The founding document of Islam is the group of writings collected in the Koran. A devout Muslim believes the Koran to be the perfect, immutable, and eternal word of Allah as dictated to the prophet Mohammed and memorized or written down by the companions of the Prophet. The book is complete, every word in it is true, and nothing in it has been altered since it was first transcribed 1400 years ago.
That’s the traditional view of the core Islamic scriptures, and woe betide any Muslim who questions it. Scholars who attempted to research the origins of the Koran and examine its historical variants have been driven out of Pakistan, Egypt, and other Muslim countries, and have been forced to seek refuge in the academic cloisters of the infidel West.
In the early 1970s, during the renovation of the Great Mosque of Sana’a in Yemen, a trove of ancient manuscripts was discovered. Among them were fragments of early versions of the Koran and related writings. The German scholar Gerd-R. Puin (who has published lengthy analyses of the earliest accounts of the Islamic religion) obtained access to the documents, and was allowed to study them for many years. Recognizing the sensitivity of the find, he published very little about the manuscripts until they had been completely microfilmed and a permanent record of them safely established outside of Yemen.
In a communication to Christopher Heger on March 13, 1999, Dr. Puin wrote:
I have been lucky — and still I am — to study many of the oldest Yemeni Koran manuscripts written in the most archaic “Hijazi” style.
In these I found variants and peculiarities which are not recorded in the traditional Arabic books on qira’at (variant readings), or in the books on rasm al- masahif (orthography of the Koran[s]) nor in those on the ti’dad al-ayat (counting [systems] of verses).
If I had not had access to Yamani Koran fragments preserved in the Dar al-Makhtutat al-Yamaniyyah, San’a’, I could have possibly found similar variants and peculiarities in Hijazi fragments of the Koran kept outside the Yemen in many libraries or museums, e.g. in France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, or Kuwait. A most spectacular (complete??) Hijazi Koran can be admired in the Islamic Museum of Cairo, only a few meters from the entrance, in a special vitrine to the right of the main route; this treasure is in Egypt since 1300 years or so, but I know of no investigation, of no publication on its peculiarities!
There is, on the Muslims’ side, no interest in textual research on the Koran since 900 years! Except from some western semitists who, from time to time, detect the etymology of one Koranic expression or another, most of the Arabists feel reluctant to make up their minds on the genesis of the Koran. The reason for this kind of negligence is quite clear: Both the Muslims and most of the Arabists conceive any early deviation from the Koranic scripture (as is represented by the Cairo print edition) for a lapsus calami, a mere scribal error.
Also in 1999, a summary of Dr. Puin’s findings was published in The Atlantic Monthly. Even back then, before 9-11 had fully alerted Westerners to the… ahem… sensitivities of Muslims, the potentially explosive nature of the Sana’a manuscripts was generally recognized.
Christianity and Judaism have long been subjected to rigorous textual and historical analysis. Now, at last, it appears to be Islam’s turn:
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 University of Calgary, who is at the forefront of Koranic studies today. “Their variant readings and verse orders are all very significant. Everybody agrees on that. These manuscripts say that the early history of the Koranic text is much more of an open question than many have suspected: the text was less stable, and therefore had less authority, than has always been claimed.”
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By 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 University of California at Santa Barbara. “The Koran is the charter for the community, the document that called it into existence. And ideally — though obviously not always in reality — Islamic history has been the effort to pursue and work out the commandments of the Koran in human life. If the Koran is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of fourteen centuries is effectively meaningless.”
Muslim clerics often assert that the Koran cannot be understood except in the original classical Arabic, but Dr. Puin maintains that much of the book is unclear, even to Arabic scholars:
“The Koran claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen,’ or ‘clear,’“ [Puin] 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. 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.
This is an understatement. In the context of 21st-century Salafist fundamentalism, criticism and analysis of the Koran can cost a scholar his life. The example of Salman Rushdie — who was, after all, only an amateur critic of Islamic scripture — did not go unnoticed.
R. Stephen Humphreys, writing in Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (1988), concisely summed up the issue that historians confront in studying early Islam.
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 fact that “trouble” can easily turn deadly has stunted the growth of textual scholarship on the Koran. But, thanks to the quiet work of Dr. Puin and other experts, a new picture of Koranic history is emerging.
In 2002, Alexander Stille wrote in The New York Times:
To 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.
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 the book.
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 questions haven’t stopped yet, and Dr. Puin is still at the forefront of Koran scholarship.
If the Arab expansion came first, and the Koran arose later, what religion or religions powered the Arab conquests? According to the most recent analysis, Islam may have developed out of a form of Christianity, which assumed a number of variant forms on the Arabian Peninsula during the 7th century.
The quote below is taken from a synopsis of a new book, The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into Its Early History, edited by Karl-Heinz Ohlig and Gerd-R. Puin:
The standard histories of Muhammad and the early development of Islam are based on Islamic literature that dates to the ninth and tenth centuries-some two centuries or more after the death of Muhammad in 632. Islamic literary sources do not exist for the seventh and eighth centuries, when, according to tradition, Muhammad and his immediate followers lived. All that is preserved from this time period are a few commemorative building inscriptions and assorted coins.
Based on the premise that reliable history can only be written on the basis of sources that are contemporary with the events described, the contributors to this in-depth investigation present research that reveals the obscure origins of Islam in a completely new light. As the authors meticulously show, the name “Muhammad” first appears on coins in Syria bearing Christian iconography. In this context the name is used as an honorific meaning “revered” or “praiseworthy” and can only refer to Jesus Christ, as Christianity was the predominant religion of the area at this time. This same reference exists in the building inscription of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built by the caliph ‘Abd al-Malik.
The implication of these and other findings here presented is that the early Arab rulers adhered to a sect of Christianity. Indeed, evidence from the Koran, finalized at a much later time, shows that its central theological tenets were influenced by a pre-Nicean, Syrian Christianity. Linguistic analysis also indicates that Aramaic, the common language throughout the Near East for many centuries and the language of Syrian Christianity, significantly influenced the Arabic script and vocabulary used in the Koran. Finally, it was not until the end of the eighth and ninth centuries that Islam formed as a separate religion, and the Koran underwent a period of historical development of at least 200 years.
These findings are indeed explosive. If Western academia ever wakes up from its PC-induced slumber, a new scholarship of the Koran based on the Sana’a manuscripts and other artifacts will become possible. The holy book of Islam will join the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as a historical document, one that has been subject to revisions, redactions, and variations, just as any other historical document has been.
Or Islam could rise up against such a possibility. A full rigorous examination of the Koran would inevitably change the nature of Islam, and no one expects the existing Muslim clerical establishment to yield easily to modernity.
Islam may feel compelled to attempt a modern repetition of the burning of the library at Alexandria. This time, however, the task of eradicating all the infidel documents will be a much, much larger one.
I owe a great debt of thanks to our Swedish correspondent LN, who tracked down and collected the material used in this post.
For a German-language review of another book by Gerd-R. Puin, see Perlentaucher.de.