Jihad Watch Board Vice President Hugh Fitzgerald discusses Islamic uses of the histories of other peoples, and the implications of the growth of the field of serious scholarship on the origins of Islam:
If you are a Muslim, you believe that Muhammad made his “Night Journey,” or Miraj, from the top of what non-Muslims know as the Temple Mount. Though Jerusalem is mentioned nowhere in the Qur’an, the Umayyad Caliph wanted to claim Jerusalem, the city holy to Jews and Christians, for Islam — and for precisely that reason. Islam had to appropriate the holy sites of prior religions just as it did the prophets and the stories (in new versions) of the prior two monotheisms whose adherents lived — richer, more numerous, and more advanced — in the very lands the formerly pagan, now islamized Arab tribes managed to conquer.
The Umayyad caliph (who had a role in the development of early Islam) decided that the “farthest mosque” mentioned in the Qur’an, from which Muhammad made his “Night Journey” up to the seventh heaven and back, all within 24 hours, must have been situated on the Temple Mount. Other early Muslims disputed where that “Night Journey” might have been made, but it surely made geopolitical sense — and Islam is a geopolitical doctrine and plan — to fix the site at Jerusalem. In one fell swoop, the appropriating faith of Islam appropriated the city that was holy to both Jews and Christians, and for good measure planted the flag of Islam right on top of the holiest site for Jews, the Temple Mount. Talk about two birds and one stone.
For appropriation of the major figures, the stories, and the holy sites that are important in other religions (which is why mosques in India were built on, and using stone quarried from, Hindu or Buddhist temples) is part of Islam. The Temple Mount is Muslim, of course. Jerusalem is Muslim. Constantinople, by rights, is Muslim, and so is Hagia Sophia. And next after Constantinople, according to a “vision” of Muhammad that circulates widely in the Muslim world and on Muslim websites, the next city to become Muslim will be — Rome.
The Vatican as a Mosque: that should get someone’s attention. And once it is established as such, don’t be surprised if you hear some farrago to the effect that long, long ago, lost in the mists of the distant past, there was a mosque there — before there was any church.
But apart from such plans and appropriative fantasies, whether the building now called the Dome of the Rock was originally a Byzantine martyrium subsequently claimed for Islam, or whether it was an Islamic structure from its inception, is subject to further investigation. Perhaps there are techniques similar to carbon dating that may give a date, and offer guides for further lines of inquiry. In any case, it would not be by any means the only appropriation of a Christian structure for Muslim uses — just as St. John’s in Damascus that became the Umayyad Mosque that tourists ooh-and-aah over without realizing just whose building it originally was. The Mosque of Omar, on the other hand, clearly was built as an Islamic structure, but there too conventional dating needs to be re-examined.
As it needs to be with the Qur’an itself. Those conquering Arabs did not “ride out of the desert with Qur’an in one hand and sword in another,” for they had already been living outside the Arabian peninsula. And according to recent and reliable scholarship, they somehow, probably in the 8th rather than the 7th century, took a mishmash of pagan Arab lore and stories and doctrines from the earlier monotheisms to fashion the Qur’an as an ex post facto justification for those conquests. Most Western scholars of Islamic art (e.g., Ettinghausen, Grabar), while not being Muslims themselves, were long content to accept the Muslim view of the origins of the Qur’an, and of its philology, just as before Goldziher no Western scholar really questioned the authenticity, or origins, of the Hadith. Then St. Clair Tisdall and others began to consider the origins of the Qur’an in Jewish and Christian texts. And, following John Wansbrough, an American scholar who worked in England, others — notably Michael Cook and Patricia Crone in the still un-reprinted “Hagarism” — began to study Islam not within the strict confines of Islamic belief, but outside such restraints. These scholars determined to apply the same methods and rigor that scholars in the West applied to the study of Christianity and Judaism, including the historical Jesus, beginning in the 19th century. And now they have been joined by Christoph Luxenberg, a student of philology, whose “syro-aramaic” reading of the Qur’an presents a plausible understanding of hitherto-incomprehensible passages in the Qur’an.
Muslims by and large simply will not hear of such studies. Even Western self-appointed Defenders of the Faith (including Angelika Neuwirth, a German scholar who converted to Islam, and while she has “moved on” to Greek Orthodoxy, her sons remain Muslim) have tried furiously, but largely unsuccessfully, to punch holes in the learned and implacable Luxenberg. As the techniques and criteria of modern scholarship continue to be employed in straightforward fashion, the history of the early Qur’an is likely to be seen in a new light, at least by non-Muslims — as will be the early history of Islamic conquest. One wonders if the most educated and enlightened of Muslims will manage to tolerate the same study of their faith that Christians and Jews (and Hindus and Buddhists) have all managed to tolerate, and more than tolerate, or whether the belief-system of Islam will prove too brittle to endure such study.