We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Teaching Islam - Recent Critical Scholarship and the Teaching of Islam - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
:
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

Recent Critical Scholarship and the Teaching of Islam

Keith Lewinstein

AS ISLAM HAS BECOME A LARGER PRESENCE in Religious Studies departments, the resources for teaching it have likewise expanded. We now have undergraduate textbooks and anthologies which were unavailable to our own teachers, and this simplifies matters considerably both for specialists and the many nonspecialists who offer survey courses in the Islamic religious tradition. At least for those who take a historical approach to the tradition, the material has been neatly arranged in any number of textbooks published in the last fifteen years, reflecting a growing consensus about what an introductory course taught in a Religious Studies department should look like. Leafing through these books, one suspects that despite the increased attention they pay to popular practices and postclassical Islam, it is still early Islamic thought and piety which are expected to serve as the basis for such courses. If this requires justification beyond the fact that origins are intrinsically interesting to many of us, it can be found in the importance which the Muslim tradition itself attaches to the earliest period. The personalities and events of formative Islam have always been central to Muslim identity and thought; even in the late twentieth century, Muslim thinkers continue to express their political and social views through particular interpretations of early Islam.

Given the importance of the early period, it is unfortunate that it is precisely there that the parameters of acceptable discussion are narrowest and most out of line with developments in other fields. Many of our colleagues in Religious Studies (and the more experienced among our students) are likely to be struck by the reluctance of our textbooks to confront issues commonly met elsewhere in the discipline. Fundamental problems concerning the emergence of a scriptural canon and the crystallization of a communal identity are not in most textbooks and courses on Islam, given the attention they receive in analogous fields. As such, students who have done work in Biblical Studies, earliest Christianity, or early rabbinic Judaism can be forgiven for concluding that the text-critical questions central to these fields are not relevant to formative Islam. The result is a widespread assumption within Religious Studies that Islam is the one monotheism whose origins are clearly visible to the modern historian.

If most of our textbooks give this impression, it is because they accurately reflect the state of Orientalist scholarship as it has built up over the past century and a half. While close textual study is a hallmark of this work, it has for the most part been accomplished within the historical framework set by the Muslim tradition. Western philological and historical analysis of texts has not altered the basic facts which the tradition itself insists on. Nearly all scholars take for granted that Muhammad and his followers moved from Mecca to Medina in 622 C.E., and that this was Islam’s prototypical emigration [ḥijrah]; that Muhammad’s followers in Arabia considered themselves “Muslims” (distinct from Jews and Christians); that these Muslims were in possession of a scripture revealed in pieces over the course of Muhammad’s career, and which would be collected and canonized within two decades of Muhammad’s death in 632; and that the moral center of the movement was from Muhammad’s day the traditional Arab sanctuary at Mecca. In short, both the Muslim and Orientalist traditions agree that Islam was made in Arabia and emerged chiefly out of a contest between Muhammad’s monotheist teachings and traditional Arab paganism. However Islam may have evolved in the centuries following Muhammad’s death, the fundamental issues of religious practice and identity are widely assumed to have been in place before the Arab conquests of the Near East.1

Although a few so-called revisionist scholars have sought to question these assumptions, their work has neither reached a wide audience within the field nor become part of the stock-in-trade transmitted to our students and shared with our colleagues in Religious Studies.2 When mentioned at all, such scholarship is often dismissed as extremist and out of keeping with the irenic outlook preferred by many American Islamicists.3 As a result, advances in the critical study of early Islam have not had much of an impact on what we offer our undergraduates or colleagues in other areas of Religious Studies. This is the problem I would like to address here, in the belief that we benefit as a field by exposing our students and colleagues to the sort of critical thinking taken for granted elsewhere in the discipline. I do not, of course, mean to suggest that there is only one correct line to take in teaching Islam, or that our courses ought to include whatever the latest academic heresies might be. I want simply to point to some alternative directions of thought, not normally integrated into the textbook canon, but which might profitably be communicated to our students. After offering some (necessarily) general remarks on certain key points raised by this scholarship, I shall discuss a few of the ways in which I have tried to integrate these questions into my own introductory course.4

