Tag Archives: Turkey

“Religious Freedom in the World” by Aid to the Church in Need, a Roman Catholic organisation.

What follows is a companion piece to the preceding post in that it provides yet more evidence that very large numbers of Muslims, most of whom are Sunni, are doing immense harm around the globe. In the process, such Muslims are denying to millions of people the basic human right to express their religion or belief in ways that no people of sound mind could object to. Of course, if Muslims were the victims of the discrimination and persecution they impose on others, they would be the first to say that their human rights were being infringed, and rightly so.

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

This “Religious Freedom in the World” report finds that, within the period under review (June 2014 to June 2016), religious liberty has declined in 11 – nearly half – of the 23 worst-offending countries. In seven other countries in this category, the problems were already so bad they could hardly get any worse. Our analysis also shows that, of the 38 countries with significant religious freedom violations, 55% remained stable regarding religious freedom and in only 8% – namely Bhutan, Egypt and Qatar – the situation improved.

The report confounds the popular view that governments are mostly to blame for persecution. Non-state actors (that is, fundamentalist or militant organisations) are responsible for persecution in 12 of the 23 worst-offending countries.

The period under review has seen the emergence of a new phenomenon of religiously motivated violence which can be described as Islamist hyper-extremism, a process of heightened radicalization, unprecedented in its violent expression. Its characteristics are:

a) an extremist creed and a radical system of law and government;

b) systematic attempts to annihilate or drive out all groups who do not conform to its outlook, including co-religionists, moderates and those of different traditions;

c) cruel treatment of victims;

d) use of the latest social media, notably to recruit followers and to intimidate opponents by parading extreme violence;

e) a global impact – enabled by affiliate extremist groups and well-resourced support networks.

This new phenomenon has had a toxic impact on religious liberty around the world:

a) since mid-2014, violent Islamist attacks have taken place in one in five countries around the world – from Sweden to Australia and including 17 African nations;

b) in parts of the Middle East, including Syria and Iraq, Islamist hyper-extremism is eliminating all forms of religious diversity and is threatening to do so in parts of Africa and the Asian sub-continent. The intention is to replace pluralism with a religious monoculture;

c) Islamist extremism and hyper-extremism, observed in countries including Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria, have been a key driver in the sudden explosion of refugees which, according to United Nations figures for the year 2015, went up by 5.8 million to a new high of 65.3 million;

d) in Central Asia, hyper-extremist violence is being used by authoritarian regimes as a pretext for a disproportionate crackdown on religious minorities, curtailing civil liberties of all kinds, including religious freedom;

e) in the West, hyper-extremism is at risk of destabilizing the socio-religious fabric, with countries sporadically targeted by fanatics and under pressure to receive unprecedented numbers of refugees mostly of a different faith to the indigenous communities. Manifest ripple effects include the rise of right-wing and populist groups; restrictions on free movement; discrimination and violence against minority faiths; and a decline of social cohesion, including in state schools.

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

There has been an upsurge of anti-Semitic attacks, notably in parts of Europe.

Mainstream Islamic groups are now beginning to counter the hyper-extremist phenomenon through public pronouncements and other initiatives through which they condemn the violence and those behind it.

In countries such as India, Pakistan and Myanmar, where one particular religion is identified with the nation state, steps have been to taken to defend the rights of that faith as opposed to the rights of individual believers of all backgrounds. This has resulted in more stringent religious freedom restrictions on minority faith groups, increasing obstacles for conversion and the imposition of greater sanctions for blasphemy.

In the worst-offending countries, including North Korea and Eritrea, the ongoing penalty for religious expression is the complete denial of rights and liberties – such as long-term incarceration without fair trial, rape and murder.

There has been a renewed crackdown on religious groups that refuse to follow the party line under authoritarian regimes such as those in China and Turkmenistan. For example, in China more than 2,000 churches have had their crosses demolished in Zheijang and nearby provinces.

By defining a new phenomenon of Islamist hyper-extremism, the report supports widespread claims that, in targeting Christians, Yazidis, Mandeans and other minorities, Daesh (ISIS) and other fundamentalist groups are in breach of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

Anglican Church, North Yorkshire

They showed us videos of beheadings, killings and ISIS battles. [My instructor] said, “You have to kill kuffars [unbelievers] even if they are your fathers and brothers, because they belong to the wrong religion and they don’t worship God.”

The above is an excerpt from a Yazidi boy’s account of what happened to him when he was captured by Daesh (ISIS) aged 12 and trained for jihad in Syria. It is one of 45 interviews with survivors, religious leaders, journalists and others describing atrocities committed by Daesh which form the basis of a landmark report issued in June 2016 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Citing evidence to show that an ongoing genocide has been taking place against Yazidis, the 40-page report makes clear that Daesh has sought to “destroy” Yazidis since 2014 and that religious hatred was a core motivation. This point is underlined in a case study which tells the story of teenage Yazidi girl Ekhlas, who describes how the militants killed her father and brother for their faith. She herself watched helplessly as Yazidi women were repeatedly raped, including a girl of nine who was so badly sexually abused that she died.

Ekhlas’s experience, and that of so many others like her, demonstrates the importance of religious freedom as a core human right. Increasing media coverage of violence perpetrated in the name of religion – be it by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Kenya or the Taliban in Afghanistan – reflects a growing recognition about how for too long religious liberty has been “an orphaned right”. Aided by the work of political activists and NGOs, a tipping point has been reached concerning public awareness about religiously motivated crimes and oppression, prompting a fresh debate about the place of religion in society. The frequency and intensity of atrocities against Yazidis, Christians, Bahais, Jews and Ahmaddiyya Muslims is on the rise, and is reflected in the volume of reporting on extremist violence against religious minorities.

In the face of such crimes, it is arguably more important than ever to arrive at a clear and workable definition of religious freedom and its ramifications for government and the judiciary. This report acknowledges the core tenets of religious liberty as contained in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief; and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship or observance.

The focus of this report is concerned with state and non-state actors (militant or fundamentalist organisations) who restrict and deny religious expression, be it in public or in private, and who do so without due respect for others or for the rule of law.

Outside the old Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Outside the old Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Examining the two-year period up to June 2016, this report assesses the religious situation of every country in the world. In total, 196 nations were examined with a special focus in each case on the place of religious freedom in constitutional and other statutory documents, incidents of note and finally a projection of likely trends. Consideration was given to recognized religious groups regardless of their numerical size or perceived influence in any given country. Each report was then evaluated, with a view to creating a table of countries where there are significant violations of religious freedom. In contrast to the 2014 “Religious Freedom in the World” report which categorized every country in the world, the table on pages 32-35 and the corresponding map on pages 30- 31 focus on 38 countries where violations against religious freedom go beyond comparatively mild forms of intolerance to represent a fundamental breach of human rights.

The countries where these grave violations occur have been placed into two categories – “Discrimination” and “Persecution”. (For a full definition of both categories, visit http://www.religion-freedom-report.org). In these cases of discrimination and persecution, the victims typically have little or no recourse to law.

In essence, “discrimination” ordinarily involves an institutionalization of intolerance, normally carried out by the state or its representatives at different levels, with legal and other regulations entrenching mistreatment of individual groups, including faith-based communities. Examples would include no access to – or severe restrictions regarding – jobs, elected office, funding, the media, education or religious instruction, prohibition of worship outside churches, mosques, etc, and restrictions on missionary endeavour including anti-conversion legislation.

Whereas the “discrimination” category usually identifies the state as the oppressor, the “persecution” alternative also includes terrorist groups and non-state actors, as the focus here is on active campaigns of violence and subjugation, including murder, false detention and forced exile, as well as damage to and expropriation of property. Indeed, the state itself can often be a victim, as seen for example in Nigeria. From this definition, it is clear that “persecution” is a worse-offending category, as the religious freedom violations in question are more serious, and by their nature also tend to include forms of discrimination as a by-product. Of course, many, if not most, of the countries not categorized as falling under “persecution” or “discrimination” are subject to forms of religious freedom violations. Indeed, many of them can be described as countries in which one or more religious groups experience intolerance. However, based on the evidence provided in the country reports reviewed, nearly all of these violations were still illegal according to the authorities, with the victim having recourse to law. None of these violations – many of them by definition low level – was considered serious enough to warrant description as significant or extreme, the two watchwords in our system of categorization. On this basis, for the purposes of this report they are listed as “unclassified”.

Of the 196 countries reported on, 38 showed unmistakable evidence of significant religious freedom violations. Within this group, 23 were placed in the top level “persecution” category, and the remaining 15 in the “discrimination” category. Since the last report was released two years ago, the situation regarding religious freedom had clearly worsened in the case of 14 countries (37%), with 21 (55%) showing no signs of obvious change. Only in three countries (8%) had the situation clearly improved – Bhutan, Egypt and Qatar. Of the “persecution” countries, 11 – just under half – were assessed as places where access to religious freedom was in marked decline. Among the “persecution” countries showing no discernible signs of improvement, seven were characterized by extreme scenarios (Afghanistan, Iraq, [northern] Nigeria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Syria) where the situation was already so bad it could scarcely get any worse. This means there is a growing gulf between an expanding group of countries with extreme levels of religious freedom abuse and those where the problems are less flagrant, for example Algeria, Azerbaijan and Vietnam.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

A virulent and extremist form of Islam emerged as the number one threat to religious freedom and was revealed as the primary cause of “persecution” in many of the worst cases. Of the 11 countries shown to have worsening persecution, 9 were under extreme pressure from Islamist violence (Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Niger, Pakistan, Sudan, Tanzania and Yemen). Of the 11 countries with consistent levels of persecution, 7 faced huge problems relating to Islamism – both non-state actor aggression and state-sponsored oppression (Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Syria).

Assessing underlying themes relating to this, it emerged that a massive upsurge in violence and instability linked to Islamism had played a significant role in creating an explosion in the number of refugees. A core finding of the report is the global threat posed by religious hyper-extremism, which to Western eyes appears to be a death cult with a genocidal intent. This new phenomenon of hyper-extremism is characterized by the radical methods by which it seeks its objectives, which go beyond suicide bomb attacks – namely mass killing including horrific forms of execution, rape, extreme torture such as burning people alive, crucifixions and throwing people off tall buildings. One hallmark of hyper-extremism is the evident glorying in the brutality inflicted on its victims, which is paraded on social media.

As witnessed by the evidence of Yazidis reported above, the violence perpetrated by militant groups such as Daesh was indicative of a complete denial of religious freedom. The atrocities committed by these aggressive Islamist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and by their affiliates elsewhere, have arguably been one of the greatest setbacks for religious freedom since the second world war. What has properly been described as genocide, according to a UN convention which uses the term, is a phenomenon of religious extremism almost beyond compare. The aggressive acts in question include widespread killings, mental and physical torture, detention, enslavement and in some extreme cases “the imposition of measures to prevent children from being born”. In addition, there has been land grabbing, destruction of religious buildings and all traces of religious and cultural heritage, and the subjection of people under a system which insults almost every tenet of human rights.

A core finding of the report, the threat of militant Islam, could be felt in a significant proportion of the 196 countries reviewed: a little over 20% of countries – at least 1 in 5 – experienced one or more incidents of violent activity, inspired by extremist Islamic ideology, including at least 5 countries in Western Europe and 17 African nations.

One key objective of Islamist hyper-extremism is to trigger the complete elimination of religious communities from their ancient homelands, a process of induced mass exodus. As a result of the migration, this phenomenon of hyper-extremism has been a main driver in the fundamental de-stabilization of the socio-religious fabric of entire continents, absorbing – or under pressure to absorb – millions of people.

According to UN figures, there were an estimated 65.3 million refugees by the end of 2015 – which is the highest figure on record, and a rise of more than 9% compared to the previous year. At the time of writing, the most recent figures equate to, on average, 24 people being displaced from their homes every minute of every day during 2015. Although economic factors played a major part, the countries which largely accounted for the increase in refugees were centres of religious extremism – Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. There were many people who were fleeing specifically because of religious persecution, but for the most part people fled because of the violence, breakdown of government and acute poverty of which religious extremism has been cause, symptom or consequence or all three simultaneously. To this extent, extremism has been a key factor in the migrant explosion. Religious extremism has played a dominant role in the creation of terror states which are being emptied of people.

