Historical Methodology and the Believer, Part 1

Ibn Warraq

A few years ago, I was invited to a conference at The Hague by Professor Hans Jansen, the great Arabist. After listening to grim papers all day long, Jansen and I headed for the nearest bar. I was to give my talk the next day, and I asked him what I should talk about. He replied, “You must begin with a joke. There are not enough jokes.” So I shall begin this article with a joke first told to me by former Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion Chair R. Joseph Hoffmann. It is relevant to the theme of this essay, namely, historical methodology and the consequences of scientific research into the origins of early Islam and Christianity—consequences for the believer, above all.

The time: the 1950s; place: the Holy Land. Two archaeologists are working on a site just outside ancient Jerusalem, which they believe is the true location of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Golgotha. After months of careful digging, they come across two skeletons several feet apart. Thinking these are the bones of the thieves crucified at the same time as Jesus, they shift their attention to a spot where Jesus himself would have been crucified. Sure enough, they find some bones and the remains of a cross, and after weeks of further digging and carbon-dating analysis, they conclude that these are Jesus’s remains. Furthermore, the archaeological details are consistent with the account of the Crucifixion as found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

They look at each other as they realize the implications of their findings—Jesus was never resurrected! The discovery is far too important to release to the public without first consulting some eminent experts. They immediately think of Rudolf Bultmann, perhaps the leading theologian of his day and the author of The Gospel of John (1941), now considered a classic in the field of research into the historical Jesus. Our archaeologists phone him and explain in breathless tones their discovery and its possible consequences. Bultmann listens patiently and is then silent for several seconds. Finally, in a thick German accent, he says: “You mean he really existed!”

Soon after September 11, 2001, the left-wing British weekly journal The New Statesman published an article provocatively titled “The Great Koran Con Trick” by Martin Bright. The article was essentially a more crude and self-consciously sensationalist version of an article Toby Lester had published in The Atlantic a couple of years earlier, titled “What Is the Koran?” Bright rehearsed the familiar theories of revisionist scholars, centered on the work of John Wansbrough of the School of African and Oriental Studies and those influenced by him, including Patricia Crone, Michael Cook, Andrew Rippin, and Gerald Hawting. The article resulted in many letters to the editor, six of which were published the following week. The longest was from Patricia Crone, writing from the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Crone wrote:

. . . modern historians are not interested in the truth and falsehood of the religion they study at all. They study religions as historical factors shaped by their environment and acting back on it in turn, much as scientists study the formation of dust clouds or the evolution of plants. Religious beliefs shape the world they interact with, whether the person studying them happens to share them or not; all that matters is what they meant at the time, not what they mean now. . . . [Historians] have no intention of making the Muslim house come down, nor indeed could they even if they did. Religion does not belong in the domain open to proof or disproof by scholarship or science.

Michael Cook, Crone’s one-time colleague and coauthor with her of Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977), also wrote to the journal. Here is the full text of his letter:

It is perfectly true that some of various academic theories about the origins of Islam are radical. But it would be wrong to suggest that they “prove” the traditional Islamic account of the beginnings of the religion to be false. They don’t. Neither, so far as I know, do the early Koranic fragments found in Yemen prove anything like that. They are exciting to experts, they scatter a few apples over the cobbles, but they don’t upset the apple-cart. In any case, it is hard to see why academic theories about the origins of Islam should be any more “devastating” than theories about Jesus have been to Christianity. Academic work does occasionally enliven the halls of learning, but it doesn’t devastate world religions. They don’t play in the same league.

The remarks of both Cook and Crone are misleading, to say the least. First, Crone seems to imply that all historians are engaged only in the historical sociology of religion—investigating what it meant to be Muslim and how Muslims saw and experienced their own religion—and are not interested in the truth and falsehood of the religion studied. Not only does this not characterize the work of all historians, it does not even characterize her own. In Hagarism, Slaves on Horses (1980), God’s Caliph (1986) written with Martin Hinds, Roman Provincial and Islamic Law (1987), and Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987), Crone challenged accepted views of early Islam. As Ibn al-Rawandi wrote in my anthology The Quest for the Historical Muhammad (Prometheus, 2000), Hagarism exploded the “the academic consensus and demolish[ed] deference to the Muslim view of things, thus making it possible to propose radical alternative hypotheses for the origins of Islam”; it clearly rejected the Islamic tradition.

Second, Cook and Crone imply that academic research has no consequence for the religion or the believer. But they themselves saw clearly the implications of their scholarly work, for they admit in the preface to Hagarism that without exposure to “the sceptical approach of Dr. John Wansbrough to the historicity of the Islamic tradition . . . the theory of Islamic origins set out in this book would never have occurred to us” and that this approach led them to a theory that is “not one which any believing Muslim can accept: not because it in any way belittles the historical role of Muhammad, but because it presents him in a role quite different from that which he has taken on in the Islamic tradition. This is a book written by infidels for infidels, and it is based on what from any Muslim perspective must appear an inordinate regard for the testimony of infidel sources.” Why the recourse to the “infidel sources,” that is, the non-Muslim historians of the period of the Islamic conquests? Their reply:

Virtually all accounts of the early development of Islam take it as axiomatic that it is possible to elicit at least the outlines of the process from the Islamic sources. It is however well known that these sources are not demonstrably early. There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century, and the tradition which places this rather opaque revelation in its historical context is not attested before the middle of the eighth. The historicity of the Islamic tradition is thus to some degree problematic: while there are no cogent internal grounds for rejecting it, there are equally no cogent external grounds for accepting it. In the circumstances it is not unreasonable to proceed in the usual fashion by presenting a sensibly edited version of the tradition as historical fact. But equally, it makes some sense to regard the tradition as without determinate historical content, and to insist that what purport to be accounts of religious events in the
seventh century are utilizable only for the study of religious ideas in the eighth. The Islamic sources provide plenty of scope for the implementation of these different approaches, but offer little that can be used in any decisive way to arbitrate between them. The only way out of the dilemma is thus to step outside the Islamic tradition altogether and start again.

Pace Cook and Crone, the implications of these theses are indeed “devastating.” Any research that casts doubt on the traditional Muslim account of the Qur’an, the rise of Islam, and the life of Muhammad is totally unacceptable to Muslims—as was made clear by the letter to The New Statesman from a Dr. Hamza Alam, who wrote, “[Bright’s article] is disgusting and completely baseless. If the Koran was not revealed by Allah, then there would be many errors and contradictions in it. . . . But no one has been able to find any error or contradiction in the Koran. . . . ” The two final letters reveal the enormous gulf between the attitudes toward research in Islam and Christianity. Robin Oakley-Hill made the point that “It is hardly fair to characterise western Koran scholarship as neo-colonial given that western academics subject Christianity to far more rigorous—frequently destructive—examination. . . . Perhaps Islam could do with a [Pope] John XXII and some liberation theology.”

Oakley-Hill’s point is endorsed by John Wansbrough himself, who wrote in his Quranic Studies (Oxford, 1977):

As a document susceptible of analysis by the instruments and techniques of Biblical criticism [the Koran] is virtually unknown. The doctrinal obstacles that have traditionally impeded such investigation are, on the other hand, very well known. Not merely dogmas such as those defining scripture as the uncreated Word of God and acknowledging its formal and substantive inimitability, but also the entire corpus of Islamic historiography, by providing a more or less coherent and plausible report of the circumstances of the Quranic revelation, have discouraged examination of the document as representative of a traditional literary type.

In volume one of his Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1991) Andrew Rippin endorses Wansbrough’s frustration:

. . . I have often encountered individuals who come to the study of Islam with a background in the historical study of the Hebrew Bible or early Christianity, and who express surprise at the lack of critical thought that appears in introductory textbooks on Islam. The notion that “Islam was born in the clear light of history” still seems to be assumed by a great many writers of such texts. While the need to reconcile varying historical traditions is generally recognized, usually this seems to pose no greater problem to the authors than having to determine “what makes sense” in a given situation. To students acquainted with approaches such as source criticism, oral formulaic composition, literary analysis and structuralism, all quite commonly employed in the study of Judaism and Christianity, such naive historical study seems to suggest that Islam is being approached with less than academic candour.

The last letter to the editor of The New Statesman was from a Christian clergyman, and it clearly reveals that Christianity has absorbed the lessons not only of the Enlightenment but of biblical criticism. The Reverend Richard Craig wrote:

In spite of huge advances in biblical scholarship, Ann Widdicombe [a Conservative Member of Parliament] can still assert in her review of [the book] Mary: The Unauthorized Biography, that St. John’s Gospel is an eyewitness account of the life of Christ. Most scholars reject such a view. Martin Bright’s report is welcome evidence that scholarly investigation of the origins of Islam is beginning the long and painful path trodden by Christian theologians’ inquiry into our sacred texts. Widdicombe’s acceptance of the literalist view of the gospels is still widely held by many sitting in church pews, even though the clergy have been taught otherwise for 50 years or more.

To be continued.

Ibn Warraq

Ibn Warraq, Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Qur’anic criticism, was a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of many books, including What the Qur’an Really Says (Prometheus Books, 2002) and Which Koran? Variants, Manuscripts, Linguistics.


A few years ago, I was invited to a conference at The Hague by Professor Hans Jansen, the great Arabist. After listening to grim papers all day long, Jansen and I headed for the nearest bar. I was to give my talk the next day, and I asked him what I should talk about. He …

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