I wasn’t aware that the classic criteria were used outside of historical-Jesus studies, but in a debate between Robert Spencer and David Wood, Did Muhammad Exist?, they are not only used but spoken of as if a common language among historians. Neither is a professional scholar of Islam, but their debate is a good one and well informed. Spencer denies that Muhammad was a real person, per his book Did Muhammad Exist? published last year (which argues that the prophet was a fiction created in the 690s). Wood defends the mainstream view that Muhammad existed, and by relying solely on the criterion of embarrassment to make his case. That’s what grabbed my attention.
Both Spencer and Wood agree that we don’t have any early sources, let alone multiple or independent ones, to make a case for Muhammad’s existence. There’s no mention of Muhammad or the Qur’an by the Arabs who were supposed to have been energized by them in the first six decades. Only by the eighth and ninth centuries do we get stories of Muhammad in sudden detail. In the early expansion following the 630s, the prophet and Qur’an are unheard of, not only in surviving Arab communications, but in the writings of those they conquered. These Arabs are said to have come and destroyed, but they are not called Muslims, just Hagarenes, Ishmaelites, and Saracens.
Recognizing this wide gap, Wood turns to the criterion of embarrassment to make a case for Muhammad’s existence, and note the way he introduces it. He gives the impression that the criterion is a tool used by historians at large:
“Historians have developed principles for gathering kernels of truth, even from defective and biased writings. One is the criterion of embarrassment. When someone admits something that makes their hero look bad, it’s probably true, because he wouldn’t invent something that’s embarrassing to him. When people invent things, they invent things that make themselves and their beliefs look good. Muslims won’t invent things that make Muhammad look stupid or immoral or evil.”
Wood is a Christian apologist, and it may be that he is simply familiar with the methodologies of New Testament studies of the historical Jesus, and assuming they are a common historian’s language; I’m not sure.
Wood commendably (and again in agreement with Spencer) advises caution with the criterion, emphasizing that what is embarrassing to modern Muslims wasn’t necessarily embarrassing to Muslims 14 centuries ago. For instance, according to Muslim sources, Muhammad had sex with his nine-year old child-bride Aisha; he had sex with his slave girls; he told his followers to rape their female captives and have sex with prostitutes; he approved of men beating their wives into submission; he ordered the assassination of his critics and execution of apostates, and the violent subjugation of Christians and Jews; he supported his religion by robbing people, and had a man tortured for money. While all of this material is highly embarrassing to many modern Muslims (and indeed why these traditions are often denied, in whole or part), none of it would have been embarrassing to early Muslims. These practices were perfectly acceptable by 7th-century Arabian standards, and there’s no reason why they couldn’t have been invented.
Wood, however, lights on seven accounts in early Muslim sources that do seem genuinely embarrassing. I’ll outline them here, followed by Spencer’s rebuttals, and then Wood’s counter-rebuttals.
(1) Muhammad thinks he’s demon-possessed. When he began receiving revelations, his first reflection was that he was demon possessed. When he fled from the cave, he was convinced that part of the Qur’an was put into his head by a poetry demon. His wife and her cousin finally convinced him that he wasn’t possessed but rather a prophet of Allah.
Spencer’s rebuttal: The reason to invent this is to lay aside fears that Muhammad’s revelations were demonically inspired in the first place.
Wood’s counter: But you can come up with all sorts of ways to show or justify that someone isn’t demon-possessed without making him look a fool (i.e. so that he can’t tell the difference between holy revelations and demonic ones). You can simply have Allah pronounce him free of demons, or have him work miracles, etc.
(2) Muhammad’s attempted suicide. After Muhammad’s experience in the cave, he became suicidal and tried to hurl himself off a cliff. If you’re manufacturing a prophet to unite the Arab people, you wouldn’t describe him as history’s first suicidal prophet.
Spencer’s rebuttal: The reason to invent this is to lay aside fears that dark forces were influencing Muhammad. He ultimately resisted suicide and went on to fulfill his mission.
Wood’s counter: As above, with demon possession. There are more attractive ways to dispel fears like this than showing your prophet to be shamefully weak.
