Western Scholarship and the Quran

Where to best start a series of blogs on articles which discuss the development of the Qur'an? Why not first hear from Andrew Rippin about the history of the development of "scholarly" approaches to the Qur'an?

I put "scholarly" in quotation marks because this is actually one of the questions which Rippin raises in his article "Western Scholarship and the Qur'an"*. He notes that the meaning of this adjective is no longer as clear as it once might have been. Calling an approach "non-confessional," "disinterested," "academic," or "secular" does not mean it is free from its own values, whether conscious or subconscious.

Rippin briefly reviews the approach to the Qur'an taken by Muslims, and the apologetic responses to the Qur'an from medieval Christian authors. Then he describes the works of three 19th-century scholars who he says got qur'anic studies off the ground: Abraham Geiger, Gustav Weil and Theodor Noldeke. Their philological approach came to be known as scholarly, but Rippin notes that they, along with most western scholars well into the 20th century, did not really challenge the core assumptions of the Muslim tradition about the Qur'an.

As one would expect, Rippin highlights the initiative of John Wansbrough to address questions not previously raised within the scholarly framework. Wansbrough asked whether the structure of the qur'anic text itself supports the claim of composition over a short period of time which the Muslim accounts make. Rippin also recommends the work of Angelika Neuwirth in examining the literary structure of the Qur'an.

Rippin describes the Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an as reflecting the spirit of modernism, which he says regards religion as a personal matter for the individual. He contrasts this with "contemporary polemic," which he portrays very negatively. Muslim scholars, however, have been critical of both approaches, and they have been able to find polemic in even the most 'dispassionate' research, notes Rippin.

One question I had about this article was the way it discusses "questions of ultimate truth." Rippin writes insightfully that the Qur'an anticipates only one category of non-Muslim readers--those to whom it appeals to accept "the truth of its religious message." The 19th-century German scholars and their followers put the matter of the truth of the text to one side. But why should there be disdain for scholarly study of the Qur'an which raises questions of truth? It would seem to be the only approach which responds to the Qur'an in its own terms.

in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur'an. Jane Dammen McAuliffe, ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2006).