Historical Methodology and the Believer

by Ibn Warraq (July 2010)

Ibn Warraq NER Symposium from Jerry Gordon on Vimeo.

The following is an expanded version of the speech Mr. Warraq delivered to the 2010 New English Review Symposium, “Decline, Fall & Islam” on June 19, 2010.


A few years ago I was invited to a conference at The Hague by Professor Hans Jansen, the great Arabist. After listening to series of grim papers all day long, Hans and I headed for the nearest bar. I was to give my talk the next day and I asked him what I should talk about. He replied, you must begin with a joke, there were not enough jokes. So I shall begin with a joke, first told me by Joe Hoffmann, which in fact is relevant to the theme of my present paper, that is, historical methodology, and the consequences of scientific research into the origins of early Islam and Christianity, consequences for the believer above all.
The time: the 1950s. Place: The Holy Land. Two archaeologists are working on a site they believe is the true location of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Golgotha just outside ancient Jerusalem. After months of careful digging they came across two skeletons several feet apart, and thinking perhaps these were the bones of the thieves crucified at the same time as Jesus, they shifted their attention to a spot where Jesus himself would have been crucified. Sure enough they find some bones, and the remains of a cross, and after weeks of further digging and carbon-dating analysis conclude that these remains were of Jesus. Furthermore, the archaeological details were consistent with the account of the crucifixion as found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. They looked at each other as they realized the implications of their findings, particularly for the Resurrection. This discovery was far too important to release to the public without first involving some eminent theologians. They immediately thought of Rudolf Bultmann, perhaps the leading theologian of his day, and author of “The Gospel of John (1941)”, now considered a classic in the field of research into the historical Jesus. Our archaeologists phoned him, and explained in breathless tones their discovery and its consequences. Bultmann listened patiently and was then silent for twenty seconds. Finally, in a thick German accent he said: “You mean he really existed!”

Soon after 11 September, 2001, the left-wing British weekly journal The New Statesman published an article provocatively entitled “The Great Koran Con Trick” by Martin Bright. The article was essentially a more crude and self-consciously sensationalist version of an article written by Toby Lester, a couple of years earlier, entitled ‘What is the Koran?” [1999]. Bright rehearsed the familiar theories of the revisionists, centered on the work of John Wansbrough of the School of African and Oriental Studies [SOAS], and those influenced by him, scholars such as Patricia Crone, Michael Cook, Andrew Rippin, and Gerald Hawting. The article resulted in many letters to the Editor, and six of them were published the following week [17 December, 2001]. The longest was from Patricia Crone, writing from the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. In her letter, Crone wrote, “modern historians are not interested in the truth and falsehood of the religion they study at all. They study religions as historical factors shaped by their environment and acting back on it in turn, much as scientists study the formation of dust clouds or the evolution of plants. Religious beliefs shape the world they interact with, whether the person studying them happens to share them or not; all that matters is what they meant at the time, not what they mean now.” A little further, Crone continues, “[Historians] have no intention of making the Muslim house come down, nor indeed could they even if they did. Religion does not belong in the domain open to proof or disproof by scholarship or science.”
Michael Cook, Crone’s one-time colleague and co-author of Hagarism, also wrote to the journal. Here is the full text of his letter: “It is prefectly true that some of various academic theories about the origins of Islam are radical. But it would be wrong to suggest that they ‘prove’ the traditional Islamic account of the beginnings of the religion to be false. They don’t. Neither, so far as I know, do the early Koranic fragments found in Yemen prove anything like that. They are exciting to experts, they scatter a few apples over the cobbles, but they don’t upset the apple-cart. In any case, it is hard to see why academic theories about the origins of Islam should be any more ‘devastating’ than theories about Jesus have been to Christianity. Academic work does occasionally enliven the halls of learning, but it doesn’t devastate world religions. They don’t play in the same league.”

Now the remarks of both Cook and Crone are misleading to say the least. First, Crone seems to imply that all historians are only engaged in historical sociology of religion, investigating what it meant to be Muslim, and how Muslims saw and experienced their own religion, and are not interested in the truth and falsehood of the religion studied. Not only does this not characterize the work of all historians, it does not even characterize her own. In Hagarism [1977], co-written with Michael Cook, Slaves on Horses [1980], God’s Caliph [1986] written with Martin Hinds, Roman Provincial and Islamic Law [1987], Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam [1987], Crone challenged the accepted views on early Islam. Hagarism, for instance, exploded the “the academic consensus and demolish deference to the Muslim view of things, thus making it possible to propose radical alternative hypotheses for the origins of Islam,” in other words, alternative accounts of what really happened.
[1] They clearly rejected the Islamic tradition.
Second, Cook and Crone imply that academic research has no consequence for the religion or the believer, but they themselves clearly saw the implications of their own scholarly work, for they admit in the preface to Hagarism, that without exposure to “the sceptical approach of Dr. John Wansbrough to the historicity of the Islamic tradition . . . the theory of Islamic origins set out in this book would never have occurred to us” (p. viii), and that this approach led them to a theory which is “not one which any believing Muslim can accept: not because it in any way belittles the historical role of Muhammad, but because it presents him in a role quite different from that which he has taken on in the Islamic tradition. This is a book written by infidels for infidels, and it is based on what from any Muslim perspective must appear an inordinate regard for the testimony of infidel sources” (pp. vi–viii). Why the recourse to the “infidel sources,” that is, the non-Muslim historians of the period of the Islamic conquests? Their reply: “Virtually all accounts of the early development of Islam take it as axiomatic that it is possible to elicit at least the outlines of the process from the Islamic sources. It is however well known that these sources are not demonstrably early. There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century, and the tradition which places this rather opaque revelation in its historical context is not attested before the middle of the eighth. The historicity of the Islamic tradition is thus to some degree problematic: while there are no cogent internal grounds for rejecting it, there are equally
no cogent external grounds for accepting it. In the circumstances it is not unreasonable
to proceed in the usual fashion by presenting a sensibly edited version of the tradition as historical fact. But equally, it makes some sense to regard the tradition as without determinate historical content, and to insist that what purport to be accounts of religious events in the seventh century are utilizable only for the study of religious ideas in the eighth. The Islamic sources provide plenty of scope for the implementation of these different approaches, but offer little that can be used in any decisive way to arbitrate between them. The only way out of the dilemma is thus to step outside the Islamic tradition altogether and start again.”(p. 3)
What an extraordinary avowal: a history “written by infidels for infidels.” What on earth do they mean? Do they mean Muslims should not read it? Why? Because the account in Hagarism is not true? Or more simply, they believe it is true but it is an account no Muslim will find acceptable. Are Muslims not capable of accepting the truth? Must Muslims be always protected from the truth? Why are their sensibilities more important than say Christians or Jews?

Pace Cook and Crone, the implications of their theses are indeed “devastating.” Any research that casts doubt on the traditional Muslim account of the Koran, the Rise of Islam and the life of Muhammad is totally unacceptable to Muslims. The two final letters reveal the enormous gulf between the attitudes to research in Islam and Christianity. Robin Oakley-Hill made the point that, “It is hardly fair to characterise western Koran scholarship as neo-colonial given that western academics subject Christianity to far more rigorous – frequently destructive – examination….Perhaps Islam could do with a [Pope] John XXII and some liberation theology.”

Oakley-Hill’s point had been made by John Wansbrough himself over thirty years earlier:

 “As a document susceptible of analysis by the instruments and techniques if Biblical criticism [the Koran] is virtually unknown. The doctrinal obstacles that have traditionally impeded such investigation are, on the other hand, very well known. Not merely dogmas such as those defining scripture as the uncreated Word of God and acknowledging its
formal and substantive inimitability, but also the entire corpus of Islamic historiography, by providing a more or less coherent and plausible report of the circumstances of the Quranic revelation, have discouraged examination of the document as representative of a traditional literary type.”[2]
Little seems to have changed nineteen years later, for Andrew Rippin lamented:

“. . . I have often encountered individuals who come to the study of Islam with a background in the historical study of the Hebrew Bible or early Christianity, and who express surprise at the lack of critical thought that appears in introductory textbooks on Islam. The notion that “Islam was born in the clear light of history” still seems to be assumed by a great many writers of such texts. While the need to reconcile varying historical traditions is generally recognized, usually this seems to pose no greater problem to the authors than having to determine “what makes sense” in given situation. To students acquainted with approaches such as source criticism, oral formulaic composition, literary analysis and structuralism, all quite commonly employed in the study of Judaism and Christianity, such naive historical study seems to suggest that Islam is being approached with less than academic candour.”
The last letter to the Editor of the New Statesman was from a Christian clergyman, and clearly reveals that Christianity has absorbed the lessons not only of the Enlightenment, but Biblical Criticism. The Reverend Richard Craig wrote, “In spite of huge advances in biblical scholarship, Ann Widdicombe [a Conservative Member of the British Parliament] can still assert in her review of [the book] Mary: The Unauthorized Biography, that St.John’s Gospel is an eyewitness account of the life of Christ. Most scholars reject such a view. Martin Bright’s report is welcome evidence that scholarly investigation of the origins of Islam is beginning the long and painful path trodden by Christian theologians’ inquiry into our sacred texts. Widdicombe’s acceptance of the literalist view of the gospels is till widely held by many sitting in church pews, even though the clergy have been taught otherwise for 50 years or more.”

Cook, in his letter, also claims that the Koranic fragments from the Yemen do not “prove” a great deal. But they do. As Gerd Puin told Toby Lester, “So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word. They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has

