Scholars dare to look into origins of Quran

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By Alexander Stille

The New York Times

Saturday, March 2, 2002

To Muslims, the Quran is the very word of God, who spoke through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad: "This book is not to be doubted," the Quran declares unequivocally at its beginning. Scholars and writers in Islamic countries who have ignored that warning have found themselves the target of death threats and violence. Yet a handful of experts have been quietly investigating the origins of the Quran, offering radically new theories about the text's meaning and the rise of Islam.

Christoph Luxenberg, a scholar of ancient Semitic languages in Germany, argues that the Quran has been misread for centuries. His work, based on the earliest copies of the Quran, maintains that parts of Islam's holy book are derived from pre-existing Christian Aramaic texts that were misinterpreted by later Islamic scholars who prepared the editions of the Quran read today. So, for example, the virgins who are supposedly awaiting Islamic martyrs in paradise are in reality "white raisins" of crystal clarity rather than fair maidens.

Christoph Luxenberg, however, is a pseudonym, and his scholarly tome "The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Quran" had trouble finding a publisher, although it is considered a major new work by several leading scholars in the field.

The caution isn't surprising. Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" prompted death threats because it appeared to mock Muhammad. Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed because one of his books was thought to be irreligious. And when the Palestinian scholar Suliman Bashear argued that Islam developed as a religion gradually rather than emerging fully formed from the mouth of the prophet, he was thrown from a second-story window by his students at the University of Nablus.

While scriptural interpretation might seem like a remote and innocuous activity, close textual study of Jewish and Christian scripture played no small role in loosening the church's domination on the intellectual and cultural life of Europe.

"The Muslims have the benefit of hindsight of the European experience, and they know very well that once you start questioning the holy scriptures, you don't know where it will stop," said one scholar at an American university who asked not to be named.

The touchiness about questioning the Quran predates the latest rise of militancy. As late as 1977, John Wansbrough of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London wrote that subjecting the Quran to "analysis by the instruments and techniques of biblical criticism is virtually unknown."

Wansbrough insisted that the text of the Quran appeared to be a composite of different voices or texts compiled over dozens if not hundreds of years. After all, scholars agree that there is no evidence of the Quran until 691 -- 59 years after Muhammad's death -- when the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem was built, carrying several Quranic inscriptions. These inscriptions differ to some degree from the version of the Quran that has been handed down, suggesting, scholars say, that the Quran might have still been evolving in the last decade of the seventh century. Moreover, much of what we know as Islam -- the lives and sayings of the Prophet -- is based on texts from between 130 and 300 years after Muhammad's death. Scholars such as Luxenberg have returned to the earliest known copies of the Quran to grasp what they suggest about the document's origins and composition.

For example, the famous passage about the virgins is based on the word "hur," an adjective in the feminine plural meaning simply "white." Islamic tradition insists the term hur stands for "houri," which means virgin, but Luxenberg says this is a forced misreading of the text.

In both ancient Aramaic and in at least one respected dictionary of early Arabic, hur means "white raisin," a prized delicacy in the ancient Near East.

Several new volumes of revisionist scholarship, "The Origins of the Quran" and "The Quest for the Historical Muhammad," have been edited by a former Muslim who writes under the pen name Ibn Warraq. Warraq, who leads a group called the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society, makes no bones about having a political agenda. "Biblical scholarship has made people less dogmatic, more open," he said, "and I hope that happens to Muslim society as well."

But many Muslims, including broad-minded liberal scholars of Islam, find the tone and claims of revisionism offensive.

"I think the broader implications of some of the revisionist scholarship is to say that the Quran is not an authentic book, that it was fabricated 150 years later," says Ebrahim Moosa, a Duke University religious studies professor and a Muslim cleric.