Jesus and Muhammad and the Question of the State

I’ve always liked Andrew Sullivan even when I disagree with him. I’m going to disagree with him, or more specifically Alexis de Tocqueville and one of his readers who quotes him:

“Muhammad brought down from heaven and put into the Koran not religious doctrines only, but political maxims, criminal and civil laws, and scientific theories. The Gospels, on the other hand, deal only with the general relations between man and God and between man and man. Beyond that, they teach nothing and do not oblige people to believe anything. That alone, among a thousand reasons, is enough to show that Islam will not be able to hold its power long in ages of enlightenment and democracy, while Christianity is destined to reign in such ages, as in all others.”

This quote, from Democracy in America, is a typical sort of nineteenth century Orientalism ( Edward Said’s book was published in 1978; has every thinking person not read it by now?) It is a little bizarre that de Tocqueville was eager to accommodate Christianity to Enlightenment principles, given that much of the Enlightenment was hostile to… Christianity. De Tocqueville, a strange mixture of conservatism and modernism, thought Roman Catholicism was the religion best suited to a democratic society, at a time when the popes were fulminating against . . . democracy (see below).

You can’t compare Christianity and Islam on the basis of this kind of characterization of the founders of the two religions. The characterization is in any case unfair (the New Testament texts imply just as many ‘scientific principles’ as does the Qur’an, e.g. They think the world has three levels, that there are demons and angels, etc. etc.)

First of all, we know very little about the lives of Jesus (d. circa 30-33 CE) or Muhammad (d. 632 CE). As a historian, I’m looking for early sources and diverse sources. The earliest manuscripts of the New Testament are second century, and in Greek rather than in the original Aramaic (some ideas may have changed radically with the translation– the Aramaic almost certainly did not have the phrase ‘son of God.’) There are many variants among the manuscripts and among the Gospels. Did Mark even know about a resurrection? There are even questions about what sources early Christians accepted (is the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas a Gospel?) All of the extant accounts of Jesus obviously come from a small number of early Christian communities. There is no early outside source. We historians want accounts coming from several different sources.

The idea that, as de Tocqueville alleged, very early Christianity made no doctrinal demands about the relationship of the believer to power is not clearly in evidence. Take St. Peter (2 peter 2:1-2:17: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions.”) Wouldn’t that be a community problem that would have to be dealt with collectively? Also very surprised by this allegation would have been the masses of Christians killed by Christian states for being heretics. And, just for instance, Charlemagne had 4500 Saxon followers of Woden (you’ve all seen the movie Thor) beheaded in 782 because they wouldn’t accept Christianity. That is a lot of heads to be lost to a religion that makes no power demands. Not to mention that modern Christian fundamentalism has cleverly found ways of re-importing selective legal injunctions from the Hebrew Bible into Christianity.

As for Muhammad, the earliest extant biography is is by Ibn Hisham (d. 834), based on a work he says was written 130 years after the Prophet’s death. This would be like relying on an oral tradition about Napoleon Bonaparte being written down from memory right now by an elderly man in Corsica. Unlike with Jesus, there are actually non-Muslim accounts of the rise of Islam and 7th-century mentions of Muhammad, though not substantial ones. The Dar al-Qur’an in Sanaa, Yemen, contains papyrus Qur’ans in Kufi script that the German researchers there told me years ago they think go back to the late 600s. The Qur’an, contrary to what some researchers such as John Wansbrough suggested, seems to be pretty well attested as an integral text fairly early on, maybe even better attested than the entire New Testament in the first century after its composition. The sayings attributed to Muhammad were not collected and written down for some 200 years after the Prophet’s death, and I personally don’t consider many of them historically reliable.

The New Testament picture of Jesus is full of contradictions. At some points he says to turn the other cheek and forgive enemies. At other points he says, “I come not to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Scholars have wondered if Jesus was a Zealot, a highly political and revolutionary movement. Or was he a mystic similar to those who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? Frankly we have no idea whether he intended to build a state or not. He seems to say that he thought his teachings would divide families: “and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.” Matthew 10:21. That sounds like a generational revolution to me. The jurisdiction of Roman law in Palestine at that time was mainly for political rebels, and it is not without significance that the Romans crucified him; had he been just a harmless Jewish mystic and viewed as a heretic, the Romans would have never bothered to get involved. No two academic books I’ve ever read on the life of Jesus and early Christianity have agreed about these issues.

