Category: The Scriptural Dimension

THE STUDY OF the Qur’ān and the cultural constituents of the Ḥadīth and Sīra texts as historical documents – using modern approaches to historical analysis – is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has been promoted by historians, Muslim and non-Muslim, who have been fascinated by the questions of where and when the Text came into being.

The issue of the Text’s historical context is more than merely a dry academic concern, since the process of historical investigation itself has a liberating effect on the fabric and internal dynamism of religious belief. It does this by illustrating the doctrinal influences and points of continuity, and equally the points of originality, of the Prophetic message. On the other hand, Muslim scholars have noted how the doctrine of a Qur’ān lying ‘outside of history’ can only produce a host of problems and contradictions that trouble the faith of the believer. Historically it has had a stagnating effect on ethical development and the prospects of professing a progressive Islam in the contemporary world.

However, once the reticence to approach the Text as a document in history is removed, the essentially ‘dialogic’ approach of the Qur’ān to its environment becomes evident. Scholars see this accumulative dialogic relationship in the form of temporal and abrogating verses, a process by which the Qur’ān cancels out verses which are no longer considered appropriate to new developments, or which responded to priorities identified by the Companions themselves.

By validating this ‘dialogic’ approach of the emergence of the Qur’ān and the new faith within the human environment, and therefore as part of the historical legacy of Late Antiquity, the Qur’ān is understood as rooted within history, and thus a text that is framed to an audience whose education and culture was an integral part of the shared civilisation of Late Antiquity and in dialogue with it. In so doing, an argument is equally made for continuing this dialogue, for prising open the ‘official closed corpus’ of scripture and for licensing change on much broader and more penetrative levels.

It is of course important to make a separation between the arenas of historical research and transcendental faith. Contemporary historians certainly understand that the work of historical analysis and the faith-claims of the Islamic revelation exist on entirely different planes that do not intersect, since the supernatural is simply beyond the capacity of historical discourse to engage. The separation of the two arenas is not only historically, but religiously productive, in that it loosens the grip of morally limiting conservatism, and at the same time opens up the potential to accommodate modernity without a loss of the essentials of faith.

Most importantly, it serves to deconstruct the cultural and doctrinal ‘quarantine’ promoted by literalist interpreters who seek to present Islam as existing in some historical, ethical and epistemological isolation from the rest of the world.