Islamic Studies

Liberate the Prophet from the Stranglehold of Religion!

In his long and detailed plea for a secular Islamic Studies, Tilman Nagel calls on the discipline to emancipate itself from the Muslim understanding of Mohammed if it wants to get closer to historical reality

An open copy of a historical edition of the Koran (photo: AP)
In order to ensure that Islamic studies fulfil the requirements of a scientific discipline, one needs to critically examine the source texts, says Tilman Nagel

​​For a Muslim, it is not just an article of faith, it is a "scientific" certainty that we know all the details about the life of Mohammed. There are various sources: first among them, the Koran, then the traditions about what Mohammed did (the Hadith), which set the standard for action today, and the Prophet's biography (the Sira).

The most ancient witness in the Sira, that of Ibn Ishaq as edited by Ibn Hisham, was made available to students in the mid-nineteenth century by the German orientalist Ferdinand Wüstenfeld, who was teaching in Göttingen at the time. In the eyes of a Muslim, Mohammed is the guarantor of everything "Muslim" from the theology to the rules which govern daily life.

At the end of the nineteenth century, European students of Islam began to lose their faith in the reliability of these three sources. Ignaz Goldziher recognised that the Hadith reflected in various ways the disputes which broke out in the Muslim world around three decades after Mohammed's death.

It could therefore not be seen—as Muslims see it—as an authentic source for the personality and the actions of the Prophet. This led to a reconsideration of the value of the Sira, which, according to the widely accepted view among Islam experts, is in large part based on the Hadith, especially on the parts of the Hadith which explain the Koran.

Unsatisfactory impression

The Dane Frants Buhl, whose biography of Mohammed, published in 1903, retained its importance in the academic literature throughout the twentieth century, complained in the introduction to the book that it was impossible to see "a creature of flesh and blood" behind Mohammed's words as reported in the Koran and Hadith; what emerged was rather a strange double image.

image: Schiler Verlag, Berlin
Cover of Christoph Burgmer's: Streit um den Koran ("Dispute about the Koran")

​​The British Islam expert, W. Montgomery Watt, who attempted a broad-ranging biography of Mohammed in the 1950s, also failed to solve the core question as to the validity of the non-Koranic material. All the same it is to him we owe the clarification of a number of important events in the life of Mohammed.

But in general, one is left with the unsatisfactory impression that it has so far been impossible to reach an evaluation of the sources which is independent of Muslim assumptions, precisely because, in a way which is hard to identify, these assumptions are omnipresent in the sources themselves.

The findings of Watt and others seem to become completely worthless as soon as one calls into question the authenticity of the Koran itself, and thus the historicity of its propagator.

The work of Günter Lüling can be seen as herald of this radical development, although his findings have not been adopted by all Western Islam experts. In 1974 he published a work in which he analysed 26 passages from the Koran, most of them brief texts written in Mecca.

He argued that these texts concealed "a pre-Islamic Christian original or ur-text." He divided these passages into two kinds: those which were grafted onto the ur-text, and those which were originally Muslim. The Koran, he argues, is the result of several stages of editorial activity—a conclusion to which the non-Koranic material lends weight.

Slow growth towards a holy text

Lüling links his analysis with a certain view of the character of pre-Islamic Arab Christianity. According to the British scholar, John E. Wansbrough, what we now call the Koran emerged over a period which lasted until the ninth century and during which, through an anonymous editorial process, a variety of text fragments slowly grew into a holy text; this is how the Muslim religion arose.

The main sources about Mohammed were revealed as later fictions. Wansbrough and his supporters failed to show how their editorial history was embedded in the general history of the time in the Middle East. But they quoted in evidence of their view the fact that there were no complete texts of the Koran dating from the early seventh century.

image: Schiler Verlag, Berlin
Cover of Karl-Heinz Ohlig's and Gerd-R. Puin's: Die dunklen Anfänge ("The Dark Beginnings")

​​This is true, but what would become of Plato's writings, the New Testament, or especially the Old Testament if their existence could only be proved by the presence of physical texts dating from the time of their composition?

Wansbrough's view that the author of the Koran was anonymous provided the foundation stone for the construction of an allegedly "authentic" non-Arab ur-text which was later Arabised and then distributed in the form of the existing Koran.

This hypothesis is already immanent in Lüling's work, but it was left to a researcher writing under the name of Christoph Luxenberg to elaborate the position and to claim it for his own in a book called "The Syro-Aramaic Approach to the Koran," originally published in 2000.

