Tag Archives: Bible

The Qur’an: the uncorrupted word of God/Allah (three)?

To conclude the discussion about whether the Qur’an can be regarded as the uncorrupted word of God/Allah, here is a very long article first published in 1999 that examines in even more detail what is explored in “The New York Times” article in the previous post. Sections in bold are the ones that I think are the most enlightening/important.

“The Atlantic”, January 1999. Toby Lester.

IN 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sanaa in Yemen, labourers working in a loft between the structure’s inner and outer roofs stumbled across a remarkable gravesite, although they did not realise it at the time. Their ignorance was excusable: mosques do not normally house graves, and this site contained no tombstones, no human remains, no funereal jewellery. It contained nothing more, in fact, than an unappealing mash of old parchment and paper documents – damaged books and individual pages of Arabic text, fused together by centuries of rain and dampness, gnawed into over the years by rats and insects. Intent on completing the task at hand, the labourers gathered up the manuscripts, pressed them into some twenty potato sacks and set them aside on the staircase of one of the mosque’s minarets, where they were locked away – and where they would probably have been forgotten once again, were it not for Qadhi Ismail al-Akwa, then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, who realised the potential importance of the find.

Al-Akwa sought international assistance in examining and preserving the fragments, and in 1979 managed to interest a visiting German scholar, who in turn persuaded the German government to organise and fund a restoration project. Soon after the project began, it became clear that the hoard was a fabulous example of what is sometimes referred to as a “paper grave” – in this case the resting place for, among other things, tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Koran, the Muslim holy scripture. In some pious Muslim circles it is held that worn-out or damaged copies of the Koran must be removed from circulation; hence the idea of a grave, which both preserves the sanctity of the texts being laid to rest and ensures that only complete and unblemished editions of the scripture will be read.

Urfa, Turkey

Urfa, Turkey

Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries, or Islam’s first two centuries – they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence. What’s more, some of the fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard koranic text. Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless and unchanging word of God.

The mainly secular effort to reinterpret the Koran – in part based on textual evidence such as that provided by the Yemeni fragments – is disturbing and offensive to many Muslims, just as attempts to reinterpret the Bible and the life of Jesus are disturbing and offensive to many conservative Christians. Nevertheless, there are scholars, Muslims among them, who feel that such an effort, which amounts essentially to placing the Koran in history, will provide fuel for an Islamic revival of sorts – a reappropriation of tradition, a going forward by looking back. Thus far confined to scholarly argument, this sort of thinking can be nonetheless very powerful and – as the histories of the Renaissance and the Reformation demonstrate – can lead to major social change. The Koran, after all, is currently the world’s most ideologically influential text.

THE first person to spend a significant amount of time examining the Yemeni fragments, in 1981, was Gerd-R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and koranic paleography based at Saarland University in Saarbrucken, Germany. Puin, who had been sent by the German government to organise and oversee the restoration project, recognised the antiquity of some of the parchment fragments, and his preliminary inspection also revealed unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment. Enticing, too, were the sheets of scripture written in the rare and early Hijazi Arabic script: pieces of the earliest Korans known to exist, they were also palimpsests – versions very clearly written over even earlier, washed-off versions. What the Yemeni Korans seemed to suggest, Puin began to feel, was an evolving text rather than simply the word of God as revealed in its entirety to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.

Since the early 1980s, more than 15,000 sheets of the Yemeni Korans have painstakingly been flattened, cleaned, treated, sorted and assembled; they now sit (“preserved for another thousand years,” Puin says) in Yemen’s House of Manuscripts awaiting detailed examination. That is something the Yemeni authorities have seemed reluctant to allow, however. “They want to keep this thing low profile, as we do too, although for different reasons,” Puin explains. “They don’t want attention drawn to the fact that there are Germans and others working on the Korans. They don’t want it made public that there is work being done at all, since the Muslim position is that everything that needs to be said about the Koran’s history was said a thousand years ago.”

To date, just two scholars have been granted extensive access to the Yemeni fragments: Puin and his colleague H.-C. Graf von Bothmer, an Islamic art historian also based at Saarland University. Puin and von Bothmer have published only a few tantalisingly brief articles in scholarly publications on what they have discovered in the Yemeni fragments. They have been reluctant to publish partly because until recently they were more concerned with sorting and classifying the fragments than with systematically examining them, and partly because they felt that the Yemeni authorities, if they realised the possible implications of the discovery, might refuse them further access. Von Bothmer, however, in 1997 finished taking more than 35,000 microfilm pictures of the fragments and has recently brought the pictures back to Germany. This means that soon von Bothmer, Puin and other scholars will finally have a chance to scrutinise the texts and to publish their findings freely – a prospect that thrills Puin. “So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word,” he says. “They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sanaa fragments will help us to do this.”

Puin is not alone in his enthusiasm. “The impact of the Yemeni manuscripts is still to be felt,” says Andrew Rippin, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, who is at the forefront of koranic studies today. “Their variant readings and verse orders are all very significant. Everybody agrees on that. These manuscripts say that the early history of the koranic text is much more of an open question than many have suspected: the text was less stable, and therefore had less authority, than has always been claimed.”

By the standards of contemporary biblical scholarship, most of the questions being posed by scholars like Puin and Rippin are rather modest; outside an Islamic context, proposing that the Koran has a history and suggesting that it can be interpreted metaphorically are not radical steps. But the Islamic context – and Muslim sensibilities -cannot be ignored. “To historicise the Koran would in effect delegitimise the whole historical experience of the Muslim community,” says R. Stephen Humphreys, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “The Koran is the charter for the community, the document that called it into existence. And ideally – though obviously not always in reality – Islamic history has been the effort to pursue and work out the commandments of the Koran in human life. If the Koran is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of fourteen centuries is effectively meaningless.”

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Diyarbakir, Turkey

The orthodox Muslim view of the Koran as self-evidently the word of God, perfect and inimitable in message, language, style and form, is strikingly similar to the fundamentalist Christian notion of the Bible’s “inerrancy” and “verbal inspiration” that is still common in many places today. The notion was given classic expression only a little more than a century ago by the biblical scholar John William Burgon:

The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Book of it, every Chapter of it, every Verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it… every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High!

Not all Christians think this way about the Bible, however, and, in fact, as the “Encyclopaedia of Islam” (1981) points out, “the closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Koran in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ.” If Christ is the Word of God made flesh, the Koran is the Word of God made text, and questioning its sanctity or authority is thus considered an outright attack on Islam – as Salman Rushdie knows all too well.

The prospect of a Muslim backlash has not deterred the critical-historical study of the Koran, as the existence of the essays in “The Origins of the Koran” (1998) demonstrate. Even in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair the work continues. In 1996, the koranic scholar Gunter Luling wrote in “The Journal of Higher Criticism” about “the wide extent to which both the text of the Koran and the learned Islamic account of Islamic origins have been distorted, a deformation unsuspectingly accepted by Western Islamicists until now.” In 1994 the journal “Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam” published a posthumous study by Yehuda D. Nevo of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem detailing seventh and eighth century religious inscriptions on stones in the Negev Desert which, Nevo suggested, pose “considerable problems for the traditional Muslim account of the history of Islam.” That same year, and in the same journal, Patricia Crone, a historian of early Islam currently based at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, published an article in which she argued that elucidating problematic passages in the koranic text is likely to be made possible only by “abandoning the conventional account of how the Qur’an was born.” And since 1991 James Bellamy of the University of Michigan has proposed in the “Journal of the American Oriental Society” a series of “emendations to the text of the Koran” – changes that from the orthodox Muslim perspective amount to copy editing God.

