Byline: Larry Witham, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The critical study of Muhammad and the Koran lags far behind the comparable study of Jesus and the Bible, and such study could help Islam adapt to modernity, a number of scholars of the religion say.
Verifying the life of Muhammad and the Koran's "divine revelation" will not hurt Islamic faith but help it avoid legalism and abuse by fanatics, they say.
"This critical study in Islam has been going on for some time but is still a minority voice," said Christopher Taylor, a professor of Islamic studies at Drew University in New Jersey.
As study of the Koran has been taken over by more literal interpreters, he said, educated Muslims are steered into other fields. Three top leaders of al Qaeda, for example, had degrees in applied sciences but pushed a literalist view of the Koran.
"The best Muslim minds are funneled into engineering or medicine, not religion or history," he said. "If you told the vast majority of Muslims about the historical and literary issues surrounding Muhammad and the Koran, they would fear it as a secular attempt to discredit the religion."
Christians faced the same fears when the so-called "scientific" study of the Bible and the historical Jesus seemed to question orthodox belief.
But after a century of challenges, theological orthodoxy endures. Today, discussion about the historical Jesus and Bible are standard in seminaries, adult Sunday school and commentary in Bibles on bookstore shelves.
John Voll, professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown, said it may be unfair in this era to ask Islam to subject the Koran to the same kind of atheistic critical studies the Bible underwent.
"Those 19th-century methods of text criticism are archaic," he said. He said modern literary criticism takes a historic text more at face value and considers its meaning to people, not its exact origins.
"Educated Muslims do not say you can't question anything in the Koran," Mr. Voll said. "But literal-minded people, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, will always view textual criticism as unbelief."
The scholars disagree on why there is so little critical study of the Koran today.
Some say Muslims will not ask critical questions about the Koran because that is viewed as what Christian missionaries do. Others say Western scholars suffer "post-colonial guilt" about critical research on the Koran, or fear a loss of scholarly privileges if they offend religious leaders or Islamic governments. …