Response on the article "What is the Koran", Atlantic Monthly's

By Dr. Jeffrey Lang

lang.jpg (15963 bytes)I think it extremely irresponsible and unprofessional of the Atlantic Monthly to assign such a weighty project to a young, unqualified writer. Toby Lester has virtually no education in Islamic studies. The magazine cites only his two years in the Peace Corps in Yemen and his two years as a refugee-affairs officer for the UN in the West Bank as his sole qualifications. This would be like assigning an article on developments in modern Biblical criticism to a visiting foreign Muslim student to the US or to a recent Muslim immigrant who has virtually no exposure to scholarly Christian thought. This may explain why this article is so devoid of depth and substance and also why I have very few comments on it.

Lester frames his article around the recent discovery in Yemen of ancient codices of the Quran. He implies that these parchments will somehow cause a radical revision among Muslim and non-Muslim scholars in how they view the Quran and that they may undermine Muslim confidence in their scripture. For instance, he quotes R. Stephen Humphrey's opinion that such a discovery may delegitimize the whole historical experience of the Muslim community.

Lester's only source on the contents of this discovery and the principle authority upon which his article depends is Gerd-R Puin, who has been involved in the restoration of the manuscripts. Although Puin is an expert in Arabic calligraphy and text preservation, he is by no means a scholar Of Islam. Puin betrays both his provincialism and ignorance of Islam when he discusses the Muslim reluctance to equate translations of the Quran with the Quran. The Muslim position is that the Quran is the original revelation received by Prophet Mohammed in his native Arabic and that any rendition of it in another language is not, technically speaking, the Quran, but merely an interpretation of it, since it does not equate the original revelation and because something is inevitably lost in translation, no matter how well done. Nevertheless, interpretations of the Quran have been produced by Muslim scholars in all major languages. In his confusion, Puir concocts the absurd fiction that Muslims refuse to produce renditions of the Quran in other languages because the scripture is incomprehensible and hence untranslatable. Puir has the foolishness to make this statement when just two lines earlier in Lester's article, he's quoted as saying that concerning his belief that the Quran is incomprehensible, many Muslims-and Orientalists-will tell you otherwise. The utter inanity of Puir's thinking is shocking. On the one hand he states that Muslims do not produce renditions of the Quran in non-Arabic (which is false) because it is incomprehensible, while on the other hand he admits that Muslims-and many Orientalist-believe the Quran is comprehensible. Therefore, to follow Puir's logic, we would conclude that Muslims are reluctant to translate the Quran because of its incomprehensibility of which they are completely unaware. This is like saying, Johnny refuses to cross the street because of a car that he thinks is not coming.

In his article, Lester also refers to some conjectures and theories of a few Western Quranic scholars, such as Crone, Cook, and Wansbrough, who, as the author himself indicates, have lost credibility among the majority of their Western colleagues in Islamic studies. It thus seems that the writer is struggling to create a sensation out of a suspect and minority movement in modern Western Islamic studies. In the last page of his article, Lester implies that several modern Muslim writers and scholars, including Fazlur Rahman, Muhammad Abdu, Taha Hussein, Nasr Abu Zaid and Mohammad Arkoun, are among those who have come to question the integrity of the Quran. While it is true that each of these writers offered non-traditional approaches and interpretations of their scripture, and some of them met public outcry against their ideas, none of them, as the author seems to imply, has questioned the integrity of the Quran.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the article's alarmist tone concerning the discovery of the Yemeni manuscripts seems totally uncalled for. Lester admits that so far the manuscripts show some unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment. However, the past existence of such manuscripts is well known to Muslims and those that did not completely agree with the Uthmanic text were eliminated in various ways. The recovery of an ancient manuscript dating back to the earliest history of Islam that differs in minor ways from the Uthmanic text and that was eliminated from circulation will hardly cause Muslims to feel the need to rewrite their history; if anything, it will only confirm it for them.