Historical-critical method of religious texts criticized

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Wed, 2022-09-14
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Book cover Emilio Platti


Dominican priest and scholar Prof. Dr. Emilio Platti OP (1943-2021) published in 2020 his latest book De Koran herontdekt, Averbode: Uitgeverij Averbode|‌Erasme N.V, 2020, 96 pages.


Platti’s book discusses the context in which the Qur’an came into being or as Muslims would formulate this, “was revealed.” Emilio Platti shows a cautious interest in the work of revisionist scholars of Islam also known as the Historical-Critical school of Islamic studies. The work of revisionist scholars of Islam is controversial for both traditionalist Western scholars of Islam and Muslim scholars since it questions the traditional view about how Islam came into being or was revealed. Revisionist scholars of Islam try to date texts and archaeological findings that have survived the ages to the years that these were put in writing and not the period they describe. They also search for other evidence that helps to understand the context of how the Qur’an came into being. Emilio Platti, however, was not only a well acclaimed scholar but also a Dominican priest and thus knew that what he wrote could impact the relations of his Catholic church with Islamic scholars. He was thus very cautious in his speaking and writing, Dutch journalist and Arabist Eildert Mulder says, who, wrote a book review of Platti’s book.


Mulder is familiar with the topic. Mulder and Thomas Milo, wrote in 2009 the book “De omstreden bronnen van de Islam,” (The Contested Sources of Islam), which describes the views of some prominent revisionist scholars of Islam.


Since the beginning of Christianity and Islam both religions had to face polemicists. This is usually done through showing the fallacies in a religion one opposes. Sometimes this is also done by creating texts that are attributed to much earlier years. Two historical examples are the Mīzān al-Ḥaqq, Christian polemics of Islam, written by a 19th century European missionary among Muslims, and the Gospel of Barnabas, a 17th century book which has formed the basis of much of the Muslim polemics against Christianity. See our 2006 polemics discussion paper that has lost nothing of its actuality in this discussion.


Platti’s book is not polemical. He intended with his book to create understanding about the context in which the Qur’an was revealed, including the role of Christians in the Arabic peninsula prior to the arrival of Islam. He was fully aware of the sensitivities involved but nevertheless referred to the work of some revisionist scholars.


Prof. Dr. Hassan Wagieh [Ḥassan Wajīh], professor Emeritus, Linguistics Department, Faculty of Languages, at the prestigious Azhar University in Egypt, is strongly opposed to the approach of revisionist scholars of Islam and points to observable weaknesses and shortcomings since they do not distinguish between literature and divine holy books that belong to a very specific discourse genre. Dr. Wajīh quotes literary critic, biographer and Harvard University Professor Walter Bate (1918-1999) who indicts “deconstruction as nihilistic, whimsical and abstruse … the deconstructor assumes that literature has been held captive by traditionalist critics…” For the full text of Dr. Wajīh’s paper click here.


Platti, not a revisionist scholar of Islam, refers to two leaves of a Qur’anic manuscript that was in possession by the University of Birmingham. In 2015 they claimed, based on radiocarbon dating that these two leaves could be dated to between 568 and 645 CE (in the Islamic calendar, between 56 BH and 25 AH). If this is accurate it would create a probability to predate this manuscript to a period prior to the traditionally accepted date for the composition of the Qur’an during Caliph Uthman [ʿUthmān] (644-652 CE). Several Muslim scholars have refuted this claim as ill-founded based on Islamic science and methods. The objection to predating the Qur’an is related to the great consequences this would have for our understanding of how the Qur’an came into being, not as a revealed text but a human text with its own story of how this came into being.


Western scholars often disregard oral traditions, much doubt is created about our ability to memorize accurately. An example of such doubt can be found in Bart Ehrman’s “Jesus Before the Gospels – How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior,” (first published in 2016).


Dr. Wajīh points to an Islamic science called الجرح والتعديل " " which is translated into “Vouching and Discrediting” or “Rectification and Invalidation,” providing for “a rich conceptual framework and detailed empirical methodology that enables students to track down correctly the roots of a given story.”


The overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars is convinced that the very particular language of the Qur’an “came as a challenge to the greatest poets and linguists of the pre-Islamic Jahiliyyah era. These poets and linguists were known for their very high eloquence and mastery of the Arabic language. It is widely believed that this challenge is still wide open and will remain till the end of time,” Dr. Wajīh says.


Arab-Islamic culture is often described as an oral culture. The fact is that millions of Muslims throughout the centuries kept the holy Qur’an by heart and recited it without mistakes.


Dr. Wajīh calls delving into the sensitive issues “the closed religious discourse that should be avoided.” The fundamentalist discourse, is an example of a closed religious discourse, dividing the world into two factions: that of evil and that of “true” believers, https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/language-extremism translated in French, https://www.oasiscenter.eu/fr/le-langage-de-lextremisme


Dr. Wajīh quotes with consent Pope John Paul II who suggest that both Christians and Muslims should witness “to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths.” In other words, non-Muslims should abstain from delving in the historical critical method and leave this discussion to Muslim scholars and vice versa.


Muslim and Christian believers, however, cannot prevent non-believers from interpreting their scriptures. The only answer to this is, I think, accepting that different approaches to the study of holy texts exist and believers engage with the arguments of scholars engaged in historical critical research.  An example of such an engagement is the 424 page book of the late Dr. Muhammad Abu-Laylah [Muḥammad Abū Layla] titled االقرآن الكريم من المنظور الاستشراقي: دراسة نقدية تحليلية: آلم ذلك الكتاب لا ريب فيه هدي للمتقين  in translation “The Noble Qur’an: From the Orientalist Perspective. This is the book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of God.” Abū Layla addresses in details the claims of the revisionists scholars of Islam regarding the authenticity of the holy Qur’an.

Dr. Abū Layla was well aware of our database work and even wrote a recommendation letter. Dialogue Across Borders will be pleased to place the translation of his book in our database. Dr. Ḥassan Wajīh responded “I do agree with you that we need to translate the book of late professor Abū Layla, may God rest his soul.”



September 14, 2022


Cornelis Hulsman

Editor-in-chief Dialogue Across Borders