Crone is one of the most iconoclastic of these scholars. During the 1970s and 1980s, she wrote and collaborated on several books – most notoriously, with Michael Cook, “Hagarism: The making of the Islamic world” (1977) – that made radical arguments about the origins of Islam and the writing of Islamic history. Among her controversial claims were suggestions that the text of the Koran came into being later than is now believed (“There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century”); that Mecca was not the initial Islamic sanctuary (“[the evidence] points unambiguously to a sanctuary in north-west Arabia… Mecca was secondary”); that the Arab conquests preceded the institutionalisation of Islam (“The Jewish messianic fantasy was enacted in the form of an Arab conquest of the Holy Land”); that the idea of the hijra, or the migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622, may have evolved long after Muhammad died (“No seventh century source identifies the Arab era as that of the hijra”); and that the term “Muslim” was not commonly used in early Islam (“There is no good reason to suppose that the bearers of this primitive identity called themselves ‘Muslims’ [but] sources do… reveal an earlier designation of the community [which] appears in Greek as ‘Magaritai’ in a papyrus of 642, and in Syriac as ‘Mahgre’ or ‘Mahgraye’ from as early as the 640s”).

“Hagarism: The making of the Islamic world” came under immediate attack, from Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike, for its heavy reliance on hostile sources (“This is a book,” the authors wrote, “based on what from any Muslim perspective must appear an inordinate regard for the testimony of infidel sources”). Crone and Cook have since backed away from some of its most radical propositions – such as, for example, that the Prophet Muhammad lived two years longer than the Muslim tradition claims he did, and that the historicity of his migration to Medina is questionable. But Crone has continued to challenge both Muslim and Western orthodox views of Islamic history. In “Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam” (1987) she made a detailed argument challenging the prevailing view among Western (and some Muslim) scholars that Islam arose in response to the Arabian spice trade.

Puin’s current thinking about the Koran’s history partakes of this contemporary revisionism. “My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad,” he says. “Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants.”

Crone defends the goals of this sort of thinking. “The Koran is a scripture with a history like any other – except that we don’t know this history and tend to provoke howls of protest when we study it. Nobody would mind the howls if they came from Westerners, but Westerners feel deferential when the howls come from other people: who are you to tamper with their legacy? But we Islamicists are not trying to destroy anyone’s faith.”

Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Not everyone agrees with that assessment – especially since Western koranic scholarship has traditionally taken place in the context of an openly declared hostility between Christianity and Islam (indeed, the broad movement in the West over the past two centuries to “explain” the East, often referred to as Orientalism, has in recent years come under fire for exhibiting similar religious and cultural biases). The Koran has seemed, for Christian and Jewish scholars particularly, to possess an aura of heresy; the nineteenth century Orientalist William Muir, for example, contended that the Koran was one of “the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation, Liberty and the Truth which the world has yet known.” Early Soviet scholars, too, undertook an ideologically motivated study of Islam’s origins, with almost missionary zeal: in the 1920s and in 1930 a Soviet publication titled “Ateist” ran a series of articles explaining the rise of Islam in Marxist-Leninist terms. In “Islam and Russia” (1956), Ann K. S. Lambton summarised much of this work and wrote that several Soviet scholars had theorised that “the motive force of the nascent religion was supplied by the mercantile bourgeoisie of Mecca and Medina”; that a certain S. P. Tolstov had held that “Islam was a social-religious movement originating in the slave-owning, not feudal, form of Arab society”; and that N. A. Morozov had argued that “until the Crusades, Islam was indistinguishable from Judaism and… only then did it receive its independent character, while Muhammad and the first Caliphs are mythical figures.” Morozov appears to have been a particularly flamboyant theorist: Lambton wrote that he also argued, in his book “Christ” (1930), that “in the Middle Ages Islam was merely an off-shoot of Arianism evoked by a meteorological event in the Red Sea area near Mecca.”

Not surprisingly, then, given the biases of much non-Islamic critical study of the Koran, Muslims are inclined to dismiss it outright. A particularly eloquent protest came in 1987, in the “Muslim World Book Review”, in a paper titled “Method Against Truth: Orientalism and Qur’anic Studies” by the Muslim critic S. Parvez Manzoor. Placing the origins of Western koranic scholarship in “the polemical marshes of medieval Christianity” and describing its contemporary state as a “cul-de-sac of its own making,” Manzoor orchestrated a complex and layered assault on the entire Western approach to Islam. He opened his essay in a rage:

The Orientalist enterprise of qur’anic studies, whatever its other merits and services, was a project born of spite, bred in frustration and nourished by vengeance: the spite of the powerful for the powerless, the frustration of the “rational” towards the “superstitious” and the vengeance of the “orthodox” against the “non-conformist.” At the greatest hour of his worldly-triumph, the Western man, coordinating the powers of the State, Church and Academia, launched his most determined assault on the citadel of Muslim faith. All the aberrant streaks of his arrogant personality – its reckless rationalism, its world-domineering fantasy and its sectarian fanaticism – joined in an unholy conspiracy to dislodge the Muslim scripture from its firmly entrenched position as the epitome of historic authenticity and moral unassailability. The ultimate trophy that the Western man sought by his dare-devil venture was the Muslim mind itself. In order to rid the West forever of the “problem” of Islam, he reasoned, Muslim consciousness must be made to despair of the cognitive certainty of the Divine message revealed to the Prophet. Only a Muslim confounded of the historical authenticity or doctrinal autonomy of the qur’anic revelation would abdicate his universal mission and hence pose no challenge to the global domination of the West. Such, at least, seems to have been the tacit, if not the explicit, rationale of the Orientalist assault on the Qur’an.

Despite such resistance, Western researchers with a variety of academic and theological interests press on, applying modern techniques of textual and historical criticism to the study of the Koran. That a substantial body of this scholarship now exists is indicated by the recent decision of the European firm Brill Publishers – a long-established publisher of such major works as “The Encyclopedia of Islam” and “The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition” – to commission the first-ever “Encyclopedia of the Qur’an”. Jane McAuliffe, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toronto and the general editor of the encyclopedia, hopes that it will function as a “rough analogue” to biblical encyclopedias and will be “a turn-of-the-millennium summative work for the state of koranic scholarship.” Articles for the first part of the encyclopedia are currently being edited and prepared for publication later this year.

The “Encyclopedia of the Qur’an” will be a truly collaborative enterprise carried out by Muslims and non-Muslims, and its articles will present multiple approaches to the interpretation of the Koran, some of which are likely to challenge traditional Islamic views – thus disturbing many in the Islamic world, where the time is decidedly less ripe for a revisionist study of the Koran.

Children in Urfa, eastern Turkey

Children in Urfa, eastern Turkey

The plight of Nasr Abu Zaid, an unassuming Egyptian professor of Arabic who sits on the encyclopedia’s advisory board, illustrates the difficulties facing Muslim scholars trying to reinterpret their tradition. “The Koran is a text, a literary text, and the only way to understand, explain and analyse it is through a literary approach,” Abu Zaid says. “This is an essential theological issue.”

For expressing views like this in print – in essence, for challenging the idea that the Koran must be read literally as the absolute and unchanging word of God – Abu Zaid was in 1995 officially branded an apostate, a ruling that in 1996 was upheld by Egypt’s highest court. The court then proceeded, on the grounds of an Islamic law forbidding the marriage of an apostate to a Muslim, to order Abu Zaid to divorce his wife, Ibtihal Yunis (a ruling that the shocked and happily married Yunis described at the time as coming “like a blow to the head with a brick”).

Abu Zaid steadfastly maintains that he is a pious Muslim, but contends that the Koran’s manifest content – for example, the often archaic laws about the treatment of women for which Islam is infamous – is much less important than its complex, regenerative and spiritually nourishing latent content. The orthodox Islamic view, Abu Zaid claims, is stultifying; it reduces a divine, eternal, and dynamic text to a fixed human interpretation with no more life and meaning than “a trinket… a talisman… or an ornament.”

