The Quest for the Historical Muhammad

by Asma Afsaruddin
The Quest for the Historical Muhammad
Asma Afsaruddin
Journal of the American Oriental Society
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Reviewed work(s): The Quest for the Historical Muhammad by Ibn Warraq

The Quest for the Historical Muhammad. Edited, with translations, by IBN WARRAQ. Amherst, N.Y.: PROMETHEUS, 2000. Pp. 554.
This is a partisan work compiled by the editor hiding behind the nom de plume of Ibn Warraq (lit. "son of a copyist"). a name redolent of medieval theological controversies. The editor is clearly courting controversy by indulging in a self-serving, polarizing discourse in his lengthy introduction, which sets the tone for the rest of the book. The introductory radd consists of two essays composed by Ibn Warraq and fellow zindiq Ibn Rawandi (another cleverly crafted pseudonym). These two essays contain a recital of the masawi of authors from what I will call the non-rejectionist school, and the maf akhir of authors from what I will call the rejectionist school; Ibn Warraq and Ibn Rawandi zealously endorse the views of the latter school. As is well known to Islamicists, the adherents of the rejectionist school advocate the whole-scale jettisoning of the written classical Islamic sources, primarily dating from the third/ninth century, for reconstructing the history of early Islam. Juxtaposed to them are those sc holars from the non-rejectionist school who, in varying degrees, call rather for a critical re-reading of the traditional sources in order to present a credible account of the rise and development of the Muslim polity. The first group, the "bad guys" in our editor's constellation, selectively include Montgomery Watt, Fuat Sezgin, Nabia Abbott, Fred Donner, C. H. M. Veersteegh, and Estelle Whelan, while the second group, the "good guys," include Henri Lammens, Edward Muir, Patricia Crone, Michael Cook, and John Wansbrough, among others. Our copyist's son clearly has an ideological axe to grind: anyone who revises, refines, challenges, or nuances the arguments of the rejectionist school is depicted as doing so from sinister motives, while those who unequivocally champion its views are understood to be motivated by the purest and most single-minded scholarly devotion to the indefatigable pursuit of Historical Truth. Poor editing, sloppy transliteration, and ad hominen attacks on certain authors from the "enemy" camp, especially Watt, add to the chagrin of the reader.
The rest of the book is an anthology of previously published essays by Ernest Renan, Henri Lammens (three articles in all), C. H. Becker, Arthur Jeffery, Joseph Schacht, Lawrence I. Conrad (two essays), Andrew Rippin, J. Koren and Y. D. Nevo, and F. E. Peters, all of which in varying ways question traditional interpretations of the rise of Islam and the career of its Prophet, and/or of the composition and growth of specific Islamic corpora: scripture, sira, hadith, tafsir, and [ta.sup.[contains]]rikh. The final section consists of two essays by Herbert Berg and G. R. Hawting that are adulatory assessments of the significance of John Wansbrough's hypotheses for contemporary studies of early Islam.
There is no doubt that many of the above writers have raised pertinent and provocative questions that have been and continue to be debated by scholars in the field. A healthy consequence of this debate is that it has forced everyone to read more critically and, one hopes, to theorize less recklessly. But Ibn Warraq is not interested in debate; he wants nothing less than wholesale conversion to his point of view, touted as that of a friqa najiya within the community of scholars of Islam. This kind of triumphalist grandstanding needlessly poisons the atmosphere and stymies efforts to engage in honest scholarly discussion. Regrettably, Ibn Warraq continues to release more toxins into the air.
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Oriental Society

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