Allahumma or rabb/rabbi on the inscriptions. These are common Syriac terms in that region for God used by Syriac Christians. No theological traits are assigned to this deity.
The Sdr Boqer inscriptions from 640 to 660AD, frequently use the term Rabb Musa wa-Isa, which means (Allah is) rabbi of Moses and Jesus in their opening phrase. This strongly aligns with the dominant Monarchian theology of Syrian Christianity in that era; a theology that said God was one not three so Jesus was a servant (son) of God, but not God. They also contain Old Testament references and a few phrases that are eventually found in the Qur’an. However, most references can be viewed as belonging to an indeterminate pre-Islamic Syriac Christian monotheism. They are also distinguished by language, but are not Islamic. Their close alignment to Monarchian theology gives us our first glimpse of the future emergence of Tawhid or God’s oneness. This eventually became the defining doctrine of Islam and it ideologically organised them in opposition to the Byzantines, who were the military, political and spiritual enemies of the newly emerged Arab Empire.
The Orthodox Muslim concept of Allah not being born and not giving birth, as also inscribed on the Dome of the Rock Mosque of 691AD, is not attested to in any Negev inscriptions until after the level 4 Marwanid Muhammadan inscriptions, or 725AD. In Fact it first appears in the level 6 orthodox Muslim Abbasid inscriptions after 750AD.
The Islamic concept of Allah as overlord or patron (Muslim text 1.25) is also not found in the level 2 basic class of inscriptions. In addition, the famous phrase there is no strength or power but through Allah, the High, the Great (facs 1.12) also does not appear in any basic class inscriptions.
The verbs that stem from the root s.h.d. (for example ashadu: I witness) do not appear at all until the late level 4 Marwanid period (685-725AD), but are common in the final level 6 Abbasid period (Muslim text 1.25:2-4, 1.26). These verbs are to do with giving testimony, of publically announcing ones faith. This is an orthodox Muslim doctrine and common throughout the Qur’an.
In the phrase and Allah is sufficient as a witness, the word for witness is sahidan in the original and another extension of the s.h.d. root mentioned above (text 1.26:8-9). It is common in the Qur’an but does not appear in any inscriptions in the level 1-3 period (600-700AD). This phrase is important in that it suggests a new sect is declaring that a written scriptural witness, such as the Bible used by rival Trinitarian Christians, is no longer needed in this new era. Allah alone gives witness. Those who give witness through a set of scriptures are not therefore true believers but ahl al-kitab: People of the Book. This phrase could only have been written before the new movement had a scripture of its own, before the development of the Qur’an. (Footnote: The word chosen for the new religions book is not an Arabic word but Syriac language word Qeryana, meaning scripture lesson or scripture recitation.)
On the full list of rock inscriptions the frequency of two verb roots g.f.r. and s.l.y. tells its own story. The verbs derived from the root g.f.r. speak of the “sinners load” and are sourced from Christian doctrine. They are universal in the common and basic inscriptions. However by the time we get to the Muslim inscriptions they appear in only 10% of inscriptions as the concept of original sin is minimised in the new theology.
In addition, the phrases and liturgies of both the common and basic inscriptions also have much in common with Syriac Christianity. What they leave out is significant. They are not attributed to a prophet or presented as the words of a prophet. They specifically designate Jesus as subordinate to Allah and needing an association with a more powerful Moses for a claim to divine favour and status. It is Moses, the law giver, who is the senior partner in these inscriptions. This is significant as later in history Moses is mentioned 136 times in the Qur’an compared to Jesus’ 26 and Muhammad’s only 4. The Qur’an is also very much a book of laws and rules. The emerging proto-Islam of Abd al Malik was clearly creating its new theology in the image of Moses rather than Jesus while building on, and converting, the phrases and doctrines of Syrian Christian Monarchian theology.