a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sana‘a’ fragments will help us to do this.” Andrew Rippin was also enthusiastic, “The impact of the Yemeni manuscripts is still to be felt. Their variant readings and verse orders are all very significant. Everybody agrees on that. These manuscripts say that the early history of the Koranic text is much more of an open question than many have suspected: the text was less stable, and therefore had less authority,than has always been claimed.”[4]
If what Puin and Rippin say is correct, then the consequences are again “devastating,” a fact recognized by R. Stephen Humphreys, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who argued, “To historicize the Koran would in effect delegitimize the whole historical experience of the Muslim community.
The Koran is the charter for the community, the document that called it into existence. And ideally—though obviously not always in reality—Islamic history has been the effort to pursue and work out the commandments of the Koran in human life. If the Koran is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of fourteen centuries is effectively
In brief, pace Cook and Crone, historians do try to establish what really happened and their research has profound implications for the believer and the religion’s own traditional view of itself. The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are particularly vulnerable to the historical sciences, since the validity of their respective dogmas are closely predicated on or anchored in putatively historical events, in a way that Buddhism, for example, is not. The historical Buddha, that is if he is indeed a historical figure, only said “follow my argument,” and if his life proved to be a pious legend, his argument would still remain, and “Buddhism” would not be shaken in its foundations. As Van Harvey said in his classic The Historian and the Believer, the deontology, as the French would say, of the historian, that is to say the moral obligation of the historian as historian and hence the critical historical method “has the profoundest of implications for religious belief in general and Christian belief in particular”.
Consider the following remarks, and try to guess in what sort of publication they might have first appeared:

“Archaeologists increasingly have questioned accepted assumptions about biblical history and the biblical narrative….”

“Archaeological finds, however, at times call into question the historicity of the biblical narrative. For instance, some archaeological sites seem to deny Joshua’s alleged conquest of Canaan by showing neither a destruction layer nor traces of walls nor even settlement from that era (e.g., Jericho, Ai). Realizing the highly theological and literary character of the Book of Joshua, some scholars have concluded that its accounts are selective and biased, having minimal historical value in reconstructing the events of the past.”

“There is no reference in Egyptian sources to Israel’s sojourn in that country, and the evidence that does exist is negligible and indirect.”

“Archaeological material has raised questions regarding certain assumptions and claims based on biblical literature. At times this evidence clearly contradicts biblical narrative; on other occasions, data that might have corroborated the literary account are conspicuously lacking.”

No, these observations of a gently skeptical nature do not come from the pages of The Skeptical Inquirer but from a chapter by Lee I. Levine entitled “Biblical Archaeology” in Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary, published by The Jewish Publication Society for The Rabbinical Assembly, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, in New York, 2001. Thus in a book that contains the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch along with an English translation and English commentary, we find a thoroughly objective, rational account of the implications of archaeology – science, in other words – for the historicity of the Torah. Even the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has absorbed the historical methodological insights of the Enlightenment and the Higher German Biblical Criticism, and has noted the perturbing consequence for the believer.

One cannot imagine a similar introduction to a translation of the Koran, which has not been submitted to a skeptical scrutiny. The reasons for the reticence of many Western scholars of Islam to submit it to rigrous analysis are many and various, including:

Political correctness leading to Islamic correctness;

The fear of playing into the hands of racists or reactionaries to the detriment of the West’s Muslim minorities;

Commercial or economic motives;

Feelings of post-colonial guilt (where the entire planet’s problems are attributed to the West’s wicked ways and intentions);

Plain physical fear;

and intellectual terrorism of writers such as Edward Said.

Said not only taught an entire generation of Arabs the wonderful art of self-pity, and intimidated feeble western academics, and even weaker, invariably leftish, intellectuals into accepting that any criticism of Islam was to be dismissed as orientalism, and hence invalid.

But the first duty of the intellectual is to tell the truth. Truth is not much in fashion in this postmodern age when continental charlatans have infected Anglo-American intellectuals with the thought that objective knowledge is not only undesirable but unobtainable. I believe that to abandon the idea of truth not only leads to political fascism, but stops dead all intellectual inquiry. To give up the notion of truth means forsaking the goal of acquiring knowledge. But man, as Aristotle put it, by nature strives to know. Truth, science, intellectual inquiry and rationality are inextricably bound together. Relativism, and its illegitimate offspring, multiculturalism, are not conducive to the critical examination of Islam.

Said wrote a polemical book, Orientalism (1978), whose pernicious influence is still felt in all departments of Islamic studies, where any critical discussion of Islam is ruled out a priori. For Said, orientalists are involved in an evil conspiracy to denigrate Islam, to maintain its people in a state of permanent subjugation and are a threat to Islam’s future. These orientalists are seeking knowledge of oriental peoples only in order to dominate them; most are in the service of imperialism.               

Three further factors need to be taken into account to explain the otherwise puzzling spectacle of Western scholars swallowing whole the entire Islamic narrative as to its own rise and formation.

First, The first modern apologists of Islam – even in its fundamentalist mode – were Christian scholars who perceived a common danger in certain economic, philosophical, and social developments in the West: the rise of rationalism, scepticism, atheism, secularism; the Industrial Revolution; the Russian Revolution and the rise of communism and materialism. Sir Hamilton Gibb writes of Islam as a Christian “engaged in a common spiritual enterprise.”
[7] But let us beware of skepticism: “Both Christianity and Islam suffer under the weight of worldly pressure, and the attack of scientific atheists and their like,” laments Norman Daniel.[8]
Hence the tendency amongst Christian scholars to be rather uncritical; a tendency not to wish to offend Muslim friends and Muslim colleagues. Either there were explicit apologies if the writer felt there was something offensive to Muslim eyes, or to use various devices to avoid seeming to take sides, or to avoid judging whatever issue was under discussion.

