- The Washington Times - Monday, August 19, 2002

The critical study of Muhammad and the Koran lags far behind the comparable study of Jesus and the Bible, and such study could help Islam adapt to modernity, a number of scholars of the religion say.
Verifying the life of Muhammad and the Koran's "divine revelation" will not hurt Islamic faith but help it avoid legalism and abuse by fanatics, they say.
"This critical study in Islam has been going on for some time but is still a minority voice," said Christopher Taylor, a professor of Islamic studies at Drew University in New Jersey.
As study of the Koran has been taken over by more literal interpreters, he said, educated Muslims are steered into other fields. Three top leaders of al Qaeda, for example, had degrees in applied sciences but pushed a literalist view of the Koran.
"The best Muslim minds are funneled into engineering or medicine, not religion or history," he said. "If you told the vast majority of Muslims about the historical and literary issues surrounding Muhammad and the Koran, they would fear it as a secular attempt to discredit the religion."
Christians faced the same fears when the so-called "scientific" study of the Bible and the historical Jesus seemed to question orthodox belief.
But after a century of challenges, theological orthodoxy endures. Today, discussion about the historical Jesus and Bible are standard in seminaries, adult Sunday school and commentary in Bibles on bookstore shelves.
John Voll, professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown, said it may be unfair in this era to ask Islam to subject the Koran to the same kind of atheistic critical studies the Bible underwent.
"Those 19th-century methods of text criticism are archaic," he said. He said modern literary criticism takes a historic text more at face value and considers its meaning to people, not its exact origins.
"Educated Muslims do not say you can't question anything in the Koran," Mr. Voll said. "But literal-minded people, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, will always view textual criticism as unbelief."
The scholars disagree on why there is so little critical study of the Koran today.
Some say Muslims will not ask critical questions about the Koran because that is viewed as what Christian missionaries do. Others say Western scholars suffer "post-colonial guilt" about critical research on the Koran, or fear a loss of scholarly privileges if they offend religious leaders or Islamic governments.
"Unfortunately, Koranic studies have not kept up with biblical studies," said Ibn Warraq, editor of the book "The Quest for the Historical Muhammad." "It has just stopped dead in its tracks."
He said such scholars in Muslim countries may face death or exile, but Muslim research faces the further problem that the Koran and the life of Muhammad have little outside confirmation.
In the standard history, Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570 and received his first revelation in 610. He returned as leader of Mecca in 630 and died two years later.
The revelation came to Muhammad when an angel asked him to "read" what God revealed in Arabic. The prophet's spoken words that is, God's were remembered and written by scribes and organized as the Koran.
"We have fragments of Syriac manuscripts [that mention a man like Muhammad], but absolutely no detail outside of Muslim sources," Mr. Warraq said.
The critical questions, scholars say, would ask what the true dates are, whether Arabic yet existed, why the Koran is one-third Bible accounts and why at times Muhammad and an angel seem to speak when every word is God's.
Brannon Wheeler, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Washington, said Muslims may be reluctant to question their text because it is viewed as God speaking and in Arabic.
"Muslims see the Koran as God's literal words, while we take the Bible as divine inspiration recorded by individuals," he said.
Liberal Bible scholars have upset traditional believers by saying that Christian belief borrowed from pagans, that textual dates are not clear, that church authorities organized the Bible a century after Jesus's death and that followers may have invented some of His sayings and miracles.
Critical research also is supporting an orthodox Bible, scholars say, showing its textual integrity and backing its history with new archaeological finds.
Mr. Wheeler said that Islam today lacks this kind of discussion, and that most analysis concerns the legal mandates of Koranic sayings because there is little history at issue.
"There is nothing in the Koran like the Gospel accounts of Jesus," he said. "And the historical references are mostly things recorded in the Bible."

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