To Muslims the
Qur’an is the very word of God, who spoke through the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad:
“This book is not to be doubted,” the Qur’an 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.
the fear, a handful of experts have been quietly investigating the origins of
the Qur’an, offering radically new theories about the text’s meaning and the
rise of Islam.
Luxenberg, a scholar of ancient Semitic languages in Germany, argues that the
Qur’an has been misread and mistranslated for centuries. His work, based on the
earliest copies of the Qur’an, 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 Qur’an commonly read
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
Luxenberg, however, is a pseudonym, and his scholarly tome “The Syro-Aramaic
Reading of the Qur’an” 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 caution is
not surprising. Salman Rushdi’s “Satanic Verses” received a fatwa because it
appeared to mock Muhammad. The Egyptian novelist Nugib Mahfuz 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 Qur’an is questioned.
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
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
hindsight benefit 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.
about questioning the Qur’an 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 Qur’an to “analysis by the instruments and
techniques of biblical criticism is virtually unknown.”
insisted that the text of the Qur’an 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 Qur’an until 691 - 59 years
after Muhammad’s death - when the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem was
built, carrying several Qur’anic inscriptions.
inscriptions differ to some degree from the version of the Qur’an that has been
handed down through the centuries, suggesting, scholars say, that the Qur’an 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 Muhammad’s death.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
insists that the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition present a fundamental paradox.
The Qur’an is a text soaked in monotheistic thinking, filled with stories and
references to Abraham, Isaac, Joseph and Jesus, and yet the official history
insists that Muhammad, an illiterate camel merchant, received the revelation in
Makkah, a remote, sparsely populated part of Arabia, far from the centres of
monotheistic thought, in an environment of idol-worshiping Arab Bedouins. Unless
one accepts the idea of the angel Gabriel, Ms. Crone says, historians must
somehow explain how all these monotheistic stories and ideas found their way
into the Qur’an.
only two possibilities,” Ms. Crone said. “Either there had to be substantial
numbers of Jews and Christians in Makkah or the Qur’an had to have been composed
scholars who are not revisionists agree that Islam must be placed back into the
wider historical context of the religions of the Middle East rather than seeing
it as the spontaneous product of the pristine Arabian Desert. “I think there is
increasing acceptance, even on the part of many Muslims, that Islam emerged out
of the wider monotheistic soup of the Middle East,” says Roy Mottahedeh, a
professor of Islamic history at Harvard University.
Mr. Luxenberg and Gerd- R. Puin, who teaches at Saarland University in Germany,
have returned to the earliest known copies of the Qur’an in order to grasp what
it says about the document’s origins and composition. Mr. Luxenberg explains
these copies are written without vowels and diacritical dots that modern Arabic
uses to make it clear what letter is intended. In the eighth and ninth
centuries, more than a century after the death of Muhammad, Islamic commentators
added diacritical marks to clear up the ambiguities of the text, giving precise
meanings to passages based on what they considered to be their proper context.
Mr. Luxenberg’s radical theory is that many of the text’s difficulties can be
clarified when it is seen as closely related to Aramaic, the language group of
most Middle Eastern Jews and Christians at the time.
the famous passage about the virgins is based on the word hur, which is an
adjective in the feminine plural meaning simply “white.” Islamic tradition
insists the term hur stands for “houri,” which means virgin, but Mr. Luxenberg
insists that this is a forced misreading of the text. In both ancient Aramaic
and in at least one respected dictionary of early Arabic, hur means “white
has traced the passages dealing with paradise to a Christian text called Hymns
of Paradise by a fourth-century author. Mr. Luxenberg said the word paradise was
derived from the Aramaic word for garden and all the descriptions of paradise
described it as a garden of flowing waters, abundant fruits and white raisins, a
prized delicacy in the ancient Near East. In this context, white raisins,
mentioned often as hur, Mr. Luxenberg said, makes more sense than a reward of
In many cases,
the differences can be quite significant. Mr. Puin points out that in the early
archaic copies of the Qur’an, it is impossible to distinguish between the words
“to fight” and “to kill.” In many cases, he said, Islamic exegetes added
diacritical marks that yielded the harsher meaning, perhaps reflecting a period
in which the Islamic Empire was often at war.
A return to
the earliest Qur’an, Mr. Puin and others suggest, might lead to a more tolerant
brand of Islam, as well as one that is more conscious of its close ties to both
Judaism and Christianity.
“It is serious
and exciting work,” Ms. Crone said of Mr. Luxenberg’s work. Jane McAuliffe, a
professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, has asked Mr. Luxenberg
to contribute an essay to the Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, which she is editing.
Mr. Puin would
love to see a “critical edition” of the Qur’an produced, one based on recent
philological work, but, he says, “the word critical is misunderstood in the
Islamic world - it is seen as criticizing or attacking the text.”
authors have begun to publish sceptical, revisionist work on the Qur’an as well.
Several new volumes of revisionist scholarship, The Origins of the Qur’an, and
The Quest for the Historical Muhammad have been edited by a former Muslim who
writes under the pen name Ibn Warraq. Mr. Warraq, who heads a group called the
Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society, makes no bones about having
a political agenda. “Biblical scholarship has made people less dogmatic, more
open,” he said, “and I hope that happens to Muslim society as well.”
Muslims find the tone and claims of revisionism offensive. “I think the broader
implications of some of the revisionist scholarship is to say that the Qur’an is
not an authentic book, that it was fabricated 150 years later,” says Ebrahim
Musa, a professor of religious studies at Duke University, as well as a Muslim
cleric whose liberal theological leanings earned him the animosity of
fundamentalists in South Africa, which he left after his house was firebombed.
an Islamicist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, says
that freedom of speech in the Islamic world is more likely to evolve from within
the Islamic interpretative tradition than from outside attacks on it. Approaches
to the Qur’an that are now branded as heretical – interpreting the text
metaphorically rather than literally – were widely practiced in mainstream Islam
a thousand years ago.
“When I teach
the history of the interpretation it is eye-opening to students the amount of
independent thought and diversity of interpretation that existed in the early
centuries of Islam,” Mr. Rippin says. “It was only in more recent centuries that
there was a need for limiting interpretation.”