The scholarship under discussion here is frequently called “revisionist,” at least by those who find it objectionable. The term often serves as a nomen odiosum applied to those who challenge the traditional account of Islamic origins. As such it lumps together and dismisses scholars whose assumptions, methods, and conclusions might, in fact, be widely different. Despite some discomfort with the label, and with the idea that one can point to a single “revisionist” sect, I shall myself have to do some lumping together and rough generalization in the course of this essay. If this does some injustice to the complexity of the situation, it at least permits us to speak in general terms of a new critical orientation within Islamic Studies. And it is not too much to suggest that all of this scholarship shares two fundamental premises: a deep skepticism about the historicity of the Muslim sources, and a conviction that the traditional view of Arabia’s role in Islamic origins ought to be reexamined.5

Western scholars have conventionally based their accounts of Muhammad and the rise of Islam on two types of Muslim literary sources: scripture (Quran) and the narrative accounts (the biography [sīrah] of Muhammad), treating the earliest history of the Muslim community. The sirah offers a narrative of Muhammad’s life, much as the gospels do for Jesus. It is composed largely of anecdotal material arranged, at a secondary stage, into a roughly chronological framework. The form in which we have it dates, at the earliest, to the middle of the eighth century; that is, a century-and-a-half after the traditional date given for Muhammad’s death. The chief sirah texts we have are nevertheless widely believed to preserve faithfully earlier material which goes back to Muhammad’s own day or not long afterward. The Quran is different in every way. For one thing, it is believed by Muslims to have assumed its present shape within only 25 years of the Prophet’s death; that is, before the center of Muslim power had shifted from Arabia to the more established areas of high civilization in the Near East. The tradition presents it as a purely “Arabian” text. Unlike the sirah texts, the Quran is not formally a historical narrative, but rather a collection of generalized sermons held to have been delivered (revealed) over the course of the Prophet’s career. These sermons make little direct reference to the names, places, and events of Muhammad’s time. As the Quran is assumed to be contemporary with the Prophet, traditional Orientalists have tried to exploit it both as a means of independently controlling the data in the sirah texts and as a source of information in its own right.6

Islamicists, then, have available to them a wealth of sources which their colleagues in search of the historical Jesus could only envy. Islam, unlike Christianity, is sometimes said to have been born “in the full light of history,” as Renan famously observed.7 But critics have begun to question just how bright that light actually is. While few if any question Muhammad’s actual existence, most critical scholars remain unconvinced that the historical Muhammad is to be found in this material and have lately raised fundamental questions about its origins and historicity. The role of storytellers and popular preachers in producing the sirah texts generations after Muhammad has been increasingly emphasized, and scholars have noted that some of the sirah materials seem to have been produced not independently of the Quran, but in exegetical elaboration of it. Scriptural and sirah texts may not after all offer two independent witnesses to the “facts” of Muhammad’s career.8 Furthermore, “revisionists” have generally taken a skeptical view of the traditional dating of the Quran and have proposed a more extended period of time before the text achieved its canonical status as the exclusive Muslim scripture.9 If this was, in fact, the case, it becomes even more difficult to associate the Quran directly and exclusively with Muhammad’s career.

Such thinking has been inspired directly or indirectly by the work of John Wansbrough. It was his critical insights, eventually published as Quranic Studies (Oxford University Press, 1977) and The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (Oxford University Press, 1978), that initially helped create a small community of “revisionist” scholars, chiefly in Britain, who have since taken the implications of his work in various directions. If they have failed to win many adherents, part of the blame doubtless lies with Wansbrough’s writing style: his prose is famously turgid, overloaded with technical terms in several different languages and alphabets, and his reasoning is often opaque, even to many attentive, specialist readers. As one reviewer put it at the time, “Here is Anglo-Saxon revenge with a vengeance for every dense and massive tome of Germanic erudition ever published.”10 Both of these books ironically exhibit that same “Deutungsbedürftigkeit,” that same inherent need for exegesis, that Wansbrough attributes to the Quran. It is to be hoped that his thinking will gain a wider audience from the recent efforts of several scholars to provide readable commentary.11

