Ernest Renan's claim can be tied to Islamic traditionalists from a modern point of view despite his negative attitude towards Islam (Introduction to Islam Midterm Paper)

Written on April 18, 2018

Q. Islam was born “not amidst the mystery which cradles the origin of other religions, but rather in the full light of history” (Ernest Renan). Analyse Renan’s statement.


Ernest Renan’s comment on the history of Islam is a statement of his position on Islam. Therefore, in order to interpret the words, an understanding of his academic position will need to be preceded. The sentence of the question can be understood more clearly if we know in which era Renan was active and what he had made mainly about Islam.
Considering the position of him, the implications of Renan’s words become clearer. Even though the fact that he is often classified as an Orientalist, however, he seems to have been persuaded by the obsessive collections of data about the early origins of Islam by Muslim scholars. He takes a position to view Islam relatively low, yet despite his position, he had to admit that the remaining materials of Islam survived under strict filtering. It is the strict methodology of Hadith that even Renan was convinced. Early Islamic scholars did their best to eliminate errors that could be made in Hadith, and as a result, even succeeded in persuading critical scholars in part.
However, the data that persuaded even Orientalists have faced other forms of threats today. The discussion on the subject, especially discourse about the impact of late antiquity on Islam, armed with the recent historical methodology, makes the traditional data of the early Muslims community under suspect. Thus, today’s scholars not only contradict Islamic scholars who hold traditional arguments by suspicion of the accuracy of the data, which even orientalism could not find, and even seems to succeed in fading the meaning of the remark of Renan mentioned in the question. From this new standpoint, even Renan can not be free from criticism. Renan can be classified in the same class as Islamic traditionists, rather than modern scholars, in that the did not doubted traditional sources.


1. Ernest Renan and his position on Islam

When I first encountered the words of Ernest Renan in the essay question given in the class, I literally read the letters and understood literally, but it was difficult to know exactly what Ernest Renan want to say. Because I have no idea who Renan is, when he lived, and what position he took. So, first of all, I started the investigation by looking at who Renan is and in which context he speak.
Ernest Renan (1823-92) is a 19th-century scholar, a Semiticist known for his work on Hebrew literature.1 And he has been criticized mainly as a typical 19th century Orientalist. In other words, his claim is considered to include an incontrovertible contempt for Islam.2 The specific reason why he is classified as Orientalist is as follows. He knew enough about medieval Islam, but devalued their achievements. There are two main reasons for this, one is that Muslim scientists have just copied ancient Greek ideas. Unlike Europe where Greek tradition had been forgotten, Muslims remembered the idea of Greece. But it was just keeping it, not a creative work. The second reason was that Islamic scholars who did such work were mainly Andalusians and Persians, yet not Arabians. For these two reasons, Renan did not appreciate the medieval Islam scholars, and therefore faced criticism as Orientalist.3
Thus Renan’s evaluation of Muhammad needs to be understood on the premise of his Orientalist thought. Renan takes a position that he sees Muhammad as a social reformer rather than a religious founder. Fred M. Donner begins his book by quoting Renan’s words from his book ‘Muhammad and the Believers’: “ [T]he Mussulman movement was produced almost without religious faith; that, putting aside a small number of faithful disciples, Mahomet really worked with but little conviction in Arabia, and never succeeded in overcoming the opposition represented by the Omeyad party.”4 Here Renan focuses on Muhammad as a social reformer rather than a religious prophet. Considering the overall hostile tone to his Islam, this is not praise. Rather, it appears that he is trying to give the impression that Islam is a sort of social reform movement that has been deteriorated in subsequent eras rather than a true religion, comparable to Christianity. Perhaps Renan is trying to insist that Islam is probably not meant to be created by true religious inspiration from the very beginning.
In conclusion, Renan’s Orientalism attitude towards Islam helps to understand his words mentioned in the question. I think that it was not just good meaning he said that Islam was “rather in the full light of history”. Of course, it is a peculiar point that the Orientalist was amazed at the accuracy of the Islamic literature. Perhaps, however, his thought that what he believed to be historically certain, was to support that his claim to downgrade Islam was not wrong. Because the Islamic literature is accurate, his critique of Islam could be valid without worrying about archaeological errors. In this section, Islam was different from Christianity, and Renan’s criticism of Islam might have been considered more convincing than his idea of Christianity. It is unclear, but his argument has been widely accepted by later scholars.5 He seems to have thought that his criticism of Islam would be valid even if it were reflected in the standards of modern academic study of history. And, paradoxically, it was possible because early Islamic literature was technically strong enough to rely on. The coexistence of these two subtle facts may have helped later scholars to look more at Renan’s position more critically.

