The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wansbrough's self-contradictions

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him -- attributed to Marcus Antonius

In the late 1970s the Semitist professor John Wansbrough wrote several essays on the topic of how, exactly, we are to read the Qur'an and its interpretations. On this topic Daniel Pipes - since the last time I dared look at Wansbrough - has posted an interesting comment from "dhimmi no more" (DNM). There are several points here worth noting.

(For most of us, including myself, the kutub of John Wansbrough like the books of Abdul Alhazred have to be read first in paraphrase. For the House's earlier attempts to decipher Wansbrough: "Principles of Exegesis", and Sectarian Milieu. Before that, here. It seems to be a three-and-a-half year cycle with me.)

First DNM argues:

So what Wansbrough is saying here is that the Qur'an could not have been canonized before the stabilization of the Arabic grammar and syntax and language and this was achieved during the activity known as the Muslim masora which means that the Qur'an was canonized in the 3rd century of Islam and not any earlier

This is as fair a summary of Wansbrough as any. Wansbrough undercuts himself, though, when he notes the (many) instances where the Qur'an makes no sense. Why canonise a book which breaks the rules of your own language? The simplest solution is simply that the Qur'an got canonised first, for various historical reasons not yet discovered (disclosure: this is my particular hobbyhorse). It was after that, that the Arab linguists had to sort out the mess, best they could.

For what I dispute with DNM, there's this: Wansbrough applied the tools of literay criticism to the whole very early Islamic sources be it the Qur'an and the sira and the Quranic exegesis. Well, not really. I found in the mid-2000s that Wansbrough had not used the tools of redaction criticism, at least not as fully as he could. When I was reading his comparison of Shuayb in suras 7, 11, and 26 I wanted to know in which order they were written - and how they were written. All I could winkle out of "Revelation and Canon" was that sura 7 was first - no, that sura 7's telling of this pericope was first. For the other two suras, I was left to mine own devices. And in judging the suras as unitary compositions (otherwise why even bother composing a whole sura?) - that's simply not what Wansbrough cared about.

Personally I think that Wansbrough should have cared.

Ultimately, Wansbrough's argument was circular. Wansbrough assumed that the suras were collections of disjoint pericopae (originally composed with no aim toward a Divine canon). Then he looked into very narrow (and self-selected) pericopae, excluding the rest. They sure looked disjoint (when they were disjoined from their own context). Therefore these pericopae were disjoint when first composed. QED!

John Wansbrough has enduring value as the boy who proclaimed that the Apostle of God was not clothed in precisely the fabrics as his courtiers have been claiming over the past 1300 years. I cannot however accept that the Apostle was entirely naked.


posted by Zimri on 20:14 | link | 0 comments

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