J A N U A R Y 1 9 9 9
The Origins of the Koran
Researchers with a
variety of academic and theological interests are proposing controversial
theories about the Koran and Islamic history, and are striving to reinterpret
Islam for the modern world. This is, as one scholar puts it, a "sensitive
by Toby Lester
IN 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana'a, in
Intent on completing the task at hand, the laborers gathered up the manuscripts, pressed them into some twenty potato sacks, and set them aside on the staircase of one of the mosque's minarets, where they were locked away -- and where they would probably have been forgotten once again, were it not for Qadhi Isma'il al-Akwa', then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, who realized the potential importance of the find.
sought international assistance in examining and preserving the fragments, and
in 1979 managed to interest a visiting German scholar, who in turn persuaded
the German government to organize and fund a restoration project. Soon after
the project began, it became clear that the hoard was a fabulous example of
what is sometimes referred to as a "paper grave" -- in this case the
resting place for, among other things, tens of thousands of fragments from
close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Koran, the Muslim holy
scripture. In some pious Muslim circles it is held that worn-out or damaged
copies of the Koran must be removed from circulation; hence the idea of a
grave, which both preserves the sanctity of the texts being laid to rest and
ensures that only complete and unblemished editions of the scripture will be read.
Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., or Islam's first two centuries -- they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence. What's more, some of these fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations (Textual differences) from the standard Koranic text (Of today). Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless, and unchanging Word of God.
The mainly secular effort to reinterpret the Koran -- in part based on textual evidence such as that provided by the Yemeni fragments -- is disturbing and offensive to many Muslims, just as attempts to reinterpret the Bible and the life of Jesus are disturbing and offensive to many conservative Christians. Nevertheless, there are scholars, Muslims among them, who feel that such an effort, which amounts essentially to placing the Koran in history, will provide fuel for an Islamic revival of sorts -- a reappropriation of tradition, a going forward by looking back. Thus far confined to scholarly argument, this sort of thinking can be nonetheless very powerful and -- as the histories of the Renaissance and the Reformation demonstrate -- can lead to major social change. The Koran, after all, is currently the world's most ideologically influential text.
The first person to spend a
significant amount of time examining the Yemeni fragments, in 1981, was Gerd-R. Puin, a specialist in
Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography based at
Looking at the Fragments
Since the early 1980s more than
15,000 sheets of the Yemeni Korans have painstakingly been flattened, cleaned,
treated, sorted, and assembled; they now sit ("preserved for another
thousand years," Puin says) in
To date just two scholars have been granted extensive access to the Yemeni fragments: Puin and his colleague H.-C. Graf von Bothmer, an Islamic-art historian also based at
Puin is not alone in his enthusiasm. "The impact of the Yemeni manuscripts is still to be felt," says Andrew Rippin, a professor of religious studies at the
Y the standards of contemporary biblical scholarship, most of the questions being posed by scholars like Puin and Rippin are rather modest; outside an Islamic context, proposing that the Koran has a history and suggesting that it can be interpreted metaphorically are not radical steps. But the Islamic context -- and Muslim sensibilities -- cannot be ignored. "To historicize the Koran would in effect delegitimize the whole historical experience of the Muslim community," says R. Stephen Humphreys, a professor of Islamic studies at the
The orthodox Muslim view of the Koran as self-evidently the Word of God, perfect and inimitable in message, language, style, and form, is strikingly similar to the fundamentalist Christian notion of the Bible's "inerrancy" and "verbal inspiration" that is still common in many places today. The notion was given classic expression only a little more than a century ago by the biblical scholar John William Burgon.
The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Book of it, every Chapter of it, every Verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it ... every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High!
Not all the Christians think this way about the Bible, however, and in fact, as the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1981) points out, "the closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Kur'an in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ." If Christ is the Word of God made flesh, the Koran is the Word of God made text, and questioning its sanctity or authority is thus considered an outright attack on Islam -- as Salman Rushdie knows all too well.