Christian scholars such as Watt, who was curate of St. Mary Boltons, London, and Old St Paul’s, Edinburgh and ordained Episcopalian minister, and who was one of the most influential Islamic scholars in Britain of the last fifty years, and Sir Hamilton Gibb saw skepticism, atheism and communism as the common enemy of all true religion. They followed Carlyle in hoping for spiritual inspiration from the East. Here is Watt: “Islam – or perhaps one should rather say, the East – has tended to overemphasize Divine sovereignty, whereas in the West too much influence has been attributed to man’s will, especially in recent times. Both have strayed from the true path, though in different directions. The West has probably something to learn of that aspect of truth which has been so clearly apprehended in the East.”

Throughout his article Religion and Anti-Religion, Professor Watt can barely disguise his contempt for secularism. “The wave of secularism and materialism is

receding,” notes Watt with approval, “most serious minded men in the Middle East realize the gravity of the problems of the present time, and are therefore aware of the
need for a religion that will enable them to cope with the situations that arise from the impingement of these problems on their personal lives”. Watt then goes on to discuss the work of Manfred Halpern, who “speaks of the Muslim Brethren in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, together with movements like Fida’iyan-i Islam in Persia and Khaksars
and Jama’at-i Islam in Pakistan, as neo-Islamic totalitarianism, and points out their resemblances to fascism, including the National Socialism of Germany under
Adolf Hitler. From a purely political point of view this may be justified, and the resemblances certainly exist. Yet in a wider perspective this characterisation is misleading. It is true that these movements sometimes ‘concentrate on mobilizing passion and violence to enlarge the power of their charismatic leader and the solidarity of the movement … ‘ , and that ‘they champion the values and emotions of a heroic
past, but repress all critical analysis of either past roots or present problems’. Yet political ineptitude and even failure do not outweigh their positive significance as marking a resurgence of religion … The neo- Islamic mass movements, far from being tantamount to national socialism or fascism are likely to be an important barrier against such a development.” [9]
Watt’s wonderful euphemism for fascism is “political ineptitude”; and we are asked to overlook this fascism, and instead asked to admire it for its “positive significance as marking a resurgence of religion.” Watt’s support for, what Amir Taheri calls, Holy Terrorists is worth pondering. It must not be forgotten that the Muslim Brethren was a terrorist organisation whose founder made no secret of his admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. After the end of the Second World War, Hassan’s Muslim Brethren launched a series of attacks at civilian targets; cinemas, hotels and restaurants were bombed or set on fire, women incorrectly dressed were attacked with knifes. There were also a series of assassinations. Yes; we are asked to overlook this in the name of religious resurgence.

Watt reveals even more disturbing qualities – a mistrust of the intellect and a rejection of the importance of historical objectivity and truth: “This emphasis on historicity, however, has as its complement a neglect of symbols; and it may be that ultimately

‘symbolic truth ‘ is more important than ‘historical truth.'”[10]
In “Introduction to the Quran,” Watt seems to have a very tenuous grasp on the notion of truth – indeed objective truth is abandoned altogether in favour of total subjectivism “… the systems of of ideas followed by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and others are all true in so far as they enable human beings to have a more or less satisfactory ‘experience of life as a whole.’ So far as observation can tell, none of the great systems is markedly inferior or superior to the others. Each is therefore true. In

particular the Quran is in this sense true. The fact that the Quranic conception of the unity of God appears to contradict the Christian conception of God does not imply that either system is false, nor even that either conception is false. Each conception is true in that it is part of a system which is true. In so far as some conception in a system seems to contradict the accepted teaching of science – or, that of history in so far as it is objective – that contradiction raises problems for the adherents of the system, but does not prove that the system as a whole is inferior to others. That is to say, the Quranic assertion that the Jews did not kill Jesus does not prove that the Quranic system as a whole is inferior to the Christian, even on the assumption that the crucifixion is an objective fact.” [11]
In this astonishing passage of intellectual dishonesty, Watt performs all sorts of mental gymnastics in an effort to please everyone, not to offend anyone. Leaving aside the problem of the vagueness of Watt’s terminology – terms like “experience of life as a whole,” “conception,” “Quranic system” – we can now understand what we set out to

understand at the beginning of this enquiry, namely, why British Islamicists have been so uncritical of Islam.
“The non-Muslim scholar, continues Watt, “is not concerned with any question of ultimate truth, since that, it has been suggested, cannot be attained by man. He assumes the truth [my emphasis, I.W.], in the relative sense just explained, of the Quranic ststem of ideas.” Under such conditions, the scholar is not likely to be critical of anyone’s “belief system” as long as it meets his or her “spiritual needs.”

