Jounal of Iranian Jews in English & فارســـــــی
RELIGIÖSE MINDERHEITEN IM IRAN
Islamic Republic of Iran and the Question of Jews
Oriental and Islamic Anti-Semitism
Causes & Consequences of Emigration of Iran's Jews
An Interpreter of German Political Refugees
What’s the Matter with the Rushdie Affair?
Unio Mystica I
Unio Mystica II
Anti-Jewish Legends in Different Cultures
Islamic Mysticism and the Jewish Elements
Judas Evangelium (In German)
Islamic Republic of Iran and the Occidental World
Encyclopaedia of Islam Online
Perceptions of the Holocaust in Palestinian Public Discourse
Deskriptive Grammatik des Neupersischen
GALLERY OF IRANIAN PHOTOS
FIRM Foundation against Intolerance of Religious Minorities
Modern Persian Grammar
Learn Persian Online
The Battle of Esther and Haman: Three New Portraits
view links frontpage
view links by refer
view links by rating
view all categories
view all links
External Sites (19)
Politological Studies on Middle East Area (0)
You must be logged in to post comments on this site - please either log in or if you are not registered click here to signup
I am just writing a Dissertation for my MA in Religion, Death and Culture at Winchester University on The Symbolism Of Stoning and need some help. I would like to reference the article by Sunshine Gladheart but have no date or publication information. Also any other information/ articels would be ver much appreciated ( can not read the German article on this site) Debra Preston
On this page: 1
Members: 136, Newest: IEL
ISLAM IN ITS ARABIAN CONTEXT 
François de Blois, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
The last two to three decades have seen the emergence of a new school of Islamic studies in the West, a school whose adherents commonly refer to themselves as ‘revisionists’. The main concern of this direction has been to contest the validity of the traditional Muslim accounts of the place and time of the origin of Islam and to locate this in a more northerly place [for example in Babylonia or the Syrian desert] and in a more recent time [perhaps as late as the 8th or 9th century]. In recent years the thrust of the revisionist tendency has been directed increasingly towards contesting the textual validity of the Qur’ân and reconstructing a supposedly older version of the Muslim scripture.
From the onset, the protagonists of the ‘revisionist’ school have declared their debt to the well-established tradition of the historical-critical study of the Christian scriptures since about the beginning of the 19th century. It seems to me, however, that there is a fundamental difference between the historic context of New Testament studies, on the one hand, and Qur’ânic studies on the other.
The historical-critical study of the New Testament is an important phenomenon within the history of Christianity, and specifically within its Protestant direction. It is a logical continuation of the reformation. The reformation began by rejecting the main components of Christian tradition and reclaiming the Bible as the sole source of doctrinal authority. But already Luther and the other founding fathers of Protestantism differentiated between the books that they found in their copies of the Bible, distinguishing ‘canonical’ and ‘deuterocanonical’ or ‘apocryphal’ writings, and even questioning the authority of the later strata of the so-called ‘canonical’ writings, notably the book of Revelation. It was therefore only the next logical step when Christian scholars began, around the end of the 18th century, to investigate the different strata within the individual books of the New Testament. The criticism of the New Testament is part of the cultural history of the West and is an important manifestation of the de-Christianization of European society.
By contrast, the modern ‘revisionist’ criticism of the Qur’ân is not a phenomenon of Islamic society, but of Western academic scholarship. It emerged not from within Islam itself but from what in the East is still regarded (rightly or wrongly) as the ‘Christian’ occident and is perceived by modern Muslim apologists as the continuation of a long-standing Christian and Jewish enmity towards Islam, a continuation of the crusades and of European imperialism.
But I wish to approach this question from a different angle, not from that of the sociopolitical context of modern western Qur’ânic scholarship, but from a source-critical analysis of our historic knowledge of the earliest history of Christianity and of Islam.
