Historical Methodology and the Believer Part 3

Ibn Warraq

In previous installments of this article, Ibn Warraq chronicled a series of seemingly disingenuous comments by Qur’anic scholars 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 discussed the necessary role of autonomy if historical scholarship is to achieve genuine discoveries untrammeled by the authority of the scripture under examination. —Eds.

The provenance of an argument is not relevant as long as it is submitted to rigorous examination. Now, I personally have been accused of having a hidden agenda by a distinguished professor who teaches at a university in a city that the British satirical journal Private Eye would describe as “not unadjacent to Lake Michigan.” I wonder what that agenda could possibly be—world domination, no doubt—but is it relevant to the usefulness to scholars of my anthologies? As Albert Schweitzer wrote, “For hate as well as love can write a Life of Jesus, and the greatest of them are written with hate: that of Reimarus, the Wolfenbuttel Fragmentist, and that of David Friedrich Strauss. . . . And their hate sharpened their historical insight. They advanced the study of the subject more than all the others put together. But for the offense which they gave, the science of historical theology would not have stood where it does to-day.”

The letter from the Reverend Richard Craig that I quoted in Part 1 of this series (Free Inquiry, June/July 2010) underlines decisively the point made by Van Harvey, namely, “the battle of the independence of the Biblical historian has been largely won.” Unfortunately, this is not the case with Qur’anic scholars. The rights established by Ernest Renan and other nineteenth-century European scholars to examine critically and scientifically the foundations of Islam—whether of the Qur’an or the life of the Prophet—have been squandered in a welter of ecumenical sentimentality resulting in a misplaced concern for the sensibilities of Muslims. For instance, in a recent essay titled “Verbal Inspiration? Language and Revelation in Classical Islamic Theology,” Professor Josef Van Ess expressed his concern for the tender susceptibilities of Muslims by stopping, being a non-Muslim himself, his critical analysis because it contradicted the Sunni Islam version of the matter. In a review of the book in which the Van Ess essay appeared, Mohammed Arkoun very sensibly replied that such an attitude was scientifically unacceptable, for historical truth concerns the right of the human spirit to push forward the limits of human knowledge; Islamic thought, like all other traditions of thought, can only benefit from such an epistemological attitude. Besides, continues Arkoun, Professor Van Ess knows perfectly well that Muslims today suffer from the politics of repression of free thought, especially in the religious domain. Or to put it another way, we are not doing Islam any favors by shielding it from the application of Enlightenment values.

Some Western scholarship has moved from objectivity to Islamic “apologetics pure and simple.” The trend was remarked upon in 1968 by Maxime Rodinson:

In this way the anticolonialist left, whether Christian or not, often goes so far as to sanctify Islam and the contemporary ideologies of the Muslim world. . . . A historian like Norman Daniel has gone so far as to number among the conceptions permeated with medievalism or imperialism, any criticisms of the Prophet’s moral attitudes, and to accuse of like tendencies any exposition of Islam and its characteristics by means of the normal mechanisms of human history. Understanding has given way to apologetics pure and simple.

Commenting on the work of Father Y. Moubarac and Louis Massignon in A Critical Survey of Modern Studies on Muhammad, Rodinson remarked that their perspective represented

a necessary reaction against an understanding of a text in terms that were too often foreign to the text, and a tendency to isolate themes from the religious context to which they belong—tendencies which were characteristic of the nineteenth century. However, the historian must occasionally ask himself if the reaction has not gone too far. Some of the methods of this school of thought must be a matter of concern to historians. To study the internal logic of a faith and to show respect are very legitimate objectives. The scholar has a perfect right to attempt to re-experience within himself the “fire” and the exigencies of the religious consciousness under study. However, the elements that comprise a coherent system could indeed have derived from a variety of very different sources and might well have played an entirely different role in other systems. Respect for the faith of sincere believers cannot be allowed either to block or deflect the investigation of the historian. . . . One must defend the rights of elementary historical methodology. [Emphasis added.]

It is certainly disgraceful that what Karl Binswanger called the “dogmatic Islamophilia” of modern Islamicist scholars helped to deny Gunter Luling a fair hearing and destroyed his academic career. German Islamicists are, to quote Arabist Gotz Schregle, wearing “spiritually in their mind a turban,” practicing “Islamic scholarship” rather than scholarship on Islam. Equally reprehensible has been the imputing of various “suspect” motives to the work of Wansbrough and those influenced by him. Western scholars need to unflinchingly, unapologetically defend their right to examine Islam and to explain the rise and fall of Islam by the normal mechanisms of human history, according to the objective standards of historical methodology (which relies on conjectures and refutations, critical thought, rational arguments, presentation of evidence, and so on). The virtue of disinterested historical inquiry would be fatally undermined if we brought into it the Muslim or Christian faith. If we bring subjective religious faith with its dogmatic certainties into the “historical approximation process, it inevitably undermines what R. G. Collingwood argued was the fundamental attribute of the critical historian, skepticism regarding testimony about the past,” declared Gerald A. Larue and R. Joseph Hoffmann.