Wondrous mixture

Luxenberg's work is a wondrous mixture of basic knowledge about Semitic languages (for example about consonantism) spiced with wide-ranging fantasy.

Serious reviews, such as that of Simon Hopkins in Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam (2003), point out the thoroughly dilettante character of Luxenberg's approach, and note that Luxenberg submits only a few passages from the Koran to his "analysis". (In the 2004 edition of the book, a few more passages are considered.)

Luxenberg's inventiveness fails to deal with more than 95 percent of the text, so that, even if the few examples were based on solid argument, one could not speak of a general "Syro-Aramaic approach," and certainly not of the decoding of the thoroughly Christian liturgical text which is said to lie hidden beneath the Arabic of the Koran.

In addition, Luxenberg is unable to tell us anything about the historical background of the Aramaic-Arabic hybrid language which he assumes to have been spoken in Mecca. It is well known that a number of Syrian-Aramaic terms became naturalised into Arabic in the course of the fourth century during a religious revival in Arabia.

Studies of South Arabic inscriptions have shown that key terms in the Koran, such as "Salat" (prayer), were in use in a heathen context long before Mohammed. But it was only in exceptional cases that the religious revival led to conversions to Judaism or Christianity. Luxenberg pays no attention to the results of this research.

Critics careful with opinions

Revelation of these inadequacies, however, has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of his admirers. As early as 2004, they published a small book on the Luxenberg debate.

The articles in the book did not deal with criticisms of Luxenberg's approach, providing instead only general considerations on the reception of his theses, whilst giving him the opportunity to comment on his own work and to provide a few more examples of his method.

Some experts, interviewed by the book's editor, Christoph Burgmer, expressed their opinions as cautiously as possible; the topics of the interviews were in any case chosen so that the commentators would be able to avoid adopting a clear position on Luxenberg's work.

All the same, they dropped hints implying that anyone who believes himself to be in possession of a "hermeneutic master key" for the Koran should also be required to explain how the emergence of a Muslim community out of a Christian-Aramaic-Arab community and the transformation of its holy text fit in with the historic events of the time.

image: Schiler Verlag, Berlin
Cover of Karl-Heinz Ohlig's: Der frühe Islam ("Early Islam")

​​The book has recently been republished in an enlarged edition. Burgmer notes in the introduction that Luxenberg's area of research has expanded to include Christian textual contexts: "The possibility of seeing into the beginnings of Christianity has been opened up."

Once more, Lüling could have been Luxenberg's inspiration. But in this case it is the Saarbrücken theologian and student of religion, Karl-Heinz Ohlig. He is known for works on the history of Christology, as well as for a book on Islam, published in 2000, in which he wrote in the introduction that Islam experts who read Arabic are biased by their knowledge of the sources.

That could not be the case with him, because he did not read Arabic. Ohlig's academic interest has in any case nothing to do with Islam. His aim is to hunt down evidence of a non-Trinitarian Christianity, which he sees as authentic: Jesus was not the Son of God but an exemplary human being; he was the servant of God. He summarises his views on this in one of his contributions to a collection of essays called "The Dark Beginnings."

A historical context

That Jesus was not the son of Allah, but his servant, is repeated several times in the Koran—and that is where Ohlig and Luxenberg meet: the "Syro-Aramaic approach" espoused by Luxenberg provides the evidence for the survival of an original non-Trinitarian Christianity in Arabia. That furnishes Luxenberg at long last with something like a historic context for his imaginings.

"The Dark Beginnings" and "Early Islam" include essays which in one way or another support the assumption that, somewhere in the Syro-Aramaic area, an ur-Christianity was turned into Islam via a transitional stage which consisted of a brusque rejection of post-Nicene Christology.

To make this assumption convincing one has to liberate the Koran from any hint of an Arab prophet by the name of Mohammed. The first and most important step is taken by Ohlig, in that he ignores the many thousands of pages of Arab-Islamic traditions about early Islam.

He regards them as a gigantic fraud. By the nature of things, Ohlig has no insight into the multifaceted character of these traditions and evidently confuses their content with the dogmatic, oversimplified picture of Mohammed which dominates Muslim inspirational writings. Ohlig only deals with the Koran, and, he says, its texts are "in a strange way geographically undefined."

More than a servant?

As a result it is not necessary for him to relate the texts to the Hejas. Only the name "Mohammed" or "The Blessed One" has to be explained away. It is found in the Koran, on coins of the second half of the seventh century and in an inscription in the Dome of the Rock, which was completed under Caliph Abd al-Malik, who reigned from 685 to 705.

The inscription states "Mohammed is the servant of Allah and his messenger." In a reference to Sure 4, verse 171ff, the learned are warned not to see more in Jesus than a servant and messenger of Allah.

A prophet called Mohammed, for whom there is such early incontrovertible evidence, ought to be enough to bring the construction of an ur-Christian community crashing down.

Luxenberg dismisses the danger in "The Dark Beginnings." "Mohammed" in this case is not a personal name at all, but the title of the "servant and messenger of Allah." So the correct translation should be: "Praised be the messenger and servant of Allah," meaning Jesus.

An interpretation that brings new problems, which, it is not necessary to emphasise, cannot be easily overcome. "Mohammed" causes trouble. Even though the root of the word is found thousands of times in Arabic, the word has to be sourced elsewhere.

Christian Syriac does not offer anything useful. Ohlig says that "Mohammed" survived from Old Aramaic (seventh to fourth century BC) into the times of his Christian sect. The newest theory, proposed by Volker Popp in "Early Islam," has the word coming from Ugaritic (two thousand years BC), and being chosen for mysterious reasons as an epithet for Jesus by non-Trinitarian Christians.

Paradoxical side effect

The "new, critical study of Islam" tries to find answers to questions which the historian should certainly be asking about the sources for the life of Mohammed, but its answers consist in eliminating the object of study.

As shown, this is done by questionable means. It means that the Mohammed of the Koran, as well as of the other substantial Arabic and early non-Arabic sources, remains an unresearchable, unhistorical fact of life, beyond the events of his time and inexplicable—exactly the way the vast majority of Muslims would want it. That is a paradoxical side effect of this approach.

Islamic Studies has to emancipate itself from Muslim approaches to Mohammed if it wants to get closer to historical reality—that is beyond dispute.

Some of its practitioners have been trying to do just that already for over a century. They have been hunting for a model which would allow them to test the historical validity of the sources using a method which they could apply mechanically, saving themselves the effort of individual analysis.

But by doing so, the sources have one by one been eliminated. It became a defining characteristic of the "historical critical method" that it should not be taken seriously.

The result is an arrogant treatment of the tradition in general as well as of individual citations. In the end, even the problem of the influence of the religious revival on the early history of Islam, which Lüling, for example, saw as an issue requiring attention, does not find adequate treatment. An attempt to emancipate oneself from Muslim assumptions which leads to such results must be regarded as a failure.

What is the significance of the abrupt change in Mohammed from a man who was patient with what came upon him to one who exercised power? What historical events lie behind that change, and how did the interpretations which Muslims today see as historical truth emerge? These questions remain but they are not unanswerable.

Earlier stages of interpretation which are no longer welcomed by Muslims today lie hidden in the tradition; the task of Islamic Studies is to hunt them out. It is not as if such attempts had never been made or had never led to convincing conclusions. Convincing results have been and are being achieved, even if those who have achieved them do not pretend to be prophets of a new enlightenment.

Tilman Nagel

© FAZ/ 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

This article was previously published by the German daily, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Christoph Burgmer (Ed.): "Streit um den Koran". Die Luxenberg-Debatte: Standpunkte und Hintergründe. Erweiterte Auflage. ("Dispute about the Koran". The Luxenberg Debate: Positions and Background. Expanded Edition.) Verlag Hans Schiler, Berlin 2007. 214 pages, paperback, 19.80 euros.

Karl-Heinz Ohlig, Gerd-R. Puin (Ed.): "Die dunklen Anfänge". Neue Forschungen zur Entstehung und frühen Geschichte des Islam. ("The Dark Beginnings". New Research on the Emergence and Early History of Islam.) Verlag Hans Schiler, Berlin 2006. 406 pages, hardback, 38 euros.

Karl-Heinz Ohlig (Ed.): "Der frühe Islam". Eine historisch-kritische Rekonstruktion anhand zeitgenössischer Quellen. ("Early Islam". A Historical-Critical Reconstruction on the Basis of Contemporary Sources.) Verlag Hans Schiler, Berlin 2007. 666 pages, hardback, 68 euros.

The Emergence of Islam
No Prophet Named Muhammad?
"To shed light on the dark beginnings of Islam" is the call of Karl-Heinz Ohlig, editor of the volume "Early Islam". Its authors claim to be able to trace the actual emergence of Islam through recourse to "contemporary sources". Daniel Birnstiel has read the book

Koran Studies
"What is the Koran?"
Christoph Luxenberg's book on the history of the origins of the Koran has found wide resonance internationally. But scholars of Islam are skeptical about the work. Michael Marx summarizes the results of a Berlin conference on the subject.

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