Reading Lessons

To say that Muslims tend to have an exalted view of the Koran is, to say the least, an understatement. As the Economist explains:

But when it comes to parsing holy writ, there is one big difference between Islam and most other text-based faiths. Barring a brief interlude in the ninth and tenth centuries, and a few modern liberals, Muslims have mostly believed that the Koran is distinct from every other communication. As God’s final revelation to man, it belongs not to earthly, created things but to an eternal realm. That is a bigger claim than other faiths usually make for their holy writings.

The Koran may be interpreted but from a believer’s viewpoint, nothing in it can be set aside.

As an invitation to intellectual rigidity that is hard to beat, but at least in the West, some scholars are taking a different tack:

At least in the calm, superficially courteous world of Western academia, debating the precise text of the Koran is increasingly common—as at a conference hosted by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), part of the University of London, in November. Most [participants]were non-Muslims who study the text as they would any other written material—as prose whose evolution can be traced by comparing versions. New techniques, such as the use of digital photography, help compare variations and solve puzzles. All participants implicitly accepted the idea that methods used to analyse Homer, say, or German myths might elucidate the Koran.

In much of the Islamic world, even the agenda of such a meeting would be controversial. What can be debated in most Muslim countries differs hugely from what is discussed in the West. Staff at a London-based Islamic research body, the Institute for Ismaili Studies, have ranged from radicals like Mohammed Arkoun, a leader of the French deconstructionist school, to traditional Sunni or Sufi scholars. They follow the trail of al-Suyuti, a 15th-century Egyptian who accepted the existence of slightly different versions of the Koran.

Such diversity under a single roof would be impossible now in Karachi or in Cairo, the bastion of Islamic scholarship. There, the interpretation of Islam and its history is strictly a task for believers. Non-Muslim offerings would be called “orientalism”, based on colonial arrogance. Muslims in such places who take a different view face not only academic ostracism but physical danger. Egypt’s leading advocate of a liberal reading of the Koran—Nasr Abu Zayd, who died in 2010—was denounced as an apostate, forcibly divorced from his wife and had to spend his later life abroad. The rise of Islamism in Egypt offers no prospect of a friendlier climate.

Meanwhile, scholars in Europe, stimulated by the manuscripts in great European libraries, are working hard to find out how and when the Koran’s written form was standardized…

A burst of new Koranic scholarship erupted at SOAS in the 1980s. These days, it is one of several British campuses where scholars say they find it hard to get funding for work that threatens orthodoxy—a change they ascribe to the influence of conservative Saudi donors.

Saudi Arabia, always Saudi Arabia:Iran with money – and patience.

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2 Responses to Reading Lessons

  1. David Hume says:

    as implied in the text, the shia disagree with a lot of the generalizations applicable in the piece. the ismaili are a ‘radical’ shia sect for example, so no surprise they’d fund this sort of thing.

  2. RandyB says:

    Without the Quran, Hadiths and adoration of Muhammed as the exemplary human, Islam would be Unitarianism — there’s one God who wants us to behave morally, show charity to our fellow man, and create a just society. (That’s the view of Islam that apologists like Tariq Ramadan and Faisal Rauf try to sell.) It’s the belief that God’s eternal message to mankind was written assuming the culture and language of seventh century Arabia that keeps them in a perpetual Dark Ages.

    It’s my understand from some popular-level books on the subject (Ibn Warraq and some followers from Wannsbrough) that the later Medina verses, the violent and intolerant ones, show a marked difference in style and as well as content from the Mecca ones. And that a serious textual criticism, similar to JEDP about the Bible, would reveal this clearly. I think it’s likely that Muhammed of Medina isn’t the same individual as Muhammed of Mecca. The latter wanted to merge Arab paganism with the monotheisms of the surrounding nations to solidify trade relationships. The former is a composite character that a conquering nation-state created to put the stamp of theistic approval on their battlefield tales.

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