Why don’t scholars engage in a historical-critical study of the Qur’an the way they do with the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible? I get asked this kind of thing all the time – with variations: “Where can I find a scholarly discussion the critical problems with the Qur’an like scholars publish about the Bible all the time?” or “I know Muslims claim the Qur’an is perfect, but what to critical scholars say about it?” or “Why don’t scholars take a historical to early Islam like they do with early Christianity?”
For most of my career there really hasn’t been much out there to suggest, but in recent years that has begun to change. In large part that’s because of a former student of mine who is now a prominent scholar of early Christianity, Stephen Shoemaker, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon. Stephen is an unusually productive scholar with a wide range of expertise (and a deep knowledge of a crazy number of ancient languages and obscure texts!). Check him out here: https://www.stephen-shoemaker.com/
One of Stephen’s areas of expertise is early Islam, and he has recently written books that take a historical approach to what we can really know. Of particular interest to most blog readers will be the one that came out last year: Creating the Qur’an: A Historical-Critical Study (University of California Press, 2022). Click here: https://www.amazon.com/Creating-Quran-Historical-Critical-Stephen-Shoemaker-ebook/dp/B0B13YBB27/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2SL036XMLMOSP&keywords=stephen+shoemaker&qid=1686899063&sprefix=%2Caps%2C166&sr=8-2
I have asked Stephen to write a couple of guest blog posts to give us a taste of what he covers in his studies of Islam. It’s not what we normally hear in discussions of the Qur’an. His title for this post is:
Problems in the Critical study of Early Islam, or Why there is no Bart Ehrman of the Qur’an.
I am a former student of Bart – much longer ago than either of us would care to admit. My training (at Duke actually) was originally in early Christian studies, and I continue to be active in that field, but I’ve also done a lot of work studying the beginnings of Islam. In my publications on the origins of Islam, I borrow the historical-critical approach that we routinely use in the study of early Christianity – which is undoubtedly well known to members of this blog – and apply it to similar problems and questions that arise from the early Islamic tradition.
As many of you may be aware, such approaches to the beginnings of Islam are very rare, almost to the point of being non-existent. Bart tells me that he regularly hears from subscribers to this blog that they want to read something on the origins of the Qur’an and Islam like his books on the New Testament and early Christianity. But the truth is, there is really nothing comparable out there, and in this blog post I’d like to talk a little bit about why.
The simplest explanation is that the study of Islamic origins remains stalled at the point where early Christian studies stood more or less at the middle of the nineteenth century. Why it remains stalled there is a more complicated matter that we can’t get into here. But the result is that scholars of the Qur’an have been extremely reluctant to adopt the critical approaches, and particularly the methodological skepticism, that have characterized the study of earliest Christianity since the middle of the nineteenth century. Instead, they still rely very heavily on the historical framework of the Islamic tradition itself to guide their studies. It is as if, in early Christian studies, one still allowed Eusebius to set the terms of our investigation of Christian origins.
To be fair, scholars of early Islam have not been entirely unwilling to subject certain aspects of the traditional narratives of Islamic origins to historical criticism. But when it comes to the most important points regarding the historical Muhammad and the formation of the Qur’an, fundamental deference to the tradition remains paramount. For instance, the Islamic tradition maintains that the Qur’an was established – in exactly the same format and wording that we have it today – by the middle of the seventh century. And so when the overwhelming majority of scholars set out to study the Qur’an, they do so with confidence that its contents were fixed within twenty years of Muhammad’s death. The result is that most western scholarship on the Qur’an serves to reinscribe, rather than challenge, the traditional Islamic narrative of the Qur’an’s formation. Acceptance of this viewpoint limits both the questions that may be asked and how they will be answered, resulting in a scholarly cocoon that protects – whether intentionally or not – the views of the Islamic tradition.
Collective confidence in this received account of the Qur’an’s formation obviously leaves off the table many basic questions that scholars routinely ask about the New Testament writings, not to mention other sacred texts. In effect, one is not allowed to probe the history of the Qur’anic traditions and their development. These traditions were recorded soon after Muhammad’s death, by those who had followed him and under careful state supervision, thereby ensuring their accuracy. Accordingly, there is no possibility for form critical analysis of individual traditions or investigations of redactional development within the Qur’anic text. What we find in the Qur’an, scholars regularly assume and assert, is in fact what Muhammad actually taught, thereby obviating the complicated questions that constantly vex (and delight) biblical scholars.
