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New Developments in Qur'anic Studies


Since the apperance of the Atlantic Monthly's interview with Gerd R. Puin (Saarland University) in 1999 concerning the newly restored qur'anic manuscripts found at the grand mosque of San'a (Yemen), the issue of how the Qur'an came to be in the way we have it today became a subject of public interest and debate.

The ahistorical Holy Book of Islam now has a history. This history goes beyond the traditional Islamic story of the Uthmanic Codex, the issue of variant readings (Qira'at and Huruf), and the possible existence of a Shi'i codex. This new history that is in the making deals with, among other things, the orthography of the Qur'anic words, possible modifications made to the text, and even a Syro-Aramaic origin of the text.

The introduction of the topic into the public arena was accelerated by the seismic events of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the chain of suicide-bombings in Israel and Iraq. Everyone now wants to know about Islam, its adherents, and its holy book. Daniel Madigan, in his forward to The Qur'an in its Historical Context (G. Said-Reynolds ed.), accurately portrays the popular mentality in the West which views the Qur'an as "a ticking bomb that needs somehow to be difused." He makes another successful observation when he says that "the popular, and even some of the scholarly, reponse to Luxenberg's work seems to reflect two conflicting hopes -- the more negative is a desire to see the foundations of the Qur'an discredited, and along with them Muslim faith. The more positive is the hope for a new reading of the the Qur'an." By Luxenberg's work he means:

    Luxenberg, Christoph. Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache. (Berlin: Verlag Hans Schiler), 2000.

An English translation of this controvesial work has recently appeared

    Luxenberg, Christoph. The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran. (Berlin: Verlag Hans Schiler), 2007.

A host of books and articles have appeared since, arguing the same hypothesis:

    Sawma, Gabriel. The Qur'an: Misinterpreted, Mistranslated, and Misread. The Aramaic Language of the Qur'an. (Lowell, MA: Adi Books), 2006.
    Sfar, Mondher. Emilia Lanier tr. In Search of the Original Koran: The True History of the Revealed Text. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books), 2008.

Anti-Islamic web sites have multiplied with great resources arguing the old medieval message, i.e. Islam is a heresy and Muhammad is the anti-Christ; or the new anti-modernity message, i.e. Islam is an archaic religion simply unsuited for the modern ages (Islam Watch, Jihad Watch, Answering Islam, WikiIslam). The people behind these sites are either ex-Muslims or Christian evangelical groups. Regardless of their agenda, all of these sites make a special place for an argument againts the divinity of the Qur'an. One of the main books used in these arguments is actually a scholarly book written in thefirst half of the 20th century:

    Jeffery, Arthur. The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an. (Baroda, India: Oriental Institute), 1938

This book, along with other writings of Jeffery can be found in variopus formats on the web (books.google, missionary sites, etc.). For whoever wants to read it, since now we have a multitude of readers, the book has recently been reprinted several times:

    Jeffery, Arthur. The Foreign Vocabulary in the Qur'an. Brill, 2007; Woods Press, 2008; and Gorgias Press, 2009.

In response to what many Muslims view as an attack on their religion under the pretext of fighting terrorism, apologetic Muslim sites have also multiplied (Answering Christianity, Islamic Awareness). They have rebuttles for every criticism raised recently against Islam and the Qur'an. Islamic Awareness is a particularly interesting site, because of the care it takes to depend on the most recent scholarship on the topics it deals with. However, whether we are on this or that side, the issues and the scholarly works of reference are becoming standard (the controversial ones I mean); which is a sign for the lack of any breakthroughs concerning early Islamic history. We are still doubting the Islamic historiography with Patricial Crone and Michael Cook. We are still discussing the late codification of the Qur'an and/or its Syrian origin with John Wansbrough, Gerd Puin, Günter Lüling, and Christoph Luxenburg.

