A festival of fallacies
They’re out to get Islam, the orientalists, all of them. That’s basically the gist of the book I’ve been reading over the past few weeks:
al-A’zami, M.M., 2003. The History of The Qur’ānic Text from Revelation to Compilation: A Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments, Leicester (UK Islamic Academy).
I’ve blogged before about the history of the qur’anic text. My blog on square kufic only touches the subject of the qur’an, but it’s actually the post that attracts most visitors to this blog. The subject has my attention. Unfortunately books on it written by Muslims aren’t easy to find, so I immediately bought it.
The History of The Qur’ānic Text is an apologetic treatise rather than a work of scholarship. It basically tries to prove a traditional Islamic viewpoint: the qur’an was preserved unchanged, unadulterated and uncorrupted from its first revelation to Muhammad until the present day. On the surface this seems to be the very opposite of what western scholars on Islam and Arabic (consistently termed ‘orientalists’ by al-A’zami) think. In their view the qur’an is an ancient text like any other: variants have been preserved in the various canonical ways of recitation (qira’at and riwayat), in ancient manuscripts, in Islamic commentaries and anecdotes (ahadith).
Al-A’zami’s first line of defence against these western allegations always takes the form of a ‘yes that’s true but…’. Whatever comes after that ‘but’ coincides wonderfully with what ‘the orientalists’ say: variant readings reflect copying mistakes, different spelling conventions (or the lack thereof), they hardly affect meaning, or not at all. Strangely al-A’zami does not realise this, as is clear from his comments on the works of one such ‘orientalist’, Arthur Jeffery (p. 206):
Jeffery acknowledges this fact bleakly, lamenting that, “Practically all the early Codices and fragments that have so far been carefully examined, show the same type of text, such variants as occur being almost always explainable as scribal errors”.
Al-A’zami and ‘the orientalists’ agree most of the time on matters of fact. They only disagree on the value they attribute to these facts and on the way to put it. In the view of ‘the orientalists’ there are many variant texts, differing from each other in minutiae whereas in al-A’zami’s view there is only one unchanged, unadulterated and uncorrupted qur’an …in multiple recitations. It’s the choice of words -nothing else- that seems to be the problem, an issue that al-A’zami can take to great heights (p. 155 note 13):
I may add that Jeffrey uses a host of Judeo-Christian jargon in arranging this archive: “Canonization by Ibn Mujahid”, “Muslim Massora”, p. 3, 5 (footnote); and using † for death instead of d. (a cross so as to Christianise the poor soul!), p.14 etc.
Where al-A’zami and ‘the orientalists’ really do disagree on matters of fact, al-A’zami takes recourse to a festival of fallacies. Here’s a fine example of a petitio principii (from the introduction):
There will never be a discovery of a Qur’ān, fragmental or whole, which differs from the consensus text circulating throughout the world. If it does differ then it cannot be regarded as Qur’ān, because one of the foremost conditions for accepting anything as such is that it conforms to the text used in ‘Uthmān’s Mushaf.
As one of my colleagues once remarked: ‘Some people think they’re thinking when they’re just rearranging their prejudices’. It would be too much to give an exhaustive list of all other fallacies, but the following ones are illustrative of al-A’zami’s approach.
The fourth caliph Uthman organised a standardisation of the qur’anic text. He had an authoritative text compiled and even went so far as to order all other copies of the qur’an to be burned. Al-A’zami makes much work of this standardisation. In his view it guaranteed the perfect preservation of the qur’anic text. He insists Uthman’s standardisation met with no objections and even talks about ‘unparalleled success’ indicating ‘his actions echoed the voice of the community’ (p. 97). Uthman’s unparalleled action should instead have echoed the original text of the qur’an and deplorably we will never be able to judge for ourselves whether it did, given the destruction of earlier copies.
A few pages later (p. 98-99) al-A’zami entirely spoils his point by indicating there were differences between the copies compiled at the orders of caliph Uthman. They were noticed by contemporary Muslim scholars, which is why we know about them. There were only twelve of these differences but still, if you claim (in the introduction, emphasis mine):
The Qur’ān is the very Word of Allāh, His final message to all humanity, revealed to His final messenger Muhammad and transcending all limitations of time and space. it is preserved in its original tongue without any amendments, additions or deletions.
… that’s simply not good enough. Leaving aside the question how logic -limited by time and space- is going to stipulate that a particular text transcends all limitations of time and space. I have yet to meet the first scholar that is able to merely peek beyond those limitations, let alone apply logic there, or anything else for that matter.
Al-A’zami also insists Uthman’s standardisation met with no objections (p. 97) but on p. 205 lists two Islamic scholars who were punished for holding opposing views on the very subject. Which begs the question: why do we not know of objections to Uthmans actions? Because there weren’t any, or because they were suppressed?
On p. 157 al-A’zami takes on Jeffrey and Goldziher, who were the first western scholars to notice that the lack of diacritical dots and vowel-signs in the earliest qur’anic manuscripts led to different readings of the text. To counter this, al-A’zami takes three words from the qur’an that all together occur 18 times, dutifully notices 4 cases where these words do indeed have different readings and then triumphantly concludes:
I could spill much ink in citing more examples, but the above are sufficient to prove my point. There are literally thousands of instances where two forms of a word are contextually valid, but only one is collectively used; so many instances in fact, that they cease to be coincidence and overwhelm Jeffery and Goldziher’s theories.
More ink is better left unspilled. Al-A’zami not only disproves a theory which Jeffery and Goldziher never formulated, a fallacy known as ignoratio elenchi, but also lends the theory that they did formulate solid proof: variants occurred, and they occurred where the lack of diacritical dots and vowels led to uncertainty.
