The House of David

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Friday, October 28, 2016

Walid Saleh reviews the reviewers

Muslim scholar Walid Saleh in 2003, disembarking from his ship of fools, posted a roundup of pre-9/11 Islamic studies:

Mohammad Abu-Hamdiyyah, The Qur'an: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2000), 136pp., Hb. ISBN 04 152225086, Pb. ISBN 04 15225094; Issa Boullata, ed., Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur'an, Curzon Studies on the Qur'an (Richmond: Curzon Press, 2000), 393 pp., Hb. ISBN 07007 12569; Michael Cook, The Koran: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 174 pp., Pb. ISBN 0 19 285344 9; Reuven Firestone, Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 208 pp., Hb. ISBN 0 19 512580 0; Roberto Tottoli, Biblical Prophets in the Qur'an and Muslim Literature, Curzon Studies on the Qur'an (Richmond: Curzon Press, 2001), 213 pp., Hb. ISBN 07007 13948; and Uri Rubin, Between Bible and Qur'ân: The Children of Israel and the Islamic Self-Image (Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 1999), 318 pp., Hb. ISBN 0 87850 134 7

Since late 2001, when I started taking Islam seriously, I too had reviewed or at least read several of the books mentioned here, but without awareness of what Saleh had already done. Now that I have his roundup, I figured I'd revisit what he's made of his massive library. I mean, except for Mohammad Abu-Hamdiyyah; I haven't read him, and Saleh's review tells me I'm not missing anything here.

Saleh mainly bemoans the lack of a current text on How To Read The Koran. He situates himself inside the "German School", meaning mainly Theodor Noeldeke and, today, Angelika Neuwirth. This is the school which takes the Sira at face value, along with the traditional chronology of the suras as Noeldeke updated it. Although Saleh doesn't review Noeldeke's revisionists Bell and Watt, nor Neal Robinson's Discovering the Qur'an, he does recommend both - for what they are. I tend to agree, except that Discovering was too cautious - Robinson's shorter essays, like "Hands Outstretched" on sura 5, are more daring and therefore more useful.

After Abu-Hamdiyyah, whom I'm skipping, Saleh hits Michael Cook. Saleh repeats that Cook is not a Qur'anic specialist, so shouldn't be writing a piece on the Qur'an. This is a valid argument - I used it against Chase Robinson when he dipped into 'Abd al-Malik - but it is not a fatal argument. One does, after all, have to start somewhere, even Qur'anic specialists. This is where editors should come in.

I must also add that if Saleh asserts that Cook has missed X, it would help Saleh's point if he could argue why X is important. For instance, calligraphy: maybe Saleh is right that the Qur'an has inspired Arabic calligraphy. This is an interesting notion given that the "Qur'an" is, literally, an oral text only secondarily put to paper. Which suras raised the profile of the Qur'an as book? Where in the Hadith is calligraphy promoted over, say, statuary (mentioned directly in the Qur'an)?

Saleh also dings Cook for noticing there is a lot of nautical imagery in the Book. But Cook is not the only scholar who has noticed; Fred Donner (no revisionist he) noticed the same thing in Narratives Of Islamic Origins. Saleh's argument is: Muhammad, as a late antique merchant, might have heard [these terms] from his contacts. This betrays wishful-thinking on Saleh's part: he doesn't like the evidence, so he explains it away.

I haven't actually read Cook's book myself, so I'll take the bulk of Saleh's critiques as given, that Cook is too easily distracted, too judgemental, and too prone to error (like not noticing the Qur'an's plurals for "paths"). Still, Saleh doesn't seem all that fair himself. Both authors should probably work on that.

The next book is one I actually have read, albeit a long while ago: Reuven Firestone, Jihad. Firestone's best work is on the Islamic traditions of Abraham; I don't any longer own the work Saleh reviews here. (I have Michael Bonner now.) Saleh reminds me of why I abandoned this book: Firestone has no awareness in the Qur'an of an evolutionary progression toward a warrior-ethic, instead plunking all the relevant suras into the same span of time and assigning them to coexistent factions. I have to agree with Saleh here: where you can find a sequence of suras, you must use that sequence. If you cannot find a sequence, you need to be VERY cautious on how you use the relevant material.

Next up: Tottoli, where we get to a book I've reviewed too (negatively). Saleh thinks Tottoli is too cavalier with the material; he mostly reviews Tottoli's take on the Saul cycle in sura 2. I had my own issues, but I daresay I've arrived at the same place Saleh reached.

Saleh then reviews Uri Rubin, which he recommends highly. I recommended it too, not as highly, but mainly because I thought Rubin was just that far ahead of the curve. (And because I was angered at Darwin Press's sudden price-hike.) Still, although this book was hard to read, and sometimes superceded by later work, it is well worth the effort.

Last is Issa Boulatta Boullata (whose name always gives me trouble); containing Zahniser's classic study on sura 4, to which Saleh delivers a deserved shout-out. (My collection The Arabs and Their Qur'an can vouch for Anthony H. Johns' essay as well.) Here Saleh doesn't go into detail, possibly running out of space, but he agrees Boullata's project was a worthy one, to approach the Qur'an as a text - rather, texts - that can make sense.

In sum, I find myself nodding along to most of what Saleh likes and dislikes about these books and (where I haven't read them) their authors' tendencies. The only exception was his over-eager defence of the Muhammadan sira, which when against Michael Cook crippled his argument.


posted by Zimri on 19:36 | link | 0 comments

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