Even if Jesus really was an apolitical pacifist, only a tiny number of Christians in history has ever agreed with him about that. Even if his statement about rendering to Caesar implied a separation of religion and state (unlikely), most Christians in history haven’t been willing to do that. Even today, many Christians in the United States have mobilized to ban abortion, even for non-Christians — for all Americans– on the basis of their current religious doctrine. Isn’t that a demand for Theocracy Lite?

So these ideas in very early Christianity are anyway irrelevant to practical politics in later Christianity, which saw all kinds of political arrangements. You may remember the Holy Roman Empire, which did not agree that Christianity implied no ideology of the state, and which was the primary crucible of the religion and civilization for centuries.

As for Muhammad, it is not entirely clear what his position was in Medina. He is often depicted as a theocrat. But it appears from the Qur’an that when he first went there in 622 he was more like a community organizer, balancing the needs of the Muslim, Christian, pagan and Jewish communities in the area. The stories of how he allegedly fell out with the Jews there are very late and have been questioned by some scholars. The view of him as a kind of king could well be a projection back on him by later writers of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, after forms of Muslim kingship and empire had emerged. Common assertions that the Qur’an disallowed paganism or allowed aggressive war on pagans are not borne out by the Qur’an. There is, contrary to de Tocqueville, very little law or politics in the Qur’an.

Much of fundamentalist Muslims’ ideas about religion-state relations are shaped by the Hadith literature, the oral sayings and doings attributed to the Prophet, which, as I said, were collected centuries after his death and I doubt most academic historians would consider them reliable. (I know saying so will offend some of my readers, but, well, I’m a historian.) The Hadith literature is just enormous, a kind of Muslim Talmud, and I find many of the reports contradictory to others. Some of them are actually Jewish law brought in by Jewish converts (as with stoning adulterers) that contradicts the Qur’an (which prescribes whipping instead).

As with Christianity, there are almost no forms of political organization Muslims haven’t tried out, from monarchy to republic, from anarchism to democracy. So all those laws and political principles in the Hadith haven’t actually been determinative. Contemporary Muslim fundamentalism does dream of using them as a blueprint, but since that enterprise isn’t actually practical, they don’t get very far. Even Iran and Saudi Arabia are mostly governed by modern bureaucratic rationalism of a sort Max Weber would readily recognize.

Nowadays, almost all Protestant Christian communities are organized on the basis of the nation-state. Even most Catholic communities de facto are, as well. And, most Muslim communities are exactly the same. There is a Sunni Muslim mufti of Egypt, there is a Shiite ayatollah of Iran. Some religious leaders have followers across national lines (as also is true in Christianity), but for the most part the nation-state is the unit of community organization and the arena of community action.

Contrary to what de Tocqueville imagined, the Muslims have been just as adaptable as Christians to the main forms of social organization that came out of the Enlightenment. He was writing at a time when many Muslims lived under the Ottoman Empire, which seems to have shaped his image of the religion. Somehow Islam has handily survived the Ottoman demise. And what de Tocqueville rather dishonestly did not bother to mention was that Christianity has had just as much trouble with those principles as Islam has. There was that little Syllabus of Errors when the then Pope condemned democracy, popular sovereignty, separation of religion and state, scientific rationalism, etc. Later Popes even tried to prevent Catholics from voting in elections because democracy was considered a modernist heresy. As late as Franco’s Spain, the Spanish church was a pillar of dictatorship. Eventually the church made its peace with democracy (partly through Vatican II, which largely repealed the Syllabus of Errors). Islam is likewise coming to terms with democracy, however contentious and uncertain that process has been (Indonesia, Turkey, Tunisia, etc. etc.)

Many 19th century Christians imagined that Islam was on its last legs and that all the Muslims would convert to Christianity. They thought the same of Hinduism and Buddhism. They mostly were very wrong. De Tocqueville’s arrogance and simplistic view of the original ‘essence’ of the founders of the two religions was a profound set of errors. In fact, by the end of this century, some 30% of the world could well be Muslim, whereas Christianity will likely be a shrinking proportion of humankind, just for demographic reasons. Not to mention that most “Christian” countries contain pluralities of non-religious people. Many, such as Sweden or Eastern Europe, have non-religious majorities. Significant proportions of Turks, Tunisians, Uzbeks, etc. in the Muslim world also report that they aren’t interested in religion.

It is not impossible that modern consumerism, individualism and technology might gradually undermine religion, so that 200 years from now neither Christianity nor Islam will be central to most peoples’ lives.

So, a) Muslims aren’t more prone to violence or terrorism than members of other religious communities because of the character of very early Islam and b) you can’t read off the differences between Christians and Muslims from a superficial depiction of the two founders.

Posted in Uncategorized | 35 Responses | Print |

35 Responses

  1. I do not believe that Christianity or Islam endorses either democracy or authoritarian forms of government.

    Organizations that have been denoted as “Christian” such as the Moral Majority have, however, taken an intense role in politics.

    Anyone who has ever attended a GOP political convention will see many ministers serve as party delegates out of their advocacy of religious convictions in areas such as abortion, freedom of religion, and opposition to communism.

    American Muslims have generally shifted to the Democratic Party recently due to its inclusive nature and its support for immigration reforms.

    I fully believe that a practicing Christian or Muslim is, as a matter of adherence to their respective faiths, not required to become politically involved.

    • I think Christianity absolutely endorses a form of government: a kingdom (Jesus as king of the Jews. And if you don’t think God is authoritarian, just read the old and new testaments!).

      Jesus said ~~ “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and onto God the things that are God’s.” I know a couple of fundamentalist Christians who don’t vote because of that verse. Personally, I wish the rest of them would follow suit, and leave me alone to pursue happiness in peace.

      • Yes, let’s reduce voter turnout. What a brilliant idea, DIRK!

      • Jesus also said, according to the New Testament sthg like “My kingdom is not of this world” and “What have you if you gain the world but lose your soul” & “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” These are among many that give a certain direction.

  2. I want to add that beside judeo/christian influence on the hadiths, there is also a zoroastrian/persian culture influence (not surprising because the hadithwriters are all from persia, where zoroastrianism was the dominant religion). Like 5x prayers, headscarf, the thin bridge muhammed supposedly walks in hell etc. Anyway islam is 600 years younger then christianity so its not fair if they are not given a fair chance of adapting to the modern world.

  3. It’s hard to use thinkers and religious figures of the past (and, even those of the present for the same reasons). Inasmuch as they had limited contact with groups beyond their experience, the ability to effectively communicate was (and is) most often hindered by limitations of cultural differences and disinclination to becoming immersed in the ways of groups foreign to them. Bringing the past to present, especially over hundreds or thousands of years, loses much of the times and the times’ context when utterances or sermons or lectures are lost. We have this currently when confronted by the newsies who use various ‘soundbites’ or ‘quotations’ or interpretations thereof in attempts to move their agendas in particular direction.
    I saw a movie yesterday about Oscar Wilde (coincidentally, entitled “Oscar Wilde” [1960]), starring Robert Morley in the title role. Wilde was intent upon suing his friend’s (Alfred “Bosie” Douglas’) father, John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry* (yes, THAT Marquess of Queensbury) for libel. During questioning, Wilde had a difficult time being able to keep his own damaging writings in a context that did not reveal him as anyone more than a fount of witticisms. In short, his own arrogance and simplistic view of the original ‘essence’ of the lettres between himself and another man resulted in a profound set of errors.** Wilde, ever the glib one with words, was unable to keep them within the scope of their meaning to a larger audience, especially one that had the resources to arrive at a greater sense of Truth, that of the court of law opposed to the court of public opinion that had held him in delusion for so long.
    When using isolated quotations from any text, one has to always keep the context in mind. That the Middle Eastern fellow who has been held responsible for beginning a Worldwide religious revolution (i.e., the Nazarene “Jesus”) may have said a lot of things, some of which the early Church elders in North Africa (at the Synod of Hippo Regius and the Councils of Carthage***) may have thought superfluous to their collective religious perspective. As we know, there are other documents that were unintentionally lost for centuries, only later to be found hidden away in pottery. How much was added for purposes of literature, one might never know (after all, the Four Gospels were written well after the Nazarene’s death, et cetera).
    Nevertheless, what has been accepted as ‘gospel’ was conceived in times that were not necessarily concurrent with the events described, losing the essential flavours and scents of the times. As with Wilde, trying to convey some meaning of his words in relation to the times in which they were first put to paper even presented the author with unforeseen difficulties, despite his having been at all events of his Life, libertine and literary. Suggesting that the Nazarene “did not come to bring peace, but a sword” must be taken immediately in context of what was written just before: “Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you.”**** These are not the words of someone trying to incite rebellion, other than the kind that involved a shift in paradigm and then only for a certain group: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.”****
    As with all shifts, upheavals are bound to occur, either spiritually or tectonically. In any event, shifts can be unsettling, leading many to any number of interpretations – philosophical, spiritual, or scientific. At the precise moments when all are seen as calamitous, we must strive to hold on to the facts for, “When logic and proportion
    Have fallen sloppy dead And the White Knight is talking backwards And the Red Queen’s off with her head
    Remember what the dormouse said Feed your head Feed your head.” ! And verifiable facts are the food of Reason.
    Even Hollywood gets it (mostly) right: “Sgt. Joe Friday: ‘All we know are the facts, ma’am.’ ” !!
    Oh, the State? Is that the pen where the ‘lost’ sheep are eventually collected? To be dipped and shorn and to provide victual for the shepherd whose generosity must be repaid? To be protected from the wolves and other predators that will cut into the shepherds’ prosperity and senses of value and worth?