Evidence reveals that in the Middle East and parts of Africa and the Asian sub-continent, people of all faiths were leaving, but disproportionate levels of migration among Christians, Yazidis and other minority groups were raising the possibility – or even probability – of their extinction from within a region.

Ruined Armenian monastery near Mus, eastern Turkey

Ruined Armenian monastery near Mus, eastern Turkey

Few, if any, religious groups were neither victims nor perpetrators of persecution. This report found that among Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu communities, a growing threat came from non-mainstream but vocal groups, many of them linking faith with patriotism to create a form of religious nationalism that looks on minorities as outcasts. In Myanmar, reports emerged that on 1st July 2014, 40 Buddhist monks and 450 lay people massed on the streets in Chan Aye Thar brandishing knives and sticks and laid siege to a Muslim tea shop. In Israel, at a time of numerous religiously motivated attacks, the state’s Roman Catholic bishops made a formal complaint in December 2015 about Rabbi Benzi Gopstein. Gopstein made a statement on an ultra-Orthodox website stating, “Christmas has no place in the Holy Land” and calling for the destruction of all churches in Israel. He added, “Let us remove the vampires before they once again drink our blood.” In India, “the world’s largest democracy”, respect for minority rights has come under increasing threat from extremist Hindu groups. “Pro-Hinduisation” organisations are a source of major concern because they create a climate which leads Hindu extremists to physically attack religious minorities with relative impunity. Such a threat was demonstrated in September 2015 when Hindu extremists were reported to have brutally murdered Akhlaq Ahmed, a Muslim man who was accused of marking Eid by killing a cow and eating beef.

As can be seen, tumultuous world events during the period under review have had a deep and far-reaching impact regarding religious freedom in many countries around the world. Forces of change were dominated by the rise of Islamist hyper-extremism which has destroyed religious freedom in parts of the Middle East and is threatening to do the same in other parts of the world. Increased awareness about the threat to religious minorities has been reflected in the actions of politicians, parties and even some parliaments who are doing more than ever before to speak up and act on behalf of persecuted individuals and communities. One ray of hope is the willingness of some Islamic leaders to mount a coordinated response to this toxic creed. Activities of the security services will never be able to challenge the ideology behind this threat. Only religious leaders themselves can take on that challenge. One over-riding conclusion is the need to find new and coordinated ways so that religious plurality can return to those parts of the world where minority groups are being “threatened in their very existence”.

The list of “persecution” states:

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Eritrea, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Myanmar, Niger, Nigeria, North Korea, Palestinian Territories, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Yemen.

The list of “discrimination” states:

Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Brunei, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan, Laos, Maldives, Mauritania, Qatar, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Vietnam.

Where religious freedom has worsened over the last two years:

Bangladesh, Brunei, China, Eritrea, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan, Sudan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Yemen.

Temple, Salt lake City, Utah

Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah

I agree with a lot of the conclusions contained in the sections of the report quoted above, including the conclusion that Muslims in many parts of the world aspire to create monocultural environments in which followers of non-Muslim expressions of religion and belief no longer exist (for many Sunni Muslims, they additionally aspire to create environments in which only the Sunni manifestation of Islam exists. In other words, Shia, Sufi, Alevi and Ahmadiyya Muslims are as unwelcome as people subscribing to religions such as Christianity, Judaism or Yazidism). I also find quite helpful the concept of hyper-extremism as a way of identifying manifestations of religious extremism that lead to the active persecution of groups identified as the despised other.

What we can say with confidence is that, today, extremism manifests itself in almost every expression of religion, mainstream or otherwise, but, thankfully, not all religious extremists engage in the sort of persecution alluded to in the report, persecution that includes the destruction of homes and religious buildings, torture, rape, expulsion, massacre and/or genocide. Most religious extremists confine their hatred to rhetoric alone. Such hatred is, of course, bad enough, but it is when such hatred morphs into action that we need to worry the most.

It is right that most attention is given in the report to the dire consequences of what it calls Islamist hyper-extremism, but if I had just one concern about the report’s content it would be that it largely overlooks that hyper-extremism exists in other expressions of religion, albeit involving far fewer people and thus having far more restricted detrimental consequences. I would argue, for example, that some Buddhists in Myanmar, some Christians in the United States, some Hindus in India, some Jews in Israel and some Sikhs in the Punjab manifest hyper-extremism which sometimes leads to persecution against the despised other comparable to that which derives from Muslim hyper-extremists. Don’t misunderstand me, however. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Sikh hyper-extremists do not pose anything like the same threat that Muslim hyper-extremists pose, and I very much doubt that they ever will. But exist they do and the report could have done more to expose what I regard as a worrying trend in all the world’s major expressions of religious belief.

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Of course, the other thing the report might have discussed productively is what sustains such extremism. It has long been my contention that religious extremism is above all predicated on one or more of the following: literal understandings of scripture long past its best-by date; misleading knowledge of the lives and teachings of authority figures within each faith, especially authority figures so long dead that very little can be said about them with any degree of certainty; and the self-evidently daft idea that any religion might be the only source of truth, wisdom, knowledge and/or understanding. As we know, all religions are human inventions and most religions discourage critical analysis and informed debate based on hard evidence, and it is because of these realities that most expressions of religion find themselves susceptible to manipulation by extremists. Thus, how refreshing it would have been had the report admitted that extremism exists in the Roman Catholic Church itself and that, as a consequence, the Church must reform itself to make it less likely for extremism in any shape or form to prosper.

These points apart, the report has much to commend it, which is why I quote so extensively from it.

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“It’s not Islam that’s the problem; it’s Sunni Islam.” Discuss.

It is a very sobering time of the year. In France and many other nation states, thousands of people have gathered to remember the anniversary of the Paris terror attacks that killed 130 innocent men, women and children last November (2015). In Iraq, Islamic State suicide bombers are slowing the advance of Iraqi and Kurdish forces into Mosul. Also in Iraq, a mass grave has been found near Mosul containing the bodies of about a hundred people, children included, murdered by the Islamic State. And in Baluchistan in Pakistan, a suicide bomber said to have links with the Islamic State has killed at least fifty people at a Sufi shrine. What did the perpetrators of these acts, criminal or otherwise, have in common? They were Sunni Muslims.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

Iraqi government armed forces, Iraqi Shia militia and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, backed by American airstrikes, have for about three weeks been moving in on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, where it is estimated that 1.5 million civilians remain, most, presumably, against their will. Yesterday we learned that Syrian Kurdish armed groups have started an assault on the Islamic State “capital” of Raqqa with American, French and British air support.

Despite the involvement in recent years of some non-Muslim nation states in the wars that engulf Iraq and Syria, most of the death and destruction in both nation states are directly attributable to the failure of Sunni and Shia Muslims to live in peace with one another (although people such as Christians and Yazidis, who have nothing to do with the Sunni and Shia struggle for supremacy/survival, have themselves been targeted for expulsion, murder and/or genocide, more often than not by Sunni Muslims). Yemen is also a nation state where war, death and destruction are directly attributable to Sunni and Shia rivalry, and in Pakistan such rivalry leads to the loss of innocent life on a regular basis, with Shia Muslims the most frequent victims. Tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims remain high, but at present rarely result in deaths, in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Turkey (in Turkey, the Muslims most often considered Shia are the Alevis and the Bektashis). Sunni and Shia tensions cannot be blamed for the conflicts/wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia or Sudan, or for the communal tensions that exist, and the bloody violence that occasionally erupts, in Nigeria, Egypt, Mali or Bangladesh, but in the nation states just listed Muslims are largely responsible for all the death and destruction (in these cases, Sunni rather than Shia Muslims are usually the guilty party, with their victims being Christians, Animists, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs and/or self-confessed atheists or humanists). This is not to say that wars, death and destruction are the responsibility of Muslims alone (note, for example, how non-Muslims such as Christians are destroying South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and how Russia and Ukraine are at war over eastern Ukraine) or that Muslims are not sometimes the innocent victims of death and destruction deriving from non-Muslims (note, for example, the persecution of Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmur), but globally Muslims are the cause of more wars, death and destruction than any other group of people that can be identified because of their religion or belief. However, I have yet to list the nation states where worries about Islamist extremism and radicalisation remain a real threat, or where Islamist groups with violent agendas remain in place and occasionally engage in acts of terrorism. Such nation states include Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Tunisia, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, France and the UK.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

I mention all this to give what follows a context: there are worrying signs that Indonesia and, even more obviously, Bangladesh are subject to changes that will lead inevitably to more hardline and intolerant attitudes toward minority groups. Indonesia, the nation state with the largest Muslim population on the planet, first. Note the following:

One, Archipelago Islam or Islam Nusantara, traditionally noted for its moderation, tolerance of diversity and protection of minority rights, has been under threat ever since the Bali bombings of 2002.

Two, a higher proportion of males and females, some of the latter from a very young age, wear overtly Muslim dress than they did in the past.

Three, once-popular transvestite beauty contests are now rarely if ever held.

Four, some Muslim groups apply pressure on the government to legislate about issues of morality that have in the past been matters of personal conscience.

Five, hardline Hizb-ut-Tahrir has had a presence in the country for some years and its influence is growing.

Six, polls suggest growing numbers of Muslims want a caliphate in Indonesia and the imposition of sharia law.

Seven, the government is considering legislation to ban alcohol, gambling and prostitution.

Eight, in recent years, members of religious minorities have suffered assault by their Muslim neighbours, and the government has backed the demolition of churches, mandirs and temples.

Last, Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Purnama, is currently under attack from Muslims because he told voters they should not allow themselves to be fooled by the common interpretation of a qur’anic verse instructing them not to vote for non-Muslim leaders such as himself (Purnama, an ethnic Chinese, is Christian). For being so “outspoken”, Purnama may face blasphemy charges.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

I will now spotlight Bangladesh.

One, Islamists have murdered, often openly in the streets of large urban centres, an educationalist who was assumed by his assailants to be secular/humanist even though he never said in public that he was, Hindus, Christians, a Buddhist monk, members of the gay community and openly secular/humanist bloggers.

Two, rather than the government protecting secularists/humanists and confirming their right to express their opinions, it has urged such people not to “attack” Islam or cause offence to conventionally pious Muslims, and to respect the sentiments of the Muslim majority.

Three, in July this year, 22 people, most of whom were non-Muslim foreigners, died when a bomb exploded in a bakery or cafe in a prosperous part of Dhaka.

Four, extremist groups said by group members themselves to have links with Al-Qaeda and/or the Islamic State have grown in number and popularity in recent years.

Five, Bangladesh is experiencing a process called Arabisation, which, among other things, has led to Persian-origin words and phrases being replaced by Arabic words and phrases, and women dressing in ways more resonant of the Arab Middle East than the Indian sub-continent.

Six, in recent decades, Bangladesh has witnessed the opening of a growing number of madrasas, or religious schools, funded by Saudi Arabia and, inevitably, the madrasas reflect the oppressive and intolerant version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism.

Last, in recent weeks, more than a hundred Hindu homes and seventeen mandirs have been looted and vandalised by groups of Muslim men, simply because of an unproven allegation that a Hindu youth shared a Facebook post that some said denigrated the Masjid al-Haram, Islam’s holiest site in Makkah because it encloses the Ka’aba.

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Bangladesh has in the past been celebrated as a Muslim-majority nation state in which respect for diversity and a live-and-let-live attitude prevail. This is clearly no longer the case, just as it is no longer the case in Indonesia. But one is inevitably compelled to ask the following: If conditions are so dire for non-Muslims in Indonesia and Bangladesh, how much worse are they for non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia or Pakistan, or in those parts of Nigeria, Syria or Iraq terrorised by groups such as Boko Haram or the Islamic State?

Turkey is sometimes held up as an example of how government by an Islamist party need not pose a threat to democracy or to the individual or collective rights of members of minority groups, but I know from first-hand experience that the reality is not as many people wish to believe. Consider the following.

