The Islamic Reformation and the issue of historical sources

A miniature showing the destruction of idols at the Kaaba. Muhammad (top left and mounted at right) is represented as a flaming aureole. From Hamla-i haydarî (“Haydar’s Battle”), Kashmir, 1808.
A miniature showing the destruction of idols at the Kaaba. Muhammad (top left and mounted at right) is represented as a flaming aureole. From Hamla-i haydarî (“Haydar’s Battle”), Kashmir, 1808.

Most existing works by Muslims on the early sources and history of Islam, including the Qur’an, the Hadith (reports on life and teachings of the Prophet), the Sirah (story of the Prophet’s life) and the history of the early Islamic period, were written more than a century after the purported death of the Prophet and the beginning of the Islamic conquests. None of these works have reached us in their original forms. Moreover, the works themselves suggest that different versions of certain works, including the Qur’an, had existed at different times, and attest to the turbulent nature of the times in which the works were collected, to the haphazard nature of the collection process itself, and to widespread ideological motivations on part of the collectors and their sponsors. Therefore, the authenticity of these works, in the sense that they actually relate factual accounts of the times and events they purport to cover, is as dubious as that of the Christian gospels and the Old Testament.

But Muslims have long developed a rich mythology around their holy (the Qur’an and the Hadith) and semi-holy (the Sirah and other works on the early of history of Islam) texts, a mythology that is so entrenched in the prevailing culture that most Muslims often take much joy in reading academic accounts that cast doubts on the historicity of the gospels, without considering that most of the same objections and observations are readily applicable to Islamic texts as well. A belief in the unique and incomparable style of the Qur’an, that God has promised to preserve it, that the hadiths (including those related to the Sirah) were transmitted mostly by a chain of trustworthy narrators, and that early Muslim scholars have done a good job distinguishing reliable from unreliable sources; all these elements have long combined to shape Muslims’ perception of the immaculate nature of their holy texts, especially the Qur’an.

A serious modern reformation of Islam cannot take place unless the above beliefs are challenged. Now more than ever, a serious examination by Muslims of the historicity, authenticity and reliability of the basic sources of Islam needs to take place. Current efforts in this regard are being carried out mostly by non-Muslim Western academics. The works of these academics cannot and should not be callously dismissed as conspiratorial or driven by bigotry, as so many Muslims seem to do, seeing that the same logic, tools and motives were also behind the examination of the gospels, the Old Testament and the holy texts of 0ther religions. Islam is not being singled out here. In fact, the violent reactions to Salam Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and to the works of Danish cartoonists have encouraged scholars to give Islam a special treatment in this case and work on these matters away from the spotlight. But Islam cannot forever remain publicly exempted from such critical approaches, and Muslims cannot remain on the sidelines of such endeavors. For such activities cannot inspire a true reformation unless Muslims are involved. Non-Muslim scholars can only critique, analyze and offer a series of new historical interpretations of different aspects of Islam’s formation and evolution, but they cannot offer a modern interpretation of the faith. That’s the job of practicing Muslims who could better rise to the challenge if they were more involved in the current drive aimed at reviewing the sources of Islam.

Notes on Sources 

The Qur’an: from a historical perspective, the Qur’an can best be described as a haphazard collection of poetic and philosophical reflections, stories, sayings, laws and customs of certain tribal groups that inhabited central Arabia, one that reflects their longtime exposure to the Judeo-Christian tradition through contact with Jewish and Christian missionaries of various ideological stripes and with indigenous Jewish and Christian tribes. Textual analysis suggests the likely involvement of multiple authors from different regional and religious backgrounds. In certain respect, the Qur’an is quite reminiscent of the Mongolian legal code: the Yassa, at least in those parts that seek to regulate social and political life. But the Qur’an is admittedly much more ambitious and complex in its scope.

Manuscript of a Sulawesi Qur’an.
Manuscript of a Sulawesi Qur’an.

The Hadith: from a historical perspective, the Hadith can be said to represent a collections of reports relating to the life and teachings of Muhammad, which actually tell us more about the times, beliefs, concerns, prejudices and interests of those who collected them than about the purported founder of Islam. By the same token, the classification of various Hadiths made by Muslim Scholars, old and contemporary, reveals more about their own concerns and interests than about the life, times and actual teachings of Muhammad.

Any person who is somewhat familiar with the complex working of the human memory, of the fact that all the hadiths began to be seriously collected decades after the death of Muhammad and in places far from where his main activities took place, and through reliance on reports conveyed by people who engaged in civil strife and fierce ideological and political debates both amongst themselves and with the people whom they conquered, would and should naturally doubt the accuracy of these hadiths, and would and should dismiss the entire chain-of-narrators methodology adopted by Muslim scholars as being unreliable, if not downright fanciful if not even farcical. Only willful blindness motivated by faith can lead a person to put any stock in the hadiths, other than for the purposes noted above, that is: analyzing events and processes unfolding at the time when the collection of the hadiths took place, including assessing and understanding the basic motivations of the collectors and their sponsors. In this regard, the hadith collections are virtual treasure troves. But there is also a moral, spiritual and literary value to many of these hadiths, irrespective of the identity of their authors and their motivations. Indeed, and in this regard as well, the hadiths are treasure troves, and constitute an important contribution to humanity’s collective intellectual and spiritual heritage.

The Sirah: most of what has been said about the Hadith can also be said of the Sirah and other works on the early history of Islam. Reports relating to the life of Muhammad and his companions and their activities, including accounts of the various battles in which they were involved began to be collected around the same time as other hadiths, that is, almost a century following the death of Muhammad. In fact, there is even no independent confirmation that there has ever been a historical figure called Muhammad, and a close scrutiny of the Sirah sources reveal conflicting reports that seem to suggest that the historical figure we know as Muhammad seems to be a syncretic figure, that is, events and activities relating to different figures living at different times and places seem to have been attributed to one particular man who emerged later at the historical stage, as a result of how the stories fared in popular imagination. There might have even been an element of intentionality here as well, one seeking to raise the profile of the this late-coming figure while downplaying contributions by others whose ideological or tribal backgrounds might have been problematic for those involved in the collecting process be it as collectors or as sponsors. However, once we go beyond these general observations and into an examination of the detailed reports, consensus will be hard to reach, and there will be ample room for subjective interpretation. Indeed, once we get into the details, it will be hard for anyone to assert with any certainty which event actually took place, which did not, and what the exact context was.


Having said all of the above, and even bearing in mind that I am no longer a practicing Muslim and have long become an atheist, I can still see enough wisdom and insight in both the holy and semi-holy texts of Islam to allow for its endurance as a positive force for long into our future. For even after making all of the above observations, there is still no reason why a Muslim cannot remain a believer in Allah as the One and Only God and in Muhammad as His Prophet, no reason why a Muslim can’t remain committed to praying, observing fast, performing the pilgrimage and paying the Zakat, and follow most of the dictates of Islam as they are. For religion is, above all, a matter of faith, that is, an ability to follow the dictates of one’s hearts, and not only one’s minds. Those who have faith or are still capable of accommodating in their lives can still read all of the above and manage to find an interpretation that can allow them to remain true to who they are without even needing to dismiss any of the above observations.

One of my teachers of religious studies back in the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point was a Catholic priest who had absolutely no problem teaching and believing in most of the work carried out by modern scholars in regard to the gospels. To him, so long as there was still a room to believe in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, in the redemption offered by Jesus, and in the important role that the institution that is the Catholic Church can still play in our lives, everything else was of secondary importance and subject to all different sorts of equally legitimate interpretations.

Practicing Muslims has to work out their own formulas in this regard, accept the inevitability and legitimacy of different conclusions, and not dismiss the academic take on the issue of religion and religious studies, even if they disagreed with some of its conclusions. Academic freedom is part and parcel of the basic freedoms of speech and expression, and is a main pillar in whatever renascence we are seeking to have at this stage in our historical evolution.