    * link to
    ** Echoing Mr Cole’s own phrase above
    *** link to
    **** Matthew 10 (New International Version)
    ! link to
    !! link to

  4. Dear Professor Cole

    Some days, your work is just sheer pleasure to read. I have been a fan ever since I read your “Sacred Spaces” and greatly enjoy these rational and erudite pieces.

    Your explanation of the difficulty of using these ancient texts as a basis for present day thought and action echoes much of my own thinking.

    The rector at the local Church was teaching St Paul’s Letter to the Romans after he finished teaching the Apocalypse of St John, so I sat in to try and understand how to cope with fundamentalism. I was hooked once he explained how many Egyptian, Assyrian, and Persian myths contribute to the imagery of the Apocalypse.

    It was a revelation because he went back to the Greek texts and highlighted the errors in the very many translations of the New Testament into English. (There is even a Readers Digest Bible for those short of time but I am not convinced that it has anything to do with divine revelation)

    Once you understand that St Paul was trained in both Greek and Hebrew philosophy you can see these influences coming through in his writings.

    I learned enough to know I don’t know enough to commend or condemn any organised religion as right or wrong, or to use it as a basis for any claims to moral superiority, or land in the 21st century.

    Your piece today was a joy to read!.

  5. Since the god of Christianity and Islam and Judaism is the god of history, there’s not much chance that they will go away as religions (Fukuyama notwithstanding).

    And since their god is the god of history, it is impossible to separate them from politics.

    A few years back, biblical scholars voted on the passages of the Gospel, trying to determine what was most likely the original oral tradition of Christianity (most likely the things Jesus may have said). They boiled it down to a lot of difficult questions — the kind that asking them was likely to get you crucified.

    Shorter Old Testament: “History happens!”
    Shorter New Testament: “History — it’s not just for nations anymore!”

  6. I always thought that Muslims maintained a hierarchy whereby hadith was secondary to and verified by Quranic claims. The misapplication of ‘shariah’ laws in Iran for example, where stoning is the punishment for adultery, shows that this is clearly not so. But do historians of Islam observe such a relationship between hadith and Quran?

    • I believe that in Islam, the faith, the Hadith is secondary to the Quran because the first is the word of man while the second is the word of God.

      However, most humans, regardless of faith, do what they want and then seek justification in whatever agreeable text they can find.

    • The entire issue of stoning to death is absurd and I don’t know how the Muslim countries that practice it can justify it when it contradicts the Quran. Utterly disgusting.

      Anyhow, the Quran (where it touches on history) takes precedence over hadith, but hadith have their place as they add detail and explanation. Much of what is written in the Quran is written in parables and metaphors (it says so itself on multiple occasions) whereas the hadith are generally more literal accounts of history and so useful in that way.

  7. And as I said it before, the monotheist religions are the worst between all forms of religion because they embodies the image of a dictator, he the only one who governs everything. The religion was taking ten steps backwards since the people abandoned their polytheist views of the Universe.
    But in those times of constant wars and continuous disasters, diseases and famine the monotheism was better for organizational purpose, allowing the leaders to gather more people under one flag. At that time, at around 600 some smart guys in the Arabian peninsula decided that in order to be able to face the danger represented by the Jews who were allied with the Europeans through their Christianity bounds, they have to invent a religion as totalitarian in views as Christianity.
    You cannot write a history of the religion different that just a trivial record if you put aside the reason for the cause of its appearance. You have to be an atheist to do that, at least for a while.

