The critical imperative in religion

Rachael Kohn

Frank E. Peters The Voice, the Word, the Books, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007 (320 pp.) ISBN 9-780-69113112-2 (hard cover) RRP $46.95.

Just when I thought the noble aim and scholarly practice of religious studies had been eclipsed by the pulp fiction of Dan Brown and the fad for atheistic manifestos, a book comes along that reminds me why I entered that field more than thirty years ago. True, in the 1970s I too might have been captive to the popularity of religious studies, but mere fashion could not keep me there. Religious studies, which is the historical, sociological and philosophical study of religion, is just too hard and never pays enough for the effort it takes to produce respectable research papers and books. The truth be told, religious studies is a love or money kind of choice, with the kicker being that on top of being the former, it is also usually a thankless task.

Perhaps that is one reason why this academic discipline is less appreciated than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, the rise and rise of religious cults followed by their ignominious fall into abuse, murder, and suicide drew many people to the field in an effort to explain what was happening and to prevent it in the future. Even then, however, the publications and associations of experts on harmful religious groups largely interested those who were caught up in them or had seen them operate up close. The rest of the religious establishment looked on, uneasy and unsure whether to engage in criticism of other religious groups, lest some of the same accusations be turned back on them. Today, in a parallel fashion, despite the clear and present danger of extremist Islam which has sought to turn the Qu’ran into a blueprint for violent jihad against all things Western (except technology), experts and their studies of active jihadi cells are treated with muted engagement in the public square. Again the fear is that supporting legitimate criticism of the Islamist movement is perceived as Islamophobia. Even journalists like Sally Neighbour reporting on suicide bombings or other terrorist threats in our region have had to fend off accusations of hate mongering.

That is why F.E. Peters latest book, The Voice, The Word, The Books, is bound to gain a warmer reception in these embattled times. With an opening line that acknowledges the violent differences between Jews, Christians and Muslims, Peters sets that aside in order to explore their one major shared heritage, as the Children of Abraham. Since Abraham’s life changed when he put aside his tribal gods and responded to the God of the Hebrews, it is this deity that Jews, Christians and Muslims are said to have in common. Or do they? That is the question that inevitably lurks beneath the surface of Peters’ masterful study of how the three religions recorded and transmitted the word of God. For, as an historian of religion, who was written on and taught about the three ‘religions of the book,’ and with a special expertise in Islam, Peters is well aware that his tools can only uncover ‘the works of man.’ For Muslims that will be seen as Peters’ limitation, but for most Westerners the works of man are the truest reflection of the kind of God you believe in.

While the word of God is holy in Judaism, it is not a monologue.

Abraham is not the first to hear God’s voice, for the Bible begins with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and follows with Noah, but it is to Abraham that God’s promise to his descendants is made. Long after Abraham and his children, Moses on Mount Sinai, and sundry other figures who were leaders of the Israelites, including judges, kings and prophets, were also privy to the word of God. This variety of people, of high and low birth, is what makes the God of the Israelites a universal figure and the Hebrew Bible a diverse document, actually a collection of books known by the acronym the TaNaK, for the Torah (the first five books), the Nevi’im (the prophets) and the Ketuvim (the additional writings).

While the word of God is holy in Judaism, it is not a monologue, nor is it unchallenged by the patriarchs. After all, Abraham remonstrates with God about the plan to punish Sodom and Gomorrah, and he laughs at God’s suggestion that he will father sons in his old age. The height of chutzpah is demonstrated by Moses, who received the Torah on Mount Sinai, but proceeded to break the tablets on which it was inscribed out of pique at his fellow Israelites, who had lost interest by the time he came down the mountain. Afterward when the text is restored, it is expanded, and later interpreted as well as translated into Greek, the version of the Bible known as the Septuagint. Finally, the text is ‘opened up’ by a device known as the Oral Law, which it is believed Moses also received along with the Written law (the Bible) at Mount Sinai, thus giving the rabbis license to make interpretations and extrapolations of the Torah that are authoritative. In fact, the so called Oral Law is the formal basis of a dialogue between the Jewish people and God’s word which results in the Talmud and its commentaries.

Peters deftly and as lucidly as possible condenses the building of the literary edifice that comprises the Jewish canon, which by the time Jesus, a Jewish Galilean preacher, comes on the scene, is amassed. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 has shown that today’s Bible was compiled at least as far back as 200 BCE to 200 CD. Before the 1st century was out, Jewish followers of Jesus would see him as the manifestation of God’s word, the Son of God, and the fulfilment of prophecies concerning the Messiah in the Torah—this, despite his critique of the religious establishment at the time. In the 2nd century, reflecting the dominant Greco-Roman culture, the Gospel of John would identify Jesus as the very word of God, logos, which pre-existed creation, a concept that parallels Jewish explanations of the Bible’s heavenly pre-existence. The man Jesus became the living embodiment of the covenant with Abraham and the Law given to Moses, and after his death, the apostle Paul already regarded him as God.

Jesus’ sayings are themselves a translation, since he did not speak Greek.

Although this is a significant departure from the Hebrew Bible, which does not deify human beings, there is nonetheless strong evidence that its salient beliefs and the lives of key figures, such as Abraham, Moses and David, shaped and structured the telling of Jesus’ life. This is a standard observation by many New Testament scholars, including Geza Vermes (2006) and John Shelby Spong (2007), but it still manages to surprise conservatives both in the academy and in the pews, who are uneasy with the literary creation of the New Testament. In any case, Jesus’ sayings are themselves a translation, since he did not speak Greek but Aramaic, and as early as the 3rd century, Peters tells us, church leaders were trained in the techniques of textual criticism at the University of Alexandria. By the late 2nd century Ireneas, the bishop of Lyons, sifted through various documents and argued for the acceptance of only the four gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, while at the same time, the Syrian Christian, Tatian, arranged all of them into one chronological harmonious narrative. This shows a degree of fluidity of the text, which later on would see the fathers of the Church set about comparing the Hebrew, Greek and Latin versions of the Bible for the preferred meaning of certain passages. The ‘virgin Mary’ for example emerges from the Greek Septuagint, which changed the Hebrew for ‘maiden,’ as the foretold mother of the Messiah, to ‘virgin’.

The rich and absorbing subject of Peters’ book is also extremely complex, particularly when you are aware of the deep histories swirling around each of the traditions. Occasional explanatory asides, which are indented and marked off, are a helpful device to provide further reflection on a particular point, such as the anomaly of the Christian concept, ‘The Word Incarnate’. It causes enormous problems for Muslims, who accept Jesus only as a prophet, a transmitter of God’s word. Peters summarises the Muslim view of the New Testament as not about Jesus, but a book of revelation given to him! This is one of many changes that Muslims make to the significance and story of Jesus.

The connections between the three scriptures are, of course, of what marks them out as unique. Christians believe the Old Testament and New Testament are a continuous story, and their temporal proximity certainly aids that perception. For the Qu’ran, however, arising only in the 7th Century, and in a place largely populated by indigenous Arabic tribes, the link to the religion of Abraham is more tenuous. Nonetheless, Muhammad, an inhabitant of the Western Arabian town of Mecca, and who according to the Islamic tradition was virtually an orphan and not literate, was privy to the voice of God, which told him to recite. Concerned and confused, he consulted his wife and friends, who told him he had an experience akin to Moses. For the next 22 years he gave public recitations, which were gathered into the Qur’an, which means recitation.

The Qur’an is taken to be a direct revelation from God to Muhammad.

Among the most obvious differences that distinguish the Qur’an from the Bible, is that human authorship is not supposed to have come in to it. While the term Bible is from the Greek ta biblios, meaning the books, and its recorders were varied and many, the Qur’an is taken to be a direct revelation from God to Muhammad, his only mouthpiece. The Qur’an contains no narrative history, but consists of a series of admonitions, with the central message to worship only one God, and Allah is his name, and Muhammad alone is his prophet. The recitations were later collated without reference to chronology, which makes it more difficult to discern the development of Muhammad’s teaching, such as his changing views on alcohol, from acceptance to total rejection, are not readily discerned.

Of course, the idea that Muhammad had a teaching of his own and that he might have changed his mind over time is blasphemy according to Islam, since God’s will alone is responsible for the Qu’ran. Changes in teachings are regarded as God having introduced better teachings of his own accord, or in the case of the infamous Satanic verses, temporarily allowed Satan to introduce certain verses (permitting the worshipping of the three goddesses called ‘the Daughters of God’), which God later removed from the Qur’an (Sura 22.52). Similarly, it is suggested that God can abrogate teachings, such that certain of the verses of the Qur’an no longer apply (Sura 16:101). Peters notes that these changes in the text were of little interest to Islamic theologians, but lawyers used it effectively to resolve the Qur’an’s apparent contradictions.

One can imagine how Muslim theologians might have preoccupied themselves with the manifold meanings of the perplexing arrangement of some of the texts, such as the nineteen poetic verses of sura 73 abruptly changing to prose in verse 20. But the inventive approaches to scripture we see in the writings of the rabbis and church theologians would not be imitated by the Muslims, for whom the Qur’an was collated primarily as a document of oral transmission, to be remembered and recited. The Muslim denial of the human hand in scripture essentially disarms theologians as well. Even translation of God’s word, as occurred in the Jewish and Christian traditions was frowned upon in Islam, Arabic being the language of Allah. Merely hearing the Qur’an recited is an act of piety, thus reinforcing Islam’s central notion of submission (the meaning of Islam). One recalls, for example, the terrible reaction encountered by Irshad Manji, the Canadian reformist Muslim, when she mentioned to her madrasa teacher that she wanted to read the Qur’an in English so that she could understand it. The oral tradition is so dominant in Islam that the first official printed text of the Quran was produced only in 1923 in Egypt.

The Voice, the Word, the Books will reward slow and careful reading and re-reading, but it will not provide the easy thumbnail sketches of the three traditions that are easily translatable to journalistic stereotypes. This, of course, is a good thing and, in today’s religiously riven world, it is what we hope from Religious Studies in university departments. But neither will it engage some of the current concerns, both inside and outside Islam, to develop a critical tradition, which does not brand its practitioners heretics. Here I think Peters, who is uniquely prepared for the task, could have done more with his research. There are, it seems, some unavoidable differences among the traditions that are deeply psychological, philosophical and practical, and which I think explain the vast differences we find between Islamic culture and the Western traditions.

The Voice, the Word, the Books will reward slow and careful reading and

One need go no further than the example of the very work that Peters is engaged in: the secular, historical study of religious texts, which simply did not emerge in Islamic culture and still has not to any extent in university departments, unless by non-Muslims. Even the establishment of Islamic studies centres in Australian universities funded by government money is no guarantee that this area of study will be free from the kind of apologetic expectations and publications that were the stock in trade of Christian divinity schools. For example, in all my interviews of Muslim scholars, they have regularly cited the term ‘People of the Book’ by which Islam conferred a special status on Christians and Jews. They never acknowledged that this was an inferior status throughout the Islamic world, attracting a special head tax (jizya) and a raft of disabilities, including the prohibition on building houses of worship, the imposition of cloth badges including zoomorphic badges (ape for Jews; pig for Christians) and restrictions on where they could live and what sort of work they are permitted (Bat Ye’or 1985). Moreover, the sobriquet, People of the Book, conceals the fact that Jews and Christians are regarded as possessors of a corrupted text and tradition, which was once pure but infected by subsequent generations, making Christians and Jews unreliable to have as friends. Indeed, only the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, is considered ‘the word of God’ according to Islam.

But there have been some deviations of late, such as The Qur’an: A Reformist Translation, which breaks with the patriarchal tradition and includes two women and one man, Edip Yuksel of the University of Arizona, as the translators and commentators (Yuksel, Saleh al-Shaiban & Schulte-Nafeh 2003). The Institute for Secular Islam is another organised effort that has sought to bypass the religious censorship exercised by imams issuing fatwahs, but its meetings have been held in secret locations to prevent violent reprisals. It is precisely this atmosphere which has necessitated the 24 hour bodyguards of the aforementioned, Irshad Manji, who lives with death threats following her publication of The Trouble with Islam (2004), reissued in 2006 as The Trouble with Islam Today in the hope that it would lessen the antipathy toward her. Similar security measures are a daily reminder of the risks taken by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose autobiography, Infidel (2007), includes a critique of the Muslim Brotherhood and other contemporary experiences of Islamic tradition. There are many other women, such as Pakistani gang rape victim, Mukhtar Mai and Bengladeshi author, Taslima Nasreen who are in similar circumstances. The recent assassination of Benazir Bhutto, another outspoken liberal Muslim woman, also reminds us of the enormous risks that women are taking to challenge the punitive and patriarchal ways in which their tradition is understood and implemented.

The open critique, dialogue and reworking of a tradition, which has been essential to the relevance of Judaism and Christianity to the modern world, awaits its day in Islam. In Peters’ work you will find clues as to how big that task will be.


Ali, A.H. 2007, Infidel, New York and London, The Free Press.

Manji, I. 2004, The Trouble with Islam, Random House, Toronto.

Manji I. 2006, The Trouble with Islam Today, St Martins Griffin, London.

Spong, J.S. 2007, Jesus for the Non-Religious, HarperColllins, Sydney.

Vermes, G. 2006, The Nativity: History and Legend, London, Penguin.

Ye’or B. 1985, The Dhimmi, Jews and Christians under Islam, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Toronto and London.

Yuksel, E., Saleh al Shaiban, L. & Schulte-Nafe, M. 2003, The Qur’an: A Reformist Translation, Brainbow

Rachael Kohn is the author of Curious Obsessions in the History of Science and Spirituality, (ABC Books, 2007). She produces and presents The Spirit of Things, a program on contemporary spirituality and religion, and The Ark, a program on religious history for ABC Radio National. In 2005, she was awarded an LLB by the University of New South Wales for fostering religious understanding in Australia through her programs and book, The New Believers: Re-imagining God (HarperCollins, 2004).