Tag Archives: Torah

Reflections on whether God exists, etc.

Via email for the last few weeks, about a dozen people with and without faith commitments have discussed whether God exists and, if God exists, what is God “like”, or how can God be described? As you can imagine, many of the contributions to the discussion have been wishful thinking unsupported by much (anything?) that qualifies as convincing evidence. But there were two contributions I found most enlightening/stimulating, even though I do not agree with everything said.

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Here is the first contribution:

The Abrahamic religions are in awe of an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-hearing, all-knowing and all-everything god, even though this god, in common with religion itself, is a human invention (and a human invention of increasingly doubtful benefit, all things considered). This dire and dreadful invention of the human imagination from long ago is believed by followers of the Abrahamic religions to be admirable and therefore worthy of worship, when in reality a god of this nature should be taken down a peg or two, resisted, challenged at every opportunity to confirm his/her/its merits, or, perhaps best of all, completely rejected, and rejected as a matter of urgency to make it far more likely that we can all live with one another in peace.

Muslims are encouraged to submit totally to their version of the invented god (Muslims call him/her/it “Allah” and encounter knowledge and understanding about Allah in the Qur’an) and, as a consequence, must accept without question the values, aims, objectives, demands and laws attributed to him/her/it (many of the demands and laws are foolish or abhorrent in the extreme). And the result of such total/unquestioning submission to the will of the invented god? There are millions of obedient and unreflective people devoid of empathic understanding for anyone but those who share their beliefs about what this god is said to require of humankind. Thus, in many Muslim lands you run up against censorship/the suppression of free speech, the denial of basic human rights, forced conversion, the enslavement and sexual exploitation of women, authoritarianism, persecution, terrorism, attempted genocide and warfare with death and destruction on an almost inconceivable scale, all of which result in a world less safe, secure and pleasant to live in than at any time since perhaps the end of the second world war.

Since long ago, the Jewish people have been encouraged to critically engage with their most sacred scripture, the Torah, which is an outlook in marked contrast with that of Muslims who are encouraged to accept everything the Qur’an contains because of the impossible-to-sustain idea that it is the uncorrupted word of the invented god of the people of Abraham. In fairness to the Jewish people, such critical engagement has been notable both past and present, among many but not all pious Jews at least. This said, I am not sure to what extent this has ensured that Orthodox and Hassidic Jews resist or challenge the invented god. They certainly do not reject this god, although, for very obvious/understandable reasons, many Jewish people find it impossible to believe in a god in any shape or form following the Shoah/Holocaust.

Early Christians, perhaps aware that their concept of God the Father must necessarily be indistinguishable from the god of Judaism and the god of yet-to-emerge Islam, with all that this implies in terms of grumpiness, impatience, jealousy, anger, destructive inclination and genocidal intent (is there anywhere a god who manifests such indiscriminate wrath and arbitrary destructive force? Is there anywhere a god who manifests such contempt for humankind, even though humankind is meant to be this god’s supreme creation?), split the god of Abraham into three parts so that more benign aspects of the invented god can be celebrated in the person of the Galilean Jew called Jesus and the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit, whatever the latter may be (an invisible force somehow part of/an extension of the invented god that mysteriously inspires people to act in morally/ethically uplifting ways and/or in ways deemed worthwhile by the imagined god?). This departure from strict Jewish monotheism helped to make Christianity distinctive, but it does not look/sound like monotheism at all to many people who subscribe to religions other than Christianity, whether Abrahamic or otherwise. However, you are perfectly entitled to say that it does not matter one jot, given that the god that gave rise to the trinitarian god of Christianity is itself an invention! But the crazy thing is that it DOES matter. It matters because Jews, Christians and Muslims have too frequently fought each other – and they have too frequently fought the followers of other religions and beliefs, and their co-religionists when their co-religionists described the imagined god in a different way – merely to uphold or impose on others their understanding of the invented god. Thus has the dire and dreadful god of the people of Abraham caused humankind endless death and destruction for nearly 3,000 years.

I would therefore argue that, for the wellbeing of humankind and the long-term prospects of the planet itself, it is time we disposed of the invented god of the Abrahamic religions. I am confident that other versions of god are much more benign in character than the god of the people of Abraham, but why transfer allegiance from one god to another when they are all human inventions? Moreover, can we say with utter confidence that any of the gods of the other religions have not themselves been the cause of dire consequences for humankind? Of course not. Therefore we should consign all the gods to the dustbin and, with luck, inter- and intra-religious rivalry will soon be a thing of the past. Moreover, concepts such as spirituality and disciplines such as philosophy will benefit immensely from being freed from the constraints of unsustainable belief in a god or gods. Everyone will very definitely be a winner!

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

Here is the second contribution:

Ah, ha: the big one – God! 

