Reading along in a late medieval Persian history, I came across the Arabic quotation “ما لا عين رأت ولا اذن سمعت” (“What eye has not seen, nor ear heard”). Most such Arabic quotations in this work are taken from the Qur’an or the hadith, and the editor has identified all the Qur’anic citations, but not those from the hadith. But since I am skimming this history not for religious themes but for political events, I generally skip the quotations. This one was different: I had seen that phrase before, in another language. The apostle Paul had written in 1 Corinthians 2:9: ἃ ὀφθαλμὸς οὐκ εἶδεν καὶ οὗς οὐκ ἢκουσεν καὶ ἐπὶ καρδίαν ἀνθρώπου οὐκ ἀνέβη, ἃ ἡτοίμασεν ὁ θεὸς τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν αὐτόν (“The things that eye has not seen and ear has not heard and have not come up upon a person’s heart, are the things that God has prepared for those who love him”; NA27). Could it be that a late medieval Persian author was quoting the New Testament? That would be very surprising. Continue reading
It is six weeks since the news first broke of a fragmentary Qur’an manuscript whose radiocarbon dating (95% accuracy) is between 568 and 645. Early reports declared how much the discovery supported traditional Muslim accounts of the origins of the Qur’an, but this week the news media went abuzz with claims that the Qur’an may in fact predate Muhammad and debunk Islam’s account of its own origins. (N. B.: The article was first published in the Times of London, but linking to paywalls is unhelpful.) Some scholars (such as Georgetown Prof. Jonathan Brown) have now published critiques of the counter-claims, and the buzz continues apace.
Before we get too carried away, it’s important to remember that this is a single manuscript. Statisticians derisively refer to the conclusions which can be reached when the number of data points N = 1. Such a datum is not “statistically significant.” While statistical significance is not the only measure of historical evidence (and indeed, most ancient and early medieval history does not achieve statistical significance), it does suggest that we might usefully remember the limits of what we are looking at here. Continue reading
A while ago I read a thought-provoking discussion of the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and how that jihadist group draws from pre-modern Islamic religious texts in formulating its tactics and its appeal to violent extremist Muslims. The author is at his provocative best in likening well-intentioned Western liberal attempts to define ISIS as un-Islamic as a kind of takfirism, or labeling certain Muslims as unbelievers. I think he misses the point when he delegitimizes practicing Muslims for describing ISIS as un-Islamic, and indeed, his article provoked a firestorm of criticisms, refutations, and abuse over the use of the term “Islamic” for ISIS. For practitioners, islam is submission to God’s will, and if ISIS is going against God’s will, then they are ipso facto not islam. It does not require historical naivete (or, as Prof. Haykel evocatively termed it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” although see his clarification here) to acknowledge that many things historically practiced by Muslims are inconsistent with what most modern Muslims understand to be God’s will. However, the real bone I want to pick with the article is the way it simply accepts the Salafi account of what medieval Islam was, an account which is itself revisionist history.
Put simply, the “medieval Islam” to which ISIS and other Salafis appeal never existed as such. Too many scholars play along with this modern chimera, though they know better, and thus are complicit in a cultural genocide which is reducing the fascinatingly diverse pre-modern Middle East to a one-dimensional textbook description of Sunni Arab Islam, complete with five pillars evidently erected by Muhammad himself. Continue reading
The Qur’an is a very strange document. Although it is often likened to the New Testament, this has merely to do with its sacred status among its reading community, and does not shed much of any light on the Qur’an itself, how to interpret it, or how it developed. While the New Testament is mostly composed of narrative, and secondly of letters of exhortation from the first generation of Christian leaders, the Qur’an is composed, it is claimed, entirely of God’s words which he revealed (or more literally, “sent down”) through the mediation of the angel Jibril, aka Gabriel. Any narrative in the Qur’an is framed as a story which God, through Jibril, is telling Muhammad. Continue reading