Sunday, November 07, 2004

Islamic origins reconfigured

We hear much of the differences in Islam between the so-called fundamentalists, termed Islamists, and the moderates. Yet both groups concur on a number of established facts marking the origins of their faith. Among these is the datum the historical Muhammad was born in Mecca ca. 570 C.E. of the tribe of Quraish. When he was about forty years he accepted his calling as a prophet of God, to whom the texts known as the Qur’an were confided. In the year 622 he made his hijra, or flight to Medina. He reconquered Mecca in 630. By his death in 632 he had won all of Arabia to his beliefs.

Like their Islamic counterparts, Western scholars have generally accepted this account. Yet a new school of revisionist scholars has challenged most of these ostensibly secure findings. These scholars, who mostly reside outside Islamic countries, base their case on the application of the principles of the higher criticism to Islamic documents. This approach, beginning with Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) and others in 19th century Germany, established the parameters of all serious study of the body of Judaeo-Christian scriptures known as the Bible. The Pentateuch, for example, is not the unitary production of Moses, but a combination of the work of four writers known to scholars as J, E, D. and P. Why should such critical methods not be applicable to the Qur’an and the other foundational documents of Islam?

Some of the findings of the new critical school of Islamic studies appear in The Quest of the Historical Muhammad, edited by Ibn Warraq (Prometheus Books, 2000), an aptly titled volume. For the task these scholars have addressed really does resemble the Quest for the Historical Jesus, as conducted by Albert Schweitzer and others. The results of this new investigation indicate that there is no reliable evidence connecting Muhammad with either Mecca or Medina. The association with Mecca was invented in order to connect the faith with the cult of the sacred meteorite housed in that city, the Kaaba. In all probability the historical Muhammad was a military leader active on the northern border of Arabia, where he came into contact with sophisticated Christian and Jewish ideas. As is well known, the Qur’an has many reminiscences of events recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Another volume edited by Ibn Warraq deals with The Origins of the Koran (Prometheus Books, 1998). The essays in this volume show that the individual suras or segments of the Qur’anic text make up a disparate collection, whose components originated at different times over a long period. They assumed their present canonical form as late as two hundred years after the death of Muhammad. Thus the text we have can in no sense be regarded as a unity, whether delivered by the Archangel Gabriel or not. Many of the events described in this amalgam are of questionable authenticity.

To be sure, the conventional wisdom is quite different. In the 19th century Ernest Renan asserted that “in place of the mystery under which the other religions have covered their origins, [Islam] was born in the full light of history.” Although widely accepted, this view is mistaken. Many adjustments, alterations, and inventions characterized the gradual birth of Islam. In consequence the accepted account ranks as a “just so” story—if you will, a tale out of the Arabian Nights.

Modifying Renan, we may say that there are two types of religion. Organic faiths (e.g. Judaism and Hinduism) developed gradually from time immemorial. Contrasting with this pattern is the historical type, exemplified by Manichaeism (3d century) and Mormonism (19th century). For a long time Islam, its historical foundations firmly anchored, seemed to belong to the latter type. But if it now it resides in uncertain territory—it can only rank as a pseudo-historical faith.

For obvious reasons, it is not healthy to espouse these revisionist views in Islamic countries today. But slowly the results are trickling through, with the Internet giving a big boost. One day, perhaps, a Reformation—so often noted as the missing element in the saga of Islam—will take place.

Demographic changes in Western Europe have helped fuel the aggressiveness of Islamic militants in those countries. Through violent acts they seek to overturn established Western values of tolerance and free speech. In the face of this assault we are urged to be patient, while honoring Islam as a religion of peace.

Islam is not a religion of peace because it divides the world into two parts, the Abode of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the Abode of Warfare (Dar al-Harb). It is the task of Believers to reduce, by whatever measures are required, the latter to the condition of the former. This contrast assures constant strife in those parts of the world that have not yet submitted to Islam. Islamic militants are simply making this underlying situation clear. For this reason, they are not an aberration.

At all events, we should stop handling Islamist fanatics with kid gloves. Their intentions towards us are not honorable, and (as seen above) the basis for their faith is contestable. For these reasons, the term “Islamo-Fascism” is not helpful. The challenge posed by Islam does not derive from Mussolini or Hitler: it is sui generis.