  8. Thanks for teasing out the complexities of this issue Juan, and it cannot be said often enough that we are utterly in the dark about the Gospels; and the original Aramaic being set down in Greek vexes the issue to the extent that, well, who knows what Jesus really said and taught? But a few addenda (as one who teaches about ancient Roman religion): Acts was probably written mid-late first century, so is our earliest portion of the New Testament (of course, an assertion not entirely without controversy), while it is generally accepted that our earliest gospel is Mark, written shortly after the Jewish rebellion against Rome and reflective of the recent violence of the revolt. In fact, I would argue that many of the contradictions in the New Testament (NT) are not so much contradictions as anachronisms: the NT was written after the Jewish revolt and seeks to write a history of pre-revolutionary Judaea under the shadow of a failed and violent rebellion.

    Violence and riots had taken place in the 20s and 30s in Judaea, since the Romans were not always sensitive (surprise surprise) to Jewish sensibilities. But it was not yet on the verge of rebellion, and did not become so until it had gone through a series of very bad governors (in this sense, Judaea was less fortunate than other Roman provinces and client states).

    The Book of Revelation likewise is, for those of us who take a purely historical approach to the NT, clearly a reflection of the anger brought on by the Neronian persecutions of 64 CE. It is a political tract, in a sense, against Rome and the Roman use of power against the early Christian community, end of story. (Or, as my professor of Greek put it many many years ago, “It is the ravings of a sun-stroked mad man writing bad Greek on a hot Aegean island sometime in the first century AD”.)

    So – my prof’s ad hominem aside! – from a historical perspective it is hard to see how very early Christianity is not a product that birthed amidst political violence and upheaval. In fact, it is inseparable from it. The Gospel depiction of Jesus has him threatening to tear down and rebuild the Temple, has him overturning the money changers’ tables in the Temple (in part, some suspect, because Caesar’s image would be on the coins in a sacred precinct that did not allow images), tells his followers to put up their swords when they threaten to challenge the authorities during his arrest (i.e., the apostles were packing heat a la 30 CE), and gathers thousands in the desert to preach to them (the Romans were a bit skittish about such gatherings, and what was he preaching?), has him working miracle after miracle (the Romans would have considered this practicing magic and there were serious laws on the books about any who did so – particularly the act of raising from the dead): if these are not acts or threats of political violence, I do not know what is.

    But again, Jesus spoke Aramaic, the NT is written in Greek, and a generation or two after Jesus’ death. Can you write the Gettysburg Address from memory? Good, now translate it into the foreign language with which you are most familiar. Something got lost, no? The NT tells us much about is the creation of the early Christian community. Jesus is, historically speaking, elusive.

    • Yes! This right here is one of the things I find most frustrating about the arguments Messrs. Sullivan and Harris have made on this issue; they insist on reading the rise of Islam within their mangled idea of its historical and political context while exempting Christianity from the same scrutiny. What it boils down into in the end is a deplorable game of rhetorical bait-and-switch; they being with preconceived notions of what “nature” the two religions possess, justify these notions through a lazy and misleading analysis of the record, then conclude with the very notions they began on, now laundered through a “dispassionate historical analysis”. Not only is such behavior deeply unfair to the world’s vast numbers of peace-loving Muslims, it also does violence to the concepts of “objectivity” and “scholarship” generally.

  9. “The sayings attributed to Muhammad were not collected and written down for some 200 years after the Prophet’s death, and I personally don’t consider many of them historically reliable”

    “Much of fundamentalist Muslims’ ideas about religion-state relations are shaped by the Hadith literature, the oral sayings and doings attributed to the Prophet, which, as I said, were collected centuries after his death and I doubt most academic historians would consider them reliable. (I know saying so will offend some of my readers, but, well, I’m a historian.”

    / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /

    On what reasoning and logic do you not consider the sayings to be historically un-reliable? You criticize Alexis de Tocqueville for his Orientalism yet you fall in the same trap by dismissing the Hadith out of hand and your comments indicate a clear lack of understanding of how the hadith were compiled. Hadith literature is a crucial component of Islam, it’s how Muslims know how to pray and many other crucial issues in regards to the everyday lives of Muslims. Just being a historian does not allow someone to comment on any historical issue, as an academic you should know better.

    A few thousand hadith are directly compiled/narrated from people who lived and interacted with the prophet (primary sources). Then there is a sliding scale, the longer the chain of narration the more debate there will be in regards to its authenticity and there will be qualifications within the hadith how the information was gained, all the people identified are named and known. There are many Muslim historians and academics that have specialized and dedicated their lives to understanding the methodology of compilation, the strength of hadith, they may not be all white, with glasses and dresses in a archetype professor like way and live in the west but their analysis is not lacking, their strength and professionalism un challenged and knowledge un matched, their academic rigor un polluted and stringent. Do you specialize or are a academic of hadith? Do you really understand how they work/compiled? Do you have knowledge beyond a causal Google search?

