The Koran and Historical Scholarship
Published on: July 3, 2012
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  • PapayaSF

    Anyone interested in this topic should read Did Muhammad Exist? by Robert Spencer.

  • Les Hardie

    Why would modern historians agree that the Koran is an accurate transcription of what Mohammed said? He spoke many times and at different places. His listeners were illiterate, so much, if not all, of what he said was never written down. Thus what he said was left to the vagaries of human memory and time. Who were these listeners; how well did they listen, how well did they remember? Abu Bakr sent agents out to scour the land to find people who claimed to have heard the Prophet many years in the past. Why should we assume they were truthful in claiming they had heard him, or if they had, that they now remembered anything accurately? If President Cleveland had sought out people who claimed to have heard Lincoln’s Cooper ‘s Union speech, we would not think that anyone could give an accurate oral transcription of that long -passed event. Why should we do so with those who claimed to remember exactly what Mohammed had said twenty years before? Berger says that in oral societies people develop skill in memorizing texts and oral transmission can be very accurate. This may be true but is beside the point. The people Abu Bakr talked to had not memorized a text— there was no text until he put it together! These interlocutors simply stated what they remembered of a one-time speech many years ago. There is no reason to believe any of it was accurate. Given the near impossibility of any human remembering a speech in any detail, why should we not assume that most, if not all of the Koran was made up after Mohammed’s death, and none of it accurately transcribes what he ever said?

  • anon

    The Quran is NOT poetry—but it has a poetic rhythm and an internal harmony that facilitates in memorization. Even today Muslims memorize the Quran cover to cover without error. Contests are held for children who memorize the Quran!
    During the time of the Prophet, the Quran was memorized by the whole community. This wasn’t just speech—it was a message from God.—the seriousness of that is very different.

  • doc feelgood

    Assuming that this Jibril or Gabriel, this celestial messenger is still existing in realms of the metaphysical Invisible and watching the progress of mankind, than why is he not inspiring new Moses, Muhammad and Jesus of our days?

    It is pretty “amazing” that divine power in its incommensurate intelligence and wisdom is historically so discrete and greedy in its care of humanity for the sake of improving it and that we just must “rely” on old sources which seem so obsolete in responding to the needs of a global, postindustrial world.

  • “It goes without saying that only Muslims can decide what they can or cannot believe; a non-Muslim can be a historian of Islam, he cannot be an Islamic theologian. ”

    Was Paul Tillich a Christian theologian?

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  • Guy Fox

    Koranic scholarship is the best investment the West can make in undermining extremist Muslim religion. Just as the German theologians rocked Protestant Christianity, I predict the Koran will fare far worse from these critical methodologies. Once these findings are published on the internet, it will take years to seep into their minds, but will hasten the end of a protracted and bloody battle with Islam. This is far better than any bomb in winning this war.

  • Carl Palmateer

    There are few assumptions here that may not be justified. Check out:
    In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire by Tom Holland.

  • WigWag

    “Why would modern historians agree that the Koran is an accurate transcription of what Mohammed said?…Given the near impossibility of any human remembering a speech in any detail, why should we not assume that most, if not all of the Koran was made up after Mohammed’s death, and none of it accurately transcribes what he ever said?” (Les Hardie @ July 3, 2012 at 9:20 pm)

    Why would modern historians conclude that the Gospels represent anything but a wildly inaccurate depiction of the life of Jesus; after all they were written many decades after his death?

    We know at least that Mohammed was an actual historical figure. Can we be sure about that when it comes to Jesus? Has even a single extra biblical reference to Jesus ever been discovered?

    What about the Torah stories? Haven’t modern day investigators determined with reasonable certainty that the feats attributed to Joshua never happened? Isn’t there significant skepticism on the part of scholars about the entire Exodus story?

    It is beyond the capability of science to determine the whether or not a deity (or deities) exist. It is entirely within the capability of science to critically examine the cogency of human myths.

    We should not be surprised that the devout find this troubling; of course it produces cognitive dissonance. In the West even the devout have made their peace with the Enlightenment. One of the great unexamined stories in the United States (at least if it has been examined I don’t know about it) is how conservative Christians have embraced Enlightenment values. They may not want their children taught evolution in the public schools and they may oppose abortion, but for the most part they have embraced religious diversity, pluralism and tolerance. Ironically, in 21st Century America intolerance is more likely to be found amongst secular leftists.

