Book Review of Ibn Warraq's "The Quest for the Historical Muhammad", NY: 2000

Fred M. Donner

The Quest for the Historical Muhammad

Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, Volume 35, Number 1, Summer 2001, Cambridge University Press, ISSN 0026-3184, p. 75

The study of Islam’s origins, including the life of Muhammad, is a notoriously contentious undertaking. Scholars with admirable training differ sharply among themselves on how to understand it. The appearance of a volume that claims to provide “sufficient background to put the current debates, between revisionists and traditionalists about the origins of Islam, in their intellectual context” (p. 9) is thus sure to attract notice.

Unfortunately, the compiler, identified only by the pseudonym “Ibn Warraq”, who also wrote the volume’s long introductory essay, is triply unqualified to serve as our guide in this field. “Ibn Warraq” like the equally mysterious author of the second essay, on the sources, “Ibn Rawandi” (perhaps one and the same individual?) lacks the rigorous specialist training in Arabic studies that alone could qualify him (her?) to evaluate independently the different schools of interpretation in this field. This inadequacy is revealed by, for example, inconsistent handling of Arabic materials, and by the fact that neither “Ibn Warraq” nor “Ibn Rawandi” contributes any original arguments to this debate.

More serious still is the compiler’s heavy-handed favoritism for certain revisionist theories (particularly those of John Wansbrough), resulting in a thoroughly one-sided selection of articles and translations that constitute the bulk of the volume. These include works, mostly well-known, by Ernest Renan, Henri Lammens (including a complete translation of his monograph “Fatima and the Daughters of Muhammad”), C. H. Becker, Arthur Jeffery, Joseph Schacht, Lawrence I. Conrad, Andrew Rippin, J. Koren and Y. D. Nevo, F. E. Peters, Herbert Berg, and G. R. Hawting. Most of these were landmark contributions to the lengthy debate on the origins of Islam, by scholars who had (have) strong opinions about it and were possessed of full mastery of the primary languages (especially Arabic) and sources.

“Ib Warraq’s” bias, however, causes him to omit fine contributions that pose challenges for some revisionist ideas by H. Motzki, U. Rubin, and many others. This lopsided character makes The Quest for the Historical Muhammad a book that is likely to mislead many an unwary general reader.

Most problematic of all, however, is the compiler’s agenda, which is not scholarship, but anti-Islam polemic. The author of an earlier book entitled Why I Am Not a Muslim (1995), “Ibn Warraq” and his co-conspirator “Ibn al-Rawandi” detest anything that, to them, smacks of apologetic; for this reason they criticize harshly several noted authors for their ‘bad faith’ or ‘moral ambiguity.’

Yet this book is itself a monument to duplicity. The compiler never has the honesty or courage to divulge his identity, even though a list of contributors (pp. 551-54) gives a biographical sketch of all the other contributors who, unlike “Ibn Warraq” and “Ibn al-Rawandi”, are already well-known.

Far more serious is the fact that this book is religious polemic attempting to masquerade as scholarship. It is a collection of basically sound articles, framed by a seriously flawed introduction, and put in the service of anti-Islamic polemic dedicated to the proposition that Islam is a sham and that honest scholarship on Islam requires gratuitous rudeness to Muslim sensibilities.

By associating these articles with “Ibn Warraq’s” polemical agenda, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad will raise suspicions among some Muslims that all revisionist scholarship is motivated by such intolerance.

This is likely to make the future progress of sound historical scholarship on Islam’s origins harder, rather than easier. The publication of The Quest for the Historical Muhammad is, therefore, a most unfortunate event.

Fred M. Donner, University of Chicago.

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