Christianity emerged in a very well defined and well known historical and geographical context, namely in the Roman province of Palestine in the first century of our era. The political, social and cultural history of Roman Palestine are very well documented in contemporary writings by pagan, Jewish and Christian authors and the region has been the object of intense archaeological investigation unparalleled probably by any other region in the whole world. By contrast, the traditional account of the origin of Islam places it in a region about which we have actually no independent historical information at all. Although the northern and south-western fringes of the Arabian Desert are relatively well documented by historical sources and archaeological investigation, we do not really have any historical data about the homeland of Islam, Mecca and Madina, the Hijaz, apart from the Islamic sources themselves. Nor has there ever been any archaeological excavation in Mecca or Medina. From the historian’s point of view the ancient Hijaz is a blank on the map. But this means that any investigation of the Qur’ân and of early Islam takes place in a historical vacuum.
On the other hand, there is a very striking difference between the picture of Jesus that emerges from the New Testament and the picture of Muhammad in the Qur’ân and in early Muslim tradition.
Let me reiterate just a few actually well known points about Jesus and the New Testament. The books of the New Testament were composed at different times and contain glaring discrepancies both in their narrative content and in their theological content. The canon of the New Testament, as we know it now, with its four in part contradictory gospels, the Acts of the apostles, the Pauline and pseudo-Pauline epistles, the so-called catholic letters, and the obviously late book of Revelation, did not come into being, as a canon, until towards the end of the second century. The most ancient Christian sects recognised as a rule only one version of the gospel, not necessarily identical with any one of the four contained in our modern Bibles, for example the so-called ‘Jewish Christian’ groups accepted only a version of what we now know as Matthew, the Marcionites a shorter version of what we now call Luke. There are very significant textual variants in the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. Whole passages are missing in some copies. The gospel attributed to Mark has two variant endings [two substantially different accounts of the resurrection] and there are substantial variant readings in virtually every verse of the New Testament. The oldest part of the New Testament, the half dozen or so authentic letters of Paul, contain virtually no biographical information about Jesus apart from the statement that he was crucified and resurrected, and indeed Paul declares his disinterest in the testimony of the disciples concerning what Jesus did or said in the flesh; the only true gospel, Paul declares, is the one that he himself received from the risen Christ. In the narrative parts of the four canonical gospels Jesus is depicted almost exclusively as a doer of miracles and consequently they cannot be regarded as historical or biographical documents in any meaningful sense of these words, while the teachings that these gospels put into the mouth of Jesus are, at least in part, theologically dependant on Pauline doctrine. They cannot therefore be seen as records of the actual teachings of Jesus, but reflect certain defined positions in the history of Christian doctrine.
Since the 19th century many theologians have sought to differentiate the person and teachings of the ‘historical Jesus’ from the already mythical Jesus of the canonical gospels, the Jesus of ‘Christianity’, but there have been others who doubted whether the two can in fact be separated, that is, whether we actually have any means to recover the presumably historical figure lurking behind the myth. The eminent theologian Julius Wellhausen, a very well-known scholar in the fields of Old Testament, New Testament and Islamic studies, remarked, in the early years of the 20th century, that “the historical Jesus has, for quite a long time now, been elevated to a religious principle and played off against Christianity.” But in fact we are only capable of constructing “from unsatisfactory fragments a makeshift concept of the teachings of Jesus”. We have no other picture of Jesus than the one that has left its imprint on the Christian community. But here his personality “appears only ever in a reflection, refracted through the medium of Christian belief”.
Now let us take a look at Muhammad and the Qur’ân. In contrast to the New Testament, the Qur’ân is, on the whole, a book of consistent style and consistent theological content. Although the surviving Muslim sects [the Shiites, Kharijites and those who eventually came to be known as Sunnites] separated from each other within a decade of the death of Muhammad, they all agree on the content of the Qur’ânic canon. By contrast, the surviving Christian sects, all of which split off from Roman imperial Christianity at a very late date, not earlier than the 4th century, have different versions of the Biblical canon; for example the Ethiopic church has a whole series of books not contained in other versions of the Bible. Within the Qur’ânic canon, there are no really substantial textual variants.6 The so-called reading variants [qirâ’at] recorded in mediaeval writings on Qur’ânic sciences, are for the most part mere graphic variants, that is different spellings of the same recited texts, and even the very few true textual variants hardly ever make any difference in the content of the book. This is equally true of the ancient Qur’ân fragments discovered in Sanaa, in so far as the person who was entrusted with their analysis, some twenty years ago now, has actually allowed them to be published rather than merely slung about in effusions of sensationalist journalism. I have already suggested elsewhere that the virtual absence of real textual variants in the Qur’ân is the result of the fact that the transmission of the Qur’ân has always been primarily through oral rather than through written tradition. The situation is similar with that of the Vedas, which were composed much earlier than the New Testament or the Qur’ân and transmitted for many centuries exclusively orally. In the Vedas there are actually no real textual variants. But this means that the methodology of textual criticism and source-criticism, as applied with such success to the New Testament, cannot be transferred automatically to the Qur’ân. A different kind of source requires a different kind of methodology. The acceptance of the oral nature of Qur’ânic transmission also means that the currently fashionable wheeze of rewriting the Qur’ân by altering the diacritical marks is unlikely to lead to any useful result. I have emphasized this in my recent review of the book by the author who writes under the pseudonym ‘Christoph Luxenberg’.
In contrast to the miracle stories that make up virtually the whole of the narrative strand of the Christian gospels, the sîrah, the traditional biography of Muhammad, is ‘realistic’ in the sense that it contains virtually no public miracles, that is, miracles supposedly witnessed by large groups of people. The sîrah does, of course, record the private miracle of Muhammad receiving the Qur’ân from an angel. But from a positivist, sceptical point of view it is possible to accept that highly imaginative people in pre-modern times sincerely believed that they received their knowledge through divine inspiration. We do not hesitate, for example, to believe that Joan of Arc sincerely believed that she had spoken to angels, or that William Blake sincerely believed that he saw the prophet Ezechiel sitting beneath a tree in the English countryside, and we should not doubt that the same was possible in the case of Muhammad.
I mentioned before the great theologian and islamicist Wellhausen. Is it not remarkable that the same Wellhausen, who rejected the Christian gospels as a source of reliable biographical information about Jesus had no hesitation to accept  the sîrah as a basically realistic account of the career of Muhammad? Was Wellhausen really so sceptical about the scriptures of his own religion and at the same time so naively gullible about those of another religion? Is not the difference rather that the sîrah is, I am not saying true, but at least psychologically plausible, while the gospel is manifestly not a biographical account but a document of faith?
My conclusion is thus that Jesus is a biographically intangible figure located in a very well documented historical milieu, whereas Muhammad is a biographically at least plausible figure located in a historical vacuum.
This vacuum cannot at present be filled. But, while waiting, for example, for eventual archaeological or indeed epigraphic discoveries from the excavation of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina, it is possible to extrapolate certain characteristics of ancient society and religion in central Arabia from the data of other Semitic cultures, and specifically from the relatively well documented civilisations in South-Western Arabia and the Northern fringes of the Arabian dessert, and to confront these with the data contained in the Qur’ân. In a series of contributions in the course of the last twelve years I have attempted to interpret various passages in the Qur’ân in the light of attested Arabian parallels. Thus, in the paper on the Qur’ânic s’abi’ûn presented at the Seminar for Arabian Studies in 1992 it was suggested that this term refers not, as has been claimed, to one or another of the religious communities in Southern Iraq, but to what the Muslim sources call the zanâdiqah [Manichaeans] among the Quraysh, the Prophet’s own kinsmen. Then in the paper on the Qur’ânic term sijjîl at the same seminar in 1995 this term was linked not with a Persian compound sang-gil, ‘stone-like clay’, as has been accepted by most of the mufassirîn, but with the name of the North Arabian deity *shiggîl (Aramaicised as Òngl’ etc.). Subsequently, in the paper on the Qur’ânic term nasî’, presented at the Seminar for Arabian Studies in 2002, it is shown the Qur’ânic nasî’, in sense of the illicit postponement of a ritual act to a different month in the cultic calendar, has a very striking parallel in one of the south Arabian inscriptions from Haram, where the authors offer their penance to the god Halfân for the fact that they ‘postponed’ (nasha’aw) a certain ritual by two months. The same inscription mentions also a ‘pilgrimage’ (hagg) to a specified locality at a specified point in the calendar. “In both of these points”, I argued, the Haram inscription “anticipates concerns of the Muslim scripture and it underlines the continuity of religious observances in pre-Islamic and Islamic Arabia.”
The hajj at Mecca, the circumambulation of the Ka’bah, the kissing of the black stone and the related ceremonies have no conceivable rationale in the dogmas of Islamic monotheism; they are manifestly a remnant of a pagan past. Their essential incongruity in the context of Islam is expressed in the well-know hadith according to which the caliph ‘Umar addressed the black stone with the words: “Had I not seen the Prophet kissing thee then I would never have kissed thee”. This [as Wellhausen, once again, put it] “rough-hewn piece of paganism” at the very heart of Islam exemplifies the fixation of Islam, and of its Arabian antecedent, to specified immutable sacred places, very much in contrast to the situation in the Old Testament, where Yahweh is adored in a mobile tabernacle, which only at a late stage is brought to rest at a specified place, for the Jews in Jerusalem, but for the Samaritans at Nablus. The god of the children of Israel is a nomadic god, but the god of the sons of Ismael dwells immutably in a fixed sacred precinct. This is corroborated by the South Arabian evidence and certainly argues against the ‘revisionist’ endeavour to situate the origin of Islam somewhere other than in Central Arabia. The Bible did not ‘come from Arabia’, but the Qur’ân clearly did.
But what about the manifestly non-Arabian, that is to say Christian and Jewish elements in primitive Islam? In my paper on the Qur’ânic term nasrânî, first presented at the Seminar for Arabian Studies in 1998, and the one on the term hanîf, presented at the same seminar in 2000, both subsequently published in an expanded form, it was suggested that the doctrines that the Qur’ân ascribes to the ‘Nazoraeans’ (nasârâ) agree less with those of the main-stream Christian communities in Syria and Iraq than with those of the ancient ‘Jewish Christian’ sects, that is, precisely those whom the catholic polemicists call ‘Nazoraeans’. The question of the influence of ‘Jewish Christianity’ (and also of Arab paganism) on early Islam was further developed in the paper ‘Elchasai - Manes - Muhammad’ published in 2004 in the journal Der Islam, in part developing a line of thought pioneered by the famous protestant theologian Harnack already in the second half of the 19th century . Against the still widely held view that ‘Jewish Christianity’ was a phenomenon exclusively of the ancient church I have insisted on the evidence of Muslim authors that the followers of at least one ‘Jewish Christian’ sect (the Elchasaites) were still ‘numerous’ (as an-Nadîm puts it) in the swamps of southern Iraq as late as the tenth century. The attested persistence of Elchasaism in Iraq until the tenth century poses at least the question of the possibility of the persistence of similar (‘Nazoraean’) sects in the historically largely unmapped provinces of Central Arabia three centuries earlier. For beside those distinguishing features which Islam shares both with Judaism and with the ‘Jewish Christian’ sects (circumcision, prohibition of pork and carrion, praying towards Jerusalem), there are, more significantly, positions that separate Islam both from Judaism and from catholic Christianity, but link it with ‘Jewish Christianity’, for example the prohibition of wine, but most significantly a prophetology which emphasizes the sameness of the teachings of all the prophets and which regards Jesus, in particular, as a champion of the law of Moses rather than as its abrogator.
The picture that I propose for the religious landscape in Mecca at the dawn of the Islamic era includes thus the existence of a ‘Jewish Christian’ (Nazoraean) community, which used Arabic as its cultic language, which practised circumcision, shunned the consumption of pork and of wine, prayed towards Jerusalem and adored a ‘trinity’ consisting of God the father, his son Jesus, and a female holy spirit (the mother of Jesus), and which had a canon consisting of the Torah and some form of the Gospel, but excluding the prophetic books of the Old Testament (the Nazoraeans do not seem to have recognised any prophets between Moses and Jesus) . Muhammad was brought up as a pagan (as indeed the sîrah informs us). As a young man he had close contacts with the Nazoraeans at Mecca and adopted many of their teachings. But he also got to know about catholic (presumably Melchite) Christians and his criticism of Nazoraeism, with its implied tritheism, is essentially from a catholic position. At an early stage in his prophetic career Muhammad adopted the Nazoraean practice of praying towards Jerusalem, but after his break with the Nazoraeans he reinstated the (pagan) Ka’bah as the house of the one true god, reinterpreting it as a shrine erected by Abraham in his (Pauline) capacity as the paradigm of the salvation of the gentiles.
I hope to pursue this line of investigation in further studies, also in regard to the question of ancient South Arabian monotheism and the apparently ‘Jewish’ elements (circumcision, Sabbath, etc.) in Ethiopian Christianity.
1. This paper was read at the 38th Seminar for Arabian studies, London, July 2004, developing on my oral presentation at the symposium ‘Historische Sondierungen und methodische Reflexionen zur Korangenese -Wege zur Rekonstruktion des vorkanonischen Koran’, held at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin in January of the same year.
2. See Gal. 1:6-12.
3J. Wellhausen, Einleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien, zweite Ausgabe, Berlin 1911, p. 104: “Der historische Jesus wird, nicht erst seit gestern, zum religiösen Prinzip erhoben und gegen das Christentum ausgespielt.”
4. op. cit., p. 103: “Aus ungenügenden Fragmenten können wir uns einen notdürftigen Begriff von der Lehre Jesu machen.”
5. op. cit., p. 104: “Ohne diese Nachwirkung in der Gemeinde können wir von der religiösen Persönlichkeit Jesu uns keine Vorstellung machen. Sie erscheint jedoch immer nur im Reflex, gebrochen durch das Medium des christlichen Glaubens.”
6. This point was made very clearly by none other than the grandfather of the ‘revisionist’ school, the late J. Wansbrough, in his Quranic studies, Oxford 1977, p. 203: “Of genuinely textual variants exhibiting material deviation from the canonical text of revelation, such as are available for Hebrew and Christian scripture, there are none. The Quranic masorah is in fact entirely exegetical, even where its contents have been transmitted in the guise of textual variants.”
7. Acta orientalia 60, 1999, p. 65, fn. 10.
8. (Review of) “Christoph Luxenberg”, Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran, in Journal of Qur’anic studies, 5, 2003, pp. 92-97.
9. As he did notably in Muhammad in Medina, Berlin 1882.
10. ‘The “Sabians” [sâbi’ûn] in Pre-Islamic Arabia’, Acta orientalia LVI, 1995, pp. 39-61
11. Hijâratun min sijjîl’, Acta orientalia 60, 1999, pp. 82-95.
12. ‘‘Qur'ân 9:37 and CIH 547’, Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 34, 2004, pp. 101-4.
13. J. Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums gesammelt und erläutert, zweite Ausgabe, Berlin and Leipzig, 1897 [reprint 1927], pp. 68-69: “In dem Umgange um die Ka’ba und dem Küssen des schwarzen Steines, in dem Laufe zwischen alCafa und alMarva, und in dem Feste von ‘Arafa hat sich der altarabische Cultus an einer seiner Hauptstätten, wenn nicht an der Hauptstätte, bis in die Gegenwart lebendig erhalten. Muhammad hat dies klotzige Stück Heidentum zu einem Teil des Islam gemacht, nachdem er es zuvor umgedeutet, gereinigt und verschnitten hatte.”
14. ‘Nasrânî [Nazoraios] and hanîf [ethnikos]: Studies on the religious vocabulary of Christianity and of Islam’, BSOAS 65, 2002, pp. 1-30 .
15. ‘Elchasai - Manes - Muhammad’, Der Islam 81, 2004, pp. 31-48.
16. See the chapter “Der Islam” in A. Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, vierte Auflage, Tübingen 1909-10, II, pp. 529-538. More recently the subject has been addressed also by S. Pines in his ‘Notes on Islam and on Arabic Christianity and Judaeo-Christianity’, Jerusalem studies in Arabic and Islam 4, 1984, pp. 135-52.
17. See my discussion„ in BSOAS 65, 2002, p. 12.
18. This is [broadly speaking] the position of the pseudo-Clementine Homilies. The Qur’ânic names of the Old Testament patriarchs and of the protagonists of the gospels [Jesus, Mary, John, Zachariah etc.] all derive from Semitic [Hebrew or Aramaic, though occasionally restructured] forms. By contrast, the Qur'ânic names of the post-Mosaic prophets [e.g. Yûnus/Jonah] derive from the Greek forms found in the Septuagint. This suggests that Muhammad’s awareness of these figures derives not from the Nazoraeans but from Melchite Christians.
You must be logged in to make comments on this site - please log in, or if you are not registered click here to signup