His prose aside, it is really Wansbrough’s radical hypotheses about the origins of Islam that have led so many to dismiss his work out of hand. These hypotheses derive from (and in turn help shape) his skeptical approach to the Arabic source materials. For Wansbrough, Islamic history begins only in the late eighth century, the point at which a canonized scripture, a doctrine of prophetology, and a sacred language can be securely attested. The Arabic Muslim texts, which assume that all three existed from the early seventh century, cannot serve as evidence for anything occurring before the date of their final redaction, which he estimates to be 800 C.E. Even if these texts do (as they claim) preserve older materials, such materials are unlikely to have survived intact the vicissitudes of transmission. Explanatory glosses, expansion and excision, and other textual corruptions make it difficult if not impossible for historians using these sources to see clearly before 800. But beyond these technical problems, scholars confront an obstacle of another sort: what we have in the sirah texts, according to Wansbrough, is less history in the modern sense of the word than a “salvation history” designed to legitimate a new Muslim faith and communal identity. This “Heilsgeschichte,” he implies, was constructed by the religious scholars of Iraq almost two centuries after the events they purport to describe. It may tell us what Muslims had by that time come to believe about their prophet, but it does not form an archive from which we can reconstruct what really happened during the first two Islamic centuries. The Muslim account of Islamic origins is, in fact, a theological statement about God’s guidance of Muhammad and his community; it is part and parcel of the faith and ought to be analyzed in those terms rather than taken simply as a tendentious but basically accurate account of the rise of Islam.

For Wansbrough and his followers, Islam as a distinct religion, with its own literature and ritual, did not crystallize before 800. There is, according to them, no distinctly Muslim theological or legal writing from before that time; even the received text of the Quran cannot be said to have acquired its final form and canonical authority much before 800. If Quranic material existed in the previous two centuries, it was only in the form of bodies of “prophetical logia,” themselves born of various cultic and polemical practices in the Near East. In analyzing the text from a literary and form-critical standpoint, Wansbrough has argued that the Quran is likely to be a composite document containing various collections of prophetical sayings, stitched together into a single work only after being transmitted orally for an extended period of time while used liturgically by various proto-Muslim communities in the Near East. In Wansbrough’s account, the Quran was not produced in pagan Arabia, but rather, emerged out of a sectarian monotheist milieu in the Near East. The same goes for Islam itself, which he sees as entirely a product of the diverse religious world of eighth-century Iraq.

What all this suggests is that the traditional account of Islamic origins is in need of revision. Rather than a tale of epic conquest followed by the diffusion of an Arab religion throughout the Near East, we instead have a new religion and scripture distilled from a world of sectarian monotheist polemic in Iraq and put to use to legitimate an Arab political domination throughout the area. In other words, Islam grew organically out of the religious world of late antique Mesopotamia; it was not a new religious departure brought to the Near East from pagan Arabia. Islam’s Arabian origins are on this reading little more than a foundation myth, a literary back-projection which served to distinguish Islam from its monotheist competitors. The basic elements of Muslim identity (Arab prophet, scripture, and sanctuary) were not carried out of the Hijaz by tribal conquerors, but were instead acquired later, lending an Arabian veneer to what was essentially a Near Eastern religious development. Remote and distant, seventh-century Arabia served to legitimate a religious and political identity emerging elsewhere.

Wansbrough’s followers would concede that much of this is speculative and intended more as a working hypothesis than as a set of final conclusions. Still, Wansbrough’s literary analysis of the texts and some of his claims about Islam’s formation can be quite compelling: the notion that Islam (like rabbinic Judaism and Christianity) emerged as yet another refinement of the monotheist tradition (rather than as a direct break with paganism) is extremely attractive and pedagogically useful in a Religious Studies classroom; it also seems likely that the Quran’s final form and exclusive canonical authority did emerge later than the traditional account allows.12 But at the same time, Wansbrough’s dating of canonical scripture and community to as late as 800 is untenable. The process cannot have taken 200 years. Wansbrough’s theory is undermined by evidence which he and many followers either do not seriously consider (e.g., theological epistles likely to date from the early to mid-eighth century and which are clearly post-Quranic)13 or do not consider at all (e.g., material evidence identifying Muhammad as “Messenger of God” as early as the 680s). Furthermore, without at least some germ of an ethno-religious identity in place during the early seventh century, it is hard to imagine how the Arab conquests of the Near East could have occurred, or how the Arabs themselves could have escaped rapid assimilation into the dominant cultures of the conquered territories.14

These and other problems were taken up by P. Crone and M. Cook in Hagarism (Cambridge University Press, 1977). This represents a very different line of critical thinking, even if its skeptical approach to the Muslim tradition was inspired by Wansbrough, and even if many critics of “revisionist” scholarship do not see much light between them.15 In this work, Crone and Cook dispense entirely with the Muslim tradition and instead seek to reconstruct early Islamic history on the basis of a few non-Arabic sources closer in time than their Muslim counterparts to the events they describe, and not subject to the same biases. The resulting picture of the rise of Islam is completely inconsistent with the standard one. Here, the conquerors emerge from a Jewish messianic context, their eyes set on Jerusalem. It was only in the latter decades of the seventh century (and not in Arabia itself) that the conquerors began to dissociate from this Jewish messianism by equipping themselves with their own scripture, their own prophet on the Mosaic model (complete with Exodus and Sinai), and an Arabian sanctuary.16 According to the authors, certain features of Samaritan Judaism provided the conquerors with an important model in constructing their own identity, and a large share of the weight was initially carried by the Umayyad Caliphs of Syria.

