The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The death of a theory about the Prophet

Paul Casanova has, in his main text, been discussing the death of the Prophet.

If you've seen The Message, you'll remember that voiceover at the end: 'Umar proclaiming that Muhammad will rise anew from his deathbed. Abu Bakr then beat everyone over the head with certain Qur'anic verses to the effect that everyone dies, including - from Q. 3:138 - the Prophet himself.

Some Orientalists might argue that this whole scene was at most a topos to distinguish Islam from Christianity (I think some already have - peut-être Wansbrough?). Others like Gustav Weil and, as of 1911, Casanova argued that this event might actually have occurred - because Muhammad in his capacity as the last prophet was, thereby, le prophète de la malhamat. Such a prophet was not supposed to predecease his flock. The deathbed scene is, then, an embarrassment (especially to 'Umar, al-Faruq, sultan of God) and is therefore - by Dissimilarity Principle - admissible into the court of History. We believe because it is inept.

I do not take sides on this myself. Interested parties should read Stephen Shoemaker's Death of a Prophet and Krisztina Szilágyi's After the Prophet's Death. I still waver over David S. Powers, Muhammad Is Not The Father Of Any Of Your Men; I get the feeling it is (still) ahead of its time. But let's not dwell on that.

Theodor Nöldeke stuck with a interpretation so apologetic toward the Sira, beyond even Islamic defences thereof, that an uncharitable soul might label it "neo-traditional". Here (in 1921, I think) is where Casanova takes Nöldeke to school:

Supplemental Note on Page 20, note 1.

Here is the full argument of Mr. Nöldeke (Geschichte des Q., 197-200).

He begins by explaining the error of 'Umar and the Muslims by psychologic reasons that are personal to him because they are unsupported over any datum historical or traditional. While M. lived, he says, Muslims surely thought no more, gewiss nicht weiter, of these verses [Q. 3:138, 182; 21:35sq; 29:57; 39:31sq.], especially as M. had already often schon oft run danger of death, especially at Uhud. Shortly before his end, [the man's health] rallied such that he was believed cured. His [death] burst like a thunderclap, wie ein Donnerschlag [cf. Q. 2:19]. The learned Orientalist remarks that surely, gewiss, many [Muslims] did not know passages that were already seven years old and [the average Believer] surely gewiss was not well served, for [mosque-]recital, by verses announcing such sad tidings. One must forgive me that I underlined thrice the assurance with which this argument is delivered as a certainty. Here where one could say "probably, veritably" is repeated thrice "surely" and after having avowed that all the Muslims were ignorant (1) it is explained because many were ignorant. That those who knew the C. best had hidden these sad tidings jointly - such is not sure, but it is admissible. This trifle aside; the argument does not explain the universal error (the sole A. Bakr excepted). Finally, not only is this explanation purely personal to the learned Orientalist, and devoid of any historical or traditional authority, but it contradicts 'Umar's own explanation. As I have remarked (page 213) Mr. Nöldeke has not, any more than the others, taken that into account. [Umar's assertion] amounts to saying that M. had to live until the end of the world to accomplish his mission in full. It introduces a typic factor that, I dare say, must be considered before any argument from pure psychology. It relies, rightly or wrongly, on the [overall] doctrine of the C. and it answers the question overridingly. In fact the error of all the Muslims (A. Bakr sole exception) comes from how they interpreted M.'s doctrine, that his death, whilst they lived on, was absurd and inconceivable (2).

Coming to Weil's opinion that M., at least in the last days of his life, had wished to pass for immortal, Mr. Nöldeke wonders what could be M.'s goal in spreading a belief so senseless, einen so thörichten Glauben. If M. is but a clever impostor, this is, indeed, absurd. If he be sincere and if he has had a revelation, he has no worry that this is or could appear crazy. God had told him sufficiently that he was not majnûn. More exact is the objection that if M. said he was immortal and made his followers believe it, his death would have annihilated Islam. But it can be argued that this would [only] have happened if A. Bakr had not, by a pious fraud, predicted the misfortune and, much more, by the force of his armies, stifled the consecutive revolts on the P.'s death.

(1) Or seemed unaware. See above, page 213 [on p. 19 l. 23].

(2) We assume, of course, as Mr. Nöldeke, that all the facts have been accurately reported by our Arab historians.

Finally I have proposed, as a third element to combat the disastrous effects of the unexpected catastrophe, the doctrine of M.'s radj'at already stated by Umar and attributed, later, a second time, to 'Abd Allah b. Saba (1).

Mr. Nöldeke asserts next that, in many verses, the Qur'an raises the question more or less directly of M's death. Evidently, if these verses are authentic and if they should be taken literally, if M. really affirmed or hinted that he would die, Weil's thesis is no longer possible. But the mistake of 'Umar and the Muslims becomes all the more inexplicable, and we spin in a vicious circle. For me, from the intrinsic consideration of the issue, I conclude that must be admitted either falsification, for political reasons, or an arbitrary interpretation of these verses. If authenticity is maintained, it is necessary that the announced death by unknown or forgotten verses has not been ordinary death, but something allegorically or specifically linked to M.'s general doctrine. I add that authenticity has been rejected by Silvestre de Sacy, by Weil, by Mr. Hirschfeld, for reasons in fact foreign to the thesis which I support. It is not on the above my thesis is based, but rather [it is] this one that serves to support anew the theory of a pious fraud proposed by these scholars. It is therefore not for the needs of my cause alone that I conclude with them (2). This finding was perhaps not useless to make.

(1) Part 1, p. 57. I will return to that.

(2) I am, indeed, personally convinced of a pious fraud. But, as I have already said, when it comes to the C., one must admit the possibility of various viewpoints (Part 1, p. 42, note 2).

Avertissement: I ain't done. I have already added a small amount of context with [square brackets]. I expect to be doing more of this.

Also it was Casanova's custom to title all scholars with "M." for "Monsieur" and not "Dr."; so, don't dwell on that. I have preserved how his Supplementals abbreviate "Muhammad" also by "M.", "Prophet" by "P.", and "Qur'an" by "C.". Except for mine own [square brackets] ... where I use "Q." Don't dwell on that either.

What might be worth dwelling on is that I cannot find Dr. / Prof. Nöldeke's argument, which Casanova had addressed here, in Wolfgang Behn's English version of the Geschichte. This is because the English version translates, instead, Nöldeke-Schwally - a thoroughgoing update.

... probably because the good German professor knew when he'd been beaten. Like a rented gong, in this case.

posted by Zimri on 16:04 | link | 0 comments

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