In relation to the concept of God, should we define ourselves as theists/believers in God/gods, agnostics or atheists?

If God exists at all, which of the following is correct: monotheism, dualism, polytheism or monism (monism is what Sikhism most consistently subscribes to, in my estimation at least)? 

If God exists at all (just as organised religion is a human invention, as everyone concedes, is it not likely that God is also a human invention?), is God transcendent or immanent or both, or something else altogether that we cannot yet imagine and/or explain in words? 

Does God have one form, two forms, three forms or hundreds or thousands of forms? Or does God have millions of forms?

But back to theism/belief in God/gods, which, with a little wriggle room, can be subdivided into monotheism, dualism, polytheism, pantheism, panentheism, deism and autotheism (for many people even this quite long list is incomplete. C.f. monism – unless monism is synonymous with/more or less the same as pantheism). There is even the concept of value-judgement theisms such as eutheism, dystheism and misotheism. Dare I share a personal view? To me, the concepts of dystheism and misotheism are more convincing than many of the “isms” just listed! Why? The evidence is everywhere!

Mind you: deism may have something useful to offer, in so far as those who subscribe to the concept insist deism is knowledge of God based on the application of our reason on the designs and/or laws found throughout “nature”. As a general rule, deists also believe God created the world but God has since remained indifferent to it (it is God’s supposed indifference to the world that may explain why the planet is in the mess it is, and why humankind seems incapable of caring properly for all the life forms on it. Of course, given humankind can’t even care properly for itself, often because of the hatred religions generate for fellow humans, why should we expect humankind to care for other, non-human, life forms?). I also quite like the deist assertion that “God gave us reason, not religion.” In fact, the more you think about this, the more the sentence makes sense. Religion blights our lives, reason will save us. To combat the detrimental effects of the “post-truth world” in which we are said to live (the EU referendum campaign and Trump’s US presidential campaign have much to answer for), we definitely need more reason and less superstition and misinformation!


Annual “Discover Islam Exhibition”, University of Newcastle

 An interesting fact drawn from archaeology. The oldest known site where people engaged in organised/structured religious practices dates back only 11/12 thousand years (Gobekli Tepe in south-east Turkey). No one suggests that this was the first place or time people engaged in religious practices because, for a settled religious centre to emerge at Gobekli Tepe, people must have engaged in religious activity, perhaps of a less organised/structured variety (e.g. shamanism among nomads?), for a long time before religion could evolve into the relatively sophisticated form that must have been in evidence at this important archaeological site near the city of Urfa. But the point I am making is this: for hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps for millions of years, humankind survived and evolved without religion (animals indistinguishable from modern humans emerged about 2.5 million years ago. Animals very similar to us existed much earlier than this but are now extinct). Religion emerged only as the brain gained in size and sophistication, but when our knowledge and understanding of the world/universe was nonetheless so limited that we had to invent explanations for the inexplicable. Moreover, organised religion as we know it today, with all its conflicting understandings of God, has existed for only a very short period of time compared with human history as a whole (it was 6 million years ago when humans and chimpanzees had the last common grandmother). Additionally, it is doubtful that ANY manifestation of religion today is in the least bit like the religion or religions that existed at Gobekli Tepe only 11/12 thousand years ago, Even Hinduism, perhaps the religion with the longest pedigree on planet Earth today, has its origins about only 4 or 5 thousand years ago, according to some contemporary but reputable scholars.

But why do I share the above? Partly to suggest that there is very little chance that anyone has had the time to get God “right”, if God exists at all.  

God might be called our flexible friend (or our flexible enemy, if you subscribe to some of the “isms” above) in so far as we can make of God whatever we want. Moreover, scripture (even in each distinct religion) is often so confused about what God is that it frequently provides the very means for the many interpretations that exist. Pick and chose from scripture and you will find the God you want!

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I have a grudging admiration for Buddhism which, in its “purest” form, says that belief in God/gods is not necessary to be a Buddhist. Thus, you can be a Buddhist who believes in God/gods or a Buddhist who does not believe in God/gods. I wonder if Siddharta Gotama and the early Buddhists rumbled to two important things. First, if God/gods exist, God/gods are unknowable. Second, whether God/gods exist isn’t that important.  

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.

Islamist Extremism: does the problem lie with the Qur’an or with Muslim ignorance about reality itself?

Muslim and non-Muslim scholars agree that the Qur’an contains over 100 verses that urge Muslims to engage in war with non-believers/infidels, etc. for the sake of Islamic rule, or that examine what those who engage in such war (the lesser jihad, the violent jihad against real or imagined enemies) can expect once dead (however, some Muslim scholars insist that over 160 qur’anic verses relate to jihad alone, but the verses address the greater as well as the lesser jihad, the former relating to the perfection of the individual through the suppression of immoral thoughts and actions and the cultivation of moral thoughts and actions). Some of the verses are quite graphic, with commands to chop off limbs and heads and kill non-believers, etc. wherever they hide. Muslims who do not join the war are called “hypocrites” and warned that Allah will send them to Hell if they do not assist with the massacres.

