The origins of a holy book
Using ancient texts, scholars have begun an audacious effort to unravel the story of the Koran. What will they find?
By Drake Bennett | March 28, 2010
Later this spring, a team of scholars at Germany’s Berlin-Brandenberg Academy of Sciences will complete the first phase of what will ultimately be an unprecedented, two-decade effort to throw light on the origins of the Koran.
The project, called the Corpus Coranicum, will be something that scholars of the Koran have long yearned for: a central repository of imagery, information, and analysis about the Muslim holy book. Modern research into Islam’s origin and early years has been hampered by the paucity and inaccessibility of ancient texts, and the reluctance of Muslim governments in places like Yemen to allow wide access to them.
But, drawing on some of the earliest Korans in existence — codices found in Istanbul, Cairo, Paris, and Morocco — the Corpus Coranicum will allow users to study for themselves images of thousands of pages of early Korans, texts that differ in small but potentially telling ways from the modern standard version. The project will also link passages in the text to analogous ones in the New Testament and Hebrew Bible, and offer an exhaustive critical
commentary on the Koran’s language, structure, themes, and roots. The project’s creators are calling it the world’s first “critical edition” of the Koran, a resource that gathers historical evidence and scholarly literature into one searchable, cross-referenced whole.
Critical editions — usually books rather than websites — are a commonplace in academia. University bookstores do a brisk business in critical editions of the world’s best-known literary works, from “The Iliad” to “Hamlet” to “Das Kapital.” As labor-saving devices for scholars and teaching aids for students, they can be invaluable. Presenting a novel or manifesto or play in its historical context helps readers to see the ways it was shaped by contemporaneous events and local attitudes, how it was built from the distinctive cultural building blocks at hand. Embedding a work in critical commentary — and critical editions often include essays that are sharply at odds with each other — gives readers a sense of the richness of possible readings of the text.
But the form takes on a special significance with holy books, where millions of people order their lives in accordance to what they see as divine language. Standard versions like the King James Bible or the regularized Cairo Koran (the version, first printed in 1924, that most Muslims have today) help to unite the faithful in one common reading of their holy book. A critical edition, on the other hand, by its nature, highlights the contingency of a text’s creation and gives readers the tools to interpret it for themselves.
Among Koranic scholars, there’s a great deal of excitement about the Corpus Coranicum, which will help them make better sense of a text that — despite the fact that millions regularly recite from it and live their lives according to its precepts — remains something of a historical and theological puzzle.
“I think it is a big deal,” says Jane McAuliffe, the editor of the Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an and the president of Bryn Mawr College, “it’s a wonderful opportunity to do something that the field of Koranic studies has wanted to do for a long time.”
At the same time, the impending publication of the Corpus has set off a small stir outside the scholarly world. Islam has a long and lively tradition of theological debate, but in recent years revisionist scholars in the Muslim world have been threatened, branded heretics, and even attacked for their work. Already, the creators of the Corpus Coranicum, in response to press coverage in Germany, have felt the need to publicly insist on al-Jazeera and in visits to Muslim countries that they have no intention of undermining the faith. In part what’s to blame is the strict, austere form of Islam that is dominant in some parts of the world, but the friction also stems from the relationship all Muslims have to the Koran. To a mainstream Muslim, the Koran is not merely a divinely inspired text put together by disciples, as most modern Christians believe the Bible to be. It is the literal word of God, dictated directly to Mohammed. To question that is to insult the faith.
The fact that it will be born on the Web makes the Corpus Coranicum seem a quintessentially 21st-century project, but its roots actually extend back to the 1930s. Then, as now, Germany produced some of the world’s leading Koranic scholars — proteges of the great 19th-century linguist, historian, and “Semiticist” Theodor Noldeke.
The archive that was to become the Corpus Coranicum was started by the German Arabist Gotthelf Bergstrasser, who traveled through Europe and the former Ottoman Empire photographing the old Korans he turned up. After Bergstrasser’s death in a mountain climbing accident in the Alps, a colleague named Otto Pretzl took over, before he died in a plane crash while serving in World War II. That left the photo archive in the hands of a young scholar named Anton Spitaler.
Then, in a mystifying twist detailed in a 2008 Wall Street Journal article, Spitaler began to claim, falsely, that the photo archive had been destroyed in 1944 by an Allied bombing raid. Spitaler kept up this deception until the early 1990s, when he revealed to a former student of his named Angelika Neuwirth that he still had all 450 rolls of film. He offered to give them to her — she is today the head of the Corpus Coranicum project — and he died a decade later without explaining himself.
According to Islam, the Koran is a series of revelations Mohammed was given through the Angel Gabriel, starting in 610 AD and ending with Mohammed’s death two decades later. Those revelations were recorded and compiled by Mohammed’s followers. In the religion’s early years, little need was seen for a standardized text — Mohammed and most of his followers were illiterate and as a result the Koran was meant to be recited rather than read (a tradition that remains central to Islam). Transmission was mainly oral, with written texts simply an aid. But within decades of Mohammed’s death, conquests had ballooned the size of the Muslim empire and many of the original disciples were themselves aging and dying, and one of Mohammed’s successors decreed a standard written version to unify the growing faith. In a pre-printing-press world, however, the process took time, and alternate versions continued to be written and read for decades, and perhaps centuries.