For a while Abu Zaid remained in Egypt and sought to refute the charges of apostasy, but, in the face of death threats and relentless public harassment, he fled with his wife from Cairo to Holland calling the whole affair “a macabre farce.” Sheikh Youssef al-Badri, the cleric whose preachings inspired much of the opposition to Abu Zaid, was exultant. “We are not terrorists; we have not used bullets or machine guns, but we have stopped an enemy of Islam from poking fun at our religion… No one will even dare to think about harming Islam again.”

Abu Zaid seems to have been justified in fearing for his life and fleeing: in 1992 the Egyptian journalist Farag Foda was assassinated by Islamists for his critical writings about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and in 1994 the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed for writing, among other works, the allegorical “Children of Gabalawi” (1959), a novel, structured like the Koran, that presents “heretical” conceptions of God and the Prophet Muhammad.

Deviating from the orthodox interpretation of the Koran, says the Algerian Mohammed Arkoun, a professor emeritus of Islamic thought at the University of Paris, is “a very sensitive business” with major implications. “Millions and millions of people refer to the Koran daily to explain their actions and to justify their aspirations,” Arkoun says. “This scale of reference is much larger than it has ever been before.”

Mecca sits in a barren hollow between two ranges of steep hills in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia. To its immediate west lies the flat and sweltering Red Sea coast; to the east stretches the great Rub al-Khali, or Empty Quarter – the largest continuous body of sand on the planet. The town’s setting is uninviting: the earth is dry and dusty and smoulders under a relentless sun; the whole region is scoured by hot, throbbing desert winds. Although sometimes rain does not fall for years, when it does come it can be heavy, creating torrents of water that rush out of the hills and flood the basin in which the city lies. As a backdrop for divine revelation, the area is every bit as fitting as the mountains of Sinai or the wilderness of Judea.

The only real source of historical information about pre-Islamic Mecca and the circumstances of the Koran’s revelation is the classical Islamic story about the religion’s founding, a distillation of which follows.

In the centuries leading up to the arrival of Islam, Mecca was a local pagan sanctuary of considerable antiquity. Religious rituals revolved around the Ka’aba – a shrine, still central in Islam today, that Muslims believe was originally built by Ibrahim (known to Christians and Jews as Abraham) and his son Ismail (Ishmael). As Mecca became increasingly prosperous in the sixth century, pagan idols of varying sizes and shapes proliferated. The traditional story has it that by the early seventh century a pantheon of some 360 statues and icons surrounded the Ka’aba (inside which were found renderings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, among other idols).

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Such was the background against which the first instalments of the Koran are said to have been revealed, in 610, to an affluent but disaffected merchant named Muhammad bin Abdullah. Muhammad had developed the habit of periodically withdrawing from Mecca’s pagan squalor to a nearby mountain cave where he would reflect in solitude. During one of these retreats he was visited by the angel Gabriel – the very same angel said to have announced the coming of Jesus to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth some 600 years earlier. Opening with the command “Recite,” Gabriel made it known to Muhammad that he was to serve as the Messenger of God. Subsequently, until his death, the supposedly illiterate Muhammad received through Gabriel divine revelations in Arabic that were known as qur’an (“recitation”) and that announced, initially in a highly poetic and rhetorical style, a new and uncompromising brand of monotheism known as Islam, or “submission” (to God’s will). Muhammad reported these revelations verbatim to sympathetic family members and friends, who either memorised them or wrote them down.

Powerful Meccans soon began to persecute Muhammad and his small band of devoted followers, whose new faith rejected the pagan core of Meccan cultural and economic life, and as a result in 622 the group migrated some 200 miles north, to the town of Yathrib, which subsequently became known as Medina (short for Medinat al-Nabi, or City of the Prophet. This migration, known in Islam as the hijra, is considered to mark the birth of an independent Islamic community, and 622 is thus the first year of the Islamic calendar). In Medina Muhammad continued to receive divine revelations, of an increasingly pragmatic and prosaic nature, and by 630 he had developed enough support in the Medinan community to attack and conquer Mecca. He spent the last two years of his life proselytising, consolidating political power and continuing to receive revelations.

The Islamic tradition has it that, when Muhammad died in 632, the koranic revelations had not been gathered into a single book; the revelations were recorded only “on palm leaves and flat stones and in the hearts of men.” (This is not surprising: the oral tradition was strong and well established, and the Arabic script, which was written without the vowel markings and consonantal dots used today, served mainly as an aid to memorisation.) Nor was the establishment of such a text of primary concern: the Medinan Arabs – an unlikely coalition of merchants, desert nomads and agriculturalists united in a potent new faith and inspired by the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad – were at the time pursuing a fantastically successful series of international conquests in the name of Islam. By the 640s the Arabs possessed most of Syria, Iraq, Persia and Egypt, and thirty years later they were busy taking over parts of Europe, North Africa and Central Asia.

In the early decades of the Arab conquests many members of Muhammad’s coterie were killed, and with them died valuable knowledge of the koranic revelations. Muslims at the edges of the empire began arguing over what was koranic scripture and what was not. An army general returning from Azerbaijan expressed his fears about sectarian controversy to the Caliph Uthman (644-656) – the third Islamic ruler to succeed Muhammad – and is said to have entreated him to “overtake this people before they differ over the Koran the way the Jews and Christians differ over their scripture.” Uthman convened an editorial committee of sorts that carefully gathered the various pieces of scripture that had been memorised or written down by Muhammad’s companions. The result was a standard written version of the Koran. Uthman ordered all incomplete and “imperfect” collections of the koranic scripture destroyed, and the new version was quickly distributed to the major centres of the rapidly burgeoning empire.

During the next few centuries, while Islam solidified as a religious and political entity, a vast body of exegetical and historical literature evolved to explain the Koran and the rise of Islam, the most important elements of which are hadith, or the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad; sunna, or the body of Islamic social and legal custom; sira, or biographies of the Prophet; and tafsir, or koranic commentary and explication. It is from these traditional sources – compiled in written form mostly from the mid-eighth to the mid-tenth century – that all accounts of the revelation of the Koran and the early years of Islam are ultimately derived.

Roughly equivalent in length to the New Testament, the Koran is divided into 114 sections, known as suras, that vary dramatically in length and form. The book’s organising principle is neither chronological nor thematic – for the most part the suras are arranged from beginning to end in descending order of length. Despite the unusual structure, however, what generally surprises newcomers to the Koran is the degree to which it draws on the same beliefs and stories that appear in the Bible. God (Allah in Arabic) rules supreme: he is the all-powerful, all-knowing and all-merciful Being who has created the world and its creatures; he sends messages and laws through prophets to help guide human existence; and, at a time in the future known only to him, he will bring about the end of the world and the Day of Judgement. Adam, the first man, is expelled from Paradise for eating from the forbidden tree. Noah builds an ark to save a select few from a flood brought on by the wrath of God. Abraham prepares himself to sacrifice his son at God’s bidding. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and receives a revelation on Mount Sinai. Jesus – born of the Virgin Mary and referred to as the Messiah – works miracles, has disciples and rises to heaven.