The above attitude exemplified by Watt was brilliantly exposed and attacked by Julien Benda in his classic “Betrayal of the Intellectuals.” He wrote, “But the modern ‘clerks’ [intellectuals] have held up universal truth to the scorn of mankind, as well as universal morality. Here the ‘clerks’ have positively shown genius in their effort to serve the passions of the laymen. It is obvious that truth is a great impediment to those who wish to set themselves up as distinct; from the very moment when they accept truth, it condemns them to be conscious of themselves in a universal. What a joy for them to learn that this universal is a mere phantom, that there exist only particular truths, ‘Lorrain truths, Provencal truths, Britanny truths, the harmony of which in the course of centuries constitutes what is beneficial, respectable, true in France.”
[12] Watt would add “a Muslim truth, a Christian truth, and so on; or as he put in Islamic Revelation, “Each [great religion] is valid in a particular cultural region, but not beyond that.”[13]
The sentimental ecumenical tradition established by scholars such as Watt and Gibb continues to this day. We can follow the gradual introduction of this tradition in the pages of the journal The Muslim World, which was founded in 1911 [originally titled The Moslem World] to promote the work of Christian Missionaries in the Middle East. Since 1938 it has been edited by the Hartford Seminary. The first issues of the journal were highly critical of various aspects of Islam – I have already cited Charles Watson’s description of Islam as totalitarian which appeared in its pages in 1937. Its first editor was a committed Christian and a considerable scholar, Samuel Zwemer [1867-1952]. In
1929 he was appointed Professor of Missions and Professor of the History of Religion at the Princeton Theological Seminary where he taught until 1951. He had an almost perfect command of Arabic and a thorough knowledge of the Koran, often referred to as “the lion-hearted missionary who tried to confound the Muslims out of their own scriptures using the Christian Bible.”[14]
By the late 1940s, however, the journal began publishing articles very favorable to Islam, and by 1950s its pages were dominated by scholars such as Watt. It is now co-edited by a Muslim and a Christian – converting Muslims to Christianity is no longer considered respectable by Liberal Christians who instead bend over backwards to accommodate Muslims – as for example calling on all Christians to use the term “Allah” instead of God:
[15] generous gestures not reciprocated by the Muslims.
To bring the story to the present, one cannot leave out the case of John Esposito, a Catholic, and Professor of International Affairs and
Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is also the director of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the same university. While studying for his doctorate at Temple University, Esposito came under the influence of the Islamist, Ismail R. Faruqi, “Palestinian pan-Islamist and theorist of the ‘Islamization of knowledge,’ around whom had developed a personality cult.”[16] Esposito tried to present Islam and Islamism in western categories thereby hoping to create a more favorable attitude to them in the West.

“Why not place Islamist movements in the political category of participation, or even democratization?”
[17] Esposito then went on claim that Islamist movements were nothing other than movements of democratic reform! It was sheer “Orientalist” prejudice that prevented Westerners from seeing this. Esposito wrote that Americans would “have to transcend their narrow, ethnocentric conceptualization of democracy” to understand an Islamic democracy that might create effective systems of popular participation, though unlike the Westminster model or the American system.”[18]
Esposito, and his close collaborator, John Voll asserted with great confidence that every Islamist state or movement was either democratic or potentially democratic. John Voll appeared before a congressional committee in 1992 pleading on behalf of Sudan, which Kramer describes aptly as “a place without political parties, ruled by a military junta in league with an Islamist ideologue.” For Voll the Sudanese regime was “an effort to create consensual rather than a conflict format for popular political participation,” and in his opinion, “It is not possible, even using exclusively Western political experience as basis for defintion, to state that if a system does not have two parties, it is not democratic.”
Martin Kramer sums up Voll’s grotesque apology for Islamism thus: “And so American congressman were instructed by the president-elect of MESA [Middle East Studies Association] that a country with no political parties, presided over by a coup-plotting general, ridden by civil war, with a per capita gross domestic product of $200, still might qualify somehow as democracy. This was not deliberate self-parody; it was merely Esposito’s logic advanced ad absurdum.”
Just months before 9/11, Esposito wrote, “focusing on Usama bin Laden risks catapulting one of the many sources of terrorism to center stage, distorting both the diverse international sources and the relevance of one man.” Still earlier he had predicted that the 1990s would “be a decade of new alliances and alignments in which the Islamic movements will challenge rather than threaten their societies and the West.” In 1994, he claimed that Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, was only a community-focused group that engages in “honey, cheese-making, and home-based clothing manufacture.” While he saw nothing sinister in Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat’s call for Jihad, it was in reality comparable to a “literacy campaign.”

After 9/11, Esposito blamed America first. “September 11,” he said, “has made everyone aware of the fact that not addressing the kinds of issues involved here, of tolerance and pluralism, have catastrophic repercussions.”

