on 1 August 2009
This book is a very good companion volume to Ibn Warraq' book on the historical Mohammed. They both however share a common weakness, which is the fact that much of the writings reflected in the books are fairly old, early 20th Century and some 19th Century. I suspect that this simply reflects the difficulties which Scholars face in working in this area. Second, the lack of any contributions by sympathetic Muslim scholars weakens the work but I suspect this is because no Muslims will engage in this area.
Unlike the Bible which has been the subject of textual criticism by Christians and non-Christians for several hundred years, the Koran has not been the subject of textual criticism my muslims in any meaningful sense. The void has been filled in the main by western scholars. This foray of western scholars into muslim territory has not endeared them to muslims and indeed has generated considerable hostility. Perhaps, this is not surprising in the historical context through which Islam is living. There were similar reactions from Christians when historical criticism first begun to deconstruct the text of the Old and New Testaments. Even so, Christianity has not imploded following the advent of historical criticism and indeed many would say that Christians' understanding of the historical roots of their religion has been enriched by the historical research. However, not all Christians would agree and certainly fundamentalists, who have a very similar understanding of the inerrancy of the Bible to the Muslims understanding of the Koran, would not accept the findings of the textual critics.
There is a fairly fundamental point which must be stated before considering the details of the book and that is in the West, there has been a constant striving to ensure that faith and reason do not contradict each other, nore particularly that faith must purify reason but also reason must purify faith. Faith and reason should be constant partners in dialogue.
One gets the impression that in Islam in its current state of development, that faith and reason do not interpenetrate each other but exist in polarities. Thus, in Islam at this moment, muslims will hold that the Koran is perfect even though textually a claim for perfection seems unwarranted.
The key points which emerge from this book are as follows:
i) The average middle class Arab would take considerable effort to construct even the simplest sentence. Let alone talk, in the classical Arabic of the Koran (page 25): this means that the Koran has to be translated for everyone including Arabs. This makes an irony of the common criticism of muslims that the Koran is untranslatable and should not be read in a translation. Everyone (Arab and all) has to engage in a translation.
ii) The style of the Koran is difficult, and would be largely incomprehensible without glossaries, indeed entire commentaries. Without them, the Koran is gnomic and elusive (page 26)
iii) The Koran claims for itself that it is "mubeen" or "clear" but if you look at it you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn't make sense and is in fact just incomprehensible (page 38)
iv) Even muslim contemporaries of the messenger appear not to have known what various words and phrases meant and thus guesswork seemed to have played a part in interpreting (page 40)
v) Words appear that can have two opposite meanings , words are unclear, sentences are not clear, passages with interpolations, grammatical errors, sentences that do not fit and general disorder and incoherence (page 41)
vi) Vastly difference Muslim interpretations, each backed up by impeccable isnads (chains of authority), showing that there was no coherent interpretation (page 51)
vii) A preference for rhyming over proper grammer (page 54)
viii) Tortuous and inelegant verses (page 55)
ix) Disorder and incoherence and hopeless confusion over what various pronouns are being referred to(page 56)
x) Interpretation of the Koran rests on Islamic tradition which is difficult to justify if the Koran is indeed "mubeen" or "clear (page 59)
xi) For all muslims, much of the Koran remains incomprehensible without commentaries. (page 59)
xii) And yet Henri Lammens argues that the hadith (commentaries on the Koran) are themselves dependent on the Koran, essentially expanding on obscure texts in the Koran. (page 60)
xiii) The Koran itself can be the subject of many variant readings depending on how the dots and pointings are interpreted (vowels etc), dots were hardly used in the first 2 centuries. Thus the Koran itself had to be interpreted i.e. someone had to decide what vowels were to be attributed to the text (page 64)
xiv) The range of verse abrogations range from 5 to 500. Muslims need to have this law of abrogation to justify the apparent contradictions i.e. allowing and not allowing alcohol and peaceful versus violent attitudes towards the infidel (page 68)
xv) The lack of clarity and incoherence of the Koranic text should be embarrassing for Muslims given that it was/is a constant refrain of the messenger and muslims that the Jews and Christians cannot agree over their text and thus the Koran is revealed to explain clearly what is required to be faithful to God. And, yet 20% of the Koran is incomprehensible. (page 80)
xvi) We have no muslim literature including biographies of the messenger, no commentaries, no law books, no hadiths until the beginning of the third Islamic Century (page 69). This is a big time gap. Compare with the Christian scriptures (earliest letters of St Paul date from 20-30 years after the death of Christ, the earliest gospels date from say 40 years after Christ) whereas the Mulsim literature only begins to develop circa 200 years. This highlights some oddities. The Koran states (written 600 years after the death of Christ) that there was no crucifixion of Christ (and yet we have the Christain writings, the writings of the Jewish historian, the writings of Tacitus and other Roman sources evidencing that the Christ was crucified. And, curiously the Muslims position of the historical details of the messenger date from circa 200 years after the end of his career.) Thus, there is significantly more evidence for the death of Christ than for the existence of the Messenger.
xvii) For Muslims, the Koran is the word of God made text just as for Christians the Christ is the Word made Flesh. This explains why Muslims are reluctant to expose their text to historical criticism. (page 111)
xviii) Neither the messenger himself nor any muhammadan formulae appear in any inscriptions dated before 691 AD. (page 133)
xix) Almost all the religious terms found in the Koran are derived from Syriac whilst the Jewish influence on the religious vocabulary in the Koran is indeed negligible (page 178/179)
xx) There is interesting text in Sura XXXVIII where in Satan refuses to fall prostrate before man whose origin appears not to be jewish. But, a Coptic origin has been identified (the Messenger had a wife who was a copt) (page 291)
xxi) Corruptions in individual words in the Koran are such that instead of the sense to be expected, the words give the very opposite of the expected meaning (page 400)
xxii) According to the mental habit, the messenger passes abruptly from one subject to another and occasionally returns again suddenly to a theme that he had previously discussed and seemingly finished. This give a certain choppiness to the text (page 468)
xxiii) Certain texts are clearly in the wrong place and are thus out of place and inexplicable (page 470/471) Presumably this is because of mis-editing.
xxiv) The messenger uses some stock phrases but some of them are incomprehensible, such as: "Woe that day to those who count false! (Syra LXXVII) (page 527)
xxv) The Koran is disjointed. Only very seldom do we find in it evidence of sustained unified composition at any great length (page 528)
xxvi) The style is disjointed, formless, excited, unpremeditated, rhapsodical, but Bell argues that this is because of a failure to discern the natural divisions into which the suras fall (page 530).
xxvii) A critical reader will detect modifications from some unevenness in the style and a certain roughness. Sometimes apparently contradictory statements appear side by side and passages of different dates stand together. (page 539)
xxviii) Luling's theory that some of the Suras are based on heretical Christian arian texts about Christ is an interesting one but does not appear to be proven (page 654)
xxix) It is interesting that the foundational Suras from which muslims derive the belief that the Angle Gabriel appeared to the Messenger do not in fact appear in the text but is solely an Islamic tradition (page 699)
xxx) Concerning Sura XCVI what little coherence this text has in the translation is only achieved by supplying numerous words that are not in the original language (page 671).
All the above shows that there are textual frailities with the Koran, which on rational grounds point towards a text which like any other has imperfections.