The Koran takes great care to stress this common monotheistic heritage, but it works equally hard to distinguish Islam from Judaism and Christianity. For example, it mentions prophets – Hud, Salih, Shuayb, Luqman and others – whose origins seem exclusively Arabian, and it reminds readers that it is “a Koran in Arabic for people who understand.” Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, however, the Koran is often extremely difficult for contemporary readers – even highly educated speakers of Arabic – to understand. It sometimes makes dramatic shifts in style, voice and subject matter from verse to verse, and it assumes a familiarity with language, stories and events that seem to have been lost even to the earliest of Muslim exegetes (this is typical of a text that initially evolved in an oral tradition). Its apparent inconsistencies are easy to find: God may be referred to in the first and third person in the same sentence; divergent versions of the same story are repeated at different points in the text; and divine rulings occasionally contradict one another. In this last case the Koran anticipates criticism and defends itself by asserting the right to abrogate its own message (“God doth blot out or confirm what He pleaseth”).

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Criticism did come. As Muslims increasingly came into contact with Christians during the eighth century, the wars of conquest were accompanied by theological polemics, in which Christians and others latched on to the confusing literary state of the Koran as proof of its human origins. Muslim scholars themselves were fastidiously cataloguing the problematic aspects of the Koran – unfamiliar vocabulary, seeming omissions of text, grammatical incongruities, deviant readings and so on. A major theological debate in fact arose within Islam in the late eighth century, pitting those who believed in the Koran as the “uncreated” and eternal word of God against those who believed in it as created in time, like anything that isn’t God himself. Under the Caliph al-Mamun (813-833) this latter view briefly became orthodox doctrine. It was supported by several schools of thought, including an influential one known as Mutazilism, that developed a complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal understanding of the Koran.

By the end of the tenth century the influence of the Mutazili school had waned, for complicated political reasons, and the official doctrine had become that of ijaz, or the “inimitability” of the Koran (as a result, the Koran has traditionally not been translated by Muslims for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. Instead it is read and recited in the original by Muslims worldwide, the majority of whom do not speak Arabic. The translations that do exist are considered to be nothing more than scriptural aids and paraphrases). The adoption of the doctrine of inimitability was a major turning point in Islamic history, and from the tenth century to this day the mainstream Muslim understanding of the Koran as the literal and uncreated word of God has remained constant.

Puin speaks with disdain about the traditional willingness, on the part of Muslim and Western scholars, to accept the conventional understanding of the Koran. “The Koran claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen,’ or ‘clear,'” he says. “But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense. Many Muslims – and Orientalists – will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the koranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Koran is not comprehensible – if it can’t even be understood in Arabic – then it’s not translatable. People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not – as even speakers of Arabic will tell you – there is a contradiction. Something else must be going on.”

Trying to figure out that “something else” really began only in this century. “Until quite recently,” Crone, the historian of early Islam, says, “everyone took it for granted that everything the Muslims claim to remember about the origin and meaning of the Koran is correct. If you drop that assumption you have to start afresh.” This is no mean feat, of course; the Koran has come down to us tightly swathed in a historical tradition that is extremely resistant to criticism and analysis. As Crone put it in “Slaves on Horses”:

 The biblical redactors offer us sections of the Israelite tradition at different stages of crystallisation, and their testimonies can accordingly be profitably compared and weighed against each other. But the Muslim tradition was the outcome, not of a slow crystallisation, but of an explosion; the first compilers were not redactors, but collectors of debris whose works are strikingly devoid of overall unity; and no particular illuminations ensue from their comparison.

Not surprisingly, given the explosive expansion of early Islam and the passage of time between the religion’s birth and the first systematic documenting of its history, Muhammad’s world and the worlds of the historians who subsequently wrote about him were dramatically different. During Islam’s first century alone a provincial band of pagan desert tribesmen became the guardians of a vast international empire of institutional monotheism that teemed with unprecedented literary and scientific activity. Many contemporary historians argue that one cannot expect Islam’s stories about its own origins – particularly given the oral tradition of the early centuries – to have survived this tremendous social transformation intact. Nor can one expect a Muslim historian writing in ninth or tenth century Iraq to have discarded his social and intellectual background (and theological convictions) in order accurately to describe a deeply unfamiliar seventh century Arabian context. R. Stephen Humphreys, writing in “Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry” (1988), concisely summed up the issue that historians confront in studying early Islam:

 If our goal is to comprehend the way in which Muslims of the late 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries (Islamic calendar/Christian calendar) understood the origins of their society, then we are very well off indeed. But if our aim is to find out “what really happened,” in terms of reliably documented answers to modern questions about the earliest decades of Islamic society, then we are in trouble.

The person who more than anyone else has shaken up koranic studies in the past few decades is John Wansbrough, formerly of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Puin is “re-reading him now” as he prepares to analyse the Yemeni fragments. Crone says that she and Cook “did not say much about the Koran in “Hagarism: the making of the Islamic world” that was not based on Wansbrough.” Other scholars are less admiring, referring to Wansbrough’s work as “drastically wrongheaded,” “ferociously opaque” and a “colossal self-deception.” But like it or not, anybody engaged in the critical study of the Koran today must contend with Wansbrough’s two main works, “Qur’anic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation” (1977) and “The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History” (1978).

Wansbrough applied an entire arsenal of what he called the “instruments and techniques” of biblical criticism – form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism and much more – to the koranic text. He concluded that the Koran evolved only gradually in the seventh and eighth centuries, during a long period of oral transmission when Jewish and Christian sects were arguing volubly with one another well to the north of Mecca and Medina, in what are now parts of Syria, Jordan, Israel and Iraq. The reason that no Islamic source material from the first century or so of Islam has survived, Wansbrough concluded, is that it never existed.

To Wansbrough, the Islamic tradition is an example of what is known to biblical scholars as a “salvation history”: a theologically and evangelically motivated story of a religion’s origins invented late in the day and projected back in time. In other words, as Wansbrough put it in “Qur’anic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation”, the canonisation of the Koran – and the Islamic traditions that arose to explain it – involved the attribution of several, partially overlapping, collections of logia (exhibiting a distinctly Mosaic imprint) to the image of a biblical prophet (modified by the material of the Muslim evangelium into an Arabian man of God) with a traditional message of salvation (modified by the influence of rabbinic Judaism into the unmediated and finally immutable word of God).

Wansbrough’s arcane theories have been contagious in certain scholarly circles, but many Muslims, understandably, have found them deeply offensive. S. Parvez Manzoor, for example, has described the koranic studies of Wansbrough and others as “a naked discourse of power” and “an outburst of psychopathic vandalism.” But not even Manzoor argues for a retreat from the critical enterprise of koranic studies; instead he urges Muslims to defeat the Western revisionists on the “epistemological battlefield,” admitting that “sooner or later [we Muslims] will have to approach the Koran from methodological assumptions and parameters that are radically at odds with the ones consecrated by our tradition.”

Indeed, for more than a century there have been public figures in the Islamic world who have attempted the revisionist study of the Koran and Islamic history – the exiled Egyptian professor Nasr Abu Zaid is not unique. Perhaps Abu Zaid’s most famous predecessor was the prominent Egyptian government minister, university professor and writer Taha Hussein. A determined modernist, Hussein in the early 1920s devoted himself to the study of pre-Islamic Arabian poetry and ended up concluding that much of that body of work had been fabricated well after the establishment of Islam in order to lend outside support to koranic mythology. A more recent example is the Iranian journalist and diplomat Ali Dashti, who in his “Twenty-three Years: a study of the prophetic career of Mohammed” (1985) repeatedly took his fellow Muslims to task for not questioning the traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life, much of which he called “myth-making and miracle-mongering.”

Abu Zaid also cites the enormously influential Muhammad Abduh as a precursor. The nineteenth century father of Egyptian modernism, Abduh saw the potential for a new Islamic theology in the theories of the ninth century Mutazilis. The ideas of the Mutazilis gained popularity in some Muslim circles early in this century (leading the important Egyptian writer and intellectual Ahmad Amin to remark in 1936 that “the demise of Mutazilism was the greatest misfortune to have afflicted Muslims; they have committed a crime against themselves”). The late Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman carried the Mutazilite torch well into the present era; he spent the later years of his life, from the 1960s until his death in 1988, living and teaching in the United States, where he trained many students of Islam – both Muslims and non-Muslims – in the Mutazilite tradition.