As Bernard Lewis wrote:

[We] may, indeed, we must study the history of Atlantic slavery and expose this great shame in the history of the Western world and the Americas north and south, in all its horror. This is a task which falls upon us as Westerners and in which others may and should and do join us. In contrast, however, even to mention—let alone discuss or explore —the existence of slavery in non-Western societies is denounced as evidence of racism and of imperialistic designs. The same applies to other delicate topics as polygamy, autocracy, and the like. The range of taboos is very wide.

I should like to remind Bernard Lewis, his students, and his admirers of his own words:

There was a time when scholars and other writers in communist eastern Europe relied on writers and publishers in the free West to speak the truth about their history, their culture, and their predicament. Today it is those who told the truth, not those who concealed or denied it, who are respected and welcomed in these countries.

Historians in free countries have a moral and professional obligation not to shirk the difficult issues and subjects that some people would place under a sort of taboo; not to submit to voluntary censorship, but to deal with these matters fairly, honestly, without apologetics, without polem
ic, and, of course, competently. Those who enjoy freedom have a moral obligation to use that freedom for those who do not possess it. We live in a time when great efforts have been made, and continue to be made, to falsify the record of the past and to make history a tool of propaganda; when governments, religious movements, political parties, and sectional groups of every kind are busy rewriting history as they would wish it to have been, as they would like their followers to believe that it was. All this is very dangerous indeed, to ourselves and to others, however we may define otherness—dangerous to our common humanity. Because, make no mistake, those who are unwilling to confront the past will be unable to understand the present and unfit to face the future.

Bruce Lincoln, professor of the history of religions in the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, has conveniently laid out thirteen theses for a historian of religion to follow if he or she is to fulfill the duty of a historian. The historian must keep to the methods of historical research even when examining religions. Here are some of Lincoln’s points, in his own words:

History, in the sharpest possible contrast, is that discourse which speaks of things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible voice, while staking its claim to authority on rigorous critical practice. To practice history of religions in a fashion consistent with the discipline’s claim of title is to insist on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine. The first of these is “Who speaks here?,” i.e., what person, group, or institution is responsible for a text, whatever its putative or apparent author. Beyond that, “To what audience? In what immediate and broader context? Through what system of mediations? With what interests?” And further, “Of what would the speaker(s) persuade the audience? What are the consequences if this project of persuasion should happen to succeed? Who wins what, and how much? Who, conversely, loses?” Reverence is a religious, and not a scholarly virtue. When good manners and good conscience cannot be reconciled, the demands of the latter ought to prevail.

Many who would not think of insulating their own or their parents’ religion against critical inquiry still afford such protection to other people’s faiths, via a stance of cultural relativism. One can appreciate their good intentions, while recognizing a certain displaced defensiveness, as well as the guilty conscience of western imperialism.

Beyond the question of motives and intentions, cultural relativism is predicated on the dubious—not to say, fetishistic—construction of “cultures” as if they were stable and discrete groups of people defined by the stable and discrete values, symbols, and practices they share. Insofar as this model stresses the continuity and integration of timeless groups, whose internal tensions and conflicts, turbulence and incoherence, permeability and malleability are largely erased, it risks becoming a religious and not a historic narrative: the story of a transcendent ideal threatened by debasing forces of change.

Although critical inquiry has become commonplace in other disciplines, it still offends many students of religion, who denounce it as “reductionism.” This charge is meant to silence critique. The failure to treat religion “as religion”—that is, the refusal to ratify its claim of transcendent nature and sacrosanct status—may be regarded as heresy and sacrilege by those who construct themselves as religious, but it is the starting point for those who construct themselves as historians.

When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths,” “truth-claims,” and “regimes of truth,” one has ceased to function as historian or scholar. In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of import goods). None, however, should be confused with scholarship.

Finally there are those who tell me that even though historians may be right in exposing history hitherto repressed or simply denied, this was not the right historical moment to express it. Now is a time of a war on terror when we are trying to convince Muslims round the world that we are not at war with them but rather with those who have a perverted interpretation of the great religion of Islam.

Sir Isaiah Berlin once described an ideologue as somebody who is prepared to suppress what he suspects to be true. Sir Isaiah then concluded that from that disposition to suppress the truth has flowed much of the evil of this and other centuries. The first duty of the intellectual is to tell the truth. By suppressing the truth, however honorable the motive, we are only engendering an even greater evil.

We are all beholden to all historians for helping us to see more clearly and more honestly past events that have such an important bearing on present travails. In the words of Albert Schweitzer, “Truth has no special time of its own. Its hour is now, always, and indeed then most truly when it seems most unsuitable to actual circumstances.”


Ibn Warraq, an Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Qur’anic criticism, is a visiting fellow at the Center for Law and Counterterrorism, a project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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 previous installments of this article, Ibn Warraq chronicled a series of seemingly disingenuous comments by Qur’anic scholars 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 discussed the necessary role of autonomy if historical scholarship is to achieve …

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