Many of these emerging sectarian Judeo-Christian formulaic phrases appear on Abd al Malik’s masterful Dome of the Rock Mosque which was completed in 691AD. This mosque is the greatest of all the early inscriptions of any type from that era in the Middle East. (It is crucially important to the discussion that follows that you click on the link and read this inscription in full now before reading any further.) The inscription itself strongly suggests that during this crucial stage of Arab Imperial and theological development, Islam was a state-sponsored sectarian polemic criticising Orthodox Byzantine Christianity and promoting local Syriac church doctrines. That it was theologically distant from modern orthodox Islam in nature is irrefutable. Its novelty was that it introduced the world to the two words Muhammad and Islam.
The word Muhammad appears at the beginning of the inscription, and the word Islam at the end. However, the inscription itself is not Islamic but speaks almost exclusively of the Monarchian and Arian doctrines and theology of the local Syrian branch of Christianity that was at war with the Byzantine Catholic Trinitarian imperialism. This raises significant questions as to the definition of the two words in question. The word Muhammad in the Dome of the Rock inscription is ambiguous as the word itself simply means praised. Given the theological nature of the inscription and its triple announcement that Jesus is the messenger and/or servant of God, it is far more likely that the word Muhammad is an honorific title of this messenger and servant of God. Thus Muhammad is the servant of God and His messenger simply means Praised be the servant of God and His messenger. This view is reinforced by the complete absence of the term Muhammad either as a person or as a term of honour from the Negev rock inscriptions prior to this time, as well as the appearance of the term MHMT combined with the symbol of the cross on coins dated a decade prior to the construction of the Dome of the Rock Mosque. The term Muhammad is absent from any other objective evidence prior to this time and missing from the rest of the dome’s inscription .
The term Islam is mentioned at the end of the Dome’s inscription. It is defined simply as submission. The inscription is thus a call to submit to Abd al Malik’s unorthodox theological polemic in the face of Byzantine opposition. The complete absence of any reference to the Qur’an and two indirect references to the Bible is also an indication that we did not yet have a Qur’an in circulation to justify the inscription as a revelation from the heavens.
It is interesting to note that even though the official Muhammadan formulae discussed above was developed and made official by Abd al Malik in 691AD via the Dome inscription, it did not begin to be used in popular Negev rock inscriptions until at least 724AD, a full generation later.
The decades after this event, from 690AD to 723AD, was a period when the Muhammadan formulae were used for official functions, and even then not consistently. However, the everyday population was still using non-Muhammadan formulae on the Negev rock inscriptions. Only after 723AD, the time of Hisham’s rulership, do the official imperial Muhammadan formulae begin to appear on everyday rock inscriptions throughout the Negev. Yet these inscriptions can still not be classified as Islamic in the modern sense. Orthodox Islamic inscriptions only appear in the Negev between 750 and 850AD, coinciding with the official and orthodox written accounts of Islamic history, the Hadiths and the Al-Sira, that were compiled between 824AD (Ibn Hisham) and 922AD (al-Tabari).
The first evidence we have of Arab imperial power is a papyrus receipt for taxes, dated at 642AD. It does speak about a monotheistic religion and a new dating system but it does not mention a creed, a book or a prophet. It is therefore neither Christian nor Muslim. The earliest tombstones of that era are likewise imprecise. A tomb of that era, The tomb of Abd al-Rahman ibn Khayr al-Haj, dated 651-2AD and from Egypt, likewise makes no reference to the prophet or Islam. It simply reads: In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate. This tomb belongs to ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Khayr al-Hajri. God forgive him and admit him to Your mercy, and make us go with him. Ask pardon for him, when reading this writing, and say ‘Amen.’ This writing was written in Jumada II in the year one and thirty. This could be a man of any religion of that region.
An official building plaque dated to 662-663AD, has been found at the ancient baths of Gadara, in northern Jordan near Lake Galilee. This was an area controlled by the Arabs at this stage in history. Intriguingly it begins with the sign of the cross, is written in Greek not Arabic, displays no Islamic references at all, describes Muawiya as a servant of God and protector rather than Caliph, gives the Byzantine dating system priority over the Arabic dating system, fails to mention Muhammad or the Qur’an, and describes the era as simply that of the Arabs, not the Muslims. Below is the inscription in full:
In the days of the servant of God Muʿāwiya, the commander of the faithful, the hot baths of the people there were saved and rebuilt by ʿAbd Allāh son of Abū Hāshim, the governor, on the fifth of the month of December, on the second day of the week, in the 6th year of the indiction, in the year 726 of the colony, according to the Arabs the 42nd year, for the healing of the sick, under the care of Ioannes, the official of Gadara.