First, all Turkey’s Christian, Yazidi and Jewish communities are substantially smaller than they were fifty or a hundred years ago, discriminatory legislation, Muslim antipathy for non-Muslims, pogroms, massacres and genocide all playing their part in such declines in population.

Second, the AKP government’s determination to enhance the influence of orthodox Sunni Islam, an agenda supported by influential Naqshbandi Sufis who are probably the least Sufi-like Sufis on the planet, means that Alevi, Shia and most Sufi Muslims feel that, as in the past, the state no longer respects the rights of all Turkey’s citizens.

Third, because the AKP monopolises power in Ankara, billions of Turkish liras have been spent on the construction of Sunni mosques; Sunni Islam is taught in many/all the nation’s schools; non-Sunni manifestations of Islam and/or Alevism are excluded from the classroom; and only in recent years has some money been channelled to the Alevis so they can build themselves cemevis for social, cultural and/or religious purposes.

Fourth, the recent failed coup has been used by the government as an excuse to purge the armed forces, the judiciary, the civil service, the school system and the universities of individuals whose loyalty toward the AKP and its Islamist programme is questionable, and to close down newspapers, publishing houses and TV and radio stations deemed unreliable allies of the existing regime.

Last, in recent years the AKP has sounded increasingly like a party that subscribes to Turkish nationalism, albeit not in the ludicrously triumphalist and murderous form subscribed to by some groups on the far right, but this has inevitably done much to alienate even further those small Greek, Armenian, Georgian and Arab communities that remain in the republic, and the 20 million Kurds who once again feel as if their rights and lives are under threat from the state because of the president’s misguided decision to resume the war against the PKK.

In other words, for millions of citizens of the Turkish Republic who are not Sunni Muslims, Naqshbandis and/or ethnic Turks, life stinks. And life stinks because the political scene is dominated by the Islamist AKP, which has scant regard for anyone who is not Turkish and/or in sympathy with increasingly inflexible and intolerant Sunni Islam.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool. The mosque belongs to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community

P.S. I recently attended a National Interfaith Week event at St. Nicholas Church of England Cathedral in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where, in a welcome departure from convention, speakers from the Ahmadiyya rather than the Sunni Muslim community were given an opportunity to reflect on the themes of peace, justice and reconciliation. Formalities over, everyone chatted around a spread of food and non-alcoholic drinks. I learned that the two Ahmadiyya Muslims present were husband and wife, and that they had fled from the Punjab in Pakistan earlier in the year because of death threats directed toward them by their Sunni Muslim neighbours. The husband had taught for thirty years in a college near Lahore; his wife had engaged in many charitable endeavours to help disadvantaged Pakistani citizens, no matter their religion or belief. The couple were still delighting in the fact that in the UK, as a general rule at least, people with different religions and beliefs, in this case Christians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and atheists, meet, mix and mingle as equals and as friends.

Because Ahmadiyya Muslims had been given the chance to represent the Muslim community at the event in the cathedral, no one attended from the region’s large Sunni community.

“What do Muslims really believe?”

Recently, Channel 4, a TV station in the UK, commissioned a survey into what British Muslims think about many different issues and Trevor Phillips shared the results with a large TV audience in a documentary (“What do Muslims really believe?”) one night in mid-April (2016).

People have been right to point out that the survey has many real or potential problems. Only just over 1,000 Muslims (1,081) were interviewed. ICM, the company that conducted the survey, had failed to accurately predict the outcome of the 2015 UK general election, so would its findings about British Muslims be reliable? We do not know whether Shia, Sufi and Ahmadiyya Muslims were represented in the sample (and, if they were, whether in numbers reflecting their presence in the UK), or whether most or all respondents were Sunni. Moreover, we do not know whether comparable results would have been generated if a similar survey had been undertaken among just over 1,000 followers of, say, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism and/or Mormonism (mind you, had a faith group such as one just listed been surveyed, markedly different results WOULD have been generated. As it is, followers of such faith groups do not pose the same terrorist or security threats to the UK or other nation states as Muslims in considerable numbers currently do, so a survey into what they think about different issues is not of such urgency).

Despite the real or potential problems identified above, the survey findings cannot be ignored because many of them are confirmed by pronouncements and actions deriving from Muslims themselves, both in the UK and, more obviously, elsewhere. But what the survey clearly fails to do is to differentiate between Muslims who incline toward a literalist interpretation of Islamic scripture and often lack an appreciation of the early history of Islam based on reliable evidence (most such Muslims are Sunni), and Muslims who interpret their scripture in other ways (e.g. metaphorically, selectively and/or with due regard for what is deemed morally acceptable today rather than in Saudi Arabia approximately fourteen centuries ago) and often evaluate the early history of Islam in the light of contemporary scholarship, whether such scholarship is Muslim or non-Muslim.

Luton

Luton

Let’s begin with what might be deemed some good news: the great majority of British Muslims feel very strongly or fairly strongly that they “belong” to Britain, and the great majority of British Muslims feel that, when in contact with service providers, in most instances they will be “treated the same as” members of other religious groups. These findings seem to suggest that most British Muslims feel integrated and that most people providing services to British citizens treat everyone equally/fairly.

I will now turn to some of the more controversial/contested findings in the survey. After each of the following statements, the percentage for Muslim respondents precedes the figure for non-Muslims. Where only one figure exists, the figure applies to Muslims alone:

I visit a non-Muslim home once a year (21%).

I never visit a non-Muslim home (21%).

As far as is possible, I want to lead a life separate from the non-Muslim community (17%).

I would prefer to send my child/children to a school with strong Muslim values (45%).

It is acceptable for Muslim men to have more than one wife (31%, 9%).

Women should always obey their husbands (39%, 5%).

Stoning is an acceptable punishment for adultery (5%).

Homosexuality should be legal (18%, 73%).

Homosexuality should be illegal (52%, 10%).

Jewish people have too much power in the UK (35%, 9%).

I sympathise with violence against those who mock the Prophet Muhammad (18%).

No one has the right to show a picture of the Prophet Muhammad (78%).

No one has the right to make fun of the Prophet Muhammad (87%).

I sympathise with the creation of a caliphate (7%).

In parts of the UK, I would like sharia to prevail rather than laws determined by Parliament (23%).

I have sympathy for people engaging in terrorism such as suicide bombing (4%, 1%).

If the statistics above reflect realities within the UK’s Muslim community (Channel 4 assumes that almost 3 million Muslims live in the UK), they throw some doubt on just how successfully Muslims have integrated in British society, and they throw into question how much sympathy they have for freedom of speech, gender equality and equality of opportunity irrespective of sexuality. They also suggest that anti-Semitism is more widespread among Muslims than among non-Muslims and that violence against those who challenge cherished aspects of Muslim identity is sometimes justified. Much is made of the “fact” that about 100,000 to 120,000 British Muslims appear to be in sympathy with people who engage in terrorism such as suicide bombing, but the survey also appears to suggest that 600,000 non-Muslims have similar sympathies! My instinctive reaction to the figures generated by this aspect of the survey is that they do not reflect reality – but many of the other figures do reflect reality, and some of the other figures are a far more accurate/reliable gauge of levels of support for extremism and/or terrorism among the UK’s Muslims.

Luton

Luton

Of interest is some of the information shared in the documentary that did not relate directly to the survey results themselves. For example, it would appear that no fewer than 85 sharia courts/councils already operate in the UK and that, in the way they function, they deny women equal rights with men (this is necessarily the case because sharia courts/councils function in a way that values more highly testimony deriving from men than from women).

Some statistics suggest that young Muslims may have more enlightened attitudes than elderly Muslims. For example, while 28% of Muslims aged 18 to 24 say homosexuality should be legal, only 2% of Muslims over 65 agree.

One worrying statistic is that only a third of Muslims would report to the police someone whom they knew might be involved in supporting terror in Syria or elsewhere. But it would appear that the non-Muslim population has a similar attitude toward people whom they knew might be involved in terror, which suggests all people are reluctant to inform on people they know, no matter the real or potential seriousness of their actions.

The documentary suggests that the more Muslims hanker after a separate existence within British society, the more likely it is that they will incline toward extremism and violence. There also appears to be a correlation between sympathy for extremism and violence and a lack of social belonging, a desire not to integrate, a desire for a fundamentalist Muslim lifestyle and a desire to impose sharia. Sympathy for extremism and violence also seems to correlate with a greater inclination toward illiberal views in relation to issues such as gender equality and gay rights.

Trevor Phillips offered few solutions to the problems the survey seems to reveal, but he said that some government policies were beneficial (e.g. challenging Muslim women’s isolation within mainstream society by ensuring they can speak English). He also said that it was necessary for the UK to “reassert the liberal values that have served us well for so long” and to “challenge the laissez-faire attitude of live and let live”, which has allowed de facto segregation and extremism to thrive within some Muslim communities. He briefly made a case for “active integration” rather than “live and let live”, which would require of those with the power and the influence to do so to intervene where de facto segregation or extremism prosper or are likely to prosper. Phillips suggested stopping “the number of schools segregated on the basis of religion and/or ethnicity from growing further” and of applying to institutions such as schools “comply or explain codes” that have proved successful in the EU to reform corporate behaviour.

An example of how “comply or explain codes” might work in relation to schools would be as follows. It could be required of schools to never admit more than 50% of children from a single religion or ethnic group (although how this would work in some overwhelmingly monocultural areas is not clear). If a school admitted more than 50% of children from a single religion or ethnic group, senior managers would have to explain why the situation had arisen and, if the explanation was unsatisfactory, the school would be compelled to conform with the more inclusive arrangement that the requirement sought to establish. Of course, quotas of this nature could also be applied to matters such as staff recruitment (e.g. to ensure there is a balance between men and women, to ensure that teachers of all faiths and none work together), or to ensure that the governing body reflects diversity in wider society.

It was not something that was dwelt on during the documentary itself, but, when the survey is taken as a whole, there is a strong suggestion that a significant number of British Muslims (25%? 33%?) are not in sympathy with the so-called fundamental “British” values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of (secular) law and/or “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. Of course, British citizens who subscribe to worldviews, religious or otherwise, other than Islam are also not in sympathy with some/all of the values just listed, but we can say with confidence in numbers far fewer than is the case among British Muslims (this is confirmed in Kenan Malik’s article below).

I realise the survey is far from perfect and much more research is necessary to ascertain just how accurate the statistics are, but to some degree it confirms many of the worries that already exist about the UK’s Muslim community today. This said, I take comfort from the large number of Muslims who oppose stoning for adultery and the establishment of a caliphate. I also suspect that the survey does not do justice to the more progressive attitudes that prevail among most Shia, Sufi and Ahmadiyya Muslims as opposed to the less progressive attitudes that prevail among a majority of Sunni Muslims. It is the failure to account of the sectarian divisions among the UK’s Muslims that most worries me about the otherwise highly worthwhile exercise undertaken by Channel 4. Rather this degree of (relatively reliable) hard evidence than none at all.

Luton

Luton

Here is a (predictable) reaction to the documentary in “The Spectator”, politically a right-wing British magazine:

I think the general British public have known for some time what Phillips’s documentary professed to find surprising: that large numbers of Muslims don’t want to integrate, that their views aren’t remotely enlightened and that more than a few of them sympathise with terrorism. It’s only the establishment elite that has ever pretended otherwise.

“Everyone who has pinned their hopes on the rise of reforming and liberal British Muslim voices are in for a disappointment,” said Phillips. “These voices are nowhere near as numerous as they need to be to make an impact.”

Take those 85 sharia councils currently violating one of the most basic principles of English justice, equality before the law. Yes, we can cosily delude ourselves that they just deal with civil issues – marriage mainly – that can safely be regulated by religion. But can they? A Zurich professor called Elham Manea, herself a Muslim, has attended these councils and found them promoting a version of Islam as extreme as that practised in her native Yemen or by the Taliban, where women were treated as “minors in perpetual need of male guardianship”. How exactly does this accord with the legislation and practice of a country where men and women are supposed to have guaranteed equality?

