Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Islam -- A (Jewish-) Christian Sect? (Part I)

Peter Bruns
Translated by Anonymous
Translation edited by Ibn Warraq

The question of whether it is allowable to even inquire into Islam in the context of a Christian history of dogma was already posed by Adolf Harnack in his Leipzig dissertation from the year 1874, with the promising Latin title: Muhamedanismum rectius quam Manichaeismus sectam Christianam esse dixeris.[1] (Would you say that Muhammedanism rather than Manichaeism is a Christian sect?) He proceeded from the "striking similarities between the two religions" and discussed the possibility of tracing Islam in some sense from the history of the Christian church.[2] Since that time, research interest in an exact determination of the relationship of Islam to Christianity has grown mightily, if nothing else, in the relationship of the two founders of the religions[3] to each other. For the historian in general and the church historian in particular, it is a matter of course to interpret sacred texts in the respective context in which they have developed. For the Islam researcher -- even the secular one[4] -- this is unexplored territory in reference to the Koran, although respected religious historians Richard Bell[5] and Tor Andrae[6] almost a century ago called attention to the relationships between the origins of Islam and contemporary, oriental, especially Syrian, Christianity. Much remains to be done in this area, and therefore an initial, rough, broad-brush sketch of problems from the perspective of dogma history is indicated, without losing ourselves too much in philosophical details. Finally, in evaluating the rich source materials, we must not completely lose sight of later polemic literature between Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages.[7]

Destruction of the Bastions -- The Battle over the "Urkoran"

"Mohammedanism is a rigid system which firmly encloses the whole of life. The Bible, on the other hand, has borne the fearsome impact of historical criticism and was able to survive it because it already carries relativism within itself in the relationship of its two parts and because the New Testament has the difference between the word of God and the word of the apostles. Islam cannot withstand the impact -- at least it is not foreseeable how that could succeed. It is based not just on Allah, but also on Mohammed, who is 'the book,' namely the Koran, filled with fables and inferiorities."[8] [I assume the author is using a formula similar to "And the Word was with God, and God was the Word." That is, the Koran does not exist outside of Mohammed.]

Such a blow, in Harnack's sense of shaking the philosophical structure of Islam, was delivered some time ago by the Erlangen orientalist Günter Lüling[9] and [an independent scholar] writing under the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg[10], who caused some upset recently in Islam scholarly circles[11]. Since both authors dealt explicitly with the pre-Islamic Christianity of the Arabian peninsula, in this case, the judgment of the Syrologist and church historian is also called for.

Traditional Islam scholarship is fed from three sources: the Koran, the standard-setting tradition (Hadîth) and finally the lives of Mohammed (Sîra). To the latter belong the standard biography of Ibn Ishâq (died 767/768)[12] in the revised edition of Ibn Hishâm (died 834)[13] and finally the annals of Tabarî (died 923), who, thanks to his Nestorian sources, has passed on much Iranian material from the time of the Sassanids. If we compare these lives with the Jesus tradition which was placed essentially within a few decades between the resurrection of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem -- even Paul, although he did not know our Lord in the flesh, is writing close in time to the Jesus phenomenon -- the immense distance between the life of Mohammed and the account of his biographies is astounding. All of this has allowed severe doubt, extending to skepticism in reference to the historical reliability of the source of the type "sîra."[14]

The confidence of European Islam scholarship in the historical validity of the oral tradition (Hadîth) disappeared no later than the nineteenth century. No less than the great Islam scholar Ignaz Goldziher[15] recognized and in individual cases was able to prove that a hadith reflected in many ways the early Islamic party conflict that had broken out decades -- even centuries -- after Mohammed's death. He processed a great deal of non-Islamic as well Christian material, but definitely did not -- as Muslims and some Western Islam scholars believe -- contribute anything to authenticate the life and work of Mohammed. Recently in Turkey, there was an excitement at the prospect of a new critical edition of the Hadîth, put out by the Ministry of Religion, enthusiastically praised by many an observer as a "revolutionary new interpretation of Islam."[16] A "radical modernization of the religion" was intended, which showed Islam as more accepting of modernity, i.e., for instance, not so inimical to democracy or women.[17] For the foreseeable future, Hadîth scholarship[18] will continue to be a field replete with land mines, to which theologians and philologists should give a wide berth. After the abating of the first shock, we have become used to distinguishing more strictly between the Mohammed of history and the Mohammed of pious thought[19] or legend. Off in the distance [and far in advance in comparable research on the life of Muhammad] is liberal investigation of the life of Jesus.

