Radical ?New? Views of Islam and the Origins of the Qur’an

Taha Abdul Basser

Posted Sep 2, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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One of the glaring weaknesses of the “revisionist” campaign that Stille champions in this article: the Qur’an, as its very name indicates, is a recited text. Furthermore, authoritative recitational variants are traceable back to the Messenger (salla llahu `alayhi wa sallam). There is, therefore, nothing surprising, for one who is familiar with the history of the Qur’anic codex (Arabic mushaf), in the existence of earlier Qur’anic codices that differ slightly from the most popular codices in the hands of Muslims around the world today. The “transmissional integrity” of the Qur’an has been preserved through its mass-transmission, from generation to generation, as a recitation, not through the immutability of some written document. This is a principle that pre-adolescents learn when they begin to study the classical Islamic discipline of transmission (Arabic `ilm al-riwaya). It is difficult to convey the horror that I experience when I read articles like this. I do not experience such horror because of the strength of the so-called revisionist claims. For a person with even a elementary exposure to traditional Islamic disciplines, training in modern academic methods and a relatively uncomplicated psychological profile, this article, and its companion article that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly some time back, would provoke laughter were it not for the seriousness of the subject matter and the potential harm that they can cause to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The deeper, methodological issues of authority, epistemology and ontology that lie at the heart of attacks such as these, and are the keys to the formulation of sound Islamic responses to them, cannot be properly addressed in a brief e-mail. One of the more challenging aspects of the informational conflict in which Muslim find themselves is that, calls to objective debate and disinterested textual analysis aside, the nature of the mass media is such that when blows such as this article are struck, their harm far exceeds the strength of the so-called arguments that they advance. When one considers the naked ignorance of matters Islamic that characterizes the non-Muslim target audience and the low level of Islamic literacy possessed by most Muslims nowadays, I can ultimately only trust in the promise of Allah: ????Those who strive in Our Cause, We will guide them to Our Paths.???? However, since responding to such articles is a collective responsibility, I would call the brothers’ and sisters’ attention to the following points:

1. Orientalist-Islamicist campaigns against the transmissional integrity of the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition in general are neither “new” nor surprising. Mysterious talk of a “handful of experts…quietly investigating” so-called “radical new” approaches to the history of the Qur’an aside, Orientalists and Islamicists have been attacking the character of the Prophet (salla llahu `alayhi wa-sallam), sneering at the Qur’an, impugning the provenance and nature of the Sacred Law and generally behaving as the intellectual cavalry of a culture hostile to Islam since the monks “translated” the Qur’an centuries ago and produced a text that more closely resembled a treatise on Satanism than anything that we would recognize as a translation of the Qur’an today. From an informed, Islamic point of view, this is not surprising given the simple but important fact that the methodological premises of Orientalist-Islamicist study of the Islam are such that the basic truth-claims of Islam are routinely dismissed or ignored. Zayed therefore makes a significant point when he implies that the Islamicists unwillingness to meet Islamic truth-claims fatally weakens their attacks on the transmissional integrity of foundational Islamic texts. Much more could be said on this but as I said earlier these are relatively deep issues that must be addressed at length. Muslims are just beginning to turn the tables and begin to formally deconstruct the Orientalist-Islamicist intellectual tradition. Watch this space.

2. The meaning of Qur’anic terms and the enterprise of Qur’anic exegesis in general is part of a highly continuous, nuanced and transmitted tradition that is misrepresented in the article. The existence of Arabicized loan words from Aramaic, Ethiopic, so-called Himyaritic and other languages is an established part of the Qur’anic exegetical tradition. Contrary to the thrust of this article and others that have appeared recently the traditional Islamic discipline is neither simple-minded and unaware of the criticism leveled at Islam nor ecumenically embracing of every passing intellectual fad.(1)

3. As the article itself acknowledges, the reactions of Muslims to slanderous attacks on their world view, root and branch, is not a simple matter of pre-industrial, close-minded obscurantism. Even Muslims with little exposure to education of any sort sense correctly that books, article, movies and other media products that attempt to weaken the foundation of Islamic thought and practice are not innocent forays into the realm of “inter-civilization dialogue”, blameless exercises in freedom of speech or disinterested analyses of our common environment but rather an attempt to manufacture opinion by interested parties. Muslims have a long history of responding to intellectual attacks on the foundations of their religion. If this was merely presentation of an interesting line of research, where were the responses of the representatives of the tradition to the claims that these Islamicists advance?

4. The “techniques of Biblical criticism” that emerged in The nineteenth century European context—a context characterized by rising anti-clericalism, anti-scripturalism and secularism; the exaltation of the human intellect and recent colonial access to the areas in which traces of the languages and the early texts of the Judeo-Christian scriptures could be found—while understandable against the backdrop of post-Enlightenment European history, have little to do with the history of Qur’anic disciplines. The context in which the Qur’an was successfully transmitted differs from the environment in which the Judeo-Christian scripture were transmitted (or not transmitted) to such a degree that those who advocate the application of such textual analysis techniques must first be asked a simple question: Why? This tendency to foist alien methodologies on the Islamic intellectual tradition plagues not only the Crone-Cooke “Hagarism” theory but also the work of Schacht that has so profoundly influenced the modern study of Islam in the second half of this century

I can only end this brief response with a renewed call on every Muslim member of this list to commit himself or herself to the personal enterprise of achieving what has been called Islamic literacy. While it is not possible that every one of us can become a specialist in the traditional Islamic disciplines, the appearance of articles such as this and the effect that they have had should be sufficient motivation for each of us to realize how dangerous our ignorance of the Muhammad Revelation can be to ourselves and others.


1. It is no coincidence that the article makes much of a supposed “mistranslation” of hur—Prophetic traditions that mention the term ‘hur `ayn’ and support the classical interpretation are ignored, of course—and supposed confusion about the q-t-l derivatives that might convey the sense of “fighting” rather than “killing.”

Taha bin Hasan Abdul-Basser is a PhD candidate, Arabic and Islamic Studies Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)