Monday, July 14, 2003

Al-Muhajabah sends a long a thoughtful e-mail in response to this post about recent developments in Qur'anic Studies. The last paragraph: "Quite frankly, from what I have read, analysis and interpretation was being done on the Quran by the year 1000 that was more sophisticated than anything being done on the Bible until the late 1800s or after. Is this not of value because it doesn't use modern methodology? How do we judge what type of methodology is best? I would prefer to see scholars work within the Islamic tradition of scholarship first and go beyond it when they find it lacking rather than starting from scratch with the implication that there's nothing of value in the old works."

My answer to the question, speaking as a historian, is no. In fact, I make a point in class of the importance of the work done by Muslims on everything from hadith scholarship to Qur'anic exegesis for our modern understanding of the context of these works. However, I don't think the scholars working on these projects are saying that at all. Basically, what the critical edition project seems to spring from is a questioning of the Uthmanic recension of the Qur'an, and wondering if other extant versions might possibly affect interpretation. This is analogous to Biblical scholars finding some manuscript in the Dead Sea Scrolls that might shed light on some reference in the canonical books of the Bible. I think any methodology with the potential to enhance understanding should be fair game for any scholar of any subject.

I should add, however, that as I am not a Muslim, I prefer to stay out of the theological aspects of this debate, if that is at all possible. Issues like the application of hadith to Qur'anic interpretation have been revisited by modernist Muslims before, and shari'a is a subject so complicated that truly mastering even a branch of it requires a commitment similar to what I do as a grad student in history. Al-Muhajabah suggests the web site Islamic Awareness for those interested in looking at these sorts of issues further.


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