Two inscriptions from dams built in the era of Muawiya between 661 and 680AD talk about the blessings of God, the Arabic dating system, and Muawiya as protector of the believers, but nothing more. They fail to mention Muhammad, the Qur’an and any other hint of the Islamic religion.
Religious inscriptions appear on Arab-Sassanian coins in the lead up to the definitive Dome inscription in 691AD on the Dome of the Rock Mosque.
Muawiya was Abd al Malik’s father. His coins tell their own story. He inscribed them with a large capital M. and they were inscribed with Bism Allah: in the name of Allah and with himself as amir al-mu’minin: Commander of the faithful. Some of the coins from his era depict him as a Christian Arab ruler holding a cross, Christ as the Lamb of God is also depicted near him. At other times John the Baptist will be close by. Byzantine eagles and monograms are also common. The Persian fire alter also gets a mention. The location of the mint is often in Arabic, other words in Greek.
Silver coins minted in 685AD by Salm b. Ziyad of the city of Merv over in Persia just after Muawiya’s death continue to display Christian symbols. This time mixed with a crescent moon. This suggests a strong and dominant Nestorian Christian leadership in that region, not an Islamic one. In fact even the names of the Arabian mint lords of that region give no indication of a heritage from the Arabian Peninsula; rather they are all local names.
Only coins minted in the era after Muawiya, the era of Abd al-Malik, begin to use the word Muhammad, which simply means praised. Previous to this development coins were minted with the letters MHMT, and sometimes came with a cross on the reverse side. However they were always minted without reference to any ancestry, contrary to the custom of the time. As discussed above, this strongly suggests that the word MHMT began as a title meaning praised be rather than a specific person’s name.
Coins also appear during this era with the words Abd-Allah, meaning Servant of God. These were common titles used, in both the Aramaic language and the early church fathers, such as Clement and Polycarp, for Jesus. The term Muhammad Abd-Allah, or praised be the servant of God, is still used today among Syrian Orthodox Christians. As already explained, in the Syrian Arian/Monarchian theology of late antiquity, Jesus was seen as the perfect servant of God, not the co-equal of God. The rectangular Cedar Coin, published by Alec Kirkbrige in 1947, has the word Muhammad on one side and a ruler holding a cross on the other. These conflicting and emerging theological trends are all clearly visible in the definitive Dome of the Rock Inscriptions.
What the objective evidence of the Negev rock inscriptions, construction plaques, graves and coins tells us is that, up until the last decade of the 7th Century, and the building of the Dome of the Rock Mosque, there was almost a complete absence of records mentioning someone called Muhammad, either by name or by proto-religious formulae and phrases, on religious inscriptions, on tax receipts or on commemorative inscriptions. They clearly show us that religious thought was evolving slowly and almost silently. The only place we see something approaching the word Muhammad is on coins and these also often display Christian iconography which would cancel out any link they would otherwise have with an Islamic prophet.
The silence of rock inscriptions bearing the word Muhammad was broken around the time of the Dome of the Rock Mosque Inscription. None of the Negev rock inscriptions in the lead up to 691AD mention Muhammad. Therefore, at this stage in our search for the facts, we have to say that both the Muhammadan formulae and the Qur’an were absent from the earliest days of the Arab Empire. It is impossible that the central figure of Islam would be missing from objective historical evidence if he was a real person. It is impossible that the Qur’an, and more importantly its central theology, would be missing if it was written and sent out soon after Muhammad’s death and was such a central part of the founding of the religion.
The year 691AD is therefore a watershed year in the history of the Arab religion, as the Dome of the Rock Mosque inscriptions instantly became the official Arab state creed. From then on they were the only form of religious proclamations permissible on papyrus protocols. The birth of proto-Islam was thus a political decision made by sectarian Christians of the Middle East in protest against what they saw as Christian idolatry in Europe. The blatantly Syriac Christian theology of the Dome inscription, with the addition of the terms Muhammad at the beginning and Islam at end, are visible summary statements of the various sub-canonical statements that were accumulating over the previous half century.
