Published on openDemocracy, by Patricia Crone, 7 November 2009.
The Quranic statement: “There is no compulsion in religion” – erupted into controversy again in 2006 when the Pope selected the most illiberal view of the text available. But when the thirty-eight Muslim scholars responded that he was wrong, they were necessarily misrepresenting history. To understand why they might wish to do this, we have to go back to 720-750 AD …
… Here the interpreters of the “no compulsion” verse show us another aspect of the clash between secularism and Islam. To a historian, the thirty-eight scholars were being somewhat less than frank. They told the Pope that he was wrong instead of freely admitting that the view he had selected is indeed part of the Islamic tradition. One Islamicist professor in America happily followed suit and publicly said that the Pope should apologize for getting his facts wrong. But the Pope didn’t get his facts wrong, he just selected the most illiberal view available, which is out of date. The reason why the thirty-eight scholars did not simply say this outright is partly that they were not writing as historians, but rather as theologians, and partly that it would have been to acknowledge that doctrines change. That is something that Muslim clerics are still reluctant to do.
To a historian, the thirty-eight clerics were guilty of traducing the past: they knowingly misrepresented it. But what the thirty-eight clerics would reply, I imagine, is that we historians are guilty of traducing the present: for we knowingly show people’s convictions to be historically conditioned rather than perennial truths. By insisting that the past must be understood in its own light, we remove the support of the tradition from the present; we undermine its authority. This is true, and it is all the worse if you think that change is a sign of falsehood.
We historians do not equate change with falsehood, but there is no way around the fact that we are secularisers: we are secularising history, because we separate the past we are studying from our own and other people’s modern convictions; we do not allow the past to be rewritten as mere support for these modern convictions. That’s a problem to all traditional believers, and perhaps to Muslims more than most. Muslims tend not to have a problem with modern science: the Quran does not have a mythological account of the creation, it is not incompatible with any modern scientific views. But history is a different matter because the truths of Islam are tied to history. So whether they want to or not, historians also find themselves as actors in the debate whether, or to what extent, Islam should coexist with a secular sphere.
Where will it all end? Well, there at least even the most modern of historians can give the most traditional of answers: God knows best. (full long text).