The prospect of a Muslim backlash has not deterred the
critical-historical study of the Koran, as the existence of
the essays in The Origins of the Koran (1998) demonstrate. Even
in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair the work continues: In 1996 the Koranic
scholar Günter Lüling wrote in The Journal of
Higher Criticism about "the wide extent to which both the text of the
Koran and the learned Islamic account of Islamic origins have been distorted, a
deformation unsuspectingly accepted by Western Islamicists
until now." In 1994 the journal Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam
published a posthumous study by Yehuda D. Nevo, of the
Crone is one of the most iconoclastic of these scholars. During the 1970s and 1980s she wrote and collaborated on several books -- most notoriously, with Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977) -- that made radical arguments about the origins of Islam and the writing of Islamic history. Among Hagarism's controversial claims were suggestions that the text of the Koran came into being later than is now believed ("There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century"); that Mecca was not the initial Islamic sanctuary ("[the evidence] points unambiguously to a sanctuary in north-west Arabia ... Mecca was secondary"); that the Arab conquests preceded the institutionalization of Islam ("The (Talmudic Non –Christ) Jewish messianic fantasy was enacted in the form of an Arab (Islamic) conquest of the Holy Land"); (When Mohamed fled to Medina as told in the Koran he was embraced by the Talmudic Jewish community there and he had among then 6-7 converts. At least one of these converts was a Rabbi who then taught the Apostate Roman Catholic “priest” Mohamed the writings of the Talmud. – So that Islam was and is 6th century Roman Catholic Judaism – with all its prejudices, racism, and hatreds.) that the idea of the hijra, or the migration (Flight) of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622, may have evolved long after Muhammad died ("No seventh-century source identifies the Arab era as that of the hijra"); and that the term "Muslim" was not commonly used in early Islam ("There is no good reason to suppose that the bearers of this primitive identity called themselves 'Muslims' [but] sources do ... reveal an earlier designation of the community [which] appears in Greek as 'Magaritai' in a papyrus of 642, and in Syriac as 'Mahgre' or 'Mahgraye' from as early as the 640s").
Hagarism came under immediate attack, from Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike, for its heavy reliance on hostile sources. ("This is a book," the authors wrote, "based on what from any Muslim perspective must appear an inordinate regard for the testimony of infidel sources.") Crone and Cook have since backed away from some of its most radical propositions -- such as, for example, that the Prophet Muhammad lived two years longer than the Muslim tradition claims he did, and that the historicity of his migration to
Gerd-R. Puin's current thinking about the Koran's history partakes of this contemporary revisionism. "My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad," he says. "Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants."
Patricia Crone defends the goals of this sort of thinking. "The Koran is a scripture with a history like any other -- except that we don't know this history and tend to provoke howls of protest when we study it. Nobody would mind the howls if they came from Westerners, but Westerners feel deferential when the howls come from other people: who are you to tamper with their legacy? But we Islamicists are not trying to destroy anyone's faith."
Not everyone agrees with that assessment -- especially since Western Koranic scholarship has traditionally taken place in the context of an openly declared hostility between Christianity and Islam. (Indeed, the broad movement in the West over the past two centuries to "explain" the East, often referred to as Orientalism, has in recent years come under fire for exhibiting similar religious and cultural biases.) The Koran has seemed, for Christian and Jewish scholars particularly, to possess an aura of heresy; (This is a rather idiotic statement especially from any modern Jew that recognizes all the quotations in the Koran that come from the Talmud. –But to admit so would be to place the Talmud for inspection by all men and expose all of its lies, perversions, hatred.) the nineteenth-century Orientalist William Muir, for example, contended that the Koran was one of "the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation,
Morozov appears to have been a
particularly flamboyant theorist: Lambton wrote that he also argued, in his
book Christ (1930), that "in the Middle Ages Islam was merely an
off-shoot of the Christian Arianism Heresy (This is not at
all correct as the Arian Heresy sprang up over two centuries earlier)
evoked by a meteorological event in the Red Sea area near Mecca."
Not surprisingly, then, given the biases of much non-Islamic critical study of the Koran, Muslims are inclined to dismiss it outright. A particularly eloquent protest came in 1987, in the Muslim World Book Review, in a paper titled "Method Against Truth: Orientalism and Qur'anic Studies," by the Muslim critic S. Parvez Manzoor. Placing the origins of Western Koranic scholarship in "the polemical marshes of medieval Christianity" (This is true because according to the Koran and its traditions Mohammed was a Roman Catholic, his uncle was a Catholic priest, and Mohammed knew Augustine – there is no doubt that Mohammed had studied under him – as some of the writings match the writings of Augustine.) and describing its contemporary state as a "cul-de-sac of its own making," Manzoor orchestrated a complex and layered assault on the entire Western approach to Islam. He opened his essay in a rage.
