The Quran as a collective human enterprise

When people ask about my religion I usually just say I’m an atheist and I have no religion. If they continue, I usually give them what they want, and state my parents are Muslim, or I am from a Muslim background (most of the time the people asking for what it’s worth are themselves Muslims, or from a Muslim background, or, not American). I never say that I used to be a Muslim because that’s really not true.

This is a major way I’m very different from those who come from a similar background. Not only did I not believe in religion, unlike many people from a Muslim background, I never grew up in a Muslim milieu. Though my parents are moderately observant Muslims (e.g., though they don’t drink alcohol or eat pork, my mother does not wear a headscarf nor has my father ever grown a beard), they were never involved in the “Muslim community.” We went to the mosque on special holidays, and that was the extent of our participation in “organized religion.” Any religious instruction I had was from my father, who mostly did this when he felt guilty because a mutual acquaintance would comment on the religious ignorance of his children.

Both my parents come from rather religious families in a traditional sense. As my paternal grandfather was an ulem, all of his children, including my father, received extremely thorough religious educations. My mother has a brother who is an ulem, and her maternal grandfather was a very prominent ulem, whose lineage was involved in the Islamicization* of the peasantry in parts of Comilla and Noakhali in the 19th century.

When I say that my parents come from religious families in a “traditional sense,” I mean that neither of them come from families where people have to be “born again” to practice Islam. Rather, they were part of the tradition of middle and upper-class Sunni Muslims who adhered to and espoused a form of religious orthodoxy which was geographically broad, the Hanafi traditions which included the Turkic world and much of South Asia, and date back many centuries.

This personal history is relevant because unlike some people I have not taken a deep interest in the origin and development of Islam in the same way I have taken a deep interest in the origin and development of Christianity. How and why Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire is an interesting question for academic reasons. How and why Western Christianity fractured in the 16th century is an interesting question for reasons of understanding the geopolitics and history of modern European nation-states. I never believed in the Muslim religion, and matured into adulthood in a totally non-Muslim milieu, and my parents were outwardly nominal and complacent in their religiosity.

In contrast to Christianity, there is far less scholarship in English on the development of the Sunni-Shia schism, or conversion of Iran to Shia Islam in the 16th century. And of course, there is very little scholarship on the development of the religion which became Islam from a critical lens, aside from a small band of “revisionists.”

Some of this is due to fear. To be frank, many Muslims guard the sanctity of the orthodoxies which they promulgate with veiled and not so veiled threats of violence. Even if this is a minority of Muslims, it is sufficient to convince scholars who might take an interest in the topic that there is little personal profit in the enterprise.

This has curious knock-on consequences: many educated Muslims take certain orthodoxies of their religion for granted as unchallenged truths in a manner which is equivalent to the sort of insulation one only finds in ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity. To give an explicit example, when I was younger, and knew people from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, they would patiently explain to me that in actuality science had long disproved the basic tenets of evolutionary biology. They were speaking out of a certain ignorance, because of subcultural norms.

To a great extent, Muslims are the same. But in this case about the truths of their religion which they presume to be unchallenged and unrefuted. Educated and relatively secular Western Muslims take the historicity of Muhammad and the literal truth of the Quran for granted in a way that educated and more Christians do not. That is due to the fact that Christianity has been subject to robust criticism in scholarship and in the public space since the 19th century.

Because of risk-aversion in academia, I think that the revolution and consciousness-raising in Muslim circles will happen from a more bottom-up approach. The latest Secular Jihadists podcast is titled, The Quran: Questioning Infallibility, Shattering Taboos. The discussion is wide-ranging, including Aisha’s requirement that her male allies breast-feed from her older sisters (there is a serious context to this practice).

Basically, the upshot is that the standard educated Muslim narrative about the nature of the Quran is trivially easy to knock down. It does not require deep scholarly knowledge, simply an awareness of facts that for obvious reasons Islamic scholars have not put in front of the mass of believers.

An interesting aspect of the discussion is that it is not highly revisionist. That is, it takes the historicity of the standard Muslim narrative of the rise of Islam under Muhammad, and its expansion under his successors, for granted. But even accepting the “standard model”, a set of simple critiques can refute the consensus of educated Muslims on topics such as the nature of the origin of the Quran.

What will the consequence of this be? I doubt it will be a great apostasy. Just as with Christianity a modernist critique will give rise to a sophisticated subculture that insulates and debunks the critique. But a large number of Muslims will engage in conscious and subconscious revisionism of what it means to be Muslim, and what Islam is, in a more “root & branch” manner than has currently been the case. I do think for various reasons that will happen in the West, and not the core Muslim world.

* Islamicization here is probably indicative of reform of the practices and customs of nominally Muslim peasants.