An attempt by German Academia to provide outreach to moderate Muslims may have significantly backfired, with its leading light becoming an apostate.  Muhammed Sven Kalish has written a paper asserting that the prophet Mohammed never existed at all, and that Islam started as a Christian heresy.  Needless to say, the same people who threatened death on editorial cartoonists merely for depicting Mohammed are not pleased:

Muhammad Sven Kalisch, a Muslim convert and Germany’s first professor of Islamic theology, fasts during the Muslim holy month, doesn’t like to shake hands with Muslim women and has spent years studying Islamic scripture. Islam, he says, guides his life.

So it came as something of a surprise when Prof. Kalisch announced the fruit of his theological research. His conclusion: The Prophet Muhammad probably never existed.

Muslims, not surprisingly, are outraged. Even Danish cartoonists who triggered global protests a couple of years ago didn’t portray the Prophet as fictional. German police, worried about a violent backlash, told the professor to move his religious-studies center to more-secure premises.

“We had no idea he would have ideas like this,” says Thomas Bauer, a fellow academic at Münster University who sat on a committee that appointed Prof. Kalisch. “I’m a more orthodox Muslim than he is, and I’m not a Muslim.”

Of course, Christians and Jews have dealt with critical research for many years on the historical accuracy of their scriptures.  Claims that Jesus, Moses, and David didn’t exist have been made, debunked, and made yet again so often that they no longer make news any more.  Christians and Jews express annoyance at times with these claims, but they don’t react to them with violence and rage.

Neither should Muslims, Kalisch says, and the reluctance to even offer such a hypothetical amounts to bigotry:

Most Western scientists turn down such an hypotheses out of respect for Islam or because they are afraid of the reactions of their Muslim friends or because they think it is speculative nonsense.

The word “respect” sounds wonderful but it is completely inappropriate here because one really refers to the opposite. Whoever thinks that Muslims can’t deal with facts puts Muslims on the same level as small children who can’t think and decide for themselves and whose illusions of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny one doesn’t want to destroy.

Whoever really bases his thoughts on the equality of all human beings must expect the same intellectual performance. Really treating Muslims with respect would imply that they are strong enough to deal with their religion on the basis of our modern level of knowledge. “Islamophobes” think we Muslims are barbarians, the “kind-hearted” take us for “noble savages”… The result is the same: Muslims are seen as different from the rest of the world — they either belong in a “petting zoo” or in cages for wild animals, but by all means they belong in a zoo.

I agree with Kalisch’s response, but I think he misplaces the blame.  Western intellectuals have this reaction because of the massive rage that comes not just from a few nutcases but millions of Muslims when the Koran or the Hadiths receive any sort of critical scrutiny at all.  The Prophet Cartoon outrage was particularly instructive, as the resultant demonstrations had millions of participants worldwide calling for death to the editorial cartoonists — and they just drew pictures of Mohammed.  It’s that predictable rage that makes Western academics place Muslims in general in the category of ill-tempered children.

However, I’d take his hypothesis with a large, Lot’s wife-sized grain of salt.  Modern academics show little respect to the value of oral traditions in these revisionist theories.  It’s certainly possible that Mohammed never existed, but it strikes me as extremely unlikely.  Just because his story didn’t get written in a traditional paper medium during his life doesn’t make him a fable.  It could certainly impact the veracity of his quotes and the stories told in the Koran, but his existence?  Especially given the disputes over his succession that broke out after his death — all of which have fairly clear records and resulted in the Sunni-Shi’ite split within a generation or two — I’d call Kalisch’s theory a long shot.

Nevertheless, it’s precisely this kind of critical thinking that Islam requires to bring it into modernity and toleration.  Unfortunately, it’s also this kind of critical thinking that provokes the most reactionary behavior, which them shuts down critical thinking.  This will be a long process indeed, one I’m certain Germany’s academics had no intention of starting with such a controversial launch.