The following review by Chiu ChunLing, a reader and commenter at Gates of Vienna, was done at my request. He is far more careful than I would have been and for his scholarship I am both humbled and grateful. We have amazing readers.
This book defies description but it is worth your time. The DO-NOT-TOUCH walls that fundamentalist Muslims have erected around the Koran are essentially the same as those which fundamentalist Christians build around Jewish and Christian scriptures. Despite their fears about the fragility of the texts, all such creations are worthy of examination.
In the process of our inspections and analyses we find out much about ourselves. I will continue to stand with Heisenberg on that one; his principle doesn’t hold just for physics but crosses all intellectual boundaries at some point.
Our thanks to Chiu ChunLing for his patience, too. One of us will post an excerpt at the Amazon page. (By the way, the few reviews on that page at present are all reasonable and also worth your while.)
In reviewing Norbert G. Pressburg’s book, “What the Modern Martyr Should Know: Seventy-Two Grapes and Not a Single Virgin: The New Picture of Islam”, I must begin by addressing a misconception that is likely to arise from the title.
This is not a book intended for an audience of Muslims devout enough to contemplate martyrdom. It might be better titled, “What the Modern Christian Martyr Should Know: A Hundred and One Truths Certain to Enrage Devout Muslims”, but the book is not particularly aimed at Christians either (who in any case need no help finding ways to enrage Muslims). The audience for Norbert G. Pressburg’s work is those who give primary respect to the truth claims of empirically verifiable facts, and who want an introduction to what the sciences of history and archeology currently can tell us about the origins and history of Islam. It thus ought to be titled, “The Historical Facts about Islam: What Muslims Kill to Keep Hidden”, or some more imaginative title of the same intent.
As the revised sub-title suggests, it is not the sort of book you want to discuss with any Muslims you know (and certainly not with any that you don’t know). “Norbert G. Pressburg” is a pseudonym, an unfortunate necessity for this kind of book which says much about the nature of Koranic Islam. Although Pressburg’s focus is predominantly on what can be factually established about the past rather than direct criticism of the role of Islam in the modern world, the implications for Muslims today are inescapable.
Pressburg has done an admirable job of creating an accessible guide to the verifiable historical facts about Islam for the non-expert in Semitic languages, Middle Eastern archeology, and textual criticism of primary source documents. It will not make a non-expert into an expert, but it does provide an overview of the important information that science currently has uncovered on the subject and punctures a number of commonly circulated myths which cannot be confirmed or are definitely contrary to verifiable facts. Pressburg begins with the myth that the modern Koran represents a perfectly error-free transmission of a written Qur’an codified by Mohammad’s contemporaries to correspond exactly with the revelations taught by Mohammad. The book also covers a number of other myths important to the justification of Islamic supremacy.
One of the major problems for Islam is that the Koran is largely unintelligible even to those fluent in Arabic. Moreover this has always been the case, the problem is not any evolution of the Arabic language but that the language of the Qur’an is not really pure Arabic. The Qur’an contains vocabulary and usages from several different Semitic languages, Syro-Aramaic significant among them. Koranic authorities claim that the unintelligibility is the result of the divine revelation being too advanced for the uninitiated to understand, which superficially makes sense if the Qur’an were really God’s final word on everything. It is a generally observed inevitability that the more highly literate and densely informative any fixed communication is, the more difficulty there is going to be in deciphering the contents. This is not just true of natural language, it is a scientifically established aspect of information theory itself, the more complex the message, and the higher the degree of compression, the more it will look like noise to those without the key to deciphering it.
But there are two logical consequences of this. Anyone familiar with how much more dramatically information corruption affects a highly compressed data format will realize that even minor errors in information-dense media can lead to major deviations from intended results. A high density of information not only precludes the degree of redundancy that is necessary for easy decoding, that same lack of redundancy means that even small errors in transmission result in large errors in the result of otherwise correct decoding methods.
