Essay Four of Zero-sum Historiography: The Palestinian Assault upon History.
History and Anti-History
In my previous essay, “The Muslim Claim to Jerusalem,” I considered the anti-historical motivations that govern the ruminations of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, about what might be called the Pre-History of Jerusalem. In the last lines of that essay, I refer regretfully to the disposition among the leaders of our churches to acquiesce, out of an imagined spirit of goodwill, in Islam’s anti-historical spirit. This habit of mind reflects the growing tendency in our culture to surrender the distinction between fact and fantasy.
On this, as on so many other matters, a reckless spirit of accommodation has overtaken reason in the counsels of the leaders of our churches. The ultimate virtue in these circles is acceptance, which ultimately leads to surrender. This is the same virtue that is at work in matters of “social policy,” such as definition of family, etc. – subjects regularly explored by other contributors to the Bayview Review.
For educated Western people to pretend that there is parity between the stories about Abraham which appear in the Old Testament and the stories about Abraham (or anybody else, for that matter) which appear in the Qur’an, is unworthy patronizing: it amounts to placing the same evaluation upon the fruit of learning and the fruit of slavish fear.
What keeps Muhammad’s anti-history in place in the hearts of Muslims today is not thought and certainly not learning, but emotion – anger that the Arab people have been cheated – cheated by Isaac, way back when. William Foxwell Albright, one of the pioneers of modern, scientific biblical archeology, learned this truth the hard way and returned again and again to this thought: “A Muslim is unable to become a historian …. To become an historian is to escape from Islam.” To illustrate his point about the Muslim’s congenital inability to think historically, Albright drew attention to passages in the Qur’an where Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is confused with Miriam, the sister of Moses (Sura xix: 28) and to the passages where Haman (the villain in the story of Esther) is identified as an ally and contemporary of the Pharaoh in persecuting the Jews in the days of Moses (principallySura al-Qasas (xxviii.) [Albright is quoted in L. G. Running & D.N. Freedman, William Foxwell Albright (Morgan Press, 1975), 384. Efforts by Islamic commentators to reconcile the Qur’an´s statements about Haman with the Biblical accounts are described and refuted in detail in Jochen Katz, “The Haman Hoax.”
There are many other instances in Muhammad’s texts, both in the Qur’an and the Hadithah, where we find monumental ignorance about matters of chronology and blithe indifference to the distinction between historical matters and matters of fable, legend, myth and other sorts of anti-History. Notorious in this connection are the many confusions about the historical circumstances surrounding the lives of Abraham, Haman, Moses, Saul, Miriam (the sister of Aaron) and Mary (the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth.) In these matters, Muhammad displays the cheerful vagueness about chronology and the sovereign, free-wheeling attitude towards historical fact that characterized the pre-literate culture in which he was reared. In Muhammad’s imagination, as in the imagination of elementary school children today, all of the Famous Men and Women jostle each other in the shapeless time past – the days of yore.
Alexander the Great Muslim
Further insight into Muhammad’s historiographical inspiration is exposed in a lengthy excursion (in Sura xviii: 83-98) into the story of the man whom our historians call Alexander the Great or Alexander III of Macedon (356—323.) The teaching here, like everything else in the Qur’an, has the authority of direct revelation on behalf of Allah via the Angel Gabriel.
In the Qur’an Alexander, appears as Dhul-Qarnayn or “The Two-Horned One.” This designation probably traces to the image of his head on coins of great antiquity, still circulating throughout the Middle East in Muhammad’s time, which appear to be topped by horns (or perhaps just extra-thick strands of his hair.) Those of our scholars who permit themselves to reflect that other sources than the voice of the Angel Gabriel might be behind theQur’an’s story of Dhul-Qarnayn look to The Ishkandanamah or Alexander Romance, a Third century AD compilation of alleged deeds of Alexander circulating throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages. This text, which underwent numerous expansions and revisions well down into modern times, presents Alexander as a kind of graphic-comic-book action-hero to whom Allah gave great power, and who traveled to a “murky” (or “boiling”) sea, where he found the rising- and-setting place of the sun. Here, at this place, Dhul-Qarnayn builds a wall in order to hold back the nations of Gog and Magog. Some day Gog and Magog will breach Dhul-Qarnayn‘s wall, bringing on Yaum al-Qiyāmah (the Day of Judgment) and will wreak havoc in the world (cf. Ezekiel 38:2, 39:6; Revelation 20:8.)
