History and nostalgia: Reflections on John Wansbrough's The Sectarian Milieu

In: Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
Norman Calder The Department of Middle Eastern Studies The University of Manchester

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In the fourth chapter of The Sectarian Milieu, John Wansbrough asks the question whether Islam gives expression to a concept of history as event or as process, the one implying a nostalgic, the other a dynamic approach to community history. This paper accepts the distinction while suggesting that there are more ways of exploring the question than that exemplified in his analysis. While his study comes to a tentatively negative answer (Islam as nostalgia), this article suggests that the processes of reading scripture constitute precisely a means for the preservation of event and for its transformation into process. Section 2 looks at a liturgical and Section 3 at a scholastic (exegetical) reading of scripture, while Section 4 proposes that the literature of the law must also be understood as a "reading" of scripture. In each case, it is argued, the meanings of salvation history are re-discovered from generation to generation through the experience of the community, in an ongoing hermeneutical tradition which stresses not event but process (in Wansbrough's own words "the afterlife of an event perpetuated by constant interpretation"). Sections 5 and 6 offer some concluding remarks about Islamic epistemology and the process of reading, which is both the activity of contemporary scholars and the object of their studies.

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