If the Koran is claimed to be this sort of message, then the exact wording of the Qur’an must be preserved to avoid changing the message dramatically. The second consequence is that an inability to detect the presence of such errors indicates that the decoding method being used is incorrect, because robust error detection is an absolute requirement of dealing with high-density information. If the Koran is not a perfect transmission of the Qur’an (that being a perfect transcription and codification of Mohammad’s teachings), or if the Koranic authorities are demonstrably incompetent to detect errors in their interpretation, then the reliability of the message is destroyed. Pressburg provides abundant evidence that thoroughly demolishes both propositions necessary to the validity of the Koran.
The fact that sections of the Qur’an are reflective of earlier Christian apocrypha and devotional liturgies should not really surprise anyone familiar with the claims of Islamic tradition to continuity with and extension of existing Judeo-Christian belief and revelation…
But comparison of the earliest texts with prior Christian devotional literature reveals that the similarities go beyond subject matter. Careful study reveals that the original language of the Qur’an was a mixture of Semitic languages in which many specific religious terms are borrowed by transliteration from their Syro-Aramaic origins. The persistent failure to recognize the original meanings of these terms has lead to extensive revisions of their meanings as later Koranic authorities limited entirely to Arabic resorted to invention to cover their simple ignorance. Pressburg has the misfortune of stretching this point to cover clearly Arabic terms that are similar to terms found in other Semitic languages, ignoring the principle that where an existing Arabic term was in known usage it should be preferred, which strains the argument but cannot abolish it, for in many instances it is quite evident that the term in question is a pure transliteration of a novel non-Arabic term which has had a convenient meaning invented by later commentators.
Due to the evolution of Arabic script writing to include “diacritical marks” to differentiate between words that would have been spelled identically despite originally having divergent pronounciations and meanings, interpolated word meanings replacing the original represents a systematic transcription error. This problem is common to written Semitic languages, which generally only have letters to represent consonants and not vowels. But the process of adding diacritical marks to disambiguate words ends up altering the text when the original term was transliterated from another language rather than being organic to Arabic. Another important factor which Pressburg addresses only in passing is that there are several significantly divergent versions of the Qur’an, resulting from the difficulty of compiling orally transmitted passages into a definitive whole (that the Koran is organized so oddly, by length of Sura rather than chronology or subject matter, could be reflective of different levels of confidence in longer Suras that would have been memorized reliably by fewer people).
These kinds of errors may seem minor in an ordinary work of prose (an altered term changing only the meaning of a single sentence, perhaps), but for a work that is claimed to be a kind of divine poetry with an extraordinary information density, the effect is magnified intensely. Pressburg presents Luxenberg’s research illustrating in detail how the invention of meaning for a transliterated Syro-Aramaic term for “pellucid” shifts the meaning of a passage about the grapes of Paradise to become a reference to the famous houris of Islam. He then shows how this false reading of one passage alters numerous other passages about the fruit of Paradise into references to the invented houris (with depictions of inviting fruit being transformed into descriptions of the houris’ attributes).
The situation of a passage about the white grapes of Paradise being misinterpreted to create a reference to the fabulous (and perpetually virginal) houris may seem quite humorous. But the consequences of such a drastic mistake on the claim that the modern Koran is a perfectly transmitted document are beyond serious.
Turning to the other major source of traditional information about the life and teachings of Mohammad, the Hadiths, Pressburg makes the crucial point that any Hadith only gives us primary information about the person who actually recorded it and introduced the fixed form into Islamic tradition. The information it provides about Mohammad and his direct associates can only be regarded as hearsay or less. The history of the introduction of Hadiths can tell us quite a bit about the various forces seeking influence within Islam at the times they were introduced, but they do not tell us anything at all about Mohammad except the general opinion of him among Muslims living several generations later.
The accounting of historical evidence, here used in the technical sense of primary recorded sources contemporaneous with the events described, shows with a high degree of certainty that the vast majority of the Islamic tradition about Mohammad is fictional. It is more plausible to say there was no such person at all than to claim that he did or said much of what tradition asserts.
What Pressburg demonstrates more conclusively is that the actual history of the time when Mohammad was supposedly carving out the initial foothold of the Arabic Caliphate is completely at odds with the traditional Islamic myth. Due to the outcome of a war between the Byzantium and Persian Empires, the Persian Empire was in a state a collapse while the Byzantium Empire was reducing its military commitment to the problematical and unprofitable areas surrounding the Holy Land. The origin of independent Arab nations was not though Mohammad’s conquests but by default as two powerful empires withdrew from a battlefield, one to die and the other to lick its wounds.
An examination of the history of the Dome of the Rock serves to illustrate the process of mythological development that has created modern Koranic Islam by revisionist imposition of convenient interpretations on the available historical evidence. This serves as a prelude to an extended speculation on how the Monarchist Arabian Christianity which dominated the first Arabic century (622-700) might have evolved into Islam, which then redacted the existing history to fit a founding narrative for the new religion. There are some logical problems with the particulars of Pressburg’s interpolation of the event, most notably that it is frankly impossible in human terms. A real religious revolution had to have taken place to convert Monarchist Christians into followers of a relatively recent Mohammad, or the attempt to impose the newly invented history of the religion would have foundered badly across such a large geographical region. There must have already been a substantial pre-existing population of adherents to the religion that was being supported by the new narrative for it to be widely accepted and prevail over surviving Christian tradition, to suppose otherwise is to invoke a greater miracle than any attributed to Mohammad’s life and times. And even after the all the obvious hyperbole has been stripped off of his story, there does remain a picture of Mohammad (or Qutham, as he was apparently named before taking on what was originally a laudatory plaudit), and one which is simply too inconvenient to have been invented on purpose. However, despite the clear flaws in Pressburg’s speculation, it is at least as compatible with the primary contemporary historical evidence as the narrative presented by Islamic tradition. It may thus be seen as serving the purpose of an argument by analogy (though it is not obviously presented as such).
In analyzing the “Golden Age of Islam”, Pressburg clearly and convincingly demonstrates that an essential element of the circumstances which made it a golden age was the lack of thorough domination of intellectual life by Islam. This has two components, both important. One is debunking the myth that Islam contributed any serious scientific or philosophical advances to the world. The advances which Islam claims were made by non-Muslims (or apostates), often in the face of significant persecution. The other is perhaps more subtle but not less important. Pressburg presents the historical fact that it was not until the 12th century that the edifice of Islamic totalitarianism as it exists today became a significant force in Islam.
While both of these implications are connected to the history of the “Islamic Golden Age”, they are worth distinguishing. The first point is that the natural tendencies of Islam are antithetical to learning and intellectual development, which anyone might realize from the chief attributes of Mohammad’s teachings. The second point (which might also be found in an examination of the more central teachings of Mohammad after they are separated from later attributions and interpretations), is that totalitarian imposition is antithetical to Islam, it simply does not have the requisite elements to replace all other religions and life-styles. Islam as originally constituted does not contain the essential attributes necessary to maintenance of civilization, nor does it promote the kind of asceticism compatible with forsaking entirely the benefits of some association with civilized society (which is going to need distinctly un-Islamic elements to exist). And despite the extensive modification, reinterpretation, interpolation, and outright corruption, modern Koranic Islam demonstrates the same lack of civilizational attributes and value.
Those frustrated by the pervasive myth of the benevolent and tolerant reign of Islam over “Al-Andalus” (a major element in the UNESCO propaganda campaign promoting Islam as a religion of peace) will find a wealth of complex reality in Pressburg’s chapter on the subject. It is not easily summarized, except to say that it is well worth reading in its own right. The “tolerance” exercised by Muslims in dealing with Spain consisted mostly of an inability to thoroughly impose their rule, mostly because of the constant threat of expulsion by other factions in the area but also significantly because many of the Arabs were not always Muslim either. In fact during the most “tolerant” period they were Christians to the exclusion of any connection with Mohammad’s teachings. And the degree of mercy shown to the Muslims when they were finally expelled by the Spanish Christians compares very favorably to any display of forbearance by Muslim rulers on the other hand.
