Taking Care of Jesus and Muhammad: Reflections on Islamic Studies


by James Crossley

Editor’s note: This post is part of a broader conversation on scholarship in Islamic Studies that was sparked by two recent articles, one by Omid Safi and one by Aaron Hughes. Other articles in this series can be found here and here.

The recent debate sparked by Aaron Hughes’ response to Omid Safi’s article on the state of Islamic studies in North America has again prompted discussion of emic-etic tension, of whether scholars of religion are ‘critics’ or ‘caretakers’ (to use Russell McCutcheon’s terms). In the articles and in the comments section questions about the impact of September 11 on Islamic studies were raised, as well as contentious labelling of those undertaking the quest for the historical Muhammad as ‘Islamophobe’, ‘racist’, or ‘colonial invader’. ‘Carl’, commenting on Hughes’ article, suggested that such categorisations of those ‘whose sole “mistake” is to approach Muhammad as Albert Schweitzer did of Jesus in 1910’ were ‘unfair’  but ‘should certainly not be unexpected (we can ‘thank’ Edward Said for this). As such, the tension here is not simply religious, but political as well (if, indeed, the two are not, in reality, one).’

I cannot assess Carl’s claim for the simple reason that I lack familiarity with scholarship on Muhammad. But these issues are not restricted to Islamic studies, of course. That September 11 changed the ways Islamic studies is understood is not difficult to imagine. But related issues have been intensified in the past decade or so in biblical studies, or at least the sub-field of New Testament studies. Despite the long history of ‘did it really happen or not?’ or ‘did Jesus say it or not?’, post-September 11 has seen the emergence of intensified polarised mainstream debates where scholars have identified or been identified as ‘conservatives’, ‘evangelicals’, ‘agnostics’, ‘atheists’, and ‘secularists’. We have seen mainstream books ‘proving’ the resurrection of Jesus, showing that the Gospels were eyewitness accounts of the historical Jesus and, perhaps as a reaction, even the emergence close to the mainstream of ‘mythicist’ arguments which have claimed that Jesus did not exist. Irrespective of whether these arguments are right or wrong they remain tied to the kinds of intensified ‘culture wars’ after September 11 and, in certain cases, there are some fairly clear Orientalist discourses too. In one sense, we could be more positive in our ‘thanks’ to Said: it is possible to imagine – let us say hypothetically for now – that September 11 has generated controversial interests in reconstructing Muhammad or Jesus which cohere with broader Orientalist or ‘New Atheist’ agendas (the two can overlap, as Carl implied, albeit slightly differently).

Providing historical and ideological contexts for scholarship is one thing; it is not so easy to provide an answer to what can be done in terms of (say) historical research. The quest for a given historical figure does not necessarily have to be part of such agendas and the relationship between scholarly intentions and cultural context is not straightforward, even if historical reconstructions cannot escape contemporary politicised discourses. Indeed, cultural contexts we may not like can generate questions we might find interesting and may have otherwise missed. I personally dislike a lot of New Atheist discourse, particularly as it seems to me to have strong idealist, ahistorical and Orientalist tendencies, but its prominence also provides an opportunity to raise questions about the dominance of theology in the field that might not have been so easy ten years earlier. And explaining the interrelationship of scholarly and cultural tendencies hardly means giving up the enterprise of (say) historical research. Issues surrounding the ‘historical Muhammad’ or the ‘historical Jesus’ are obviously still open to (or theoretically should be) assessment, evidence and argument (as Hughes and Carl stress). I do not have a satisfactory answer to how we deal with this tension between scholarly contexts and historical reconstruction, other than an ideal of a radical ‘anything goes’ attitude to accepting that any question, no matter how uncomfortable, can be raised in academia, or at least should be allowed. Carl’s further suggestion that we take advantage of such scholarly flashpoints to study the tensions between the ‘confusing morass of theologians and Humanities scholars’ seems worth pursuing. One of the functions of an academic society like AAR can be, and presumably is, to provide a venue for such controversies and academics have enough control and privilege to promote and engage in such debate.

The situation is different in biblical studies in terms of potentially sensitive reconstructions of historical figures such as Jesus because this has been happening for some time and, in academia at least, is a topic that has been domesticated. However, it is also a topic that is hardly atheological and we should not forget (as Ward Blanton has shown) that Schweitzer himself had his own theological agendas. We can go further. It is fairly clear that ‘caretakers’ have dominated the agenda in biblical studies, certainly in historical Jesus studies. The major debates in historical Jesus studies, for instance, seem to be over whether Jesus mistakenly predicted end times or not, whether he really did say x, y or z, whether he was a social reformer, what his theological views were about salvation were, his attitude towards women (very rarely men), how he viewed his death, what the Christological titles might really mean, how unique he must have been, and how Jewish Jesus might have been. Even the social scientific contextualisation of Jesus has historically been used to illuminate further these sorts of ideas and is still not widely employed in distinction from theology (irrespective of what academics might claim). And how many debates in biblical studies more broadly are effectively debates between theological liberals and theological ‘traditionalists’, or the heterodox and the orthodox?

While I think debates about proving the miraculous are a waste of time (or, at least, there should be no need for it in the field), it is not as if many of the other questions cannot have historical answers. But it is equally clear that the same questions have been repeated time and time again over the past 100-plus years with minimal change in the answers. One thing is clear: New Testament studies and historical Jesus studies have effectively been a branch of theology and theological concerns continue to frame the debates. While there are different academic histories and different contemporary problems, the issue of caretakers and critics is not entirely different in biblical studies and Islamic studies. Theology unites us more than it divides us.

