Revisionist school of Islamic studies
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The Revisionist school of Islamic studies, also known as Historical-Critical school of Islamic studies or simply Revisionism, is a movement within Islamic studies which spreads since the 1970s and initiated a paradigm shift in Islamic Studies.
- 1 Main thesis and the concept of Revisionism
- 2 The major representatives
- 3 The thesis of the incredibility of the traditional Islamic accounts
- 4 The new theses about the true beginnings of Islam
- 5 Criticism of Revisionism
- 6 A challenge for reflection and reform to Islam
- 7 Revisionism by non-specialists
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
Main thesis and the concept of Revisionism
The core concern of the Revisionist School is to finally show consequence concerning the knowledge, practically available since Ignác Goldziher's time, that the traditional Islamic accounts about Islam's early times - written 150 to 200 years after Muhammad - are highly questionable as historical sources. This relates to Muhammad's biography, the formation history of the Quran, and the historical developments under the first Islamic dynasty, the Umayyad Caliphate. The true historical events in the earliest times of Islam have to be newly researched and reconstructed by applying the historical-critical method.
The designation Revisionism was coined first by the opponents of the new academic movement and is used by them partially still today with a dismissive undertone. Then, the media took up this designation in order to call the new movement with a concise catchword. Today, also the adherents of the new movement use Revisionism to designate themselves, yet mostly written in quotation marks and with a slightly self-mocking undertone.
The major representatives
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The new movement originated at the SOAS, University of London by two publications of John Wansbrough: Quranic Studies (1977) and The Sectarian Milieu (1978). Among the students of Wansbrough are: Andrew Rippin, Norman Calder, G. R. Hawting, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook. With their work Hagarism (1977) Patricia Crone and Michael Cook set a milestone in Islamic Studies, since by provocative theses they provided maximal attention in the academic community. Later, both distances themselves from their too far reaching theses in Hagarism. Yet they adhered to the basically new academic approach. Martin Hinds, too, studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Robert G. Hoyland is a student of Patricia Crone.
A second local focus of the new movement is at the Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany ("Saarbrücken School"). Since the 1970s there is a focus on the historical-critical research of the development of the Quran, by Günter Lüling und Gerd-Rüdiger Puin. Also in Saarbrücken, Karl-Heinz Ohlig developed in the 2000s together with Volker Popp, Christoph Luxenberg and Markus Groß a theory of Islam's earliest times which has no need for Muhammad as a historical person.
Further representatives are: Hans Jansen from the Netherlands who in 2005/7 published a work showing in detail why the known accounts of Muhammad's life are legends only. Yehuda D. Nevo published in 2003 his work Crossroads to Islam: The Origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State in which he denies the historicity of Muhammad. James A. Bellamy is known for his textual criticism of the Quran and for his proposals of emendations, i.e. proposals to correct the traditional text of the Quran. Fred Donner published in 2010 the first well-founded hypothesis on the early time of Islam without excessive exaggerations which found public attention.
Tom Holland studied history and became a renowned author of popular science publications on ancient history. With his work In the Shadow of the Sword (2012) Tom Holland contributed heavily to the popularization of the new research results. Tom Holland depicts a possible synthesis of the various revisionist approaches, thus having like Fred Donner provided a well-founded hypothesis of Islam's early times which avoids exaggerations.
Sven Kalisch is a German Islamic theologian who rejected teaching Islamic theology without considering the new results of historical-critical research. Thereupon the German Islamic associations withdrew his allowance to teach future Islamic theologians and teachers. Later Kalisch left Islam. Today he is teaching the history of ideas in the Near East in Late Antiquity in Münster.
The thesis of the incredibility of the traditional Islamic accounts
The arguments against the credibility of the classical Islamic traditions about Islam's beginnings were e.g. summarized by Prof. Hans Jansen in his work De Historische Mohammed. Jansen discusses chapter by chapter the depictions in the prophet's biography by Ibn Ishaq resp. Ibn Isham which is an important text for traditional Islam. Jansen reveals self-contradictions, contradictions to other historical sources, embellishments by later authors, politically or theologically motivated distortions of the depiction, symbolic meanings of allegedly historical names, literary construction of the depiction according e.g. to biblical models, and chronological and calendrical incredibilities.
