On a radio show on BBC 4 a couple of weeks ago, Tom Holland raised his claim (made originally in his book In the Shadow of the Sword on the origins of Islam) that the famous five daily prayers in Islam were not originally part of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings. They were actually imported into the religion from Zoroastrianism well after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and after the Muslims had conquered the greater Middle East. Holland sets his story in the environs of the city of Kufa in southern Iraq in the mid eighth century. The Muslim practice of praying five times a day, he argues, resulted from Islam, in effect, imitating Zoroastrian practice. More specifically, Zoroastrian converts to Islam in Kufa brought with them practices such as the five daily prayers from their own religion (Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword, 405).
Holland’s evidence for this is an observation supposedly made by Rav Yehudai Gaon, who was the senior Jewish scholar of the Suru rabbinic academy near Kufa from 757 CE until his death in 761. Rav Yehudai is quoted as remarking that Zoroastrian converts to Islam retained some aspect of their previous religion. Holland writes, quoting Rav Yehudai, “The hearts of those mowbeds [Zoroastrian priests] who had ‘converted to the religion of the Ishmaelites,’ so he reported, were still not entirely clear the trace of their former beliefs, even down to the third generation: ‘for part of their religion still remains within them.’”
Holland belongs to a school of historical thought known as revisionism, which criticizes mainstream Western scholarship on early Islamic history for relying too much on historical sources that 1) are written by Muslims, and therefore biased towards Islamic orthodoxy, and 2) postdate the events they describe by many decades or centuries, during which time the ‘true’ description of events must have been adjusted by the faithful to fit with the orthodox sacred Islamic history that had gelled during the intervening period. So we should not believe that the Muslim scholar Ibn Ishaq’s (died 767) famous biography of the Prophet is a historically reliable source for the events of the historical Muhammad’s life because 1) Ibn Ishaq was a Muslim writing a sacred history of a figure who had become a fixture in his religious tradition and was not being approached objectively, and 2) Ibn Ishaq was compiling his biography some 140 years after the death of the Prophet. To take Ibn Ishaq as reliable would be like historians a century from now writing the history of the American Civil War based on documents written in 2015 by Americans who all celebrate the victory of the North over the South.
To solve this problem of historical sources, revisionists have proposed relying on non-Muslim sources for the early Islamic period, some of which do date from early on (for example, the writings of the Armenian bishop Sebeos come from the 660’s CE) and are not colored by pro-Islam bias.
I could go into a long critique of the revisionist approach here, but that is totally unnecessary. Holland’s argument on the point of Muslim prayer is so feeble that one need only hold it to the standards of the revisionist school itself for it to collapse entirely.
1) Why is Holland putting words in Rav’s Mouth?:
The first problem with Holland’s argument is that Rav Yehudai does not actually mention the daily prayer as an example of Zoroastrian religious influence on Islam. Instead, Holland reaches this conclusion by open speculation. He asks, “What evidence might the rabbi have had for making such a claim?” Well, Zoroastrianism included a five-times-a-day prayer, he notes, so that was probably what Rav Yehudai meant. But speculation is unnecessary, since Rav Yehudai actually said exactly what he meant in the passage Holland cites. His comments about Zoroastrian converts to Islam involves how they tend not to give up drinking wine immediately, sometimes continuing to imbibe into the third generation.
2) How on Earth does Holland think this is a reliable historical source?
Let’s just pretend that Rav Yehudai was actually talking about the daily prayer practices of Zoroastrians/Muslims (which, of course, he never mentions at all). And let’s just assume that Rav Yehudai was making an accurate, fair observation about the practices around him in southern Iraq in the 750’s CE. The writings of Rav Yehudai must be more historically reliable than Muslim ones like Ibn Ishaq, right? What book of Rav Yehudai is Holland citing? Actually, he doesn’t cite any work by Rav Yehudai. His endnote cites the Sefer Ha-Eshkol, a work attributed to Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac, a rabbi living in southern France in the twelfth century. Nor does the Sefer Ha-Eshkol cite Rav Yehudai directly. Instead, Rav Yehudai’s report about Muslim converts comes via a senior rabbi of the Pumbedita rabbinic academy in Babylon who lived some three hundred years after Rav Yehudai, Rav Hayya Gaon (died 1038 CE).
So, Holland is saying that, in order to overcome the problem of Muslim sources like the biography of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq, which was compiled in Baghdad a century and a half after Muhammad’s career, we should turn to a source written in France five centuries after Muhammad’s career? But, Holland might reply, Abraham ben Isaac was drawing on earlier reports and historical works, which we should trust. But this is exactly what Muslim historians like Ibn Ishaq claimed to be doing in their works, and the central criticism made by revisionists like Holland is that we can’t just trust that historians are reliably passing on earlier material.
But let us be charitable. Let’s assume that during the five centuries between the lives of Rav Yehudai Gaon and Abraham ben Isaac, five centuries of religious polemics and warfare between Christians, Jews and Muslims across the Mediterranean, that Rav Yehudai’s observation remained intact to be preserved for us in the Sefer Ha-Eshkol.
