Disputed History: Jacob Van Maerlant, Richard Bell, and the “Borrowing” of Christianity in Islam
The notion that Muhammad “borrowed” ideas and practices from the Bible and from Christianity to craft his new religion has existed for hundreds of years in varying forms. While not the first text to make such a claim, Jacob Van Maerlant’s Spiegel Historiael, which was written between 1283 and 1288, is a primary example of this strain of Christian thought from the medieval era. In his discussion of Muhammad’s life and the creation of Islam, Maerlant draws on many previous texts to systematically attribute different facets of Islam either to a Christian or a Jewish source. This method serves to discredit the religion’s claim to being an original divine revelation—why would Muhammad have to copy from the Bible if he was receiving the direct word of God?
This kind of sweeping attack on Islam manifested itself again over 600 years later in a series of nine lectures delivered by Richard Bell at Divinity Hall of Edinburgh University in 1925, collectively entitled The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment. Even though this source is not as current as some others, it directly addresses the idea under question and still illustrates how it survived into the modern era. Both writers claim that Muhammad used Christian and Jewish arguments in the writing of the Qur’an, but the variations in their arguments lie in what was borrowed and the rationale behind the borrowing. This is due primarily to different historical information about Muhammad, what he had learned about Judaism and Christianity and when in his career he learned it. These accounts of how Muhammad strategically constructed the Qur’an (because, from the Christian perspective, that must have been the case) always depict him as an opportunist, but he is more devious in the medieval era and simply practical in the modern.
The concept of borrowing is an incredibly forceful argument for a Christian polemicist because it undermines the very foundations of Islam’s legitimacy, its claim to original divine revelation, and it is unsurprising that it has survived for so long.