The standard histories of Muhammad and the early development of Islam are based on Islamic literature that dates to the ninth and tenth centuries - some two centuries or more after the death of Muhammad in 632. Islamic literary sources do not exist for the seventh and eighth centuries, when, according to tradition, Muhammad and his immediate followers lived. All that is preserved from this time period are a few commemorative building inscriptions and assorted coins. Based on the premise that reliable history can only be written on the basis of sources that are contemporary with the events described, the contributors to this in-depth investigation present research that reveals the obscure origins of Islam in a completely new light. As the authors meticulously show, the name 'Muhammad' first appears on coins in Syria bearing Christian iconography. In this context the name is used as an honorific meaning 'revered' or 'praiseworthy' and can only refer to Jesus Christ, as Christianity was the predominant religion of the area at this time. This same reference exists in the building inscription of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built by the caliph 'Abd al-Malik.
The implication of these and other findings here presented is that the early Arab rulers adhered to a sect of Christianity. Indeed, evidence from the Koran, finalised at a much later time, shows that its central theological tenets were influenced by a pre-Nicean, Syrian Christianity. Linguistic analysis also indicates that Aramaic, the common language throughout the Near East for many centuries and the language of Syrian Christianity, significantly influenced the Arabic script and vocabulary used in the Koran. Finally, it was not until the end of the eighth and ninth centuries that Islam formed as a separate religion, and the Koran underwent a period of historical development of at least 200 years.
"The scholarly basis of this important proposal [a new cultural interpretation of the rapid expansion of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries CE] resides on the one hand on the observation that there is a striking lack of original written material which attests to the doctrine that we know today as Islam, from this early pre-Abbasid period. On the other it is underpinned by detailed study of the textual material which does derive from this era, as well as careful interpretation of the many written sources which became available after the beginning of the Abbasid ascendancy. However, if Islam during this era did not resemble what we know it as today, what was it? On this point the authors break unity, some giving bold, alternative interpretations, others working at the question from detailed, nuanced angles. What the current volume succeeds in doing is to refocus attention on [longstanding beliefs regarding the origins of Islam], and to situate the scholarly problem in very legitimate religious, political, cultural, and linguistic questions, within the context both of new scholarly interpretations and findings, and state of the art overviews of long-discussed issues...the prospect of bringing the two perspectives [traditional and new] together holds the promise of a lively, interesting and new chapter in western Islamic studies." --Arabica, Vol. 55, 2008