Book Review of Ibn War­raq’s The Quest for the His­tor­i­cal Muham­mad”, NY : 2000

Fred M. Donner

The Quest for the Historical Muhammad

Mid­dle East Stud­ies Asso­ci­a­tion Bul­letin, Vol­ume 35, Num­ber 1, Sum­mer 2001, Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, ISSN 0026 – 3184, p. 75

The study of Islam’s ori­gins, includ­ing the life of Muham­mad, is a noto­ri­ous­ly con­tentious under­tak­ing. Schol­ars with admirable train­ing dif­fer sharply among them­selves on how to under­stand it. The appear­ance of a vol­ume that claims to pro­vide suf­fi­cient back­ground to put the cur­rent debates, between revi­sion­ists and tra­di­tion­al­ists about the ori­gins of Islam, in their intel­lec­tu­al con­text” (p. 9) is thus sure to attract notice.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the com­pil­er, iden­ti­fied only by the pseu­do­nym Ibn War­raq”, who also wrote the vol­ume’s long intro­duc­to­ry essay, is triply unqual­i­fied to serve as our guide in this field. Ibn War­raq” like the equal­ly mys­te­ri­ous author of the sec­ond essay, on the sources, Ibn Rawan­di” (per­haps one and the same indi­vid­ual?) lacks the rig­or­ous spe­cial­ist train­ing in Ara­bic stud­ies that alone could qual­i­fy him (her?) to eval­u­ate inde­pen­dent­ly the dif­fer­ent schools of inter­pre­ta­tion in this field. This inad­e­qua­cy is revealed by, for exam­ple, incon­sis­tent han­dling of Ara­bic mate­ri­als, and by the fact that nei­ther Ibn War­raq” nor Ibn Rawan­di” con­tributes any orig­i­nal argu­ments to this debate.

More seri­ous still is the com­pil­er’s heavy-hand­ed favoritism for cer­tain revi­sion­ist the­o­ries (par­tic­u­lar­ly those of John Wans­brough), result­ing in a thor­ough­ly one-sided selec­tion of arti­cles and trans­la­tions that con­sti­tute the bulk of the vol­ume. These include works, most­ly well-known, by Ernest Renan, Hen­ri Lam­mens (includ­ing a com­plete trans­la­tion of his mono­graph Fati­ma and the Daugh­ters of Muham­mad”), C. H. Beck­er, Arthur Jef­fery, Joseph Schacht, Lawrence I. Con­rad, Andrew Rip­pin, J. Koren and Y. D. Nevo, F. E. Peters, Her­bert Berg, and G. R. Hawt­ing. Most of these were land­mark con­tri­bu­tions to the lengthy debate on the ori­gins of Islam, by schol­ars who had (have) strong opin­ions about it and were pos­sessed of full mas­tery of the pri­ma­ry lan­guages (espe­cial­ly Ara­bic) and sources.

Ib War­raq’s” bias, how­ev­er, caus­es him to omit fine con­tri­bu­tions that pose chal­lenges for some revi­sion­ist ideas by H. Motz­ki, U. Rubin, and many oth­ers. This lop­sided char­ac­ter makes The Quest for the His­tor­i­cal Muham­mad a book that is like­ly to mis­lead many an unwary gen­er­al reader.

Most prob­lem­at­ic of all, how­ev­er, is the com­pil­er’s agen­da, which is not schol­ar­ship, but anti-Islam polemic. The author of an ear­li­er book enti­tled Why I Am Not a Mus­lim (1995), Ibn War­raq” and his co-con­spir­a­tor Ibn al-Rawan­di” detest any­thing that, to them, smacks of apolo­getic ; for this rea­son they crit­i­cize harsh­ly sev­er­al not­ed authors for their bad faith’ or moral ambiguity.’

Yet this book is itself a mon­u­ment to duplic­i­ty. The com­pil­er nev­er has the hon­esty or courage to divulge his iden­ti­ty, even though a list of con­trib­u­tors (pp. 551 – 54) gives a bio­graph­i­cal sketch of all the oth­er con­trib­u­tors who, unlike Ibn War­raq” and Ibn al-Rawan­di”, are already well-known.

Far more seri­ous is the fact that this book is reli­gious polemic attempt­ing to mas­quer­ade as schol­ar­ship. It is a col­lec­tion of basi­cal­ly sound arti­cles, framed by a seri­ous­ly flawed intro­duc­tion, and put in the ser­vice of anti-Islam­ic polemic ded­i­cat­ed to the propo­si­tion that Islam is a sham and that hon­est schol­ar­ship on Islam requires gra­tu­itous rude­ness to Mus­lim sensibilities.

By asso­ci­at­ing these arti­cles with Ibn War­raq’s” polem­i­cal agen­da, The Quest for the His­tor­i­cal Muham­mad will raise sus­pi­cions among some Mus­lims that all revi­sion­ist schol­ar­ship is moti­vat­ed by such intolerance.

This is like­ly to make the future progress of sound his­tor­i­cal schol­ar­ship on Islam’s ori­gins hard­er, rather than eas­i­er. The pub­li­ca­tion of The Quest for the His­tor­i­cal Muham­mad is, there­fore, a most unfor­tu­nate event.

Fred M. Don­ner, Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago.Endmark


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