    The major clash between the Islamic and Western world has its roots in the fierce desire of many Islamists to fervently resist the inundation of Islamic societies with Enlightenment values. In the Jewish world we see the same thing with the small but loud ultraorthodox community.

    It is self-evident to all but those who desire to avert their eyes that much of the contents of both the Bible and Koran is little more than myth. Some of this myth has a basis in historical fact while other parts are even more fanciful.

  • Howard Kainz

    References to the existence of Jesus are found among Roman historians like Tacitus and Suetonius and the Jewish historian Josephus. No such extra-Islamic references by historians are found to Muhammad.

  • Jerome

    “We know at least that Mohammed was an actual historical figure.”

    We know no such thing. There is no physical evidence at all for that idea. In particular, no coins, no inscriptions, and no mention of Mohammed by contemporary authors whose cities were being conquered by his supposed followers. It’s as if the Poles never heard of Hitler.

  • C. Philips

    Unlike for Jesus, very few people seem to have actually seriously examined the evidence for the existence of Mohammed. What some who did actually found is described in “Did Muhammad Exist?” by Robert Spencer. Before assuming that “We know at least that Mohammed was an actual historical figure”, I would suggest going back to the sources cited in this book to see what they have to say (not necessarily the book itself, which is not research and is aimed at a popular audience).

  • WigWag

    “References to the existence of Jesus are found among Roman historians like Tacitus and Suetonius and the Jewish historian Josephus. No such extra-Islamic references by historians are found to Muhammad.” (Howard Kainz @ July 5, 2012 at 11:29 am)

    Both Tacitus and Suetonius were born significantly after the death of Jesus; neither of them could provide anything but hearsay evidence that he actually lived. If Jesus is a real historical figure (as I believe he was) neither of them could provide any contemporaneous evidence about what he said. As far as the Josephius reference, not only do scholars believe that the passage was edited by later Christians, the passage in question referring to Jesus was written at least half a century after Jesus died.

    It is simply illogical to conclude that the Bible more accurately captures the language of Jesus than the Koran captures the language of Mohammed.

  • Nancy D.

    With all due respect, how exactly does one create a theologically neutral methodology and not end up with creating God in our own image, which for Christians would be anti God and thus anti Christ.

    Without a final authority, there can be no cohesiveness of belief. Without a cohesiveness of belief, there can be no cohesiveness of Faith.

    It seems to me, that a theologically neutral methodology could only compromise The Word of God, thus exposing The Anti-Christ, who, through the sin of pride, has been with us since The Beginning. At the end of The Day,
    Christ would not Found His Church, and not ensure The Word of God remained consistent.

  • lord garth

    In addition to the meccan vs medinan dichotomy, it would also be useful to divide the Koran into the ‘plain meaning’ verses (the Koran describes itself as ‘clear’ several dozen times but many verses are anything but clear) and those verses that require a scholar’s insight. Similarly, it would be important to divide the Koran into verses that praise Mohammud or mohammud’s example or that provide direction to Mohammud and those verses that are more general. Similarly, it would be useful to divide those verses which repeat or modify biblical or talmudic or early christian thought and those that sanctify 7th century arabic culture

  • IcePilot

    Excellent article, interesting discussion.

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  • Jim.

    A discussion of the Mutazilite school would be incomplete without a mention of al-Mihna…

    In the 8th century, rationalist investigators of the Koran (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”.

  • davidr

    Wishful thinking, at best, as Peter Berger acknowledges in his cautionary last paragraph. Harking back to the Mutazilites or invoking Sufi traditions as possible sources for a Muslim reformation is delusional. Sunni and Shi’ite theologians and scholars will have none of it, and are otherwise preoccupied with one another’s throats.

  • Kris
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  • Wayne Lusvardi

    What is intriguing about Dr. Berger’s column about historical criticism and the Koran is that instead of such scholarship undermining Islamic extremism it might lead to blowback or exploitation by those who want to use religious extremism for political purposes.

    There is evidence that this is what happened in Iran after the fall of the Shah. Radical Islam was used as a way to take over the country by many whose motivation was not Islamic.