For all its powerful argument, Hagarism is best seen as an experiment which points up the problems of working entirely within the traditional paradigm, as well as the value of using sources external to the Muslim tradition. In method, it has the great advantage of outflanking the Muslim tradition’s own biases and allowing us to view the rise of Islam with fresh eyes. But the approach is not without its drawbacks, chief among them being the polemical biases and problematic dating of these non-Muslim sources.17 Whatever the many intellectual merits of the argument for historians, the book is less a reading of the Muslim tradition than a displacement of it (or rather, its reading of the tradition is very much implicit); apart from the Jewish messianism argument of the first part of the book, those teaching “Introduction to Islam” courses will not find much to work with here.18

In the Classroom

Does any of this belong in the classroom? Does it make pedagogical sense to offer our undergraduates a revised version of a story which they are only just beginning to learn? And if it does, how, practically speaking, can such material be incorporated into an introductory class?

Most of us would agree about the answers to the first two of these questions: of course, alternative hypotheses (if serious) belong in the classroom, and of course, our students are capable of keeping more than one possible interpretation in their heads. But at the same time, this kind of material is obviously sensitive to many students. It goes right to the most basic teachings and practices of Muslims, and certain students (both Muslim and non-Muslim) are liable to find it objectionable for just that reason. The first challenge for the teacher, I think, is to render the material less toxic by placing it in the context of variant Muslim and Western interpretations. The second is to find a practical way of incorporating it so that it becomes an integral part of the course rather than a mere curiosity, easily dismissed by students.

One approach that has worked for me is to structure the entire course around the problem of constructing and interpreting the Islamic tradition. While the syllabus is organized topically (Muhammad and the Quran, ritual, law, sects, etc.), I alert my students at the outset that lectures and discussion will explicitly treat each topic from a number of different interpretive angles. Along with the syllabus, I distribute what will be the principal essay question on the final exam: students must teach (on paper) a number of the course topics from a variety of perspectives (e.g., traditional Muslim, modernizing Muslim, orthodox and/or “revisionist” Western scholar, in some cases as a Sufi shaykh or a Shi‘i). The risk here, of course, is that Islam may dissolve into nothing more than a set of contested interpretations, without any positive content for students to grab hold of. In my experience, though, the result is that students simply become more alive to how a religious tradition explains itself at different stages, and how scholarship might variously be able to interpret those explanations. By the end of term, students are less likely to ask such questions as “What does Islam say about X or Y?”; instead, their thinking is focused on the different ways a tradition might have handled such a problem, and in some cases on possible continuity between Muslim and other monotheist solutions.

Just about any feature of Islam (law, theology, sectarianism) can fruitfully be analyzed against a wider monotheist background. Here, I would like to indicate briefly how two particular subjects, scripture and ritual practice, might be presented along these lines.

Our textbooks typically set the origins of both the Quran and Muslim ritual against an Arabian backdrop. The Quran is said to represent a sudden explosion of monotheist polemic directed at contemporary pagans, perhaps drawn, in part, from monotheist teachings which had begun to appear in Arabia. Many basic practices and rituals, for their part, are said to have arisen as modifications of living pagan customs. The swearing of oaths and vows, inheritance regulations, and certain features of Islamic marriage law, to take just a few examples, are commonly presented as Muslim modifications of traditional Arab law. The Muslim pilgrimage is typically characterized as an adoption of several pre-Islamic Arab rituals. Muslims themselves understand these to have been Abrahamic (monotheist) in origin; as the Arab descendants of Ishmael fell into paganism, they continued to maintain these ancient rituals in a corrupt form until Muhammad and his followers eventually restored their proper monotheist character. Conventional Western scholars naturally dismiss the Abrahamic pedigree of the pilgrimage, but also insist that Arab Muslims directly adopted the rituals from their pagan predecessors.

