Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reading the Qur'an in its historical context

To me one of the most interesting facets about the Bible, in both its King (not LeBron) James and proper Catholic formats, is its historical context. The Vatican has always had an odd, almost contradictory dichotomy in its analysis of the Bible in that it works very, very hard to understand and analyze its historical context (we get historical discussions in Sunday homilies very frequently) -- and then works equally hard to ignore it (for instance, Biblical prohibition on homosexuality is likely rooted in pagan worship and the need to expand the Judeo-Christian population; prohibition of women priests likely due to secondary place of women in ancient society, changing of which Christ thought was putting too much on his plate for one time; and, again, the need to expand the Judeo-Christian population). But contrary to the ideas of atheists, understanding the historical and scientific context of the Bible does not disprove it, but for me at least only deepens belief in it. The Bible, like the Iliad, the Epic of Gilgamesh and many other legends, may distort, it may exaggerate, it may mislead, it may omit, it may gloss over, it may evade, but it does not lie. For pretty much everything you read in the Bible, you can be certain that there is at least some basis in fact.

Now, some brave souls are trying to apply that same historical scholarship to the Qur'an. Peter Berger explains:
The Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) was founded in 1880 as an association of Biblical scholars with a Protestant theological commitment. Since then it has developed into the largest professional association concerned with Biblical and related studies; it is now strongly committed to a theologically neutral methodology of modern historical scholarship. The SBL has just received a grant of $140,000 from the Henry Luce Foundation for a three-year consultation, which is to plan for a professional association of Koranic studies. [Note: The announcement uses throughout the spelling Qur’an/Qur’anic, which is a closer transliteration of the Arabic original. Since this blog is a most unlikely candidate for the planned organization, I use here the more conventional English spelling.]
John Kutsko, a professor of Biblical studies at Emory University and executive director of the SBL, will head this initiative. The announcement pointed to the unprecedented interest in Islam both in Western academia and in the broader public, which makes the establishment of the planned organization very timely. Kutsko emphasized that the SBL will not direct or determine the agenda of the consultation (or, by implication, of the organization to result from it); its role is to be that of facilitator. I have no doubt that this is a sincere intention. However, it is fair to assume that what the aim here is modern scholarship, though presumably traditional Islamic scholars may be part of the conversation. I don’t think that what the SBL or the Luce Foundation wants to support is, say, the methodology of a fundamentalist madrassah in Pakistan. In its self-description the SBL says that it is “devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible”. A co-director of the consultation says that it would, among other things, seek to approach the Koran in the context in which the text arose, “as an historical, literary and religious text.” “Critical”, “context”, “historical” – these are words, used in connection with the Koran, that could get you killed in many parts of the Muslim world. But let me leave aside for the moment the question of the likelihood that such an approach could get a hearing among traditional Muslims. Rather I will ask a different question:  Given the core affirmations of Islamic faith, is this approach religiously plausible for believing Muslims? It goes without saying that only Muslims can decide what they can or cannot believe; a non-Muslim can be a historian of Islam, he cannot be an Islamic theologian. However, a sympathetic outsider can ask a question that does not presuppose belief: Are there intellectual resources for such an approach within the Muslim tradition?
A short answer to this question is yes. This answer, though, needs to be explicated.
And he proceeds to do so. It's lengthy and best read in his original post, but there is so much history here that, while I was taught it ad infinitum in the very thorough Middle Eastern Studies courses at Ohio State, is likely far outside the understanding of most people about the Qur'an. Neverthesless, it is very important to understanding the Qur'an and its role in Islam and the Muslim world, so I think the gist of Berger's excellent synopsis is worth repeating here to help spread his understanding:
Muslim faith affirms that the verses of the Koran were dictated, in Arabic, by the angel Jibril (a synonym for the Biblical Gabriel) to the Prophet Muhammad, who was commanded to recite them (Qur’an means “recitation”). This revelation to Muhammad took place over a period of over twenty years, beginning about 610 CE. The transmission was at first by word of mouth – in cultures where there are few books and few people who are literate, the skill of learning texts by heart is carefully cultivated and oral transmission can be highly accurate.
Soon after Muhammad’s death Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, ordered the verses to be collected in one book. Most modern historians agree with the traditional Muslim assumption that the present text of the Koran is an essentially intact transmission of what the Prophet recited. Revisions of the text have been minor.
One of the important topics taken up in early Islamic thought was whether the Koran is created or eternal – that is, whether its verses came into being as God addressed the Prophet through the agency of the angel, or whether it had existed (presumably in the Arabic language) in all eternity, even before the creation of the world. I think it is correct to say that the majority view, both in earlier times and today, has come down on the eternity side. In that understanding the Koran is given a status different from what even the most fundamentalist Christians would ascribe to the Bible. Indeed, the debates over the status of the Koran resemble the Christological debates in the early church: It is perhaps only a slight exaggeration to say that the majority view of the Koran gives the latter a place in Islam similar to the one of Christ in Christianity. Needless to say, there is here a degree of inerrancy ascribed to the Koran which makes it exceedingly difficult to relativize any part of it by interpretations in terms of historical context. This may seem like a very remote theoretical issue, far removed from the practical political issues of the Muslim world today. It is not: As soon as one looks at different parts of the Koran in terms of the different historical contexts in which they arose, a focus of interpretation will be the differences between the chapters deriving, respectively, from the Mecca and the Medina periods in the life of the Prophet. These were very different circumstances. In Mecca Muhammad stood as a beleaguered figure in opposition to the local establishment, in danger of his life – the danger which led to his flight to Medina. In Medina Muhammad became an effective head of state and a successful military commander. Traditional Islamic scholars have always recognized the differences between Mecca and Medina passages, but this did not deter many of them from ascribing to both an eternal status, and equal authority in all questions. This has a very important practical consequence: For very understandable reasons, the harsher and more intolerant passages mostly originated during the Medina period, when Muhammad was under strong political and military pressures that had been absent in Mecca. What follows is simply this: Modern historical scholarship can make a potential contribution to the liberalization of Muslim politics.