    You would be well served if you went to an Arab country, at a prestigious institute (if you have not already) and learn specially about the science of hadith. Maybe then you could be in a position to comment because you would have some qualification rather than just saying you are a historian and ergo you can comment on anything.

    • What is the earlist manuscript extant containing such texts? Why should I believe your faith-based assurance that the reports are early? Prove it.

      • As a Muslim, this reflexive defense of the Hadith is one of the more maddening aspects of my co-religionists. There is no way to avoid it – the Hadith are heresay. Moreover, it’s heresay that’s hundreds of years old. Regardless of the identity of the narrators, you simply can’t avoid this fact. There is a reason that courts do not permit evidence based on heresay – human recollection is notoriously poor, and can easily be manipulated and misunderstood. The reason that we Muslims believe that the Quran is infallible is because we believe that it was written down contemporaneously or quite close to the time of the revelation. Furthemore, it’s written in poetry, not prose – think about how much easier it is to rememember a poem or song you love instead of a speech.

        The immediate response from those who view the Hadith as totally integral to Islam is always the same as the poster above – how would we know how to practice our religion, since the Quran itself does not contain all that much in terms of detail. It never strikes people that perhaps God intended that to be the case! if you truly do believe in an omnipotent God who created humans in all of our various incarnations, why is it so difficult to believe that perhaps He intended for us to worship in the manner we see fit? Did He not know that cultures and traditions change throughout time and practices that may have been widely approved in the 7th century would not be in the 21st? Take clothing, for example. The Quran says nothing about requiring women to cover their hair or face. Is it really so hard to believe that perhaps the Hadith which address these points are more of a function of Arab culture at the time, where both men and women covered their hair and face for more practical reasons?

        I don’t believe that the Hadith necessarily need to be rejected outright, and even if they are nothing more than older Arab or Persian cultural mores, they will still have value. I think the appropriate way to read them, if you are a Muslim, is to read them and think about whether this would be a violation of the spirit of the Quran.

      • Far from being offended by your post, Juan, as a practicing and proud British Muslim I found it very interesting. I think your site regularly serves an important function in introducing a balanced perspective on Islam that perhaps western readers will find more trustworthy than a Muslim writing on the same subject (as you are less biased) and more informative than the ignorant Islamophobic stereotypes some part of the western media present.

        Anyhow, regarding the Quran I think one thing overlooked by many western scholars is the eastern tradition of learning things off by heart. During the lifetime of Muhammad s.a.w hundreds of his followers (as well as Muhammad himself) had learnt the entire Quran off by heart and this tradition has continued in every era of Islamic history. My cousin learnt the Quran off by heart and most Muslim children learn shorter chapters off by heart (I’m not particularly studious but managed a dozen or so myself). My point is the evidence that the Quran we have today is the same as the Quran of Muhammad’s time is strong. I do not believe that the hundreds of Muslims who had learnt it off by heart would have allowed it to become corrupted when it was written in collections in the years after his death. There are different readings of the vowels etc. but thats more to do with the richness of the Arabic language than a corruption of the text.

        Regarding the ahadith, it should be noted that Imam Malik was born around 70 years after the prophet’s death in the prophet’s city of Medina. He lived at the same time as others who had met and lived with the prophet’s companions and he began collecting his edition of the hadith during this period.

        Further, the collectors of the hadith were far better historians than those who wrote the New Testament, in my opinion. For example, to this day it is disputed as to who wrote which book of the New Testament and even with the gospels we know the names of the authors but nothing else about them. However, with the hadith we not only know who collected them but with each individual hadith we know who they heard the hadith from and trace the chain of narrators right back to Muhammad s.a.w. This gives us huge advantages. When one narrator is known to have been a consistent liar we can reject all of his narrations. Further, where there is a faulty chain (ie. someone heard it from someone they couldn’t possibly have met due to geographical difference or age difference) then we can reject the hadith. In comparison in the Bible we have verses like this:

        Furthermore, Jesus himself, when he commenced [his work], was about thirty years old, being the son, as the opinion was, of Joseph, [son] of He′li, (Bible, Luke 3:23)

        Luke openly admits that what he is saying rather than being fact was someone’s ‘opinion’ but doesn’t tell us whose opinion this was (and this genealogy he presents is contradicted by one of the other gospels). The gospels leave us in no position to judge which is the more accurate account, but the careful record of the chain of narrators by Muslim historians does. In my opinion, if you discount the ahadith you might as well discount the entire New Testament altogether.

