Does Islamic Piety Deny Progress of Scholarship?

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The Koran is very important to Muslims. The Muslim believes that it is God’s divine revelation to the Prophet Muhammad via the angel Gabriel. Thus, in its final form it is the final revelation to humanity, “With the truth we (God) have sent it down and with the truth it has come down,” says the Koran (17:105) (1). Muslims both believe and claim that the Koran is without error of any kind since it has its origin in the perfect mind of God, and as a result most do not openly examine its content critically. Some questions pertinent to historical criticism are forbidden to be asked, such as (2):

-What pre-Koranic sources influenced Muhammad?
-Since the Koran recognizes the full inspiration of the Bible, why are there serious discrepancies at points between what it says and what Muhammad teaches?
-How did the Koran come to be in the form in which we find it today?

Muslims often do not ask these questions because they are seen to be dishonoring to God and the Prophet Muhammad. To ask such questions is to doubt God, and to not trust him in his revelation to Muhammad. Thus, the common Muslim view is that God spoke everything to Muhammad, and that nothing came from Muhammad’s own thinking. These revelations were then perfectly preserved and collected prior to Muhammad’s death which means that the Koran is the same as it was when it was first presented by God some 1400 years ago. The Muslim believes that if there are discrepancies, contradictions, or tensions between the Koran and the Bible, that it is ultimately the fault of Jews and Christians, who corrupted or distorted the truth they originally received from God; according to the Koran “Indeed, it is We who sent down the Quran and indeed, We will be its guardian” (15:9).

However, this reverence of the Koran has hindered the advancement of historical critical scholarship. As commentator on Islam, Robert Spencer explains, “The true identity, words, and deeds of the Prophet of Islam are topics that have only been lightly explored by scholars, largely owing to the paucity of early, reliable sources, and the entrenched Islamic resistance to any questioning of accepted Islamic beliefs, even if that questioning is based on non-polemical, scholarly principles. While historical critics of the Bible have operated freely and wielded tremendous influence in the Christian and post-Christian West, in the Islamic world such studies are virtually nonexistent. The few scholars who work in this field, such as Christoph Luxenberg, receive death threats and publish under pseudonyms” (3). But encouragingly, Luxenberg is “one of a small but growing group of scholars, most of them working in non-Muslim countries, studying the language and history of the Qur’an” (4). Sadly, historical investigation and the study of Islam is only more recently growing given that Islamic orthodoxy considers “the holy book to be the verbatim revelation of Allah, speaking to his prophet, Muhammad, through the Angel Gabriel, in Arabic. Therefore, critical study of God’s undiluted word has been off-limits in much of the Islamic world… Islamic scholars who have dared ignore this taboo have often found themselves labeled heretics and targeted with death threats and violence.”

Perhaps a most vivid example of this was the late University of Cairo scholar Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd. In 2001, Abu-Zayd was shockingly charged with apostasy by Egypt’s Constitutional Court for considering the Koran to be a document written by humans. Abu-Zayd never actually denied the divine origin of the Koran, and argued that it needed to be read in the context of the language and culture of 7th century Arabs (5). Such is what any competent scholar or lecturer in the field of history would inform his or her readers and students. Abu-Zayd had to flee Egypt at the time due to numerous death threats and threats of violence. In fact, those calling for his execution were a number of university professors at Al-Azhar Univeristy. A further case was the scholar Suliman Bashear who, after arguing that Islam developed as a religion gradually rather than emerging fully formed from the mouth of the Prophet, was thrown out of a second-story window by his students at the University of Nablus (6).

This sad state of the Islamic academic world shows us why freedom of thought and expression are so important. These rights provide the basis from which one is able to communicate ideas that are essential for personal progress and development, as well as the development within academia and the moral sphere. It is precisely freedom of expression and thought that allows for us to critique bad ideas and credit the good ones. How could science or history progress if freedom of thought and expression were oppressed? They couldn’t, scholars would not be allowed to express themselves honestly and thus do their work.


1. Fisher, M. 1997. Living Religions: An Encyclopaedia of the World’s Faiths. p. 338.

2. Elass, M. Understanding the Koran. p. 14 (Scribd ebook format)

3. Spencer, R. The Truth About Muhammad. p. 30 (Scribd ebook format)

4. Thiel, S. 2003. Challenging The Qur’an. Available.

5. Cook, M. 2000. The Koran : A Very Short Introduction. p. 46.

6. Stille, A. 2002. Scholars Are Quietly Offering New Theories of the Koran. Available.


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