    Dr. Berger ends his discussion with the comment that the Muslim world will be influenced more by economic and social upheavals in the future more than any historical scholarship of the Koran likely only to be read by a few intellectuals.

    I believe it is the economist David S. Goldman who has pointed out that Iran is dying of demographic imbalance brought about by a negative population replacement rate due to secularization from birth control (not Islamization).

    And Egypt’s recent political upheavals are due to the Chinese bidding up the world price of grain in order to feed cattle for their appetite for more protein in their diets. This has priced Egyptian peasants out of the market.

    Neither of these two recent trends have been affected by Western scholarship of the Koran.

    As to the above comments about whether Jesus existed, Jesus had a brother (James) and a family. James ended up as one of the leaders of the Jesus Movement based in Jerusalem while Paul led the Christ Movement mostly in urbanizing Asia Minor. There are Biblical references for James and Jesus’ family including his other brothers.

    In the end, however, one must believe based on faith more than on evidence. As Dr. Berger has pointed out elsewhere, a believer will always end up disappointed by an alleged inerrant scripture, the infallibility of tradition or Papal edicts, and even the manipulation of religious experiences with modern day methods such as Scientology and other so-called cults. The secular equivalent is anomie in the face of the limits, failures and political manipulations of science.

    I don’t know whether I would rather be a Muslim who discovered the Koran was contrived or a scientist who at the end of their career became disillusioned at finding that global warming was a fraud.

  • R.C.

    Well, the Koran IS contrived.

    There is no, or very very little, evidence for the existence of Mohammed as a real person with even half of the biographical details required to keep Islam’s idea of him intact.

    The various “historical Jesus” approaches keeps producing chimerae incompatible with the available evidence, because the testimony about Jesus of Nazareth is so early and abundant. But a critical approach to the biography, if any, of Mohammed, and to the process of the compilation of the Koran as a mashup of corrupted Judaism, Nestorian Christian, and Arab tribal traditions is likely to debunk the Koran in a more profound and unchallengable way because of how very problematic the text really is, and the lack of hard data to support an orthodox Muslim view.

    This outcome is much to be desired, as we have already seen in the examples provided by “liberal Judaism” and “liberal Christianity.” In each of those cases we saw the conversion of a transcendent and supernaturalistic faith into a largely moralistic one guided more by the prevailing attitudes of the intellectual elite in the surrounding culture than by evangelical zeal and genuine expectation of the miraculous.

    The result of this transmogrification is predictable: Weak cultural affinity for the religion by the third or fourth generation, coupled with practical atheism and a rapid drop in rates of reproduction.

    Now, in the case of Judaism, the events of the Exodus and the lifetimes of David and Solomon and the major prophets are safely remote and thus cannot be entirely debunked. This provides a window for the perpetuation of a severe but largely self-regulating orthodoxy which is always too small to form a Nazi- or Caliphate-style conquest movement.

    Likewise the early evidence for Jesus and the writing of the early fathers of Christianity (having secondhand reports of the apostles and, therefore, third-hand reports of Jesus) allow a Christian orthodoxy to continue in history even while its numbers are kept beneath conquest-threshold by the erosion caused by secular culture and the liberal Christianity result of Biblical criticism.

    (I grant that there is a marked difference between Christianity and Islam in the level of “conquest mentality” due to the marked difference between Jesus’ career and teachings and that of the Shaka-Zulu-like Mohammed. We can say of Christians, in a way we cannot honestly say of Muslims, that to the degree they are oppressors, they are bad Christians. But, men are men, and history shows us that even followers of an almost-pacifistic and radically forgiving faith can become domineering and oppressive, in sufficient numbers and an atmosphere of doctrinal triumphalism. How much more so the followers of Islam?)

    So, with Judaism and Christianity, the secular debunking of a religious text through scholarly research of it based on secular premises did not drive a religion out of existence but helped restrain it towards a non-dangerous path.

    But Islam and its writings are far less well-documented, from a secular academic viewpoint, than are Christianity and its New Testament writings. And, they are of sufficiently recent provenance that they lack the excuse of antiquity which, in the case of Moses and Elijah, might cover a multitude of developed legends.