(3) The Satanic verses. According to our earliest Muslim sources, Muhammad delivered revelations from the devil. In addition to Allah, there are three goddesses you can pray to. He and his followers bowed down before them. Then Muhammad came back and said these verses really weren’t from God, they were from Satan, and he replaced them with the words we find in the Koran today. If you invent a prophet, you certainly don’t invent one who is duped and tricked by Satan, and who can’t tell the difference between the holy and the damned.
Spencer’s rebuttal: If this religion is in a period of flux and being developed, it’s going to go through stages, which will contradict earlier stages. And so there has to be some explanation as to why some things were taught but then were not taught.
Wood’s counter: This is actually the strongest case of embarrassment, where the authentic momentum keeps it steamrolling through generations, despite being increasingly watered down. In the earliest verses, Muhammad was duped by Satan into delivering the revelations; in later verses, he didn’t actually deliver them — he was impersonated by Satan; in still later verses, all of this is cut out and all that’s left are the pagans bowing down in honor of the revelation. (In the original story, they were bowing down because Muhammad was honoring their gods.) The historical core has been all but completely lost by the time of the Hadith collections. [As I will point out below, this trajectory is similar to what we see in the baptism of Jesus across Mark–>Matthew–>Luke–>John.] The only way such an uncomfortable story would have had the momentum to stay alive, despite the increased damage control, is if people knew it really happened.
Spencer’s second rebuttal: The embarrassment is admittedly obvious, but that doesn’t mean the original account couldn’t have been invented. It’s like telling a lie, and then you find you have to quickly tell another lie to cover it up.
(4) Muhammad falls under the power of black magic. Multiple references indicate that Muhammad was the victim of black magic, which made him delusional and gave him false beliefs. One of his enemies stole his hairbrush and cast a spell on him.
Spencer’s rebuttal: The reason to invent this is to show Muhammad victorious over black magic. The story is designed to reinforce that black magic holds no sway over him.
Wood’s counter: There are easier and more palatable ways to show that Muhammad isn’t under the power of black magic, without portraying him as actually succumbing to black magic in order to break free of it.
(5) Muhammad’s many wives. Muhammad’s revelation decrees that Muslims are allowed to marry up to four women. Yet the Muslim sources say that Muhammad had many more. The defense is that he received a special revelation from Allah giving him special privilege, but this still violates his own revelation.
Spencer’s rebuttal: Allah can do as he pleases, as he does all the time. Furthermore, Muhammad is portrayed as a super-virile hero — having the sexual potency of 40 men — not exactly an ordinary guy.
Wood’s counter: Muhammad could have had loads of sex with his four wives to prove his super-potency, and then loads of sex with, say, 100 slave girls. This would have allowed him to stay consistent with his revelation.
(6) Muhammad marries the divorced wife (Zaynab) of his own adopted son (Zayd). And this, after he was the one to break up the marriage. The justification for this is so over the top that it screams embarrassment.
Spencer’s rebuttal: It’s true that this one (like (3) the Satanic verses) is embarrassing. The story ends with the statement, “Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, he is the father of the prophets.” The sources had to emphasize that Muhammad was the final prophet, the seal of the prophets, which meant that if all the prophets were of one bloodline, then Muhammad could have no son — natural or adopted. So this story was invented to show that Muhammad had no son, and that he had an adopted son, but that Allah ruled out the necessity for adoption, ruled out the legitimacy of adoption, and emphasized this by giving Muhammad in marriage his adopted son’s ex-wife. Thus this was no violation of the laws of consanguinity, because Muhammad was not this man’s father — or indeed any man’s father. It’s also an indirect dig at Christianity, which has a whole theology of adopted sonship: if adoption is illegitimate, than Christianity is too.
Wood’s counter: You can deny that Muhammad had sons a lot more easily than this, without leaping through tortured and self-defeating explanations.
(7) Muhammad poisoned by a Jewish woman. Muhammad is portrayed as poisoned by a Jewish woman whose family had been slaughtered by Muslims. The poisons ate away at his organs for two years before he died in shameful agony. If your prophet’s greatest desire was to die gloriously in battle, you don’t invent a shameful end like this for him.