The Orientalist enterprise of Qur'anic studies, whatever its other merits and services,
was a project born of spite, bred in frustration and nourished by vengeance:
the spite of the powerful for the
powerless, the frustration of the
"rational" towards the "superstitious" and the vengeance of the "orthodox"
against the "non-conformist." (These phrases cry out that the church knows
Mohammed has been sent by God as an instrument of Judgment of God against them.
And this is why they afraid to rail against it, because to do so would be to
provoke it.) At the greatest hour of his worldly-triumph, the
Western man, coordinating the powers of the State, Church and Academia,
launched his most determined assault on the citadel of Muslim faith. All the
aberrant streaks of his arrogant personality -- its reckless rationalism, its
world-domineering phantasy and its sectarian
fanaticism -- joined in an unholy conspiracy to dislodge the Muslim Scripture
from its firmly entrenched position as the epitome of historic authenticity and
moral unassailability. The ultimate trophy that the Western
man sought by his dare-devil venture was the Muslim mind itself. In order to
rid the West forever of the "problem" of Islam, he reasoned, Muslim
consciousness must be made to despair of the cognitive certainty of the Divine
message revealed to the Prophet. Only a Muslim confounded of the historical
authenticity or doctrinal autonomy of the Qur'anic
revelation would abdicate his (Mohamed’s) universal mission (Sent forth from the Talmudic Jews of
Such, at least, seems to have been the tacit, if not the
explicit, rationale of the Orientalist assault on the
Qur'an. Despite such resistance, Western researchers with a variety of academic
and theological interests press on, applying modern techniques of textual and
historical criticism to the study of the Koran. That a substantial body of this
scholarship now exists is indicated by the recent decision of the European firm
Brill Publishers -- a long-established publisher of such major works as The Encyclopaedia of Islam and The Dead Sea Scrolls
Study Edition -- to commission the first-ever Encyclopaedia
of the Qur'an. Jane McAuliffe, a professor of Islamic studies at the
The Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an will be a truly collaborative enterprise, carried out by Muslims and non-Muslims, and its articles will present multiple approaches to the interpretation of the Koran, some of which are likely to challenge traditional Islamic views -- thus disturbing many in the Islamic world, where the time is decidedly less ripe for a revisionist study of the Koran. The plight of Nasr Abu Zaid, an unassuming Egyptian professor of Arabic who sits on the encyclopedia's advisory board, illustrates the difficulties facing Muslim scholars trying to reinterpret their tradition.
"For People Who Understand"
ROUGHLY equivalent in length to the
New Testament, the Koran is divided into 114 sections, known as suras,
that vary dramatically in length and form. The book's organizing
principle is neither chronological nor thematic -- for the most part the suras are arranged from beginning to end in
descending order of length. Despite the unusual structure, however, what
generally surprises newcomers to the Koran is the degree to which it draws on
the same beliefs and stories that appear in the Bible. God (Allah in
Arabic) rules supreme: he is the all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-merciful
Being who has created the world and its creatures; he sends messages and laws
through prophets to help guide human existence; and, at a time in the future
known only to him, he will bring about the end of the world and the Day of
Judgment. Adam, the first man, is expelled from
The Koran takes great care to stress this common monotheistic heritage, but it works equally hard to distinguish Islam from Judaism and Christianity. For example, it mentions prophets -- Hud, Salih, Shu'ayb, Luqman, and others -- whose origins seem exclusively Arabian, and it reminds readers that it is "A Koran in Arabic, / For people who understand." Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, however, the Koran is often extremely difficult for contemporary readers -- even highly educated speakers of Arabic -- to understand. It sometimes makes dramatic shifts in style, voice, and subject matter from verse to verse, and it assumes a familiarity with language, stories, and events that seem to have been lost even to the earliest of Muslim exegetes (typical of a text that initially evolved in an oral tradition). Its apparent inconsistencies are easy to find: God may be referred to in the first and third person in the same sentence; divergent versions of the same story are repeated at different points in the text; divine rulings occasionally contradict one another. In this last case the Koran anticipates criticism and defends itself by asserting the right to abrogate its own message ("God doth blot out / Or confirm what He pleaseth").