Our solution up until now has been a kind of national cognitive dissonance – one where we all agree to pretend that Muslims are sweet, smiley and integrated, like lovely Nadiya from “Great British Bake Off”, and that her fellow Lutonians – the 7/7 suicide bombers – have, as the weasel phrase has it, “nothing to do with Islam”.

It’s not easy, though, and getting harder – as we saw on this week’s “The Island with Bear Grylls” (Channel 4, Mondays). I don’t doubt the producers were overjoyed when they managed to recruit their first Muslim castaway, Bradford body-builder Rizwan Shabir. But any hopes of a male Nadiya vanished this week when he quit, pleading an inability to cope with “living with women who are half-naked”.

I’ll leave the last word on this yawning cultural chasm to Noshaba Hussain, middle-aged former headmistress of Springfield Primary, one of the Trojan Horse schools in Birmingham. A nine-year-old pupil had asked why she wasn’t wearing a headscarf, declaring, “Only slags don’t cover their heads.” “This attitude is not acceptable in state schools in Britain,” observed Ms. Hussain.

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

A far more insightful reaction derives from Kenan Malik’s website called “Pandaemonium” (I have made a few cosmetic changes to the text for reasons of clarity):

This is not the first poll to have shown the social conservatism of British Muslims. Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University, for instance, conducted a series of surveys with YouGov on religion, politics and social and personal morality, the results of which were published in 2013… The poll showed that religious believers were more liberal on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and assisted dying than is usually recognised in public debates. The key exception, however, were Muslims, whom the poll found to be more socially conservative than most other religious groups.

But that was not the whole story of the poll. It also found that Muslims were more polarised on many social issues than other groups. For example, on abortion 20% of Muslims wanted to ban abortion altogether, a much higher figure than the general population, and higher than any other religious group.  At the same time, 12% of Muslims wanted to increase the time limit, twice the figure in the general population and higher than in any other religious group.  The ICM poll also shows some evidence of such polarisation, on a range of issues.

Given this polarisation, there is a possible methodological issue with the ICM poll. It polled Muslims only in areas where they made up more than 20% of the local population. According to the statistician Martin Boon, this covered 51.4% of the British Muslim population. Those who live in areas of high concentrations of Muslims could well be more socially and religiously conservative than Muslims who live in predominantly non-Muslim areas, and possibly less integrated. That said, the findings of this poll are not that different from previous ones.

The ICM poll is, as one might imagine, complex in what it reveals, and far more so than the headlines suggest.

On certain social issues – particularly homosexuality – there is considerable illberalism. Just 18% of Muslims think that homosexuality should be legal (compared to 73% of the general population), while 52% disagree. 28% would be happy to have gay teachers, while 48% would not (the figures for the general public are 75% and 14% respectively).

A large proportion of Muslims believe many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. 35% thought “Jewish people have too much power in Britain”, 39% that they have too much power over the media and 44% that they have too much power in the business world (the figures for those that disagreed are 20%, 17% and 14% respectively). But when asked about what they thought of Jews personally, the picture changes dramatically. Respondents had to rate their feelings toward Jews on a scale from 0 to 100. The mean scores for Muslims and for the general population were similar (57.1 and 63.7). The mean score for Muslims’ feelings toward Jews (57.1) is little different to the mean score for the feelings of the general population toward Muslims (55.2). If we look at the proportion of the two samples that rated Jews between 0 and 50 (that is, rated them more negatively than positively), it is lower for Muslims than for the general population (39% to 52%). By that score, there appears to be more antipathy toward Jews within the general population than among Muslims.

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Muslims do not appear to see Britain as a nation in thrall to Islamophobia. 73% thought that religious harassment of Muslims was not a problem. 82% had not faced harassment in the past two years and, of the 17% who had faced harassment, more than three-quarters reported it as verbal abuse. More Muslims (40%) think anti-Muslim prejudice has grown in the last five years than think it has decreased (14%). But the comparable figures for the general public are 61% and 7% respectively. Muslims, in other words, actually seem less concerned about the growth of anti-Muslim prejudice than the public at large.

7% of Muslims supported the idea of a caliphate and 3% supported the Islamic State (2% of the general population supported a caliphate and 1% backed the Islamic State). Far fewer Muslims could “understand why a British Muslim like Mohammed Emwazi would be attracted to radicalism” than members of the general public (13% compared to 27%).

“The Daily Express”, under the headline “Astonishing two in three British Muslims would not give terror tip-offs”, “The Times” and many other newspapers in Britain and abroad noted that only one in three Muslims would report to the police someone close who might be getting involved in terrorism. But what the reports failed to note was that a lower proportion of the public at large (30%) would contact the police given the same circumstances.  This is, in other words, not a Muslim problem, but a general reluctance among people to shop friends to the police, however heinous their potential crime.

What is difficult to argue from the figures is, as Trevor Phillips claims, that the social conservatism of Muslims is linked to a lack of integration. When asked, “How strongly do you feel you belong to Britain?”, 86% of Muslims said they belonged to Britain compared to 83% of the general population. A higher proportion of the general population (17%) than Muslims (11%) felt little attachment to Britain.

Respondents were asked how much integration they desired. 49% of Muslims said they would like “to fully integrate with non-Muslims in all aspects of life”, 29% wanted “to integrate on most things, but there should be separation in some areas, such as Islamic schooling and laws”, 12% chose “to integrate on some things, but I would prefer to lead a separate Islamic life as far as possible”, and 1% wanted a “fully separate Islamic area in Britain, subject to sharia law and government”. The figures reveal a desire for a degree of separation among half the Muslim population, but not a “nation within a nation”, as Phillips claims.

What the poll seems to show, as previous ones have, is a deep well of social conservatism, a more polarised community than one might imagine and a considerable attachment to Britain and to British identity. It shows issues that need confronting, but not necessarily as the headlines present them.

British Muslims seem more socially conservative than Muslims in some other Western countries. An Ifop poll of French Muslims and a Pew poll of US Muslims, for instance, both show more liberal views.

The Ifop poll found that 68% of observant Muslim women in France never wear the hijab. Fewer than a third of practising Muslims would forbid their daughters from marrying a non-Muslim. 81% accept that women should have equal rights in divorce, 44% have no problem with the issue of co-habitation, 38% support the right to abortion and 31% approve of sex before marriage. The one issue on which French Muslims are deeply conservative is homosexuality: 77% of practising Muslims disapprove.

According to the Pew poll, US Muslims are much more liberal about homosexuality than co-religionists in Europe – 39% think homosexuality acceptable.

Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium

Over the past 25 years, people of most faiths in Britain have become more liberal on issues such as homosexuality and women’s rights. British Muslims, on the other hand, seem to have become more conservative on such social issues. I don’t have any proper data on this, but I speak largely from personal experience.

As I have observed many times, the views of today’s British Muslims are different from those of previous generations. The first generation of Muslims to this country were religious, but wore their faith lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore a hijab, let alone a burqa or a niqab. Most visited the mosque only occasionally, when the “Friday feeling” took them. Islam was not, in their eyes, an all-encompassing philosophy. Their faith expressed for them a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity.

The second generation of Britons with a Muslim background – my generation – was primarily secular. Religious organisations were barely visible. The organisations that bound together Asian communities were primarily secular, often political: the Asian Youth Movements, for instance, or the Indian Workers Association.

It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important. A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated and westernised than the first generation is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its difference.

The differences between attitudes among British, French and US Muslims may be the consequence of a number of factors. One such factor may be the difference in countries of origin and social status of migrants. British Muslims came largely from south Asia. French Muslims came primarily from North Africa and, unlike British Muslims, were largely secular. Even today, the majority of French Muslims do not describe themselves as practising Muslims. American Muslims tend to be more middle class than those in Britain or France.

A second difference is in social policy, in particular the development of multicultural policies in Britain that have helped create a more fragmented society. The  differences in Muslim attitudes in the different countries are likely to have been created by  a combination of these two, and possibly other, factors.

Much of the debate around the poll, and Phillips’ own commentary, has confused three issues: social conservatism, lack of integration and jihadism.

We should be rightly concerned with the degree of illiberal social attitudes within Muslim communities, especially as it was very different just a generation ago. We should not simply shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s what happens in a plural society.” We should combat illiberal attitudes, from whichever group, and support those struggling for a progressive future, including within Muslim communities. Too often liberals betray such progressives in the name of tolerance or pluralism. But holding illiberal views is not necessarily the same as failing to integrate – and this poll does not reveal a link between the two. 

We should also be concerned with the more fragmented nature of British society today, with people inhabiting their own identity silos, and with the lack of social contact between different groups (some evidence for this is provided in the poll). We should be concerned, too, with the growth of sectarianism within Muslim communities. There is a good argument to be made that silo-building has helped create the well of social conservatism within Muslim communities, and has encouraged sectarianism. The problem is not so much a lack of integration as the view, promulgated by many politicians and policy-makers, that it is through identity groups that such integration should take place. We need to challenge the social and multicultural policies that have, over the past three decades, helped entrench identity politics and encourage silo-building.

Also, there is the problem of jihadism, and of a section of Muslims being drawn toward Islamist views. As I have noted before, most studies show that Muslims are rarely drawn to jihadist groups because they already hold extremist religious views; rather, it is their involvement in jihadism that leads them to accept religious extremism as a justification for their acts.  As the former CIA operation officer, now an academic and counter-terrorism consultant to the US and other governments, Marc Sageman, has put it, “At the time they joined, jihadi terrorists were not very religious. They only became religious once they joined the jihad.” This is why we need to rethink our ideas about radicalisation and how to combat it.

Illiberalism, lack of integration and jihadism are all urgent issues that need tackling. But we will not tackle any of them by drawing facile links between them.

Elazig, Turkey

Elazig, Turkey

Enough already. The Channel 4 survey into Muslim attitudes, although it has its problems, will prove worthwhile if commentary as perceptive as this by Kenan Malik is an outcome. But, as I have said on many occasions before, if problems of illiberalism, segregation and jihadism within the Muslim community are to be tackled constructively, there is only so much that the non-Muslim community can do. Solutions to the problems just listed lie ultimately with Muslims themselves, although non-Muslims with good intentions must lend their support to Muslims who seek to resolve such problems for the benefit of everyone.

Islamist Extremism and its links with the Deobandis.

The BBC has uncovered worrying links between Muslim extremists and mainstream Deobandi mosques in the UK. What follows are two articles from the BBC website that have been compressed into one. I have engaged in cosmetic surgery for reasons of clarity of expression, etc.

A BBC investigation has found that Sabir Ali, head of religious events at Glasgow Central Mosque, was president of Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP). SSP is a political party now proscribed by the Home Office. Links to the group have also been made to Hafiz Abdul Hamid from the Polwarth Mosque in Edinburgh.

Glasgow Central Mosque said it would not remove Ali from his role until the links were proved. But it said it condemned terrorism of any kind. It is understood Ali denies the allegations. Hamid declined to comment.

The BBC has obtained evidence that both men continued to be involved with SSP after it was banned in the UK in 2001. It is not clear whether the two men are still involved.

SSP is a militant anti-Shia political party formed in Pakistan in the 1980s. The group and its armed off-shoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), have accepted responsibility for deadly sectarian attacks against Shia Muslims and other religious minorities in Pakistan. SSP has links to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and was banned by the Home Office in 2001, and in Pakistan one year later.

An official UK government document describes the group’s purpose: “The aim of both SSP and LeJ is to transform Pakistan by violent means into a Sunni state under the total control of sharia law. Another objective is to have all Shia declared kafirs (non-believers) and to participate in the destruction of other religions, notably Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism.”

The BBC has obtained copies of the group’s in-house magazine, Khalifat-e-Rashida, spanning the years both before and after its proscription. They show that both the men in Scotland used their mosques to hold events in SSP’s honour and further its teachings. And they show that, in the case of Polwarth Mosque in Edinburgh, financial support was provided to the group after it was banned. Donations from abroad are believed to be a key funding source for SSP.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Sabir Ali, also known as Chaudhry Sabir Ali, is a member of the executive committee at Glasgow Central Mosque – Scotland’s largest mosque – where Sunni Muslims of Pakistani origin are the largest group. He has held the position of Ishat-e-Islam, or leader of religious events, for a number of years, making him a key link between the imams and the mosque community. Documents obtained by the BBC list him as “President of SSP Scotland”.

