Islamic origins: the Critical School
I would point out, though, that if an outsider like myself can readily assemble the materials making up the main elements of the new critical approach to Islam, Muhammad, and the Qur’an, then other writers--such as Robert Wright and Karen Armstrong--can do so as well. As to why they have not attempted to do this, I cannot say.
The conventional account recites a number of ostensibly well-established facts marking the origins of Islam. Among these is the datum that the historical Muhammad was born in Mecca ca. 570 C.E. of the tribe of Quraysh. When he was about forty years of age, he accepted his calling as a prophet of God, to whom the texts known as the Qur’an were confided, ostensibly through the agency of the Archangel Gabriel. In the year 622 he made his hijra, or flight to Medina. He reconquered Mecca in 630. By his death in 632 Muhammad had won all of Arabia to his beliefs.
Like their Muslim counterparts, Western scholars have generally accepted this litany. Yet a new school of critical scholars has challenged these seemingly solid findings. These scholars, most of whom reside outside Islamic countries, base their case on the application of the principles of the Higher Criticism to Islamic documents. This method, beginning with Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) and others in nineteenth-century Germany, established the parameters of all serious study of the body of Judeo-Christian scriptures known as the Bible. The Pentateuch, for example, is not the unitary production of the mythical figure known as Moses, but a combination of the work of four writers known to scholars as J, E, D. and P.
These critical methods are of enormous proven value for the Jewish and Christian scriptures. That being the case, why should such techniques not be applicable to the Qur’an and the other foundational documents of Islam?
A few revisionists have gone so far as to assert that Muhammad never lived. This claim goes too far. Still, the results of this new investigation raise doubts as to the existence of any reliable evidence that would securely connect Muhammad with either Mecca or Medina. Quite possibly, the association with Mecca was invented in order to link the faith with the cult of the sacred meteorite housed in that city, the Ka'ba. It may be that the historical Muhammad was a military leader active on the northern borderlands of Arabia, where he came into contact with sophisticated Christian and Jewish ideas. As is well known, the Qur’an contains many reminiscences of events recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
The earliest cryptic mentions of the name of Muhammad begin to appear no earlier than two generations after his death. From the later biographical sketches many sought to retroject the basic facts of his existence into the Qur’an. Yet even a brief examination of that book reveals that it bears no comparison with the Christian gospels, which are lives of Jesus. The Qur’an was never intended to be a biography of Muhammad, and in view of the probable late date of its compilation we cannot cannot take on face value such details of the prophet’s life that appear there.
The earliest surviving biographies are the two recensions of Ibn Ishaq's (d. 768) Life of the Apostle of God compiled by Ibn Hisham (d. 834) and Yunus b. Bukayr (d.814-815). According to Ibn Hisham, Ibn Ishaq wrote his biography some 120 to 130 years after Muhammad's death. While many scholars accept the authenticity of these biographies, their accuracy is in fact unascertainable. After Ibn Ishaq, the most widely used biographies of Muhammad are al-Waqidi's (d. 822) and then Ibn Sa'd's (d. 844-5). Even Muslim scholars are not in accord as to the reliability of these texts; Al-Waqidi is often criticized by Muslim writers who claim that the author is unreliable.
These accounts are hardly biographies in the modern sense. The writers did not seek to create an objective account of the life of Muhammad, but rather to describe Muhammad's military expeditions and to preserve stories about Muhammad, his sayings, and the traditional interpretations of verses of the Qur'an. Then there are the hadith collections, which include accounts of the verbal and physical traditions pertaining to Muhammad. These date from several generations after the death of the prophet. Western academics view the hadiths with caution as historical sources.
In fact there is no critical edition of the Qur’an, and it is unlikely that such a thing will appear any time soon. Interpretation of the work presents many difficulties. As is typical of early texts in Semitic languages, the earliest versions of the Qur'an offer only the consonantal skeleton of the text. Not only are no vowels marked, many consonants can also be read in a number of ways due to the absence of diacritical marks. It is claimed that we can rely on the stability of the oral tradition to supply us with the correct reading. Comparative studies suggest, however, that oral traditions are anything but stable. They are unreliable because of the so-called “telephone effect,” in which each reciter tends to introduce subtle changes that are in turn passed on to the next reciter. Nowadays this problem is obviated by the control of a standardized text, but this was not the case in the earliest generations. We are told that Muhammad was illiterate, and so too must have been many of his followers.
The Qur'an is often highly obscure. The style is allusive, and the text employs expressions unfamiliar even to the earliest exegetes, or words that do not seem to fit. Some passages seem to present fragments wrested from a larger context that is no longer available.
One explanation that has been advanced for these hermetic features would be that the prophet formulated his message in the liturgical language current in the religious community in which he grew up, adapting and imitating hallowed texts such as hymns, recitations, and prayers, many of theme derived from another Semitic language.
One scholar has termed the Qur’an a “cocktail of texts.” If one assumes that the individual segments were produced individually over many generations--some perhaps originating a hundred years before Muhammad, others considerably after his death--the heterogeneity of these scriptures becomes understandable, even if one cannot adequately analyze the component liqueurs, as it were, of the cocktail.