Such work has not come without cost, however: Taha Hussein, like Nasr Abu Zaid, was declared an apostate in Egypt; Ali Dashti died mysteriously just after the 1979 Iranian revolution; and Fazlur Rahman was forced to leave Pakistan in the 1960s. Muslims interested in challenging orthodox doctrine must tread carefully. “I would like to get the Koran out of this prison,” Abu Zaid has said of the prevailing Islamic hostility to reinterpreting the Koran for the modern age, “so that once more it becomes productive for the essence of our culture and the arts, which are being strangled in our society.” Despite his many enemies in Egypt, Abu Zaid may well be making progress toward this goal: there are indications that his work is being widely, if quietly, read with interest in the Arab world. Abu Zaid says, for example, that his “The Concept of the Text” (1990) – the book largely responsible for his exile from Egypt – has gone through at least eight underground printings in Cairo and Beirut.

Another scholar with a wide readership who is committed to re-examining the Koran is Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian professor at the University of Paris. Arkoun argued in “Lectures du Coran” (1982), for example, that “it is time [for Islam] to assume, along with all of the great cultural traditions, the modern risks of scientific knowledge,” and suggested that “the problem of the divine authenticity of the Koran can serve to reactivate Islamic thought and engage it in the major debates of our age.” Arkoun regrets the fact that most Muslims are unaware that a different conception of the Koran exists within their own historical tradition. What a re-examination of Islamic history offers Muslims, Arkoun and others argue, is an opportunity to challenge the Muslim orthodoxy from within, rather than having to rely on “hostile” outside sources. Arkoun, Abu Zaid and others hope that this challenge might ultimately lead to nothing less than an Islamic renaissance.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

The gulf between such academic theories and the daily practice of Islam around the world is huge, of course – the majority of Muslims today are unlikely to question the orthodox understanding of the Koran and Islamic history. Yet Islam became one of the world’s great religions in part because of its openness to social change and new ideas (centuries ago, when Europe was mired in its feudal Dark Ages, the sages of a flourishing Islamic civilisation opened an era of great scientific and philosophical discovery. The ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans might never have been introduced to Europe were it not for the Islamic historians and philosophers who rediscovered and revived them). Islam’s own history shows that the prevailing conception of the Koran is not the only one ever to have existed, and the recent history of biblical scholarship shows that not all critical-historical studies of a holy scripture are antagonistic. They can instead be carried out with the aim of spiritual and cultural regeneration. They can, as Arkoun puts it, demystify the text while reaffirming “the relevance of its larger intuitions.”

Increasingly diverse interpretations of the Koran and Islamic history will inevitably be proposed in the coming decades, as traditional cultural distinctions between East, West, North and South continue to dissolve, as the population of the Muslim world continues to grow, as early historical sources continue to be scrutinised, and as feminism meets the Koran. With the diversity of interpretations will surely come increased fractiousness, perhaps intensified by the fact that Islam now exists in such a great variety of social and intellectual settings – Bosnia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United States and so on. More than ever before, anybody wishing to understand global affairs will need to understand Islamic civilisation, in all its permutations. Surely the best way to start is with the study of the Koran – which promises in the years ahead to be at least as contentious, fascinating and important as the study of the Bible has been in this century.

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If you have the time, some books and research that must be read!

I have just finished “The Bible Unearthed” by Finkelstein and Silberman, one of those excellent books confirming that much of the content of Jewish scripture is highly unreliable as history (see also “Testament: the Bible and history” by John Romer, which comes to the same conclusion, but extends the net to include Christian scripture). Finkelstein and Silberman draw on recent archaeological research in countries such as Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon to confirm that many of the most famous stories in the Bible – the wanderings of the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and David and Solomon’s empire – reflect the world of later authors rather than actual historical facts. The authors of the scripture took legend and oral history and moulded both to suit contemporary needs, thereby distorting what had happened in the past or, more alarmingly, inventing a past that never existed. The same scriptural authors also suggested that monotheism was a belief subscribed to by a majority of Jews for centuries earlier than was almost certainly the case. It now looks as if monotheism within the Jewish faith was “victorious” only in the last decades of the 8th century BCE and the first decades of the 7th century BCE.

Inevitably, knowing the above makes it impossible to sustain literalist or fundamentalist interpretations of Jewish or, indeed, Christian scripture. Scholarship, although not quite so thorough as that directed toward the Bible, also makes it impossible to sustain literalist or fundamentalist interpretations of the Qur’an, but too few Muslims are aware of such scholarship, with tragic consequences for millions of people, Muslim or otherwise, in many parts of the world.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Another book well worth reading is “Heretic: why islam needs a reformation now” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But before summarising aspects of the book itself, I will explain a little about the author’s life. My thanks for some of what follows to Andrew Anthony who wrote an article about “Heretic” in “The Guardian” newspaper in April 2015.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born author and human rights campaigner. When living in tribal, patriarchal and rigidly religious Somalia, she suffered female genital mutilation before being singled out for an arranged marriage she did not want. She sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she quickly turned her back on Islam and became one of its most articulate and vehement critics. She had to have twenty-four hour police protection even before Theo Van Gogh, the film director and her artistic collaborator, was murdered in Amsterdam by a jihadist who promised to kill Hirsi Ali as well. Partly to live a more normal life, Hirsi Ali eventually left for the USA, but even in the States life has not always been easy. She is alternately accused of being a self-hating Islamophobe and an apologist for Western imperialism, accusations which mean she remains unpopular in progressive American circles. Her views about the violence and misogyny she sees as inherent in Islamic culture have led to some people denouncing her as an “enlightenment fundamentalist”. With a touch of wry humour, Hirsi Ali notes in “Heretic” that an honorary degree she was to receive from Brandeis University was withdrawn following a petition by faculty and students accusing her of “hate speech”. The campaign, she writes, saw “an authority on Queer/Feminist Narrative Theory siding with the openly homophobic Islamists.”

Now for the book itself. Hirsi Ali seeks to find common ground with the majority of Muslims who give expression to a religion characterised by being peaceful and spiritual rather than political. But a “reformation” is needed because the idea can no longer be sustained that the terrorism and extreme violence encountered in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Kenya have no religious justification in Islamic texts. She writes, “We delude ourselves that our deadliest foes are somehow not actuated by the ideology they openly affirm.” Hirsi Ali lists dozens of statements in the Qur’an that encourage devout Muslims to engage in violence against different groups of people, and she argues that, for as long as Muslims subscribe to the idea that the Qur’an is the literal word of God/Allah, jihadists and other extremists will justify their actions theologically. She says that “religious doctrines matter and are in need of reform.”

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

But how likely is it that religious doctrines will be reformed? For example, her own book confirms that a majority of Pakistanis are in favour of the death penalty for apostasy and sharia law is gaining ground in many nation states with Muslim majorities. She sees some grounds for optimism in the protests that ushered in the Arab Spring, but, in many nation states where such protests took place, dictators or Islamists have seized power since. She also believes that Muslims in the West have a vital role to play in an Islamic reformation, but many young Muslims in the West are being radicalised and the voices of those who might sympathise with such a reformation are reluctant to speak out for fear of attracting death threats.