Criticism did come. As Muslims increasingly came into contact with Christians during the eighth century, the wars of conquest were accompanied by theological polemics, in which Christians and others latched on to the confusing literary state of the Koran as proof of its human origins. Muslim scholars themselves were fastidiously cataloguing the problematic aspects of the Koran -- unfamiliar vocabulary, seeming omissions of text, grammatical incongruities, deviant readings, and so on. A major theological debate in fact arose within Islam in the late eighth century, pitting those who believed in the Koran as the "uncreated" and eternal Word of God against those who believed in it as created in time, like anything that isn't God himself. Under the Caliph al-Ma'mun (813-833) this latter view briefly became orthodox doctrine. It was supported by several schools of thought, including an influential one known as Mu'tazilism, that developed a complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal understanding of the Koran.
By the end of the tenth century the influence of the Mu'tazili school had waned, for complicated political reasons, and the official doctrine had become that of i'jaz, or the "inimitability" of the Koran. (As a result, the Koran has traditionally not been translated by Muslims for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. Instead it is read and recited in the original by Muslims worldwide, the majority of whom do not speak Arabic. The translations that do exist are considered to be nothing more than scriptural aids and paraphrases.) The adoption of the doctrine of inimitability was a major turning point in Islamic history, and from the tenth century to this day the mainstream Muslim understanding of the Koran as the literal and uncreated Word of God has remained constant.
ERD-R. Puin speaks with disdain about the traditional willingness, on the part of Muslim and Western scholars, to accept the conventional understanding of the Koran. "The Koran claims for itself that it is 'mubeen,' or 'clear,'" he says. "But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn't make sense. Many Muslims -- and Orientalists -- will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Koran is not comprehensible -- if it can't even be understood in Arabic -- then it's not translatable.
People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to
be clear but obviously is not -- as even speakers of Arabic will tell you --
there is a contradiction. Something else must be going on."
Trying to figure out that "something else" really began only in this century. "Until quite recently," Patricia Crone, the historian of early Islam, says, "everyone took it for granted that everything the Muslims claim to remember about the origin and meaning of the Koran is correct. (They are unknowingly speaking here of the Talmud and the wisdom of the Rabbis as to be able to explain the meaning of the Koran as well. –But since the two have been separated just as the church separated the Old and New Testaments into two separate and distinct books – that can not be “lawfully joined” the Muslims too have lost the true meaning of these passages in the Koran.)
If you drop that assumption, you have to start afresh." This is no mean feat, of course; the Koran has come down to us tightly swathed in a historical tradition that is extremely resistant to criticism and analysis. As Crone put it in Slaves on Horses,
The Biblical redactors offer us sections of the Israelite tradition at different stages of crystallization, and their testimonies can accordingly be profitably compared and weighed against each other. But the Muslim tradition was the outcome, not of a slow crystallization, but of an explosion; the first compilers were not redactors, but collectors of debris whose works are strikingly devoid of overall unity; and no particular illuminations ensue from their comparison.
Not surprisingly, given the explosive expansion of early
Islam and the passage of time between the religion's birth and the first
systematic documenting of its history, Muhammad's world and the worlds of the
historians who subsequently wrote about him were dramatically different. During
Islam's first century alone a provincial band of pagan desert tribesmen became
the guardians of a vast international empire of institutional monotheism that
teemed with unprecedented literary and scientific activity. Many contemporary
historians argue that one cannot expect Islam's stories about its own origins
-- particularly given the oral tradition of the early centuries -- to have
survived this tremendous social transformation intact. Nor can one expect a
Muslim historian writing in ninth- or tenth-century
If our goal is to comprehend the way in which Muslims of the late 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries [Islamic calendar / Christian calendar] understood the origins of their society, then we are very well off indeed. But if our aim is to find out "what really happened," in terms of reliably documented answers to modern questions about the earliest decades of Islamic society, then we are in trouble.