A continuing source of difficulty is the geographical problem. Byzantine and Persian writers focused on the northern and the southern ends of the Arabian peninsula, regions that provide considerable ancillary inscriptional evidence. The middle part, where the Islamic tradition places Mohammed's career, was essentially a blank. Everything that we know, or think we know, that was going on there stems from Islamic tradition.
As Patricia Crone remarks, “[it] is difficult not to suspect that the tradition places the prophet's career in Mecca for the same reason that it insists that he was illiterate: the only way he could have acquired his knowledge of all the things that God had previously told the Jews and the Christians was by revelation from God himself. Mecca was virgin territory; it had neither Jewish nor Christian communities.”
Oddly, the Qur'an describes Muhammad’s local adversaries as agriculturalists who cultivated wheat, grapes, olives, and date palms. Yet wheat, grapes and olives are three staples of the Mediterranean. Date palms flourished further southwards. However, Mecca was inhospitable to any kind of agriculture, and olives could not have been produced there.
I continue with Crone’s account. “In addition, the Qur'an twice describes its opponents as living in the site of a vanished nation, that is to say a town destroyed by God for its sins. There were many such ruined sites in northwest Arabia. The prophet frequently tells his opponents to consider their significance and on one occasion remarks, with reference to the remains of Lot's people, that "you pass by them in the morning and in the evening". This takes us to somewhere in the Dead Sea region. Respect for the traditional account has prevailed to such an extent among modern historians that the first two points have passed unnoticed until quite recently, while the third has been ignored. The exegetes said that the Quraysh passed by Lot's remains on their annual journeys to Syria, but the only way in which one can pass by a place in the morning and the evening is evidently by living somewhere in the vicinity.”
All this suggests a considerable degree of transposition from Arabia Felix in the north to Arabia Deserta, the terra incognita in the center of the peninsula. Whether this puzzle authorizes us to conclude that Muhammad was a resident of northern Arabia who never saw Mecca and Medina--as some critical scholars assert--cannot be resolved at present. But the evidence suffices to raise considerable suspicion.
Now for some some bibliographical data. In recent years Prometheus Books of Amherst has taken the lead in making much of the Islamo-critical material available. Three collections edited by Ibn Warraq provide selections of older scholarship, some dating from the nineteenth century and showing that doubts about the conventional wisdom are hardly new.
Some of the findings of the pioneers of the critical approach to 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.
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.
The third volume edited by Ibn Warraq, What the Koran Really Says (Prometheus Books, 2002), contains papers of a more technical nature.
[Of Pakistani origin, Ibn Warraq was born in 1946, and educated in England and Scotland. He chose the pen name Ibn Warraq ("son of a papermaker") due to concern for his personal safety. He adopted the pseudonym in 1995 when he completed his first book, entitled Why I Am Not a Muslim.]
I turn now to some profiles of leading modern scholars of the critical school. Note that there are differences among them. Yet this fact in no way undermines the overall project. There are also many differences among those who apply the Higher Criticism to Jewish and Christian documents. Yet there is no doubt that this is the most fruitful way of addressing the problem.
The dean of the modern critical approach is John Edward Wansbrough (1928-2002), an American historian who taught at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
He garnered much attention in the 1970s when his research on early Islamic manuscripts, including the analysis of the repeated use of monotheistic Judeo-Christian imagery found in the Qur'an, led him to conclude that the rise of Islam was a mutation of what was originally a Judeo-Christian sect seeking to spread in Arab lands. As time evolved, the Judeo-Christian substratum was gradually adjusted to an Arab perspective, mutating into what became the Qur'an. This document, far from being complete in the time of Muhammad, grew over the centuries with contributions from various Arab tribal sources. Wansbrough's iconoclastic research yielded the view that much of the traditional history of Islam appeared to be a fabrication of later generations seeking to forge and justify a unique religious identity. Within this context, the personality of Muhammad stood forth as a manufactured myth created to provide the Arab tribes with their own counterpart of the Judeo-Christian prophets.
Patricia Crone (born 1945) is a scholar of early Islamic history currentlyworking at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Early in her carer she established herself as a trenchant critic of the established narrative of the early history of Islam. More recently her views seem to have moderated.
In their 1977 book Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, Patricia Crone and her coauthor Michael Cook offered an analysis of early Islamic history by looking at the somewhat meager surviving contemporary accounts of the rise of Islam, written in Armenian, Greek, Aramaic and Syriac. Cone and Cook concluded that Islam, as represented by contemporary, non-Muslim sources, was in essence a tribal rebellion against the Byzantine and Persian empires with deep roots in Judaism, and that Arabs and Jews were allies in these conquering communities.
Günter Lüling (born 1928) is a German Protestant theologian and philologist, who specializes in the study of early Islamic origins..A student of Albert Schweitzer and Martin Werner, he sought to demonstrate the textual link between pre-Islamic Christian hymnody in the Middle East to the composition of the Qur'an. In the view of some observers, his reconstructions yielded new insights into the rise and early development of Islam. Lüling posited that the early believers of what later became Orthodox Islam emerged from communities retaining the original, pre-Trinitarian Christian creed. Reshaped by later generations, this material was transformed into an ethnocentric religion, ostensibly purely Arab in character.
His major work, Über den Ur-Koran, which first appeared in 1974, has been translated into English as A Challenge to Islam for Reformation: the rediscovery and reliable reconstruction of a comprehensive pre-Islamic Christian hymnal hidden in the Koran under earliest Islamic reinterpretations (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers 2003).
Tilman Nagel (born 1942) is one of the leading contemporary German orientalists and scholars of Islam. His magnum opus is a 2008 biography of Muhammad consisting of more than 1000 pages. This book is not intended as a biography in the conventional sense but as a historiographical analysis of his character and influence, set against the cultural background of the Late Antique Middle East. The book also treats the rise and development of the Muslim belief systems.
Christoph Luxenberg (pseud.) is a scholar of Semitic languages residing in Germany, who is possibly of Lebanese origin. He retains his psedonym because he fears reprisals against him from the Islamic world because of his views.
Several sensational press reports followed the 2000 appearance of the German original of his book The Syro-Aramaic Reading Of The Koran: a contribution to the decoding of the language of the Qur'an (English trrans., 2007). Therein he asserted that the language of the earliest versions of the Qur'an was not exclusively Arabic, as assumed by the classical commentators, but rather is rooted in a Syro-Aramaic fusion dialect of the seventh= century Meccan Quraysh tribe. Luxenberg holds that the Aramaic language--the lingua franca prevalent throughout the Middle East and during the early period of Islam was the language of culture and Christian liturgy--and had a profound influence on the scriptural composition and meaning of the contents of the Koran. Luxenberg charges that by and large Western scholars of the Qur'an have adopted a timid and imitative approach, relying too heavily on the biased work of Muslim scholars. He argues that Muhammad was preaching concepts that were new to many of his Arab hearers, concepts that Muhammad had gleaned from his conversations with Arabian Jews and Christians, or from the Christians of Syria (where he is believed to have traveled). Hence, if a particular Quranic word or phrase seems meaningless in Arabic, or can be given meaning only by tortured conjectures, it makes sense -- he thinks -- to look to the Aramaic and Syriac languages as well as Arabic.
Agreeing with some other critical scholars, Luxenberg also argues that the Qur'an relies on earlier texts, namely lectionaries used in the Christian churches of Syria, and that it required the work of several generations to remould these texts into the Qur'an we know today.
Journalistic reports of Luxenberg’s work have overemphasized certain details, notoriously his reinterpretation of the virgins who are supposedly awaiting good Islamic martyrs as their reward in paradise. In reality, he asserts, these are "white raisins" of crystal clarity, and not fair maidens. The passage in question is based on the word hur, which is an adjective in the feminine plural meaning simply "white." Islamic tradition insists that the term hur stands for houri, which means "virgin," but Luxenberg maintains that this is a forced misreading of the text. In both ancient Aramaic, and in at last one respected dictionary of early Arabic, hur means "white raisin."
SUPPLEMENTARY NOTE. After considerable work, some mystery still surrounds the fragmentary early Qur'an manuscripts preserved in Sana'a, Yemen.
Gerd Puin (b. 1940), professor at the University of the Saarland, headed a restoration project, commissioned by the Yemeni government, devoted to examining the ancient Qur'anic manuscripts discovered in Sana'a, Yemen, in 1972. According to writer Toby Lester, his examination revealed "unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment." The scriptures were written in the early Hijazi Arabic script, matching the pieces of the earliest Qur'ans known to exist. The papyrus on which some of the texts appear shows clear signs of earlier use. That is, they are palimpsests, where previous, partially erased writing shows through. In the view of the investigators, this practice "does not necessarily demonstrate modification" of the overall text of the Qur'an. But perhaps it does indicate modification. Pending a full display of the evidence, I would remark, how can we exclude this possibility?
We are told that more than 15,000 sheets of the Yemeni Qur'ans have painstakingly been cleaned, treated, sorted, and photographed, and 35,000 microfilmed photos have been made of the manuscripts. Some of Puin's initial conclusions on his findings appear in his essay titled the "Observations on Early Qur'an Manuscripts in San'a," which has been republished in the book What the Koran Really Says, edited by Ibn Warraq, noted above.
Progress on this project seems to have stalled, in all likelihood because of its "sensitivity."
In Toby Lester's still useful 1999 Atlantic Monthly article, Gerd Puin is quoted as saying that:
"My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad. Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants. The Qur’an claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen,’ or clear, but if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense. Many Muslims will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Qur’anic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Qur’an is not comprehensible, if it can’t even be understood in Arabic, then it’s not translatable into any language. That is why Muslims are afraid. Since the Qur’an claims repeatedly to be clear but is not—there is an obvious and serious contradiction. Something else must be going on."
Labels: Islam Higher Criticism