- Although there were leap months at the time of Muhammad which had to be intercalated frequently into the moon calendar and which only later became abandoned (allegedly by Muhammad), not a single of the many most accurately dated events depicted by Ibn Ishaq is in a leap month.
- The most accurate dating of so many events by an author who writes 150 years later is not very credible.
- The depiction of a strong relationship between Muhammad and his wife Aisha is motivated politically resp. theologically: Aisha was the daughter of Abu Bakr, who became Muhammad's successor against the claims of his rival, Ali. In order to legitimate this succession against the Shia, who were in favour of Ali, the relationship of Abu Bakr's daughter to Muhammad became emphasized: That Aisha allegedly was the favourite wife of Muhammad, and that the prophet consummated marriage with Aisha allegedly at an astonishingly early age.
- The depiction of slaughtering the Jewish tribe of the Banu Qurayza is motivated politically resp. theologically: As the "treaty of Medina" shows, the Jews were initially part of the Umma and were addressed as "believers"; cf. the research of Prof. Fred Donner. When Islam later separated from Judaism, antisemitic readings of the past came into being. The threefold treason of Muhammad by three Jewish tribes is a literary construction according to biblical models, e.g. the threefold treason of Jesus by the apostle Peter, and thus is historically questionable. There are other traditions about the same event which tell that only the leaders of the tribe had been punished but not each single member of the tribe. The names of the three Jewish tribes do not occur in the "treaty of Medina". Finally, such an mass slaughtering would not have gone unnoticed, even not in Muhammad's time, and especially not considering that the victims were Jews: Jews used to live in international trading networks, and Jews are known to write down their history. Most likely, the slaughtering of the Banu Quraiza never happened.
- The depictions of Ibn Ishaq are generally known to boldly exaggerate the capacities of the prophet. According to Ibn Ishaq, Muhammad always kills more enemies than according to other traditions. Even the depiction of he prophet's male potency (who allegedly could satisfy all his wives in one night) is exaggerated in a questionable way. Of the same category is the depiction of Muhammad as an illiterate person. The revelation of the Quranic text is all the more miraculous and the capacity of the prophet is all the more astonishing if Muhammad was an illiterate person.
- The account of Muhammad's letters to the Heads-of-State including the emperor of Byzantium, that they should convert to Islam, retrospectively justifies the Arabic expansion as a religious, Islamic expansion.
Jansen points out that the historically questionable traditions are of great importance for the interpretation of the Quran. The Quran mostly does not reveal the situation for which a revelation was made. The historical context is merely indicated, at best. Many Islamic traditions came into being long after Muhammad on the basis of mere guesses for what situation a Quranic verse had been revealed. Because these historically questionable traditions, the interpretation of the Quran has been restricted ever since.
In her work Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam Patricia Crone gave a general examination of the credibility of Islamic traditions. This examination is much cited in literature yet discusses only a few aspects of Muhammad's biography meant to be exemplary for the nature of all the Islamic traditions. Concerning the encounter of the young Muhammad with Jews who recognize him as a prophet, and other stories, Patricia Crone writes: ""These stories are no different from those on Muhammad's encounter with Jews and others. Being non-miraculous, they do not violate any laws of nature, of course, and in that sense they could be true. In fact, they are clearly not. [...] We cannot even tell whether there was an original event: in the case of Muhammad's encounter with the Jews and others there was not. Either a fictitious theme has acquired reality thanks to the activities of storytellers or else a historical event has been swamped by these activities."
The new theses about the true beginnings of Islam
Starting point for all researchers is the awareness that the traditional Islamic accounts about Islam's beginnings which came into being only 150 to 200 years after Muhammad are highly questionable as historical sources.[attribution needed] The true events in early Islamic times have to be newly researched and reconstructed with the help of the historical-critical method. In the following the theses of the revisionists in broad outline:
- The Quranic text as is in use today shows many differences to the earliest existing manuscripts. A core part of the Quran may derive from Muhammad's annunciations, yet some parts of the Quran were definitively added later resp. were reworked later. In addition to that many small deviations came into the text as usual with ancient texts which were manually copied and copied again.
- The existence and meaning of the prophet Muhammad as a historical person depends especially with the question whether any and how many parts of the Quran can be attributed to his time, or, whether all or most parts of the Quran came into being only after Muhammad's time. The researchers' opinions differ in this question. Fred Donner suggests an early date for the Quran.
- The Quran is not written in a "pure" Arabic yet the syriac Aramaic language seems to have a certain influence on the language of the Quran which was forgotten later. This could be a possible explanation why a fifth of the Quranic text is difficult to understand.
- Islam did not rise among polytheistic pagans in the desert, yet in a milieu where Jewish and Christian texts were well-known. The "infidels" were no pagan polytheists yet monotheists who were considered to deviate slightly from monotheism.
- The geographical descriptions in the Quran and later traditions do not fit to Mecca. They rather point to a place somewhere in north-western Arabia, e.g. to Petra in Jordania.
- The connection of Muslims and Jews was very close in the early times of Islam. Also Jews were called "believers" and were part of the umma. Antisemitic texts as e.g. the slaughtering of the Jewish tribe of the Banu Qurayza came into being long after Muhammad when Islam separated from Judaism.
- In the beginning, secular and spiritual power were united in the person of the caliph. There were no special religious scholars. Religious scholars came into being only later and conquered the spiritual power from the caliphs.
- The Islamic expansion probably was no Islamic, religiously motivated expansion, yet a secular, Arabic expansion. The expansion did not yet result in an oppression of the non-Muslim population.
- After Muhammad there were at least two phases which were of major importance for the formation of Islam in its later shape:
- Under the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was built. There the word "Islam" appears for the first time. Until this moment the Muslims called themselves simply "believers", and coins ware minted in the Arabic empire showing Christian symbols. Abd al-Malik also plays a major role in the reworking of the Quranic text.
- During the Abbasid Caliphate, practically all Islamic traditional texts about Islam's beginnings were written. The Abbasids as the victorious party in the conflict with the Umayyads had great interest to legitimize their rule. This motivation obviously crept into the traditional texts.
Criticism of Revisionism
The consequent historical-critical analysis of early Islam met severe resistance in the beginning since then provocative theses with far-reaching meaning were published without sufficient evidence. Especially Patricia Crone's and Michael Cook's book Hagarism (1977) stirred up a lot of harsh criticism. Important representatives of Revisionism like Patricia Crone or Michael Cook meanwhile distanced themselves from such radical theses and uncautious publications. 
Criticism is expressed by researchers like Tilman Nagel, who aims at the speculative nature of some theses and shows that some revisionists lack some scholarly standards. On the other hand, Nagel accepts the basic impulse of the new movement, to put more emphasis on the application of the historical-critical method. A certain tendency to take revisionists seriously becomes obvious e.g. by the fact that opponents address their criticism not any longer to "revisionism" alone but to "extreme revisionism" or "ultra-revisionism".
Gregor Schoeler discusses the revisionist school and depicts the early controversies. Schoeler considers revisionism to be too radical yet welcomes the general impulse: "To have made us thinking about this all and much more remarkable things for the first time -- or again, is without any doubt a merit of the new generation of the 'skeptics'."
Resistance comes partly from older academics who still live in their thoughts in the world of the Islamic legends. As Thomas S. Kuhn in his famous work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) described, a new paradigm prevails in academia often not by convincing current academics but by convincing the next generation of academics.
Continuous resistance against the new paradigm comes from researchers who fundamentally reject the application of the historical-critical method to Islamic texts. They argue that this method was developed for Christian texts and thus there is no reason to apply this method to Islamic texts, too. Adherents of Revisionism doubt whether this still is a scientific point of view.
A challenge for reflection and reform to Islam
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The relationship between religion and science had always been shaped by conflicts...[attribution needed] It is always a hurting process for every religion to realize that parts of its teachings were wrong: at the beginning, new scientific results are often considered to be an attack on religion itself;[attribution needed] only later is it realized that religion can live with the new findings, so long as the religion's core is not affected, and things are sorted out in the way of religious reforms.
By nature new findings about the early times of Islam touch the identity of the Islamic religion. Thus it is a justified claim of religious people that any research concerning their religion has to progress with high diligence and cautiousness in order to avoid unnecessary irritations. At the same time it is a justified claim by academics that they can do their research freely and without any restraint, even if the results run contrary to religious teachings.
The gravity of irritation provided to Islam depends on the question whether core teachings of Islam are touched or not, especially the historicity of Muhammad and the attribution of the Quran to Muhammad.[attribution needed] According to this question, the historical-critical school can roughly be divided into two groups (for details see the researchers' articles):
- As far as the research results do not deny the historicity of Muhammad and assume the Quran to have come into being mainly in Muhammad's time, the core essence of the Islamic religion is left untouched. This is the case e.g. for the following representatives of revisionism: Patricia Crone, Michael Cook, Fred Donner, Tom Holland, Günter Lüling.
- As far as the research results do deny the historicity of Muhammad and assume the Quran to have come into being mainly after Muhammad's time, the core essence of the Islamic religion is put into question. This is the case e.g. for the following representatives of revisionism: John Wansbrough, Hans Jansen, Karl-Heinz Ohlig, Yehuda D. Nevo.
Besides the discussion of the historicity of Muhammad as a historical person and the Quranic text attributed to him, Islam faces the following debates:
- Traditional texts which had shaped Islam for centuries - yet not from the beginning - are not true.
- The Quranic text has not been handed down to our times unchanged.
- Even in the Quran, God's word is in many respects clothed in human words.
- Muhammad did not live in Mecca.
- The relationship between Muhammad and Jews and Christians was different than always thought it had been.
Revisionism by non-specialists
Ibn Warraq, an author known for his criticism of Islam, has complied several revisionist essays in his book, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad. Fred Donner, reviewing the book, notes that by favoring Wansbrough school of revisionism, the author presents a "one-sided selection" that fails to consider the challenges to this line of revisionism. The results is "a book that is likely to mislead many an unwary general reader." Robert Spencer, in this book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry Into Islam's Obscure Origins, advances the thesis that Islam was a state-religion created by the Abbasids to justify the empire.
- François de Blois, Islam in its Arabian Context, S. 615, in: The Qur'an in Context, edited by Angelika Neuwirth etc., 2010
- Alexander Stille: Scholars Are Quietly Offering New Theories of the Koran, New York Times 02 March 2002
- Toby Lester: What Is the Koran? in: The Atlantic issue January 1999
- Toby Lester: What Is the Koran? in: The Atlantic issue January 1999
- Cf. e.g. François de Blois, Islam in its Arabian Context, S. 615, in: The Qur'an in Context, ed. by Angelika Neuwirth etc., 2010. Judith Herrin, Patricia Crone: memoir of a superb Islamic Scholar, openDemocracy 12 July 2015
- Cf. e.g. Toby Lester: What is the Koran?, in: The Atlantic, issue January 1999
- Cf. e.g. Patricia Crone: Among the Believers, Tablet Magazine 10 August 2010
- Cf. Jansen, De Historische Mohammed, 2005/7
- Patricia Crone: Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, 1987, p. 222
- John Wansbrough: Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (1977) pp. 43 ff.; Gerd-Rüdiger Puin: Observations on Early Qur'an Manuscripts in San’a’, in: Stefan Wild (Hrsg.): The Qur’an as Text. Brill, Leiden 1996; pp. 107-111
- Yehuda D. Nevo: Crossroads to Islam: The Origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State (2003); Karl-Heinz Ohlig (Hrsg.): Der frühe Islam. Eine historisch-kritische Rekonstruktion anhand zeitgenössischer Quellen (2007)
- Fred Donner: Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing (1998), p. 60
- Karl-Heinz Ohlig (Hrsg.): Der frühe Islam. Eine historisch-kritische Rekonstruktion anhand zeitgenössischer Quellen (2007) pp. 377 ff.; Christoph Luxenberg: The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran – A Contribution to the Decoding of the Koran (2007).
- G. R. Hawting: The Idea of Idolatry and the Rise of Islam: From Polemic to History (1999); Fred Donner: Muhammad and the Believers. At the Origins of Islam (2010) p. 59
- Patricia Crone / Michael Cook: Hagarism (1977) pp. 22-24; Patricia Crone: Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987); and the private researcher Dan Gibson: Quranic Geography (2011)
- Fred Donner: Muhammad and the Believers. At the Origins of Islam (2010) pp. 68 ff.; cf. also Hans Jansen: Mohammed (2005/7) pp. 311-317 (German edition 2008)
- Patricia Crone / Martin Hinds: God's Caliph: Religious Authority in the First Centuries of Islam (1986)
- Robert G. Hoyland: In God's Path. The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (2015)
- Patricia Crone / Michael Cook: Hagarism (1977) p. 29; Yehuda D. Nevo: Crossroads to Islam: The Origins of the Arab Religion and the Arab State (2003) pp. 410-413; Karl-Heinz Ohlig (Hrsg.): Der frühe Islam. Eine historisch-kritische Rekonstruktion anhand zeitgenössischer Quellen (2007) pp. 336 ff.
- Patricia Crone: Slaves on Horses. The Evolution of the Islamic Polity (1980) pp. 7, 12, 15; auch Hans Jansen: Mohammed (2005/7)
- Cf. e.g. Toby Lester: What is the Koran?, in: The Atlantic, issue January 1999
- Cf. e.g. Tilman Nagel: Befreit den Propheten aus seiner religiösen Umklammerung! in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 21 September 2009
- Cf. e.g. Marion Holmes Katz: Body of Text: The Emergence of the Sunni Law of Ritual Purity (2012), p. 27
- Gregor Schoeler, Charakter und Authentie der muslimischen Überlieferung über das Leben Mohammeds, de Gruyter 1996. pp. 18 f., 23 f. 142 f.; original citation p. 24: "dies alles und noch manches Beachtenswerte mehr uns zum ersten Mal -- oder erneut -- zu bedenken gegeben zu haben, ist zweifellos ein Verdienst der neuen Generation der 'Skeptiker'."
- Cf. e.g. Karl-Heinz Ohlig: Review of: Mohammed. Leben und Legende, by Tilman Nagel, in: imprimatur No. 41, 2008
- Cf. e.g. François de Blois, Islam in its Arabian Context, p. 615, in: The Qur'an in Context, ed. by Angelika Neuwirth etc., 2010
- Peter Harrison (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (2010) pp. 292 f. - Karl-Heinz Ohlig: Islam und Islamismus, in: imprimatur No. 48, 2015, pp. 48-53
- Cf. Karl-Heinz Ohlig: Wissenschaftliches Arbeiten in der Islamwissenschaft, in: imprimatur No. 41, 2008
- Salwa Ismail: The Politics of Historical Revisionism: New Re-Readings of the Early Islamic Period, in: Michaelle Browers, Charles Kurzman (ed).: An Islamic Reformation?, Lexington Books (2004), pp. 101-124; especially p. 114 and footnotes 43, 44. Karl-Heinz Ohlig: Islam und Islamismus, in: imprimatur No. 48, 2015, pp. 48-53
- Fred Donner: Review of: The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, by Ibn Warraq, Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, 35(1), pp. 75–76.
- Fred Donner: Muhammad and the Believers. At the Origins of Islam, Harvard University Press, 2010 ISBN 978-0-674-05097-6
- Tom Holland: In the shadow of the Sword, Little, Brown Book Group, 2012 ISBN 978-0-3491-2235-9
- Patricia Crone: What do we actually know about Mohammed?, openDemocracy 10 June 2008.
- Toby Lester: What is the Koran?, in: The Atlantic, issue January 1999.
- Carlos Segovia: J. Wansbrough and the Problem of Islamic Origins in Recent Scholarship: A Farewell to the Traditional Account, book chapter in: The Coming of the Comforter: When, Where, and to Whom? Studies on the Rise of Islam and Various Other Topics in Memory of John Wansbrough, ed. by Carlos A. Segovia and Basil Lourié, Gorgias Press, 2012, pp. xv–xxiv.