Islam, History and Faith
Judaism and Christianity have undergone intensive historical examination. Why not Islam?
By Robert Spencer
Danish translation: Islam, historie og tro
Source: Atlas Shrugs, May 01, 2012
Published on May 12, 2012

Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is a faith rooted in history. It makes historical claims. Muhammad is supposed to have lived at a certain time and preached certain doctrines that he said God had delivered to him. And just as is the case with every other historical assertion, the veracity of those claims is open to historical analysis. Whether Muhammad really received messages from the angel Gabriel may be a faith judgment, but whether he lived at all is a historical one.

Yet while Islam is not unique in staking out its claims as a historical faith or in inviting historical investigation, it is unique in not having undergone searching historical criticism on any significant scale. That is an omission I attempt to redress in my new book, Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins.

Both Judaism and Christianity have been the subject of widespread scholarly investigation for more than two centuries. The scholarly “quest for the historical Jesus” had begun in the eighteenth century, but it was in the nineteenth century that this higher criticism took off. The German theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874) posited in his Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined) (1835) that the miracles in the Gospels were actually natural events that those anxious to believe had seen as miracles. Ernest Renan (1823–1892) in his Vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus) (1863) argued that the life of Jesus, like that of any other man, ought to be open to historical and critical scrutiny. Later scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) cast strong doubt on the historical value of the Gospels. Some scholars asserted that the canonical Gospels of the New Testament were products of the second Christian century and therefore of scant historical value. Others suggested that Jesus of Nazareth had never even existed, although this was always a minority view.

The reaction to these historical investigations within the Christian world was mixed. Many Christians dismissed the higher criticism as an attempt to undermine their faith. Some criticized it for excessive skepticism and one-sidedness, regarding historical-critical investigations of the Gospels and the historicity of Christ as the critics’ effort to justify their own unbelief. But others were more receptive. Large Protestant churches such as the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists ultimately abandoned Christian dogma as it had hitherto been understood, espousing a vague, nondogmatic Christianity that concentrated on charitable work rather than doctrinal rigor and spirituality. Other Protestant denominations (including splinters of the three named above) retreated into fundamentalism, which in its original formulation was a defiant assertion, in the face of the higher critical challenge, of the historicity of the Virgin Birth of Christ, his Resurrection, and more.

Pope Leo XIII condemned the higher criticism in his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus, but nine years later he established the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which was to use the tools of higher criticism to explore the scriptures within a context respectful to Catholic faith. In 1943 Pope Pius XII encouraged higher critical study in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. The Catholic Church ultimately determined that because its faith was historical, historical study could not be an enemy of faith, provided that such investigations did not simply provide a cover for radical skepticism.

The higher criticism clearly transformed the Christian world, changing the course of several major Christian communions and radically altering how others presented the faith. Similarly, investigations into the origins of Judaism and the historical material contained within the Hebrew scriptures have affected the Jewish tradition. In Judaism as in Christianity, traditions developed that rejected literalism and reevaluated numerous elements of traditional orthodoxy. Reform Judaism, like the liberal Protestant denominations, generally rejected traditional understandings and the literalism that underlay them.

Yet Judaism and Christianity still live, and in many areas they thrive. They have survived the challenge. Can Islam survive the same historical-critical challenge?

No one knows, for it has never received this treatment on nearly the same scale. Yet why should Islam and its leading figure be exempt from the scrutiny that has been applied to other religions?

There has been some scrutiny. In Did Muhammad Exist?, I do not break new ground. Instead, I aim to bring to wider public attention the work of a small band of scholars who have dared, often at great personal and professional risk, to examine what the available historical data reveals about the canonical account of Islam’s origins, including, among others, Ignaz Goldziher, Arthur Jeffery, Henri Lammens, David S. Margoliouth, Alphonse Mingana, Theodor Nöldeke, Aloys Sprenger, Joseph Schacht, and Julius Wellhausen, as well as modern-day scholars such as Suliman Bashear, Patricia Crone, Michael Cook, Ibn Warraq, Judith Koren, Christoph Luxenberg, Günter Lüling, Yehuda Nevo, Volker Popp, Ibn Rawandi, David S. Powers, and John Wansbrough.

Some of the bold scholars who have investigated the history of early Islam have even received death threats. As a result, some publish under pseudonyms, including scholars of the first rank, such as those who go by the names Christoph Luxenberg and Ibn Warraq. Such intimidation is an impediment to scholarly research that even the most radical New Testament scholar never had to deal with.

Other Muslim scholars have responded to these investigations not with threats, but with rage nevertheless. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, has reacted to historical criticism of Islam with fury, calling it “bigotry.” Abou El Fadl terms Ibn Warraq a “pitiful figure,” as well as “an inanity, and an utter intellectual bore.” He accuses scholar Daniel Pipes of “discharging the White Man’s Burden” for recounting approvingly the work of some scholars who are critical of the canonical account of Islam’s origins. El Fadl even claims that “revisionism, like all forms of incipient or established bigotry, rests on several peculiar assumptions. Assumption number one is that Muslims invariably lie . . . and can hardly distinguish fiction from fact.”

That is not actually the case at all. The scholarly inquiries into Islam’s origins do not rest on the assumption that Muslims were unable to distinguish fiction from fact. The issue is whether legend supplemented a historical record to the extent that it was no longer possible to determine what was legend and what was history. The scholars who are investigating the origins of Islam are motivated not by hatred, bigotry, or racism but by a desire to discover the truth. As such, they deserve respect, not opprobrium – and the degree to which they receive respect is the degree to which the West remains free.

Robert Spencer er direktør for Jihad Watch og forfatter til de to New York Times bestsellere The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) og The Truth About Muhammad. Hans seneste bog, Not Peace but a Sword: The Great Chasm Between Christianity and Islam, er nu tilgængelig.