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The implications of, and opposition to, the methods and theories of John Wansbrough1

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

This article serves as an introduction to Wansbrough's methods and theories for the study of the Qur¸dn, its Tafsīr, the Sīra, and other early Islamic texts. Muslim and most non-Muslim scholars work within essentially the same framework: one which reads the literature of early Islam as history. Wansbrough has demonstrated that what these sources provide is not history per se, but salvation history, and that methods appropriate for the study of this genre are not source critical but literary critical. Through the application of these methods Wansbrough has postulated theories, which, if correct, radically alter our understanding of Islamic origins. Islamicists have tended to fixate on these theories at the expense of the methodological approach from which they are derived. Judging by the arguments raised thus far by these opponents of Wansbrough, I suggest that their aversion to his work stems as much from the unwillingness of Islamicists to accept the uncertainty inherent in his methods and the political incorrectness associated with his theories as from their theoretical conservatism and methodological naivete.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Near Eastern Studies Cornell University


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