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.

Upcoming Colloquia in the UK

Thanks to Nicolai Sinai and Mehdi Azaiez

Islamic Studies Colloquium


Organisers: Elisabeth Kendall, Ahmad Khan, Christopher Melchert, Nicolai Sinai
Venue: Pembroke College, Oxford. OX1 1DW
Date: 27-28 September 2013

Both the resurgence of Islamist politics and the political, social, and intellectual upheaval accompanying the Arab Spring challenge us to reconsider the interplay between the pre-modern Islamic tradition and modern proponents of continuity, reform, and change in the Muslim world. The colloquium therefore invites scholars with an in-depth knowledge of the classical Islamicate heritage to explore modern texts that stake out some sort of claim to pre-modern traditions in disciplines as diverse as Islamic law, hadith, Qur’anic exegesis, politics, and literature. The colloquium will encourage specialists to embark on a hermeneutically sophisticated exercise that avoids some of the extremes to which an examination of how the classical heritage functions in the modern Islamic world has often been subjected. The colloquium aims to move beyond works that contain the tacit assumption that modern Muslims are subconsciously steered by the Islamic tradition, without exerting any sort of agency or control over it, and studies that suggest that modern Muslim thinkers arbitrarily distort elements of the tradition to which they lay claim. Instead, we invite scholars to consider modern re-appropriations of pre-modern concepts, texts, persons, and events, and thereby to transcend an increasing bifurcation between classical and contemporary Islamic studies.


Carole Hillenbrand (University of Edinburgh), Robert Gleave (University of Exeter), Christopher Melchert (University of Oxford), Ahmad Khan (University of Oxford), Nicolai Sinai (University of Oxford), Islam Dayeh (Freie Universitat Berlin), Karen Bauer (Institute of Ismaili Studies), Elisabeth Kendall (University of Oxford), Marilyn Booth (University of Edinburgh), Jon Hoover (University of Nottingham), Christian Lange (Utrecht University)


This colloquium has been made possible thanks to the generosity of Brian Wilson, a long-standing benefactor of Arabic studies at Pembroke.


Attendance is free, but attendees must register by 16 September at

For more information, please visit here.



Fragmentation and Compilation : The Making of Religious Texts in Islam A Comparative Perspective II (30 septembre – 1er octobre)

30 September–1 October 2013
The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London
2nd Floor, Room 2.3

Convenor : Asma Hilali


Fragmentation and Variation in the First Islamic Graffiti (1st–2nd century AH)
Frédéric Imbert, Aix-Marseille University, France

The latest research in the field of Islamic graffiti in the first two centuries AH in the Middle East is uncovering new information about Muslim society at the dawn of Islam. Most of this information concerns the Islamic faith, the place of the Qur’an and the figure of the Prophet Muhammad, but the oldest graffiti also allow us to reflect on the status of writing during the same period. Thousands of Arabic Kufic graffiti recently discovered in Saudi Arabia and in the wider Middle East reflect an extreme fragmentation due to the quantity of inscriptions scattered all over the area. These Arabic graffiti, which were not subjected to any kind of censorship, are the expression of variation and repetition at the same time : variation of the Qur’anic text and of the attitude of people towards the new religion and the Prophet, and repetition of the religious prayers and invocations. The picture of early Islam emanating from the first Islamic graffiti is one of fragmentation.

Repetitions and Variations, and the Problem of ‘Qur’anic Variants’
Asma Hilali, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, UK

The field of Qur’anic Studies has been greatly influenced by the medieval reception of the Qur’an text manifested in the exegetical literature and by the theories related to the ‘Qur’anic variants’. The concept of ‘Qur’anic variants’ is deeply rooted in the history of the canonisation of the Qur’an and in the various assumptions made about scribal errors and falsification. My paper will provide a critique of the conceptual tools used in Qur’anic Studies in the last two decades and will propose a new perspective in the study of the textual features interpreted by the medieval and modern scholars as ‘Qur’anic variants’. The new perspective takes the fragmented aspect of the text to be inseparable from the history of its transmission.