The person who more than anyone else has shaken up Koranic
studies in the past few decades is John Wansbrough,
formerly of the
Wansbrough applied an entire arsenal of what he called the "instruments and techniques" of biblical criticism -- form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, and much more -- to the Koranic text. He concluded that the Koran evolved only gradually in the seventh and eighth centuries, during a long period of oral transmission when Jewish and Christian sects were arguing volubly with one another well to the north of
To Wansbrough, the Islamic tradition is an example of what is known to biblical scholars as a "salvation history": a theologically and evangelically motivated story of a religion's origins invented late in the day and projected back in time. In other words, as Wansbrough put it in Quranic Studies, the canonization of the Koran -- and the Islamic traditions that arose to explain it -- involved the
attribution of several, partially overlapping, collections of logia (exhibiting a distinctly Mosaic imprint) to the image of a Biblical prophet (modified by the material of the Muhammadan evangelium into an Arabian man of God) with a traditional message of salvation (modified by the influence of Rabbinic Judaism into the unmediated and finally immutable word of God).
Wansbrough's arcane theories have been contagious in certain scholarly circles, but many Muslims understandably have found them deeply offensive. S. Parvez Manzoor, for example, has described the Koranic studies of Wansbrough and others as "a naked discourse of power" and "an outburst of psychopathic vandalism." But not even Manzoor argues for a retreat from the critical enterprise of Koranic studies; instead he urges Muslims to defeat the Western revisionists on the "epistemological battlefield," admitting that "sooner or later [we Muslims] will have to approach the Koran from methodological assumptions and parameters that are radically at odds with the ones consecrated by our tradition."
Revisionism Inside the Islamic World
NDEED, for more than a century there have been public figures in the Islamic world who have attempted the revisionist study of the Koran and Islamic history -- the exiled Egyptian professor Nasr Abu Zaid is not unique. Perhaps Abu Zaid's most famous predecessor was the prominent Egyptian government minister, university professor, and writer Taha Hussein. A determined modernist, Hussein in the early 1920s devoted himself to the study of pre-Islamic Arabian poetry and ended up concluding that much of that body of work had been fabricated well after the establishment of Islam in order to lend outside support to Koranic mythology. A more recent example is the Iranian journalist and diplomat Ali Dashti, who in his Twenty Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed (1985) repeatedly took his fellow Muslims to task for not questioning the traditional accounts of Muhammad's life, much of which he called "myth-making and miracle-mongering."
Abu Zaid also cites the enormously influential Muhammad 'Abduh as a precursor. The nineteenth-century father of Egyptian modernism, 'Abduh saw the potential for a new Islamic theology in the theories of the ninth-century Mu'tazilis. The ideas of the Mu'tazilis gained popularity in some Muslim circles early in this century (leading the important Egyptian writer and intellectual Ahmad Amin to remark in 1936 that "the demise of Mu'tazilism was the greatest misfortune to have afflicted Muslims; they have committed a crime against themselves"). The late Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman carried the Mu'tazilite torch well into the present era; he spent the later years of his life, from the 1960s until his death in 1988, living and teaching in the
Such work has not come without cost, however: Taha Hussein, like Nasr Abu Zaid, was declared an apostate in
Another scholar with a wide readership who is committed to re-examining the Koran is Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian professor at the
THE gulf between such academic theories and the daily practice of Islam around the world is huge, of course -- the majority of Muslims today are unlikely to question the orthodox understanding of the Koran and Islamic history. Yet Islam became one of the world's great religions in part because of its openness to social change and new ideas. (Centuries ago, when
Increasingly diverse interpretations of the Koran and Islamic history will inevitably be proposed in the coming decades, as traditional cultural distinctions between East, West, North, and South continue to dissolve, as the population of the Muslim world continues to grow, as early historical sources continue to be scrutinized, and as feminism meets the Koran. With the diversity of interpretations will surely come increased fractiousness, perhaps intensified by the fact that Islam now exists in such a great variety of social and intellectual settings -- Bosnia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United States, and so on. More than ever before, anybody wishing to understand global affairs will need to understand Islamic civilization, in all its permutations. Surely the best way to start is with the study of the Koran -- which promises in the years ahead to be at least as contentious, fascinating, and important as the study of the Bible has been in this century.
Copyright © 1999 by The
Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1998; What is the Koran?; Volume 283, No. 1; pages 43-56.