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
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
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
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.
Muhammad Sven Kalish
“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
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 Jesus, Abraham, and Moses. 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
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
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.
Copyright ©2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Below are translated excerpts from an article in German entitled, “Islamic Theology Without the
Historic Muhammad — Comments on the Challenges of the Historical-Critical Method for
Islamic Thinking,” by Germany's Prof. Muhammad Kalisch, a Muslim.
Up to some time ago I was convinced that Muhammad was a historical figure. Although I always
based my thinking on the assumption that the Islamic historical narrative regarding Muhammad
was very unreliable, I had no doubts that at least the basic lines of his biography were historically
I have now moved away from this position and will soon publish a book in which I will, among
other things, comment on this question and explain my arguments in more detail. This essay is
only a short summary of my most important arguments. It also deals with the question of what
implications historical-critical research has for the Islamic theory and how I deal with my
research results as a theologian.
With regard to the historical existence of Muhammad ... I consider my position simply as a
continuation of the most recent research results. It appears so spectacular only because it has
been said by a Muslim ... 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
The final argument is even more awful because it can only be described as cowardly. Religious
fundamentalists are spreading out (not only Islamic fundamentalist) and freedom of thought must
be defended no matter what. There must not be any compromise on this otherwise we set the
track for a retreat into the Middle Ages and this can happen much faster than many people think.
My position with regard to the historical existence of Muhammad is that I believe neither his
existence nor his non-existence can be proven. I, however, lean towards the non-existence but I
don't think it can be proven. It is my impression that, unless there are some sensational
archeological discoveries — an Islamic “Qumran” or “Nag Hammadi” — the question of
Muhammad's existence will probably never be finally clarified.
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