In October 2003, after SSP was banned, an article in Khalifat-e-Rashida describes a memorial service at Glasgow Central Mosque for the former leader and co-founder of SSP, Azam Tariq, who had been assassinated in Pakistan that same month. At the meeting, the magazine says, Sabir Ali told those attending that Azam Tariq had “won the hearts of the Muslim world” and that “the enemies of Islam killed him” before vowing to continue his mission. That same year in July, SSP’s armed off-shoot, LeJ, admitted responsibility for an attack at a mosque which killed 50 Shia Muslims.

One month before the meeting, an article in the magazine carries an advert to commemorate the sister of Sabir Ali after her death in Pakistan. Sabir Ali is described as the “convenor of Ishat-e-Islam” at Glasgow Central Mosque.

According to the magazine, before his death in 2003, Azam Tariq had been hosted by Sabir Ali in Glasgow on a number of occasions, as had another SSP leader, Zia ur Rehman Farooqi.

Lawyer Aamer Anwar has called for reform at Glasgow Central Mosque. “These are very serious allegations,” he told the BBC. “There needs to be an investigation and the individuals concerned are entitled to due process. But the attitude almost seems to be that you can have a cut-off line, that if it’s in Pakistan it doesn’t really concern us over here, but it does. Even worse than that, is the impact on the community to be tagged with an organisation that regularly engages in murder and terrorism in Pakistan.”

A member of the mosque community, who did not wish to be named, told the BBC: “We have to do something. This is all unacceptable. This is un-Islamic – this is not the Islam I know, that I’ve been brought up with.”

It is understood Sabir Ali denies the allegations. In a statement, Glasgow Central Mosque said: “Islam is a faith of peace and we openly reject and condemn terrorism and extreme views of any kind. Glasgow is a proud beacon of how Muslim communities can engage with the wider society and the Central Mosque will continue to take a lead in promoting integration.”

Glasgow Central Mosque has recently been the subject of controversy. Last week the BBC and “The Herald” newspaper revealed that the lead imam at Glasgow Central Mosque, Habib ur Rehman, had praised Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed last month in Pakistan after murdering the governor of Punjab over his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws. Imam Habib ur Rehman said his words had been taken out of context and that he was voicing his opposition to the death penalty.

The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) is currently investigating the financial situation at the mosque after seven members of its executive committee resigned amid claims they had been threatened and intimidated by more conservative figures at the mosque. These claims were denied by those who were accused.

Anwar said: “There is no point preaching religious tolerance, talking about unity of the communities, condemning terrorist attacks, and then to be found that, privately, you are involved in supporting or showering praise on individuals who actually commit atrocities. Where extremism is exposed, we have to unequivocally condemn it.”

Hafiz Abdul Hamid is the founder and leader of Idara Taleem-ul-Qur’an Mosque in Edinburgh, often referred to as Polwarth Mosque. The documents obtained by the BBC list him as the leader of SSP in the UK in 2004.

In 1999, there was an attempt at the Court of Session in Edinburgh by other figures at the mosque to remove Hamid from his post. The judge found that he was the UK president of SSP, but that, as the organisation was legal in this country at the time, he could not remove him from the charity which runs the mosque.

The BBC can reveal that Hamid, who claims to have memorised the Qur’an, continued in his role and continued with his ties to SSP past the date that it was banned. In January 2004, he gave an interview to Khalifat-e-Rashida in which he says: “The party work should continue in all circumstances. However, we should try to get SSP restored so that the religious work can continue with the same zeal and fervour. This party will work for the political dominance of Islam.” His mosque also paid for a series of adverts in the magazine after the group was banned, and a November 2003 edition details a phone call in the mosque in which Azam Tariq’s brother Alam thanks the mosque for its financial support.

Hamid did not respond to numerous requests from the BBC for comment.

Ruined Armenian church, Eski Palu, Turkey

Ruined Armenian church, Eski Palu, Turkey

SSP is part of the Deobandi movement, which espouses an orthodox interpretation of Islam and whose followers include the Taliban. Since its formation, the group has waged a campaign of sectarian violence in Pakistan attacking Muslims whom it considers to be heretics as well as non-Muslim religious minorities.

In 2013, SSP’s armed wing, LeJ, named after one of the organisation’s founders, claimed responsibility for a bombing targeting Shia Muslims in the Pakistani city of Quetta, which killed 100 people. The group is said to have killed hundreds of Shias in the country, mainly in the province of Punjab, where at the weekend a bombing attack on Christians celebrating Easter killed more than 70 people, including children. Christians have also been targeted by SSP in Punjab.

Masood Azhar, today the head of one of Pakistan’s most violent militant groups, was once the VIP guest of Britain’s leading Islamic scholars. Innes Bowen asks: “Why?”

When Azhar, one of the world’s most important jihadist leaders, landed at Heathrow airport on 6th August 1993, a group of Islamic scholars from Britain’s largest mosque network was there to welcome him. Within a few hours of his arrival, he was giving the Friday sermon at Madina Mosque in Clapton, east London. His speech on the duty of jihad apparently moved some of the congregation to tears. Next stop – according to a report of the jihadist leader’s own magazine – was a reception with a group of Islamic scholars where there was a long discussion on “jihad, its need, training and other related issues”.

Today, Azhar is wanted by the Indian authorities following an attack on the Pathankot military base in January this year. In 1993 he was chief organiser of the Pakistani jihadist group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.

A BBC investigation has uncovered the details of his tour in an archive of militant group magazines published in Urdu. The contents provide an astounding insight into the way in which hardcore jihadist ideology was promoted in some mainstream UK mosques in the early 1990s – and involved some of Britain’s most senior Islamic scholars. Azhar’s tour lasted a month and consisted of over 40 speeches.

According to an account of the visit, after a series of speeches at east London mosques, Azhar headed north. Zakariya Mosque in Dewsbury, Madina Masjid in Batley, Jamia Masjid in Blackburn and Jamia Masjid in Burnley were among the venues for his jihadi sermons in his first 10 days in Britain. Such was Azhar’s popularity in those northern towns that wherever he went he accumulated more scholars as part of his entourage.

The most surprising engagement of the tour was the speech Azhar gave at what is arguably Britain’s most important Islamic institution, a boarding school and seminary in Lancashire known as Darul Uloom Bury. It is also home to Britain’s most important Islamic scholar, Sheikh Yusuf Motala.

According to the report of the trip, Azhar addressed the students and teachers, telling them that a substantial proportion of the Qur’an had been devoted to “killing for the sake of Allah” and that a substantial volume of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad were on the issue of jihad.

By the time Azhar arrived at Darul Uloom Bury there could have been little doubt about his agenda. A few days earlier, several scholars from the seminary had attended the inauguration ceremony for the Jamia Islamia Mosque in Plaistow where Azhar spoke on “the divine promise of victory to those engaged in jihad”.

Recordings from the trip, uncovered by the BBC, give a flavour of the message at some of the venues. “The youth should prepare for jihad without any delay. They should get jihadist training from wherever they can. We are also ready to offer our services,” Azhar told one audience in a speech entitled “From jihad to jannat (paradise)”.

Ruined Armenian church, Eski Palu, Turkey

Ruined Greek church near Sebinkarahisar, Turkey

The story of Azhar’s trip to Britain does not fit the narrative promoted by Muslim community leaders and security experts alike. According to them, the spread of jihadist ideology in Britain had nothing to do with the UK’s mainly South Asian mosques. The source of all the trouble, they say, was a bunch of Arab Islamist exiles – the likes of Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammad. These Wahhabi preachers, who operated on the fringes of Muslim communities, certainly played an important role in radicalising elements of Britain’s Muslim youth. But it was Azhar, a Pakistani cleric, who was the first to spread the seeds of modern jihadist militancy in Britain – and it was through South Asian mosques belonging to the Deobandi movement that he did it.

The Deobandis control more than 40% of British mosques and provide most of the UK-based training for Islamic scholars. They trace their roots back to a Sunni Islamic seminary founded in Deoband in 19th century India. Today it is a diverse movement – the original seminary in India has issued a fatwa against terrorism – but some Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan have propagated jihadist ideology.

Among the congregations of many of Britain’s Deobandi mosques, knowledge of Azhar’s 1993 fundraising and recruitment tour is something of an open secret. But talking publicly about such events is not the Deobandi done thing. So, to the wider world, the details have remained a mystery – until now.

Azhar was 25 years-old when he was given the red carpet treatment by some of Britain’s Deobandis. His cause was the disputed territory of Kashmir. Azhar and other mujahideen leaders recast what had been a Pakistani-Indian nationalist struggle into a jihad of Muslims versus Hindus. In 1993, Al-Qaeda was yet to declare war on the citizens of the United States and its allies, but after it did, Azhar’s group became an affiliate.

The consequences of the British Deobandi link with Azhar became more obvious in December 1999. An Indian Airlines plane was hijacked and grounded at Kandahar in Afghanistan. The passengers were held hostage pending the release from an Indian prison of Azhar and two of his jihadist associates – one of whom was a 26 year-old student from London, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh.

Saeed Sheikh had been jailed for kidnapping Western hostages in India. After the three men were released, Azhar founded his own militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed. Saeed Sheikh went on to be involved in the 2002 kidnap and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.

One of the first recruits to Azhar’s new militant group was Mohammed Bilal from Birmingham. Bilal blew himself up outside an army barracks in Srinagar, killing six soldiers and three students in December 2000.

Ruined Greek church near Sebinkarahisar, Turkey

Ruined Greek church near Sebinkarahisar, Turkey

But there was another serious consequence of the Azhar connection – the training camp facilities and logistical support he provided to British Muslims willing to carry out attacks in the UK. Several UK-based plots including 7/7, 21/7 and the attempt in 2006 to smuggle liquid bomb-making substances onto transatlantic airlines are now thought to have been directed by Rashid Rauf, a man from Birmingham who married into Azhar’s family in Pakistan.

The views of Britain’s Deobandi congregations toward Azhar after his alliance with Al-Qaeda are not revealed in the archive of jihadist publications seen by the BBC. Did British support for him evaporate or just go underground?

One man with a rare combination of inside knowledge and a willingness to talk is Aimen Dean, a former member of Al-Qaeda. He was recruited by Britain’s intelligence services in 1998 after he started to have doubts about Osama bin Laden’s agenda. Dean maintained his links with Al-Qaeda in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan while working undercover for MI5 in Britain for eight years.

“Pre-9/11, there was no question that the Deobandis supported the Taliban of Afghanistan to the hilt,” Dean says. The Taliban, like Azhar, regard themselves as Deobandis.

Dean preached in many Deobandi mosques in the UK. “Even after 9/11, there were many mosques still stubborn in their support for the Taliban,” he says, “because of the Deobandi solidarity.” Dean did not make open calls for jihad from the pulpit. He would instead give a talk on an innocuous topic such as Islamic history. Through his speaking engagements, Dean came into contact with jihadist sympathisers who would invite him to gatherings in private homes.

Among the top-ranking Deobandis in Britain, one name appears in the publications of several different militant groups. The jihadist archive reveals that Manchester-based scholar Dr. Khalid Mehmood’s connections with Azhar pre-dated the 1993 UK tour. At the 1991 gathering in Pakistan of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Mehmood was among the speakers. He says he was there to discuss theological issues and in no way condoned acts of terrorism and violence.

As with other British Deobandi scholars, references to Mehmood disappeared from the pages of Azhar’s magazines well before 9/11. However, his name appears in the magazine of SSP, the militant group responsible for killing Shia Muslims and other religious minorities in Pakistan.

According to one report, when SSP’s leader Azam Tariq visited the UK in 1995, Mehmood spoke at the same events as him on a tour of Scotland. Mehmood says that he did not attend these events in their entirety and therefore could not know what was said by other speakers, Azam Tariq included.