One of the most hotly debated "evidence" is the so-called Sana'a Manuscripts of the Quran (see Wikipedia, San'a Manuscripts). Just the fact that there is a Wikipedia page on these manuscripts is indicative of the wide interest in the debate. The initial results of G. Puin who was the first to study the manuscripts are now in English translation:

    Ohling, K. -H. & Puin, G.-R., 2005 .Die dunklen Anfänge. Neue Forschungen zur Entstehung und frühen Geschichte des Islam. (Berlin: Hans Schiler Verlag), 2005..
    Karl- Heinz Ohling. The Hidden Origins of Islam: New Research into its Early History. Prometheus Books, 2009

No less than the UNESCO is now interested in them (more than one manuscript), for they are now on the UNESCO Memory of the World Program (see the CD-ROM entitled "The Sana'a Manuscripts"); who is now heading the effort to restore these manuscripts (Read about the manuscripts in the Islamic Collections). Although few are paying attention to the exciting field of Islamic Archaeology, the written word in its archaeological manisfestation (i.e. epigraphy) is entering the debate as a hard evidence, just like the manuscripts are. Publisc pressure is mounting on Saudi Arabia, as the home of the cradle of Islam (Hijaz) to reveal its treasures. I am sure there are plenty of them, but they are still under the ground. The few that surfaced are slowly being made available to the wider public through exhibits such as Written in Stone organized by the Saudi Directorate of Tourism and Antiquities (they go together it seems) in collaboration with the Smithonian. Now we can start the more interesting "fight" about how to date these inscriptions; through paeleography or some ingenious scientic method like carbon dating (which not possible here).

The "origins of the Qur'an" debate has also taken an Indiana Jones-esque type of turn with an instriguing death, the allied bombing of Berlin in WWII, and some secret microfilms. The pre-war German project of producing a critical edition of the Qur'an was headed by Gotthelf Bergsträsser. He and his colleagues have collected (on microfilm) an archive of supposedly the most anciet Qur'an copies. The death of Bergsträsser (some blame it on the Nazis) and the eruption of WWII put an end to the project, especially when the new head of the project, Anton Spitaler, declared that the microfilm archive was lost during the allied bombing of Berlin. It turned out that Spitaler had the microfilms all along; a fact which he revealed to one of his students before his death. The discovery of the The Lost Archive prompted and article on the Wall Stree Journal (January 12, 2008). The project has been revived (Project Corpus Coranicum at the berlin-brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften.for the English version) and its is now headed by Prof. Dr. Angelika Neuwirth. For a detailed account of this intriguing story, one should consult the introduction to

    Said-Reynolds, Gabriel ed. The Qur'an in its Histprical Context. The Routledge Studies in the Qur'an, Andrew Rippin ed. (London and New York: Routledge), 2008.

This volume is an out-growth of 1st International Conference at Notre Dame ("Towards a New Reading of the Qur'an", April, 2005) directed by the editor of the volume himself. The publishing of the book came right on time for the 2nd International Conference at Notre Dame( "The Qur'an in its Historical Context", 19-21 April, 2009. The conference website has videos of the conference guest lectures given by abu Zayd/Soroush and Hoyland). The second installment of this miniserie has just come out:

    Said-Reynolds, Gabriel ed. The Qur'an and its Biblical Subtext. The Routledge Studies in the Qur'an, Andrew Rippin ed. (London and New York: Routledge), 2010.

These two volumes, along with the papers presented at the two conferences represent the latest scholarly work in Qur'anic Studies. On the Arab and Islamic side, the persectusion suffered by the lateQur'anic scholar Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd, the recent targeting of the Egyptian writer Sayyed al-Qumni, the events in Iraq, and the Niqab debate in France and belgium have stirred some water although not to the point of making waves. The Syrian writer Nabil Fayyad had recently published a 12-installment study on the different Qur'anic codexes mentioned in the Islamic tradition and the differences between them, Furuqat al-Masahif (فروقات المصاحف). The study, although courageous, does not go beyond the compilation of reports extracted from various sources of tradition concerning the codification of the Qur'an (the study is based on the work of Arthur Jeffery). The study has appeared on al-Awan, the electronic voice of the Association of Arab Rationalists (Rabitat al-'Aqlaniyyin al-'Arab), an association of itellectuals for the promotion of secularism and enlightenment values. Other critical articles on the Qur'an and the Islamic tradition have appeared on the pages of al-Awan.

Last updated on Wednesday, September 1, 2010

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