Peter Bruns is Professor at the Zentrum für Mittelalterstudien, Otto-Friedrich-Universität, Bamberg, Germany. This article appeared in German in Forum Katholische Theologie, 26 (2010) 1., pp. 1-23.

[1] This early work was published in the Beigaben zum Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, vol. II., Die Entwicklung des kirchlichen Dogmas I. (Tübingen 41909, Darmstadt 1990), 529-538.
[2] Cf. HARNACK, Lehrbuch II, 529.
[3] Cf. Wolfgang KLAUSNITZER, Jesus und Muhammad. Ihr Leben, ihre Botschaft. Eine Gegenüberstellung (Freiburg 2007); Joachim GNILKA, Bibel und Koran. Was sie verbindet, was sie trennt (Freiburg 62007) and finally, idem, Die Nazarener und der Koran (Freiburg 2007).
[4] Cf. in this connection Tilman NAGEL's plea for a secular Islam scholarship and historical-critical research in the Koran and the life of Mohammed, in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung [hereafter FAZ--translator], September 9, 2007. -- That there are methodological limits to a purely secular perspective is shown by the less than satisfactory Islam article by Lutz RICHTER-BERNBURG in the Lexikon des Mittelalters, V, 680-686, which underestimates the spread of the religions of the Fertile Crescent (Jewish-Christian sects, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism) and/or Ethiopia. Indeed, precisely Judaism and Christianity--the latter in two Syrian denominations--are strongly represented on the Arabian peninsula. Religiously tone-deaf Islam scholars tend to understand the phenomenon "Islam" inadequately as a religion, reducing it to its cultural aspects. Considerably more productive are the remarks of Josef VAN ESS in: Hans KÜNG/Josef VAN ESS, Christentum und Weltreligionen – Islam (Munich 1994), which, in their clarity, are happily distinguished from those of KÜNG.
[5] Richard BELL, The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment (London 1926, repr. 1968), based on the Edinburgh lectures of 1925.
[6] Cf. Tor ANDRAE, Les origines de l’islam et du christianisme (Paris 1955). -- This worthwhile work contains numerous pertinent observations on Arabic Christianity in Najran, al-Hira and under the Ghassanids, i.e. the West Syrian Arabs allied with Byzantium but largely Miaphysites. Above all, the hymns of Ephrem were very popular among the Syrians in liturgies of the hours and in masses and even though they were not yet translated into Arabic in the sixth century, we may assume that they were sung by Christian monks and merchants far from their homes.
[7] Cf. in this regard Erdmann FRITSCH, Islam und Christentum im Mittelalter.Beiträge zur Geschichte der muslimischen Polemik gegen das Christentum in arabischer Sprache (Breslau 1930). -- Many texts are not yet edited and many an extant edition does not deserve the title "critical."
[8] HARNACK, Lehrbuch II, 538.
[9] Cf. Günter LÜLING, Über den Urkoran. Ansätze zur Rekonstruktion der vorislamisch-christlichen Strophenlieder im Koran (Erlangen 1973 2nd ed. 1993).
[10] Cf. Christoph LUXENBERG, Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran. Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüselung der Koransprache (Berlin, 2000, 32007). -- An enlarged English version was published in Berlin 2007: The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran. A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran. -- For obvious reasons, the author--a Syrian Christian, wishes to remain anonymous.
[11] Cf. Christoph BURGMER (ed.), Streit um den Koran. Die Luxenberg-Debatte: Standpunkte und Hintergründe (Berlin 2007). -- In his preface, Burgmer inverts the traditional religious-historical view, when he says that "a look into the emergence of Christianity" is offered through research expanded by "Christian textual context." So the path does not lead from (Judaic-) Christianity to Islam but, on the contrary, Islam is supposed to have something to contribute on the genesis of Christianity.
