I'm probably one of thousands of people who never heard of Dr. Bart Ehrman until I saw his new book "Jesus Interrupted" in the bookstore a few days ago. It caught my attention immediately, and as I read it I became aware of the similarities between his background and mine. We both attended fundamentalist Christian schools, and later in life began to question beliefs we had always assumed to be true. As Dr. Ehrman puts it, you've got to go where the scholarship takes you.
Recapping Ehrman's life as he describes it in his book, he was a devoted believer who wanted to dedicate his life to studying the Bible. Knowing that Greek was the language of the New Testament, he became a Greek scholar. Inconsistencies in the ancient texts caused him to doubt they were "divinely inspired" in the evangelical Christian sense, and also caused him to question the "divinity of Jesus". He is now head of the Department of Religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
The thought that came to mind as I read Ehrman's book and listened to a few of his speeches and interviews available online is, why don't we do this with Islam? Ehrman's argument is powerful because he began as a believer. Imagine someone with the exact same background, but who grew up Muslim in an Islamic country. Someone who really believed, and wanted to dedicate his or her life to Allah and Muhammad. Perhaps they even went to university to study Islam, and graduated with a PhD from the most famous Islamic university in the world (as Mark Gabriel - not his true name - did from Al Azhar University in Egypt). But along the way their faith was challenged, they began to question it, and concluded they no longer believed the Quran was inspired by Allah and Muhammad was a prophet from God. Not only that, they became convinced that their religion as envisoned by its prophet was incompatible with life in the 21st century.
Suppose I wanted to study with one of these people. Where would I go? Georgetown, UNC, Princeton? I could be wrong, but I don't think so. Rather than being accepted by American academia for professorships, they have been marginalized. Again I could be wrong, but I think there are two reasons for this. First is the fear of Muslim reaction. Second, and even worse, is that universities have prostituted themselves to receive millions of dollars from individuals such as Prince al-Walid bin Talal and the Emir of Qatar for Islamic studies departments. You don't bite the hand that feeds you.
I've noticed an interesting phenomenom over the years - Americans who are very critical of their own religion are equally defensive of others. A few years ago I had a conversation with a coworker who grew up in the Bible Belt of Tennessee. He'd even been leader of his church youth group before life and its events caused him to become extremely critical of anything remotely Christian. In our conversation, I mentioned a few ideas I was developing about Islam. His astonished reply was, "But you're putting down the whole religion!"
I've got no problem with Dr. Ehrman continuing his research, and I wish him success. But it would be nice to look at the list of graduate courses in the Department of Religion at the University of North Carolina, as I've done, and see something like:
Islamic studies 505 - fall, 2009. Examining the empirical evidence that Muhammad was a prophet of God or that the Quran was inspired by God.
And with a professor from a Muslim background who would use the same methodology in examining Islam as Ehrman does in examining Christianity. There are people out there who could do it, but there's a cost to be paid for hiring them (and I don't mean paying their salaries). I hope we have the courage to do it.