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Islamic textual criticism


Saturday, January 12, 2008


The WSJ did an excellent article (A1, subscription required) of something I've been hoping to see for a while, news on someone who dared cast half a grain of doubt on whether the Quran has been perfectly preserved throughout the 1400 or so years it's been around.

This story's opening paragraphs are worthy of a prize-winning novel (which is part of the reason I subscribe--excellent literary quality):

On the night of April 24, 1944, British air force bombers hammered a former Jesuit college here housing the Bavarian Academy of Science. The 16th-century building crumpled in the inferno. Among the treasures lost, later lamented Anton Spitaler, an Arabic scholar at the academy, was a unique photo archive of ancient manuscripts of the Quran.

The 450 rolls of film had been assembled before the war for a bold venture: a study of the evolution of the Quran, the text Muslims view as the verbatim transcript of God's word. The wartime destruction made the project "outright impossible," Mr. Spitaler wrote in the 1970s.

Mr. Spitaler was lying. The cache of photos survived, and he was sitting on it all along. The truth is only now dribbling out to scholars -- and a Quran research project buried for more than 60 years has risen from the grave.

The article's author, Andrew Higgins, writing from Munich, continues the survey of the investigation. These paragraphs, below, shed light on the curiously unbalanced state of affairs concerning the level of textual criticism allowed by Islam vs. Christianity and Judaism:

During the 19th century, Germans pioneered modern scholarship of ancient texts. Their work revolutionized understanding of Christian and Jewish scripture. It also infuriated some of the devout, who resented secular scrutiny of texts believed to contain sacred truths.

The revived Quran venture plays into a very modern debate: how to reconcile Islam with the modern world? Academic quarrying of the Quran has produced bold theories, bitter feuds and even claims of an Islamic Reformation in the making. Applying Western critical methods to Islam's holiest text is a sensitive test of the Muslim community's readiness to both accommodate and absorb thinking outside its own traditions...

Quranic scholarship often focuses on arcane questions of philology and textual analysis. Experts nonetheless tend to tread warily, mindful of fury directed in recent years at people deemed to have blasphemed Islam's founding document and the Prophet Muhammad.

Would you say that this a fair and balanced treatment of religions? Neither would I. In the minds of most Westerners, "questioning" does not equal "blaspheming." And Christians do not behead their enemies. An example of such "questioning":

A scholar in northern Germany writes under the pseudonym of Christoph Luxenberg because, he says, his controversial views on the Quran risk provoking Muslims. He claims that chunks of it were written not in Arabic but in another ancient language, Syriac. The "virgins" promised by the Quran to Islamic martyrs, he asserts, are in fact only "grapes." (Whew! There is, granted, the issue of the Quran using words in languages other than Arabic.)

While the lead scholar over the project, Angelika Neuwirth, discourages "radical" theories, she still treads too lightly for my liking through the research because of its being "taboo." Here is the main purpose of the project, a welcome result:

...The photos of the old manuscripts will form the foundation of a computer data base that Ms. Neuwirth's team believes will help tease out the history of Islam's founding text. The result, says Michael Marx, the project's research director, could be the first "critical edition" of the Quran -- an attempt to divine what the original text looked like and to explore overlaps with the Bible and other Christian and Jewish literature.

Higgins continues about the crucial differences in *allowable* textual criticism:

Many Christians, too, dislike secular scholars boring into sacred texts, and dismiss challenges to certain Biblical passages. But most accept that the Bible was written by different people at different times, and that it took centuries of winnowing before the Christian canon was fixed in its current form.

Muslims, by contrast, view the Quran as the literal word of God (revealed over 23 years vs. about 2000, through one man instead of many, etc.). Questioning the Quran "is like telling a Christian that Jesus was gay," says Abdou Filali-Ansary, a Moroccan scholar.

Modern approaches to textual analysis developed in the West are viewed in much of the Muslim world as irrelevant, at best. (Why, whatever for?) "Only the writings of a practicing Muslim are worthy of our attention," a university professor in Saudi Arabia wrote in a 2003 book. "Muslim views on the Holy Book must remain firm: It is the Word of Allah, constant, immaculate, unalterable and inimitable."

Can we say "defensive"? Higgins goes on, driving home this point again:

[Gerd-Rüdiger] Puin says the manuscripts suggested to him that the Quran "didn't just fall from heaven" but "has a history." When he said so publicly a decade ago, it stirred rage. "Please ensure that these scholars are not given further access to the documents," read one letter to the Yemen Times. "Allah, help us against our enemies."

Words that come to my mind for this paragraph include "intentional blindness" and "stifling free thought." Nothing new. On the whole, this article was quite informative for me, even though I've been doing personal research about comparison and contrast of Islam and Christianity. Check out this post as well (linked to the WSJ article) for another take on it.

Posted by Hannah J at 1:21 PM

Labels: Bible, factoids, Islam, religion, WSJ



Muslim Arab said...


I truly don't understand what doesn't feel right about Islam to you?

I mean, as a friend and out of good intentions, I'd be more than welcome to explain any misconceptions that you might have... If you promised me to use all your brain functionalities, like logic, and reasoning, for example.

...however, as a stranger, I can only say, praise all due to God, the Most Wise, who clarified everything in His Miraculous Book:
"Is he, then, to whom the evil of his deeds made fairseeming, so that he considers it as good (equal to one who is rightly guided)? Verily, God sends astray whom He wills, and guides whom He wills. So destroy not yourself (O Muhammad) in sorrow for (guiding) them. Truly, God is the All-Knower of what they do." [35:8]

oh and, I gladly answered your inquiry on my blog, thanks a lot for dropping by.

January 12, 2008 5:26 PM HYPERLINK ""HYPERLINK ""Hannah J said...

Thanks for the answer. It confirms my understanding of Islam as a works-based religion. Since I come from a Christian (i.e. grace-based religion) background, Islam will always be a major sticking point for me. I invite you to investigate the Bible with a curious mind, just as I am investigating the Quran.

"For the word of God [is] living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12, NKJV)

January 12, 2008 6:45 PM HYPERLINK ""HYPERLINK ""Cao said...

As Ergun Caner says here, leaving Islam means leaving EVERYTHING. Christians do not have that concern. We are not declared 'apostates' with a death penalty for leaving the faith.

January 12, 2008 6:54 PM HYPERLINK ""

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