The final chapter treats the contemporary myth of Islam which has the most pressing consequences for our times. Islamic nations are persistently failed societies that see few of the benefits of modern civilization. In attempting to come to terms with this evident reality, Muslims of nearly all stripes have decided to look for external enemies to blame for the inevitable results of their own religion. I must presume that the potential audience for Pressburg’s work are quite familiar with this myth, in his closing chapter he does little more than show that this destructive myth is logically dependent on the idea that Islam cannot itself be the problem. This notion is propped up by the collection of myths which assert that Islam is a perfect system of divine morality which has in the past produced marvels of civilization, scientific advancement, and benevolent rule. The previous chapters having left all these other myths in ruins, there is little work to do except to call upon those who would improve the lot of Muslims to confront their guiding myths which prevent accepting anything which would actually help.
Because totalitarianism as such is by nature incompatible with human thriving and humane morality, it is the nature of every totalitarian ideology to depend on false conceptions of history and science to justify itself. Thus for those who would free themselves or others from the grip of a totalitarian ideology, learning the truth behind the propaganda is essential. The revision of history and obliteration of its artifacts by Koranic Islam cannot be successfully countered without just such information as is in this book.
While acknowledging the importance of Pressburg’s work in creating a clear and engaging text which accessibly presents the current state of scientific inquiry, I cannot conclude my review without noting some minor reservations. The first appears in the early chapters, which focus on demonstrating the unreliability of certain elements of Islamic tradition. While the evidence which proves the case is clearly presented, Pressburg repeatedly resorts to invoking the complete unreliability of Islamic tradition as an argument for the unreliability of given elements of Islamic tradition. This may be a result of difficulty in communication, the attempt to emphasize the distinction between primary sources which have been properly authenticated by textual criticism and forensic science and secondary or later material which only provides evidence of the beliefs or attitudes of a later person. It is at this point that the argument should probably begin, showing that the Islamic tradition is unsupported by historical evidence, and historical evidence indicates that the Islamic tradition begins to develop well after the events it describes and ignores or contradicts many events of that time that are soundly historically evidenced. Having thus established the unreliability of Islamic tradition, many of Pressburg’s previous arguments could have been presented on more logically secure ground. Pressburg does mention this in clearer language but does not make the connection as obvious as I feel is necessary to avoid the appearance of introducing a circular argument.
The second point is perhaps more serious, Pressburg appears to fall into the trap of allowing the lack of evidence to prove that something did not happen. This is unsound in principle, but doubly so in dealing with a field where evidence is being systematically suppressed or destroyed, which is clearly the case with regards to the true history of Islam. We can confirm very little about the life of Qutham (the historical person on whom Mohammad is apparently based) because Koranic Islam is a totalitarian ideology committed to eradicating all information which contradicts the falsehoods justifying it (it is also probably true that Qutham was at best a fairly minor historical figure before being revised into Mohammad, a religious charismatic with little influence outside of the Bedouin tribes). It is much like supposing a murder victim to still be alive because the murderer has disposed of most of the evidence against himself. The field of inquiry into the origins of Islam is hampered by the established tendency of Koranic Islam to destroy or hide evidence and murder those who ask too many questions, that does not come anywhere near a justification for asserting that the origins don’t really exist. If the world can successfully pull the teeth of those currently suppressing all research into the history of Islam, then we may find out that there is a lot of evidence to consider (or at least be able to trace what happened to it). Or we may not much care at that point, I certainly should hardly care about the story of Qutham one way or another if not for the threat Koranic Islam poses to Western Civilization.
But keeping such reservations in mind, it would be a far greater error to dismiss or ignore the importance of Pressburg’s work. For those who are interested in resisting the encroachment of Koranic Islam’s totalitarian advances on the civilized world, being armed with the facts which contradict the myths of Islam is essential.
— Chiu ChunLing