Review: The Quest for the Historical Muhammad
21 Dec, 2006
Title: The Quest for the Historical Muhammad
Author: edited by Ibn Warraq
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Your Guide to Agnosticism / Atheism.
Who was the "historical" Muhammad? This may seem like an odd question, since there is a common assumption that Muhammad's life was something that happened "in" history. What that means is that it is something known through reliable, verified historical sources and that we can describe what happened with little or no interference from accumulated myths.
• Extensive information detailing what we know about Muhammad and what we don't
• Offers perspectives on early Islam that you won't find elsewhere
• Very academic and technical at times - may not be for most lay readers
• Over 40 essays offering a critical look at the origins and nature of the Qur'an
• Essays argue that traditional Muslim view of the Qur'an should not be taken at face value
• Includes glossary of Arabic terms and appendices on Semitic languages and scripts
But is that true? For some, this question will appear blasphemous — to
many Muslims, the details of Muhammad’s life are articles of faith,
crucial to their understanding of themselves as Muslims and
followers of the One True God. Questioning such details amounts to
questioning the basis of Islam and the identity of Muslims — a
daunting enough task that many Western scholars choose to avoid many
of the difficulties in an effort to be polite and, perhaps, make up
for past Western imperialism.
It is instructive to compare this situation to the search for the “historical Jesus.” This concept is much more common and accepted in the Christian world than any quest for an “historical Muhammad” is in the Muslim world. A lot of work was done in the late 19th century, particularly in Germany, on treating the gospels like other forms of ancient writing. Since then, a great many books and journal articles have been written trying to discover who Jesus “really” might have been, all assuming that the gospels don’t give the whole story and, perhaps, are inaccurate in some or many places.
The process has gone so far that many Christians today have become skeptical of the naive approach which treats their scriptures as if they could be taken totally at face value. This is naturally rejected and criticized by Christian fundamentalists. Indeed, the comment that someone is following “German Higher Criticism” (even if the target has never heard of it) is a common insult. Despite this, the skeptical approach is fairly well entrenched in Christian scholarship.
But what about Islam? Where is the “Muhammad Seminar” which might serve as the equivalent to the “Jesus Seminar?” Where are all of the books and articles which take a more critical approach towards the sources of information we have about early Islam and the life of Muhammad?
Actually, this material does exist, although not in great quantity. But there is one new source for people who want to learn more and aren’t able to easily find the rare book on the subject. It is “The Quest for the Historical Muhammad,” edited by Ibn Warraq and just published by Prometheus Books. This book contains a series of articles by scholars in the field, describing not only the various problems and issues, but also the work of other scholars.