But there are signs that things are starting to change, at least in the UK. My degree, like most of those of my generation and older, was, tellingly, in ‘Theology’. I remember when questions were raised about changing the title to ‘Religious Studies’ in the 1990s but the suggestion was shouted down very quickly and no-one realistically thought change was possible. Yet within about three years, most degree programmes and departments in the UK (including my old department) became ‘Theology and Religious Studies’ or just ‘religious studies’. It is not that the critic/caretaker debate has necessarily changed dramatically but it is an indication that the dominance of Christian theology and theological biblical studies does not have the same hold it once did. Even at Oxford.  Compare the comments of the apologist and ‘caretaker’ extraordinaire, N.T. Wright:

But these things shift over time. All it takes is one or two people to move on, retire, or whatever. Sadly Oxford has just lost a NT scholar and they’ve replaced him with two people teaching Buddhism. And I have no idea what the Oxford faculty thinks it’s doing, but it’s like, excuse me, Oxford used to be the place where you studied the primary texts of the Christian tradition.

I think there is a lesson to be learned from Wright’s comments but not the one he would want us to learn. There is increasing and influential hostility in the UK to this kind of rhetoric of the superiority of biblical studies and Christian origins. This is understandable. Biblical studies has no right (or ‘divine right’?) to being given pride of place in a religious studies programme and defending it in such terms will not, and should not, convince colleagues outside. Yet behaving more as ‘critics’ might help the field and sub-field be more convincing, if only by avoiding the language of assumed superiority. Behaving more like critics and at least trying to share a common discourse would open up more and more questions and provide a stronger argument for intellectuals worthy of a struggling field. To return to historical Jesus studies, there are all sorts of different questions which might be posed which look at human engagements with social contexts and historical change, and without the endless focus on Jesus the Great Man or without framing the questions in terms of how the earliest Jesus movement was somehow ‘superior’ to, or ‘unique’ in, its context. None of this necessarily excludes some of those questions which have been posed by a history of theological dominance but it can help further understand them in ways of interest beyond the church and for those working more broadly in the field of religion and in the humanities.

This might sound obvious but it is not in historical Jesus studies at least. Maybe historical Jesus studies, or SBL, need its own Carl-style intervention to hammer out these problems. Equally obvious is that I also know what I have done in recent years, though whether it was the right move, I do not know. I have found myself moving to academic areas where the critic/caretaker problem is less of an issue. I found spending a few years working on the use of the Bible in political discourse enjoyable (and the potential for enjoyment should never be underestimated in academia), partly because I realised that I did not have to be as defensive or concerned about acting as an outsider or ‘critic’. This is an area that has not received anything like the attention the use of the Bible has in its ancient contexts and one where ‘insider’ (and implicitly or explicitly) Protestant concerns are less likely to dominate for obvious reasons. I have found it enjoyable to talk to colleagues in if different fields and disciplines and not to be involved in some of the typical battles of traditional biblical studies. As with certain readers of this blog working in ‘religion’, I have also found that being involved with relatively new seminars, sessions, journals and conferences with like-minded people has been both enjoyable (again, no apology) and a context where ideas can be developed with greater ease. While this may well contribute to the fragmentation of the field, it may potentially contribute to ideas being more widely discussed in the longer term, a common enough phenomenon in the history of academia.

However, I still feel drawn back to engaging with more traditional biblical studies, partly because I struggle with intentional or unintentional exclusion of ideas, partly because I still want to convince people no matter how much they will not listen to ideas that might be troubling to them, and partly because I do not like the attitude of some colleagues outside religious studies and biblical studies who believe their subject is more ‘valuable’ because it generates more income. But it is also because there are more resources and a bigger market and audience for ‘caretakers’ in biblical studies. In fear of being misunderstood, this is emphatically not to say that voices should be silenced. But would not a retreat of those more strongly identifying as critics potentially facilitate an overall victory of caretakers?

What this further suggests is that there are topics where being a critic is easy enough and topics where being a critic is problematic. I have never had a problem teaching on the constructions of ‘religion and terror’ or the Bible and contemporary politics. However, teaching on Paul or the Gospels is different and caretaker commitments do come to the fore and are very difficult to avoid in debate, try though some of us might. Presumably the main reason for this is what we have seen throughout: that the discourse of origins – whether the ‘historical Muhammad’ or the ‘historical Jesus’ – continues to hold its power in academic as well as confessional circles and it is where the tension over caretakers and critics is at its most acute. What this also shows, in biblical studies at least, is that the assumptions of a Protestant construction of time remain: the sacred time of the ‘biblical world’ and the less relevant time – i.e. the rest of history – that follows. Such theological constraints remain in the world of academic biblical studies. But by promoting alternative seminars, societies, publications and conferences, this can be, and is being, challenged. If we want to push forward with arguments about standards of evidence and argument – rhetoric that cuts across critics and caretakers – then should we not push an agenda across the fields of religion and biblical studies that all students and all academics (caretakers and critics alike) have to realise that there will be engagement with lots of ideas and arguments they do not like? This is not an earth-shattering conclusion but it is one that I do not think is reflected widely in practice in main academic societies that remain a ‘confusing’ – and I would add fragmented – ‘morass of theologians and Humanities scholars’.

James G. Crossley is Professor of Bible, Culture and Politics at the University of Sheffield. He presently co-edits Biblical Refigurations for OUP and is on the editorial board of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Among his books are: Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century (Equinox, 2008); Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Scholarship, Intellectuals and Ideology (Acumen, 2012); and Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968 (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2014).

This entry was posted in Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *