Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Robert Wrong

Shamelessly, the journalist Robert Wright continues to plug his recent feel-good book on religion in stints in the "Daily Dish," under the auspices of Atlantic Magazine. (Andrew Sullivan is taking a much-needed vacation.)

In a previous posting, I had striven (uncharacteristically some will say) to give Wright's book "The Evolution of God" the benefit of the doubt. With this latest effort, however, he has shown pretty clearly how shallow his scholarship actually is. The passage I am citing comes at the end of a tranche in which he seeking, quixotically, to reconcile Jews and Arabs by retelling the story of Hagar and Ishmael.

"In Muhammad’s account Abraham and Ishmael somehow wind up in Mecca together, where they build and purify the Ka’ba so that the God of Abraham can be worshipped there. What’s more, this was part of a “covenant” God had made with Ishmael and Abraham.
"Talk about a grand unifying narrative! By making Abraham co-builder of the Ka’ba, Muhammad had taken the most ancient sacred figure in Jewish and Christian tradition and linked him to the most sacred shrine for Arab polytheists. Just about every religious tradition represented in Muhammad’s vicinity could find a touchstone in the religion he was creating. It was an ingenious way to try to bring all the peoples in the area under a single roof."

This account fails on two opposite grounds. First, it is not in accord with the orthodox Muslim interpretation, which it amends without notice. Second, it shows no knowledge of the abundant recent critical scholarship.

In the received view Muhammad did not write the Qur'an, but simply became its vessel when it was dictated to him by the Archangel Gabriel. Not mentioned here is the transfer--one might almost say purloining-- of the sacrifice of Isaac, the Akedah, from the son born by Sarah to Hagar's son Ishmael, the purported ancestor of the Arabs. Again in the received view Muhammad had no intention of creating a syncretistic stew of religions. Instead, he sought to restore the primordial monotheism of Arabia, sealing it off from the polytheistic corruptions that had done so much damage over the centuries.

Then there is the neglect of recent scholarship, which applies the textual principles of the Higher Criticism to the key Islamic documents. For example, this scholarship regards the historical Muhammad as a military leader in northern Arabia, who probably never saw Mecca and Medina. The Holy Qur'an was probably compiled no earlier than 150 years after the death of the Prophet.

Having examined this scholarship, one may chose to reject its findings. Hovever, Robert Wright shows no sign of having the slightest awareness of the new work.

As a longtime college professor, I would say that this effort deserves a grade of F.

UPDATE. Robert Wright is at it again. In a new morsel, proffered as part of his stint on the Daily
Dish (Aug. 14), he seeks to instruct us on the proper interpretation of the Qur'an--in particular sura 9, which lays out various options as to how one is to deal with a particular category of unbelievers. Depending on the circumstances, these groups of individuals may be attacked and killed, or permitted to live in peace, provided that they observe certain restrictions.

Translations often render this inferiorized group as "polytheists." Wright follows this practice.

However, that rendering, suggesting that the offenders in question are the old idolaters of pre-Islamic Arabia, is mistaken. The Arabic word is "mushrikun," or associaters. These are individuals whose beliefs admit rivals or associates alongside Allah. Read in context, it is clear that these passages are meant primarily to address Trinitarian Chiristians. These are individuals who have diluted their monotheism by admitting two associates alongside the high God, that is, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Muslim tradition honors Jesus, but only as a prophet, not as divine. The doctrine of the Incarnation was decisively rejected.

It is evident then that read in context the passages permitting killing or temporizing with the mushrikun (according to circumstance) are aimed primarily at the mainstream Christians of the day. There are indications that Muhammad or whoever formulated the incipient Muslim theology was acquainted with pre-Trinitarian Christianity--much to be preferred to the current corrupted version. Not much more than a memory in the seventh century, this untrammeled monotheism was almost certainly the original form of Christian belief. See my posting on the Fable of the Holy Trinity, below.



Blogger Burk said...

Muhammed never saw Medina or Mecca? That sounds quite interesting. The Wiki folks will want to hear about it as well. Could you point to resources/scholarship?

7:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to question the "higher criticism" hypothesis, since it is a 19th C. German invention, which lacks all empirical, rational, and archeological support.

Not that the Documentary Hypothesis was not invaluable when it surfaced, but now that we know the ancient Israelites no more existed than the messiah Yeshua, we have to call the D/C into question too. Whether Muhammed ever saw Medina or Mecca is just as empirically doubtful, and thus, all rather arbitrarily adjudicated by "textual analysis."

A text -- without some surface grit and grist -- is a philosopher's stone with a petard. The entire hypothesis from Genesis to the Qu'ran is mythic in ways that the Trojan War and Homer are not. Whether a god or angels exist is quite materially relevant to textual analysis. Since we cannot know, the text is just as impotent as erectile dysfunction.

A flat tire is still a flat tire.

4:34 PM  
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