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Lebanonwire, July 12, 2003

The Daily Star

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Giving the Koran a history: Holy Book under scrutiny
Critical readings of the Muslim scripture offer alternative interpretations of well-known passages
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Scholars draw techniques of textual criticism from those used to analyze Bible

Jim Quilty
Daily Star staff

Moncef Ben Abdeljelil is a small academic, presently pinned between two large journalists. Back to the wall, he is ruminating on alternative readings of the Koran.
“Details I will leave to future study,” says Abdeljelil. “But I think some of the different readings we find will affect the female condition, tolerance vis-a-vis Jews and Christians. Another will effect legislation …”
He reaches for his pipe, then puts it back in the ashtray.
“This is the exciting thing about these alternative readings. We need to rethink the whole legal aspect of what can be drawn from the Koran. I believe this critical edition will enlarge our thinking about women’s condition, religious tolerance, what we call human rights.”
A professor of literature and human science at Sousse University in Tunis, Abdeljelil heads a team of scholars compiling a critical edition of the Koran. The book will publish a number of alternative readings found in a collection of Koranic mashaf (mas-Haf, or manuscripts) ­ some dating from the first Islamic century ­ that had been stockpiled in the Grand Mosque in Sanaa and uncovered three decades ago.
Abdeljelil and his colleagues were in Beirut recently attending a Koranic studies workshop, Modernity and Islam, sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung ­ the foundation of the German-Christian Democratic Party. The conference brought together scholars from as far afield as Yemen and Germany and approaches ranging from the traditional to the radical ­ the latter potentially quite upsetting to devout Muslims.
The first tentative conclusions published by researchers with access to the Yemeni mashaf reveal that in several cases the organization of the text is different ­ the suras (chapters) sometimes in a different order ­ and that there are differences in the text itself. Because published findings are few, though, it is still impossible to say how wide is the divergence from the authoritative text.
Abdeljelil speculates that, were his small team bolstered with more scholars, the edition could be published in as soon as 10 years. He is cautiously enthusiastic about the project. He has good reason to be cautious.
Since its revelation, the central scripture of the Muslim community has been kept outside history in a way that has no equivalent in the Christian tradition. The Old and New Testaments have been scrutinized by textual critics since the 19th century ­ peeling back the several, often dissonant, voices from various eras that were cobbled together to form the Christian scripture.
For devout Muslims, treating the Koran in this manner is inconceivable. Where Christians generally concede that the Bible was written by men, the Koran is believed to have been handed down from God to the Prophet Mohammed, without human intervention, in Arabic ­ perfect, immutable in message, language, style, and form. The oneness of the Koran stands as a metaphor for Islam’s conception of the oneness of God.
By applying the same techniques of textual criticism that have been used with the Bible, Abdeljelil and his colleagues are giving the Koran a history.
Abdeljelil is quick to note that this project is not the first of its kind ­ European scholars have been looking at the Yemeni mashaf for years now. He would point out that within Islamic heritage there are different readings of the Koranic text. But the impact of the critical edition will be profound.
“In the Sanaa parchments we found a radically different method of transcription, a different way of reading the Koran.
“It could change some sharp interpretations of the text,” he says, “and will lead to another way of thinking about the Koran.
“In Islamic thought today you have fundamentalist projects, all of them fighting against new ways of rethinking Islam. They argue that the Koran doesn’t allow new approaches and interpretations. ‘We can’t change anything,’ they say.
“To fix the meanings of the discourse within the Koran forever is dangerous. This text is embedded in history and has to be reviewed in this light … This project is not only about editing the text but initiating new ways of re-interpreting the Koran.”
Contentious as it is, the Tunisian project was not the most controversial one discussed in Beirut.
Late in 2000 a small press in Germany published Die Syro-aramaeische Lesart des Koran (The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran). The author, a philologist writing under the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg, has proposed that the Koran as we know it today is a misreading.
Luxenberg asserts that Koranic Arabic is not Arabic at all, at least not in the sense assumed by the classical commentators. It is written, rather, in the dialect of the Prophet’s tribe, the Meccan Quraysh, and heavily influenced by Aramaic.
Luxenberg’s premise is that the Aramaic language ­ the lingua franca of the Prophet Mohammed, the language of culture and Christian liturgy ­ had a profound influence on the Koran. Extensive borrowing was necessary simply because at the time of the Prophet, Arabic was not yet sophisticated enough for scriptural composition.
Though his ideas were very much in play at the Beirut workshop, the man responsible for the most contentious thesis in Koranic studies today was absent. One of Luxenberg’s advocates is Michael Marx, a graduate student at the Free University of Berlin.
“If we understand that Arabic had no scriptural tradition before the Koran ­ rock inscriptions aside ­ if we imagine the Prophet living in a city where Christians and their scripture were present, it’s no wonder that certain liturgical terms ­ salat (prayer), zakat (religious charity) ­ seeped into Arabic from Syriac.