        Finally, there is another huge advantage to the hadith over the New Testament. Very simply, Muslims have never argued all of the hadith are factually correct. Even those who collected the hadith deliberately kept hadith that contradicted one another in their collections, sometimes on the same page! They viewed themselves as the historians who collected but left it to others to judge which was the correct narration. On the other hand, as I understand it (and I admit I have no great knowledge of Christianity, so correct me if I’m wrong) through history many Christians have viewed the New Testament as ‘gospel truth’ despite its blatant contradictions.

        As Muslims, we know and accept many of the hadith are fabrications and others are honest mistakes due to a game of ‘Chinese whispers’ played out over decades – or sometimes even 200 years. Moreover, there was mixing with other religions and also political motivations which led to some very dodgy accounts. And you are also right, the belief in stoning to death despite its outright contradiction of the Quran is an absurd position. That hadith should be rejected. However, that doesn’t mean the hadith are without value or that there aren’t a great many – perhaps the majority – which are accurate historical records. They are like any other element of history. You have to read through a lot of contradicting accounts and use your logic and the weight of evidence to conclude which are the more reliable.

        • @Taalay Just a small comment:
          Stoning adulterers (i.e. married people who have sex outside of marriage) is not a disputed matter among acknowledged Sunni scholars. It is in fact a matter of consensus (ijma’) which is, as I hope you know, considered the most compelling means of establishing a ruling in Islamic jurisprudence. It is not a novelty of “those terrible fundamentalists”, its not even a majority opinion, it is a consensus.

          And as is required of an Ijma’ it is, based on authentic revelation (Quran or Hadith -the authenticity of which you were defending), in this case a Hadith in Bukhari and Muslim (the strongest type of authenticity). It does not contradict the Quran as the Quran refers a general ruling encompassing both married and unmarried individuals. The Hadith provides a specific ruling for married individuals, and as is well established in Islamic principles of jurisprudence, a specific statement specifies a general statement.

    • I, as a muslim, don’t consider the hadith a crucial part of Islam personally. Much of the hadith seems either made up or conveniently modified by people over time, I put virtually no weight weight on it.

  10. John Dominic Crossan, is a professor at DePaul and has published substantially on Jesus and the New Testament.

    Here is his book part of the ‘Essential’ series:
    link to

    He also wrote a book called ‘The Historical Jesus: the Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant’
    link to

    There’s also by other authors Palestine in the Time of Jesus, setting the historical context
    link to

    As for Muhammad, … the works of Maxime Rodinson and Montgomery Watt, but I’d also suggest the newer books by Fred Donner (Muhammad and the Believers) and Wilfred Madelung (the Succession to Muhammad).

  11. Dear “Seventy Five”:
    You said “Hadith literature is a crucial component of Islam, it’s how Muslims know how to pray and many other crucial issues in regards to the everyday lives of Muslims…”

    So, you really believe that Hadith tells us how to perform salat (prayer) while Quran does not, thus implying that one cannot really practice Islam without relying on hadith? So, this is my challenge to you. Find for us (and for yourself), using hadith, how to perform a particular prayer (say, the Fajr or the morning prayer), how many units, what are the steps and sequences, what to say in what position, etc.

    I suspect that you won’t be able to. After all, the first 200 years of Muslims were apparently able to practice Islam without the benefit of Bukhari’s writings.

  12. *APPLAUSE* I was just about to write something equally long and involved, but far less civil, in response to Mr. Sullivan’s latest on the issue, so thank you for saving me the time and effort. One can only hope that if such historical arguments are made often and strongly enough, the chauvinism of otherwise intelligent people might be shaved down a bit.

  13. Seventyfive sounds like the holier than thou fundamentalists who are loud and obnoxious in my neck of the woods. Bravo Mr. Cole for demanding that he prove it. We know that the Bible and the Qur’an were written based on memory and tales passed down thru generations. Then too, I have always wondered about where the ‘visions’ & a god talking to guy from a burning bush,etc., came from. After all the people doing the writing were from a part of the world which is famous for Poppies & other hallucinogenics. Perhaps once they learned that people would throw money at them they just kept on expanding their sermons, rules or whatever with the help of those hallucinogenics.

    With that said I suspect that if Jesus and Muhammad were around today they would be just a couple more ‘television preachers’.

  14. fun read.
    errors are small; truth is large.

    While modern consumerism, individualism and technology might gradually undermine certain types of religion, such as Fundamentalist Islam and Fundamentalist Christianity,
    these same influences are spurring rapid growth in the religion of Secular Humanism.
    Meanwhile, mainstream Catholics and Muslims adapt.

  15. Professor Cole
    Christianity and Islam make different claims regarding their sacred texts- the old and new Testaments are accepted as the writings of human beings (and thus open to interpretation), whereas the Quran is claimed to be the actual dictated words of God, and thus (in principle at least) not open to disputation. To what extent has this been a factor in their capacity to adapt to changes in society?

  16. Well written Professor Cole. I appreciate your research and sincerity.
    I have a different view than those scholars who thought that Jesus (Peace be upon him) was a zealot or DoubtingThomas’ idea that he threatened to tear down and rebuild the 2nd Temple of Solomon (PBUH). First a little background. The 1st Temple of Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians as mentioned in the Bible:

    “15 The LORD, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. 16 But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the LORD was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. 17 He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians,… 19 They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem;” –, NIV, 2 Chronicles 36
    The Jews later returned to Jerusalem, gained strength, and rebuilt the Temple:
    link to
    Then corruption once against entered the hearts of the believers and Jesus (PBUH) admonished the Israelites that sincerity came before outward displays of piety. He then prophesied:
    “Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”” –, NIV, Matthew 24:1-4

    This came to pass in 70CE when the Roman emperor Titus laid waste to Jerusalem right after several internecine struggles among various Jewish factions including the zealots:
    link to Destroyed-the-Temple
    Both events occurred on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av).

    These sad events and the lessons to be gleaned from them are summarized beautifully in the Qur’an:
    “And We conveyed to the Children of Israel in the Scripture that, “You will surely cause corruption on the earth twice, and you will surely reach [a degree of] great haughtiness. So when the [time of] promise came for the first of them, We sent against you servants of Ours – those of great military might, and they probed [even] into the homes, and it was a promise fulfilled. Then We gave back to you a return victory over them. And We reinforced you with wealth and sons and made you more numerous in manpower. [And said], “If you do good, you do good for yourselves; and if you do evil, [you do it] to yourselves.” Then when the final promise came, [We sent your enemies] to sadden your faces and to enter the temple in Jerusalem, as they entered it the first time, and to destroy what they had taken over with [total] destruction. [Then Allah said], “It is expected, [if you repent], that your Lord will have mercy upon you. But if you return [to sin], We will return [to punishment]. And We have made Hell, for the disbelievers, a prison-bed.”” –, Sahih International Translation, 17:4-8

  17. Thank you for your excellent posting professor Cole. I find some of the comments edifying as well.

    I am curious what your opinion is of the influence of these montheisms on the persistence of social organization factors like inheritance and accumulating private ownership of property?

    It is my view that the major monotheisms are in a devils pact with the global inherited rich of the world for ongoing relevance in exchange for our class system perpetuated by ongoing inheritance.

  18. I would like to thank you for your well-researched and rational website, Professor Cole. I’ve been studying Islam in the last 6 months out of personal interest while attempting to remain neutral, which is why I enjoy your posts so much. I feel like I can learn and grow when I visit here. Thank you!

  19. Brilliant, Dr. Cole! Thank you for doing what I asked you to do on another thread–to answer Andrew Sullivan.

  20. […] Catholic Church he loves because of who and what he is, should know better. For an epic takedown, Juan Cole neatly demolishes Sullivan, who is, to put it mildly, very, very wrong. It might be easier, […]

  21. I think that the finest assessment of Jesus by a scholar is that of David Flusser, he wrote the same book three times, the first version, Jesus, fairly academic and personal, a revision several years later. And still later a rewrite under the title The Sage from Galilee. The reviews on Amazon are well done and detailed.

    Flusser (born, lived, and died an Orthodox Jew)says we know a lot more about Jesus that commonly believed. He was an admirer of the teachings and life of Jesus, but unremittingly not an admirer of Christendom. Many Christians today are in agreement with Flusser’s assessment.

  22. Just want to add my thanks and kudos for Professor Cole’s excellent article. I have read some of Bart Ehrman’s work and one of the things which most Christians don’t realize is how much of the Bible has been determined by decisions of people long after the fact and just how indefinite many of the decisions were. Another thing Ehrman points out is that much of the Bible text was copied by illiterates and that they copied letters, not words, all run together. I am not surprised that much of the Muslim religion has the same problem. If only more people knew the actual facts rather than slavishly follow what someone tells them about their religion.

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