Professor Svend Kalish
MÜNSTER, Germany — 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.
Theology Without Muhammad
Read a translated excerpt from “Islamic Theology Without the Historic Muhammad — Comments on the Challenges of the Historical-Critical Method for Islamic Thinking” by Professor Kalisch.
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.”
When Prof. Kalisch took up his theology chair four years ago, he was seen as proof that modern Western scholarship and Islamic ways can mingle — and counter the influence of radical preachers in Germany. He was put in charge of a new program at Münster, one of Germany’s oldest and most respected universities, to train teachers in state schools to teach Muslim pupils about their faith.
Muslim leaders cheered and joined an advisory board at his Center for Religious Studies. Politicians hailed the appointment as a sign of Germany’s readiness to absorb some three million Muslims into mainstream society. But, says Andreas Pinkwart, a minister responsible for higher education in this north German region, “the results are disappointing.”
Prof. Kalisch, who insists he’s still a Muslim, says he knew he would get in trouble but wanted to subject Islam to the same scrutiny as Christianity and Judaism. German scholars of the 19th century, he notes, were among the first to raise questions about the historical accuracy of the Bible.
Many scholars of Islam question the accuracy of ancient sources on Muhammad’s life. The earliest biography, of which no copies survive, dated from roughly a century after the generally accepted year of his death, 632, and is known only by references to it in much later texts. But only a few scholars have doubted Muhammad’s existence. Most say his life is better documented than that of Jesus.
“Of course Muhammad existed,” says Tilman Nagel, a scholar in Göttingen and author of a new book, “Muhammad: Life and Legend.” The Prophet differed from the flawless figure of Islamic tradition, Prof. Nagel says, but “it is quite astonishing to say that thousands and thousands of pages about him were all forged” and there was no such person.
All the same, Prof. Nagel has signed a petition in support of Prof. Kalisch, who has faced blistering criticism from Muslim groups and some secular German academics. “We are in Europe,” Prof. Nagel says. “Education is about thinking, not just learning by heart.”
Prof. Kalisch’s religious studies center recently removed a sign and erased its address from its Web site. The professor, a burly 42-year-old, says he has received no specific threats but has been denounced as apostate, a capital offense in some readings of Islam.
“Maybe people are speculating that some idiot will come and cut off my head,” he said during an interview in his study.
A few minutes later, an assistant arrived in a panic to say a suspicious-looking digital clock had been found lying in the hallway. Police, called to the scene, declared the clock harmless.
A convert to Islam at age 15, Prof. Kalisch says he was drawn to the faith because it seemed more rational than others. He embraced a branch of Shiite Islam noted for its skeptical bent. After working briefly as a lawyer, he began work in 2001 on a postdoctoral thesis in Islamic law in Hamburg, to go through the elaborate process required to become a professor in Germany.
The Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. that year appalled Mr. Kalisch but didn’t dent his devotion. Indeed, after he arrived at Münster University in 2004, he struck some as too conservative. Sami Alrabaa, a scholar at a nearby college, recalls attending a lecture by Prof. Kalisch and being upset by his doctrinaire defense of Islamic law, known as Sharia.
In private, he was moving in a different direction. He devoured works questioning the existence of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Then “I said to myself: You’ve dealt with Christianity and Judaism but what about your own religion? Can you take it for granted that Muhammad existed?”
He had no doubts at first, but slowly they emerged. He was struck, he says, by the fact that the first coins bearing Muhammad’s name did not appear until the late 7th century — six decades after the religion did.
He traded ideas with some scholars in Saarbrücken who in recent years have been pushing the idea of Muhammad’s nonexistence. They claim that “Muhammad” wasn’t the name of a person but a title, and that Islam began as a Christian heresy.
Prof. Kalisch didn’t buy all of this. Contributing last year to a book on Islam, he weighed the odds and called Muhammad’s existence “more probable than not.” By early this year, though, his thinking had shifted. “The more I read, the historical person at the root of the whole thing became more and more improbable,” he says.
He has doubts, too, about the Quran. “God doesn’t write books,” Prof. Kalisch says.
Some of his students voiced alarm at the direction of his teaching. “I began to wonder if he would one day say he doesn’t exist himself,” says one. A few boycotted his lectures. Others sang his praises.
Prof. Kalisch says he “never told students ‘just believe what Kalisch thinks’ ” but seeks to teach them to think independently. Religions, he says, are “crutches” that help believers get to “the spiritual truth behind them.” To him, what matters isn’t whether Muhammad actually lived but the philosophy presented in his name.
This summer, the dispute hit the headlines. A Turkish-language German newspaper reported on it with gusto. Media in the Muslim world picked up on it.
Germany’s Muslim Coordinating Council withdrew from the advisory board of Prof. Kalisch’s center. Some Council members refused to address him by his adopted Muslim name, Muhammad, saying that he should now be known as Sven.
German academics split. Michael Marx, a Quran scholar at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, warned that Prof. Kalisch’s views would discredit German scholarship and make it difficult for German scholars to work in Muslim lands. But Ursula Spuler-Stegemann, an Islamic studies scholar at the University of Marburg, set up a Web site called solidaritymuhammadkalisch.com and started an online petition of support.
Alarmed that a pioneering effort at Muslim outreach was only stoking antagonism, Münster University decided to douse the flames. Prof. Kalisch was told he could keep his professorship but must stop teaching Islam to future school teachers.
The professor says he’s more determined than ever to keep probing his faith. He is finishing a book to explain his thoughts. It’s in English instead of German because he wants to make a bigger impact. “I’m convinced that what I’m doing is necessary. There must be a free discussion of Islam,” he says.
—Almut Schoenfeld in Berlin contributed to this article.
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