“Luxenberg suggests that even the word ‘Koran’ is Syriac, derived from qeryana, a term from the Christian liturgy that means ‘lectionary’ ­ a book of set liturgical readings. Luxenberg goes back in time to ask the question of what may have happened, why is the Koran as it is? Maybe he exaggerates in arguing that everything can be explained in term of Aramaic.
“But languages don’t die after all,” he continues, “they leave traces. Imagine people learning these two languages ­ there will invariably be traces of one felt upon the other.
“Contemporary dialects of Arabic have many Aramaic substrata. But the languages are so close that the borrowings are unconscious.”
When an authoritative text of the Koran was finally set down ­ a task commanded by Uthman, the third caliph ­ it was done with neither the diacritical marks (the dots) that distinguish individual letters nor short vowels.
Luxenberg argues that by the time Muslim commentators got to interpreting the precise meaning of the text, two centuries after the Prophet’s death, the Aramaic loan words were mis-read as Arabic.
His method of inquiry is a complex one, but basically Luxenberg has read certain problematic passages of the Koran through an Aramaic lens. To a modern eye, his readings sometimes make more sense in the context of the sura. They often radically change the meaning.
One of Luxenberg’s more elegant re-readings comes during a difficult section of sura 19 (known as Surat Mariam, or Mary’s Sura). Mary has given birth to Jesus out of wedlock and, fearing people’s response, has fled her home. Then God reassures her:
“Then he called to her from beneath her: ‘Grieve not; thy Lord hath placed beneath thee a streamlet.’”
Luxenberg is not alone in being baffled by the meaning of this line. Re-translating the sentence as one with Aramaic loan words, he concludes that it should be read: “He called to her immediately after her laying-down (to give birth): ‘Grieve not; thy Lord has made your laying-down legitimate.’”
Another more contentious conclusion was picked up by journalists at the New York Times and the Guardian after Sept. 11, 2001, because it seems to have direct implications for the aspirations of those hijackers, and Muslim suicide bombers generally. It concerns the houris, the angels or virgins whom, it is written, await those who attain paradise.
Luxenberg argues that “hur” are not virgins but grapes or raisins, specifically white grapes ­ which were considered a great delicacy at the time.
Luxenberg’s restored version of the houris lines thus reads: “We will let them (the blessed in Paradise) be refreshed with white (grapes), (like) jewels (of crystal).”
It is a less sensual notion of everlasting life to be sure, but, given that the virgins have always been said to be female, a less patriarchal one as well.
For Marx the most important thing about Luxenberg’s book is that it raises certain questions that ­ for reason of historical circumstance alone ­ have become taboo. On one hand post-colonial cultural studies has come to be marked by political correctness. On the other hand the post-WWII era saw the decline of German as a language of scholarly inquiry outside Germany; since the philologists’ approach to Koranic studies was the forte of German-language scholarship, it has come to be considered old-fashioned.
“In the midst of this,” Marx says, “the question of what happened in the first two centuries of Islamic history was lost.
“These two centuries are a sort of dark age for us. Something happened in the 7th and 8th centuries, but we only know about it through texts from the late 8th through 10th centuries.
“It seems to me,” Marx remarks, “that there’s something questionable about the proposition that the Muslim oral tradition worked so perfectly.”
The Luxenberg thesis is quite separate from Abdeljelil’s critical work on the Koran. Luxenberg worked not with old mashaf but the 1923 Egyptian edition of the Koran. The Tunisians are skeptical of Luxenberg’s conclusions  but they support his method.
“As an approach we are not bothered by what Luxenberg has proposed, nor with his premise that there are languages that had an impact upon Arabic. In fact we would go so far as to encourage it.”
Abdeljelil and his colleagues have problems with Luxenberg drawing conclusions drawn from the 1923 text rather than the mashaf. Also “you … have to consider the ‘oral text’ as well (as the written texts) … If you do not do so, you will be unable to make very critical conclusions.
“A third issue is that you cannot talk about … the Syriac origins of words, phrases and so forth, without considering other genres of literature. Arabic poetry for instance. The Koran is a genre of literature and you need to compare the genres to understand how the Syriac and the Arabic languages shared the culture at that time. This is lacking in Luxenberg.”
One thing the Luxenberg and Abdeljelil projects do have in common is that, though scholarly enterprises, they are implicitly political as well.
Indeed, as Marx points out, the issue of deciding upon the authoritative text of the Koran is inherently political.
“The idea of canonizing a text is to close it down. What’s before Uthman (ie before 640-650CE) is open to discussion. It’s a black box … The important thing is, Uthman wants Muslims in the newly conquered lands to be referring to the same text. This makes the political intent clear.”
Inevitably the issue of Koranic investigation too is political. One example of a Muslim response to the present line of Koranic research came in a 1987 paper Method Against Truth: Orientalism and Koranic Studies, an invective against Western Koranic scholarship by critic S. Parvez Manzoor.
“At the greatest hour of his worldly triumph,” he writes, “Western man, co-ordinating the powers of the State, Church and Academia, launched his most determined assault on the citadel of Muslim faith. All the aberrant streaks of his arrogant personality ­ its reckless rationalism, its world-domineering phantasy and its sectarian fanaticism ­ joined in an unholy conspiracy to dislodge the Muslim Scripture from its firmly entrenched position as the epitome of historic authenticity and moral unassailability. The ultimate trophy … was the Muslim mind itself.”