    Moreover, the Koran often alters key details in the sacred stories of the other two monotheisms in ways that are blatantly self-serving, but which are far less multiply-attested (and, therefore, plausible) than the original forms of those stories. It is easy to see that when the Koran airbrushes the life and crucifixion of Jesus, it does so because the better-documented versions tend to falsify the Koran’s theology, or ideology of conquest, or eschatology, or Arab tribal identity. But it is also easy to see that the Koran comes much later, of much more dubious provenance, and thus lacks even the doubtful authority of one of the 3rd century gnostic gospels.

    In short: There is far less for a Muslim to hang his hat on, if he is to be intellectually honest about the origins of his faith (and thus willing to subject it to rigorous testing) and simultaneously maintain the elements in it which provide a foundation for violence against others.

    This is a good thing. Of the three, Islam is the biggest potential source for religious violence. That is intrinsic to its book and its founder in a way utterly not present in Christianity, or in any contemporary form of Judaism. So it is a good thing that the faith most naturally predisposed to violence should also be the faith with the least semblance of a leg to stand on, veracity-wise. It is uniquely exposed to the liberalizing effects of the critical method.

    Once that liberalizing process is well underway and well publicized in all the major media of the modern world — a matter of 100 years or so, I’m sorry to say, but the sooner begun, the better — then we’ll all have less to fear from violent religious impulses.

    NOTE: A counterargument against what I’ve presented here would be: Because a Muslim can’t accept the conclusions of historical criticism without ceasing entirely to be a Muslim, the critical trend will be rejected entirely by Islam and Islam will never liberalize.

    This sounds like a worrisome reversal of the argument, but it is the result of an either/or, all-or-nothing fallacy. It is perfectly true that an Iranian Ayatollah isn’t about to see a presentation on the utter insupportability of their view of the Koran and become a Dawkins Disciple the following day.

    But that is not the way the liberalizing trend happens. It happens on the margins: Sometimes it is a person who already has serious doubts who becomes entirely secular. More often than that, a hardcore extremist rejects 99% of the secular critical conclusions but accepts 1% of them because he finds in doing so some helpful new perspectives on his sacred text and a fig leaf’s worth of intellectual honesty. Then he finds his children accept 10% of the secular critical conclusions, and he can’t complain entirely because he accepts 1%. And of his grandchildren, some will revert to fundamentalism, but others will become avowed secularists, and others liberal reformers, and others will profess agnosticism and impatience with the whole subject.

    There is thus no reason to expect that the ability of Koranic Criticism to EVENTUALLY disembowel Islam will cause Koranic Criticism to be entirely rejected by all Muslims AT THE OUTSET. That is not the way the thing works.

  • antiwar2008

    China is a civilization state and it is not secular state in the Western conception. Chinese civilization doesn’t believe in one God and yet it will rule the world and beat Western civilization. The big question is “Why is the West still pre-occupied with securalizing Islam and Islamic civilization, when China couldn’t care less about Islam and Islamic civilization as a “threat” and instead accepts that it is a different civilization altogether from that of China?” My point is that the article has no value vis-a-vis the competition of Western civilization with China. All the commentators here are barking at the wrong tree. I say learn from China in how it treats Islam and Muslims instead of fomenting hatred of the Other, i.e. Muslims and their faith. Muslims and Chinese civilization accept that Others will be different from them why can’t the West?

  • jsmith9999

    According to Jewish and Christian theology, as far as that goes, it is wrong to worship an Angel. If it is wrong to worship an Angel because an Angel is not God and it’s wrong to worship idols because idols are not God than to set the Quran as co-existent with God or to execute those who would hold the Quran below God looks an awful lot like the same thing.

    Idol worship.

  • jsmith9999


    The article was a scholarly investigation of the beliefs present in Islam having nothing to do with anything you mentioned.

    Given individuals such as yourself, your claim is highly dubious.

  • Kris

    Post title: “The Koran and Historical Scholarship”

    [email protected]: “the article has no value vis-a-vis the competition of Western civilization with China”

    You don’t say!

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  • Siddiqi

    I would like to appreciate the scholarship ofthe author and style of the article.However I would disagree from the last sentence of the article that”the future course of the vast Muslim world will be determined by economic, political and military developments far removed from the debates of scholars”. The modern Muslim scholarship is best reperesented in the works of Dr. Fazlur Rahman and Dr. Tariq Ramazan specially in the book of the later mentioned namely “Radical Reform; Islamic Ethics and Libration”. I hope that current crises of religious authority and legitimacy in the vast Muslim world would lead to new thinking and create an intelluctual activeism that may fundamentally change the paradigm of religious understanding in Islam.