Al-A’zami devotes a whole chapter to that specifically Islamic method of checking your sources: the isnaad: the chain of people that is supposed to have handed down a specific story -or even whole books- from generation to generation. Only stories with a sound isnaad were accepted as a source of law, exegesis, history. It led to a whole range of studies into the people in those chains: were they reliable? Had they actually met? Had stories been handed down only in writing, or had the written account been recited by the teacher to his pupil? I’ve blogged about it before.
Isnaads are the pride of Islamic scholarship. Al-A’zami devotes so much attention to it to contrast it with the methods by which the texts of the bible came down to us. And he does have a point here: it is indeed a splendid system, in theory. Because western scholars -notably Goldziher and Schacht– have definitively proven that this fine system was only refined to its present state of splendour in the 8th and 9th centuries. By the time it had become academically useful, most harm had already been done. Al-A’zami quotes story after story to counter the views of western ‘orientalists’ while questioning the reliability of the isnaads of stories that throw doubt on the perfect preservation of the qur’anic text. Stories and their isnaads are al-A’zamis natural arguments. Yet, this methodology has become so questionable to western ‘orientalists’ that it’s almost beyond debate. On p. 332-333 al-A’zami gives an angry summary of these views, but at no point in his book does he even try to counter them.
But even if the Islamic method of isnaad-criticism were useful, al-A’zami doesn’t apply it properly. On p. 176 he quotes a story about a certain al-A’mash reporting that he heard an eminent Islamic scholar recite a totally different word in a particular verse. He tried to correct the scholar by quoting the correct word, but got the reply that the two words were the same. Al-A’zami then tries to prove that this story is spurious, because quite a few other stories about and from al-A’mash himself indicate that he and this eminent scholar really didn’t get along with each other. According to one story al-A’mash once even swore never to learn anything from this scholar. Al-A’mash never gained a kernel of knowledge from him, al-A’zami concludes, totally neglecting the fact that the first report is about al-A’mash hearing the scholar recite, but all other reports he uses refer to a teaching relationship (ignoratio elenchi again).
The History of The Qur’ānic Text isn’t written for a non-Muslim public. it’s written for Muslims. It’s written for Muslims who want to read what they believe. This becomes blatantly clear when al-A’zami takes on the old and new testaments. This is odd, because in his introduction he writes:
Certainly anyone can write on Islam, but only a devout Muslim has the legitimate prerogative to write on Islamic and its related subjects. Some may consider this biased, but then who is not? Non-followers cannot claim neutrality, for writings swerve depending on whether Islam’s tenets agree or disagree with their personal beliefs, and so any attempts at interpretation from Christians, Jews, atheists, or non-practicing Muslims must be unequivocally discarded. I may add that if any proffered viewpoint clashes with the Prophet’s own guidelines, either explicitly or otherwise, it becomes objectionable; in this light even the writings of devout Muslims may be rejected if they lack merit. (…)
You’d expect an honorary fellow at the University of Wales in Lampeter to at least use a single measure for all. By his own standards he should have left the textual history of the Old and New Testament to practicing Jews and Christians. Still, 25.9% of his book is devoted to it. In that 25.9% al-A’zami uses a curious mixture of assorted quotes from western biblical scholars and a very literal reading of the bible.
Al-A’zami bluntly states (p. 229) that the thora was in existence during the time of Joshua. It was sealed in the ark, lost for seven months to the Philistines, recovered, then lost for five centuries until it was found under the reign of Josiah (2Kings 22), and then lost for another 170 years until Ezra found it again and read it to the people (Neh 8:1-8). He states all this, simply because the bible says so. But no western biblical scholar would subscribe to such an unhistorical view. The thora was written or compiled under Josiah’s rule at the earliest. Moses -if he ever existed- had nothing to do with it. But that’s a bridge too far for al-A’zami. Western scholarship is fine, as long as it stays within the boundaries of Islamic dogma.
The bible moreover is a product of literature, not a historical work as al-A’zami thinks. When he takes a look at the followers of Jesus as depicted in the gospels he observes that in Mark, however, the twelve hardly understand anything they are taught (p. 272) . Al-A’zami stumbles right into one of the main literary themes of the gospel of Mark, but he just doesn’t notice. When al-A’zami treats the ‘corruption’ of the old testament he uses a rather unusual example: in p. 256-261 he treats the story in Genesis 17 about the covenant between God an Abraham and wonders why Ismael wasn’t part of that same covenant. God throws a boy out of His covenant against his Own dictates (p. 258 ) he exclaims after a fairly legal reading of the relevant passages. Again he’s standing knee deep in one of the most important literary themes of Genesis, but he simply doesn’t have a clue.
Al-A’zami wants the pleasures of western biblical scholarship, but not the burdens. And after all it’s not even about the bible or the qur’an: it’s about land. Readers that manage to reach the end of al-A’zami’s book will be surprised to read his conclusions. Conclusions that are more familiar to those who read newspapers: we Muslims were wrongfully thrown out of Abraham’s covenant, yet we have always been and are the majority among his progeny so we have a right to the promised land.
To top it all al-A’zami concludes that only devout Muslims can objectively study Islam. The research of non-Muslims and even some Muslims can be disregarded. Suddenly it becomes clear why al-A’zami never fails to mention the Jewish descent of any scholar that may have one -regardless of whether it is relevant- and why shi’a tendencies are used to dispense with the opinions of some Muslims.
In order to justify this viewpoint he compares western ‘orientalists’ and their views on the qur’an and Islam with John Strugnell, whose views on Jews were deemed anti-semitic and who was fired as a result as editor in chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project. If one scholar can be removed from his post because of anti-semitism, surely western ‘orientalists’ should be removed from theirs for being anti-islamic? Surely al-A’zami has no difficulties treating unwelcome views on texts as if they were unfavorable views on people. It’s a fallacy alright, even when its Latin name has escaped me for now…