A. Ysuf Ali, the theologian/commentator to whom I look first for explication of Qur’anic texts, meets my query about the historicity of Dhul-Qarnayn with double-talk. On the one hand, Ysuf Ali confesses: “Personally, I have not the least doubt that Zulqarnain is meant to be Alexander, the historical Alexander…. The Qur’an’s account is full of details that require knowledge of the time and terrain –[Holy Qur’an. Translated and with a commentary by A. Yusuf Ali (Brentwood, Maryland: Amana corp., 1983.)pp. 763-765.] But on the other hand:
It is not necessary to identify [him] with an historical figure …. The story is treated as a parable….Popular opinion identifies Zul-quarnain with Alexander the Great … [or] alternatively with an ancient Persian King – [He refers us here to Appendix VII at end of his Translation and Commentary.] He was just and righteous, not selfish or grasping…. He protected the weak and punished the unlawful and the turbulent. Three of his expeditions are described in the text [XXVIII: 84-110] each embodying a great ethical idea involved in the possession of kingship or power.
As summarized by a Western scholar, this material, deriving from theQur’an and perpetuated in The Ishkandanamah “Makes Alexander a good Muslim who is actually the son of Darab [a distorted recollection of Darius] the Persian King, and falsely presented as the son or brother of Caesar of Rum… The story appropriates Alexander and makes him Persian and Muslim, despite the fact that Islam did not even come into existence until 1,000 years after his death. [This paraphrases a section from Jeremy McInerney, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age. DVD Lecture series. The Teaching company. Compare with Esposito, John L., “Alexander the Great,” The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Oxford Islamic Studies Online.]
It is impossible for us to link any of the detail in Muhammad’s description of Zulqarnain’s fantastic adventures to any of the accounts of Alexander that derive from the memoirs of his contemporaries as they are preserved in the historical accounts that followed. Jewish and Christian scholars of Islam noted centuries ago that many of the deviations from the Biblical narratives which appear in the Qur’an (as, for example that one of the three sons of Noah refused to get on board the ark, and was drowned [Sura 11: 42-43]; that the Jews made the golden calf in the wilderness at behest of “the Samaritan” [Sura 20: 85-97]; that King Saul (not Gideon), shortly before confronting Goliath, chose 300 warriors out of 30,000 by observing how they quenched their thirst at the river [Sura 2:249-250]) can in some cases be traced back to legendary anecdotes circulating among Jews of Arabia in Muhammad’s time. But appearing in anything other than a Sacred Text, they would simply be boners.
Similarly, for some of his embellishments on the Christian story Muhammad drew upon the fantastic non-canonical Apocryphal Gospels, which likewise were widely recited in Arabia in Muhammad’s time; from these he got, for example, such stories as Jesus speaking from the cradle, and making clay birds come alive (Sura 3:49.)
Considering the impossibility of reconciling these assertions and similarly inspired assertions about the Furthest Mosque (al-Quds) that I considered in my previous essay, we should expect our own church leaders, and especially our own historians, to draw a firm line between such fantasy-historiography and the facts that are discovered by sane historiography and asserted in our textbooks. Instead we find that, on this, as on so many other matters, a reckless spirit of accommodation has overtaken reason in the counsels of our churches. For literate Western people to pretend that there is parity between the stories about Abraham which appear in the Old Testament and the stories about Abraham (or anybody else, for that matter) which appear in the Qur’an, is unworthy patronizing: it amounts to placing the same evaluation upon the fruit of learning and the fruit of slavish fear.
An indulgent soul will ask, “What does it matter?” Sadly, we live in an age when History has been almost overtaken by fantasy in the popular imagination. Many young people, I find, are baffled by the agonizing that some of us grownups endure when the question of the TRUTH of historical narratives arises. This, I believe, is ultimately owing to the decline of the place of History in our school curriculum – too large a matter to entertain here. For my present purpose it is enough to note that wherever Islam makes another recruit from the ranks of persons raised in our churches or educated in our schools we can be sure that this defection has been prepared over recent decades by our culture’s growing contempt for historical fact.