Spencer’s rebuttal: This account serves the political purpose of demonizing the Jews, a thread that runs through the Hadith as well as the Qur’an itself. It’s a particular preoccupation of the Qur’an leaders at the time the Qur’an and Hadith were put together, to demonize the Jews whom they saw as formidable opponents.
Wood’s counter: Then why not have Muhammad dying in battle fighting the Jews?
Summary: As Wood points out, Spencer adopts a “means-to-end approach” in accounting for these embarrassments. But the early Muslims could have had Spencer’s ends without these embarrassing means. They could have justified doctrines or ideas without either making a fool out of Muhammad or making him look apostate. Spencer counters that we don’t know enough details behind these traditions to “make sense” of how they would have been crafted or argued, and he insists that most of these accounts don’t show signs of embarrassment in any case — aside from (3) and (6). The other five examples, according to Spencer, seem to have been no more embarrassing to the early Muslims than the account of Muhammad having sex with the nine-year old Aisha.
What’s fascinating to me about this debate — besides the use of criteria which I thought to be the exclusive domain of New Testament studies, and a liability for precisely this reason — is that it mirrors some contemporary debating about the existence of Jesus. See, for instance, Richard Carrier and Mark Goodacre, Did Jesus Exist?, which follows on the heels of Carrier’s recent book, Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Carrier doubts that Jesus existed, and he’s analogous to Spencer in finding the criterion of embarrassment to be especially useless.
For sake of analogy, I will list seven (as Wood does in the Muhammad debate) examples where the criterion of embarrassment has been used by New Testament scholars to argue for the authenticity of Jesus material. Let’s see how these really hold up.
(1) Jesus’ baptism by John. Why invent your sinless savior undergoing a rite that washed away sins?
(2) Jesus’ feasting with sinners and tax collectors. Why fabricate mocking caricatures of your Lord as a bon vivant who ate and drank with low-lives?
(3) Jesus’ use of spit to heal blindness and deafness. Why associate your Lord with pagan magic?
(4) Jesus’ mistaken prophecy of the end. Why make your Lord incompetent?
(5) Jesus’ betrayal by Judas. Why invent one of the twelve disciples turning evil?
(6) Jesus’ denial by Peter. As above.
(7) Jesus’ despairing cry on the cross. Why show your Lord pitifully weak at his moment of triumph?
(*) Jesus’ crucifixion. Special case.
(1) is the only one on this list that I would call embarrassing in the hard-core sense. In the accounts of Jesus’ baptism by John, the apologetic process from Mark–>Matthew–>Luke–>John is so obvious you’d have to be a fool not to see it. Each evangelist controls the embarrassment better than the one before. It’s the closest gospel analogy to the Satanic verses example which Wood adduces for Muhammad. Just as in the final version of the Muslim sources, Muhammad is no longer offering devilish revelations at all (whether he himself or the devil’s impersonations of him) — all that’s left are those bowing down in honor of his revelation — so too by the time of the fourth gospel, John is no longer baptizing Jesus; all that’s left is the epiphany. Mark admitted the baptism, Matthew defended it with protests and platitudes (“The only reason you need to be baptized,” John assures his superior, “is to ‘fulfill all righteousness'”), Luke censored it by putting the Baptist in jail when Jesus was baptized, and John censored the actual baptism. It’s unclear as to when a baptism would have become embarrassing in the evolving Christian movement, but I subscribe to the view that there was high Christology at a very early date. I think it likely that Jesus’ baptism by John can be regarded as historical on the basis of embarrassment. The tradition was kept alive all these decades, steamrolling through every single gospel (“with momentum”, to use Wood’s phrase) because it really happened, and had to be acknowledged in some way, despite its difficulties. That’s not a certainty, by any means, but by far the most plausible explanation.
