At Atlas Shrugs yesterday I ask the question: Judaism and Christianity have undergone intensive historical examination. Why not Islam? This is, of course, a gap I have tried to fill in my book Did Muhammad Exist?.
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is a faith rooted in history. It makes historical claims. Muhammad is supposed to have lived at a certain time and preached certain doctrines that he said God had delivered to him. And just as is the case with every other historical assertion, the veracity of those claims is open to historical analysis. Whether Muhammad really received messages from the angel Gabriel may be a faith judgment, but whether he lived at all is a historical one.
Yet while Islam is not unique in staking out its claims as a historical faith or in inviting historical investigation, it is unique in not having undergone searching historical criticism on any significant scale. That is an omission I attempt to redress in my new book, Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins.
Both Judaism and Christianity have been the subject of widespread scholarly investigation for more than two centuries. The scholarly “quest for the historical Jesus” had begun in the eighteenth century, but it was in the nineteenth century that this higher criticism took off. The German theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874) posited in his Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined) (1835) that the miracles in the Gospels were actually natural events that those anxious to believe had seen as miracles. Ernest Renan (1823–1892) in his Vie de JÃ©sus (The Life of Jesus) (1863) argued that the life of Jesus, like that of any other man, ought to be open to historical and critical scrutiny. Later scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) cast strong doubt on the historical value of the Gospels. Some scholars asserted that the canonical Gospels of the New Testament were products of the second Christian century and therefore of scant historical value. Others suggested that Jesus of Nazareth had never even existed, although this was always a minority view.
The reaction to these historical investigations within the Christian world was mixed. Many Christians dismissed the higher criticism as an attempt to undermine their faith. Some criticized it for excessive skepticism and one-sidedness, regarding historical-critical investigations of the Gospels and the historicity of Christ as the critics” effort to justify their own unbelief. But others were more receptive. Large Protestant churches such as the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists ultimately abandoned Christian dogma as it had hitherto been understood, espousing a vague, nondogmatic Christianity that concentrated on charitable work rather than doctrinal rigor and spirituality. Other Protestant denominations (including splinters of the three named above) retreated into fundamentalism, which in its original formulation was a defiant assertion, in the face of the higher critical challenge, of the historicity of the Virgin Birth of Christ, his Resurrection, and more.
Pope Leo XIII condemned the higher criticism in his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus, but nine years later he established the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which was to use the tools of higher criticism to explore the scriptures within a context respectful to Catholic faith. In 1943 Pope Pius XII encouraged higher critical study in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. The Catholic Church ultimately determined that because its faith was historical, historical study could not be an enemy of faith, provided that such investigations did not simply provide a cover for radical skepticism.
The higher criticism clearly transformed the Christian world, changing the course of several major Christian communions and radically altering how others presented the faith. Similarly, investigations into the origins of Judaism and the historical material contained within the Hebrew scriptures have affected the Jewish tradition. In Judaism as in Christianity, traditions developed that rejected literalism and reevaluated numerous elements of traditional orthodoxy. Reform Judaism, like the liberal Protestant denominations, generally rejected traditional understandings and the literalism that underlay them.
Yet Judaism and Christianity still live, and in many areas they thrive. They have survived the challenge. Can Islam survive the same historical-critical challenge?…