Tuesday, July 15, 2003

More Qur'an Talk

Zack Ajmal and Ed Cohn both link to an Atlantic Monthly article dealing with Qur'anic Studies, as well as some opinions on different sides of the question. The debate highlights some issues which I think are worth addressing.

First is the motives of the scholars, which people assail as being either out to attack Islam or out to defend it. That hasn't actually been my experience. Here at UW, we recently did a job search for a Qur'anic Studies position, and all the applicants seemed to be to be scholars who just wanted to know what happened. The one we eventually made an offer to was Shahab Ahmed, a Muslim who is considered the world's leading expert on the Satanic Verses controversy (in the Qur'an, not the Rushdie affair), and was strongly aware of the Muslim scholarly tradition on the subject and the different approaches there informed his work as much as Western methodological developments. However, Western historians always maintain a stance of skepticism in dealing with religious claims. In my undergraduate "Introduction to the Bible" course, the professor, Fr. William Burton from the Pontifical Gregorian Institute in the Vatican, freely took the stance that Christ's correct prediction about the destruction of the Temple shows that the gospels post-dated that destruction, rather than the "Christ was thus definitely the Son of God" most Christians would take in their religious lives. This is the same impulse that motivates Western scholars to treat the Qur'an as a human rather than divine creation.

From such a standpoint, there is room for debate as to the integrity of the Muslim historical tradition. The only source widely accepted as contemporary with the Prophet is the Qur'an, and even then we don't have extant copies from that period. The writing down of the hadith corpus and the earliest histories and biographies of the community did not start until around a century later. Before that time, you are in oral tradition, and your opinion of the integrity of oral tradition is what will heavily influence your opinion of the reliability of this Muslim testimony. Muslims themselves discovered many forgeries among the hadith, and several scholars produced authoritative collections of reliable hadith during I believe the 10th century. This was a monumental achievement accomplished mainly though an analysis of the chains of transmission - if one said that Hassan had heard it from Amr, but Hassan had been born in 768 and Amr died in 765, you know its a forgery. However, some scholars today - almost exclusively Western - suspect that there remain in the authoritative collections a large number of false hadith. The surrounding controversy is one if the reasons I stay away from those topics in my scholarly research. We also know that there were a lot of different movements and shades of opinion running around the early Islamic world...a quick read through Tabari has lots of people carrying around sacred chairs and stuff. It should be of interest to scholars to learn how the version of Islam today considered orthodox came to be that way.

I suspect that part of the reason the application of Western methodologies to questions of the Islamic past lies in the current geopolitical situation. I've noticed a lot of the critics of these methodologies seem to have read a bit too much Edward Said: They label what they dislike as "orientalist" and toss it around like the name of an enemy. Said himself, talked about such people in the 1994 afterword to his Orientalism. Historically, Islam has been as much a product of its social and cultural context as any other religion. Because in its formative centuries it was basically confined to the Middle East, it had all the characteristics of Middle Eastern religions: Prophet, sacred text, universality, and religious scholars studying a sacred law code. Theologically it was influenced by plenty of ideas circulating in the Fertile Crescent, such as Greek philosophy and Christian theological debates. Majid Fakhry's article in The Oxford History of Islam talks about some of this. As Islam spread, people from different regions all interpreted Islam in their own terms, and while over the past 300 years or so the spread of literacy has greatly standardized things, all these regions have left their own mark, as well. It seems to me inevitable that Western practices and intellectual ideas will leave their mark on the religion, as well, and I think were it not for the history of colonialism and everything most intellectual Muslims would not object to this so strenuously.

In any event, like I say, as a historian, I stay out of the theological side of things, aside from reporting on whatever the recent developments have been. I do caution against taking what's picked up by the media as representative of all Qur'anic Studies. In Biblical Studies, the guy who thinks Jesus spent his "Lost Years" with Buddhists has been popularized by media exposure because it attracts interest, but the work being done by your average scholar is far more involved, if difficult to sell newspapers or magazines with. I suspect the same of the houris/grapes thing...these people probably know that they're doing, and the reporters just don't explain the whole thing. Meanwhile, I shall continue to apply the words Edward Gibbon wrote about the study of early Christianity:

"Our curiosity is naturally prompted to inquire by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth. To this inquiry, an obvious but satisfactory answer may be returned; that it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author. But as truth and reason seldom find so favorable a reception in the world, and as the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose, we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church."


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home