Both the Muslim tradition and orthodox Western scholars, then, take the Quran and basic rituals such as the pilgrimage to have been fixed by Muhammad’s death or shortly thereafter. Muslims, in other words, brought their own scripture and their own sanctuary rituals out of Arabia, uncontaminated by the religious culture of the late antique Near East.

Other explanations are available, although students generally do not find them in their textbooks. Large chunks of the Quran can be analyzed against a monotheist, rather than a primarily pagan, backdrop. Much of the text can be read as a response to a world of monotheist polemic, with the Quran serving almost as a kind of Arabic midrash on earlier monotheist scripture. Wansbrough’s analysis of the Quran’s formal and thematic content very much points in that direction. He identifies several Quranic motifs drawn from the traditional stock of monotheist imagery and conveyed through the rhetorical conventions of Near Eastern monotheism. These motifs (divine retribution, sign, exile, and covenant) can be said to express the basis of the Quranic message and are apparent throughout the text.19 I have found it a worthwhile exercise to have students go through pieces of the Quran and identify these four motifs, paying special attention to the language and imagery surrounding them and discussing how they promote the book’s monotheist agenda. At the very least, students become more attuned to the dominating presence of literary stereotypes and formulaic language in the Quran and perhaps gain a better sense of how this might serve to generate meaning for its audience.

Approaching the text from the beginning with literary questions in mind, students quickly see for themselves the Quran’s fragmented and referential quality. (This is an undeniable feature of the text; Wansbrough’s analysis of it is extremely useful, even if one disagrees with the conclusions he puts on it.) Almost any passage from the Quran might be used in the classroom to illustrate the text’s referential (rather than expository) style. The accounts of Moses and other biblical figures require a biblical or midrashic context to be understood. Even the Joseph story (Surah 12), the most coherent piece of biblical narrative in the Quran, is essentially a skeleton which takes for granted audience familiarity with biblical or extrabiblical versions of the story. For example, the apparently obscure reference to another brother of Joseph at Q 12:59 presupposes a knowledge of Genesis 42:3–13 (or a Jewish interpretation [midrash] thereto), where Benjamin does not accompany his brothers into Egypt; the reference at Q 12:31 to women cutting their hands at a banquet makes sense only in light of a Jewish midrash, in which the women are so astounded at Joseph’s beauty that they accidentally cut themselves.20 Such examples are easily multiplied, particularly in passages concerning Moses and Abraham. In connection with the Abrahamic sacrifice, for example, the Quran’s portrayal of the son as a willing victim (Q 37:101–109) manifestly reflects what the Jewish and Christian exegetical traditions had already done with the biblical narrative.21

If none of this actually requires our students to conclude that the Quran was born somewhere other than pagan Arabia, it does at least raise the possibility that large parts of it might have developed substantially once in a monotheist environment. It becomes easier to see the Quran as a reading of the living biblical tradition known among Near Eastern monotheists at the time of the rise of Islam, a reading through which older materials were rendered meaningful to a new monotheist community. If this did indeed take place over several generations, as Wansbrough suggests, with a single (if composite) text emerging only at the end of the process, one can make good sense of many of the Quran’s distinctive literary characteristics: namely, its pronounced repetition, redundancy, parallelism, and inconsistent legal content. All are well-known features of the text. But analyzed without granting in advance the tradition’s own account of the Quran’s origins, these qualities might suggest a composite text hammered together from several independent (or partially independent) traditions, with the final redaction cautiously preserving variants.22 Whether or not one cares to draw such a conclusion, this is at least the kind of examination students with any experience in Biblical Studies would expect, and it brings the teaching of Islam more into line with parallel subjects.

Something similar can be done with ritual, and here our best guide is the work of G. R. Hawting. What Hawting has tried to suggest in his studies on this subject is that Muslim ritual practices, far from being simple modifications of pagan Arab predecessors, may, in fact, have been produced in a Jewish matrix before being grafted onto Arabia at a later stage. Hawting has developed his argument along two lines. For one thing, he has tried to break the connection between Islam and Arabian paganism by suggesting that the Muslim accounts of the latter (our only real sources), while possibly containing some real information, can be read as stereotypical monotheist polemic against idolatry and polytheism. The Muslim descriptions of Arabian idolatry are decidedly formulaic and preserve (in Hawting’s view) less an authentic picture of the pagan past than a typical monotheist construction of it. The Arabic sources owe more to a literary tradition of antipagan polemic than to any authentic memory of pre-Islamic [jāhilī] Arabia. Whatever concrete information the sources contain is presented in a manner typical of Jewish, Christian, and Stoic polemic against idolatry. Many of the examples Hawting adduces may profitably be offered to students alongside selections from the Quran and Ibn al-Kalbi’s Book of Idols, an exercise which challenges students to consider how “Arabia-specific” our sources really are.23