  • Andrew Allison

    Surely it’s clear that the three great Abrahamic religions are branches of the same tree, and that they all suffer from the same oral history problem?
    The fundamental difference between them today is their respect for women; there’s a, persuasive to me, school of thought that Islam lost its way when, contrary to the teachings of the Prophet, women were relegated to second-class citizenry.

  • srp

    The peculiar thing about doctrines of scriptural authenticity is that they lead into an existential trap. If one were to receive a visitation from an apparently supernatural being commanding one to take various morally fraught actions, the first questions one should ask is “Is this being good or evil? Are its prescriptions good or evil?” Otherwise you could end following a devil figure.

    The least convincing testimony of a being’s goodness is that being’s own assertion. An evil being of course will say “I am the one true god whom you should love, follow, and obey.” (Nor can the power of the entity tell us that its commands are good rather than evil, as Kant pointed out–moral autonomy is inescapable for humans.)

    When we want to decide if another person is trustworthy, we don’t ask him point blank and expect a useful answer. We look at his actions in the past and at the testimony of trusted third parties. It follows that the more one believes something is an actual quotation from the deity, the less one should trust it as a guide to action and belief. If I say that I am the essence of moral wisdom and you should follow my teachings because I am good, it’s one thing; if the staff of the American Enterprise Institute said this about me, you’d rationally take more notice (though you’d probably want to check the purity of their water supply).

    So the more you believe the Koran is the word of a supernatural entity, the less you should trust any of its commands to worship it and love it, as well as its claims to have done good and wonderful things. There’s a reason why we don’t rely solely on applicants’ resumes and prefer to test them and check their references.

  • ari

    since al-jazeara does documentaries about chinese communist family planners aborting the second and third infants of devout christians and muslims in the uighur autonomous region, I would really much rather not copy chinese policies vis a vis “the other.”

    Bultmann, a lutheran theologian, made his case a century or so ago. other theologians have checked and re-checked his assertions. some agree- I can hear their sermons on sunday. Others disagree, with documentation, with his founding premises. I see these in bookstores and in documentaries.

    I tend to think they make a better case for an early writing of the gospels. As one put it, we are farther away from 9/11, than the gospels are from Calvary. Would you think that your statements of having seen airplanes flying into buildings would be considered third-hand and non-sensical, centuries hence? That if you saw it on TV, obviously it is from a nightmare show. Or, say, that we know of airplanes in World War 2- they couldn’t hit St Paul’s Cathedral in London, ergo, planes flying into a skyscraper(such a mythically evocative word) in the year of Skywalker being a popular devotion(going to see a movie in a movie palace) is obviously some hash-up of primitive emotional states.

    Neo- Pagan writers take delight in pointing out the ‘other religion’ common-places that are mentioned in the Bible, rather like if we heard ” it’s the real thing”- and we know that the phrase talks about Coca Cola. Since the ‘other religion’ phrases pretty consistently say that Jesus is lord over those communities, too. Jesus uses the ‘if a grain of wheat falls on the ground…” to Greek travellers. Well, Greek travellers would likely have been devotees of the Eleusinian Mysteries. What we know is that they had some ritual about grains of wheat falling on the ground, and claims of healing–which Jesus also mentions in this phrases. There are Egyptian claims- can’t think of them off the top of my head- and Scythian claims. Pretty much everyone he ran into, he used their devotional language to insist he was the seen face of God. I don’t hear this much from church, but I do hear it from practicing pagans. They seem pretty sure who Jesus is, they just aren’t interested in worshipping that way.

    And, golly, it seems like everyone in history who runs into Muslims finds their religion loathesome. Animists, Mongolian hordes, Christians, Hindus- nobody likes these guys. I wonder if they end up about like zoroastrians- still around, all five of them. If they haven’t oil, or slaves, what do they have?

    In Texas, there were tribes of fierce cannibals. As soon as possible, they were exterminated and driven off into the marshes or deserts, by other Indians. I expect that violent, arrogant, and inept incestuous pedophiles will suffer the same fate, as soon as their oil runs out.

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