Understanding Islam through its Origins (Part 2): Of Hawks and Doves

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an introductory post on the topic of The Origins of Islam. If you have not read Understanding Islam through its Origins (Part 1): A Counterfeit Religion? then please do so before reading this post.

Having embarked upon this series of blog posts, I have been somewhat reticent to continue, and only do so now because a) people have continued to ask me about this, and b) I promised to give an answer. My reticence comes from the fact that I am by no means an expert in this area. But I guess that if we all put off writing or saying anything about anything until we had gained a PhD in the subject, nothing would ever get said or written. So here goes. Just remember, I am an amateur in this area.

In my last post I expressed an idea about the intention of the original founders of Islam. Contrary to the suggestion made in the sermon I heard – ie. that Islam was developed as a “counterfeit of Christianity” (far less as a completely “new religion”) – what I have learned of the origins of Islam seem to suggest an intention to restore, combine and extend the existing monotheistic faith(s) of the world of Late Antiquity in such a way as to serve the purposes of the new Arab empire. (Okay, I may not have said it quite so clearly in the previous post, but that’s what I have been getting at.) If this is true (and that is, admittedly, a big if) we non-Muslim monotheists can learn to respect Islam for what it preserves of our faith, even while acknowledging that it differs in many respects. This, I suggest, was the intention of the Second Vatican Council’s statement in Nostra Aetate.

My second suggestion is that the current scholarly studies into the origins of Islam, the history of Late Antiquity and the rise of the Arab Empire support my first suggestion, and that if this history were better known at a popular level we would be far better equipped to understand present geo-political and geo-cultural developments in relation to Islam.
So let’s talk about history.

It is amazing the number of things we actually assume we know when we don’t know anything of the sort. We state these “facts” as facts and don’t even think to give them a footnote. For instance, in his very informative book “Trent: What happened at the Council”, John W. O’Malley writes:

The next pope, Alexander VI (1492-1503), stirred up resentment on a broad scale because of his shifting political alliances, his reckless promotion of his children, and his amorous affairs. As Cardinal Rodrigo de Borgia he fathered seven children and, most scandalous, he fathered two more while pope. (Trent, p33)

Of course, we know nothing of the sort, but everyone thinks they do, and so we can simply state it as if it is fact.

Let’s give you another example: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem”. Now, of course I know that two of the canonical gospels clearly state this and a third makes a telling allusion to it and a host of Christmas carols confirms it, but of course we don’t know this – at the level of academic certainty – such that we can call it an historical “fact”. What we can say is that his birth in the “City of David” is a very strong early Christian tradition attested in these sources.

So we come to the question of the origin of Islam. This will bring us to things in particular:

A. The life of the Prophet Muhammad
B. The origin of the Qur’an

About these, most people who know anything about the origin of Islam assume they know the following: that the Prophet Muhammad was born around 570AD and died in 632AD, living in Mecca and Medina in Arabia, and the Angel Gabriel revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad in a cave by telling him to “recite”.

And yet as often as the latter “fact” is repeated by history books and books about Islam, self-evidently only Muslims actually believe it to have happened. Any non-Muslim who arrived at the conclusion that the Qur’an originated as a revelation of God via the archangel and the prophet would be 9 steps out of 10 on the way to becoming a Muslim themselves. That doesn’t mean that the Qur’an didn’t originate with Muhammad. It had to originate with someone, someone, somehow. It just discounts the divine aspect.

But what about Muhammad? Can we actually be certain about his identity, or about the details of his biography as Muslim tradition relates it or, indeed, his very existence? The 19th Century French historian Ernst Renan once famously opined that “In the place of the mystery under which other religious traditions have covered their origins, Islam was born in the full light of history.” Or, to quote a more recent author,

The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Mohammed, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love in with. We also know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time. (Salmon Rushdie, Critical Essays, Volume 2, p199)

Oh, really? Scholars today are not so sure.

And so this is where my recent story actually begins. All I can really do is relate my conversations, reading, listening and viewing history of the last couple of months. You can find what you like in it.

A bit before Christmas, a friend of mine asked about a recent book by Karen Armstrong “Fields of Blood” that he saw reviewed in the Financial Times [http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/154f1b1e-4285-11e4-9818-00144feabdc0.html]. “Why do you want to read that?”, I asked. The answer was because he wanted to understand more about current world events involving ISIS and other Islamicist terrorists, and more about the nature of the religion that such terrorists could claim as the basis for their actions. “There are better books”, I suggested, and proceeded to nominate a couple that I had some familiarity with, including Jonathan Berkey’s “The Formation of Islam” (2002) and Sidney H. Griffith’s “The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque” (2008). These books are, however, on the scholarly end of the spectrum of writing on Islam, and may not be easily accessible to the lay person. Still, both books have something important to offer non-Muslim readers: access to the fruits of a study now over a century old, viz. the historically scientific study of the origins of Islam.

“There are two extremes in non-Muslim writing on Islam,” I told my friend, “both of which should be avoided: the doves and the hawks.” I had this idea from a 2006 article by John L. Allen Jnr, in which he described the “doves” as those who write to encourage:

outreach to moderates, a critical examination of conscience by the West for the various ways its past and present have stoked Muslim resentment, and a determined effort to solve the roots of anti-Western sentiment today. The premise of this approach is that the tensions between the Muslim world and the West often only appear to be religious and cultural; at bottom they are usually political and economic.

On the other hand, there are the “hawks”, those who

believe this approach is naïve. Ultimately, they say, the most determined Muslim leaders believe that Islam is destined for global supremacy, which means that Islam is not really interested in making its way in a pluralistic world. For those who take this view, only a determined reassertion by the West of its traditional Christian identity will have the inner strength to resist the pressure. From this point of view, politics and economics are secondary to the real forces of history, which are intellectual and cultural.

Karen Armstrong is an excellent example of a “dove”. One reviewer of her “Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet” (1993) on goodreads.com [http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27310.Muhammad] writes:

I could rant forever about all the ways in which this book rubbed me the wrong way and what a disgrace it is to the genre of “history”, but I will try to be brief… The texts she uses as sources for Muhammad’s life are written 125 years after the death of the Prophet, and, … she seems to take everything they say as fact. She believes in every miraculous event related, despite her professed attempt to find the “historical” Muhammad. There is no critical component to her work. She clearly has an agenda and accepts anything that supports her agenda without giving it the objective, critical eye of a historian. Every chance she gets, she will pass moral judgement on “Western society” and its history, portraying it as this sinkhole of ignorance and depicting the world Muhammad created as this wonderful new land of enlightenment and total social justice…

On the other hand, I warned my friend off other writers such as Robert Spencer. Many conservative Christians take everything Spencer writes and says on Islam as Gospel (including, sadly, Catholic media groups such as EWTN). Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and may safely be categorised as a “hawk” in Allen’s analysis. That is, he has the stated motif of discrediting Islam as a false religion that poses a real and present danger to the future survival of Western society as we know and love it. The subtitle of his book “The Truth about Muhammad” sums up his assessment of his subject: “Founder of the World’s most Intolerant Religion”. In this book – which ostensibly sets out to do the same thing that Armstrong’s book does (ie. inform readers about the person of “The Prophet” of Islam) – Spencer acknowledges much of the current critical and revisionist scholarly work done by historians of early Islam, but goes on to say:

These historical speculations have had virtually no effect on Islamic doctrine or practice. For our purposes it is less important to know what really happened in Muhammad’s life than what Muslims have generally accepted as having happened, for the latter still forms the foundation of Muslim belief, practice, and law. It is important to know the Muhammad of history, but perhaps even more important to know the Muhammad who has shaped and continues to shape the lives of so many Muslims worldwide…elaborated from his words and deeds in the Hadith that orthodox Islamic schools of jurisprudence and clerics consider authentic. It is this picture of Muhammad that inspires Muslims worldwide…” (The Truth, p31-32)

…and therefore it is “this picture” that he relates and uses as fuel for his polemic throughout the rest of the book. And so the very next chapter opens with a restatement of the “assumptions” that we assume to be true: “Muhammad introduced Islam into Arabia”, his tribe were the Quraysh, who were “based in the city of Mecca, which was a centre of trade and pilgrimage” etc. etc. We are back where Karen Armstrong was.

Let’s be clear about this. I applaud the “dove’s” intention to be irenic and their commitment to dialogue – but I deplore their moral and historical naiveté. On the other hand, I applaud the “hawk’s” readiness to offer a critical approach, but deplore the fact that their driving motive is hatred for the religion of Islam and that their works make hardly any more use of the historical scholarship available to us than do those of the “doves”.

You can be assured that, among liberal Catholics and those involved in the so-called “interfaith movement”, I have gotten to know a lot of “doves”. At the same time, among traditionalist Catholics and through ecumenical contact with some of our Pentecostal and Evangelical brothers and sisters, I have gotten to know my fair share of “hawks”.

So, while we are at it, let’s mention our own local Melbourne “hawk”, the Anglican minister Rev. Dr Mark Durie. My wife recently reported that she heard a Lutheran pastor say in a sermon that Drurie was his “go-to” source for information on Islam. Durie has written a number of books and articles on the topic of Islam, which can be accessed through his website. There is a 2012 interview on that page which tells you something of Durie’s scholarly background and motivation for writing about Islam. I advise you to read all of it, as it helps you understand the context for his writing, but here is just a snippet which gives his interesting history:

Durie: I began studying Arabic in Leiden in 1985 with Professor G. W. J. Drewes, who had been a student of Snouck Hurgronje. …During the 1990’s I also apprised myself of Bat Ye’or’s writings on the dhimma. I did not commence my systematic study of Islam until after the 9/11 atrocity. At that time I researched through many volumes of hadiths, studies of the Qur’an, revised my Arabic, and engaged in a systematic exploration of what Islam teaches, and how this is changing the world today. For the past three years I have also been undertaking a second doctorate – this time in Islamic Theology. My research focus is on whether the Qur’an can be considered a continuation of Biblical faith, or a clear break from it.

So, on the positive side, Durie’s scholarly encounter with Islam began through actual personal contact with Acehnese Muslims in Indonesia (his PhD in 1984 was on their language). However, his renewed interest in Islam as a religion was spurred by the negative writings of Bat Ye’or and the horror of September 11. Since then, his studies (enabled by his knowledge of Arabic) have been in the Qur’an, Hadiths and other Islamic traditional material – but not, unless I am mistaken, at the feet of Muslim teachers themselves. I am not sure where he is doing his current PhD “in Islamic Theology”, but he is an Adjunct lecturer at the Melbourne School of Theology, Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths, a school which is not a member of the University of Divinity. In sum, Durie’s stance, over against the religion of Islam as a whole, is negative and polemical, and his writings are widely read by Australian Christians.

One thing Mark Durie says in the above interview is very interesting: “My research focus is on whether the Qur’an can be considered a continuation of Biblical faith, or a clear break from it.” In a sense, that is the question at the heart of my initial suggestion: what is the relationship between the Muslim religion and that which went before it? Durie talks in terms of “Biblical faith” – does he mean Judaism or Christianity or both? If the latter, then does he take into account the fact that at the time of the rise of the Arab empire in the Seventh Century, there were many different “Christianities”, and even different “Judaisms” (not to mention Zoroastrianism and Samaritan religion and Gnosticism and everything else in between and beyond) swirling around in the religious mix in the Middle East?

And, as far as “continuity”/“discontinuity” goes, is there any phenomenon in history which can be described purely as a “continuation” of what went before or “a clear break from it”? Thus the question of the relationship between Islam, Christianity and Judaism cannot be answered simply from studying the respective scriptures of the three religions and doing doctrinal comparisons. Surely a linguist like Durie should at least be interested in the historical antecedents to the Arabic of the Qur’an? Who were the peoples who spoke these languages? What cultures did they belong to? What springs of knowledge did they drink from?

There is perhaps another question that remains to be asked, and it a question asked by an author by the name of Tom Holland whose work I will discuss in the next : “What if it wasn’t Islam that gave birth to the Arab empire, but the Arab empire that gave birth to Islam?”

Time to bring this post to an end, and to begin writing “Understanding Islam through its Origins (Part 3)”, where I begin to tell you about what I’ve actually been reading…

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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2 Responses to Understanding Islam through its Origins (Part 2): Of Hawks and Doves

  1. Vin says:

    It’s too easy for us to take for granted that the things we have heard and read are true. There is too much information, and we not being experts in everything we hear about, we take whatever the supposed experts tell us as likely true – such as the prophet Mohammed coming from a certain tribe or a certain area, or even pre-dating the Arab Empire. That really struck me, that I had not ever thought about Islam as a tool of that Arab Empire, assuming that the religion was the thing that engendered the Empire, and not the Empire that engendered the religion

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