Burton, Wansbrough & The 'Logic' Of Christian Missionaries

M S M Saifullah & Elias Karim

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

Last Updated: 8th June 1999

Assalamu-`alaikum wa rahamtullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

The Christian missionaries have an objection to the statement of John Burton's startling conclusion at the end of his book that says:

What we have today in our hands is the Mushaf of Muhammad.[1]

According to the Christian missionaries:

But there is a problem with using this statement. Every conclusion is only as good as the basic assumptions and presuppositions it is derived from. If my set of axioms are logically incompatible we might as well forget all conclusions derived from them. And that is the blunder many Muslims have committed when quoting Burton.

As long as you consider the Sahih Hadith collections as an authoritative source, you cannot possibly refer to Burton as evidence without losing intellectual integrity. Make sure your results are derived from a consistent presuppositional basis.

The Christian missionaries have fantasized that the Qur'an we read today is not the same Qur'an that Muhammad(P) left, an obvious attempt to imitate the Muslim criticism of the Bible. Hence, diligently following the dictum: I will be in your dreams if you can be in mine. However, the question is whether or not these missionaries have taken the time to consider the repercussions of such actions. A simple reflection upon the logic and intentions of their ideas reveals a very sinister theme. For starters, the Muslim has a basis for the textual criticism applied to the Bible: the Muslim states that the Bible is mostly a collection of corrupted accounts of certain events of history. Had the accounts been accurate, the Muslim would accept them. However, modern New Testament scholarship has quite candidly emphasized its textual corruption, which only strengthens the Muslim's belief on this issue. There are no fabulous conspiracy theories from the Muslims. This is not the case with Christian missionaries and their baseless attacks on the Qur'an. Despite the conclusions of the vast majority of orientalists, Christian missionaries still insist on the authority of a few isolated conspiracy theorists. Should the textual integrity of the Qur'an be proven to them with out a shred of doubt, it would still not change their minds as to the truth of the Qur'anic message. This is indisputably a perverse attempt at debunking a Muslim's faith rather than a genuine pursuit of the truth.

It is to be said that the Christian missionaries' quoting of the sources/references is based on a marriage of convenience. Any source which is anti-Islamic or that says the Qur'an is 'corrupted' and 'borrowed' from the Judeo-Christian sources is good and 'logical'. A good example is the Christian missionary use of the book of (or rather 'Gospel' of) Tisdall[2] which has lots to say about the 'sources' of the Qur'an. The 'logic' of this book is that if a similarity is shown between the Qur'an and an outside source, the former has borrowed from the latter. Logically, similarity does not imply borrowing. It could even mean that outside source, e.g., God is the source of the Qur'an. This, of course, is unacceptable to the Christian missionary's 'logic'. The issue of 'logic' and 'intellectual integrity' comes only when anything that contradicts their pre-conceived ideas.

Tisdall's book does not make an effort to show the presence of such a source in Arabia or the people who taught Muhammad(P). But the 'logic' still is that Muhammad(P) borrowed even though they can't show the evidence for borrowing.

Regarding the issue of what Burton had said above concerning the Qur'an, the 'logic' of the missionaries is that we should accept his premises that, i.e., rejection of the traditional sources concerning the origin of the Qur'an as forgeries. The Muslims, therefore, can't use Burton's thesis without accepting the issue that the Islamic sources are forgeries.

The issue here is that the Islamic sources say that the Qur'an as being read today is same as what Muhammad(P) recited. This, of course, is unacceptable to the Christian missionaries. Now when Burton rejects the Islamic sources as forgeries and still declares that the Qur'an that we have in our hands is same as that of Muhammad(P), it is still unacceptable to the missionaries. The reason of non-acceptance in both these cases is not that of 'logic'. It has more to do with a pre-conceived notion of showing that the Qur'an is not the same throughout the history even if it takes to surpass all the limits of logic.

The Christian missionaries have used the service of a Mr. Andreas Goerke. A point needs to be made on Christian missionaries and Goerke's logic: Goerke concludes his dissertation:

"[Burton's] assumptions seem to be rather arbitrary to me. I didn't find his argument convincing that all hadiths on this subject were forged and not a single hint survived of what really happened".

Brilliant conclusion, but to the missionaries' ill fate. Attempting to debunk the authenticity of the Qur'an by handing the Muslims a double edged-sword, he didn't realize that he gave them the handle instead. If Burton has concluded that the textual integrity of the Qur'an can be proven without any of the hadiths, and if Mr. Goerke rejects the notion that all of the hadiths were forged, then what is Goerke defending? Answer: Hadiths, the "premises", which support the Muslim belief in the first place. So, where does this leave the missionaries? Back in the cradle.

It must be said that the Christian missionaries have developed a very poor habit of adopting unknown individuals from the Internet and basing the most pretentious ideas on their fragile statements. They have invented their own academic convention of using Internet newsgroup postings, of all silly resources, as a scholastic basis upon which to parade their attacks on the Qur'an. This bizarre attempt at vindicating their argument, by relying on some newsgroup posting, is only insulting to themselves and any unfortunate individuals who follow in their footsteps.

