Monday, November 2, 2009

Higher Criticism of the Koran Resisted

From Vivificat:

Folks, Sandro Magister, the world-renowned vaticanista, hosted in his website an exchange between Muslim theologian Aref Ali Nayed and the Catholic Islamologist Michel Cuypers which I think you should read. The subject of the exchange is one that I’ve covered repeatedly in these humble folios, having to do with the need for a higher criticism of the Koran in order to know, expose, and study its literary genres, its historical context, the oral traditions that converged in its formation, and the phases in its redaction that gave us the text as we read it today. Of course, such an study has proven to very disquieting because Muslims hold a position nearly identical to that embraced by our own Protestant Fundamentalists of the KJV-Only, Independent Baptist kind regarding the Bible: that the Koran is the infallible, inerrant, exclusive Word of God, perfect in every detail, mechanically dictated by God and passively received by the sacred writer.

Magister tells us that Michel Cuypers, 67, is a Belgian member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, the religious community founded in the 20th century by René Voillaume. He spent twelve years in Iran, first in a leper colony in Tabriz and then studying Persian language and literature in Tehran. He received a doctorate in Persian literature from the University of Tehran in 1983. He then studied Arabic in Syria and Egypt, and in 1989 he moved to Cairo, where he now resides. Cuypers is a researcher at the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies, founded in Cairo half a century ago by the Dominican Islamologists Georges Anawati, Jacques Jomier, and Serge Beaurecueil. Since 1994, he has completely focused his studies on the composition of the text of the Koran, adopting the method of rhetorical analysis. His articles and essays are increasingly appreciated by Muslim scholars as well. Two years ago in France, Lethielleux published a fascinating book by Cuypers, dedicated to the analysis of one of the chapters of the Koran: "Le festin: une lecture de la sourate al-Mâ’ida [The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth sura of the Koran]," with a preface by the prominent Muslim scholar Mohamed-Ali Amir-Moezzi. At the recent meeting of Oasis, Cuypers gave an address precisely on the role of tradition in the Muslim world of yesterday and today. His address is reproduced further below. At the conclusion, Cuypers shows how important it is that the Muslim world open itself to a critical interpretation of the Koran. In particular, it clearly emerges from this interpretation that the most warlike verses of the sacred text do not in any way "abrogate" the more tolerant and peaceful ones, as the proponents of holy war claim. Oasis was created in Venice in 2004, through the initiative of Cardinal Angelo Scola. It publishes a semiannual magazine by the same name, in four editions and in five languages: Italian, English, French, Arabic, and Urdu. It publishes books and manages a multilingual website, with a newsletter. Read his entire address here.

Cuyper’s address earned the reaction of Aref Ali Nayed, a prominent figure in the dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam. Born in Libya, he has studied the philosophy of science and hermeneutics in the United States and in Canada, has taken courses at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, amd has given lectures at the Pontifical Instititue for Arab and Islamic Studies. He is a consultant for the Interfaith Program at the University of Cambridge. He has directed the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Amman, Jordan. This year he founded an Islamic studies center, called Kalam Reseasrch & Media, in Dubai, according to Magister. In replying to Cuypers, Nayed also adopts a combative tone. He completely ignores his extensive and elaborate arguments, to zero in on a single phrase. And he uses this as an opportunity to level against the Catholic Church, in the matter of biblical exegesis, the same accusations of obscurantism that are typical of secularist polemics. And, vice versa, to claim for Islam precedence in those methods of historical criticism and literary analysis that later became the prerogative of Jewish exegesis, then Protestant, Enlightenment, and finally Catholic. Nayed makes these core allegations:

Aref Ali Nayed - Chiesa PhotoMuslim scholars have always based their interpretations and exegeses of the Qur’an on the bases of several sciences, including the science of the ‘circumstances of revelation’ (asbabulnuzul), on the science of the history of the Qur’an (tarkhulqur’an), and on the careful study of the linguistic modes familiar to the Arabs around the time of revelation (ulumulugha). Muslim scholars developed a comprehensive apparatus of historical-critical-linguistic methodologies for understanding the Qur’an (ulumulqur’an). (For more on this, see "Al-Itqan" of Imam Jalaloddin Al-Suyuti (c. 1445-1505 CE).
Muslim scholars were always aware of the fact that interpretation, understanding, and exegesis of God’s eternal discourse are forms of human strenuous striving (ijtihad) that must be dutifully renewed in every believing generation. Solemn belief in the eternity and divine authorship of the Qur’an never prevented Muslim scholars from dealing with it historically and linguistically. On the contrary, belief in the revelatory truth of the Qur’an was the very motivation for spending life-times in close scholarly study of God’s discourse. (For more on this see "Kitab Al-Ilm" of Imam Ibn Abd Al-Barr)

Read Nayed’s entire argument here.

More recently, Cuyper again used Magister’s website as an outlet to reply to Nayed. This is his core retort:

Brother Michel Cuypers - Chiesa PhotoOn the other hand, I notice that Prof. Nayed repeatedly uses the expression "historical criticism" or "historical-critical method" both to affirm that Muslim scholars have always practiced it, and to ask Westerners to stop wanting to apply this method to the Qur'an (in the sense in which they mean it, obviously). Now, neither Magister nor my article uses this term even once. I did this intentionally, preferring to speak of "criticism," of the "critical" or "scientific" method, in a broader sense. The historical-critical method (which I personally respect, although I do not use it) is not, in fact, the only "critical" or "scientific" method for approaching the texts. Magister makes reference to the fact that the method that I personally use for analysis of the Qur'anic text is that of "rhetorical analysis." Contrary to the historical-critical method, which deconstructs (rightly or wrongly) the texts into fragments from different time periods, rhetorical analysis allows one to demonstrate the coherence of the text, its "composition": a method that, by virtue of its rigorous rules, equally deserves the description "critical." In various studies, I have shown the continuity of this method with the observations of many classical Muslim scholars: Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjânî, Zarkashî, Suyûtî, Al-Biqâ’î, and many others.

A more delicate aspect of the question is evoked by Prof. Nayed in these terms: "What is even more ironic is the fact that some Catholics, not only imagine such Muslim closure, but go on to attribute it to the Muslim belief in the divine authorship of the Qur’an (i.e. that the Qur’an is the very speech of God). This is very strange indeed, and comes down to thinking that one who believes in the divine authorship of the sacred text can not possibly be a dialogue partner on theological matters!"

It goes without saying that faith in the sacred text as the Word of God is the very foundation of every religion that considers itself "revealed." The difficulty comes, instead, from a theological question that concerns the manner of transmitting this divine Word. At the end of my talk, I explained that an excessively narrow conception of this manner of transmission, as pure and simple dictation directly from God, makes it more difficult to admit that the Qur'anic text, while still being considered the Word of God, also includes the vast cultural and scriptural Tradition that came before it. An eminent Iranian theologian, Professor Muhammad Mujtahed-e Shabestari, was recently banned from teaching at the University of Tehran, for having dared to say that Qur'anic revelation, although it is of divine origin, inevitably includes a human element due to the transmitter of this Word, meaning the Prophet of Islam.

Now, if I, a dwarf, may be permitted to walk among these giants, let me say this: Brother Cuyper is truly a son of God – a peacemaker – who in his demeanor and expression has “bent over backwards” to accommodate Nayed and Islam. He has extended every courtesy to Nayed’s understanding of revelation which is quite representative of the Muslim worldview on these matters. But Cuyper is not blind to a fact that even I can see: despite Nayed’s protestations, no serious, consistent, coherent, or sustained higher-critical study of the Koran has ever been engaged systematically in Islamic centers of higher learning, ever. Those who attempt that kind of study are persecuted, and their lives and limbs threatened. They lose their jobs, their tenure, and their dignity. For what little I have seen, Islamic scholarly efforts at “asbabulnuzul, ulumulugha” and “ulumulqur’an” are superficial at best, circular, assume what they seek to prove, and are anything but multidisciplinary in the modern sense.

I’ve discussed this three years ago in Textual criticism and the Koran's New Testament antecedents: Implications for a Christian apologetics against Islam and reached this conclusion: that textual and linguistic analysis shows that the Koran borrows from ancient Christian lectionaries. Therefore, Islamic claims for the Koran's unique and unitary origin are questionable. The finding reinforces the Christian polemic against Muslim claims of a unique and superior prophetic authority vis-à-vis Christianity. The scholar who researched these similarities had to publish his work anonymously for fear of death.

Finally, today I happily stumbled upon a very interesting article published in The Atlantic back in January 1999, entitled, What Is the Koran? The date is significant, 2 years before 9/11, and the article itself would chronicle a milestone whose significance we have now come to appreciate:

In 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana'a, in Yemen, laborers working in a loft between the structure's inner and outer roofs stumbled across a remarkable gravesite, although they did not realize it at the time. Their ignorance was excusable: mosques do not normally house graves, and this site contained no tombstones, no human remains, no funereal jewelry. It contained nothing more, in fact, than an unappealing mash of old parchment and paper documents—damaged books and individual pages of Arabic text, fused together by centuries of rain and dampness, gnawed into over the years by rats and insects. Intent on completing the task at hand, the laborers gathered up the manuscripts, pressed them into some twenty potato sacks, and set them aside on the staircase of one of the mosque's minarets, where they were locked away—and where they would probably have been forgotten once again, were it not for Qadhi Isma'il al-Akwa', then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, who realized the potential importance of the find.

Al-Akwa' sought international assistance in examining and preserving the fragments, and in 1979 managed to interest a visiting German scholar, who in turn persuaded the German government to organize and fund a restoration project. Soon after the project began, it became clear that the hoard was a fabulous example of what is sometimes referred to as a "paper grave"—in this case the resting place for, among other things, tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Koran, the Muslim holy scripture. In some pious Muslim circles it is held that worn-out or damaged copies of the Koran must be removed from circulation; hence the idea of a grave, which both preserves the sanctity of the texts being laid to rest and ensures that only complete and unblemished editions of the scripture will be read.

Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., or Islam's first two centuries—they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence. What's more, some of these fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless, and unchanging Word of God.

Read it all here. It’s a great piece.

This goes way back and transcends any “compare and contrast” Islam vs. Christianity table I can formulate. Textual, linguistic, and higher-critical studiesof the Koran are still in their infancy, carried on by a few courageous Muslim and Christian scholars. The work is far from done and will continue to meet stiff resistance from Muslim scholars across the board. Yet, it is a necessary endeavor, perhaps the great necessary scholarly endeavor of the 21st century.