Even more disgracefully, Esposito refuses to acknowledge that the application of the Shari’a, or Islamic law, inevitably leads to a totalitarian society as in former Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, present-day Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan. Freedom House ranks these countries as the worst offenders of human rights in the world. Furthermore, each one of these countries has been linked to the export of international terrorism. And yet, Esposito writes that “contrary to what some have advised, the United States should not in principle object to implementation of Islamic law or involvement of Islamic activists in government.”
Second factor leading to the apologetic nature of Islamologists is Saudi money being poured into Western universities. In December, 2005, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the grandson of Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the founding king of Saudi Arabia, gave Georgetown and Harvard University $20 million each. Anthony Glees
[22] has demonstrated that eight British universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, have accepted £233.5 million from Saudi Arabia. Prof Glees claimed that the propagation of one-sided views of Islam and the Middle East at universities amounted to anti-Western propaganda. Glees said, “Britain’s universities will have to generate two national cultures: one non-Muslim and largely secular, the other Muslim. We will have two identities, two sets of allegiances and two legal and political systems. This must, by the Government’s own logic, hugely increase the risk of terrorism.”
A report in the Guardian [U.K.] quoted Dr Denis MacEoin, Islam expert at Newcastle University, as saying that academics were nervous about handling topics that might upset their sponsors: “‘It’s part of an overall belief that only Muslims can teach Islam, which in an academic context is entirely wrong. It would soon remove the possibility for genuine academic debate.’ He said increasing numbers of students with Salafist – a more traditional form of Islam – backgrounds were taking Islamic studies and could be upset by ‘proper academic critical debate’. ‘It does threaten academic freedom and critical thinking,’ he warned.”
[23] Dr. MacEoin was dismissed many years ago from his university post because his ideas were not acceptable to the Saudis funding the Islamic department.[24]
The third factor which inhibits the critical scrutiny of the Koran and the whole Islamic Tradition is the presence of Islamic colleagues on campuses throughout the Western world. Starting probably in the 1960s, Western universities in their search for diversity began appointing Muslims to teach about Islam – as though only Muslims were qualified enough to teach it. Some of them were competent and rigorous but many Muslim scholars, unfortunately, were also incompetent, and were tenured early on despite the poverty of their scholarship. They now wield enormous power on these campuses, and faculty heads are terrified of rocking the boat, and offending their Muslim colleagues who can shamelessly mobilize local imams to create bad publicity if, for example, the Islamic Department tries to invite a scholar such as Christoph Luxenberg. Professor Joseph Hoffmann had originally planned to hold a conference that looked skeptically at the sources and scriptures of the three Abrahamic religions at a well-known divinity school in Eastern United States, but had to abandon the idea because of the hostility of
one Muslim faculty member. (The conference eventually did take place on the West coast in 2007.)            
The unfortunate result is that academics can no longer do their work honestly. A scholar working on recently discovered Koranic manuscripts showed some of his startling conclusions to a distinguished colleague, a world expert on the Koran. The latter did not ask, “What is the evidence, what are your arguments, is it true?” The colleague simply warned him that his thesis was unacceptable because it would upset Muslims.

Western scholars need to defend unflinchingly our right to examine Islam, to explain its rise and fall by the normal mechanisms of human history, according to the objective standards of historical methodology.

Democracy depends on freedom of thought and free discussion. The notion of infallibility is profoundly undemocratic and unscientific. It is perverse for the western media to lament the lack of an Islamic reformation and wilfully ignore books such as Anwar Shaikh’s Islam – The Arab Imperialism, or my Why I am Not a Muslim. How do they think reformation will come about if not with criticism?



Reforming Islam only implies adjustments and modifications to what would remain essentially a theological construct, and if applied would result in a still theologically conceived and ordered society.[25] What we need is an Enlightenment in the Islamic world, of the Islamic mind-set or worldview. For the Enlightenment marks the most dramatic step towards secularization and rationalization in Europe’s history, and has had no less a significance for the entire world. Both the Renaissance and the Reformation were incomplete. “By contrast,” writes Jonathan Israel, “the Enlightenment –European and global – not only attacked and severed the roots of traditional European culture in the sacred, magic, kingship, and hierarchy, secularizing all institutions and ideas, but (intellectually and to a degree in practice) effectively demolished all legitimation of monarchy, aristocracy, woman’s subordination to man, ecclesiastical authority, and slavery, replacing these with the principles of universality, equality, and democracy.”[26]
“Spinoza and Spinozism were in fact the intellectual backbone of the European Radical Enlightenment everywhere, not only in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, and Scandinavia but also Britain and Ireland.”
[27] And the work that did more than any other to bring about this profound revolution in human history was Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus published clandestinely but nonetheless courageously by the Dutch publisher Jan Rieuwertsz [c.1616-87] in Amsterdam in 1670. For Spinoza the Bible is purely a human and secular text, theology is not an independent source of truth.

“…Spinoza offers an elaborate theory of what religion is, and how and why religion construes the world as it does, creating a new science of contextual Bible criticism. Analyzing usage and intended meanings, and extrapolating from context, using reason as an analytical tool but not expecting to find philosophical truth embedded in Scriptural concepts.”
[28] In his attack on the very possibility of miracles, and the credulity of the multitude, Spinoza’s Tractatus made a profound impression everywhere –in England, Italy, Germany and France. Spinoza, in effect, denounces clerical authority for exploiting the credulity, ignorance and superstition of the masses. Spinoza`s ideas were easy to grasp in one sense even by the unlettered, ideas such “as the identification of God with the universe, the rejection of organized religion, the abolition of Heaven and Hell, together with reward and punishment in the hereafter, a morality of individual happiness in the here and now, and the doctrine that there is no reality beyond the unalterable laws of Nature, and consequently, no Revelation, miracles or prophecy.”[29] Ecce Spinoza’s Biblical Criticism. 
Koranic Criticism, on the other hand, has lagged far behind. But surely Muslims AND non- Muslims have the right to critically examine the sources, the history and dogma of Islam. The right to criticise is a right of which Muslims avail themselves in their frequent denunciations of Western culture, in terms which would have been deemed racist, neo – colonialist or imperialist had they been directed against Islam by an European. Without criticism of Islam, Islam will remain unassailed in its dogmatic, fanatical, mediaeval fortress; ossified, totalitarian and intolerant. It will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality; originality and truth.