For another thing, Hawting has argued (with particular reference to the Meccan sanctuary) that certain inconsistencies in the Arabic literary sources are difficult to account for if one assumes an early codification of ritual practice. Even the terminology which the Muslim tradition applies to parts of the sanctuary does not quite fit as it would had it developed exclusively in connection with Mecca.24 A good example of this terminological instability would be the “place” or “standing place of Abraham” [maqām Ibrāhīm]. The term is in classical Islam applied to a stone situated a short distance from the northeast wall of the Ka‘bah; during the pilgrimage ritual, Muslims perform two bowings there after completing the circumambulation of the Ka‘bah. The Muslim tradition offers several different reasons for the sanctity of the stone, all having to do with the Abrahamic origins of the sanctuary. The Orientalist tradition seeks mainly to uncouple it from monotheist foundation myths and to explain it in the context of Arab paganism: the Muslim practice is a direct descendant of the pagan. Hawting, however, has noted that the term is not consistently used in the Muslim sources to refer to a particular location in the sanctuary: it sometimes seems to refer to the sanctuary as a whole. There is even a passage in the Quran which seems at odds with the classical understanding of the maqām Ibrāhīm: “Take for yourselves a place of prayer from the maqām Ibrāhīm(2:125), which seems to suggest that the “place of Abraham” was at one time understood to be a larger area, perhaps the entire sanctuary. English translations of the Quran often obscure the problem by omitting the preposition “from” [min],25 but the early Muslim commentators could not so easily dispense with it. Many of the earliest exegetes quoted in the classical collections apparently understood the term maqām Ibrāhīm to refer not to a stone at all, but to Mecca or to the sanctuary as a whole. This lexical instability, Hawting argues, suggests that the phrase arose in another context altogether and was only secondarily attached to the Meccan sanctuary. An origin in Jewish usage is possible, where a maqōm [Ar. maqām] is a place where the divine presence can be found. (At Gen 18:22, Abraham is shown to stand before the Lord in the maqōm.) For whatever reason, when the term maqām Ibrāhīm, having wide monotheist reference, was transferred to the Meccan sanctuary, it came to be understood as designating only a part of that sanctuary. From there it generated its own foundation myths, although the older meaning was never entirely displaced from the Muslim tradition.

Like the antipagan polemic in the Quran and other Muslim sources, the pilgrimage ritual might have been located in Mecca only at a secondary stage in the tradition’s development. With further research, similar conclusions might well be drawn about the ritual prayer (we know, for example, that the number of daily prayers was contested even toward the end of the seventh century) and almsgiving. While both undoubtedly were among the earliest Muslim practices, it may be doubted that they achieved their classical form in predominantly pagan Arabia.

Conclusions

Naturally, introductory classroom presentations of the Quran or Muslim ritual cannot focus chiefly on their origins. But since few of us ignore the issue of origins, it makes sense to offer students a wide variety of scholarly opinion on the matter. Introducing them to the basics of modern critical scholarship not only gives our students fresh insight into Islam and Islamic Studies, but it also helps students connect with work they are doing in other Religious Studies courses. While no one would suggest making this perspective fundamental to an introductory course, my own experience tells me that it can be effectively integrated into a broad survey without either cultivating disrespect for the Muslim tradition or intellectually overwhelming our students.

NOTES

1. Where the Orientalist and Islamic traditions differ, of course, is on the question of influence. Believing Muslims insist on the Prophet’s originality and the tradition’s uniqueness, while even the most empathic of Islamicists, if forced to take a position, would concede at least an indirect Jewish or Christian influence on Muhammad’s own teachings.

2. Most of the textbooks in common use make no mention of this scholarship; the notable exceptions are the first volume of A. Rippin’s Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London: Routledge, 1990) (which is informed throughout by a “revisionist” outlook), and D. Waines’s An Introduction to Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), which is traditional in approach but nevertheless includes a discussion of the modern critical scholarship in its last chapter (“Excursus on Islamic Origins,” 265–79). It is telling that even R. Martin’s Islamic Studies: A History of Religions Approach, 2d ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996) has no use for the revisionists, despite the author’s methodological sophistication and unique organization of the material. The final chapter of the book, entitled “Whither the Study of Islam,” focuses solely on the criticisms leveled at Orientalism by Edward Said and ignores recent critical scholarship altogether.

