Critical Podium Dewanand Islam
The Changing Quran
Sacrifice code wfor0232
Sacrifice date 25 march 2009
The Changing Quran! http://www.guardian.co.uk
Querying the Koran
Orthodox Muslims believe that this ancient Islamic text is the unchanging
Word of God. One scholar is daring to question it
Guardian Tuesday August 8, 2000
A German academic fears a violent backlash from orthodox Muslims because
his "blasphemous" theory that the Koran has been changed and
revised. Such a
backlash is not to be taken lightly; the Salman Rushdie affair is a solemn
reminder of the power of an angry Muslim community. After the author wrote
novel Satanic Verses, which was considered by Muslims to be blasphemous,
a fatwa , or religious decree, was pronounced against him in 1989 that
left him fearing for his life. Rushdie has only recently reappeared in
public after nearly 10
years in hiding.
According to Muslim belief, the Koran is the eternal, unaltered Word
which has remained the same for 14 centuries. But Dr Gerd R Puin, a renowned
Islamicist at Saarland University, Germany, says it is not one single
has survived unchanged through the centuries. It may include stories that
were written before the prophet Mohammed began his ministry and which
subsequently been rewritten.
Puin's conclusions have sparked angry reactions from orthodox Muslims.
"They've said I'm not really the scholar to make any remarks on these
manuscripts," he said. The semitic philologist, who specialises in
Arabic calligraphy and Koranic palaeography, has been studying Sa'na manuscripts,
ancient versions of the Koran discovered in Sa'na, the capital of Yemen.
So controversial are his findings that the Yemeni authorities have denied
further access to the manuscripts. He says they shed new light on the
development of the Koran as a book with a "textual history",
the fundamental Muslim belief that it is the unchanging Word of God.
Any questioning of the authenticity of the Koranic text as the Word of
can expect a hostile reaction. The fatwa , or death sentence, was issued
Rushdie for hinting in Satanic Verses that the Koran may include verses
other sources - chiefly Satan.
Academics offering radical interpretations of the Koran put their lives
risk. In 1990, Dr Nasr Abu Zaid, formerly a lecturer in Koranic Studies
University, provoked a national outcry in Egypt over his book The Concept
the Text. There were death threats from Muslim extremists, general public
harassment, and in 1995 he was branded an apostate by Egypt's highest
court forced him to divorce his wife because under Islamic law, marriage
between an apostate and a Muslim is forbidden.
Zaid's proposal was arguably less radical than Puin's. Zaid's book argued
that "the Koran is a literary text, and the only way to understand,
analyse it is through a literary approach". A Muslim, Zaid remained
for a time to refute the apostasy charges, but fled with his wife to Holland
the face of increasing death threats.
Puin believes that he will not receive the same reaction, because unlike
or Rushdie he does not have a Muslim name. His claim that the Koran has
changed since its supposed standardisation, and that pre-Islamic texts
in, would nonetheless be regarded as highly blasphemous by Muslims. He
yet written a book on his radical findings, but says it is "a goal
in the near future.
Dr Tarif Khalidi, lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University,
that the book may generate a controversy similar to Satanic Verses. "If
Puin's views are taken up and trumpeted in the media, and if you don't
Muslims being rational about it, then all hell may break loose."
Muslims will not accept Puin's work on the Sa'na manuscripts as having
done with academic objectivity, but see it as a deliberate "attack
integrity of the Koranic text".
The manuscripts, thought to be the oldest surviving copies of the Koran,
discovered in the ancient Great Mosque of Sa'na in 1972, when the building
was being restored after heavy rainfall, hidden in the loft in a bundle
parchment and paper documents. They were nearly thrown away by the builders,
but were spotted by Qadhi Isma'il al-Akwa, then president of the Yemeni
Antiquities Authority, who saw their importance and sought international
assistance to preserve and examine them. Al-Akwa managed to interest Puin,
who was visiting Yemen for research purposes in 1979. Puin in turn persuaded
the German government to organise and fund a restoration project. The
restoration revealed that some of the parchment pages dated from the seventh
and eighth centuries, the crucial first two centuries of Islam, from which
very few manuscripts have survived.
Until now, there were three ancient copies of the Koran. One copy in
Library of Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and another in the Topkapi Museum in
Istanbul, Turkey, date from the eighth century. A copy preserved in the
British Library in London, known as the Ma'il manuscript, dates from the
late seventh century.
But the Sa'na manuscripts are even older. Moreover, the Sa'na manuscripts
written in a script that originates from the Hijaz - the region of Arabia
where the prophet Mohammed lived, which makes them not only the oldest
survived, but one of the earliest copies of the Koran ever.
Puin noticed minor textual variations, unconventional ordering of the
chapters (surahs), as well as rare styles of orthography. Then he noticed
sheets were palimpsests - manuscripts with versions written even earlier
had been washed off or erased. These findings led Dr Puin to assert that
Koran had undergone a textual evolution. In other words, the copy of the
that we have is not the one believed to have been revealed to the prophet.
This is something that Muslims would find offensive.The idea that the
is the literal Word of God, unchanging and permanent, is crucial to Islam.The
traditional Muslim view holds that the Koran was revealed to Mohammed
by God in fragments between 610 and 632 AD. The revealed verses were "recorded
on palm leaves and flat stones and in the hearts of men [meaning memorised],"
remained in this state during the prophet's lifetime.
About 29 years after Mohammed's death during the rule of the third Muslim
caliph, Uthman, a standard copy of the Koran in a book form, was made,
already divergent readings and copies were circulating in the growing
empire. This Uthmanic recension, according to the Muslim view, was produced
with meticulous care, based on earlier copies of the Koran made according
instructions of the prophet.
Orthodox Muslims insist that no changes have occurred to the Koran since
Uthmanic recension. But this view is challenged by the Sa'na manuscripts,
which date from shortly after the Uthmanic recension. "There are
phonetical variations that don't make any sense in the text", says
Arabic script is very defective - even more so in the early stages of
Like other early Arabic literature, the Sa'na Koran was written without
diacritical marks, vowel symbols or any guide to how it should be read,
Puin. "The text was written so defectively that it can be read in
a perfect way
only if you have a strong oral tradition." The Sa'na text, just like
early Korans, was a guide to those who knew it already by memory, he says.
that were unfamiliar with the Koran would read it differently because
were no diacritical and vowel symbols.
As years went by, the correct reading of the Koran became less clear,
says. People made changes to make sense of the text. Puin gives as example
bin Yusuf, governor of Iraq from 694-714 AD, who "was proud of inserting
than 1,000 alifs [first letter of the Arabic alphabet] in the Koranic
Professor Allen Jones, lecturer in Koranic Studies at Oxford University,
agrees. "Hajjaj is also responsible for putting the diacritical marks
Koran. His changes are a defining moment in the history of the Koran".
Hajjaj's changes in around the 700s, "the Koranic text became pretty
Puin accepts this up to a point, but says that certain words and
pronunciations were standardised in the ninth century. He says the Uthmanic
text was the skeleton upon which "many layers of interpretation were
added" - causing the text to change.
This is blasphemy, according to orthodox Muslims, and is not entirely
accepted by other academics. Jones admits there have been "trifling"
changes made to the Uthmanic recension. Khalidi says the traditional Muslim
account of the
Koran's development is still more or less true. "I haven't yet seen
radically alter my view," he says. He believes that the Sa'na Koran
be a bad copy that was being used by people to whom the Uthmanic text
reached yet. "It's not inconceivable that after the promulgation
Uthmanic text, it took a long time to filter down."
Puin's other radical theory is that pre-Islamic sources have entered
Koran. He argues that two tribes it mentions, As-Sahab-ar-Rass (Companions
of the Well) and the As- Sahab-al-Aiqa (Companions of the Thorny Bushes)
are not part of the Arab tradition, and the people of Mohammed's time
certainly did not
know about them. "These are very unspecific names, whereas other
specifically mentioned," said Dr Puin.
His researches have shown that the ar-Rass lived in pre-Islamic Lebanon
the al-Aiqa in the Aswan region of Egypt around 150AD, according to the
of Ptolemy. He argues that pre-Islamic sources entered the Koran, presumably
when the growing Islamic empire came into contact with those regions and
sources. Khalidi says finding pre-Islamic registers in the Koran does
the Muslim belief in any way, because it does not threaten the integrity
Koran. "The Koran was revealed at a particular time in the vocabulary
age", he says. Puin also questions another sacred belief that Muslims
about the Koran, that it was written in the purest Arabic. He has found
words of foreign origin in the text, including the word "Koran"
scholars explain the "Koran" to mean recitation, but Puin argues
that it is
actually derived from an Aramaic word, qariyun, meaning a lectionary of
portions appointed to be read at divine service. He says the Koran contains
most of the biblical stories but in a shorter form and is "a summary
of the Bible
to be read in service".
Orthodox Muslims have always held that the Koran is a scripture in its
right, and never a shortened version of the Bible, even if both texts
the same prophetic tradition. Khalidi says he is weary of constant attempts
western Islamicists to analyse the Koran in a parallel way to the Bible.
however, sees the need for a "scientific text" of the Koran,
and this is what
he intends to achieve. He says that Muslims believe that "the Koran
worked on a thousand years ago" and "is not a topic anymore".
Not all Muslim reaction to him has been hostile. Salim Abdullah, director
the German Islamic Archives, affiliated to the powerful pan-Islamic Muslim
World League, has given him a positive response. "He asked me if
I could give him the permission to publish one of my articles on the Sa'na
Puin. Warned of the possible controversy it could raise, he replied: "I
longing for this kind of discussion on this topic."
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