The missionaries have attempted to demonstrate for us their own exceptional skills in geometric reasoning,

Every conclusion is only as good as the basic assumptions and presuppositions it is derived from. If my set of axioms [is] logically incompatible, we might as well forget all conclusions derived from them.

Their mentor seems to have been Mr. Goerke,

Well, accepting Mr. Burton's conclusions implies accepting his premises.

A beautiful idea. Since the missionaries introduced the principles of syllogistic argumentation into this particular discussion, why don't they maintain rational integrity and apply such logic to all points in the discussion? Mr. Goerke began his argument,

if I remember correctly...

Is this how we begin a foundational argument? Can't the fellow at least provide us with a genuine list of quotations and references to verify? No discussion based on Goerke's memory of unreferenced statements should be open for entertainment. No one should be at liberty to even bother.

We will briefly mention here the Christian missionaries' fatal attraction to John Wansbrough, whose methodology is very similar to that of John Burton.

2. Wansbrough & Burton: A Tale Of Two Conspiracy-Mongers

Wansbrough suggested an alternate version to the traditional Islamic account of the collection and composition of the Qur'an. John Burton, a former student of Wansbrough, was occupied with the same question at the same time and his very different conclusions appeared in the same year, i.e.,1977. Burton argued that the Qur'an had been collected and composed in the life time of Muhammad(P). Wansbrough, on the other hand, said that the Qur'an did not get canonized until 800CE. Both reject the traditional accounts of the process in which the text was assembled, and both rely heavily on speculation as the basis of their opinions. The Christian missionaries, who love to talk about 'logic' and 'intellectual integrity', surprisingly enough, use Wansbrough's thesis without compunctions and have nothing to say about the his methodology. Thus, 'logic' and 'intellectual integrity' are conveniently forgotten when the conclusions suit their scheme.

The theories that emerge from John Wansbrough's analysis are, in his own words "conjectural"[3], "provisional"[4] and "tentative and emphatically provisional"[5]. Nevertheless, the implications are enormous: neither the Qur'an nor Islam are the products of Muhammad(P) or even Arabia. During the early Arab expansion beyond Arabia, there is no evidence that the conquerors were Muslim. Almost 200 years later "early" Muslim literature began to be written by the Mesopotamian clerical elite. The implication may be that the hitherto secular polity discovered and adopted a new movement which, though a non-Jewish, non-Christian movement, was a product of Judeo-Christian milieu. This movement and its history were soon Arabicized. The Qur'an however took somewhat longer to canonize - not until circa 800 CE. Most formidable is the conclusion, not stated explicitly but inescapable from Wansbrough's analysis, that the entire Muslim tradition about the early history of the text of the Qur'an is a pious forgery.

3. Conclusions

Simply stated, Wansbrough's reconstruction of the early Islamic history is based on a massive conspiracy. So, if that is what Christian missionaries believe then they have no right to use the hadith material. Using the Christian missionaries' own statement: There is a problem with using Wanbrough's methodology. Every conclusion is only as good as the basic assumptions and presuppositions it is derived from. If the set of axioms is logically incompatible we might as well forget all conclusions derived from them. And that is the blunder the Christian missionaries have committed when quoting Wansbrough.

Finally, it would be worthwhile to add what Wansbrough thinks about Burton's thesis, The Collection Of The Qur'an:

This remarkable work is the fruit of many years' study, much discussion, and not a little tenacity. To my persistent efforts at demolition, or at least modification of his thesis, Dr. Burton has reacted by seeking even closer definition and more extensive documentation. Its final form is truly impressive.[6]

One is also tempted to add the Christian missionaries use of Crone and Cook material to show the rise of Islam.[7] Crone and Cook inform us that Christianity is an amalgamation of various different cultures, namely Judaism, Roman Imperialism and Hellenism, which clash together to form Christianity, but over time has lost its cohesion and has now fallen apart. The Christian missionaries should now accept this view of history, part and parcel with the one they are now propounding.

And Allah knows best!

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[1] J. Burton, The Collection Of The Qur'an, 1977, Cambridge University Press, pp. 239-240.

[2] Rev. W. St. Clair Tisdall, The Original Sources Of The Qur'an, 1905, Society For The Promotion Of Christian Knowledge, London.

[3] J. Wansbrough, Qur'anic Studies: Sources & Methods Of Scriptural Interpretation, 1977, Oxford University Press, p. xi.

[4] Ibid., p. ix

[5] J. Wansbrough, The Sectarian Milieu: Content & Composition Of Islamic Salvation History, 1978, Oxford University Press, p. x.

[6] J. Wansbrough, "Review of John Burton's The Collection Of The Qur'an", Bulletin Of The School Of Oriental & African Studies, 1978, Volume 41, p. 370.

[7] P. Crone & M. Cook, Hagarism: The Making Of The Islamic World, 1977, Cambridge University Press.

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