Islamic Reform: Holy Grail or Poisoned Chalice (Part II)
by Mary Jackson (May 2009)
I concluded Part I of this article (February 2009) by admitting that Islamic reform seemed like a lost cause. To be sure, my piece focused on what will not work: a pretty face (male or female), a pleasant personality in the case of spiky-haired Irshad Manji, or a plausible one in the case of the British Government’s Great Hope Ed Husain. Their approach, and that of too many Islamic reformers, is to sweeten Islam for the modern, Western palate. Whether or not they intend to deceive hardly matters. Adding the world “lightly” in a translation of the Koranic verse (4:34) enjoining the beating of “disobedient” wives does nothing to soften the blow for millions of Muslim women whose husbands know the truth. “Slay the unbelievers wherever you find them” stubbornly refuses to turn into “Give peace a chance.” The Koran says what it says, and is believed to be the unchanging, infallible word of God. Mohammed did what he did, and is believed to be the perfect man. Try as he might, can a reformer make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? In this second of three articles, I consider how such a task might be attempted. Attempted is the operative word – I offer no guarantee of success.
One possible line of attack is the sow’s ear itself. Suppose the sow’s ear is not the true Islam, but a corrupted version of a silk purse – or at least a leather purse. Suppose the Koran is divine and Mohammed perfect, but this divinity and this perfection were lost in transcription, translation or transmission. This, after all, is what Muslims claim about the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Mohammed, it is said, could not write; his words were transcribed by others. Collections of Hadith, or sayings of Mohammed, were compiled long after his death. Might not human error have intervened, losing some words and adding others, maliciously or accidentally?
The Hadith seem a promising place to start, since Muslims do not claim that they are the divine, uncreated word of Allah. And a start has been made, as reported in Jihad Watch in January 2009, which links to a piece by John Stringer in St Francis Magazine:
How do you transform a celestial brothel – the reward for slaughtering infidels - into something resembling the spiritual paradise earned by a Christian who takes up his cross? Simply put: you cannot. But you may be able to transform it into something harmless: grapes, for instance. Here is a reaction, not untypical, by blogger Montecarlo, to the work of Christoph Luxenberg, which, it is claimed and hoped, does just that:
"Christoph Luxenberg" is the pseudonymic [sic] author of a sensational but scholarly book, which attempts to analyze the language of the Koran by considering its probable Syro-Aramaic roots: Die Syro- Aramäische Lesart des Koran. Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache (= The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran. A contribution to the de-ciphering of the language of the Koran), first edition Berlin2000.
Luxenberg's book has had earth-shattering consequences in the Islamic -- or rather Islamistic -- world. A whole issue of Newsweek, containing a brief article dealing with Luxenberg's book, was banned in Pakistan in July 2003.
No wonder, because Luxenberg finds, inter alia, that the famed "wide-eyed houris (= virgins)", promised as a post-mortem sexual reward to the faithful (in suras 44.54, 52.20, 55.72, 54.22), are misinterpretations of "white raisins/grapes" of "crystal clarity", and not at all doe-eyed, ever-willing virgins. Would a prospective suicide-bomber settle for juicy white grapes?
“Surely not,” is the answer we instinctively and enthusiastically give. Perhaps the Koran isn’t so bad after all. If, in a Syro-Aramaic reading, houris can be grapes, can swords be ploughshares? Can the Koran be softened by, of all things, philology? Or is this a fairy tale worthy of Grimm?
Christoph Luxenberg makes no such claim. His purpose, stated in a conversation with Christoph Burgmer in Arts and Thought, is much more modest, and not at all “sensational”:
It must first be said that Western scholars have known for a long time that many passages in the Koran are incomprehensible. That accords with the interpretations of Arab commentators. However, it is precisely these ‘obscure passages’ in the Koran that are the starting-point for my work.
Previous attempts at interpreting them were based on speculation rather than being philologically founded. But speculation can never be the basis for a scientific method. I am trying to use philological methods to elucidate and substantiate these passages. The Syro-Aramaic dictionary has turned out to be the best means of doing this.
The existence of the Koran is a historical fact. It is now a question of seeing this historical fact in its historical context, which also means seeing it historically and subjecting the text to critical examination from that point of view. But critically does not mean that I want to disparage the Koran. I only want to understand it correctly on the basis of historio-linguistic findings.
Clearly, Luxenberg is disinterested – a prerequisite for scholarship of any kind. His modesty may be misplaced; the new approach was favourably reviewed in Hugoye, the Journal of Syriac Studies. The praise, from Robert R. Phenix Jr and Cornelia B. Horn, is not unqualified:
A work of this scope presented piece-meal necessarily lacks the cohesion and elegance of a full study. The implications of this method are nevertheless clear. Any future scientific study of the Qur’an will necessarily have to take this method into consideration. Even if scholars disagree with the conclusions, the philological method is robust. It has established a discipline that is substantially different from the exegetical traditions of the Arabian and Western commentators. Luxenberg has called into question the view of the Qur’an as a “pure” text, one free of the theological and philological difficulties that plague the transmission histories of other texts, e.g., the Hebrew Bible and its versions.
Phenix and Horn recognise that Luxenberg’s work raises more questions than it answers, always a mark of fruitful research. The measured tone of this review is appropriate. Philology is philology, and its aims should be purely, obscurely and demurely philological. This precludes wishful thinking of the kind shown by “Montecarlo” above. Luxenberg and others working in the field may well succeed in discovering the meaning of yet more words in the Koran, and proving once and for all that it was not of divine origin; alternatively, like Karl Verner, they may establish something less dramatic, such as the relative chronology of certain sound changes or stress patterns. A scholar must, to paraphrase Kipling, treat those two discoveries just the same. Excitement is a bonus: turning houris into grapes, or, for that matter, swords into ploughshares, is not the philologist’s business, but merely a possible by-product of his scholarship.
Moreover, as with the “good” and “bad” Hadith, a scholarly study may not tell us what we want to hear. What if philological studies had shown that grapes were houris, or that disobedient wives should be killed, rather than beaten? What if the benign Meccan verses of the Koran turned out, in a Syro-Aramaic reading, to be more, not less violent than was previously supposed? Much as we would like to learn that swords are really ploughshares, a purely disinterested study of the Koran or any other text should be, in principle, as likely to turn ploughshares into swords. And we laymen should be prepared to receive this bad news with equanimity – easier said than done.
The work of Christoph Luxenberg – and others, such as Patricia Crone – is worthwhile in its own right. It may well weaken Islam because any questioning of the Koran, disinterested or not, is a threat to that most brittle of belief systems. Hugh Fitzgerald wrote:
Islam itself, which requires all Muslims to be literalists, and relies on claims that the Qur'an is the immutable word of God, as dictated by the Angel Gabriel to an illiterate Arab, Muhammad […] will not be able to withstand, as Christianity and Judaism withstood, the scrutiny and analysis of the Higher Biblical Criticism.
However, what such work cannot do, and should not be expected to do, is reform Islam. It may transform the attitudes of some Muslims, perhaps turning them away from Islam, but that is not the same thing.
So, if weak Hadith and white grapes will not reform Islam, what will? Part III will conclude my seemingly fruitless search.
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