By his fundamental criticism of the historical credibility of the classical Islamic narratives concerning Islam's beginnings and his attempt to develop an alternative, historically more credible version of Islam's beginnings, Wansbrough founded the so-called "revisionist" school of Islamic Studies.
Wansbrough was born in Peoria, Illinois. He completed his studies at Harvard University, and spent the rest of his academic career at SOAS. He died at Montaigu-de-Quercy, France. Among his students were Andrew Rippin, Norman Calder, Gerald R. Hawting, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook.
Wansbrough began studying early Islamic manuscripts and the Quran. He realized that the early Islamic texts addressed an audience which was familiar with Jewish and Christian texts, and that Jewish and Christian theological problems were discussed. Criticism of "infidels" was addressed obviously to monotheists who did not live monotheism "purely".
These observations did not fit to the Islamic narratives on Islam's beginnings which depicted Islam to come into being within a polytheistic society. Wansbrough analyzed the classical Islamic narratives which had been written 150 to 200 years after Muhammad with the historical-critical method, especially literary criticism. Thus, he claimed countless proofs that these texts are not historical accounts but later literary constructions in the sense of the concept of a "salvation history" (Heilsgeschichte) of the Old Testament. Their historical core is meager and cannot be detected.
On this basis, Wansbrough developed the theory that Islam did not come into being as a new religion on its own but derived from conflicts of various Jewish-Christian sects. The Quran was written and collected in a long process over 200 years and thus cannot be attributed to Muhammad. The person of Muhammad would be a later invention, or at least Muhammad cannot be related to the Quran. For later times, Muhammad had only the function to provide an own identity to the new religious movement according to the role model of a Prophet of the Old Testament.
Reception and Critique
By his fundamental criticism of the historical credibility of the classical Islamic narratives concerning Islam's beginnings and his attempt to develop an alternative, historically more credible version of Islam's beginnings, Wansbrough founded the so-called "revisionist" school of Islamic Studies. His influence cannot be overestimated.
Yet Wansbrough's theory is today considered to be too radical in detail, especially in the total separation of the emergence of the Quran from the person of Muhammad. However, Wansbrough's rejection of the classical Islamic narratives as historical accounts widely finds acceptance. Also his realization that Islam came into being within a milieu shaped or strongly influenced by Jews and Christians is broadly supported.
- Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (Oxford, 1977)
- The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition Of Islamic Salvation History (Oxford, 1978)
- Res Ipsa Loquitur: History and Mimesis (1987)
- Lingua Franca in the Mediterranean (Curzon Press 1996)
- Res Ipsa Loquitur: History and Mimesis (Reprint by World Scientific Publishing 2012)
This line of research was investigated in Egypt by Nasr Abu Zayd but he was expelled from Egypt because of his conclusions about the Qur'an. Students and scholars who doubt the traditional view of the genesis of the Quran as well:
- Michael Cook
- Patricia Crone
- Martin Hinds
- Gerald Hawting
- Christoph Luxenberg
- Gerd R. Puin
- Andrew Rippin
- Carlos A. Segovia and Basil Lourié, eds. The Coming of the Comforter: When, Where, and to Whom? Studies on the Rise of Islam and Other Various Topics in Memory of John Wansbrough. Orientalia Judaica Christiana 3. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4632-0158-6.
- John Wansborough remembered, The Religion Report, Radio National (Australia), 26 June 2002.
- Oliver Leaman (ed.), The Qur'an, an Encyclopedia, 2006; p. 477
- Harald Motzki et al., Analysing Muslim Traditions, 2010; p. 285 ff.
- Andrew Rippin (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to the Qur'an, 2006; pp. 199 f.
- Michael Cook, Review of: The Sectarian Milieu by Wansbrough, in: The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland No. 2 (1980), pp. 180-182