Western intellectuals and Islamologists have totally failed in their duties as intellectuals. They have betrayed their calling by abandoning their critical faculties when it comes to Islam.

Some Islamologists have themselves noticed the appalling trend in their colleagues. Karl Binswanger has remarked on the “dogmatic Islamophilia” of most Arabists. Jacques
Ellul complained in 1983 that “in France it is no longer acceptable to criticise Islam or the Arab countries.” Already in 1968, Maxime Rodinson had written, “An 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 charecteristics by means of the normal mechanisms of human history. Understanding has given way to apologetics pure and simple.”
Patricia Crone and Ibn Rawandi have remarked that western scholarship lost its critical attitude to the sources of the origins of Islam around the time of the First World War. Many Western scholars of the 1940s were committed Christians, such Montgomery Watt who saw a great danger in the rise of Communism in the Islamic world, and thus welcomed any resurgence of Islam. They were insufficiently critical of the Islamic, Arabic sources. John Wansbrough has noted that the Koran “as a document susceptible of analysis by the instruments and techniques of Biblical criticism it is virtually unknown.” By 1990, we still have the scandalous situation described by Andrew Rippin, “… I have often encountered individuals who come to the study of Islam with a background in the historical study of the Hebrew Bible or early Christianity, and who express surprise at the lack of critical thought that appears in introductory textbooks on Islam. The notion that ‘Islam was born in the clear light of history’ still seems to be assumed by a great many writers of such texts. While the need to reconcile varying historical traditions is generally recognised, usually this seems to pose no greater problem to the authors than having to determine ‘what makes sense’ in a given situation. To students acquainted with approaches such as source criticism, oral formulaic composition, literary analysis and structuralism, all quite commonly employed in the study of Judaism and Christianity, such naive historical study seems to suggest that Islam is being approached with less than academic candour.”

There is, among many well-meaning Western intellectuals, academics, and Islamologists, the belief that somehow Islam will reform itself without anyone anywhere ruffling any feathers, disturbing Muslim sensibilities, or saying anything at all about the Koran. This is wishful thinking. If one desires to bring about an Enlightenment in the Islamic world or among Muslims living in the West, at some stage, someone somewhere will have to apply to the Koran the same techniques of textual analysis as were applied to the Bible by Spinoza and others, especially in Germany during the 19th Century.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia, and other Islamic countries (for example, Brunei) have established Chairs of Islamic Studies in prestigious Western Universities, which are encouraged to present a favourable image of Islam. Scientific research, leading to objective truth, no longer seems to be the goal. Critical examination of the sources or the Koran is discouraged. Scholars, such as Daniel Easterman,
[30] have even lost their posts for not teaching about Islam in the way approved by Saudi Arabia.
In December, 2005, Georgetown and Harvard Universities accepted $20 million each from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal for programmes in Islamic Studies. Such money can only corrupt the original intent of all higher institutions of education, that is the search for truth. Now, we shall only have “Islamic truth” that is acceptable to the Royal Saudi family, a family that has financed terrorism, anti-Westernism and anti-Semitism for over thirty years. Previous donations from various Saudi sources have included gifts of $20 million, $5 million, and $2 million dollars to the University of Arkansas, the University of California, Berkeley; and Harvard respectively.



The European Union urgently needs to establish an independent Institute of Koranic Research, devoted to unhampered, scientific enquiry, armed with all the necessary tools and techniques of modern research, whether philological, philosophical or hermeneutical. Such an Institute could be financed with just a fraction of the total Pentagon budget in persecuting the war in Iraq, or more generally the War on Terror.The Institute of Koranic Research would be expected to publish an academic journal, to house an Orientalist Library, and to make available to the greater public the results of its research. Already, a group of scholars represented in the collection Die dunklen Anfänge edited by Karl-Heinz Ohlig and Gerd-R.Puin has expressed an interest in the establishment of such an institute. Koranic Research is falling behind Biblical Research: in the 21st century, there is still no critical edition of the Koran that takes into account all the thousands of variants found in manuscripts or classical Koranic commentaries or books of Hadith (collections of Traditions). There is no critical catalogue of all the extant Koranic manuscripts in the Western libraries, Museums and Private collections. Many important early Koranic manuscripts remain unpublished. There is no reliable history of Koranic orthography.


This naturally leads to the most fascinating book ever written on the language of the Koran, and if proved to be correct in its main thesis, probably the most important book ever written on the Holy Book of the Muslims. Christoph Luxenberg’s Die Syro-Aramaische Lesart des Koran [Verlag: Das Arabische Buch; Berlin, 2000] available only in German came out just over five years ago, but has already had an enthusiastic reception, particularly among those scholars with a knowledge of several Semitic languages, at Princeton, Yale, Berlin, Potsdam, Erlangen, Aix-en-Provence, and the Oriental Institute in Beirut.

