Sakset/Fra hofta

Economist tar opp det interessante og sensitive spørsmålet om det er mulig å historisere Koranen på samme måten som Bibelen. Vitenskapelig er arbeidet allerede i gang, men det er forbundet med risiko.

Economist må avlegge en forsikring om at kristendommens tekster er like krigerske og blodige som islams. Det stemmer ikke, men for balansens skyld må Economist late som.  Det gjør oppgaven historisering mulig. Hvis jobben med historisering og nøytralisering av utdaterte syn var like stor som for kristendommens vedkommende, så er det håp, – for islam.

Men Economist innrømmer at det er en viktig forskjell, noe som adskiller islam fra alle andre store religioner: grunntekstens a-historiske karakter. Den ble skrevet i evigheten av Allah og kan ikke endres.


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. Yet, 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. One organiser was Muhammad Abdel Haleem, an Egyptian-born professor who has translated the Koran into stylish modern English, drawing acclaim from many, but grumbles from purists. Other contributors included a professor from Turkey, and a scholar based in Iran. But most 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.


Dette gjør enhver historisering til en trussel. For hvis det eksisterer forskjellige versjoner av Koranen, akkurat som det eksisterte flere bøker som ikke ble med i Biblene, de såkalte apokryfiske tekster, så er Koranen oppstått i historisk tid, og det truer den grunnleggende forestillingen om Koranen som a-historisk og uforanderlig.

Risikoen forbundet med historisering gjør at det er ikke-muslimer som gjør jobben, med den fare det innebærer for polarisering og fiendtlighet. Muslimer kan oppfatte at utenverdenen forsøker å undergrave troen.


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 standardised. In America more effort has gone into relating the Koran to what is known from other sources about political and social history. Patricia Crone, of America’s Institute for Advanced Study, once argued that Islam originated in a revolt by Semites against Byzantine and Persian power. She has revised her views, but copies of her 1977 book “Hagarism” change hands for hundreds of dollars.

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. But in France, the home of literary theory, and Germany, the fatherland of textual analysis, free-ranging study of the Koran continues. If you want to argue that partial versions of Hebrew and Christian stories are visible in the Koran, or that its historical portions are inaccurate, nobody will stop you.

Most Muslim children are told that they need know only one thing about the Koran’s origin: that it was revealed over a period of 23 years by the angel Gabriel to Muhammad. But Islam has more to say than that. A well-known narrative tells how the fourth ruler of the Muslims, Caliph Uthman, realised that several variants of God’s revelation were circulating, and established a single version, ordering the destruction of all the others. Non-Muslim scholars, too, see signs of a conscious, but not wholly successful, effort to settle on a definitive form. The continuing variations are not all trivial. Dots over a single letter can change the tense or person of a verb, notes Keith Small, an American participant in the SOAS event. His book, “Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts”, says efforts to standardise went on for four centuries after Uthman.


Muligheten for at det eksisterte flere versjoner av Koranen er en trussel mot muslimenes oppfatning av Koranen. Det kan høres merkelig ut at Saudi-Arabia har slettet historiske spor etter Muhammed, men logikken er klar: det skal ikke finnes spor som gjør det mulig å historisere hverken ham eller kildene.

Men i 1972 fant man tekster i Jemen som viser divergerende versjoner av Koranen. De blir det nå forsket på i Tyskland, under stor sekretess.


Excitement surrounds the study of some Koranic material found in Yemen in 1972. Early analysis of images of these folios suggests some may precede the first big standardisation. This study is being undertaken in Germany, not Yemen. But in the light of the Uthman story, the survival of divergent early material (which escaped the standardisers’ efforts) need not be unbearably shocking. After all, Islamic tradition also credits Muhammad with accepting at least seven oral versions of the Koran, albeit differing only a little.

Turkey and Iran stand out as mainly Muslim countries where, in academia at least, it is possible to talk about the Koran’s textual origins. Turkey’s secular constitution helps to safeguard free inquiry. Ankara University and Istanbul University still reflect the rationalist ethos of a secular republic; the Islamist tone of Turkey’s present government affects newer campuses.

If Iran is a little more open than most Arab countries, that is because of Shia Islam’s stress on theology, and the interpretation of texts, as a continuous enterprise. A Paris-based Shia writer, Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, has caused a stir recently by arguing that the Sunni/Shia split was really over the text of the Koran.


In the beginning were the words