This conviction that the Qur’an indeed preserves the very words of Muhammad himself is perhaps the strangest presumption of Qur’anic studies as practiced in the modern west, particularly when compared with biblical studies. Qur’anic scholars regularly insist that the words found in the Qur’an today are the exact words spoken by Muhammad to his followers in Mecca and Medina during the early seventh century. It is truly astonishing, I think, that so many ostensibly critical, non-Muslim scholars would stalwartly profess the authenticity of the Qur’an as more or less a simple transcript of what Muhammad taught. As readers of Bart’s many works, you will all know that this is of course an impossibility, absent dictation or a miracle, both of which are highly unlikely.
Western scholars of the Qur’an also accept as fundamental to their investigations the Islamic tradition’s chronological schema of the Qur’an’s serial revelation to Muhammad, with only some minor adjustments. According to tradition, Muhammad did not receive the entirety of the Qur’an at once, but its contents were revealed to him piecemeal across a span of two decades. Medieval Muslim scholars therefore established a specific order for these revelations across the span of Muhammad’s career. And so modern scholars, with this dataset in hand (which is presumed to be historically accurate), attempt to trace the development of the Qur’anic text in relation to the progress of Muhammad’s prophetic mission. Frequently (although not always) this chronological reading of the Qur’an is undertaken in conjunction with his traditional biographies, notoriously unreliable texts that were composed more than 100 years after Muhammad’s death. It is as if, by comparison, one were to use the Acts of Paul and Thecla as an interpretive key for understanding the letters of Paul!
Related to this principle of Qur’anic studies is a parallel conviction that everything in the Qur’an had its origin in Muhammad’s prophetic career in Mecca and Medina between 610-632. Any possibility some part of the Qur’an might be a later interpolation after Muhammad’s life is for the most part strictly excluded. Yet even with a window of only around twenty years between Muhammad’s death and the fixation of the canonical Qur’anic text, as acknowledged even in the traditional account, there is ample opportunity for additions and changes to the text. To be sure, the biblical scholar can only respond to such claims with complete, dumbstruck bewilderment. Nevertheless, specialists on early Islam persist in maintaining that everything in the Qur’an comes from Muhammad, and from Mecca and Medina.
There are, however, a number of intractable problems with the presumption that all of the Qur’an must derive from the mouth of Muhammad in either Mecca or Medina. In the first place, Mecca in Muhammad’s lifetime was a remote, hardscrabble place in the arid deserts of western Arabia. According to a recent study, the likely number of total inhabitants in Mecca at this time was around five hundred or so, with only around one-hundred and thirty free adult men. Its nonliterate, pastoralist inhabitants appear to have been quite isolated from the broader world of the ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.
These cultural and economic limitations obviously raise profound questions about the traditional linkage of a text as sophisticated as the Qur’an with a sleepy hamlet such as Muhammad’s Mecca. The Qur’an’s content demands an audience steeped in the traditions of ancient Judaism and Christianity. How would the goatherds of Mecca have possessed the level of religious literacy required to understand the Qur’an’s persistent and elliptic invocations of Jewish and Christian lore? There is, for that matter, no evidence of any significant Christian presence anywhere remotely near Mecca: the closest known community was over 500 miles (900km) distant.
Clearly there must be more to the Qur’an’s origins than the later Islamic tradition has remembered, since Muhammad’s Mecca (or his Medina for that matter) does not seem capable of having produced such a highly cosmopolitan religious text. Nor does it seem likely that the entirety of the Qur’an may be understood as preserving an accurate transcript of the very words that Muhammad spoke to his followers in Mecca and Medina. Unsurprisingly, once we let go of the restrictive assumptions that modern scholarship on the Qur’an has inherited from the Islamic tradition, the Qur’an quickly emerges as a scriptural tradition with a history no less complex than the Jewish and Christian bibles. And so a great task presently awaits those who are willing and able to meet it: the beginnings of the historical-critical study of the Qur’an.
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