There is another view in Islamic thought, which denied the eternity of the Koran and thereby facilitated a much more liberal method of interpretation. It was best represented by the so-called Mutazilite school, which flourished in Iraq between the 8th and 10th centuries CE. The Mutazilites asserted that the fundamental Islamic doctrine of the absolute oneness of God forbade the notion that the Koran was co-eternal with God, since such a notion would introduce “division” (a much condemned heresy) into the divine unity. If it is part of creation, then, the Koran can be open to rational inquiry. Mutazilite philosophy was emphatically Islamic and did not deny the revelatory character of the Koran, but in approaching the sacred text it sought a balance between revelation and reason. Of course this did not lead to the methodology exhibited at the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature. But it opened up an avenue for less literal interpretation or ijtihad (the Arabic word means “effort”), first allowed if a particular passage seems to deviate from the central message of the Koran – for example, if mention is made of “the hand of God”, where the Koran affirms the non-corporeal nature of God – the passage may then be interpreted allegorically, as referring to actions by God. This may at first look like a very modest step, but it has led to much larger steps. Possibly the largest has been taken in the Sufi tradition of Muslim mysticism, where allegory is often used to interpret the Koran.
The history of ijtihad is long and complicated, and cannot concern us here. Suffice it to say that this concept, in its Mutazilite meaning, is very frequently cited by contemporary thinkers aiming for an aggiornamento that would reconcile Islam with pluralism, democracy and modern thought. It seems to me that there are lessons for Muslims in the ways by which Jewish and Christian thinkers have sought a balance between revelation and reason in their approach to the Scriptures (both before and since the coming of modern historical scholarship). To say this is not to claim some sort of intellectual superiority that Muslims would rightly resent. It is rather to draw consequences from two obvious facts – that, at any rate within the three Abrahamic faiths, the problems of revelation versus reason are necessarily similar – and that the challenge of modern historical scholarship was first encountered by Christian theologians. Islamic ijtihad may benefit from “the advantage of coming late” – there is already a record of mistakes to avoid.
One similar problem is how to differentiate between the central message of the faith, which cannot be compromised without abandoning the faith altogether, and less central elements that are subject to negotiation (with other faiths, with reason, and last not least with doubts in one’s own mind).  Luther made this differentiation in a radical manner: The central message of the Gospel is the coming of redemption in Jesus Christ – the Bible, in both Old and New Testament, is God’s Word insofar as it testifies to that cosmic event – and it should be interpreted accordingly. This approach, for example, allowed Luther to consider throwing out the Epistle of James from the canon of the New Testament (in the end he didn’t, because his instinct in such matters was conservative). Needless to say, this is a theological criterion of Biblical exegesis, very different from the scientific criteria of modern critical analysis. Yet the theological criterion opened up intellectual space for the latter: Even believing scholars could apply the scalpel of critical analysis to their own sacred texts, with confidence that they would not lose their faith as a result. It is no accident that modern historical study of the Bible first flourished in Lutheran theological faculties in Germany.
An analogy occurs to me here. I have recently had a number of conversations with Evangelicals about the difference between their understanding of the Bible and that of more liberal Lutherans: They are prone to say that the Bible is the Word of God; a more Lutheran formulation would be that the Bible contains the Word of God. The two sentences may seem to be very similar. They are not similar at all. The latter formulation precludes any idea of inerrancy, and opens up a bevy of liberalizing ijtihad.
Walter Russell Mead explains the stakes involved here:
The same kind of scholarly studies that forced many Christians and Jews to re-evaluate their understandings of the historical origins of their sacred texts are now moving, cautiously, gingerly and often not from within Muslim-majority countries, to take a hard look at the Koran with the powerful and skeptical tools that have been used on the Bible.
Islam has almost as many theological tendencies and movements as Christianity. Besides the Sunni-Shiite divide which is currently drenching much of the Middle East in blood, there are many different tendencies and theological interpretations within each of these schools. Most involve ideas about how to read the Koran, and while non-Muslims cannot say much about what is the correct way to approach the sacred Book at the heart of Islamic faith and doctrine, we can begin to grapple with the different ways Muslims approach the text, and also to think through the implications of these different theological approaches for contemporary politics and policy.


  1. The common thread in recent posts is democratic alternatives to autocracies or theocracies have to work overtime to cleanse themselves of the inherent corruption of having humans beings staff your government- otherwise the corruption is an excuse for overthrow. Not a problem for rule that doesn't have anything resembling a free press or free exchange of ideas: "Off with their heads! Tear down those statues!"

  2. Peter Berger's points are valid about a crucial need for reviewing primary info about the Qur'an and the origin of Islam. However this requires a much deeper digging after centuries of literary productions that has buried and distorted the original and primary resources. Edwin Johnson (1842–1901), English historian, who produced best works, though radical criticisms, of Christian historiography, became unpopular and is abandoned by western scholars today. One can see how easily the picture painted by current literature smashes on any critical review: The Historicity and Origin of Modern Day Religious Texts
    It seems revisionists has to gather their own resources and critical mass to have some positive effect on the mainstream scholars and educational system. This initiative of Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) is a step in the right direction.