2. The meaning of Renan’s remark mentioned in the question

As mentioned earlier, given the fact that Renan took a orientalistic position, It is surprising that he admitted that Islam is “rather in the full light of history”. Compared to Christianity where there is no proper literature, Islam has had a huge amount of literature in its tradition and has been working on its own. Even Islamic scholars have confidently said: “The door of interpretation is closed”. European scholars seem to have been overwhelmed by the vastness of the literature. According to a scholar, the surprise of Islam is not because of its spreading, but because of its preservation of itself. Unlike the Bible figures, the anecdote about Muhammad was very well preserved.6
Although Renan despised Islam, nevertheless his surprise of their literature is that the ‘scientific’ methodology of the from 8th to 10th century Islamic scholars who gathered Hadith succeeded in securing their own power of persuasiveness. Hadith mobilized several methods to ensure that the records of the massive Muhammad’s actions are authentic. Isnad is one of those methodologies. Isnad, a series of successors of sacred anecdotes, were used as criteria for evaluating the authenticity of its contents(matn). If you ascend to the genealogy of authenticity, you can see whether the contents are reliable or not.7 Indeed, early scholars evaluated all possible traditions in the most rigorous methodology. Al-Bukhari wrote the most reliable Hadith, Sahih al-Bukhari. It is said that he had collected 600,000 stories, leaving only 7225 of them.8 This obsessive work of early Islamic scholars made it impossible to question the validity of the literature itself, even the most rude opponents like Renan.
And unlike Christianity, which took time to have political power after the death of Jesus, Islam underwent an initial political upswing. It is therefore possible to deduce that, unlike Christianity, which had to hide underground shortly after birth, Islam, which was politically successful, was in a more favorable environment to leave historical data. Perhaps this may have helped Renan’s conviction.
So the meaning of the remark from his question becomes clear. Despite his Orientalist position, he accepted that the works of Islamic scholars were persuasive. Furthermore, there was no hesitance in building his argument on such data. Although the allegations were suspicious of the academic capacity of Islam, Renan himself did not seem to have felt any major problems. However, there were people who could not bear this uncomfortable coexistence, and began to send suspicion in the premise even Renan had accepted.

3. Refute the reliability of the traditional literature even tolerated by Renan

As time went by, the problem of the credibility of the Islamic literature began to be raised. The likelihood of this problem has already been revealed when the literatures are carefully read. No authors of Muhammad’s autobiography were born in the days of Muhammad. There were many authors, but unfortunately none of them were exactly from the same era of Muhammad. They were all telling what they have heard. Therefore, the Islamic literature had implied the danger of fabricating from the very beginning. And as the study of analyzing classical text developed and continued to find errors in early Christian literature and in early Jewish literature, the same question was raised in the Islamic literature.9
Indeed, studies using Western Biblical criticism have been applied to the classical Muslim texts. Those study has created the notion of ‘Common Link’ as an application of Isnad. Although we can question the credibility of the ‘Common Link’ methodology, if we accept this research methodology to be credible, then despite the many efforts of the enthusiastic Muslim scholars, one cannot be sure if actually what Muhammad and his colleagues did and said.10
And the historical position to interpret Islam as the result of ‘Late Antiquity’ emerged, weakening the credibility of the literature once more. Claims of Late antiquity do not directly doubt the credibility of the literature, such as Common Link did. The claim asserts the Islamic traditions and the assumptions of it which the documents are built upon in the more fundamental level. Radically, according to the assertion, Islam is not a product of Arab culture, nor does it preclude the possibility that Muhammad and its related documents may have been forged.
In detail, Late antiquity doubts the remarks of traditional interpretations of Islam’s origins, place of origin, founders, and understanding of pre-Islamic history. According to them, the origin of Islam was not created in a moment by Muhammad and his companions, but rather formed over the next hundred years. The two arguments also differ on the origin place of Islam, while the previous argument claims had emphasized the Arabian Peninsula, particularly Mecca and Medina, while the new argument is to the entire Middle East region, especially Syria is a origin of Islam. In the traditional explanation on the founders of Islam, it is firmly said to be Muhammad, but the new interpretation says that building Islam was collaborative efforts by not only Arab Muslims also ones in the Middle East overall. It is not saying that every story about Muhammad and righteous colleagues are all phony. It is difficult to deny the existence of Muhammad completely. Rather it is insisting that it is difficult to prove the existence of Muhammad completely. Whether there was such a person is another matter, only to confirm that such a story had circulated around at the time.
Considering these, Renan was too devoted to attacking Islam to miss the core of it. He at least admitted that Islam is a historical fact, but the new academic argument does not rule out the possibility that Islam’s claim to being historically thorough is somewhat made up. In fact, it is slightly radical to claim falsification, however, since the essence of the argument emphasizing the importance of late antiquity is that Islam is not a product of Arabs, Islamic literature, which confidently believes itself to be a product of Arabs, is bound to be doubtful. At the same time, if they really have the distorted self-consciousness as the modern interpretation implies, the credibility of the documents they leave is once again struck.11
Renan said in a bit of a hasty way that Islam was historically better known. So in this respect, he would definitely like to deny himself, but he is tied up with the traditional scholars of Islam. His words, “rather in the full light of history” now sound naive.


Renan took a critical stance on Islam, but he did so by embracing the material provided by the very Islamic scholars who he targeted. But later scholars even rejected the credibility of material. In the sense that they rejected basic material, the later attempts are more deadly, although the tone is more decent. It is a kind of claim to overthrow the system at all. From this point of view, the viewpoint of Renan’s Islamic history data given in the question seems to be rather paradoxical, and to conform with the Islamic traditional scholars.

Work Cited

Hourani, A. H. (1993). Islam in European thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Donner, F. M. (2012). Muhammad and the Believers. Harvard University Press. Preface.

Malise Ruthven. (2012). A Startling Thesis on Islam’s Origins.

Holland, T. (2012). In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire. Anchor.

Knysh, A. (2017). The Prophetic Hadith and Sunna and the Emergence of the Shari ‘a. In Islam in Historical Perspective (pp. 92-104). 2nd ed. Routledge.

Brown, J. (2009). Ḥadīth: Muḥammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. England: One World. Chapter 8.

Johnson, S. F. (Ed.). (2012). The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity. Oxford University Press.

  1. Hourani, A. H. (1993). Islam in European thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.234. 

  2. Hourani. p.241. 

  3. Hourani. p.241. 

  4. Donner, F. M. (2012). Muhammad and the Believers. Harvard University Press. Preface. p.1. 

  5. Malise Ruthven. (2012). A Startling Thesis on Islam’s Origins. 

  6. Holland, T. (2012). In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire. Anchor. I. Introduction, 1. Known Unknowns. (I read this on ebook, which don’t have fix paginations. So I note the index.) 

  7. Knysh, A. (2017). The Prophetic Hadith and Sunna and the Emergence of the Shari ‘a. In Islam in Historical Perspective (pp. 92-104). 2nd ed. Routledge. p.96. 

  8. Holland. I. Introduction, 1. Known Unknowns. 

  9. Holland. I. Introduction, 1. Known Unknowns. 

  10. Brown, J. (2009). Ḥadīth: Muḥammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. England: One World. Chapter 8. pp.210-217. 

  11. Johnson, S. F. (Ed.). (2012). The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity. Oxford University Press.