A little more than a century ago, the French scholar Ernest Renan was fired from his professorship at the Sorbonne. His academic career was over. He died a broken man. His crime? He had begun his scientific study of the life of Christ with the statement that Jesus was born in Nazareth of artisan parents, contradicting the virgin birth in Bethlehem.
Yet the “science of religion” that was born in the 19th Century eventually won out over the dogmatic concepts of Judaism and Christianity. Today, most scholars utilize the historical-critical method developed by Renan and other scholars of his day. Biblical figures, broken free of their dogmatic molds, now move freely as the historical beings they are.
Islam has not yet had its 19th Century. But it may be beginning now. Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” while making no pretense of being a scholarly treatise, nevertheless opens up the question of the origin of the Koran. The fundamentalist view is that the Koran is “uncreated,” that is, spoken by God into the perfect ear of the Prophet Mohammed, then transmitted verbatim by him to his secretaries just before his death. (Tradition holds that Mohammed himself could not read or write.)
The critical view is that Mohammed, under the inspiration of God, authored the Koran and that, as any author would, he altered verses occasionally as his insight into God’s will expanded.
In the first centuries of any religion, followers understand that texts are written by human beings under the inspiration of God; they reflect the personal characters of the writers and the historical conditions under which they were written, yet are nevertheless definitive works. Within a couple of hundred years, however, such texts are hypostatized. They become sacred texts. Their historical origins are forgotten. The Bible becomes the infallible Word of God. The Koran becomes the “uncreated” Koran. Only a scientific revolution can restore the texts to their original status as the inspired writings of inspired human beings.
Every Islamic scholar knows that Mohammed incorporated in an early version of the Koran a few verses that accepted al Allat, al Manat and al Uzza, traditional goddesses of the Quraysh tribe, as intercessors between human beings and Allah. When Mohammed realized that his acceptance of the goddesses was compromising his own authority as spokesman for Allah, he expunged the verses and wrote in their place: “Say: ‘O unbelievers, I serve not what you serve and you are not serving what I serve, nor am I serving what you have served, neither are you serving what I serve. To you your religion, and to me my religion’ ” (Sura 109:1-5).
The expunging of the so-called satanic verses, and their replacement by the verses quoted above, is attested to by al Tabari, whose early 18-volume commentary on the Koran is acknowledged as authoritative by all Islamic scholars. Mohammed himself, in the official version of the Koran, states plainly that he can change the Koran as he discerns more clearly the will of God. “And for whatever verse We abrogate or cast into oblivion, We bring a better orthe like of it; knowest thou not that God is powerful over everything?” (Sura 2:100ff.).
Yet one of the crucial battles taking place in Islam today is over the authorship of the Koran. Rushdie has broached the notion that Mohammed authored the Koran, that it is created, not uncreated. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who rose to power in Iran on the doctrine of the “uncreated Koran,” has seized on Rushdie’s novel with a vengeance born of desperation and made it the immediate symbol of Western apostasy and liberalism.
Islam is here to stay as a major, powerful world religion. It is not, intrinsically, any more “fundamentalist” than any other major, powerful world religion, and is very likely on the threshold of the rediscovery of its own human origins. Like all world religions, however, Islam is susceptible to fundamentalist influence, especially when it is backed into a corner. The misunderstanding of Islam in the West is appalling and tragic, and wholesale criticism of Islam merely prolongs the tenure of Islamic fundamentalism.
The solution to Islam’s “problem” over the nature of the Koran and the character of Mohammed lies in Islam itself, not in criticism of Islam from some supposedly “enlightened” perspective. Rationalistic attacks on Judaism and Christianity served no purpose; Jewish and Christian scriptures were opened up by scholarship from within. Those who know Moses and Jesus and the Bible the best are Jews and Christians, not secularists. Those who know Mohammed and the Koran best are and will be Muslims.