The preface to the first volume of a pro-SSP history, published in 2000, is attributed to Mehmood. He says that his name has been used falsely. Despite the fact that SSP was banned in the UK in 2001, Mehmood addressed a conference in South Africa in December 2013 at which the head of SSP, Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, also spoke. Mehmood says he has always been involved with a public exchange of ideas, which inevitably means sharing a platform with those with whom one disagrees.

Mehmood’s name appears in the publications and conference programmes of Aalami Majlise Tahaffuze Khatme Nubuwwat (AMTKN), a sectarian group that campaigns against Islam’s minority Ahmadiyya sect. The literature published on the Pakistani website of AMTKN states that Ahmadis who refuse to convert to mainstream Sunni Islam are wajib al-qatl, which means deserving to die. AMTKN is a legal organisation in the UK, registered with the Charity Commission.

There appear to be connections between Azhar, SSP and AMTKN. The late leader of SSP, Azam Tariq, was a close associate of Azhar. Furthermore, some of those mentioned in the publications of SSP also appear to have been associated with AMTKN. A senior Deobandi scholar based in Saudi Arabia, Abdul Hafiz Makki, appears in the records of all three movements.

Britain’s most important Islamic scholar, Sheikh Yusuf Motala, was, according to the groups’ own publications, involved in both the forerunner to AMTKN and in SSP before it was banned.

What, though, does Motala now make of these groups and of Azhar’s jihadist message? In a handwritten note in Urdu, he said he had always hated such activities and had published his thoughts on the matter in a book: “During the last several decades, I have neither uttered Masood Azhar’s name in my speeches, even by mistake, nor mentioned his group, nor talked about any nihilistic terrorist action.”

Indeed, the ethos at his seminary in Bury appears to be far removed from the jihadist sermons of Azhar. An unannounced Ofsted inspection in January 2016 found that pupils had a deep understanding of “fundamental British values such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths”. It is a moderate approach which is in evidence elsewhere in Deobandi circles. At a fundraiser in London for a new Islamic seminary, a popular young preacher educated at Bury spoke respectfully of other faiths. A part-time academy for children run by young Deobandi graduates in London makes a point of adopting a non-sectarian approach and attracts non-Muslim children.

But the influence of Pakistan’s far right, religio-political movements is still deeply embedded in large parts of the Deobandi network in Britain. There are many moderates among the faithful, but they often have little institutional power. The struggle to gain influence seems to be particularly difficult outside London.

Ruined Armenian church, Mazgirt, Turkey

Ruined Armenian church, Mazgirt, Turkey

When the BBC recently revealed that a senior member of the management committee of  Glasgow Central Mosque had been an office bearer in SSP, he was not required by the mosque management to resign.

One member of the Glasgow Central Mosque told us that, appalled as he was by the revelations, he was worried that speaking publicly would put him and his family in danger. His fears were prompted by the resignations that followed intimidation of a new, moderate management committee elected by the congregation. In the Midlands, one practising Deobandi Muslim told me he had been threatened with excommunication and violence for raising concerns about, among other issues, the propagation of sectarian hatred. A niqab-wearing Deobandi woman told a similar story about her attempts to encourage more positive attitudes to other faiths. These religious conservatives, being visibly Muslim, face prejudice from a non-Muslim population concerned about terrorists. But they pay a price for opposing the extremism in their midst. In all three cases, the word “mafia” was used to describe those who had sought to intimidate them.

“Everyone who is working for a just, decent society should contribute in any way they can to tackle these issues,” says one. “It might have been politically incorrect to take on the mosques, but these things should be exposed.”

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.

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

Below is an article from “The New York Times” that patiently questions some of the certainties offered by the Muslim world about the origins of the Qur’an. But before we examine the article itself, I must point out that for a long time (from the 19th century in particular) scholars in the West have questioned much of the conventional wisdom that Muslims possess about the Qur’an’s origins (the Hadith has been subjected to similar scholarly questioning for a comparable length of time). Some such scholars writing in the past include M. Jan de Goeje, J. Wellhausen, T. Noldeke, I. Goldziher, H. Lemmens and A. Jeffrey. A few of the scholars just listed took a “source critical” approach to the Qur’an (just as they did to the Hadith) to sort specific texts into those that could be accepted as historically true and those that had to be discarded as polemic or pious fiction.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Scholars are quietly offering new theories of the Koran (“The New York Times”, 2.3.2012).

To Muslims the Koran is the very word of God, who spoke through the angel Gabriel to Muhammad. “This book is not to be doubted,” the Koran declares unequivocally at its beginning. Scholars and writers in Islamic countries who have ignored that warning have sometimes found themselves the target of death threats and violence, sending a chill through universities around the world. Yet, despite the fear, a handful of experts have been quietly investigating the origins of the Koran, offering radically new theories about the text’s meaning and the rise of Islam.

Christoph Luxenberg, a scholar of ancient Semitic languages in Germany, argues that the Koran has been misread and mistranslated for centuries. His work, based on the earliest copies of the Koran, maintains that parts of Islam’s holy book are derived from pre-existing Christian Aramaic texts that were misinterpreted by later Islamic scholars who prepared the editions of the Koran commonly read today. So, for example, the virgins who are supposedly awaiting good Islamic martyrs as their reward in paradise are in reality “white raisins” of crystal clarity rather than fair maidens.

Christoph Luxenberg, however, is a pseudonym, and his scholarly tome, “The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran”, had trouble finding a publisher, although it is considered a major new work by several leading scholars in the field. Verlag Das Arabische Buch in Berlin eventually published the book.

The caution is not surprising. Salman Rushdie’s ”The Satanic Verses” received a fatwa because it appeared to mock Muhammad. The Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed because one of his books was thought to be irreligious. And when the Arab scholar Suliman Bashear argued that Islam developed as a religion gradually rather than emerging fully formed from the mouth of the Prophet, he was injured after being thrown from a second storey window by his students at the University of Nablus in the West Bank. Even many broad-minded liberal Muslims become upset when the historical veracity and authenticity of the Koran is questioned.

The reverberations have affected non-Muslim scholars in Western countries. “Between fear and political correctness, it’s not possible to say anything other than sugary nonsense about Islam,” said one scholar at an American university who asked not to be named, referring to the threatened violence as well as the widespread reluctance on United States college campuses to criticise other cultures.

While scriptural interpretation may seem like a remote and innocuous activity, close textual study of Jewish and Christian scripture played no small role in loosening the Church’s domination on the intellectual and cultural life of Europe, and paved the way for unfettered secular thought. “Muslims have the benefit of hindsight of the European experience, and they know very well that once you start questioning the holy scriptures, you don’t know where it will stop,” the scholar explained.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

The touchiness about questioning the Koran predates the latest rise of Islamic militancy. As long ago as 1977, John Wansbrough of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London wrote that subjecting the Koran to “analysis by the instruments and techniques of biblical criticism is virtually unknown.”

Mr. Wansbrough insisted that the text of the Koran appeared to be a composite of different voices or texts compiled over dozens if not hundreds of years. After all, scholars agree that there is no evidence of the Koran until 691, 59 years after Muhammad’s death, when the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem was built carrying several koranic inscriptions.

These inscriptions differ to some degree from the version of the Koran that has been handed down through the centuries, suggesting, scholars say, that the Koran may have still been evolving in the last decade of the seventh century. Moreover, much of what we know as Islam – the lives and sayings of the Prophet – is based on texts from between 130 and 300 years after Muhammad’s death.

In 1977, two other scholars from the School for Oriental and African Studies at London University, Patricia Crone (a professor of history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton) and Michael Cook (a professor of Near Eastern History at Princeton University), suggested a radically new approach in their book “Hagarism: the making of the Islamic world”.

Since there are no Arabic chronicles from the first century of Islam, the two looked at several non-Muslim, seventh-century accounts that suggested Muhammad was perceived not as the founder of a new religion but as a preacher in the Old Testament tradition hailing the coming of a Messiah. Many of the early documents refer to the followers of Muhammad as “hagarenes” and the “tribe of Ishmael,” in other words, as descendants of Hagar, the servant girl that the Jewish patriarch Abraham used to father his son Ishmael. In its earliest form, Ms. Crone and Mr. Cook argued, the followers of Muhammad may have seen themselves as retaking their place in the Holy Land alongside their Jewish cousins (and many Jews appear to have welcomed the Arabs as liberators when they entered Jerusalem in 638).

The idea that Jewish messianism animated the early followers of the Prophet is not widely accepted in the field, but “Hagarism: the making of the Islamic world” is credited with opening up the field. “Crone and Cook came up with some very interesting revisionist ideas,” says Fred M. Donner of the University of Chicago and author of the recent book “Narratives of Islamic Origins: the beginnings of Islamic historical writing”. “I think in trying to reconstruct what happened they went off the deep end, but they were asking the right questions.”

The revisionist school of early Islam has quietly picked up momentum in the last few years as historians began to apply rational standards of proof to this material.

Ms. Crone and Mr. Cook have revised some of their early hypotheses while sticking to others. “We were certainly wrong about quite a lot of things,” Ms. Crone said. “But I stick to the basic point we made: that Islamic history did not arise as the classic tradition says it does.”

Ms. Crone insists that the Koran and the Islamic tradition present a fundamental paradox. The Koran is a text soaked in monotheistic thinking, filled with stories and references to Abraham, Isaac, Joseph and Jesus, and yet the official history insists that Muhammad, an illiterate camel merchant, received the revelation in Mecca, a remote, sparsely populated part of Arabia, far from the centres of monotheistic thought in an environment of idol-worshipping Arab Bedouins. Unless one accepts the idea of the angel Gabriel, Ms. Crone says, historians must somehow explain how all these monotheistic stories and ideas found their way into the Koran.

“There are only two possibilities,” Ms. Crone said. “Either there had to be substantial numbers of Jews and Christians in Mecca or the Koran had to have been composed somewhere else.”

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

Indeed, many scholars who are not revisionists agree that Islam must be placed back into the wider historical context of the religions of the Middle East rather than seeing it as the spontaneous product of the pristine Arabian desert. “I think there is increasing acceptance, even on the part of many Muslims, that Islam emerged out of the wider monotheistic soup of the Middle East,” says Roy Mottahedeh, a professor of Islamic history at Harvard University.

Scholars like Mr. Luxenberg and Gerd-R. Puin, who teaches at Saarland University in Germany, have returned to the earliest known copies of the Koran in order to grasp what they say about the document’s origins and composition. Mr. Luxenberg explains these copies are written without vowels and diacritical dots that modern Arabic uses to make it clear what letter is intended. In the eighth and ninth centuries, more than a century after the death of Muhammad, Islamic commentators added diacritical marks to clear up the ambiguities of the text, giving precise meanings to passages based on what they considered to be their proper context. Mr. Luxenberg’s radical theory is that many of the text’s difficulties can be clarified when it is seen as closely related to Aramaic, the language group of most Middle Eastern Jews and Christians at the time.

For example, the famous passage about the virgins is based on the word “hur,” which is an adjective in the feminine plural meaning simply “white.” Islamic tradition insists the term “hur” stands for “houri,” which means “virgin,” but Mr. Luxenberg insists that this is a forced misreading of the text. In both ancient Aramaic and in at least one respected dictionary of early Arabic, “hur” means “white raisin.”

Mr. Luxenberg has traced the passages dealing with paradise to a Christian text called “Hymns of Paradise” by a fourth-century author. Mr. Luxenberg said the word “paradise” was derived from the Aramaic word for “garden” and all the descriptions of paradise describe it as a garden of flowing waters, abundant fruits and white raisins, a prized delicacy in the ancient Near East. In this context, white raisins, mentioned often as “hur,” Mr. Luxenberg said, makes more sense than a reward of sexual favours.

In many cases, the differences can be quite significant. Mr. Puin points out that in the early archaic copies of the Koran it is impossible to distinguish between the words “to fight” and “to kill.” In many cases, he said, Islamic exegetes added diacritical marks that yielded the harsher meaning, perhaps reflecting a period in which the Islamic Empire was often at war.

A return to the earliest Koran, Mr. Puin and others suggest, might lead to a more tolerant brand of Islam, as well as one that is more conscious of its close ties to both Judaism and Christianity.