The problem is that the Sefer Ha-Eshkol itself is unreliable. As has been discussed for over a century by rabbinic scholars and scholars of Judaic studies, the 1868 Halberstadt edition of the Sefer that Holland relies on was a forgery produced by the famous nineteenth-century Rabbi and literary scholar Zvi Benjamin Auerbach (died 1878). This has led some leading scholars of rabbinic literature to conclude that the book “should not be used for historical purposes.”*
3) So what sources should we rely on for the origins of the five daily prayers?
Let’s indulge revisionist skepticism about historical sources written by Muslims. Let’s forget that the story of how and when the Prophet Muhammad instituted the five daily prayers, which Muslim scholars concluded either happened in 617 CE or soon before the Prophet’s emigration to Medina 622 CE, was recorded in major Muslim historical collections from the late 700’s and early 800’s. The earliest attested book in which this story appears in the Muwatta’ of Malik bin Anas (died. 796), which was compiled in Medina in the mid to late 700’s. Malik includes a report transmitted via a chain of narrators from the Prophet, who said, “Five prayers God has ordained for His servants, and whoever does them without treating them lightly, God has given that person a promise to grant them entrance into the Garden….” (Muwatta’: kitab salat al-layl, bab al-amr bi’l-witr). If we indulge in revisionist skepticism and assume that Malik was making up the whole transmission that he claims came from the Prophet, we would still know that, at least during Malik’s own lifetime in Medina, there was the clear idea that a core part of Islam was five daily prayers.
And then we could indulge more revisionism and insist on relying on non-Muslim sources. Since Rav Yehudai never mentions the Muslim prayer, why not look at a non-Muslim source that does? We could look at the T’ung tien, a Chinese Tang court work of history and geography that was published in 801 CE. It contains a description of Kufa by a Chinese soldier who was taken prisoner at the Battle of Talas in 751, spent years amongst the Muslims in Iraq and Iran, and returned to China in 762. One of the few observations that this Chinese soldier recalls of Kufa, which was the Abbasid capital at the time (Baghdad not being built until the 760’s), was that the Muslims there would pray five times a day.
So between the Muwatta of Malik and the T’ung tien, we know that Muslim communal practice in Medina and Kufa in the mid 700’s included the five daily prayers. This despite the fact that the two regions of Medina and Kufa had dramatically different traditions of Islamic law. So both regions must have inherited the prayer practice from a common, earlier practice, and there thus must have been some common origin for the five prayers. This would push the historical attestation for the practice back at least one generation to at least the early 700’s, only seventy or so years after the death of the Prophet.
4) When arrogant historians tell us that bring critical means ignoring the obvious
So we have a choice. We can believe Holland’s claim, based on an unreliable nineteenth-century forgery of a supposedly twelfth-century work from France quoting an eleventh-century rabbi in Baghdad quoting an eighth century rabbi from near Kufa, that, because Zoroastrian converts to Islam still liked to drink wine, that therefore the Muslim practice of praying five times a day, which, like wine drinking, Zoroastrians also did, must also have been imported into Islam from Zoroastrianism by Zoroastrian converts.
That, or, we can believe, based on historically attested Muslim and non-Muslim sources, which paint a reliable overall picture of Muslim practice in Kufa and Medina decades before Rav Yehudai supposedly made his observation, that the five daily prayers were widely accepted as a core practice of Islam by at least the early 700’s, only seventy or so years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
Actually, Holland’s claim makes even less sense when we remember that the tradition of Islamic law in Kufa, where Holland has all these Zoroastrian practices and five-times-a-day-praying Zoroastrian sleeper converts supposedly influencing Muslims, actually argued for there being SIX required daily prayers (the sixth, the witr prayer, is still considered required in the Hanafi school that originated in Kufa). The Muwatta of Malik, on the other hand, written in Medina where Holland would have us assume that there were many fewer Zoroastrian converts wandering around, rejects the sixth prayer and insists on the supposedly Zoroastrian-based five times.
5) This is all unnecessary if you want to explain Islam’s roots
Holland and others make the arguments they do because they believe, quite reasonably, that nothing comes out of nowhere. People, ideas and customs have genealogies. So, could practices and beliefs promulgated in the Quran and the Prophet’s teachings be taken from elsewhere? Yes, of course. The Quran announces that some aspects of Islam are repeats from earlier prophetic messages: ‘O you who believe, fasting has been prescribed for you as it was for those who came before you’ (2:185). And there are well known reports that the Prophet Muhammad would follow the customs of the People of Book (basically, Jews) unless commanded by God to do otherwise (see Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Shama’il of al-Tirmidhi). So the origins of the five daily prayers, as taught by Muhammad in his new religion, may well lie in preexisting practices such as those of Zoroastrianism. But saying that Islam as a religion practiced and taught by Muhammad incorporated elements of earlier traditions is very different from saying that what Muslims believe to be a core teaching of their Prophet was actually adopted into Islam long after his death, and this adoption then covered up.
* Haym Soloveitchik, “Review of Olam ke-Minhago Noheg, by Yishaq Zimmer,” Association of Jewish Studies Review 23.2 (1998): 227-228.