Q. We hear about the necessity of applying the historical critical method to the Qur’an if we wish to progress. We hear that this has been applied to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and has disproved certain cherished traditions. We hear that if this is applied to the Qur’an, Muslims will have to admit that the Qur’an is man-made. Can we therefore accept such a thing?
A: One of the fundamental tenets of the historical critical method is that the books we have are all by human hand. Yes, it has been applied to the Bible with the results you mentioned, so many Muslims have a very high disdain for applying this to the Qur’an. I think that the Muslims are right on certain counts. But who are the people doing this research? Whether we like to admit it or not, there are many who bring their deep-rooted prejudices in analyzing the Qur’an. Christians who see no problem in rating Jesus as the god that died on the cross are deeply offended that Muslims should see Muhammad as a prophet. Jews who are deeply offended by the hostile exegesis and history of strife between Muslims and Jews try to interpret Islamic history as one wherein ever-innocent Jews were persecuted by ever-guilty Muslims. But Muslims themselves too bring prejudices: they have taken certain later theological concepts and made them into sacraments that preclude any objective assessment of the Qur’an. A simple matter such as handling the Qur’an is based on misinterpretation of a trope that resulted in the vast majority of Muslims refusing to handle a hard copy of the Qur’an when they are not in a state of ceremonial purity.
Can such a people apply the historical critical method? I think that the method in and of itself is fantastic, and does bring with it the seeds of certain changes in theological outlook. But these changes are not from old to new; but rather from later to pristine. Let me explain by an example: the Qur’an states very clearly that it was revealed in Arabic because the Arabs spoke that language -- not because there is any inherent sacredness to Arabic. This may be taken to its logical conclusion, expressed in the Rabbinic maxim: “Dibberah Torah keleshon bene Adam -- the Torah speaks the language of man.” It means that since the human mind is not on the same level of expression or comprehension as the Divine, then things have to be put into as human and terrestrial a manner as possible. Our concept of time is different, and as scholars like Azizah al-Hibri, and before her, Fazlur Rahman have shown, there is the concept of gradual change in Islam’s attempt to change the human mind. The Holy Prophet (s) could not have dared tell the people that a man should not beat his wife. To the people of his time, he would have been perceived as promoting something horrible and too liberal. The Qur’anic legislation therefore gradually approached the matter, and the issue of wife beating then must necessarily be looked at in terms of historicity.
This differs somewhat from the Western idea of historical critical methodology, which assumes the necessity of a human author. But does it? If we assume that the Qur’anic message came to the Prophet, an Arab, and he had to communicate that message to the populace, then we can reasonably assume that he acted as a human prism, i.e. in the same manner as we see light through a prism, often without noting the refractions, so too the message that the Prophet delivered to us was refracted to issue a human message, in a human language, and to reflect the mores of his time. The jurists seemed to have recognized this, developing the concept of abrogation. Fazlur Rahman mentions this, noting that Muslims confused the inimitability of the Qur’an with immutability -- two mutually exclusive ideas. If we do this, which seems to me absolutely logical, we do not have to be afraid of anything. After all, the mere fact that the Qur’an has remained unchanged is enough for us.
Of course there are those pseudo-scholars who are unaware of Qur’anic writings, exegesis, etc., and who seek to say that there are “different versions” of the Qur’an. They never provide adequate proof, and if they adduce any document, the knowledgeable Muslims have always proven the falseness of the “different versions” concept. That there were early versions is obvious, the companions wrote on their personal copies and made their notes, often not indicating the lines of divide between Divine text and notes, or their personal annotations that may have been written on very scarce and expensive writing material. But after Uthman’s unique task, all of these appendages were erased, although the copies may still have been there. Let us not forget that for the early Muslims, the Qur’an was an oral document and not a written one, which many Western scholars seem to not know. Therefore, I think that we must examine the Qur’an in every way but without prejudice, not saying things to please some funding organizations or special interests. The truth must always be there, this is Allah’s order to us, and He will help us to maintain that which is true.
Posted May 14, 2002