Although there are other ways that the umma, or global Muslim community, might be sub-divided, one aspect of the book I found quite helpful is how Hirsi Ali writes about Makkah Muslims (the large majority of Muslims who represent the more tolerant face of the religion as expressed during Muhammad’s time in Makkah), the Medina Muslims (the jihadists and other extremists who are inspired by the more punitive aspects of the Qur’an that Muhammad is said to have received during his time in Medina) and the Modifying Muslims (the reformers and dissidents who actively challenge religious dogma). She argues that the Medina Muslims and the Modifying Muslims are struggling to win the hearts and minds of the mass of largely passive Makkah Muslims.

While confident that the Modifying Muslims will eventually prevail, she is unable to generate any convincing evidence that this will happen any time soon. And this is primarily so because, as she points out on more than one occasion, Islam is inherently resistant to reinterpretation. It is inherently resistant to reinterpretation because of the belief that the Qur’an is the final and perfect rendition of God’s/Allah’s word and therefore cannot be subjected to the sort of critical evaluation that scripture in other religions has experienced.

As indicated earlier, for some of the above I am grateful to Andrew Anthony for an article that appeared in the “The Guardian” newspaper in April 2015. Anthony concludes his article with the following insight, one with which I have a lot of sympathy:

It’s an unpleasant paradox that Islam’s best hope of reform might lie in its worst incarnation. In making a visible horror show of their crimes, groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, the Pakistan Taliban and Al-Shabaab have laid down a challenge to mainstream Islam for the soul of the religion. Simply denying that the groups are part of the faith is no longer a viable option.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

While writing this post, I came across some outstanding research on the internet about attitudes in the Islamic world published in 2012 and 2013 by the Pew Research Center. The Pew Research Center findings relate very well to what Hirsi Ali has to say in her book in so far as they provide some reasons for optimism that reformation might be possible, but also many reasons to suppose that such a reformation, if it happens at all, will be a long time coming. The research document is entitled “The World’s Muslims: religion, politics and society”. Type this title into your search engine along with Pew Research Center and the document will be listed, no problem. Muslim attitudes in relation to issues such as sharia, apostasy, women’s rights, relations among Muslims and interfaith relations are subjected to perceptive analysis. You will come away from the research encouraged as well as discouraged.

To confirm just how far off we may be in relation to Islam benefiting from a reformation, consider the following information about apostasy found in “The World’s Muslims: religion, politics and society”. The taking of the life of those who abandon Islam is most widely supported in Egypt and Jordan where 86% and 82% of Muslims support the death penalty, but the figures are not much lower in Afghanistan (79%) or Pakistan (76%). These statistics alone beg the question, “Just how many Muslims worldwide are susceptible to the jihadist agenda if so many Muslims in just four nation states support the death penalty for apostasy?” And to return to the theme touched on at the start of the post, how can millions of Muslims still believe that the Qur’an is the final and perfect rendition of Allah’s word? Knowing only the official story of how the holy book came into human hands must inspire many doubts that the book is the final and perfect rendition of Allah’s word, but add to the doubts the ones that modern scholarship necessarily inspires and you end up with a book no more reliably God-given than the Torah or the Bible.

Sex and Christianity.

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch recently narrated a TV series about attitudes toward sex in Christianity. I found the series excellent, although, in truth, it did not tell us very much that is not already known by millions of reasonably intelligent and/or widely read people. However, what is astounding is that the knowledge and understanding contained within the TV series has not already had a profoundly beneficial impact on Christian thinking about sex. Might it have a beneficial impact in the near future? I am not sure because closed minds are resistant to accommodating what is true, particularly if the truth conflicts with what people assume are truths contained in scripture.

I am so impressed with what Diarmaid MacCulloch had to say in the first episode of the series that, below, I paraphrase the main points in his argument. If, by paraphrasing, I misrepresent what was originally said, the fault is all mine. Blame me and not the professor.

Comments in brackets are my reflections on what was originally said.

Guisborough

Ruined monastery, Guisborough, United Kingdom

Churches in the West have never been able to agree what to say about sex, and such disagreement has turned sex into an obsession. Issues such as contraception, homosexuality, women in the priesthood and clerical child abuse have long caused immense controversy, just as today immense controversy rages within Christianity about same-sex marriage and whether women should be ordained as bishops.

The early Christians (in reality, some of the leading and allegedly most learned Christians) turned sex from biological necessity into a vice, from a pleasure into a sin.

According the the gospels, Jesus said very little about sex. He spoke in favour of monogamy and against divorce, and, when asked by a crowd of people if they should stone a woman thought to be guilty of adultery (Jesus is alleged to have said that only those who are themselves sin-free can cast a stone. The crowd broke up when it was obvious no one was sin-free), he made it clear to the woman that she should not sin again (we can therefore assume that Jesus thought adultery a sin). Perhaps of far greater importance than his pronouncements on sex is that Jesus appears to have thought that forgiveness and mercy are far more important than just about everything else (as the story just mentioned would seem to confirm).

Early Christian attitudes toward sex were shaped by Judaism, the religion from which Christianity emerged, and Greek and Roman civilisation. Judaism and Greek and Roman civilisation were male-dominated and, although Jesus challenged some of the patriarchal attitudes enshrined in contemporary Judaism and Greek and Roman civilisation, it was not long after his execution that Christianity became as patriarchal as the worldviews from which it emerged.

Near Tercan, Turkey

Ruined Armenian church, near Tercan, Turkey

Jesus, himself a Jewish male, knew full well that contemporary Judaism was preoccupied with the survival of the Jewish people because of how the Jewish people were so often subjected to persecution and massacre (persecution and massacre were suffered partly because Judaism required its followers to subscribe to a monotheistic conception of the divine, when, as far as we can tell, all other Middle Eastern religions were dualistic or polytheistic). Reproduction of the Jewish people had become a sacred duty, so much so that procreation was the main object of marriage. However, sex was something that could be enjoyed, but within marriage alone. Divorce was possible, but, as a general rule, for specific reasons only. However, the reasons for divorce favoured men and disadvantaged women.

It would be a mistake to paint too glowing a picture of sexual attitudes within Judaism because the patriarchal assumptions of the time meant that husbands possessed their wives. Also, the story of Adam and Eve in the Torah suggested that women were nothing but trouble. Outcome? Women had to be controlled and confined as much as possible to the home where they had to “serve” their husbands. Moreover, the Jewish people engaged in polygamy, which, although increasingly uncommon with the passage of time, was not outlawed until the 11th century. Celibacy and adultery were unacceptable and homosexuality an abomination (more so among men than women). Put rather crudely, sex within marriage was wonderful, but sex in all other circumstances was unacceptable.

The Greek and the Roman worldviews affirmed sexual pleasure whether such pleasure was heterosexual or homosexual. Concubines existed, as did male and female prostitutes. Older Greek men of high social standing befriended younger males to teach the younger males how they could prosper in wider society, and such relationships invariably involved sexual encounters that were deemed normal and acceptable.

However, a very different line of Greek thought began with Plato who believed that a great gulf existed between the body and the soul. He said that reality and everything that was important to humankind related to the soul, while unreality and everything that was unimportant related to the body. The world of the flesh, which embraced the sexual impetus, was false, worthless and wicked. Plato advocated “denial of the flesh” and, in the fullness of time, this became a basic instinct in Christianity. Plato’s concern for the “pleasures of the flesh” played a key role in encouraging Christian celibacy and monasticism.

Aristotle built on Plato’s thinking by developing a distinction between what he thought were “natural and unnatural practices”. Such practices applied to the sexual domain as to all others. Aristotle believed that male semen contained a complete unborn child in embryo and a male needed a woman only to incubate the semen as it developed into the unborn child. Aristotle argued that to “spill” male semen for other than reproductive purposes (e.g. in masturbation, in sexual encounters with other males) was to engage in the “unnatural act” of murder.