Fragmentation, Compilation and Discourse : A Comparison of Three Arbaʿūn Collections on Jihād and Martyrdom Compiled in the Late Mamluk Period
Stephen Burge, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, UK

This paper examines the ways in which hadith scholars went about compiling hadith collections by undertaking a comparative analysis of three similar works written in the same period. The three collections are all arbaʿūn collections – short collections of around forty hadith – which focus on the themes of jihād and martyrdom. The three studied are Suyuti’s Abwāb al-suʿadāʾ fī asbāb al-shuhadāʾ (‘The Gates of the Lucky in the Occasions of Martyrdom’) and his Arbaʿūn ḥadīthan fī faḍl al-jihād (‘Forty Hadith on the Merits of Jihad’) and al-Biqāʿī’s Dhayl al-istishhād bi-āyāt al-jihād (‘The Appendix to Martyrdom in the Verses on Jihād’). I will argue that by closely analysing the material included and excluded from a hadith collection, as well as the ways in which the hadith have been arranged, it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of particular nuances within a text in which a compiler does not give his views openly to his reader. This paper will argue that the ‘hadith literature’ contains a vast, almost infinite, body of texts and the job of the hadith compiler is to fragment this wider body of texts, to reconstitute them, and then to arrange them in order to provide a specific discourse on a subject. This process can be seen in the different ways the three works under consideration in this paper respond to the subjects of jihād and martyrdom.

The Qur’an’s Fragmentation and Realignment of Gospel and Talmud
Holger Zellentin, The University of Nottingham, UK

The unique ways in which the Qur’an ‘heard’ select stories from the Aramaic Gospel tradition has been considered by generations of scholars. Yet, only the most rudimentary consensus has been established about the nature of the texts with which the Qur’an’s audience was familiar, let alone the ways in which the Qur’an used these texts. The Qur’an’s utilisation of Talmudic material has received even less attention, and a consensus is even more remote. The present paper seeks to advance, one small step, our understanding of the deployment of both corpora in the Qur’an by considering them jointly. More than occasionally, the Qur’an fragments and realigns demonstrable elements of the (likely oral) Gospel and the Talmudic traditions together in order to solidify its claim of being a correction to the shortcomings of both.

Unity and Fragmentation in the Standard Text of the Qur’an : The Prophet as First Addressee and Dialogic Argumentation. Mehdi Azaiez, CNRS/IREMAM, FRANCE

As defined in discourse analysis, first addressee (or interlocutor) is the person involved in a conversation or dialogue. The figure of the Qur’an’s first addressee is a textual phenomenon linked to the structure of the text and its argumentative dimension. In my contribution, I will define the notion of the first addressee in the Qur’an, its linguistic forms and functions within the entire Qur’an. I will explore the following questions : The variety of the notions of ‘the first addressee’ ; the double aspect of fragmentation/unity of text after its collection and the role of the first addressee in the argumentative shape of the text. My contribution aims to show (i) how the dialogic relation between a Qur’anic enunciator and its first addressee reveals one of the main aspects of Qur’anic argumentation ; (ii) how the Qur’an legitimates the status of its first addressee as a prophet.


Day 1 : Monday, 30 September 2013

12:00 Arrival of speakers at hotel and lunch

14:00 Welcome
Asma Hilali, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London

14:00–16:00 Session 1 : Qur’anic Studies : From a Fragmentary Approach to an Approach about Fragmentation

Speakers : Stephen Burge, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London
Asma Hilali, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London
Holger Zellentine, The University of Nottingham

Discussant : Prof. Aziz al-Azmeh

This session will examine the state of the field of Qur’anic Studies. It will cover the following topics :
(i) Qur’anic manuscripts : A tool or an aim ?
(ii) Intertextuality : Methodological remarks
(iii) Fragmentation/Compilation perspectives on the Qur’an text in the context of the history of its transmission.

16:00 Break

16:20–17:50 Session 2 : Variation and Repetition in Qur’anic Texts

Chair : Holger Zellentin

Fragmentation and Variation in the First Islamic Graffiti (1st–2nd century AH)
Frédéric Imbert, Aix-Marseille University

Repetitions and Variations, and the Problem of ‘Qur’anic Variants’
Asma Hilali, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

19:00 : Speakers’ Dinner

Day 2 : Tuesday, 1st October 2013

9:00–11:00 Session 3 : Comparative Perspectives

Chair : Mehdi Azaiez, University of Notre Dame, Indiana

Fragmentation, Compilation and Discourse : A Comparison of Three Arba’un Collections on Jihad and Martyrdom Compiled in the Late Mamluk Period
Stephen Burge, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

The Qur’an’s Fragmentation and Realignment of Gospel and Talmud
Holger Zellentine, The University of Nottingham

Unity and Fragmentation in the Standard Text of the Qur’an : The Prophet as First Addressee and the Dialogic Argumentation
Mehdi Azaiez, LabexResmed, Paris

11:00 General Discussion

12:00 Speakers’ Lunch

For more information, please visit here.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.