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Radical New Views of Islam and the Origins of the Koran
By ALEXANDER STILLE
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.
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 the book.
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
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
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
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 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
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."
Ms. Crone insists that the Koran and the Islamic tradition present a
fundamental paradox. The Koran 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 Mecca, a remote,
sparsely populated part of Arabia, far from the centers 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 Koran.
"There are only two possibilities," Ms. Crone said. "Either there had to
be substantial numbers of Jews and Christians in Mecca or the Koran had
to have been composed somewhere else."
Indeed, many 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.
Scholars like Mr. Luxenberg and Gerd- R. Puin, who teaches at Saarland
University in Germany, have returned to the earliest known copies of the
Koran 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.
For example, 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 raisin."
Mr. Luxenberg 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 sexual
In many cases, the differences can be quite significant. Mr. Puin points
out that in the early archaic copies of the Koran, 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 Koran, 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
Encyclopedia of the Koran, which she is editing.
Mr. Puin would love to see a "critical edition" of the Koran 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."
Some Muslim authors have begun to publish skeptical, revisionist work on
the Koran as well. Several new volumes of revisionist scholarship, "The
Origins of the Koran," 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."
But many 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 Koran is not an authentic book, that it was fabricated
150 years later," says Ebrahim Moosa, 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.
Andrew Rippin, 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 Koran that are now
branded as heretical — interpreting the text metaphorically rather than
literally — were widely practiced in mainstream Islam a thousand years
"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
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