The early history of Islam poses new problems and questions that occupy researchers specialized in various scientific fields, the most important of these being history, archaeology, philology, palaeography and codicology. Despite the importance of the results they reach with their research, they always collide with a closed and rigid jurisprudential corpus which does not recognize history, since it rejects reason and is thus averse to the results of scientific research.


THIS IS A CORPUS that is still strengthened by backward social systems, and political patterns that see no interest in building up the citizen or bringing about any real change. Perhaps the greatest factor of stagnation in the Islamic intellectual and cultural system is the large number of taboos and psychological and mental barriers. These barriers come about when the sacralisation of the original text becomes transferred to the rules of jurisprudential thinking and its interpretative method.  This has turned into something akin to a set of strict restrictions that prevent any change in the direction of thinking, and thus any discovery of new facts. 

As a result, one of the major dilemmas in Islamic culture is that the explanations, interpretations and opinions fashioned by jurists centuries after the Prophet’s era have become part and parcel of the religion. Consequently, many errors have taken on this sacralisation, including errors of spelling and grammar that were committed by scribes, and have thus become part of the Qur’ānic text. These cannot now be modified or corrected, although everyone knows that they are errors. Some jurists have even elaborated their interpretation into ‘miracles’ of the Qur’ān or ‘divine secrets’.

The greatest factor of stagnation in the Islamic intellectual and cultural system is the large number of taboos and psychological and mental barriers

This is what happened with respect to the Isrā’ and the Mi‘rāj[i]  which are discussed every year when jurists at every ‘celebration’ of them rehearse the same formulas presenting them as a real, material incident, even as others hold it to be a myth that is contrary to reason and to the Qur’ān itself, let alone that it is replete with unpalatable and even comical contradictions. Naturally, as usual, this discussion is accompanied by forms of persecution, attacks and defamation against anyone who tries to criticize the orthodox account contained in the Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī.

The sūra in which the Isrā’ is mentioned, originally called the sūrat Banī Isrā’īl, does not in itself pose a problem, but the way in which ancient commentators interpreted it 200 years after the emergence of Islam does pose many problems. Jurists today refuse to discuss these problems because they consider these interpretations to be an integral part of the doctrine. Some of these opine that ‘dogmas are not to be the subject of discussion’. This may be true, but not always so. When is it that certain doctrines become unavoidably placed under discussion?

It happens in three cases in particular: Firstly, when a doctrine undermines human dignity and value, and where holding to it occasions multiple grievances. This is like the belief of Jews, Christians and Muslims in many things that they consider to be at the heart of their faith but that seriously affect the dignity of women and humiliate them in their person and in the perception of them, for example, their belief that women derive from a “crooked rib of Adam”, which has resulted in a long history of contempt and oppression that we find in patriarchal societies.

Many errors have taken on this sacralisation, including errors of spelling and grammar

The second case where people discuss religious doctrine is when they are related to some factual or historical data, such as saying that God conveyed His servant at night from the Grand Mosque to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which lies in the city of Jerusalem in Palestine. This presents contradictions with obvious historical data, because if the Isrā’ represents a kind of prophetic miracle for believers, it cannot then go to the point of creating the existence of a physical mosque in Jerusalem in that period of the Muḥammadan call, in that the jurists would have to clarify where that mosque disappeared to in the period intervening between the Isrā’ and the actual construction of the mosque in the Umayyad era, or why ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb prayed out in the open if there was already a mosque in Jerusalem before he first entered it.

This is similar to the way that the Abrahamic faits state that Moses went out of Egypt with his people to the Sinai desert, whereas all palaeontologists and specialists in ancient Egyptian civilization assert that there is not a single reference or witness from the archaeological and historical evidence of such a great crossing, which could not possibly have been omitted from Egyptian inscriptions that assiduously record all the Egyptian kings and the major events of that era.

Such discussions are not held to constitute contempt for religion because they present no challenge to abstract doctrines

Such discussions are not held to constitute contempt for religion because they present no challenge to abstract doctrines, but are thoroughgoing scientific discussions devoted to the scientific, historical study of the data contained in the Holy Books, and which are held by clerics to be facts that actually occurred on the ground and in a particular geographical location. These are things which require verification and careful research by specialists.

The third case in which some beliefs can be discussed is the correspondence that sometimes exists between certain religious beliefs and other beliefs in completely different and more ancient religions, such as the great similarity between the stories of the prophets and the history of the Assyrian and Babylonian kings in a time before the era of the Abrahamic religions, which disturbs the jurists but remains a fertile field for careful research, one that enables an understanding of the historical sequence of development in religious ideas over thousands of years.  This applies also to the subject of the Mi‘rāj, which is familiar to all those who have studied the Zoroastrian religion, indicating that the story of an ascent to heaven on the back of an animal with a human head was not exclusive to Islam but was widespread in the ancient East centuries before the Muḥammadan call.

The same thing could be said about the story of the Prophet Muḥammad in the ‘cave of Thur’ when he hid in the cave and a spider came and wove its threads over the entrance to the cave.[ii] This is a story that is difficult to mention without remembering the biography of Saint Felix of Nola[iii] who lived in the third century AD, four centuries before the advent of Islam. He also fled from his persecutors who tracked him as far as a cave in which he was hiding, whereupon a spider came and wove her house at the entrance to the cave to create the illusion for the Roman soldiers that the cave was empty and no one was inside.

[i] See Glossary for these terms.

[ii] The cave of Thur is located some 4 km south of the Great Mosque at Makka. Muḥammad and Abū Bakr were said to have hidden in the cave from the Quraysh. The incident is refenced in Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2381. (Ed.)

[iii] Felix of Nola (died c. 260) was a Christian presbyter at Nola near Naples. He was arrested and tortured for his Christian faith during the persecution of Roman Emperor Decius but later managed to hide from authorities until the persecution ended with the death of Emperor Decius in 251. (Ed.)

Main image: St. Felix of Nola, tortured by persecutors and hiding surrounded by a spider’s web. Illustration from a 15 c French manuscript.