Luxenberg tries to show that many of the obscurities of the Koran disappear if we read certain words as being Syriac and not Arabic. Syriac is an Aramaic dialect and the language of Eastern Christianity, and a Semitic language closely related Hebrew and Arabic. Luxenberg’s research has underlined the importance of research into Eastern Christianity. There are hundreds of Syriac and Karshuni [Arabic language but using Syriac script] manuscripts which have not even been catalogued scattered round the world. There is an urgent need to examine the sectarian milieu of the Near East out of which Islam emerged, and this means research into Syriac history and literature.


Any researcher, writer or publisher in the field of Islamic Studies immediately comes up against the language barrier. Over the last ten years I have been involved in bringing scholarly but difficult to locate articles to the attention of a larger public. (This effort has been much appreciated by specialists as well.) Many of these articles are in German, and have never been translated. But publishers are reluctant to pay for their translation given the extraordinary high costs of translations. I have nonetheless put together many anthologies of such articles in English that examine the sources of Islam and the Koran in a critical manner. But they need to be made available in all the major European languages and of course they should be translated into Arabic, Persian(farsi), and Urdu, at least. My last collection, What the Koran Really Says, was a heavy tome of 782 pages. You cannot imagine the cost of translating such a book into Dutch or French. But I assure you that, in the long run, it is only this kind of researc- made available to as wide an audience as possible – that will bring about an Enlightenment in Islam, in the Islamic world.

A major task of the Institute of Koranic Studies would be translations of works like Luxenberg’s Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Koran, which remains untranslated, five years after its publication, despite its importance in the history of Koranic research. Many of the works of the Dutch Orientalist, Snouck Hurgronje remain untranslated, such as his account of his pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as a Muslim. Even the classic study of the Koran, Noldeke’s Geschichte des Qorans has never been translated. But such a translation would be major task that only a properly funded and properly staffed Institute could carry out.


[1]     Ibn al-Rawandi. Origins of Islam: A Critical Look at the Sources, in The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, ed. Ibn Warraq, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000, p.95.

[2]           John Wansbrough, Quranic Studies (Oxford, 1977), p. ix.

[3]           Andrew Rippin, Muslims. Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Vol. 1:The Formative Period (London, 1991), p. ix.

[4]     Toby Lester, What is the Koran? in What the Koran Really Says, ed. Ibn Warraq, Amherst: Prometheus Books. 2002, pp. 109-110

[5]     Ibid.,p.110.

[6]     Van Harvey. The Historian and the Believer. Toronto, Ontario: The Macmillan Company, 1966, p.xii

[7]     H.A.R.Gibb. Modern Trends in Islam. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1947.

[8]     Norman Daniel. Islam and the West. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1960, p.307.

[9]      William Montgomery Watt, Religion and Anti-Religion, in Religion in the Middle East:Three Religions in Conflict and Concord, ed. A.J.Arberry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969, pp.625-627

[10]    William Montogomery Watt, Islamic Revelation in the Modern World, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1969, p.116

[11]    William Montogomery Watt ,Introduction to the Quran Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,1977 p.183.

[12]     Julien Benda The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, Boston: Beacon Press, 1955, pp.76-77.

[13]    William Montogomery Watt, Islam and the Integration of Society, London: Routledge, Kegan and Paul, 1961, p.278

[14]    Samuel Zwemer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Marinus_Zwemer : accessed 15 November, 2007.

[15]    In August, 2007,Bishop of Breda, Tiny Muskens: http://www.worldnetdaily.com/staticarticles/article57178.html, accessed 15 November, 2007.

[16]    Martin Kramer. Ivory Towers on Sand. The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Washington, D.C.: The Wsahington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, p.49.

[17]    Ibid.,p.50

[18]           John Voll and John L.Esposito, “Islam’s Democratic Essence“, Middle East Quarterly 1, no.3 (September 1994) p.11, quoted in Martin Kramer. Ivory Towers on Sand. The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Washington, D.C.: The Wsahington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, p.50

[19]    Quoted in Martin Kramer. Ivory Towers on Sand. The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Washington, D.C.: The Wsahington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, p.50

[20]    Martin Kramer. Ivory Towers on Sand. The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Washington, D.C.: The Wsahington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001, pp.50-51

[21]             All the quotes in the last three paragraphs are from Campus Watch, Esposito: Apologist for Militant Islam, published by FrontPage Magazine, September 3 2002, accessed Nov.30, 2007

[22]    Ben Leach, “ ‘Extremism’ Fear in Islam Studies Donations” in Telegraph On-line, 13 April, 2008, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1584954/Extremism-fear-over-Islam-studies-donations.html. Accessed, 29 March, 2010.

[23]    Anthea Lipsett, Concerns over Funding of Islamic Studies, 17 April, 2008.Guardian, available at
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/apr/17/highereducation.uk. Accessed 29 March, 2010.

[24]    Daniel Easterman. New Jerusalems, London, 1992, pp.92-93.

[25]     Formulation borrowed from: Jonathan I.Israel. Radical Enlightenment. Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. p.vi

[26]    Ibid., p.vi.

[27]    Ibid., p.vi.

[28]    Ibid., p.202

[29]    Jonathan I.Israel. Radical Enlightenment. Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. p.296

[30]    D.Easterman. New Jerusalems. London , 1992 , pp.92-93.

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