26 September 2010

Studying (cautiously) the Qur'an

This story from the New English Review blog is worthy of an Indiana Jones film plot:
On the night of April 24, 1944, British air force bombers hammered a former Jesuit college here [Munich] housing the Bavarian Academy of Science. The 16th-century building crumpled in the inferno. Among the treasures lost, later lamented Anton Spitaler, an Arabic scholar at the academy, was a unique photo archive of ancient manuscripts of the Quran.

The 450 rolls of film had been assembled before the war for a bold venture: a study of the evolution of the Quran, the text Muslims view as the verbatim transcript of God's word. The wartime destruction made the project "outright impossible," Mr. Spitaler wrote in the 1970s.

Mr. Spitaler was lying. The cache of photos survived, and he was sitting on it all along. The truth is only now dribbling out to scholars -- and a Quran research project buried for more than 60 years has risen from the grave.

Of course, any attempt to explore the evolution of the current text of the Qur'an risks igniting controversy in the Islamic world, which is why such scholars as the pseudonymous Christoph Luxenberg are not anxious to attach their given names to their own work.

Beginning with Spinoza in the 17th century, scholars have been using modern critical methods to analyze the text of the Bible, which virtually all Jews and Christians agree was written by multiple authors over a period of at least a thousand years. Despite the resulting expansion of knowledge of the biblical text, this has not been an entirely unproblematic venture, as the mainstream of biblical scholarship, especially what goes by the label higher criticism, has accepted the presuppositions of modernity, including the dichotomy between faith and fact, the impossibility of predictive prophecy and the belief that no single author could have referred to God as both Elohim and YHWH.

In principle there may be good stylistic reasons to conclude that Isaiah was not the author of Isaiah chapters 40-66, but there is nevertheless a prechristian tradition that God revealed to the 8th-century BC prophet events in the far distant future [Sirach 48:22-25], something to which the New Testament writers themselves testify, e.g., Matthew 3:3 and Acts 8:26-40. Moreover, there is no tangible manuscript evidence for two or more books of Isaiah either. Contemporary scholars need to take these factors seriously.

All the same, despite such reservations, Christians have little difficulty accepting that different authors produced the biblical texts at different times and that these texts were gradually sifted and collected into a body of canonical scripture. No one disputes the value of lower criticism, with its empirical focus on actual manuscripts.

Unlike Christians and Jews, Muslims believe that the Qur'an is a direct and immediate revelation by God to Muhammad. If Qur'an scholars bring the assumptions of western-style higher criticism to Islam's sacred text, believing Muslims are certain to question its validity, especially if it excludes ipso facto the possibility of miraculous divine interventions in the natural order.

However, as I understand it, the current efforts at studying the Qur'an, are not (yet) of a higher critical character. At issue is establishing the evolutionary history of the Qur'an based on ancient manuscripts or at least photographic evidence of these manuscripts. Muslims will find it difficult to deny the validity of such a modest endeavour. The findings of such Qur'an scholarship need not challenge outright the faith of devout Muslims, but the latter may be forced to rethink the belief that the Qur'an, in its present form, came directly from Muhammad. One can only guess at the repercussions of this for the Islamic world as a whole.

Crossposted at First Things: Evangel

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