Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Qur'an Studies V

Anyone tired of Qur'an Studies yet? (BTW, does anyone have a theory on why my titles never work?)

There was a major post on the subject yesterday from al-Muhajabah, which should be read by any interested parties, especially for its discussion in the footnote dealing with the houris in the context of Muslim beliefs rather than media sensationalism.

I want to divide the issue in two:

The media treats the world like a giant version of the video game Civilization III, in which all civilizations are more or less clones of each other climbing an identical technology tree. In the game the technology tree includes not just scientific stuff like chemistry and flight, but political and spiritual developments, as well. It's rather amusing to be playing Japan and have the computer tell me I need to develop monotheism as the prerequisite to monarchy, much less democracy. The media is doing something similar, looking at the history of Christianity and trying to spot comparable developments in Islam. These are two different religions and will develop in their own unique ways. The media is making it worse by selling these stories with a lot of anti-Muslim bias in terms of the treatment of women and terrorism. So I don't consider them a reliable source for developments in Qur'anic Studies.

Zack Ajmal has found a favorable review of Luxenberg's book from a scholarly source. After reading it, I don't think the book itself will be that overwhelming. In terms of its philological methodology, I have no doubt it will be quite sound, and that it will be possible to read the Qur'an in the manner indicated. Yesterday I was reading M.A. Shaban's Islamic History, and he has a theory in there that the word historians have usually read as "Qur'an readers" in early Islam should actually be translated as "villagers." Most scholars disagree with his work, though I haven't found out why yet. But what this shows is that you can read early Arabic a lot of different ways, and there is subjectivity to the translation.

The major flaw that leaps out at me about Luxenberg as presented, however, is that the Qur'an is a book with a history that you have to deal with in any interpretation. You can't really bring up the hadith, because people will just counter wtih the Schacht thesis that almost all the hadith currently accepted as canonical are false. However, there's definitely a written Islamic tradition as recently as the early Abbasid period, and the people writing it were using sources from a bit earlier. In order for Luxenberg's reading to be taken seriously, someone needs to explain how the Qur'an went from being a Christian liturgical manual to the holy book of Islam during that period. I don't see where Luxenberg provides one. I think there is probably value in looking at Syriac terms in some difficult passages, just as I think there's value in using the Sana'a manuscripts all this started out discussing. But this rereading will not be credible until there is a fairly impressive and equally revolutionary historical explanation to accompany it.


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