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Monday, October 23, 2006

Historical Criticism and the Koran

Some opponents of Islam have pointed to the fact that while the Jewish and Christian testaments have been studied for 200 years for their historical content, the Koran has received little or no such analysis. In the following comments I address very superficially some of these issues, noting in particular the idea that the Koran is just a selection of saying that every generation of Moslems has added context to. I argue that this notion of contextualization is in fact what many modern biblical scholars--especially those using the redaction method--say has occurred with the Christian texts.

What is meant when critics of Islam use the notion of creating a context for the Koranic surahs? Those who aim this accusation at the Koran attempt to judge the historicity of the surahs by using the historical-critical results of studies of the Jewish and Christian testaments. I think that this is somewhat questionable, but in the following I will accept this approach by showing that--at least in the remarks that many critics use--the contextual critique of the Koran is something of a red herring. ...

Contextualization has been done in Christianity since the times that Jesus spoke. Indeed, the significant differences between the synoptic and Johannine gospels is a first indicator that creation of context was important to the gospel writers. If you expand the genre to include the so-called Gnostic gospels, the notion of "creating" context becomes even more pronounced.

If Crossan et al and others are correct, the source for many of the Gospels--called Q by historians--was without context and the gospel writers came later to provide it. Indeed, if you look at the Gospel According to Thomas, you'll find simply a list of sayings. Many scholars think this was the original "text" of the Gospel. What we have passed down to us is part of the redactive effort of the early Christian communities.

As many of these scholars make clear, the issue of context is indeed important to the gospel writers. One of the more important historical-critical methods is redaction criticism, which identifies the various contextual interests of the communities who took the original Q material and set it into appropriate narratives that served their contemporary faith needs.

Using the Gospels to judge the historicity of the Surahs is therefore a somewhat thorny issue. At least within the context of contemporary historical-critical efforts with regard to the Gospels, the result shows that the Gospels are just as much the effect of "fabrication" as critics of the Koran say the Surahs are. While I look forward to seeing the results of applying the historical-critical tools to the Surahs, this by no means delegitimates their meaning than do the various searches for the historical Jesus.

That the Surahs provide no historical context, as some put it, places them somewhat closer to the set of sayings that many Christian scholars believe comprised Q and which characterizes GoT. The work of contextualization continues inside Christianity as well. Indeed, one could see the various efforts at discovering the so-called historical Jesus as just such an effort.

If redaction criticism is correct, contextualizing remembered sayings of Jesus is exactly what the early Christian communities did, as do the various churches from then to now. The efforts to smooth out the differences in narrative of the Gospels themselves shows how this effort was part of the early church as it moved to religious hegemony in the Roman empire. If the rhetorical critics (eg, Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza) of the Gospels are correct, such political and ideological interests have always been part of the contextualization of the gospels as well as inherent to their writing.

One should note, however, that according to Patricia Crone, there are more historical sources for Muhammad than for Jesus:

For all that, we probably know more about Mohammed than we do about Jesus (let alone Moses or the Buddha), and we certainly have the potential to know a great deal more.
Anyone who's read ibn Khaldun should know that historical writing is not simply limited to the western universities. As Fazlur Rahman's work shows, the historical understanding of Islam and the Moslem world is not as foreign to Islamic self-wareness as many critics of Islam uncritically assume.

It took biblical historians over 200 years to get to where they have gotten. Beginning with Reimarus, the work has evolved from quite crude reductionistic methods to very sensitive and refined historical methods. I believe the number of searches for the historical Jesus is now at three. No doubt, we will soon see a fourth search begin. As scholars continue to use these methods on the Koran, we will see something similar.

This will be an unending search. I would hope that these searches learn from the mistakes of historical-critical scholars in the west as they approach the Koran. By this, I see Rudolph Bultmann's approach as perhaps the most impressive achievement, although I find the work of feminist scholars also very important.

In the Wikipedia entry on historical critical approaches to the Koran, the effort at using these methods has continued apace--contrary to what many critics of Islam assert.

Related Links
Koranic Exegesis (tafsir)

Feminine Voices

1 comment:

Anders Branderud said...

"Historical J....."!?!

The persons using that contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes dependancy upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").
Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

To all Christians: The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?