“It is serious and exciting work,” Ms. Crone said of Mr. Luxenberg’s work. Jane McAuliffe, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, has asked Mr. Luxenberg to contribute an essay to the “Encyclopedia of the Koran”, which she is editing.

Mr. Puin would love to see a “critical edition” of the Koran produced, one based on recent philological work, but, he says, “The word critical is misunderstood in the Islamic world: it is seen as criticising or attacking the text.”

Some Muslim authors have begun to publish skeptical, revisionist work on the Koran as well. Several new volumes of revisionist scholarship, including “The Origins of the Koran” and “The Quest for the Historical Muhammad”, have been edited by a former Muslim who writes under the name of Ibn Warraq. Mr. Warraq, who heads a group called the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society, makes no bones about having a political agenda. “Biblical scholarship has made people less dogmatic, more open,” he said, “and I hope that happens to Muslim society as well.”

Annual "Discover Islam Exhibition", University of Newcastle

Annual “Discover Islam Exhibition”, University of Newcastle

But many Muslims find the tone and claims of revisionism offensive. “I think the broader implications of some of the revisionist scholarship is to say that the Koran is not an authentic book, that it was fabricated 150 years later,” says Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of religious studies at Duke University, as well as a Muslim cleric whose liberal theological leanings earned him the animosity of fundamentalists in South Africa, which he left after his house was firebombed.

Andrew Rippin, an Islamicist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, says that freedom of speech in the Islamic world is more likely to evolve from within the Islamic interpretative tradition than from outside attacks on it. Approaches to the Koran that are now branded as heretical – interpreting the text metaphorically rather than literally – were widely practiced in mainstream Islam a thousand years ago.

“When I teach the history of the interpretation (of the Koran) it is eye-opening to students the amount of independent thought and diversity of interpretation that existed in the early centuries of Islam,” Mr. Rippin says. “It was only in more recent centuries that there was a need for limiting interpretation.”

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

The last month (March 2016) has not been a good time for people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who believe that Islam is a force for good in the world. Islamist/jihadist extremists have murdered over thirty people in Brussels; the Taliban in Pakistan (or a group that has broken away from the Taliban in Pakistan) has claimed responsibility for murdering over seventy people in Lahore, many of whom were Christian women and children gathered in a park to celebrate Easter; the civil war continues in Syria with most deaths and most destruction of buildings, etc. the direct responsibility of Muslims supporting or opposing the Assad regime; Islamic State militants have been driven from Palmyra (where, in the ancient city, they destroyed two temples, some arches and a few unusual tombs, and where, in the museum, they trashed hundreds of important artefacts of great age including unique examples of elaborately carved stone), but not before they rounded up many local people whom they forced to relocate to territory still under Islamic State control; Asad Shah, a Muslim shopkeeper in Glasgow, has been stabbed to death by a fellow Muslim (during the attack, Shah may have been stamped on the head by his killer), in all likelihood because he posted on social media a message that in part read, “Good Friday and a very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation”; protests have taken place in Pakistan following the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who shot and killed the Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, in 2011 because Taseer advocated reform of Pakistan’s contemptible blasphemy laws (Qadri is regarded by Pakistan’s “conservative Muslims” as someone who rightfully “defended the honour of Islam”); and female genital mutilation, honour-based violence and forced marriage are more likely to occur in Muslim communities than any other communities globally.

Urfa, Turkey

Urfa, Turkey

Because many of the crimes, practices and/or dispositions of mind above are directly or indirectly attributable to passages contained in the Qur’an, a book which mainstream Muslims are encouraged to regard as the uncorrupted word of God/Allah that humankind must conform with at all times and in all circumstances (Muslims must conform with its content because, for Sunni Muslims at least, the Qur’an IS the uncorrupted word of God/Allah), it is right to subject to scrutiny the claim that the Qur’an IS the uncorrupted word of God/Allah. As you can imagine, the claim has inspired debate among Muslims and non-Muslims for a long time, despite the risks involved when subjecting to scrutiny such a fundamental tenet of mainstream (Sunni?) Islam (many Muslims and non-Muslims who have questioned whether the Qur’an is the uncorrupted word of God/Allah have suffered everything from vilification on social media to murder at the hands of extremist Muslims), but, perhaps for the first time ever, the slow accumulation of reliable evidence allows everyone, no matter their background, to approach the question in a more informed and dispassionate manner.

In the first of three posts about the matter, I present what might be called the official/ mainstream view in relation to the question. Below, in an article easily accessed on the internet (I have made a few cosmetic amendments to enhance clarity of expression, etc.), Dr. Mohammad Shafi explains how the Qur’an was revealed and compiled. As the article unfolds, I urge everyone to consider whether it is possible for mere humans, the prophet Muhammad included, to have conveyed to others precisely what God/Allah is alleged to have said to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel over a period of twenty-two or twenty-three years. Put another way, given the large number of people involved in agreeing the content of the Qur’an that Muslims use today, and given the length of time between the first revelation and when the world of official/mainstream (Sunni?) Islam alleges authenticated copies of the Qur’an were issued to the rapidly growing Muslim community, how is it possible for the Qur’an to be the uncorrupted word of God/Allah?

A word of advice: every so often in the article you will find brackets. Within some of the brackets are my insertions where a comment/reflection/warning about what Dr. Shafi writes cannot go unacknowledged. Respect for objectivity/critical detachment necessitates such interventions.

Near Hizan, Turkey

Near Hizan, Turkey

The Qur’an – how it was revealed and compiled. Dr. Mohammad Shafi.

“Qur’an” means “reading” or “recitation”. However, the word has specifically come to mean the Qur’an revealed to Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an is the foundational book of Muslims and, in fact, of the Arabic language (!?!). Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the complete and authentic record of the original revelations, claimed by the Prophet to be the literal word of God, and was organised in its current form by the direct instructions of the Prophet himself (below, there are indications that the latter is not the case). They believe that no one has the authority to alter the Qur’an since every word in the Qur’an is the literal word of God.

Over the ages the Qur’an has been translated into dozens of languages, but only the Arabic text is considered the authentic Qur’an. There is complete agreement on a single text of this Arabic Qur’an by Muslims of all schools of law, of all theological and philosophical leanings, and of all ethnicities and nationalities (?!? Such “complete agreement” among Muslims does NOT exist). Notwithstanding a few detractors, the majority of non-Muslim scholars also agree that the current Qur’an is a faithful record of what the Prophet claimed to be the revelations to him from God, as they existed at the time of the Prophet’s death (?!? This claim, if ever reliable, is no longer sustainable, as later posts devoted to the matter will confirm).

The Qur’an is also memorised by hundreds of thousands of people and read by Muslims on all occasions; it is, perhaps, read by more people on a constant basis than any other book in human history. The Qur’an, therefore, continues to be a book as well as a recitation. The two traditions reinforce each other and assure the protection of the integrity of the Qur’an and the failure of all attempts at altering or corrupting it.

The Qur’an is organised in 114 chapters called Surahs which contain 6237 Ayahs (verses or signs) of various lengths. More than three-fourths (86 out of 114) of the Surahs were revealed during the 13 years of the Prophet’s mission in Makkah; the remaining 28 were revealed during the entire 10 years of his life in Madinah. The Surahs are foundational divisions. For the convenience of reading the book in a month, it is divided into 30 equal parts (each called a Juz), and, for reading it in a week, it is divided into 7 equal parts (each called a Manzil). It is said that the Makkah Surahs primary deal with the basics of the belief system and the Madinah Surahs are about the practice of faith. This, at best, is an oversimplification.

This may be a good place to dispel some common misconceptions about the arrangement of the Qur’an. It is often said that the order of the Qur’an is roughly in decreasing order of the size of the Surahs (except the first). It is true that most of the longest Surahs are at the beginning and most of the shortest are at the end. The longest Surah is the second one and has 286 Ayahs, and the shortest (103, 108 and 110) are toward the end and have 3 Ayahs each. But, beyond this general observation, one can easily demonstrate a lack of order by size of the Surahs. After the 5th Surah, the order by size breaks down. For example, the 6th Surah (with 165 Ayahs) is shorter, and not longer, than the 7th (with 206 Ayahs); the 8th (with 75 Ayahs) is shorter than the 9th (with 149 Ayahs); and the 15th (with 99 Ayahs) is shorter than the 16th (with 148 Ayahs). The reverse can be shown at the end of the Book. Surah 95 (with 8 Ayahs) is shorter, not longer, than Surah 96 (with 19 Ayahs) and Surah 103 (with 3 Ayahs) is shorter than Surah 104 (with 9 Ayahs).

It is also often stated that the Surahs are arranged in a reverse chronological order of the revelation. If this were true, Surah 9 would be Surah 1 or 2, and all the beginning Surahs would be from Madinah and all those at the end would be from Makkah. But this is not the case. Seven of the first 20 Surahs are from the Makkah period and three of the last 20 Surahs (98, 99 and 110) are from the Madinah period.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

In contrast with the above-mentioned speculations, Muslims believe that the arrangement of the Qur’an was determined by the Prophet himself, under guidance from God. They see in this arrangement a coherence that is suitable for all people and for all times to come.

The Qur’an deals with Divine nature, God’s intervention in history and spiritual lessons learned from observation of nature, from life and from history. It deals with major themes which are often illustrated with bits of relevant stories of previous prophets and of bygone cultures, kingdoms and empires. All of these themes are interwoven throughout the Qur’an, although, naturally, some Surahs deal more with matters of faith and others with matters related to living a good life. There is emphasis on regular prescribed prayers, on constant supplications, on deep self-evaluation, on regular fasting, on pilgrimage to the holy sites related to the origins of the worship of one God, on specific rules related to equity in inheritance (?!?), on constant charity, and on social justice for all irrespective of social status (?!?). Specifics and details of much of these are left to the Prophet to develop and demonstrate by practice. Beyond that, the Qur’an does not dwell much on matters of ritual per se or on laws and procedures.

The emphasis of the Qur’an can be seen from the names it uses for itself. Some of these names are: Al-Huda (The Guidance), Al-Dhikr (The Reminder), Al-Furqan (The Criterion – for judging right from wrong), Al-Shifa (The Healing), Al-Mau`iza (The Admonition), Al-Rahmah (The Mercy), Al-Nur (The Light), Al-Haqq (The Truth) and Al-Burhaan (The Clear Argument). It does not call itself a book of law, of science or of procedural prescriptions. Only about 500 to 600 Ayahs are related to rules and regulations and less than 100 of these can be directly implemented through legislation. One needs the extensive Hadith literature and elaborate legal processes to derive legal rules and get them to a level where implementation issues can be discussed.

The first revelation came to Mohammad when he was 40 years old and was on one of his customary retreats in the cave of Hira in the hills outside Makkah. It was one of the odd nights during the last ten days of the month of Ramadan. According to the reports recorded in the authentic (?!?) Hadith literature, an angelic presence appeared before the perplexed Mohammad and said to him, “Iqra (“read” or “recite”. The word has an ambiguous meaning).” Mohammad replied that he could not recite or did not know what to recite. After the instructions to read or recite were repeated two more times, Mohammad reported that the angelic presence held him and squeezed him so tightly that he felt that his breath was leaving his body. The angelic presence then instructed him to recite with him the words that are now recorded as the first 5 Ayahs of the 96th Surah, Al-Qalam, (The Pen):

Read (or recite) in the name of your Lord who created (and continues to create); created humankind from a clot of congealed blood. Read and your Lord is The Most Generous; who taught by the pen; taught humankind what it did not know.

These are the first words of the revelation that take Mohammad from an unassuming but generous and trusted member of his city to become Mohammad the Messenger of God, Al-Rasool Allah. A man with no worldly ambitions, and unknown for eloquence and speech, becomes the most eloquent and persistent critic of his society. He becomes a passionate advocate for reform based on the worship of one God and insisting on dignity, equality and justice for the slaves, the poor and the female (!?! It is ironic that Muhammad should be seen as “a persistent critic of his society” and “a passionate advocate for reform… insisting on dignity, equality and justice for the slaves, the poor and the female” because, today, Islam is often used by Muslims to stifle criticism and to ensure that slaves, the poor and women are denied dignity, equality and justice).

