Connect with us

Islamic Jihad News

Historical Methodology and Dogmatic Islamophilia (Part 4)



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 some hidden agenda by a distinguished professor who teaches at a university in a city, which 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 of my anthologies to scholars? As Albert Schweitzer wrote25,

“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 at the beginning 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 Koranic 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 Koran 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, very recently in an essay entitled „Verbal Inspiration? Language and Revelation in Classical Islamic Theology,“26 Professor Josef van Ess expressed his concern for the tender susceptibilities of Muslims by stopping short, being a non-Muslim himself, his critical analysis out of respect for the way that Sunni Islam treats the history of thought! Mohammed Arkoun very sensibly replied that such an attitude was unacceptable scientifically, 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.27 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 Enlightenment values.

Some Western scholarship has moved from objectivity to Islamic apologetics pure and simple; a trend remarked 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“.28

Rodinson, commenting on the work of Father Y. Moubarac and Louis Massignon, 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.”29

It is certainly disgraceful that, what Karl Binswanger called, the “dogmatic Islamophilia“ of modern Islamicist scholars helped to deny Gunter Lüling a fair hearing and destroyed his academic career.30 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.31 Western scholars need to unflinchingly, unapologetically defend their right to examine the Islam, 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.“32

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“.33

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 polemic, 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“.34

25 A. Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, trans. W. Montgomery (London, 1945), pp. 4- 5

26 Reprinted in The Quran As Text, ed. Stefan Wild (Brill, Leiden, 1996).

27 Mohammed Arkoun, review of The Quran As Text, in Arabica 45, no. 2 (July1998): 274-75.

28 M. Rodinson, „The Western Image and Western Studies of Islam,“ in The Legacy of Islam, ed. J. Schacht and C. E. Bosworth (Oxford, 1974), p. 59.

29M. Rodinson, A Critical Survey of Modern Studies on Muhammad, p. 57.Emphasis added

30 G. Luling, „Preconditions for the Scholarly Criticism of the Koran and Islam, with Some Autobiographical Remarks,“ in The Journal of Higher Criticism 3 (Spring 1996): 73-109

31 See, for example, R. B. Serjeant’s review of Wansbrough’s Quranic StudiesJRAS (1978): 76-78.

32 R. Joseph Hoffmann and G. A. Larue, eds., Jesus in History and Myth,(Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986), p. 199.

33 B.Lewis , Other People’s History in Islam and the West , New York: Oxford University Press 1993. p.123

34 Ibid., p.130