(4) seems significantly embarrassing to the three synoptic writers (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). Jesus’ prediction that the end would come in his lifetime (“I say to you that there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power”) makes him wrong, and the synoptic writers (following Mark’s lead) make lemonade out of this embarrassment with the transfiguration. For Mark, those who died before seeing the kingdom come in power are the disciples who missed the transfiguration (and also, per Stephen Carlson, those who fled the crucifixion unlike the women). But the gospels show embarrassment only because they were written after the death of all first-generation followers. The saying wouldn’t have been embarrassing, say, in the mid-50s, during the first-generation church. In fact, it could well have been invented during this time to serve as an assurance for those who were getting impatient for Jesus’ return, as some disciples were dying off. The message would have been, “Don’t worry, Jesus is indeed coming again, and some of you will still be alive when it happens.” Only at the point when everyone died off would the saying become scandalous. So this one’s a draw: Jesus could have made the foolish prediction, or it could have been invented in early pre-gospel years.
(3) is embarrassing to Matthew and Luke. They censor the spit from their accounts in copying Mark. But I’m unclear as to how blasphemous this practice really was, or if Judaism was syncretic enough to accommodate it in some circles.
(7) is embarrassing to Luke and John. But neither Mark nor Matthew seem uncomfortable with Jesus’ agonizing cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. (Luke replaced it with a calm eulogy of Jesus’ spirit, and John used the triumphant, “It is accomplished!”) That’s because Mark’s agenda was to console and vindicate Christian believers who suffered as Jesus did (per Mark Goodacre). So this could have been invented to serve Mark’s interests.
(5) and (6) aren’t embarrassing, as far as I can tell. In the post-70 age of the gospels, Judas actually serves as a helpful device to show how the old (“evil”) religion of Judah and its temple cult is replaced by the Christian sect. Judas functions as one who opposes Jesus-the-Christ in the same way Satan opposed the Almighty in late Second Temple mythology. As for Peter, his behavior squares with Mark’s agenda in showing the consequences of denying Christ in times of suffering; it also functions as wonderful (anti-Peter) propaganda amidst factional battles for control of the church.
(2) isn’t embarrassing at all. Regarding sinners, the Christian movement was all about the last being first, exalting the lowly, Jesus dying expressly for sinners and the ungodly rather than the righteous. This is what the Christians reveled in. Jesus’ table-fellowship with low-lives could have been invented to justify their theology — despite the fact that so many historians (conservative and liberal alike) love holding this up as a sure case of sure history. Don’t misunderstand me, Jesus may well have feasted with outcasts; but the criterion of embarrassment is no help here.
(*) The crucifixion is a special case. It’s actually the least embarrassing doctrine of the Jesus traditions. Early Christians like Paul weren’t remotely embarrassed by the shame and scandal of the cross. They made it their badge of honor, and to hell with difficulties in converting others to their cause. (That’s a common enough phenomenon in the history of religious movements.) However, there would have obviously been embarrassment in the immediate aftermath of the event, until the disciples could stop and reflect and decide to embrace the worst thing conceivable as their salvation. So in an off-kilter way, that does point to the historicity of the crucifixion. Yes, the Christians could have invented the outrage; things like that happen. But knowing it would be a stumbling block to many others (I Cor 1:22-24), that’s a less likely scenario than reality having forced the outrage on them from the start.
Conclusion: What I hope these “lists of seven” demonstrate is that the criterion of embarrassment is a limited tool that while sometimes pointing us in directions of greater plausibility, is abused when not applied thoughtfully. The Qur’an is a bit outside my comfort zone, but in my own sampling of the best New Testament examples, I find that most show little if any embarrassment over the Jesus traditions. Spencer could be getting somewhat desperate in accounting for extreme cases like the Satanic verses and Muhammad’s marriage to Zaynab. Yes, it’s possible to “tell a lie and then tell other lies” to cover for your blunders, but that’s not always the most plausible explanation for an exceedingly embarrassing account.
If anyone knows of studies outside the New Testament and the Qur’an which use the classic criteria, especially that of embarrassment, I’d like to know. I was under the impression they were used for the historical Jesus only, but the debate between Spencer and Wood indicates otherwise.