Koran, its origins
New Views of Islam and the Origins of the Koran (New York
by Alexander Stille
Muslims the Koran is the very word of God, who spoke through
the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad: "This book is not to be doubted," the Koran
declares unequivocally at its beginning. Scholars and writers in Islamic
countries who have ignored that warning have sometimes found themselves the
target of death threats and violence, sending a chill through universities
around the world.
Yet despite the fear, a handful of experts have been quietly
investigating the origins of the Koran, offering radically new theories about
the text's meaning and the rise of Islam.
Christoph Luxenberg, a scholar of ancient Semitic languages in
Germany, argues that the Koran has been misread and mistranslated for centuries.
His work, based on the earliest copies of the Koran, maintains that parts of
Islam's holy book are derived from pre-existing Christian Aramaic texts that
were misinterpreted by later Islamic scholars who prepared the editions of the
Koran commonly read today.
So, for example, the virgins who are supposedly awaiting good
Islamic martyrs as their reward in paradise are in reality "white raisins" of
crystal clarity rather than fair maidens.
Christoph Luxenberg, however, is a pseudonym, and his
scholarly tome "The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran" had trouble finding a
publisher, although it is considered a major new work by several leading
scholars in the field. Verlag Das Arabische Buch in Berlin ultimately published
Agence France-Presse Reading the Koran in Jakarta.
The caution is not surprising. Salman Rushdie's "Satanic
Verses" received a fatwa because it appeared to mock Muhammad. The Egyptian
novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed because one of his books was thought to be
irreligious. And when the Arab scholar Suliman Bashear argued that Islam
developed as a religion gradually rather than emerging fully formed from the
mouth of the Prophet, he was injured after being thrown from a second- story
window by his students at the University of Nablus in the West Bank. Even many
broad-minded liberal Muslims become upset when the historical veracity and
authenticity of the Koran is questioned.
The reverberations have affected non-Muslim scholars in
Western countries. "Between fear and political correctness, it's not possible to
say anything other than sugary nonsense about Islam," said one scholar at an
American university who asked not to be named, referring to the threatened
violence as well as the widespread reluctance on United States college campuses
to criticize other cultures.
While scriptural interpretation may seem like a remote and
innocuous activity, close textual study of Jewish and Christian scripture played
no small role in loosening the Church's domination on the intellectual and
cultural life of Europe, and paving the way for unfettered secular thought. "The
Muslims have the benefit of hindsight of the European experience, and they know
very well that once you start questioning the holy scriptures, you don't know
where it will stop," the scholar explained.
The touchiness about questioning the Koran predates the latest
rise of Islamic militancy. As long ago as 1977, John Wansbrough of the School of
Oriental and African Studies in London wrote that subjecting the Koran to
"analysis by the instruments and techniques of biblical criticism is virtually
Mr. Wansbrough insisted that the text of the Koran appeared to
be a composite of different voices or texts compiled over dozens if not hundreds
of years. After all, scholars agree that there is no evidence of the Koran until
691 -- 59 years after Muhammad's death -- when the Dome of the Rock mosque in
Jerusalem was built, carrying several Koranic inscriptions.
These inscriptions differ to some degree from the version of
the Koran that has been handed down through the centuries, suggesting, scholars
say, that the Koran may have still been evolving in the last decade of the
seventh century. Moreover, much of what we know as Islam -- the lives and
sayings of the Prophet -- is based on texts from between 130 and 300 years after
In 1977 two other scholars from the School for Oriental and
African Studies at London University -- Patricia Crone (a professor of history
at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton) and Michael Cook (a professor
of Near Eastern history at Princeton University) -- suggested a radically new
approach in their book "Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World."
Since there are no Arabic chronicles from the first century of
Islam, the two looked at several non-Muslim, seventh-century accounts that
suggested Muhammad was perceived not as the founder of a new religion but as a
preacher in the Old Testament tradition, hailing the coming of a Messiah. Many
of the early documents refer to the followers of Muhammad as "hagarenes," and
the "tribe of Ishmael," in other words as descendants of Hagar, the servant girl
that the Jewish patriarch Abraham used to father his son Ishmael.
In its earliest form, Ms. Crone and Mr. Cook argued, the
followers of Muhammad may have seen themselves as retaking their place in the
Holy Land alongside their Jewish cousins. (And many Jews appear to have welcomed
the Arabs as liberators when they entered Jerusalem in 638.)
The idea that Jewish messianism animated the early followers
of the Prophet is not widely accepted in the field, but "Hagarism" is credited
with opening up the field. "Crone and Cook came up with some very interesting
revisionist ideas," says Fred M. Donner of the University of Chicago and author
of the recent book "Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic
Historical Writing." "I think in trying to reconstruct what happened, they went
off the deep end, but they were asking the right questions."
The revisionist school of early Islam has quietly picked up
momentum in the last few years as historians began to apply rational standards
of proof to this material.
Mr. Cook and Ms. Crone have revised some of their early
hypotheses while sticking to others. "We were certainly wrong about quite a lot
of things," Ms. Crone said. "But I stick to the basic point we made: that
Islamic history did not arise as the classic tradition says it does."