Inside the Armenian church, Kayseri, Turkey

Inside the Armenian church, Kayseri, Turkey

With all these sometimes contradictory ideas about sex and sexuality around when Jesus was alive, it becomes clear that Jesus was relatively radical in his thinking. For example, it can be argued that his commitments to monogamy and life-long marriage were designed to enhance women’s rights at a time when they had very few rights. Moreover, Jesus posed other challenges to patriarchal attitudes in so far as he seemed to encourage women, some of whom existed on the social and sexual margins of society, to play an active role in the religious sect emerging prior to his execution. It is also worth noting that, according to the Bible, women were the first people to be aware of Jesus’ resurrection, and they are described as deacons not long after his execution.

What we can say with confidence is that, if the New Testament is to be believed, Jesus said nothing about homosexuality and very little about celibacy, even though both these matters assumed disproportionate importance in Christianity after his execution. Conclusion? jesus is not representative of what was to become a sexually repressive religion.

Paul, who at one time was called Saul and engaged in the brutal persecution of Jesus’ followers, can be blamed for steering Christianity toward a more sexually repressive outlook, but only because Christians who followed him took his writings out of context and ignored some of the positive statements attributed to him.

Paul has a lot to say about sex in relation to the city of Corinth, which, at the time, would appear to have been a place where people lived in a most uninhibited manner. It was the alleged “sinfulness” of many of the Corinthians, and the fact that Paul thought the end of the world was not long away, that led him to suggest that marriage had no point to it and celibacy would ensure no one engaged in fornication. But Paul is also on record saying that marriage between a man and a woman is good and that, within marriage, a man and a woman are equals. He also praises a number of women deacons and calls a woman in Rome an apostle. However, Paul says that women should not speak in houses of worship, which would seem to negate their chance to officiate during ritual practices, and this statement has been used to this day by many Christians as the reason to deny women a leadership role in churches.

Taken collectively, Paul’s pronouncements on matters sexual are, at best, contradictory. Christians in some denominations have ignored the pronouncements that point toward gender equality to deny women the same opportunities as men. Paul denounces male and female homosexuality, but there are only two New Testament verses of about forty words that refer to same-sex relations. Forty New Testament words out of 200,000 are used by many Christians as an excuse for homophobia.

The early Christians (in reality, some of the leading and allegedly most learned Christians) ignored Paul’s more positive views on sex and emphasised celibacy and hostility to homosexuality instead.

Malaga, Spain

Malaga, Spain

The celibate lifestyle of monks and then nuns first appeared in the 2nd century (among hermits living in isolation in very barren parts of Egypt and Syria), but there is nothing in the New Testament about monasteries, monks or nuns. A significant part of what was to become mainstream Christianity therefore has no support in the Bible. The inspiration for monastic lifestyles derived from Syrian merchants who travelled to the east where they encountered Hindu holy men who gave up all their material possessions and Buddhists who lived simply in monastic communities. Individuals known as hermits first took to a life in which they denied themselves comfort and pleasure, sometimes in desert regions. In Egypt, Anthony played a key role in making such self-denial popular, so much so that by the beginning of the 3rd century celibacy and chastity had more prestige among Christians than marriage and sex.

It was toward the end of the 2nd century that literate Christians began to rewrite early Christian history to emphasise the value of virginity and, in the process, it was not long before Christians sought to remove any taint of sex from the story of Mary, Jesus’ mother.

In that only two of the gospels mention it, the virgin birth of Jesus cannot be regarded as a fundamental article of faith for Christians. This is even more the case in that the two gospels mentioning the virgin birth seem rather confused about whether it took place. For example, much time is spent exploring Joseph’s family tree. Why do this unless it is to confirm that he is Jesus’ father? Also, the author/authors of Matthew’s Gospel refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, which sits oddly with the idea of a virgin birth.

Gospels such as that of James that did not find their way into the Bible place more emphasis on Mary’s virginity than the four gospels that are canonical, and they also say that God intervened in the conception of Mary herself! Of course, the idea that Mary was conceived without sin has become a very important Roman Catholic idea, but it is not an idea that derives from the New Testament.

What is perhaps the second most important story in the New Testament for Christians, that of Jesus’ birth (the most important story is the story of Jesus’ resurrection), does not therefore involve sex at all! And what of the “problem” posed by Jesus’ brothers and sisters? Jesus’ siblings are explained away as Joseph’s children from a marriage preceding his marriage to Mary.

The shift from the merits of marriage to the merits of celibacy were accentuated by Clement of Alexandria, for whom sex could be engaged in only for reasons of procreation, and Origen, who castrated himself so as to make it impossible to satisfy any urges he might have to engage in penetrative sexual acts. And the shift in favour of celibacy helps to explain why the early Christian churches did not elaborate a wedding ceremony. Marriage remained a civil ceremony for many centuries and the churches did not seek to interfere in the matter. It is only Christians of a much later time who felt it necessary to establish a grip on the institution of marriage. Given Christianity’s relatively late interest in marriage, one begins to wonder whether some Christians today have an interest in the institution merely to deny gays and lesbians the opportunity to partake in same-sex marriage!

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Emperor Constantine’s change of heart toward Christians in 312 opened the way for Christianity to become a world religion with immense power and wealth (and in the process a religion that once suffered persecution found itself in a position to persecute others). And, as its power and wealth increased, it could promote its views on sex wherever its influence spread.

At a time when the wealth and the power of the Christian churches was rapidly increasing, Jerome tried to remain true to what he thought Christianity was all about, simplicity in faith and avoiding the temptations of the flesh. He said that sex was bad because it endangered your salvation. For this reason, virginity was best. Jerome played a key role in ensuring that, despite opposition from other Christians, celibacy and chastity were deemed superior to marriage and sex, and he had an important ally in Augustine. The idea began to emerge that all sex is intrinsically evil and sinful, even in marriage for reasons of procreation. Hence the idea that all children are born into sin and that their sinfulness must be overcome. At the same time males elaborated the idea that women were sexually unruly temptresses as well s being inferior to men (is it not always the case that those who are already vulnerable and denied opportunities enjoyed by others are scapegoated and vilified? Humankind is God’s supreme creation? Pull the other one and quickly).

The collapse of the Roman Empire did not lead to the collapse of Christianity, even though, when the empire collapsed, Christianity was intimately associated with Roman power and prestige. Christianity endured, offering certainty in an uncertain world. Christian values gradually became the dominant values in the Western world.

In the 6th century, monks in Ireland began to turn their attention to the sexual behaviour of the laity around them. They developed many penitentials based on what they perceived to be unacceptable sexual practices. Those who indulged in such sexual practices were required to undertake penances that differed depending on the seriousness or extremity of the unacceptable act. In the fullness of time, such penitentials led to the confessional, which significantly increased Christianity’s ability to shape and control society.

The writings of some of the Irish monks are full of rules relating to sex and sexuality. The rules are so thorough that, in any given year, people could engage in sexual acts for about only a hundred days (and such acts had to be between heterosexuals who were married). Precise penalties for unacceptable sexual acts soon became the norm and such penalties were issued in the confessional.

The penitentials first elaborated in Ireland became for five hundred years the means to impose a rigid Christian sexual morality on large swathes of the Western world. As never before, an institution was invading people’s lives, and in relation to the highly personal matter of sex, which the churches thought to be sinful. Those who transgressed in relation to sexual matters should be made to feel considerable shame and guilt, and the penalties relating to such acts were often very extreme.

