January 24, 2008
The Dangerous Science of Textual Criticism
In contrast with the Christian Bible, which has been and continues to be subject to all sorts of searching criticism, the least problematic being textual criticism, textual criticism of the Koran is apparently carried on behind closed doors. Islam regards the Qur'an as “dropped from heaven,” so to speak, revealed in its entirety directly to the Prophet Mohammed. The text, just as it is printed in Arabic today, is reputedly identical with the original text.
I’d heard of Qur'anic textual criticism, but I had never read any account of it. Just today I became aware of the article published in January 1999 Atlantic Monthly, which seems to do a nice job of summing up the situation as it stood nine years ago. I owe this tip to the indispensable blog Get Religion, and its story “Indiana Jones, Da Vinci and the Koran,” which in turn points us to this article in Asia Times Online. Read it. (And note the analogy between the Qur'an and Christ.)
One learns to be wary of stories like this in the press. Too many instances of a James Ossuary (no, I’m not convinced of its authenticity!) and the like. But this story does have a ring of credibility to it. And in our post-9/11 world, where cartoons and teddy bears can be inflammatory, it does sound like a religious tinderbox. Could we see a pale, bespectacled scholar, schooled in the tedious and demanding science of textual criticism, cast in the role of an Indiana Jones?
Years ago, when I was a missionary in the Philippines, a fellow missionary told—or was he warning?—me (something to the effect) that it is imperative that we maintain the highest view of Scripture possible when working with Muslims, since their view of the Qur'an is so “high.” I sensed that he might be inclined toward something akin to a “dictation” theory of inspiration. I don’t recall saying anything at the time, but I am sure I was thinking to myself, as I do now, that I couldn’t be happier to have a Scripture—and a faith—that is open to and inviting of examination, and a view of Scripture that is informed by a robust theology of divine speech and special providence. One in which there need be no contradiction between God’s speaking clearly and in God’s using human means (including tradents and scribes, sages and editors, prophets and evangelists) to make and shape his revealed Word.
Oh, and did I mention that you should look for A. T. B. McGowan’s forthcoming book, The Divine Authenticity of Scripture (IVP Academic, 2008; published as The Divine Spiration of Scripture in the U.K.)? I did? Well now you are doubly notified.