The Need for Qur'anic Criticism, Part 1
16 May, 2006
Spinoza and the Tractatus
Reforming Islam implies only adjustments and modifications to what would remain essentially a theological construct and, if applied, would result in what was still a theologically conceived and ordered society. What we need is an Enlightenment in the Islamic world, of the Islamic mindset or worldview. For the Enlightenment marks the most dramatic step towards secularization and rationalization in European history and has had no lesser significance for the entire world. Both the Renaissance and the Reformation were incomplete. "By contrast," writes Jonathan I. Israel in his book, Radical Enlightenment, "the Enlightenment-European and global-not only attacked and severed the roots of traditional European culture in the sacred, magic, kingship, and hierarchy, secularizing all institutions and ideas, but (intellectually and to a degree in practice) effectively demolished all legitimation of monarchy, aristocracy, woman's subordination to man, ecclesiastical authority, and slavery, replacing these with the principles of universality, equality, and democracy."
Israel also says, "Spinoza and Spinozism were in fact the intellectual backbone of the European Radical Enlightenment everywhere, not only in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, and Scandinavia but also Britain and Ireland." And the work that did more than any other to bring about this profound revolution in human history was Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, published clandestinely but nonetheless courageously by the Dutch publisher Jan Rieuwertsz (ca. 1616-1687) in Amsterdam in 1670. For Spinoza, the Bible was purely a human and secular text; theology is not an independent source of truth.
Again from Radical Enlightenment: ". . . Spinoza offers an elaborate theory of what religion is, and how and why religion construes the world as it does, creating a new science of contextual Bible criticism. Analyzing usage and intended meanings, and extrapolating from context, using reason as an analytical tool but not expecting to find philosophical truth embedded in Scriptural concepts." In his attack on the very possibility of miracles, and the credulity of the multitude, Spinoza's Tractatus made a profound impression everywhere-in England, Italy, Germany, and France. Spinoza, in effect, denounces clerical authority for exploiting the credulity, ignorance, and superstition of the masses. Spinoza's ideas were easy to grasp in one sense even by the unlettered, ideas such as "the identification of God with the universe, the rejection of organized religion, the abolition of Heaven and Hell, together with reward and punishment in the hereafter, a morality of individual happiness in the here and now, and the doctrine that there is no reality beyond the unalterable laws of Nature, and consequently, no Revelation, miracles or prophecy." (See Spinoza's Biblical Criticism.)
Qur'anic criticism, on the other hand, has lagged far behind. But surely, Muslims and non-Muslims have the right to critically examine the sources, the history, and dogma of Islam. The right to criticize is a right of which Muslims avail themselves in their frequent denunciations of Western culture, in terms that would have been deemed racist, neocolonialist, or imperialist had they been directed against Islam by a European. Without criticism, Islam will remain unassailed in its dogmatic, fanatical, medieval fortress: ossified, totalitarian, and intolerant. It will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality, originality, and truth.
Western intellectuals and Islamologists have totally failed in their duties as intellectuals. They have betrayed their calling by abandoning their critical faculties when it comes to Islam. Some Islamologists have themselves noticed this appalling trend in their colleagues. Karl Binswanger has remarked on the "dogmatic Islamophilia" of most Arabists. Jacques Ellul complained in 1983 that "in France it is no longer acceptable to criticise Islam or the Arab countries." As early as 1968, Maxime Rodinson had written, "An historian like Norman Daniel has gone so far as to number among the conceptions permeated with medievalism or imperialism, any criticisms of the Prophet's moral attitudes and to accuse of like tendencies any exposition of Islam and its characteristics by means of the normal mechanisms of human history. Understanding has given way to apologetics pure and simple."
Patricia Crone and Ibn Rawandi have remarked that Western scholarship lost its critical attitude toward the sources of the origins of Islam around the time of the First World War. Many Western scholars of the 1940s were committed Christians, such as Montgomery Watt, who saw a great danger in the rise of Communism in the Islamic world and thus welcomed any resurgence of Islam. They were insufficiently critical of the Islamic, Arabic sources. John Wansbrough has noted that the Qur'an "as a document susceptible of analysis by the instruments and techniques of Biblical criticism . . . is virtually unknown." By 1990, we still have the scandalous situation described by Andrew Rippin: "I have often encountered individuals who come to the study of Islam with a background in the historical study of the Hebrew Bible or early Christianity, and who express surprise at the lack of critical thought that appears in introductory textbooks on Islam. The notion that 'Islam was born in the clear light of history' still seems to be assumed by a great many writers of such texts. While the need to reconcile varying historical traditions is generally recognised, usually this seems to pose no greater problem to the authors than having to determine 'what makes sense' in a given situation. To students acquainted with approaches such as source criticism, oral formulaic composition, literary analysis and structuralism, all quite commonly employed in the study of Judaism and Christianity, such naive historical study seems to suggest that Islam is being approached with less than academic candour."
There is among many well-meaning Western intellectuals, academics, and Islamologists the belief that Islam will somehow reform itself without anyone anywhere ruffling any feathers, disturbing Muslim sensibilities, or saying anything at all about the Qur'an. This is wishful thinking. If one desires to bring about an Enlightenment in the Islamic world or among Muslims living in the West, at some stage someone somewhere will have to apply to the Qur'an the same techniques of textual analysis as were applied to the Bible by Spinoza and others, especially in Germany during the nineteenth century.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries (for example, Brunei) have established chairs of Islamic Studies in prestigious Western universities, which are encouraged to present a favorable image of Islam. Scientific research, leading to objective truth, no longer seems to be the goal. Critical examination of the sources or the Qur'an is discouraged. Scholars such as Daniel Easterman have even lost their posts for not teaching about Islam in the way approved by Saudi Arabia.
In December 2005, Georgetown and Harvard Universities accepted $20 million each from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal for programs in Islamic studies. Such money can only corrupt the original intent of all higher institutions of education, that is, the search for truth. Now, we shall have only "Islamic truth" that is acceptable to the royal Saudi family, a family that has financed terrorism, antiwesternism, and anti-Semitism for over thirty years. Previous donations from various Saudi sources have included gifts of $20 million, $5 million, and $2 million to the University of Arkansas, the University of California at Berkeley, and Harvard, respectively.
In part 2, I will describe in greater depth the institutes that should be created to resolve this critical deficit and what could result from their creation.
Ibn Warraq is the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim and the editor of The Origins of the Koran, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, and What the Koran Really Says.