There are many linguistic clues that also point to this conclusion. First, the Syriac language gave the Qur’an its words for God, soul, last judgement, salvation, sacrifice, resurrection, heaven, angel, priest, Christ and prayer, Holy Spirit, Mt Ararat and pagan. Second, the word Qur’an itself is a Christian Syriac word derived from Qiryan, meaning a scripture lesson or recitation. In the oldest Qur’anic manuscripts it appears simply as qrn, which is much closer to the Syriac. This is a hugely significant choice of a name and religious words for the greatest revelation in Islam. Third, the very word Allah is also the Syriac Ilah. The term Allah is not a contraction of the Arabic Al-ilah meaning the god, but the proper Syriac name used by themselves, the Nabataeans and other north-Arabian inscription writers for God the creator of the universe. The Nestorian pronunciation is Allaha. Fourth, the word Isa is only found in Syriac literature, and nowhere else, being dated to at least 571AD and to a monastery in South Syria. Fifth, the Qur’anic word for the resting place of the Ark is strange and not related to all other translations that call it Mt Ararat. This is because it is taken directly from Syriac Peshitta version of the Bible which disagrees with all other versions on this issue. Sixth, use of Nasara for Christian is taken from the Syriac churches own description of themselves. It is a term used by no other group.
The influence of the Syriac church did not stop with religious words. It extended to theological positions that became core Islamic beliefs. The Syriac church regarded itself as descended from Thomas rather than Peter. They still do. From its beginning it emphasised there is one God, the God of the Old Testament, who sent his messenger, Christ, sent from God but not equal with God, who was one. This position came about through the teachings of Arius, who was exiled to the Middle East by the Byzantine imperial church. These two concepts that Jesus is a messenger not a messiah, and that God is one not three go to the core of Islam’s differentiation from modern Christianity.
One branch of the Syriac church were Monophysites, who believed that Christ had one nature, not two as spelt out by the Council of Nicaea. This produced further belief that there were in fact three gods making up the trinity. This error became a major point of attack later in the development of Islam. Further, the Syriac bible, the Diatessaron, incorporated an extra gospel called the Gospel of the Hebrews, in which Mary was elevated to the same status as the Holy Spirit. This has also become a chief point of attack by Islamic theologians. Borrowing theology from the Diatessaron also explains the Qur’an’s lifting the identical spelling of people from the patriarchal period, as demonstrated above.
Why did all these theological positions transfer seamlessly from Syriac Christianity to Islam if Islam arose independently in splendid isolation from all other religions as a direct revelation from heaven some 1,500 kilometers away from the influence of the Syriac church in the deep in the Arabian Peninsula? The question is especially pertinent since most of the Arabs actually inhabited Palestine and Syria, had embraced Syriac Christianity some centuries before, and had prospered as part of the proxy defense system used by the Byzantine Empire to contain the Persians across a featureless imperial border of deserts!
The Dome’s inscription was a theological rallying call for the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Egyptian Coptic Monophysites, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Orthodox churches. All these Middle Eastern expressions of the Christian faith had rejected the dictates of the Council of Chalcedon, which they saw as endorsing a false understanding of Christ and promoting the heresy of the idol worshipping, Mary elevating, Trinitarian Catholics of the Hellenised Byzantine Empire. All these churches saw themselves as the oldest and most secure patrons of original Christian theology. This is why the inscription of the Dome of the Rock Mosque is so revealing. This also means what we call today the Dome of the Rock Mosque was probably built not as a mosque but a church, constructed in the style of most Middle Eastern churches of that era!
Why are these official accounts at odds with the objective evidence of the Negev rock inscriptions, construction plaques, coins and the Dome of the Rock Mosque? The evidence clearly points to a gradual evolution of thought and doctrine rather than a sudden revelation 1,300 Kilometres to the south East some 70 years previously in a city whose existence we have no objective evidence for until after 840AD. These facts call into question the whole super-structure and narrative of the Islamic religion.
Thank you for reading. Other essays in this series from my website, setfreeseminars.com include: