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Noted: History is not faith.

By IBN WARRAQ [New English Review] – Soon after 11 September, 2001, the left-wing British weekly journal The New Statesman published an article provocatively entitled “The Great Koran Con Trick” by Martin Bright. The article was essentially a more crude and self-consciously sensationalist version of an article written by Toby Lester, a couple of years earlier, entitled ‘What is the Koran?” [1999]. Bright rehearsed the familiar theories of the revisionists, centered on the work of John Wansbrough of the School of African and Oriental Studies [SOAS], and those influenced by him, scholars such as Patricia Crone, Michael Cook, Andrew Rippin, and Gerald Hawting. The article resulted in many letters to the Editor, and six of them were published the following week [17 December, 2001]. The longest was from Patricia Crone, writing from the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. In her letter, Crone wrote, “modern historians are not interested in the truth and falsehood of the religion they study at all. They study religions as historical factors shaped by their environment and acting back on it in turn, much as scientists study the formation of dust clouds or the evolution of plants. Religious beliefs shape the world they interact with, whether the person studying them happens to share them or not; all that matters is what they meant at the time, not what they mean now.” A little further, Crone continues, “[Historians] have no intention of making the Muslim house come down, nor indeed could they even if they did. Religion does not belong in the domain open to proof or disproof by scholarship or science.”

Michael Cook, Crone’s one-time colleague and co-author of Hagarism, also wrote to the journal. Here is the full text of his letter: “It is prefectly true that some of various academic theories about the origins of Islam are radical. But it would be wrong to suggest that they ‘prove’ the traditional Islamic account of the beginnings of the religion to be false. They don’t. Neither, so far as I know, do the early Koranic fragments found in Yemen prove anything like that. They are exciting to experts, they scatter a few apples over the cobbles, but they don’t upset the apple-cart. In any case, it is hard to see why academic theories about the origins of Islam should be any more ‘devastating’ than theories about Jesus have been to Christianity. Academic work does occasionally enliven the halls of learning, but it doesn’t devastate world religions. They don’t play in the same league.”

Now the remarks of both Cook and Crone are misleading to say the least. First, Crone seems to imply that all historians are only engaged in historical sociology of religion, investigating what it meant to be Muslim, and how Muslims saw and experienced their own religion, and are not interested in the truth and falsehood of the religion studied. Not only does this not characterize the work of all historians, it does not even characterize her own.

Continued at the New English Review | More Chronicle & Notices.

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