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Jonathan A.C. Brown: Misquoting Muhammad. The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet's Legacy, London: Oneworld Publications 2014, XXII + 361 S., ISBN 978-1-78074-782-8, GBP 25,00
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Rezension von:
Karima Moussa
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Mehdi Sajid
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Karima Moussa: Rezension von: Jonathan A.C. Brown: Misquoting Muhammad. The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet's Legacy, London: Oneworld Publications 2014, in: sehepunkte 16 (2016), Nr. 10 [15.10.2016], URL:

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Diese Rezension ist Teil des Forums "Islamische Welten" in Ausgabe 16 (2016), Nr. 10

Jonathan A.C. Brown: Misquoting Muhammad

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Jonathan A.C. Brown holds the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His publications include among others The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim: The Formation and Function of the Sunni Hadith Canon (Brill, 2007), Hadith: Muhammad's Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (Oneworld, 2009), Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011) and the book I reviewed: Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet's Legacy (Oneworld, 2014). Brown is currently researching the modern conflicts between Late Sunni Traditionalism and Salafism in Islamic thought. He has published articles about Hadith, Islamic law, Sufism, Arabic lexical theory and Pre-Islamic poetry and he is the editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Islamic Law. Dr. Brown's current research interests include Islamic legal reform and a translation of Sahih al-Bukhari.