Religion: does it facilitate or inhibit gender equality?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Why is it that so many expressions of religion deny girls and women the same opportunities as boys and men? Is it that God, gods, the supreme being/beings, ultimate reality and/or the divine are all too often described as if they are male? Is it that men and not women wrote all or most of the world’s scripture? Is it that men edited scripture in such a way that women’s contributions were suppressed? Is it predicated on daft ideas that the physically powerful (males) should always shape life for the physically less powerful (women)? Is it predicated on the equally daft idea, no longer sustainable of course, that males are intellectually superior to females?

Goddesses and women have played varied and significant roles in many religions throughout history, so why have they been nearly invisible in the official stories of most religions? In the contemporary world, women often make up the majority in any congregation/gathering for religious ritual purposes, but they are less well represented in leadership positions.

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

The qur'anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

The qur’anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

I am not convinced that religions are necessarily sexist in their beliefs, practices, predispositions or general character. By way of opening up discussion about this matter of supreme and fundamental importance about religious commitment (a religion that cannot treat males and females as equals is highly suspect and deserves condemnation of epic proportions to encourage it to mend its ways immediately), I will dwell on the case of Christianity, which, in its very earliest decades, looked as if it would present a formidable challenge to prevailing norms about gender roles. Too bad, therefore, that, in a relatively short time, males of sometimes questionable character (e.g. note in the first three or four centuries of the religion’s existence the disquiet expressed about the abuse of children, some of it of a sexual nature. Have things changed that much since?) seized the reins of authority and quickly marginalised women. In other than only a few fleeting instances thereafter, it was not until two centuries following the Reformation in the 16th century that some of the Protestant churches began to address the issue of gender equality in a holistic and serious manner (although, in fairness, some expressions of Christianity prior to the Reformation allowed women to attain positions of considerable influence, but only within monastic orders).

A general comment to begin with. To a very large degree, the Bible has been written by men for men about men (to what extent is this also the case in relation to scripture in other religious traditions?).

However, in John’s Gospel, women are active, innovative and ministers of the kingdom to come. They are affirmed in roles unusual/unacceptable in contemporary Middle Eastern society.

Books of the Bible written before John’s Gospel make it clear that women should be the bearers of their husband’s children and satisfy their husband’s sexual needs. Biology shapes women (and men of course) and determines their roles in society. In a lot of early Jewish literature, women are defined as unclean and sexual temptresses, and contact with women should therefore be avoided. Because they were “responsible” for male temptation/deviation from an ethnically sound life, women were barred from public life lest they cause men to sin. Because women were not thought to have the intelligence of men, they were discouraged from using their initiative. In fact, it was sinful for women to study the Torah. Moreover, because they lacked intellectual ability, they could not act as witnesses.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls women to public ministry despite male opposition to the idea. He engages in theological discussion/debate (“I am the messiah”) with a Samaritan woman (who is doubly suspect, for being a woman and for being a marginalised/distrusted Samaritan). He talks with Martha about resurrection. The news of his resurrection reaches the disciples via Mary Magdalene.

Jesus is happy to interact with a marginalised Samaritan who is also a woman, someone whom many Jewish people at the time would have regarded as unclean. But it is the unclean Samaritan woman who is persuaded that Jesus is the messiah – and she drops/abandons everything to share her knowledge with others. She is therefore a model for apostolic activity and would therefore seem to be on an equal footing with the disciples. Her role in John’s Gospel is described in the same way that John’s Gospel describes the disciples’ ministry.

The Samaritan woman is the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus reveals himself as the messiah and she is the first person who acts on that recognition. She is therefore the recipient of important theological information. Jesus treats her seriously and responds to her comments patiently and thoughtfully. To a very real degree, therefore, she is a model of female discipleship. This seems to imply that women can be messengers of the kingdom.

In John’s Gospel, Marta of Bethany is introduced/described in such a way as to suggest that she is more important than Lazarus. Jesus delivers “I am” speeches to Martha and Martha’s response to them mirrors that of Simon Peter in Matthew’s Gospel. Simon Peter’s response is generally viewed as confirmation that he has a leadership role, which would therefore imply that Martha is like a leader within the Jesus sect. Jesus sees Martha as capable of perceptive and discerning faith.

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus's Cathedral, Prague

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus’s Cathedral, Prague

If Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel is taken at face value, it would seem to provide the ultimate confirmation that Jesus is the resurrected Christ, the Son of God. Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty and tells Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Mary Magdalene is told to tell Jesus’ brothers the news of the resurrection. She is therefore entrusted with the supremely important message of Jesus’ triumph over death. It is due to this role that Mary Magdalene has been called the apostle of the apostles. A woman is informing/teaching the male disciples about the most basic tenet of the Christian faith, about the most startling mystery at the heart of the religion. One is therefore compelled to ask, “Is Mary Magdalene the equal to Peter?”

In some key respects, therefore, Jesus in John’s Gospel is revealed as distinctly radical/revolutionary in relation to the cultural norms of his age. He seems to suggest/confirm that women do not seduce men and that they should have access to public life. He seems to say that women should benefit from education. However, the Bible very soon confirms that all the disciples are male. Does this therefore confirm that Jesus is really a man of his time despite the above? Or does this merely confirm that others who came after him subverted his original intentions?

There is an indication in Chapter 12 verse 2 of John’s Gospel that Martha may have served at a table, perhaps as what became known as a deacon or, eventually, a minister in a house-church.

Although the earliest Christian texts attest to the importance of women in Jesus’ entourage and in the running of the first Christian house-church meetings, women rapidly disappear from the official history of church leadership (is this so because leaders within the church conformed with Paul’s hostility to women playing an active, public role in society/the church comparable to that of men?). However, sufficient evidence exists (historical and biblical) to confirm that, in those early days of innovation, Christianity accorded to women a role within the emerging religion that was indistinguishable from that of men. Consequently, far from the Church of England’s recent ordination of a woman as a bishop being a departure from early Christian tradition (of course, women bishops have existed for some years in the Episcopalian Church, the US version of the Church of England), Anglicans have simply brought practice within their denomination into line with the seeds sown in the decades immediately following the execution of Jesus.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. For a number of years now, the synagogue has had a female rabbi

Although the great majority of religions worldwide discriminate against women in favour of men, or withhold opportunities to women that they grant to men (can anyone come up with examples of sexism that are more blatant?), the Church of England, the Episcopalian Church, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church are among the Christian denominations that have female priests/ministers, and within Judaism all “schools” except Orthodoxy encourage women to train as rabbis. Men and women share priestly responsibilities in ISKCON and in many manifestations of what is collectively called Paganism. Women also play a key role in rituals associated with the religion known variously as Vodou, Voodoo or Vodun (e.g. female Vodou priests are called “mambos”). In some manifestations of Sufism, men and women assume an equal role in ritual practices, and monasticism for males and females exists in many forms of Christianity and some forms of Buddhism.

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Can anyone identify the other religions around the world which accord women exactly the same opportunities as men to play a full/leading role within their faith? I’m not interested at this stage in those religions which say women are equal to men (this is frequently alleged by expressions of religion, but quite rarely carried through in practice); I seek instead evidence that this is so in terms of their authority within the religion. Put another way, if authority figures within a faith are men, can women fulfil exactly the same roles? And if not, why not? If they can’t fulfil such roles, don’t tell me it’s mere tradition because, if it is, tradition needs to be challenged yesterday. Slavery was traditional, but it no longer exists in most parts of the world (it is most common in India, however, where an estimated 14 million people – yes, 14 million people – suffer from different types of bondage/false imprisonment, children and women primarily). Female infanticide was traditional, but it is rarely encountered today (it appears to be most common in the People’s Republic of China). The burning of witches was traditional, but today it seems to be confined to only a few places in Africa and Melanesia. Human sacrifice was traditional, but it would appear to have died out everywhere (except in Louisiana, if “True Detective” is to be believed).

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Who can say for certainty what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?

Who can say for certain what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?