The value of the earliest surviving Korans, then, is that they show both the roots of the text and the ways it evolved during the window between its birth and its standardization — a time when what to include was still in dispute.
Though the publication of the first section of the Corpus is only the beginning, it’s possible to see in it the outlines of its larger ambitions. The goal, essentially, is to place the text in a historical context. “We want to frame the Koran as a text of late antiquity,” says Michael Marx, the project’s research director. “We put stress on the links that the Koran has to other Near Eastern religions: Christian sources, rabbinic sources.”
For instance, in one of the parallels that the researchers will post, they compare one of the most important passages in the entire Koran — “He is God, one, God the absolute, He did not beget nor is He begotten, And there is none like Him” — to nearly identical passages in the Hebrew Bible and the Nicene Creed (the profession of faith in many Christian liturgical services). Both the Bible and the Creed long predate the birth of the Koran. To Marx, this demonstrates the extent to which the Koran, a text that proclaims itself immutable and eternal, is in fact a recognizable product of the particular historical moment in which it was created.
“Once you have all the texts on the table,” he says, “it’s possible to make quite clear that the Koran has a history, that it is interacting with human history.”
Marx doesn’t argue that the Koran’s history necessarily undercuts its claim to divinity, nor that it is a derivative text. Instead, he sees the parallels between it and other scriptures as evidence that it was seeking to insert itself into the religious debates of its day. If anything, he argues, the links should highlight how intertwined the West’s own religious traditions are with those of Islam.
“It shows how closely the text is related to our own identity. One could, bluntly speaking, talk about a European approach to the Koran,” he says.
Other contemporary scholars take things further. Gerd-R. Puin, a retired professor of Arabic studies at Germany’s Saarland University, has been working for decades on a trove of Korans from a mosque in Yemen — possibly the oldest ones in existence. Because they were primarily memory aids, early Korans were written in a vowel-less “skeleton” language. Deciphering those clusters of consonants requires a sense of what languages and what cultural and religious traditions Mohammed and his earliest followers were borrowing from and reacting against. Much of the wording and imagery of the Koran are borrowed from Christian and Jewish texts, Puin argues. In fact, he says, much of the Koran is incomprehensible unless read alongside those earlier texts. As an example, he points to the term “sakina,” which Muslim scholars have translated as a spirit of calm — Puin argues that it only makes sense as a descendant of the Hebrew term “shekhinah,” which means the presence of God. The more one studies its historical context, Puin argues, the harder it is to resist the sense that the Koran itself was, at least in part, pieced together from parts of other religions.
“For Muslims, the word of the Koran is eternal, it predates the Old Testament, it predates history itself,” Puin says. “But from a Western point of view, you could say, OK, this is a clear reliance of the Koran on the Old Testament because the Old Testament was there earlier.”
It’s up for debate when the first true critical edition of the Bible was created, but one candidate is the Dutch theologian Erasmus’s 1516 Novum Instrumentum omne. That text, by challenging aspects of the existing Latin translation and providing Christians with the tools to interpret the text for themselves, helped pave the way for the violent convulsion of the Reformation.
No mainstream Koranic scholars see the Corpus Coranicum, or work like it, triggering a Muslim Reformation. So far, the debates over the roots of the Koran have remained within academia, and most scholars don’t see that changing.
“Most Muslims simply don’t care about this sort of work, any more than most Christians care about the Dead Sea Scrolls,” says Walid Saleh, an Islamic scholar at the University of Toronto specializing in the history of Koranic interpretation. “This is a Western academic enterprise, this critical historical study.”
Nonetheless, scholars offering revisionist readings of the Koran have run into trouble in the Muslim world in recent years. The Egyptian theologian Nasr Abu Zayd was branded an apostate by a court in his homeland and ordered to divorce his Muslim wife. The liberal Islamic scholar Suliman Bashear was attacked and thrown out a second-story window by his students in the West Bank. One of the most controversial revisionist Koranic scholars is a German man who writes under a pseudonym, “Christoph Luxenberg,” out of fear for his safety — his best-known claim is that the heavenly virgins who await Islamic martyrs are the result of a mistranslation and are actually “white grapes.”
Some Koranic scholars, both in and out of the Muslim world, emphasize that it’s important not to make too much of these incidents. In fact, they argue, there is a proud tradition of dissident Muslim theology.
“There are some spectacular exceptions, but in general it’s very hard to find [Muslim] heretics who didn’t die in their beds,” says Caner Dagli, an Islamic scholar at the College of the Holy Cross and co-editor of a forthcoming annotated translation of the Koran.
Still, questioning the origins of the Koran itself, he adds, is a special case. Most Christians believe that, while the Bible is holy scripture, it was written by various prophets and disciples. To Muslims, the Koran is different.
“For Muslims, the Koran is the literal word of god,” says Dagli. “They don’t consider Muhammad to be the author of the Koran. It came straight down from heaven, and you won’t find a Muslim who would say otherwise. That’s non-negotiable.”