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Unlike nearly all the Torah/Old Testament verses about violence, many verses about violence in the Qur’an are open-ended, which means that their relevance is not confined to the time that gave them birth. They are part of the eternal, unchanging word and expectation of Allah.

However, some of the violent passages are more ambiguous than might be expected of a so-called perfect book deriving from a god defined as compassionate and forgiving. Such ambiguity allows many Muslims the opportunity to decide for themselves whether the passages will be obeyed or ignored.

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Unfortunately, there are very few qur’anic verses about peace or respect and tolerance for diversity to abrogate or balance out the many verses that call for non-believers, etc. to be fought and subdued until they accept humiliation, convert to Islam or are killed (even Muslims struggle to identify more than about 20 such verses. Moreover, most such verses relate to peace existing where Islam prevails as the sole or dominant religion rather than to, say, unconditional tolerance and respect for people subscribing to “other” religions and beliefs no matter where such people live). Muhammad’s own martial legacy and that of his companions, combined with the emphasis in the Qur’an on obedience and the use of force and violence, have produced “a trail of blood and tears across world history”, to quote from just one study about this matter deriving from a Muslim source.

Based on the content of the recent (November 2015) Channel 4 documentary entitled “ISIS: the British women supporters unveiled”, and reports deriving from Muslims and non-Muslims alike after attending meetings led by Muslims of a moderate disposition, debate and discussion among Muslims at the present time generally takes one of two forms. On the one hand, Muslims of a moderate/peaceful disposition allege that those who engage in terror and/or the indiscriminate murder of innocent people are not “true” or “real” Muslims (they ARE “true” or “real” Muslims, of course, but Muslims that most Muslims would prefer to distance themselves from) and/or that Islam is really a religion of peace and the terrorists do not understand their religion properly (Islam is NOT at heart a religion of peace, but a religion of submission to the will of a god called Allah, who in all probability does not exist, and the terrorists and those who back them know only too well a highly selective interpretation of what Islamic scripture requires of its followers). Alternatively, Muslim extremists engage in loose thinking of another kind that also cannot be sustained once a little critical evaluation is applied to the statements, statements which invariably relate to despised non-Muslims or equally despised fellow Muslims who are not part of his/her confessional group.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Thus, in the documentary identified above, a British Muslim woman who was once a significant player in now-banned Al-Muhajiroun, describes how “filthy Jews” are responsible for the murder of Muslims/ Palestinians while ignoring that far more Muslims/Palestinians have been murdered by Muslims than by Israelis and/or Jewish people (and no one in her audience corrects her. As for other examples of Muslims murdering Muslims on an almost inconceivable scale, look no further than Syria where, in the last five years, the vast majority of the 250,000 Syrians who have lost their lives have done so at the hands of Sunnis and Alawites, or look no further than Iraq where Sunnis and Shias have fought each other for over a decade in a brutal cycle of revenge killing that frequently claim victims in their hundreds). The woman is also heard condemning the “crusader armies” of the West that “invade” Muslim lands when Muslims themselves often demand that the West intervenes to stop one group of Muslims butchering another, or when intervention by the West is necessary to safeguard non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) from genocide at the hands of Muslims (the Yazidis had to be safeguarded from Sunni Muslims with genocidal intent). Moreover, while the “crusader armies” of the West never demand of local Muslims or others that they convert to Christianity, Muslims frequently demand that non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) convert to Islam if they want to avoid death.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

None of the distasteful drivel that the woman above shared with her audience was questioned by those present, even though just about everything she said manifested a complete disregard for what any sensible or informed person knows to be the case. Moreover, she shared her sometimes racist diatribe while children and young people of impressionable age played and walked around. Nor did anyone in the audience point out the patently obvious when she began to celebrate the benefits of living in the Islamic State where sharia law prevails: the great majority of people in any nation state that has its legal code shaped by sharia will encounter intolerable levels of disadvantage and discrimination. You don’t believe me? Think Saudi Arabia, think Qatar, think Iran, think Sudan, and think what life was like when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan. Now consider how dire things are – or, in the case of Afghanistan under the Taliban, were – in each of the nation states just listed for girls and women, for non-Muslims and for Muslims who do not subscribe to the same beliefs and practices as the dominant confessional group. Imperfect though they may sometimes be, legal codes predicated on humankind’s exercise of open-ended discussion, informed debate, trial and error and choice through the ballot box will always be superior to legal codes predicated on statements attributed to a god who in all likelihood does not exist.

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.