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Will Historical Criticism Pick the Koran to Bits?

Anyone trying to figure out where Islam will go theologically in the next few decades needs to read Peter Berger’s recent post on historical scholarship and the Koran. The same kind of scholarly studies that forced many Christians and Jews to re-evaluate their understandings of the historical origins of their sacred texts are now moving, cautiously, gingerly and often not from within Muslim-majority countries, to take a hard look at the Koran with the powerful and skeptical tools that have been used on the Bible.

Islam has almost as many theological tendencies and movements as Christianity. Besides the Sunni-Shiite divide which is currently drenching much of the Middle East in blood, there are many different tendencies and theological interpretations within each of these schools. Most involve ideas about how to read the Koran, and while non-Muslims cannot say much about what is the correct way to approach the sacred Book at the heart of Islamic faith and doctrine, we can begin to grapple with the different ways Muslims approach the text, and also to think through the implications of these different theological approaches for contemporary politics and policy.

With his characteristic lucidity and fair-mindedness. Peter offers readers with little knowledge of this background a good introduction to some of the critical issues to be encountered — and points to some of the common theological problems that both Christianity and Islam share.

Read the whole thing. The debates for which Peter provides a good overview and first introduction here are going to shape the kind of world we and our children inhabit.

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  • smitty

    How do you not mention Robert Spencer in this context?

  • Anthony

    For me WRM, two most salient points from both Peter Berger’s essay and your Quick Take: 1) non-muslims cannot say much about what is the correct way to approach the sacred Book (Qur’an) at the heart of Islamic faith and doctrine; 2) a non-muslim can be a historian of Islam, he cannot be an Islamic theologian. Utilizing the aforementioned will facilitate the idea of a theologically neutral methodology of modern historical scholarship when wrestling with the revelation/reason immutability.

  • Corlyss

    “Will Historical Criticism Pick the Koran to Bits?”

    Unlikely as long as there’s one imam left to issue a fatwa against the critics and one whacko to take that sort of thing seriously.

  • JasonM

    Key point, in Berger’s post:

    ““Critical”, “context”, “historical” – these are words, used in connection with the Koran, that could get you killed in many parts of the Muslim world.”

    How far back do you have to go in Christendom, to find a critical scholar assassinated for his beliefs? Even centuries ago, the progress of historical-critical method in the West developed with remarkably few scholarly fatalities.

    When, if ever, will there be a similar level of tolerance among the Muslim ummah? I’m not betting on it anytime soon.

    Critical Koran scholar “Christoph Luxenberg” has to live under a pseudonym because of death threats. When was the last Biblical scholar who had to do so?

    The Satanic Verses translators were murdered. Has anyone made a credible threat on Dan Brown?

    Despite all the pious twaddle (not on this blog, I mean in general among liberals) about “intolerance” as an affliction common to the religions of the book, there’s one particular such religion that seems to have a much bigger problem with it than others.

  • Jim.

    A discussion of rationalist investigation of the Koran (led by the Mutazilite school of Islam) would be incomplete without a mention of al-Mihna…

    In the 8th century, Mutazilites (inspired by the works of the Greeks that would later result in the European Renaissance) tortured and executed theologians who disagreed with their “new” take on Islam.

    Muslims have the same view of rationalist investigation of the Koran as Enlightenment scholars (and their descendants) have of the Spanish Inquisition, with equal justification.

    So, what are the chances that Islam will embrace “modernization” of the Koran? About the same chance that Western secularists will forgive the Catholic Church for the Spanish Inquisition, on the grounds that “it happened a long time ago and no one who’s alive now advocates that kind of thing anymore”.

  • Kris

    Jim@5: Cute.

  • dearieme

    Why restrict it to Spain, Jim?

  • Ali

    “Besides the Sunni-Shiite divide which is currently drenching much of the Middle East in blood, there are many different tendencies and theological interpretations within each of these schools.”

    Is the Sunni-Shia divide “drenching much of the Middle East in blood”? Really? Although the divide is a real one and does result in killings but it does not behoove you to exaggerate and hyperbolically overstate the difference.

  • Luke Lea

    Muhammad’s career was much like Eminem’s. He started out with peace and love but nobody would listen; went over to the dark side and was a big success. The over-riding fact about Muhammad, not even in dispute, is that he was a warlord on horseback out for loot. In this he was like Genghis Kahn.

  • Sloan

    I remember reading some time ago an Islamic preacher going to great lengths to explain why Mohammed was more like Moses than Jesus was…the point being (I guess) to show how Mohammed was the greater prophet.

    Luke Lea puts me in mind of conducting a similar exercise with regard to seeing which of the two, Mohammed or Jesus, is most like Genghis Khan. The results would be quite instructive.

  • Jim.


    As far as I’ve studied, the Spanish Inquisition was the last one to be discontinued– eliminated by Napoleon when he conquered Spain, and not reinstated by the English when Spain was liberated.

    Other inquisitions — including those Dominican efforts associated with Crusades in southern France — are far less famous than the Spanish, particularly since they were far less bloodthirsty. Existing inquisitorial manuals stress rehabilitation of heretics, dismiss torture, and except in a few cases (mostly political) avoid execution as well.

    So the Python boys notwithstanding, when you say “Inquisition” everybody expects the Spanish variety.

    @Luke Lea —

    Not Genghis Khan, surely. Genghis, and the similarly brutal Kublai, were famous for their religious tolerance. (No, I’m not kidding.) So much for tolerance being the cure-all for hman conflict…

  • Bryan

    @Jim: Doesn’t the expression “Kill them all and let God sort them out” (or rather, “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius”) come from those “less bloodthirsty” inquisitions in southern France?

  • Jim.


    Nope, that (allegedly) comes from soldier invading a besieged city, not from a representative of any church.

  • Kris

    [Comment disappeared?]

    Jim@13: Not exactly.

  • Jim.


    I’d always heard that comment attributed to a soldier during the sack of Jerusalem. (Note that wikipedia even questions its sourcing.)

    The sentiment is certainly a far cry from what you’ll find in the inquisitorial manuals of Bernard Gui.

  • Kris

    Jim@15: Not only did he sack Al-Quds, but he was also a plagiarist? For shame!

    I have never had the pleasure of perusing the Bishop of Tui’s oeuvre, but I am shocked that F. Murray Abraham should so anathemize Cole Porter.

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