Islamic research as often been threatened with extreme violence, however, it seems that some are actually standing up past the threats. I wonder what this news will do to Muslims? Will it turn them on their head? Christians have faced textual criticism since at least Justin Martyr, but have come through with a deeper faith, generally, that the bible is indeed the inspired word of God.
September 26 marked the 20th anniversary of Viking Penguin’s publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. While generally well-received by the critics, its treatment of Islamic themes in a series of narrative subplots was quickly deemed blasphemous and Viking Penguin’s refusal to heed demands for its withdrawal led to an international furor, culminating in an Iranian fatwa sentencing Rushdie to death. His crime? Responsibility for a book which was “compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the prophet and the Koran” and “dared to insult the Islamic sanctities.”
That Rushdie was forced to spend 10 years in hiding (and still lives under threat of execution) on the grounds that The Satanic Verses, a work of fiction, represented a “total distortion of the historical facts” about Islam is deeply ironic, given that a genuine critico-historical assault on “Islamic sanctities” had been under way for more than a decade with no repercussions.
Spearheaded by scholars at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), it focused largely on the Koran, which these so-called new historians of Islam subjected to modern historical and philological analysis. Their findings flatly contradict the Islamic account of its origins.
According to this account, the Koran represents the uncorrupted word of God, “constant, immaculate, unalterable and inimitable.” It was transmitted to man through Muhammad, a prosperous Meccan merchant who received it via the angel Gabriel as a series of verse revelations between 610 and his death in 632. Uneducated and illiterate, Muhammad committed these revelations to memory before reciting them to his followers, who memorized them verbatim in turn. The killing of hundreds of these “memorizers” in the battle of Yamama in 633 alerted his successor as Muslim leader, the first caliph, Abu Bakr, to the danger that the revelations could be lost. He therefore gathered all available sources into a loose compilation called the suhuf which was then used by the third caliph, Uthman, to produce in the mid-650s a standardized text of the Koran. Copies were sent to Islamic communities with orders that all other versions be destroyed. Muslims believe this Uthmanic recension is the Koran as we have it today.
BUT ACCORDING to the New Historians, there is no evidence that the Koran was compiled by Muhammad or canonized under Uthman; in fact, there is no proof it existed in any form before the end of the seventh century, and the first signs of a standardized codex date from the early 800s, 150 years after Uthman’s death. In his 1977 survey Qur’anic Studies, the late professor of Semitic studies at SOAS, John Wansbrough, applied to the Koran “the instruments and techniques of biblical criticism” developed in the 19th century by German biblical scholars such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Julius Wellhausen – i.e., treating it as a literary construct and comparing it to contemporary devotional works.
The fact that it is “strikingly lacking in overall structure, frequently obscure and inconsequential in both language and content… and given to the repetition of whole passages in variant versions” is evidence, he argued, that it “is not the carefully executed project of one or many men, but rather the product of an organic development from originally independent traditions during a long period of transmission.”
The existence in Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock of Koranic inscriptions which differ from Uthman’s text, and the discovery in 1972 of a Yemeni “paper grave” containing thousands of Koranic fragments exhibiting other textual variations, further indicate that, far from being divinely revealed in its unchanging entirety, the Koran evolved as a literary artifact.
IN A follow-up study, The Sectarian Milieu, Wansbrough postulated that the Koran emerged out of a two-centuries-long dialogue between Muslims and the Christians and Jews they encountered during the Islamic conquests. Its precepts slowly developed in opposition to the older religions, resulting in a tradition distinctively Arabian but based on Judaeo-Christian foundations. Wansbrough saw rabbinical Judaism as the Koran’s overriding influence, citing its biblical and talmudic borrowings.
Other scholars, however, have highlighted its Christian substrates. The German scholar Christoph Luxenburg contends that it is based on the qeryana – lectionaries used in seventh-century Syrian Christian churches. He even proposes that the Koran is not exclusively in Arabic (for Muslims, a sacrilegious suggestion) but incorporates sections of Syro-Aramaic, a language similar in structure and script, and that many of its more impenetrable passages become coherent only when read as Aramaic. Most controversially, Luxenburg claims the word houri, commonly translated as “wide-eyed virgins” in the verse describing the jihadist martyr’s heavenly reward, is actually an Aramaic word meaning “white grapes of crystal clarity.”
THE IDEA of an evolving Koran has been developed by Wansbrough’s former SOAS students Patricia Crone and Michael Cook. In Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, they eschew Muslim sources for Islam’s early history in favor of contemporary Armenian, Greek and Syrian accounts. These, they maintain, demonstrate that Muslim tradition is a myth, a “pious fraud” created after the Islamic conquests to provide an ideological foundation for the expanding empire. The Koran was compiled as part of this process, to provide a coherent scriptural basis for the growing body of law that its governance required. It was then attributed back to Muhammad to give it unassailable authority.
In Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, Crone also challenges the convention that the Koran was compiled in Mecca and Medina, arguing that internal evidence like its description of Muhammad’s “polytheist” opponents as olive growers suggests a Mediterranean milieu. Gerald Hawting, SOAS professor of Near Eastern history, agrees, arguing that these “polytheists” actually espouse a form of monotheism, placing the Koran’s development not in idol-worshipping Arabia, but further north in the Fertile Crescent.
Unsurprisingly, such theories have been denounced by Muslim academics who consider the Koran’s historicization as blasphemy. Seizing on SOAS’s reputation as an old colonial institution, they have dismissed the new historians as “Orientalists” and have imputed sinister motives to their work. For example, S. Parvez Manzoor, mindful of the manner in which biblical criticism helped break Christianity’s stranglehold on European civilization, interprets it as “an unholy conspiracy to dislodge the Muslim scripture from its firmly entrenched position as the epitome of historic authenticity and moral unassailability” and “rid the West forever of the problem of Islam.”
THEIR THEORIES have not commanded universal assent among non-Muslim Islamicists either. Wansbrough has been dismissed as “drastically wrongheaded” while the “superficial fancies” of Hagarism were said to lend it an air of “pure spoof.” However, today there is near consensus among scholars that they are posing difficulties for the Islamic account.
That the New Historians have escaped Rushdie’s fate is due mainly to their relative obscurity. Wansbrough’s “ferociously opaque” style precluded his work from having any public impact, and while Cook, Crone and Hawting are more accessible, their arguments are difficult for non-specialists to digest. In any case, most have, in the service of their security, maintained a low-key professional profile and largely conducted their work below the public radar. Those like Luxenburg who have courted attention have been careful to publish pseudonymously.
However, in the wake of “the cartoon jihad” and the increasing commotion over Sherry Jones’ novel The Jewel of Medina (the book’s British publisher’s home was recently firebombed), it is time the work of the new historians was packaged for a popular audience. For while rational scrutiny of Islam remains the preserve of a handful of unheard-of professors and taboo for mainstream publishers and the media, Islamist intimidation and violence will thrive. Only when Islam is routinely subjected to the same debate and discussion as other religions will Satanic Verses-type controversies become things of the past.
The writer is a freelance journalist. He is currently working on a research thesis on the Irish Catholic Church’s attitude toward Zionism in the first half of the twentieth century and a book on the history of relations between Ireland and Israel.