Historical-Critical Method (isl.)


(Arab. al‑Naqd al‑tarikhi, al‑Uslub al‑tarikhi al‑naqdi, Turk. Tarihsel-Eleştirel Yöntem)

The historical-critical method is a scholarly approach applied in order to investigate the original meaning of a text, its sources and historical context, and at the same time the intended message of its authors. In the scholarly tradition of Islam, this method has been applied to the religion’s fundamental source texts. Accordingly, e.g. the discipline of Qur’anic exegesis has developed methods with which to elaborate the semantic content that Qur’anic verses had when they were revealed. It enlists methods from historiography and linguistics to this end.

Information relating to the history and language of the Qur’an are available in the present – through records of Muhammad, of his contemporary adherents, and of the two succeeding generations that incorporated and evaluated this information. The records obtained through the companions of the Prophet are used to clarify whether the verses were sent down in Mecca or after the Hijra, in Medina; what the occasion of the revelation was; and the era to which the records are to be attributed. Semantic questions bearing upon words or sentences are also clarified against the backdrop of then-contemporary usage of the Arabic language. In this way, the attempt is made to ascertain what the verses originally were intended to say to their addressees. This is why the Islamic scholarly tradition was at pains to hand down texts by committing them to writing. The reliability of traditions has been meticulously investigated as well.

Historical-critical Bible research and exegesis began to develop in the West beginning in the 18th century. The consequence of development, from the second half of the 20th century, was to redirect the focus of contemporary Islamic thought back to the historical context of the Qur’an. According to this approach, the Qur’an was an intervention in life as it was lived on the Arabian Peninsula during the 7th century. Henceforth, then, a proper understanding of the Qur’an also required reflection on the historical context in which it came about. Investigations of the Qur’an undertaken on the basis of this research approach attributed particular importance to the social, religious, economic, and cultural circumstances of both the pre-Qur’anic era and the period of revelation. This method was applied by Amin al-Khuli (1895–1966), Ahmad Khalafallah (1916–1991), Aisha Abd al-Rahman (1913–1998), Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943–2010), and other scholars.

The endeavour of applying the historical-critical method is based on the view that traditional methods of interpretation could not produce solutions for contemporary situations. Fazlur Rahman (1919–1988), who also made use of this method, proposed the following approach to solve the problem: once the historical context of Qur’anic verses has been investigated, basic principles must be derived from the Qur’an. Based on these principles, then, solutions must be developed for contemporary problems such as equal rights for women and their ability to give testimony, monogamy, the definition of interest, and punishments.

Mehmet Paçacı

Related entries

This post is also available in German, German and Turkish.