Saturday, August 13, 2016

Origins of Islam: new scholarship

As with adherents of other religions, pious Muslims naturally experience a desire to cleave to the exemplary beliefs and practices that had characterized the faith at its very start.  In principle this adhesion should not be difficult  In a famous statement, Ernest Renan wrote in 1851 that, unlike the other major religions, the faith founded by Muhammad "was born in the full light of history" ("L'islam naît en pleine histoire.").
There is of course a standard narrative of the life of the Prophet: birth ca. 570 CE in Mecca; marriage and successful career as a merchant; first revelation in 610; flight to Medina in 622; triumphant return to Mecca in 630; death in 632. In Muslim-majority countries this narrative is taken as a matter of course: that is simply the way things were, and fidelity to this era and its precepts offers a sure guide for all significant aspects of Muslim conduct.  The account is echoed by prominent Western scholars such as John Esposito and Karen Armstrong.
Yet on closer inspection matters are not so simple. First, the seemingly copious documentation about Muhammad stems from much later Arabic texts - chiefly collections of the prophet's sayings and doings found in the Ahadith, and biographies that make up what is called the Sira - the earliest of which date from a century and a half after his death in 632. This long lapse of time left much room for embroidery, as well as omissions.  External considerations were not absent, for the Arabic texts emerged from a climate of intense partisan quarrels over the prophet's life and his succession. 
Moreover, the earlier sources on the prophet's life that do survive are not in accord with the standard narrative outlined above. Typically, these are texts in languages other than Arabic (such as Armenian, Greek, and Syriac).  There are also material remains, such as papyri, inscriptions (such as those found in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem), and coins). Although the problematic status of the Arabic literary sources has been evident for at least a century, only recently have scholars begun to explore its full implications, aided by the historical critical method long in use among scholars of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.  The godfather of this approach in Islamic studies is John Wansbrough (1928 –2002), an American historian who taught in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies. 
He caused a furor when his research on early Islamic manuscripts, including the analysis of the deployment of monotheistic Jude0-Christian imagery found in the Qur’an led him to conclude that the rise of Islam constituted a mutation of what was originally a Christian sect seeking to spread in Arab lands. As time evolved the Judeo-Christian scriptures were adapted to an Arab perspective and mutated into what became the Qur'an which was developed over several centuries with infusions from various Arab tribal sources. Wansbrough's research suggests that a great deal of the traditional history of Islam was little more that a fabrication of later generations seeking to forge and justify a unique religious identity. 
In the spirit of "interesting if true," the critics in Wansborough’s wake have approached the Arabic written sources with skepticism, some concluding that these are a form of "salvation history" - self-serving, unreliable accounts devised by later generations of the faithful, not companions of the Prophet.
The great mass of traditional documents, so revisionist scholars find, requires constant challenge.  Patricia Crone holds that the key features of Muhammad's career took place not in Mecca but hundreds of miles to the north. Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren hold that the classical Arabic language was developed not in the territory of today's Saudi Arabia, but in the Syriac sphere of the Levant, reaching Arabia only through the military incursions of the Arabs.
Most broadly, "there was no Islam as we know it" until two or three hundred years after the traditional version has it (more like CE 830 than 630); it developed not in the distant deserts of Arabia but through the interaction of Arab conquerors and their more civilized subject peoples. A few scholars even  doubt the very existence of Muhammad - a view that probably goes too far.
Recent scholarship, much of it German, has continued this critical endeavor.  Günter Lüling’s highly technical work of 1974 (A Challenge to Islam for Reformation, Eng. trans., 2003 ) observes the likelihood that the original text, following general Semitic practice, had no vowels. Later editors in supplying pointing often made wrong choices.  Let us suppose that in an all-consonant English text one had written btr, intending to mean better, but the editor read it as butter. This analysis, Lüling believes, affords the discovery of a pre-Islamic (Christian) substratum underlying the Qur’an as we know it.
A similar approach, detecting a Syriac lectionary as the basis of the Qur’an has been pursued by the flamboyant Christoph Luxenberg, best known for his assertion that the “virgins” offered the faithful in paradise are actually white raisins.

For his part, Luxenberg is associated with the INARAH group headed by Markus Gross and Karl-Heinz Ohlig.  This group has produced six hefty anthologies, of which two have been translated into English.  The findings of the INARAH group may be summarized as follows: 1)  Islam originated as a sect of Christianity.  2) Its central theological tenets stem from a pre-Nicene, Syrian Christianity.  3)  The lingua franca of the  Middle East at the time, Aramaic, significantly influenced the Arabic of the Qur’an with regard to vocabulary, phraseology and script.  4)  Finally, it was not until the end of the eighth and ninth century that Islam emerged as a separate religion.  For it part the Qur’an experienced a period of historical development and reshaping that lasted for some 200 years.


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