Koran Search by Wayne Dynes
Just concluded at the University of Notre Dame is an international conference on the “Qur’an in Its Historical Context” (see the abstracts at: quranconference.nd.edu/lecture-abstracts). For some decades a number of revisionist interpretations of the origins of Islam and the Qur'an have been in circulation. Individually and collectively, these contributions present fundamental challenges to received Muslim views--and likewise to those of many credulous Western scholars.
At first sight, it would appear, the Notre Dame Conference accepts the historical-critical approach (the “higher criticism” ) that has long prevailed in serious studies of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The work of John Wansbrough (1928-2002) represented a key step in adopting this approach. He caused a furor in the 1970s when his research on early Islamic manuscripts, including the analysis of the repeated use of monotheistic Judeo-Christian imagery found in the Qur'an, led him to conclude that Islam arose as a mutation of what was originally a Judeo-Christian sect seeking to spread in Arab lands. As time evolved, the Judeo-Christian scriptures were adapted to an Arab perspective, mutating into what became the Qur'an, a collection developed over centuries by combining contributions from various Arab tribal sources. Wansbrough's iconoclastic research suggests that a great deal of the traditional history of Islam was a fabrication devised by later generations in search of a distinctive religious identity. In this context, the character of Muhammad "the prophet" could be seen as a manufactured simulacrum created to supply the Arab tribes with their own version of the Judeo-Christian worthies.
A preliminary study of the abstracts suggests that views of this kind, which are anathema in today’s Islamic world. are only partially addressed at the conference. I suspect that the organizers pulled their punches in order to avoid what they may have feared was a “Satanic Verses” backlash. At all events, the attention of most of the papers is confined to particular passages or motifs--minutiae in short.
Still, to judge by the abstracts, some general considerations appeared. One of these is this: to what extent does the worldview of the Koran continue that of Jewish and Christian sources, especially as expressed in the Syriac (or Aramaic) language? In a recent book Christoph Luxenberg (pseud.) forcefully argues this point. Luxenberg holds that the language of the early compositions found in the Qur'an was not exclusively Arabic, as asserted by the classical commentators, but rather is rooted in the Syro-Aramaic dialect of the seventh-century Meccan Quraysh tribe. Luxenberg’s premise is that the Aramaic tongue--a lingua franca prevalent throughout the Middle East in Late Antiquity and during the early period of Islam--was the language of culture and of the Christian liturgy. As such, it had a profound influence on the scriptural composition and meaning of the contents of the Koran. Luxenberg, who is thought to be Lebanese, has chosen his pseudonym “for safety.” A paper contributed by this scholar was read at the conference.
A second question concerns the unity of the text. To be sure, a scrappy impression must inevitably emerge from perusing the received text, as the Suras are arranged by length. Yet even if the texts are rearranged, as by presumed order of composition for example, the sense of disunity persists. One speaker at the conference argued that each Sura is to be taken as a separate discourse. Following this line of thought, it is vain to try to rule on any matter based on the meme “the Qur’an says.” This approach reinforces the conclusion of recent critical scholars that the Qur’an was put together with scissors and paste, so to speak, and not delivered by the angel Gabriel in accordance with some predetermined unity.
An example of how one can be diverted by trivia is the one thing that most people interested in the question know about the research of Christoph Luxenberg. He has suggested that the gathering of the “houri” (white ones) promised to martyrs when they reach Heaven doesn’t actually refer to “virgins.” He argues that instead it means “grapes,” perhaps a metonymic evocation of the bounteousness of Paradise.
The conference was the subject of an oped piece in the New York Times. Nicholas Kristof writes:
“One of the scholars at the Notre Dame conference whom I particularly admire is Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, an Egyptian Muslim who argues eloquently that if the Koran is interpreted sensibly in context then it carries a strong message of social justice and women’s rights.
“Dr. Abu Zayd’s own career [Kristof continues] underscores the challenges that scholars face in the Muslim world. When he declared that keeping slave girls and taxing non-Muslims were contrary to Islam, he infuriated conservative judges. An Egyptian court declared that he couldn’t be a real Muslim and thus divorced him from his wife (who, as a Muslim woman, was not eligible to be married to a non-Muslim). The couple fled to Europe. . .
“’The Islamic reformation started as early as the 19th century,’ notes Dr. Abu Zayd, and, of course, it has even earlier roots as well. One important school of Koranic scholarship, Mutazilism, held 1,000 years ago that the Koran need not be interpreted literally, and even today Iranian scholars are surprisingly open to critical scholarship and interpretations.
“If the Islamic world is going to enjoy a revival, if fundamentalists are to be tamed, if women are to be employed more productively, then moderate interpretations of the Koran will have to gain ascendancy. There are signs of that, including a brand of ‘feminist Islam’ that cites verses and traditions suggesting that the Prophet Muhammad favored women’s rights.”
Abu Zayd’s fate shows the perils of embarking on any criticism of Islam and the Qur’an from within the Islamic world. After noting that point, Kristof veers into Polyanna-land. Feminist Islam? Lots of luck.
The conference itself demonstrates the overaraching problem: one can go some ways in this direction, but prudence urges caution. At Notre Dame some critical points were made, but they were enveloped in a dense cloud of minutiae. The persistence of such cautionary camouflage is not helpful.
Still, the conference may be a promising start--even though it draws upon research that has been available for decades. As for further developments, we will have to wait and see.