[12] Cf. Gernot ROTTER, Ibn Ishâq. Das Leben des Propheten. As-sîra an-nabawîya. Aus dem Arabischen übersetzt (Kandern 1999). -- This work, reprinted again and again since the first edition of 1976 and finally provided with numerous Arabic flourishes ("Peace be on him," etc.) pursues comparatively crude propaganda goals, as may be deduced from its placement with Spohr Publishing, which is known for the relevant literature. Rotter's translation is removed from a critical view of the source material. Clearly, not much has happened since Wüstenfeld's day. Cf. Ferdinand WÜSTENFELD, Das Leben Muhammeds nach Muhammed Ibn Ishâk, bearbeitet von Abd el-Malik Ibn Hischâm (Göttingen 1858, repr. Frankfurt 1961). -- Lacking in Rotter is reference to the tradition of the original text, to a possible critical edition and a classification in the contemporary literature. When Mohammed's life was put on paper, there had already been a long tradition of Christian hagiography in the Orient. In its characteristic style, the sîra represents an anti-Christian counter project. Mohammed's genealogy, birth legend and journey to heaven are likewise based on the Gospels (Rotter 25-34, 80-89) and are not indicated in the Koran. However, such investigations of the history of form and motif in these themes are still desirable.
[13] In the biographies of Mohammed, there is no reference to the satanic verses. No doubt this traditional material was--for purposes of apologia--too daring, for they knew that where there were two satanic verses. others could creep in.
[14] Cf. KLAUSNITZER, Jesus und Muhammad, 40-42. On the other hand, it is worth saying that Mohammed's biographies by no means hush up the brutal characteristics--unworthy of a man of God--like secret society assassinations, over-indulgence in palm wine, murder of Jews and dissidents, breaking of treaties, sexual liaisons (especially with Aisha, to whom he was addicted). All of this speaks for a certain historical credibility of the tradition.
[15] Worthy of reading again and quite inspiring are Ignaz GOLDZIHER's Muhammedanische Studien I-II (Halle 21888, repr. Hildesheim 2004). -- On the Hadîth, cf. Vol. II, 1-274, on the New Testament cf. II, 382-400. Mohammed, who in contrast to Jesus performed no miracles--cf. KLAUSNITZER, Jesus und Muhammad, 77-78 and FRITSCH, Islam und Christentum, 9. 33. 38--is lateron, in an anti-Christian manner, played up as a great miracle-worker. Goldziher's sardonic remarks on Islam and "Mohammedan" theology are distinguished in their unmistakable clarity from the sometimes prissy and compulsively politically correct comments of modern Western Islam scholars. In his day, to be sure, Goldziher scandalized several of his colleagues--see the somewhat lachrymose criticism by Martin Hartmann in Martin HARTMANN/Ludmilla HANISCH "Machen Sie doch unseren Islam nicht gar zu schlecht / Don't make our Islam look too bad, please" in: Der Briefwechsel der Islamwissenschaftler Ignaz Goldziher und Martin Hartmann 1894-1914, hrsg. und kommentiert von Ludmilla Harnisch (Wiesbaden 2000).
[16] Cf. Rainer HERMANN in the FAZ, March 12, 2008. -- Mehmet GÖRMEZ discusses methodological questions on understanding the Sunna and the Hadîth as well as their commentary in more recent Turkish state theology: Sünnet ve hadisin anlaşılması ve yorumlanmasmda metodoloji sorunu (Ankara 2000). Meanwhile, the project is in mortal danger, since it became known that a German Jesuit living in Ankara was admitted as an "observer." This process may serve as an indicator of how much nonsense goes on presently in Catholic theology. Whole libraries of Christian-Arabic authors lie unedited and unrevised, while the most abstruse "sayings of the Prophet" claim the entire attention of scholarship. The lack of a healthy Catholic counter-theology becomes everywhere negatively obvious.
[17] A Koran in gender-correct language is not even up for debate among reform Muslims.
[18] GÖRMEZ develops the following epistemology: First, those Hadîths are removed which are attributed to Mohammed's tradition but do not come from him. Second, the falsely interpreted ones must be correctly interpreted. Third, the correctly interpreted Hadîths are to be understood under today's conditions. In brief, it has to do with Muslim-Turkish updating. As outsiders, we may wonder how the struggle will turn out in this religious community, which has no church and no highest authority and is at the mercy of the ebb and flow of state authorities
[19] Cf. Annemarie SCHIMMEL, Und Muhammad ist sein Prophet. Die Verehrung des Propheten in der islamischen Frömmigkeit, (Munich 31995). Cf. Tilman NAGEL, Mohammed, Leben und Legende, (Munich 2008).

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