Sunday, July 08, 2012

Trial Balloon: Secular Islam

Here's a tantalizing little amateur trial balloon: the good folks over at American Interest are taking a flutter at the notion that there may be room for a bit of dialog over what you might call the "true history" of Islam--a dialog, that is, with Muslims.  We have here, for example, Peter Berger,  respectably credentialed as a sociologist of religion, offering up the snoozer headline "The Koran and Historical Scholarship."  Safely past the headline, Berger introduces plans "for a professional association of Koranic studies."  It's an interesting notion and it clearly has Berger's juices flowing, as he savors the possibility of a collaborative effort joining Christians westerners* and Muslims in a "critical" or "historical" study of Islamic tradition. Berger concedes that these are "words [which if] used in connection with the Koran ... could get you killed in many parts of the Muslim world." Nevertheless he sketches a picture of a world in which it might just be possible.

Berger's blogging neighbor, Walter Russell Mead, picks up the baton. For a student of diplomacy, Mead begins on what would appear to be a far less diplomatic note: "Will Historical Criticism Pick the Koran to Bits?" The body of his post his a good deal tamer. "Scholarly studies" (who?) are moving "cautiously, gingerly" (heh!) towards "a hard look at the Koran with the powerful and skeptical tools that have been used on the Bible."

The language of both posts seems at least as carefully chosen as the language of the Balfour Declaration. Both Berger and Mead seem to be doing everything they know how to sidestep the inflammatory headwinds generated by Islamocritics like Robert Spencer (Berger's commentators are not misled, however).

But also, that can't be much doubt that both Mead and Berger know that aside from the flamers, there is a durable and persistent strain of respectable scholarship that tends to desacralize the history of Islam in the same way that inquirers regularly desacralize the history of Christianity and Judaism in the west. Go here for an interesting recent review of a new book by Tom Holland.

Berger and Mead understand this: they both anchor themselves in the observation that secular inquiry into religious tradition is nothing new in the west. Noted, but it still seems to come as news to a lot of readers and listeners. Books like The Bible Unearthed and The Invention of the Jewish People get treated as if they are scholarly bombshells whereas both are just recent entries into a long conversation. Bart Ehrman has made himself a minor-major celebrity with a series of skeptical/critical accounts of Christianity, for a popular audience; yet the enterprise of trying to police Ehrman seems to enjoy they same kind of strength and persistence as the enterprise of trying to police Paul Krugman  (see, e.g., link, link, link; cf. link).

Of course it is still anybody's guess whether a "secular conversation" over Islam will get any traction--without, that is, interruption by the odd sacerdotal murder. On the other hand secular analysis of Christian and Jewish traditions have so well established a presence in the West, it's hard to imagine the same tendency not spreading to Islam.
*There are Muslims in the west. I know. An expository oversimplification.

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