3. For a discussion of irenic approaches to Islam, see C. Adams, “Islamic Religious Tradition,” in The Study of the Middle East, ed. L. Binder (New York: Wiley, 1976), 38–41; on the problems presented by such an approach, see the (somewhat intemperate) comments of J. Baldick, “Islam and the Religions of Iran in the Encyclopedia of Religion,Religious Studies 24 (1988): especially 47–50; as well as A. Rippin, “Literary Analysis of Qur’ān, Tafsīr, and Sīra: The Methodologies of John Wansbrough,” in Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies, ed. R. Martin (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985), 159.

4. Because I have had to keep the discussion here at a general level, it will appear largely, though not entirely, uncritical of this scholarship. The reader inclined to be skeptical of this “revisionism” should take heart that when such material is brought into the classroom, many students are both willing and able to raise their own sound objections to it, given at least minimal guidance.

5. In the early to mid-twentieth century, Goldziher and Schacht helped establish the need for a critical approach to the Muslim tradition; neither, however, dissented as sharply from the traditional view of Arabia and Islamic origins as the more recent critical scholarship has done. Their work remains central, even beyond “revisionist” circles. As it is so well known, and already a part of most textbooks on Islam, I leave it out of consideration here.

6. For attempts to write history solely from the Quran, see W. Watt, Muhammad’s Mecca, History in the Quran (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988); A. Welch, “Muhammad’s Understanding of Himself: The Koranic Data,” in Islam’s Understanding of Itself, ed. R. Hovannisian and S. Vryonis, Jr. (Malibu, CA: Undena, 1983), 15–52. It will be noted, though, that both of these works take for granted the general outline of Muhammad’s career as provided by the sirah texts, they do not, despite their claims, uncover much history in the Quran itself.

7. For a comparison of the problems encountered in the study of earliest Christianity and early Islam, see F. Peters, “The Quest of the Historical Muhammad,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 23 (1991): 291–315. The article nicely situates some of the directions taken by modern critical scholarship.

8. For clear and accessible discussions of these source-related issues from a critical standpoint, see M. Cook, Muhammad (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 61–76; and P. Crone, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 203–30. Cf. also the historiographical introduction to Crone’s Slaves on Horses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 3–17.

9. One notable exception is J. Burton, whose critical approach to the material led him to conclude that the Quran was actually put together earlier than the tradition claims (i.e., during the life of the Prophet himself); see his The Collection of the Quran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). The issue of the Quran’s dating has now begun to receive attention beyond narrow professional circles; see T. Lester, “What Is the Koran?,” in The Atlantic Monthly (January 1999): 43–56. The article serves as an exciting and useful introduction to recent critical work in early Islamic Studies, and is well worth assigning undergraduates.

10. W. Graham, review of Quranic Studies, in The Journal of the American Oriental Society 100 (1980): 138. The entire review is well worth consulting as an introduction to the book.

11. See the special 1997 issue of Method and Theory in the Study of Religion devoted to Wansbrough’s work. Particularly useful introductions (which can be assigned in class) are the articles by C. Adams, G. Hawting, and H. Berg. The Adams article (“Reflections on the Work of John Wansbrough,” 75–89) is especially valuable as a broad introduction to all the issues surrounding Wansbrough’s work. Cf. also A. Rippin, “Literary Analysis of Qur’ān, Tafsīr, and Sīra: The Methodologies of John Wansbrough,” in Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies, 159.

12. See esp. P. Crone, “Two Legal Problems Bearing on the Early History of the Qur’ān,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 18 (1994): 1–37.

13. The dating and authenticity of this material is the subject of M. Cook’s Early Muslim Dogma (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). The epistles are probably not as early as some have claimed, but they are certainly not as late as Wansbrough’s theory would require.

14. The reality of the conquests (or at least of the stories telling of major battles won by an organized Arab army) has been called into question by J. Koren and Y. Nevo, “Methodological Approaches to Islamic Studies,” Der Islam 68 (1991): 100–01. They seem to prefer a model of demographic shift and small-scale raiding, with the mass of Arabs still pagan by the end of the seventh century. For a more convincing interpretation, one that emphasizes the fit between monotheism, tribal power, and conquest, see P. Crone, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, 231–50. This chapter is well worth assigning undergraduates, especially alongside the more traditional approach found in W. M. Watt’s Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman (and numerous other works of his).