In Islam there is and always have been discussions and disputes by groups or sects claiming to have the truth about the faith. Jonathan A.C. Brown enlightens us on these different discussions. Even nowadays there are a lot of dissimilarities in Islam. In this book he goes back to the beginning of Islam and points out the differences, discussions and disputes that arose. Thus it is very logic that these differences cause questions in Islam. How is it possible to unify 1,5 billion people into the same understanding of the Quran or the Hadiths? The book consists of seven chapters, four appendixes and notes. The appendixes contain information about Hadiths. In the first chapter 'The problem(s) with Islam' Brown starts by explaining that there always have been issues concerning Islam. In the last centuries Islam didn't have a formal clergy. So the ulama took the role of guiding the Muslim masses. But nowadays, the author gives the situation of Egypt as an example, there emerges a group of rivals who want control. The fundamental principle of Islam is that anyone who believes must acknowledge the truth spoken by the Prophet. The second chapter 'A Map of the Islamic Interpretative Tradition' concerns the interpretation of Islam. Almost the entire chapter treats the interpretations of Shah Wali Allah. He is a descendant of a learned clan of the Delhi ulama. He returned to India in 1732 from his studies in the Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina. Islam in the eighteenth century was very much localized and the scholars stayed in their own cities. The maddhabs (school of thought in Islamic jurisprudence), agreed on the Ijma', the consensus of the ulama (scholars). If the answer couldn't be found in the Quran and Hadith then the answer can be searched in analogical reasoning based on verses in the Quran and Hadith. Above that the early Sunnis believed that the Quran couldn't be read without the Sunna. In the third chapter 'The Fragile Truth of Scripture', Tawfiq Sidqi defended Islam against Christian missionary in Egypt during the 1890s and the early 1900s. Sidqi was a scholar and doubted a lot of the so called sahih Hadiths. For that reason he was called an infidel. Sidqi thought that sometimes the Hadiths were fictional and found that Islam had to be reformed. With Abu Rayya, another medieval scholar, he introduced the Islamic modernism, a new school of thought. In their point of view the pre-modern Islamic tradition should be transformed so that the true Islam could be saved. Brown states that a text depends on the interpretation of the reader. It was Ali who said when the Kharijite rebelled against him that 'the Qur'an does not speak itself, but the men speak for it'. The Rule of Interpretation is called the Qanun al-Ta'wil by the Muslim scholars and implied that interpretation was permitted if the community agreed on this meaning. In chapter four 'Clinging to the Canon in a Ruptured World' Sayyid Ahmad Khan said that the Muslims should allow the British to rule over them, because they were free to practice their religion. Sayyid Ahmad Khan was an Islamic modernist and stated that Islam must be reformed to survive. The jihadist didn't agree with this statement and said that Prophet Muhammad allowed the Muslims to fight those who 'drove them from their home'. They saw this Hadith as a legitimate use of violence for protecting their religion. In the next chapter 'Muslim Martin Luthers and the Paradox of Tradition' Brown highlights that in every religion, whether Judaism, Christianity or Islam, the interpretative tradition is based on dilemmas and always drags discussions and reactions. Luther scorned Islam, but looks a lot like the proto-Salafi for believing that the Church tradition had lost the purity of religion. The Shiite didn't agree with the Sunnis as well and felt that the true Islam was based on the teachings of the Prophet's family, especially by his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali. This resulted in a contradiction between the Sunni and Shi'i and this adds to the discourse of Islam. In the next chapter 'lying about the Prophet of God', Brown explains that lying is a sin in Sunni Islam. Even a noble lie was considered a sin. The idea of what the truth is, is based by Aristotle's interpretation of the truth: 'to say what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.' The Islamic civilization based the truth on this interpretation of Aristotle. Lying was only permitted in three situations: when you lie to your wife if you want to make her happy, if there is dishonesty in wars and if you lie to bring people together. Riba (interest) is also considered as a lie and for that reason it is a prohibition in the Shariah. Even Hadiths are being classified in authenticity divided in mutawatir, sahih and da'if Hadiths. In the last chapter of this book 'When Scripture Can't be True' Brown documents that definitions of words aren't stable, and in that case subjective so it is difficult to combine this individual interpretation to a whole understanding of the Qur'an and Hadiths. Dr. Amina Wadud was asked to lead the first Juma (Friday) prayer as a women. She points out that it were all male ulama who formulated the Islamic tradition. So how is it possible to construct a whole understanding when not all the perspectives are being considered? As Brown stated in the first chapter, the problems with the Islamic tradition aren't that simple. It is based on personal interpretations of the Qur'an and Hadiths. Brown wanted to provide the understanding of these scriptures by the community and how the foundation of it is based. He succeeded and enlightened us through a debate in historical and contemporary Islam. He concentrated this debate on the Sunni tradition. In his opinion the Sunni ulama accomplished the greatest intellectual and cultural achievements in human history. He found this tradition worth studying. Especially with the anti-Islam sentiment that resulted in the west, this book is a contribution. It explains that there isn't something like 'the Muslim' or one Islam. The interpretations are mostly based on individual efforts. There are lawmakers saying that Islam is a kind of cult that doesn't deserve legal protection. Tony Blair for example said that 'there is a problem with Islam'. There even developed the idea that Islam doesn't combine with western concepts like globalization and modernization. A paradox, considering the fact that since the origin of Islam, Muslims dispersed all over the world and contributed to the process of globalization by performing for example the hadj. Brown used the same transcription, which makes the book easier to read. Brown surpassed his goal by informing us about the discussions in Sunni Islam and provided us a detailed understanding about the (mis)interpretations in and of Islam. For that reason, this book is helpful since it informs us about the debates in Islam, it gives us a wider understanding of why there are these (or so many) differences in interpreting Qur'an and Hadiths. It proves us that it isn't possible to unify all the Muslims into the same interpretation. For that reason the madhabbs were constructed which are the Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi'I and Maliki schools and they assembled their own followers. But these schools agreed on some principles, whereby the most important one is the shahada: the believe in only one God and his Prophet Muhammed. Therefore Muhammad plays a significant role in Sunni Islam and for that reason Brown chose Misquoting Muhammad as his title. The Sunnis believe that Prophet Muhammed revealed the true message of God to the community. After his death a lot of discussions arose and the process of interpretation started. These interpretations are only subjective since the Muslims believe that the only truth lies in the hands of God.

Karima Moussa