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In response to a well-known examination of the historical problems of The Koran, written before 9-11 by Toby Lester in The Atlantic, Seyyed Hossein Nasr said

The acceptance of the Koran as the word of God suggests that the so-called historical and textual study of the Koran is tantamount to questioning the historical existence of Jesus Christ, as some people in the West have claimed. The rules of biblical criticism do not apply to the Koran as God’s revelation, because what corresponds to the Bible is the hadith collection, which comprises the words and deeds of the Prophet of Islam as the Bible comprises the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. Both the hadith books and the Bible were compiled after the revelation, whereas the Koran has existed in its present form from the very beginning of Islamic revelation. To claim that the so-called history of the Koran undermines or casts doubt on its being a divine revelation is not only to misunderstand the nature of the Koran but also to go against the historical evidence.

Even if it is true that the Qur’an in Islam is the very reality of revelation, analogous to Christ in Christianity, it does not follow that this immediate revelation is not open to historical criticism. “Christ” as a dogmatic symbol has a history. From the opening transformation of Jesus from Jewish messiah to the Christos of Pauline doctrine, to the complex theological formulations of the later ecumenical creeds, we can analyze the development of the symbol and root it in specific spiritual, liturgical, social, and political forces. The historian of Christian dogma, who is himself a Christian, can undertake this analysis without compromising his faith in the dogmatic symbol as fully and truly expressive of what is, for him, the “very reality of revelation.”

In the same manner, the belief that the Qur’an is the “very reality of revelation” does not protect it from critical historical examination of how that revelation entered into human experience. As it affirms again and again, it enters experience as a book (al-kitab), and precisely as a book it can be analyzed even while (for a Muslim) maintaining its revelatory status.

Furthermore, the analogy between hadith and the Bible is seriously flawed. It is not true that the Bible came into existence after revelation. The entirety of the Jewish canon lay at hand before, what is for Christians, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Thus the whole of Jewish history, life, and their experience of God is part and parcel of that revelation. Only because the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had already revealed himself to the Jews were the first Christians able to come to believe that the God revealed in the scriptures had also revealed himself in Jesus, now revealed as Christ. Furthermore, beyond the revelation of God in Jesus, the Christian scriptures continued as the unwinding epiphany of the “Christ event,” the revelation of Jesus Christ in the first two or three generations of Christians (“Christ-ians”). That is why, once European scholarship discovered the historicity of knowledge, that Christians and Jews had to make use of historical criticism. Biblical revelation is neither simply a text nor an event. It is a history.

Even more so, Hadith and the Jewish-Christian scriptures have very different relationships to the sacred time they describe. The latter is doubly revelatory: presumptively inspired revelations, bearing the narrative of revelation. The texts not only point to revelation, but are themselves revelatory.

In contrast, ahadith are traditions about supposed events and practices in the early Muslim community. They are a body of sayings (“saying” = “hadith”) about (1) how Muslims were living their lives and (2) supposed events in the sacred time, the time of revelation, of its prophet. But they lack the authority of scripture. Unlike the Qur’an, they do not claim inspiration. To the contrary, they are given an ostensibly historical context though the prefix of an “isnad” (“chain of transmission”), indicating they intend to project an aura of historicity, of being-in-the-world.

But what world are they in? If one reads the Qur’an and, say, the earliest collection of Hadith (by Bukhari) side by side, it is impossible to know if the two texts are talking about the same space and time. The Qur’an gives the sermons, prophetic exclamations, and religious poetry by a prophet; Hadith gives the social, moral, and legal reflections of a community. These reflections are embedded in brief narrative anecdotes, repeated again and again with slight variations and modification. For example, in Bukhari, Volume I, Book 10, Nos. 500 —576 talk about the times of prayers. They express legislative judgments about the times of prayer in different circumstances and in response to different problems.

Consequently, hadith are structurally parallel, not to Tanakh, but to the rabbinical traditions known as mishnah (plural, mishnayot). A mishnah is any rabbinical tradition not rooted in, or pointing to, a scriptural text. The collection par excellence of the mishnayot is The Mishnah of the Rabbi, Judah ha-Nasi (“the patriarch,” circa 200 CE). So at the beginning of rabbinism, its traditions had to be linked back to scripture; it had to be demonstrated that those traditions were indeed grounded in scripture. Creating that linkage was the task of the next 300 years of rabbinic gemara (“commentary”), ending in the Bavli and Yerushalmi, the two Talmudim. Yet the rabbis knew that that linkage was a fiction, because they formulated the doctrine of “Dual Torah,” as a way of of imputing the authority of the Written Torah to the Oral Torah of rabbinism.

Ahadith operates in the same way. Their historicity is not evident. If one removes a hadith’s isnad, it becomes a free-standing tradition about the practices and origins of Islam. It has to be reattached to the sacred time of revelation. That reattachment occurs through the Sirat Rasul Allah (“biography of the prophet of God”). It is noteworthy that the first collections of ahadith (circa 870, attributed to Bukhari and Muslim b. al-Hajjaj) do not occur until after the narrative of the Sirat is finalized by Ibn Hisham, (circa 830). (Remember that the traditional date for the death of Muhammad is 632.) The Sirah provided the tree on which the ornaments of the ahadith could be hung.

Yet the Sirah are also problematic: although they can be correlated to the Qur’an, that does not confirm their veracity, since the traditions that form the unitary narrative developed precisely to give the Qur’an a “back-story.” To understand the chronological problem, imagine if everything we knew about George Washington and the creation of the United States were based on a text compiled in 2000. (Ibn Hisham did claim to have based his text on an earlier Sirat presented, possibly in lecture form, by Ibn Ishaq, who died sometime after 760. But we do not have that text for critical comparison.)

On one hand, Muslim apologists assert the absolute revealed status of the Qur’an, and its imperviousness to critical standards. However, this claim does not prove what Muslims want it to prove. If the Qur’an is simply a revealed text, outside of history, then that is all Muslims have: a text. If they try to give it a history, they can only do so through Hadith and Sirah. However, Hadith and Sira are not impervious to critical standards. To open up the latter to historical criticism is to open the entire can of worms.

Nasr asserts that the Qur’an “has existed in its present form from the very beginning of Islamic revelation.” Now as a hermeneutical description, this statement is unexceptionable. If the Qur’an is simply and directly equated with revelation, then the formulation is a tautology: it has “existed” as such “from the beginning of Islamic revelation,” because that is what Islamic revelation is: a book. However, if Nasr’s claim is not taken as tautological, then something more must be shown: that the history (both of the life of the prophet, and of the development of traditions and practices) formulated in the ahadith and sirah are attached to “the very beginning of Islamic revelation.”

And therein squirm the “worms.”

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