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

The experience of this first revelation shakes Mohammad and stuns him. He hurries to his wife Khadijah and asks her to cover him with a blanket. When he recovers his composure, he relates to her the story of his experience. He is concerned that he may be hallucinating or loosing his mind. She assures him that he is a very balanced person and that his experience must have some supernatural explanation. She suggests that they go to visit one her old relatives known for knowledge of previous scriptures. Her relative, Waraqa ibn Naufal, tells Mohammad that his experience resembles that of Moses and the other prophets. He suggests that Mohammad has been chosen as a messenger by God. He warns Mohammad that the people will oppose him as they opposed the prophets before him.

An interval of several months passes after the above revelation. The Prophet is wrapped up in a blanket, feeling despondent and afraid of having been removed by God from his mission. This is when the revelation of Ayahs 1 through 7 of the 74th Surah Al-Moddaththir, (The One Wrapped), occurs:

O you wrapped up (in your cloak), arise and deliver the warning. And proclaim the glory of your Lord. And purify and cleanse your garments. And shun all idolatry and filth. And do no favours, expecting gain in return. And for the sake of your Lord, be patient and constant.

Further revelations come over the remaining 13 years of the Prophet’s life in Makkah and 10 years in Madinah. By the time of his death, the revelations comprised of 114 Surahs. The last of these is Al-Taubah, now numbered the 9th. But the last words of the revelation are said to be in the third Ayah of Surah 5, Al-Ma’idah:

Today I have completed for you your religion, fulfilled upon you My favours, and approved for you Al-Islam as your religion.

The revelations were recorded contemporaneously by one of the scribes appointed by the Prophet for this purpose. After every revelation, the Prophet would come out to the public (unless he was already outside) and recite to the people the new verses. He would also instruct one of the scribes to write it down. According to authentic (?!?) Hadith literature, he would tell them where the new revelation was to be positioned in relation to previous revelations. The scribes would write on whatever material was available at the moment. Thus the writing medium ranged from a stone, the leaf of a palm tree, the shoulder bone of a camel, the membrane on the inside of a deerskin, a parchment or a papyrus. These writings were stored in a corner of the Prophet’s room and later, perhaps, in a separate room or office near the Prophet’s room.

It should be mentioned that while Al-Qur’an means “the recitation”, it also calls itself “The Book”. The root word for book, k-t-b, occurs in the Qur’an more than 300 times. The word and concept of Surah is also in the Qur’an, and so is the word Ayah.

The Makkans, being a merchant society, had a large pool of those who could read and write. There were as many as 11 scribes during the early part of the Madinah period also. The most prominent of these was an elderly gentleman, named Ubayy ibn Ka`b. The Prophet was then introduced to an energetic teenager named Zayd ibn Thabit. Zayd was eager to learn and was placed directly under the Prophet’s supervision. After he had accomplished his initial assignments in record time, the Prophet made him in charge of the qur’anic record. Zayd became the principal scribe, organiser and keeper of the record.

Hundreds of people memorised the Qur’an and many wrote down what they had learned. But keeping up with the new revelations and the changing arrangement of the Ayahs in the Surahs was not possible except for a few. To keep up, hundreds of people (no doubt all male) regularly reviewed the Qur’an they knew. Many did this under the Prophet’s own guidance. Others did it under the supervision of teachers designated by the Prophet. Those from remote areas, who had visited only once or occasionally, may not have kept up. Some, who wrote what they had learned, may not have inserted the new revelations in the manner prescribed by the Prophet (an interesting and enlightening paragraph).

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The Prophet was meticulous about the integrity of the Qur’an. He constantly recited, in public, the Surahs as they were arranged at the time. It is reported that angel Gabriel reviewed the entire Qur’an with the Prophet once a year during the month of Ramadan. This review was done twice during the last year of the Prophet’s life. And Zayd maintained the records faithfully, kept them properly indexed and made sure they were complete according to the Prophet’s instructions (is there reliable evidence to support this very important claim?).

At the time of the Prophet’s death, Zayd had a complete record of all the revelations except the last two Ayahs of Surah 9, the Al-Taubah. The Prophet used to indicate the completion of a Surah by instructing that the sentence, “(I begin) In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate” be written at its beginning. This wording at the beginning of each Surah became both a separator from other Surahs and an indication that the Surah was now complete. This formulation is missing from the 9th Surah, indicating that no one wanted to add anything to the Qur’an that the Prophet had himself not ordered, even if it seemed logical to do so.

After the Prophet’s death, the community chose Abu Bakr as its temporal chief, the Khalifah of the Messenger, the Caliph. About a year later, a large number of those known as authoritative memorisers were killed in a battle (this “fact” is an important one). According to authentic (?!?) Hadith literature, Umar ibn al-Khattab (who became the second Caliph) was alarmed by this and concerned that the next generation may not have enough teachers of the Qur’an. He therefore approached Abu Bakr and suggested that a formal compilation of the Qur’an be prepared on materials that would be convenient to store, maintain and use as a reference. According to the Hadith literature, Abu Bakr was reluctant to do something the Prophet himself had not undertaken. After a few days, however, he “became inclined” to the idea and asked Zayd to undertake the task. Zayd said he also hesitated, but, after contemplation, also “became inclined” and agreed to undertake the work. A committee was formed to do the job. The committee compiled a collection by checking and double-checking each Ayah of the existing record of the Qur’an with the memories of each member of the committee as well as of other prominent experts (did this process lead to amendments to the existing “record of the Qur’an”? Sadly, we are not told. It is highly likely that it did, of course). This copy was housed with Hafsa, one of the Prophet’s wives (Hafsa was a daughter of Umar ibn al-Khattab).

By the time of the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, the Muslim population had spread over vast areas outside the core Arab regions and many people of other cultures were entering Islam. About 15 years after the first compilation, therefore, it was suggested that authenticated copies of the Qur’an be made available to major population centres in those areas. Zayd again was instructed to undertake the task. He again formed a committee. Instead of just making copies of the existing text, it was decided to seek corroboration of each Ayah in the earlier compilation with at least two other written records in the private copies in the possession of known reputable individuals (did this task lead to further amendments to the qur’anic text? It is highly likely that it did, of course). It is reported that this comparison was successful for all Ayahs except one. For this Ayah, only one comparison could be found. But it was in the hands of a person who was considered so reliable by the Prophet himself that his lone testimony was accepted by the Prophet in a case requiring two witnesses. It is reported that 7 copies of the collection were prepared and authenticated. One of these copies was given to the Caliph himself. One became the reference copy for the people of Madinah, one was sent to Makkah, one was sent to Kufah and one was sent to Damascus (where the other copies went is not revealed/known).

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

We should mention that the committee, while doing its work, confirmed the general observation that all private copies were incomplete, some were out of sequence, some were in tribal dialects other than the standard Quraish dialect and many had marginal notes inserted by the owners (which suggests that many compromises had to be made when deciding on the content of the officially endorsed Qur’an. In many respects, therefore, the content of the officially endorsed text must have been very different to how Muhammad intended it to be). The committee members expressed concern that as time passes the context of these deficiencies will be lost. These partial copies may get into public circulation after the death of the owners of these records and become a source of schisms and create confusion. They therefore recommended that all such copies be destroyed. The Caliph issued orders to this effect, but did not put in place any mechanisms for enforcing the orders. There is sufficient evidence that some people kept their copies and some were used by mischief-makers to create controversies that did not succeed (this would seem to confirm that alternative versions of the Qur’an survived production and circulation of the officially endorsed copy of the text. This is something that will be examined in more detail in a future post devoted to the origins of the Qur’an).

The authentic copies of the Qur’an are known as the Uthmani text. This text, however, did not have the short vowels that are even today left out of Arabic text used by those who know the language. In the absence of the short vowels, however, those not well versed in the language can make serious mistakes. These vowels were, therefore, inserted about 60 years later under instructions of the governor of Kufa, Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf (in other words, the Qur’an was amended yet again, on this occasion to clarify the vowels that should be used to render the text more accessible/less ambiguous).

A footnote regarding required qualifications for interpreting the Qur’an.

The Qur’an, being considered the literal word of God (by Sunni Muslims, at least), is taken very seriously by Muslims. It is not enough to just study the Arabic language to interpret the Qur’an. Muslims have agreed (?!?) over the centuries that one must be well-versed in the following before one is considered qualified to offer a credible opinion. You must have:

Mastery of classical Arabic (the Arabic of the Quraish at the time of the Prophet).
Mastery of the entire book (“The Qur’an explains the Qur’an”).
A thorough knowledge of Hadith literature (the Prophet’s interpretation is binding and those around him understood it better than the later generations).
A deep knowledge of the life of the
Prophet and of the first community (no interpretation is valid that ignores the original context).
A commanding knowledge of the exegetical notes and writings of the early Muslim scholars and of the traditions of the early Muslim communities.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

P.S. Above is a lengthy article explaining in very precise detail what Muslims are encouraged to believe about how the Qur’an came into existence. The content of the article can be interpreted as the official/mainstream (Sunni?) Muslim understanding of how (and why) we possess the Qur’an today. It goes without saying: even with all the “evidence” above, anyone assessing it objectively is forced to conclude the following. First, whatever one may believe about the angel Gabriel’s role in transmitting the revelations from God/Allah to Muhammad, the Qur’an as it currently exists is the product of many interventions by Muslims (all of whom were male?) over an extended period of time. Second, such Muslims relied on texts deriving from many sources to work out (guess?) what were and were not genuine/accurate revelations deriving from God/Allah. Third, such Muslims relied on texts of the Qur’an that often differed one from the other, and on evidence from Muhammad’s close companions and, later, people who had never met him, to work out (guess?) the order that the prophet wanted the revelations arranged. Fourth, common sense therefore dictates that, in situations such as the ones just identified in which human error is so easy to imagine, it is impossible to conclude that the Qur’an as it currently exists is, in every respect, precisely how Muhammad intended it to be just before he died. Last, given the official/mainstream (Sunni?) Muslim explanation for how the Qur’an came into existence, common sense also dictates that there are therefore no convincing reasons to believe that the Qur’an is the perfect and uncorrupted word of God/Allah.

P.P.S. I apologise for repeating some ideas immediately above, but what follows is of considerable importance. Given how Muslims (Sunni Muslims, at least) insist the Qur’an came into existence, one has to ask, “How is it possible to sustain the idea that the Qur’an is the perfect word of God devoid of additions, amendments or deletions undertaken by humankind?” Also, just as the official/mainstream Muslim view of how the Qur’an came into being confirms how unlikely it is that copies of the Qur’an which exist today are exactly as Muhammad intended them to be at the time he died (how can they possibly be inerrant, therefore?), the footnote above suggests that almost no one today has the knowledge, understanding and/or skills to engage with the Qur’an and fully understand it. Put another way, almost no one today is in a position to interpret the Qur’an accurately. Perhaps for this reason above all others, the Qur’an should therefore be regarded simply as a book of literature offering us interesting insights into how society functioned in the Arabian Peninsula just over 1400 years ago. Perhaps even better, especially given the harm it does when people interpret it badly, the Qur’an should be ignored altogether, other than by scholars and/or those who can engage with scripture with the unbiased, critical detachment it necessarily requires.

Of course, at no time soon will the Qur’an be regarded in the ways recommended above; it will continue to be used and abused by Muslims to shape their understanding of what it means to be devout and to determine what it means to lead a distinctively Muslim lifestyle. This therefore means that much work must be undertaken by Muslims to separate from within the Qur’an those aspects of the text that are morally admirable and those aspects of the text that encourage morally repellent behaviour. In reality, of course, a lot of this work has already been completed by Muslims around the world (one need look no further than the work of some “liberal/modernist” Sunni and Shia scholars and many Sufi, Ahmadiyya and Alevi Muslims), but a majority of mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims appear reluctant to engage constructively with the enlightening and enlightened ideas that derive from such people within the global Umma.

P.P.P.S. It has now been revealed that Asad Shah was an Ahmadiyya Muslim. His murder therefore has a sectarian dimension to it.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool