Knowledge With Understanding

Recently, I posted about author Tom Holland, and his NPR interview where he claimed that any Muslim should be able to understand how he, as a non-Muslim, could try to make historical sense of the Koran, since he wasn’t bound by Muslim doctrine.  Given the alarming level of violence directed by some Muslims (usually overseas) towards both Muslims and non-Muslims over the issue of blasphemy (for Muslims) or “slander” (for non-Muslims), I thought at the time, and still think, it represents the kind of self-delusion that one only finds with a high degree of education.

But the subject appears to be in the air, as they say, and Peter Berger at the American Interest has penned a more thoughtful andcontemplative piece about the role that historical scholarship, as applied to the Koran, might play in advancing the cause of Islamic reformers, and in undermining the more radical elements that are gaining ascendancy in the Muslim world.

The Society for Biblical Literature, “the largest professional association concerned with Biblical and related studies; it is now strongly committed to a theologically neutral methodology of modern historical scholarship,” is getting ready to add the Koran to its portfolio of religious texts that it studies.

In its self-description the SBL says that it is “devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible”. A co-director of the consultation says that it would, among other things, seek to approach the Koran in the context in which the text arose, “as an historical, literary and religious text.” “Critical”, “context”, “historical” – these are words, used in connection with the Koran, that could get you killed in many parts of the Muslim world. But let me leave aside for the moment the question of the likelihood that such an approach could get a hearing among traditional Muslims. Rather I will ask a different question:  Given the core affirmations of Islamic faith, is this approach religiously plausible for believing Muslims? It goes without saying that only Muslims can decide what they can or cannot believe; a non-Muslim can be a historian of Islam, he cannot be an Islamic theologian. However, a sympathetic outsider can ask a question that does not presuppose belief: Are there intellectual resources for such an approach within the Muslim tradition?

A short answer to this question is yes. This answer, though, needs to be explicated.

Berger then goes on to describe a Muslim school of thought that, while maintaining the divinity of the Koran, nevertheless leaves room open for its allegorical interpretation in places. Muslim reformers evidently often cite this school of thought and its methodology in support of their efforts to “reconcile Islam with pluralism, democracy and modern thought.”  It’s Berger’s contention that rationalist investigation into the Koran’s origin and development might not merely be left alone, as Holland hopes, but might actually inform such Islamic speculation.  How these discoveries would be integrated into Muslim thought would have to be left to Muslim theologians, of course.

If such ideas have a chance to work, they do here in the US, where most Muslims are far from radicalized, came here to get away from radicalization and its discontents, and where there is perhaps the most active effort to reconcile Islam with democracy and an officially secular society.  While Berger would probably deny that he’s underestimating the resistance that such ideas would meet in the Islamic world, I think he is, even here in the United States.  Both evangelical Christianity and Orthodox Judaism are testaments (so to speak) to the ability of serious faith to simultaneously absorb and ignore historical scholarly scrutiny of their texts.

And then, there’s the outright hostility of the clergy.  Here’s Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni, in a speech to a mosque in Dearborn.  Kazerooni is an odd duck, and I’ve written about him before.  An Iraqi Shia, he left Iraq as a teenager to study in an Iranian madrassah in Qom. He is totally in the tank for the Iranian mullahs, having “given over,” as they say, a speech by Ayatollah Mezbah Yazdi, Ahmedinejad’s spiritual advisor, on the 21st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, at a mosque in London.

Also, note that at the beginning of his talk, at about 9:00 of the first clip, he obliquely praises the then-recent news of Hebollah’s ascendance to the leadership of the Lebanese government.  So to go by external appearances is to deceive oneself about the nature of the man.

But here in Denver, he tries to portray himself as ecumenical, willing to work across religious lines for understanding between faiths.  He’s had some success, at one point heading St. John’s Episcopal’s Abrahamic Initiative.

Kazerooni is also a doctoral student at the University of Denver’s Iliff School of Theology, and quite clearly recognizes the threat that academic examination of Islamic tradition poses to orthodox Muslim belief. Beginning at around 1:50 of the clip below, he begins a long peroration, exhorting young Muslims to enter the academy, not to learn academic techniques, but to prevent and forestall their use as they relate to Islam:

So it’s not as though American Muslim clerisy is unaware of the threat to their authority and to traditional beliefs posed by academia.

Still, Berger’s is an interesting thought, and one that indicates a great deal more understanding of how Muslims view the world and their book than Holland’s naive assertions.

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