Gregor Meiering isn’t afraid of being accused of cultural imperialism. Meiering, the resident representative at the Near East regional office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, was the animateur for the two-day workshop in Beirut.
“Although the Foundation has a program, convictions, and an agenda, we usually share this agenda, program and convictions with a local partner who works with us, is interested in the same topics, asks the same questions. They do not necessarily give the same answers but they are involved in a common enterprise.
“This is the case … whether promoting democracy or the rule of law or regional cooperation or in dealing with globalization, economic issues or, as now, cultural dialogue that can be but needn’t necessarily be linked to religion.
“You’ll find that not only are we doing things that other people are interested in ­ in Tunis, Yemen, Lebanon ­ but topics that have already been very high on the agenda in the past.
“There is more of a rediscovery of things in this than an inventing of an artificial Orient that, by consequence, would be dominated by people from outside this Orient.”
Meiering is an unabashed orientalist and a critic of the discipline’s best-known critic. “I very much reject the notion of Orientalism as used by Edward Said,” he says. “I do so openly.”
His main problem with Said is that he looks at the work of two 19th-century orientalists and implicates the entire literature in their shortcomings. He also faults Said for not examining German orientalist work.
“There is one structural weakness to Said’s argument,” Meiering continues, “… Orientalists, he says, produce an image of the east, place all orientals into it and then make it easily manipulable.
“But if it were all just invented, all imagined, why is it that all these peoples have become victims ­ if you would like to see it that way ­ of colonialism? If (orientalist) ideas were completely wrong, how have these countries come to control the peoples of the Orient? There must, then, have been something true in their assessment, something insightful in what they wrote.”
Though engaged in the political critique of his discipline, he regards the re-reading of the Koran to be a banal exercise.
“If you go back into the history of Islamic thought you’ll find that many arguments being raised by scholars today … have been raised by scholars of the Muslim tradition.
“You could qualify the entire effort to determine the genuine traditions of the Prophet from the invented ones as an historical-critical enterprise by Muslim scholars throughout the centuries. (Today’s orientalists) look at their own historical-critical methods as a prolongation of (older) techniques.
“Certainly the fact that there has been such a reluctance on the part of Muslims ­ Muslim scholars included ­ makes the project not only a philological one but a social and political one.”
When pressed to acknowledge that the enterprise has an inherently liberal agenda, Meiering is frank. “I can’t stress too much that the intellectual plays a role in politics and in society. The present situation in this region calls for a renewal of this role.”
Intellectuals, he says, serve a mediating role in society and in this regard (the foundation) refuses to be exclusive in the sorts of intellectuals it deals with.
“In past decades attempts have been made to make progress quicker and more thoroughly by sidelining what was called conservative elements and betting on technocrats and secular intellectuals ­ both by foreign agents and local regimes. No successes emerged.”
At the end of the day Meiering simply refuses to see East-West relations as a dialogue of the powerful and powerless.
“People see globalization as  Westernization. But globalization hasn’t been Westernization since the 19th century. The Europeanization of the world is done. We are now living in an era in which the empire has, as it were, struck back ­ rai music and Indian restaurants.”
Devout Muslims might be forgiven if they do not see things in such benevolent terms. Indeed, it is difficult not to notice that, at this particular workshop at least, there was a curious correspondence between Luxenberg skeptics (Arabs) and Luxenberg advocates (generally Europeans).
Similarly the critical edition of the Koran is, so far, a wholly Tunisian venture, its scholars the product of the most westward-looking legal and education systems in the Arab world.
Marx sees the divided response to Luxenberg as less a political matter than an existential one. “Arab Muslim scholars grow up with a different perspective of the Koran because their upbringing with Arabic. I’m less emotionally attached to a given reading because I learned the language much later.
“Acquiring knowledge at a young age is very different from doing so later. It isn’t simply an intellectual matter, but emotional as well. It’s like telling a grownup that his parents aren’t really his parents.”
The scholars agree that their fiddling with the Koran will likely not be well received.
“The popular response will never be positive,” says Abdeljelil. “Even if our project were done by true Muslims in a very Islamic country, people would never accept it because the popular imagination is manipulated by different trends. The massive number of population … believe this text is a divine work that cannot be touched.”
Abdeljelil advocates a sort of intellectual trickle-down theory of Koranic criticism.
“I think this project should first be initiated within academic circles. After that you could bring it to workshops, theses and dissertations. Then, after 10 or 15 years, you can bring it to a broader segment of society.
“If you even talk about the distinction between the mashaf and the Koran, a very obvious idea, people will say ‘He is not a believer.’”
Abdeljelil takes up his pipe again. “Never mind the people. In our workshop in Beirut, a scholar asked us, ‘How can you make this distinction?’”

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