Historical Methodology and the Believer, Part 2

Ibn Warraq

In Part 1 (June/July 2010), Ibn Warraq chronicled a series of seemingly disingenuous comments by scholars of the Qur’an insisting that their findings regarding the history of the Qur’an and Islam itself have no bearing on the truth or falsity of the religion. He referred to a letter in the New Statesman by scholar Michael Cook denying that Cook’s work should be seen to “‘prove’ the traditional Islamic account of the beginnings of the religion to be false.”Eds.


Michael Cook, in his letter, also claims that the Qur’anic fragments from Yemen do not “prove” a great deal. But they do. As scholar of Islam Gerd Puin told journalist Toby Lester,

So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word. They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sana‘a’ fragments will help us to do this.

Scholar Andrew Rippin was also enthusiastic:

The impact of the Yemeni manuscripts is still to be felt. Their variant readings and verse orders are all very significant. Everybody agrees on that. These manuscripts say that the early history of the Koranic text is much more of an open question than many have suspected: the text was less stable, and therefore had less authority, than has always been claimed.

If what Puin and Rippin say is correct, then the consequences are again “devastating,” a fact recognized by R. Stephen Humphreys, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who argued:

To historicize the Koran would in effect delegitimize the whole historical experience of the Muslim community.

The Qur’an is the charter for the community, the document that called it into existence. And ideally—though obviously not always in reality—Islamic history has been the effort to pursue and work out the commandments of the Qur’an in human life. If the Qur’an is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of fourteen centuries is effectively meaningless.

In brief, pace Cook and Patricia Crone, historians do try to establish what really happened, and their research has profound implications for the believer and the religion’s own traditional view of itself. The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are particularly vulnerable to the historical sciences because the validity of their respective dogmas are closely predicated on or anchored in putatively historical events in a way that Buddhism, for example, is not. The historical Buddha, that is if he is indeed a historical figure, said only “follow my argument,” and if his life proved to be a pious legend his argument would still remain and Buddhism would not be shaken to its foundations. As Van Harvey said in his classic book The Historian and the Believer, the deontology of the historian “has the profoundest of implications for religious belief in general and Christian belief in particular.”

I lean heavily on Harvey’s book—which incidentally, by a happy coincidence, is dedicated to Rudolf Bultmann—in what follows.

Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923), the German Protestant theologian who wrote on the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of history, spent a large part of his life grappling with the significance of the historical-critical method, whose development he considered “one of the great advances in human thought; indeed, that it presupposed a revolution in the consciousness of Western man.”

The historian’s will to truth guided his aim, which was nothing less than discovering what really happened. With objectivity, the historian was able to discover that much of what had been previously accepted as fact was in reality fiction—that many long-trusted witnesses were actually credulous spinners of tales and legends. The essential questions that the skeptical historian needed to keep in mind were “whether or not something actually happened; whether it happened in the way it is told or in some other way.”

Troeltsch argued that the presuppositions of the critical historical method themselves were basically incompatible with traditional Christian faith, based as it is on a supernaturalistic metaphysics. He believed that this incompatability was clearly evident in the domain of biblical criticism. The assumptions on which the method rested were irreconciliable with traditional belief. While the theologian regards the Scriptures as supernaturally inspired, the historian must assume that the Bible (or, of course, the Qur’an, though Troeltsch himself kept to Christianity) is intelligible only in terms of its historical context, and is subject to the same principles of interpretation and criticism that are applied to other ancient literature. Or they must be understood, as Maxime Rodinson expressed it in the Islamic context, by “the normal mechanisms of human history.” Explanations in terms of the supernatural intervention of God will act only as a hindrance to true historical understanding. For the skeptical historian, all historical claims have only a greater or lesser degree of probability.

Troeltsch was unflinching in facing up to the consequences of the critical historical method. He wrote, “Once the historical method is applied to Biblical science and church history, it is a leaven that alters everything and, finally, bursts apart the entire structure of theological methods employed until present.”

Troeltsch formulated three principles on which he believed critical historical inquiry was based that were incompatible with traditional Christian belief: (1) the principle of criticism: our judgments about the past are provisionally true, open to revision in the light of criticism by peers, by the discovery of new evidence, and so on; (2) the principle of analogy: we are able to make such judgments of probability only if we presuppose that our own present experience is not radically dissimilar to the experience of past persons; and (3) the principle of correlation:

the phenomena of man’s historical life are so related and interdependent that no radical change can take place at any one point in the historical nexus without effecting a change in all that immediately surrounds it. Historical explanation, therefore, necessarily takes the form of understanding an event in terms of its antecedents and consequences, and no event can be isolated from its historically conditioned time and space.

This third principle, of correlation, led Troeltsch to conclude that no critical historian could make use of supernatural intervention as a principle of historical explanation, because that broke the continuity of the causal nexus, and (in Harvey’s words) “no event could be regarded as a final revelation of the absolute spirit, since every manifestation of truth and value was relative and historically conditioned. Troeltsch believed that ‘history is no place for absolute religion and absolute personalities.’” F.H. Bradley and Marc Bloch made the same point when they postulated that among the presuppositions of critical history were (1) the uniformity of nature and (2) the causal connection. In his book The Historian’s Craft, Bloch wrote that all history assumes that “the universe and society possess sufficient uniformity to exclude the possibility of overly pronounced devia
tions.”

History, in effect, presupposes all the sciences. It presupposes physics, for example, when the historian assesses the capabilities of weapons in the battle of Waterloo; it presupposes astronomy when the historian evaluates reports about the Sun having stood still as in biblical story of Joshua (Joshua 10:12–13). In fact, as Morton White noted, “It seems impossible to put a limit on the number of sciences history does presuppose.”

Central to the critical historian’s method is the notion of autonomy, with which Immanuel Kant identified enlightenment. Enlightenment, Kant argued, is man’s release from all authority that would deprive him of his freedom to think without direction from another. For Harvey, the motto “Have the courage to use your own reason” summed up “his declaration of independence against every authority that rests on the dictatorial command, ‘Obey, don’t think.’” Kant elevated the will to truth above the will to believe.

It is entirely fitting in this context to note that the entire Enlightenment project was launched by Benedict de Spinoza. As Jonathan Israel, a colleague of Crone’s at the Institute for Advanced Study, put it in his magisterial work of extraordinary learning, scope, and analysis, Radical Enlightenment: “Spinoza and Spinozism were in fact the intellectual backbone of the European Radical Enlightenment everywhere, not only in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, and Scandinavia but also Britain and Ireland.”

And the work that did more than any other to bring about this profound revolution in human history was Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, published clandestinely but nonetheless courageously by the Dutch publisher Jan Rieuwertsz (c.1616–1687) in Amsterdam in 1670. For Spinoza the Bible is purely a human and secular text; theology is not an independent source of truth.

Spinoza offers an elaborate theory of what religion is, and how and why religion construes the world as it does, creating a new science of contextual Bible criticism. Analyzing usage and intended meanings, and extrapolating from context, using reason as an analytical tool but not expecting to find philosophical truth embedded in Scriptural concepts.

In his attack on the very possibility of miracles and the credulity of the multitude, Spinoza’s Tractatus made a profound impression everywhere—in England, Italy, Germany, and France. Spinoza, in effect, denounces clerical authority for exploiting the credulity, ignorance, and superstition of the masses. Spinoza’s ideas were easy to grasp in one sense even by the unlettered, ideas such as (in Harvey’s words)

the identification of God with the universe, the rejection of organized religion, the abolition of Heaven and Hell, together with reward and punishment in the hereafter, a morality of individual happiness in the here and now, and the doctrine that there is no reality beyond the unalterable laws of Nature, and consequently, no Revelation, miracles or prophecy.

What poetic justice that it was Spinoza’s biblical criticism that launched the Enlightenment! Can Cook and Crone still maintain that biblical and Qur’anic criticism do not upset the apple-cart, that their effects are not less than devastating?

The historian is autonomous because he or she cannot and must not uncritically accept the testimony of an authority. As Harvey observes, “no witness simply hands down a complete, photograph-like description of an event; rather, [the historian] selects, alters, interprets, and rationalizes.” The witness’s thoughts and very way of thinking are conditioned by the prevailing culture at a particular moment in history. As Harvey summarized, “If the historian permits his authorities to stand uncriticized, he abdicates his role as critical historian. He is no longer a seeker of knowledge but a mediator of past belief; not a thinker but a transmitter of tradition.”

An associated principle for the historian that prevents autonomy from becoming mere subjectivism is the public communication of the historian’s conclusions so that these conclusions can be rationally assessed by his or her peers and others who have the competence to do so. The historian must give reasons—that is, evidence—for his or her claims, which are implicit appeals to other persons. Only such responsible dialogue, such submission of our theories, hypotheses, and conjectures to rational scrutiny by the academic and intellectual community, can lead us closer to genuine knowledge, to the truth. As R.G. Collingwood (a British philosopher and historian) wrote,

History has this in common with every other science: that the historian is not allowed to claim any single piece of knowledge, except where he can justify his claim by exhibiting to himself in the first place, and secondly to any one else who is both able and willing to follow his demonstration, the grounds upon which it is based.

This principle immediately rules out the genetic fallacy, whereby the contingent characteristics of the historian are often used to exclude, a priori, the validity of his arguments or conclusions. Muslims tend to dismiss Qur’anic criticism if it emanates from a European as neo-colonialism; the work of Israeli or Christian scholars is willfully neglected as biased. Only a Muslim, it is argued, can criticize Islam; it must be scrutinized from the inside. This argument leads to the absurd conclusion that only a Marxist can criticize Marxism, a Stalinist Stalinism, and a fascist fascism; though, of course, Muslims themselves are happy to avail themselves of any opportunity to criticize Christianity.

Undoubtedly, historians are no different, no better and no worse than the rest of the human race; they exhibit all sorts of predilections and prejudices that we find reprehensible. But these are irrelevant in our assessment of their work as historians, as Islamologists. Lawrence Conrad has shown, for instance, that Theodor Nöldeke was an anti-Semite “whose publications and private correspondence flaunt bigotry and prejudice of a level [that was] . . . highly offensive.” I hardly need to spell out the importance of Nöldeke for Islamic Studies to the present audience.

Similarly, though he had what Rodinson calls a “holy contempt for Islam, for its ‘delusive glory’ and its works, for its ‘dissembling’ and ‘lascivious’ Prophet,” and despite his other methodological shortcomings, Henri Lammens, according to F.E. Peters, “whatever his motives and style . . . has never been refuted.” Conrad makes a similar point that despite Lammens’s well-known hostility to Islam, he offers a “number of useful insights.” Rodinson also concedes Lammens’s partiality but once again realizes that Lammens’s “colossal efforts at demolishing also had constructive results. They have forced us to be much more highly demanding of our sources. With the traditional edifice of history definitively brought down, one could now proceed to the reconstruction.”

To be continued.—The Editors

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.


In Part 1 (June/July 2010), Ibn Warraq chronicled a series of seemingly disingenuous comments by scholars of the Qur’an insisting that their findings regarding the history of the Qur’an and Islam itself have no bearing on the truth or falsity of the religion. He referred to a letter in the New Statesman by scholar Michael …

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