What happens if scholars start to using historical criticism to examine the roots of Islam? Tom Holland, writing in History Today, takes up the question. Excerpts:

If the scepticism of the West can often seem bleak even to those raised in its own traditions, then it can seem downright ravening to others. Offensive though modes of scholarship honed on the Bible may be to Jews or Christians, they can be vastly more so to people from a different religious background. And especially so to Muslims.

The explanation for this lies in the awe, exceptional even by the standards of other faiths, with which Muslims have always regarded their founding scripture. The nearest analogy in Islam to the role played by Jesus in Christianity is not Muhammad but the Qu’ran. Not merely the word of God, it is itself divine. That being so, its text must inevitably defy all attempts at rational analysis. Even to contemplate such a project is blasphemy. Devout Muslims are no more likely to question the origins of the Qu’ran than devout Christians are to start ransacking Jerusalem for the skeleton of a man with holes in his hands and feet. To treat it like any other text from antiquity, something to be prodded and taken to pieces and explained by the historical context in which it appeared, is to dabble one’s fingers in the very stuff of other people’s souls.


‘Qu’ranic studies, as a field of academic research, appears today to be in a state of disarray’: such is the frank admission of Fred Donner, Professor of Near Eastern History at Chicago and the doyen of early Islamic studies. ‘Those of us who study Islam’s origins’, he has confessed, ‘have to admit collectively that we simply do not know some very basic things about the Qu’ran – things so basic that the knowledge of them is usually taken for granted by scholars dealing with other texts.’ Its place of origin, its original form, its initial audience – all are mysteries. That being so, it is certainly no longer possible to presume that there is anything remotely self-evident about the birth of Islam. Forty years ago any querying what Muslim tradition taught about its own origins might have been dismissed as mere crankish troublemaking of a kind that no more merited a response from heavyweight experts than did, say, the attempt to ascribe Shakespeare’s plays to Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford. All that has changed. Indeed it is hard to think of any other field of history so currently riven by disagreement as is that of early Islam.

Some years back, I was at a conference for journalists in which religious topics were discussed by scholars in various fields. One world expert on Islam went off the record to discuss a seemingly arcane aspect of early Islamic history, explaining how the available evidence contradicted what Muslims believe to be true about the life of Muhammad. It was such a tiny thing that it struck the rest of us as bizarre that the professor would insist on speaking of it off the record. One of the journalists present spoke, I think, for all of us when she asked the professor why he went off the record to disclose that seemingly inconsequential piece of information. He explained that to talk about it openly would be to put his life in danger.

And then there’s Christoph Luxenberg.

The usual thing for Westerners to do is to deplore Islamic fanaticism and hostility to knowledge. While in no way defending it, I nevertheless think that we would do well — simply as a matter of understanding the minds of most Muslims in the world today — to imagine what it would be like to have someone tell you that everything you believe is true is based on a lie … and then set out to prove it. We in the West have gotten used to this way of thinking, and dealing with the provisional nature of truth. Not so the Islamic world. Just think about how freaked out many people in our liberal, tolerant, cosmopolitan times get over the prospect that the revelations of genetic science will overturn what we believe to be true about human equality and nature. Imagine that shot through with religious fervor.

We like to think that we believe no knowledge should be forbidden, but very few of us really believe that — and for good reason, too. Again, I’m certainly not defending the fortress mentality of Muslims with regard to scholarly examining of their religion’s origins. But it would do us some good to try to get into the Muslim mind, for the sake of understanding why they react to modernity and the West as they do.