Historical Critical Islam

Spent the last week reading a series of pieces on historical-critical methods to the Quran and the early rise of Islam.

One important name in this field is John Wansbrough.

Wansbrough for example applied form critical studies methods to the Quran and Islamic historiography. Form criticism sees the stories in the Scripture (e.g. Gospels or Quran) as later theological beliefs of the religious community that are put in a narrative form and read back into the earlier foundational period of the religion.

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In that sense form critical analysis is very skeptical as to ever getting to the “truth” about “what really happened” in the sense of say a Quest for the Historical Muhammad and/or Jesus.

You see this in the Hadith and Sira, biographies of the Prophet. These taken to be historically true by both a great deal of Islamic and non-Islamic scholars (often for different reasons), turn out to be more the development of the group read back into an idealized portraiture of the Prophet who becomes a religious depiction of the perfect human life lived according to the principles of the Religion.

This was Spengler’s point in his discussion of Robert Spencer and Karen Armstrong being two sides of the same Quranic coin. Both accept the storyline as historically valid—e.g. Quran compiled 30 years or so after Muhammad’s death; the hadith and occasions of revelation as actual historical events instead of competing schools of law and theology in the earlier pluriform Islam trying to justify their positions by recourse to the life/teaching of Muhammad.

Spencer uses this batch of information to prove Islam is evil. Armstrong the opposite. The literary quality of form critical analysis and the ability to enter the world envisioned in the text is why I like Reza Aslan more than either of those two. [Although Armstrong does properly understand the role of myth in this more meaningful way].

But the point is rather to see the developing narrative of the community and how other narratives were rubbed out. Just like with early Christianity there were in fact Christianities (Gnostic, orthodox, Marcionite, Jewish-Christian), only of which came through its definition of a Canon, the proper interpretation of that canon, and apostolic authority/succession-Councils suppress the others.

Wansbrough writes that the Quran is “sacred history” or borrowing a term of Judeo-Christian scholarship, “salvation history.” In other words there were other Islams, competing variants, and like Christianity, we see a tendency towards the triumph of an orthodox position which then employs notions of being in succession to the Prophet/Companions (like Apostolic Succession to Jesus). It is not history in the sense of modern history anymore than the Gospels are biographies. Or the Sira are biographies for that matter. That are sacred biographies–the idealization of a religious impulse and point of view.

[There are some problems I believe with other elements of Wansbrough’s analysis, i.e. an over-emphasis I think on the Jewish element in early Islam, but overall I think his main points of methodology and criticism stand.]

And the key event in this sacred history is the Haj. Like Judaism & Christianity again, the central feature is an event of Exodus/Divine Intervention that forms a new people for God.

Joseph Schacht another scholar in this tradition showed how Islamic law grew from quotations of the Quran that were then given narrative structures to make a legal point. This is just how Rabbis created halakah through midrash—legal opinions through further investigation of a Biblical text.

As opposed to halakah (legal) was haggadah (story) in the Midrash. The Sira and Hadith of Muhammad parallel this development perfectly.

If we are discussing not simply a Reformation in Islam, which is certainly underway and has been for nearly 200 years now, but rather a Transformation (i.e. stage transformation) of the religion, then this type of analysis is so crucial.

As long as all the hadith, sira, and occasions of revelation, not to mention the textual questions surrounding the Quran itself, are ignored and simply treated as “what really happened” then movement is not going to occur.

In a Reformation situation where the text is given into the hands of many to be read individually the overall literalist nature of the storyline will likely still hold even if certain individuals are more liberal politically and socially in their interpretation and others are more conservative and still others are extremist and violent (Bin Laden is not from the traditional clerical elite).

It is only methods of criticism of the history and text that is going to move things forward. In this regard, it is difficult for Islam in a special way I think.

The comparison is often made between Jesus and Muhammad. Which is really not a very good comparison. Particularly from a form critical pov you would rather be comparing the theological visions of the communities of the respective figures not the figures themselves–given that you can not actually get back to the real figure in that school of thought.

But even if you could, it is still a bad analogy. The better analogy I always say between Christianity and Islam is that of Jesus Christ to the Quran. Religiously, in the orthodox traditions of each religion, both are the Uncreated Word of God.

Both are in other words the instantiation of the Transcendent God, the Mediator to Human Beings. For Christians in a human body, for Muslims in a book. If the Quran is Uncreated then it is God theologically. Only God is Uncreated.

Hence for the Christian religion, however difficult it still is to get people to move into a critical yet faithful stance to the text and history—and millions of fundamentalists say otherwise treating the Bible like the Quran–it is not as difficult I think relative to Islam.

Because for Christianity, the no-no line you can not cross is criticizing Jesus. Hence all the furor over things like Gnosticism and Da Vinci Codes. The New Testament only points to Jesus and therefore for mainline Christians the New Testament (and the Bible more broadly) can be wrong about a great many things and can be seen as the work of both God and humans. Just note wrong about Jesus and/or salvation.

But if the Quran as I’m suggesting is the parallel to Christ in Islam, then the criticism of the Quran becomes that much harder. The move into theological modernism requires the Mediator of one’s faith to become himself/itself mediated. In Xty that is Christ is the Word of God but incarnated in a specific Jewish man in a certain place and time with all the limitations therein. For Islam this would I guess have to be something like an Ashtarite vision of an Uncreated Quran eternally in the Mind of God [just as Augustine’s saw Plato’s Forms as Divine Ideas in the Mind of God], brought about in a certain time and place and language.

The move into “orange” monotheistic religion is about the interplay between the Divine and Human. Especially human communities on pilgrimage. Again Islam is built around this notion of Exodus/Pilgrimage (Haj) and I think would need to return to this notion for the higher stages to emerge on a mass scale.

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Published in: on June 5, 2007 at 1:14 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for such a loving article.

  2. V,

    Thanks for the kind words. peace.

    chris


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