15. See, e.g., F. Rahman, Major Themes of the Quran (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980), xv.

16. For the view that the exodus concept [ḥijrah] was applied only secondarily to a movement from Mecca to Medina, but in the first instance to the conquest of the Promised Land, see Crone and Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, 7–9. The argument is fleshed out in P. Crone, “The First-Century Concept of ḥijra,” Arabica 12 (1994): 352–87.

17. For valuable critical reviews of Hagarism, see that of J. Wansbrough, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 41 (1978): 155–56; and J. van Ess, The Times Literary Supplement (Sept. 8, 1978): 997–998. For descriptive analyses of many of the non-Arabic sources, see R. Hoyland, Islam as Others Saw It (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1997).

18. Subsequent work by both authors is, however, extremely helpful in this respect. See, for example, Cook’s discussion of hadith in Dogma, 107–16, and Crone’s broader discussion of the formation of law in Roman, Provincial, and Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 18–34. Cf. also P. Crone and M. Hinds, God’s Caliph (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), which offers a powerful argument (based on the Muslim sources) about the evolution of religious authority in early Islam. The book’s conclusions make it difficult to present the evolution of Sunnism and the Shi‘ah in quite the usual way.

19. These are described, and textual examples are given, at Quranic Studies, 2–12.

20. Last example noted at Cook, Muhammad, 78. On the Quranic Joseph story in general, see Wansbrough, Quranic Studies, 1, 136–7. As a counterpoint to all this, cf. M. Waldman, “New Approaches to ‘Biblical’ Materials in the Quran,” in Studies in Islamic and Judaic Traditions, ed. W. Brinner and S. Ricks (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 47–64, where the author attempts to make sense of the Quranic Joseph narrative in purely “Muslim” terms, without reference to biblical or extrabiblical versions.

21. Rippin, Muslims, vol.1, pp.18f. See also on this passage N. Calder’s essay, “The sa‘y and the jabūn: Some Notes on Qur’ān 37:102–103,” Journal of Semitic Studies 31 (1986), especially 22–26; and idem, “From Midrash to Scripture: The Sacrifice of Abraham in Early Islamic Tradition,” Le Muséon 101 (1988).

22. A few examples discussed by Wansbrough himself: narrative parallels apparently preserved at different redactional stages (e.g., different versions of the Shu‘ayb tradition at 7:85, 11:84–95, 26:176–90, 29:36–37; parallel descriptions of the two gardens at 55:46–61 and 55:62–76, possibly representing variants of a single tradition transmitted orally in different milieux); intrusion of commentary into scripture (e.g., 16:51, identifiable by a change in pronoun: “God has said: ‘Take not to yourselves two Gods, for He is one God, so have fear of Me’”); variant positions on the drinking of wine or on the practice of night vigil.

23. See G. R. Hawting, “The Literary Context of the Traditional Accounts of Pre-Islamic Arab Idolatry,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 21 (1997): 21–41; for the possibility that the Muslim polemic against paganism might, in fact, have had a monotheist referent, see idem, “Shirk and Idolatry in Monotheist Polemic,” Israel Oriental Studies 17 (1997): 107–26.

24. That Mecca may not have been the first sanctuary in Islam is also suggested in Crone and Cook, Hagarism, 21–24. The relevant articles by Hawting are “The Origins of the Muslim Sanctuary at Mecca,” in Studies on the First Century of Islamic Society, ed. G. H. A. Juynboll (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 23–47; “The Disappearance and Rediscovery of Zamzam and the ‘Well of the Ka‘ba,’” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 43 (1980): 44–54; and “‘We were ordered not with entering it but only with circumambulating it.’ Ḥadīth and fiqh on Entering the Ka‘ba,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 47 (1984): 228–42.

25. E.g., “Take as your place of worship the place where Abraham stood [to pray]” (Pickthall [tr.], The Meaning of the Glorious Koran [London, n.d.], 44); “Make the place where Abraham stood a house of worship” (Dawood [tr.], The Koran [London, 1990], 22); “Take to yourselves Abraham’s station for a place of prayer” (Arberry [tr.], The Koran Interpreted [New York, 1955], i, 43–44). All these translations reflect the classical Muslim understanding of the passage, but not necessarily the language of the Quran itself.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2019. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice