Debating Monotheistic Pluralism

by Reza Aslan*

cropped-67450_10150308353980065_3395794_n.jpgBefore I address Professor Hughes’ criticism of my earlier blog post on monotheistic pluralism, I suppose I should begin as he does by addressing something that has absolutely nothing to do with my blog post: that is, my biography of the historical Jesus. I am not sure if it comes as surprise to Professor Hughes that scholars disagree with each other, but the fact that Professor Richard Horsley or Professor Dale Martin have taken issue with some of my conclusions—just as I in my book have taken issue with some of theirs—does not delegitimize my scholarship any more than the fact that both of them agree with other conclusions of mine legitimizes it. Perhaps the distinction between agreement and legitimation is too subtle for an academic who, in disagreeing with another academic’s conclusion, denounces the latter as a “lie,” as Professor Hughes does at the conclusion of his post. The implication that I am a liar is a thinly veiled ad hominem argument that is only convincing if one were to deny that disagreement could be genuine.

Between his tangent about Jesus and his attack on my character, Professor Hughes does bring up one interesting point worth addressing: “what the term ‘Jew’ might have signified in the seventh century.” Unfortunately, that point is muddled with his confused charge that I “assume . . . that Jews then were like Jews now.” In fact, I make the exact opposite point, which is why I speak exclusively of seventh-century Arabian Jewish identity and mysticism.

As I note in my book No god but God (of which Professor Hughes could dig up some critiques if he likes), the consensus of most scholars is that the Jewish clans in Medina—the Jews I referenced in my post—were likely Arab converts and barely distinguishable from their pagan counterparts, either culturally or religiously. What is more, they were not a particularly literate group. The Arabic sources describe Medina’s Jewish clans as speaking a language of their own called ratan, which al-Tabari claims was Persian but which may have been a hybrid of Arabic and Aramaic. There is no evidence that they either spoke or understood Hebrew. Indeed, their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures was likely limited to just a few scrolls of law, some prayer books, and a handful of fragmentary Arabic translations of the Torah—what S. W. Baron refers to as a “garbled, oral tradition.”

So limited was the knowledge of Judaism among Arabia’s Jews that some scholars do not believe them to have been genuinely Jewish. D. S. Margoliouth considers the Jews of Medina to have been little more than a loose band of monotheists who should more properly be termed “Rahmanists” (Rahman being an alternative title for Allah). While many disagree with Margoliouth’s analysis, there are other reasons to question the degree to which Medina’s Jewish clans would have identified themselves with the Jewish faith. Consider, for example, that by the sixth century C.E., there was, as H. G. Reissener noted, a fair measure of agreement among Diaspora Jewish communities that a Jew could be defined as “a follower of the Mosaic Law . . . in accordance with the principles laid down in the Talmud.” Such a restriction would immediately have ruled out Medina’s Jewish clans who neither strictly observed Mosaic Law nor seemed to have any real knowledge of the Babylonian Talmud that Professor Hughes references in his critique.

Moreover, there is a conspicuous absence in Medina of what should be easily identifiable archeological evidence of a significant Jewish presence. According to Jonathan Reed, certain archeological indicators—such as the remnants of stone vessels, the ruins of immersion pools (miqva’ot), and the interment of ossuaries— should be present at a site in order to confirm the existence there of an established Jewish religious identity. As far as we know, none of these indicators have been unearthed in Medina. Naturally, there are those who continue to assert the religious identity of Medina’s Jewish clans. Gordon Newby, for example, thinks that Medina’s Jews may have comprised distinct communities with their own schools and books, though no archeological evidence exists to confirm this hypothesis. In any case, even Newby admits that with regard to their culture, ethics, and even their religion, Medina’s Jews were practically identical to Medina’s pagan community, with whom they freely interacted and (against Mosaic law) frequently intermarried.

Simply put, the Jewish clans of Medina were in no way a religiously observant group; if Margoliouth and others are correct, they may not even have been Jews. This is why I argued that they would not necessarily have found anything that Muhammad said or did to be against their norms, values, or beliefs.

Professor Hughes likely disagrees with me on this topic. I would be happy to hear a rebuttal, and I promise to try my hardest not to refer to any disagreement as a “lie.”

* Reza Aslan is Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside and Trustee at the Chicago Theological Seminary

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Debating Monotheistic Pluralism

  1. Strong reply by Aslan, but his comments about the pseudo-Judaic nature of Medinan Jews leads to the classic question: How much connection is there between (1) the complex text we now know as the Qur’an (much of which evidences relatively fierce sectarian rivalry amongst distinct literate groups) and (2) the religion of a historical North Arabian prophet given the epithet MHMD (where archaeology and contemporary historical texts both suggest that a broad indeterminate monotheism prevailed amongst the early conquest period Arabs)?

    By selectively privileging one or the other of these points, one can argue for an “Early Islam” that was either broadly ecumenical or fiercely sectarian. But because historical Islam slowly emerged from both of these conflicting poles, it cannot be reduced to either.

    Aslan’s comments about the quasi-Jewish and non-literate nature of Hijazi Jews are hard to square with the fact that the Qur’an itself clearly envisions Jews as literate “People of the Book.” The Qur’an also, as many scholars involved with IQSA have shown, presupposes an audience with fairly sophisticated knowledge regarding a broad variety of Late Antiquity religious texts … primarily through the Syriac Christian tradition. So it is no good trying to take the Qur’anic Jews and Christians as non-literate, nonconfessional communities — Medina itself may have been filled with pseudo-Jews, archaeologically speaking, but the Qur’anic Jews are not such pseudo-Jews, and much of the Qur’an rails against the sort of nonconfessional monotheistic coalition that Aslan apparently envisions MHMD as heading up.

    The likeliest scenario here, I suspect, is that MHMD indeed led a coalition of indeterminate monotheistic Arabs (which could include self-professed ‘Jews’), consistent with the archaeological evidence, but the ur-Qur’an originally had essentially no relation to that historical MHMD. Instead, in the early conquest era, base Qur’anic texts were modified by later communities of Arabic speaking believers to slowly accommodate their evolving beliefs about an Arabian prophet, his legitimacy, and his long-term significance. That dramatic discontinuity between the historical MHMD and the Qur’anic text (which traditional Muslim exegesis has worked to obscure with incredible inventiveness) has created the many wonderful puzzles that make Qur’anic studies such a fascinating and delightful field, in large part through the scholarship now being produced by IQSA members.

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