The need for a resurgent Bharat – Vamadeva Shastri

Abhaya Mudra

Vamadeva Shastri / David FrawleyA nation is largely defined according to its history. There is a great battle going on relative to the history of India. After independence, history studies and national institutions, such as the Indian Council of Historical Research, were dominated by socialists, if not Marxists, who were naturally hostile to the older dharmic culture of the region. … When the greatness of India’s past, such as the extensive urban sites along the ancient Sarasvati River were discovered, this largely Delhi intelligentsia found little to be proud of or made known. The older Vedic period was reduced and not made into anything foundational for India as a whole. It was treated as a limited culture said to originate from outside of India in Central Asia.” – Pandit Vamadeva Shastri

BharatvarshaThere is an ongoing battle occurring at many levels relative to the concept of India and what India is, was and is meant to be. This is not merely a scholarly debate to arrive at truth but resembles more a struggle for power. Whoever controls the idea of India, as presented at media, education and government levels, to a great extent controls the country along with its resources, and shapes its future.

In this debate about India, the term Bharat—which is the correct and long-term name for the country—is usually left out, as that would immediately change the tenor of the discussion.

Bharat is the traditional name of India and is enshrined in the constitution, showing that those framed the constitution were aware of the importance of the term and its equivalence for India as a whole. Article 1(1) of the Constitution states, “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.”

If we use the term Bharat for India a number of issues of the nature and identity of the country are automatically solved. Bharat is the name of India in the region’s literature going back to Vedic times and shows a continuity of the country for thousands of years.

If we look at India only since 1947, we start with the idea of partition and tend to build upon it with further partitions and divisions of culture, people and language, each with its own separate identity. Those who are biased against the older history of India avoid the term Bharat so that they can redefine India today as if it no real past as a country before 1947, which allows them to turn the country into what they would like it to be, with no specific culture of its own.

Some modern thinkers say that India as a country was invented by the British during the period of colonial rule, who put together under a single administration the diverse group of peoples, countries, cultures and languages of the subcontinent, which overall had little in common to begin with. Other credit the Moguls (who called India “Hindustan”) for providing some sense of national unity to the far-flung land.

If we use the term Bharat, no one can say that there is no unity of culture, civilization or history to the region. Bharat implies a history of the country going back to the famous Vedic emperor Bharata, one of the early kings in the ancient Puru dynasty said to have reigned long before Rama, Krishna or Buddha.

Bharatiya Samskriti: The Culture of Dharma

Indian culture translates as “Bharatiya Samskriti” in the older terminology of the region, which also explains a lot as to what it is. Indian culture is not something invented over the last century or two and enshrined in the intellectual circles of modern Delhi. Indian culture is Bharatiya Samskriti, the culture of Bharat.

Samskrit is not simply a language but a way of culture and refinement, and a body of knowledge. The idea of Bharatiya Samskriti naturally brings back the culture of Bharatiya or Indian classical music, dance, poetry, philosophy, medicine, mathematics and science, and aims at a renaissance for them in the modern age. It includes the Prakrits or regional languages of the country as well as their cultural traditions, which are all linked together.

The culture of classical India or Bharatiya Samskriti is first of all a culture of dharma. It is built upon an effort to understand the dharma of all life and all aspects of human life and culture. This dharmic culture embraces a pluralism of spiritual paths, including the many sects of Hinduism, as well as Buddhists, Jain, and Sikhs and can be extended to anyone who honors a pluralistic view and respect for the whole of life.

Who are those who uphold the culture of Bharata or Bharatiya Samskriti in India today? It is not the English language media or even most of academia. These groups may address aspects of the traditional culture, but usually in a fragmentary manner, forgetting the overall connections, examining local folk customs in isolation for example. Or they may denigrate the idea that there was any overriding culture for the region as a whole.

Those who uphold the culture of Bharat are now on the periphery and often criticized as narrow-minded or out of date, though the dharmic culture of classical India or Bharat cultivated a broader view of life and consciousness than what we see in predominant modern ideologies and educational trends. Yet these voices of Bharat can still be heard and are making their present felt again.

This means that there is no need to create a new Indian culture post-independence in order to bring unity and identity to the country. The need is to honour the ongoing continuity of Bharatiya and Dharmic culture, its relevance for the future and its ability to adapt itself to the times, including its capacity to embrace and integrate diverse views. If India is a free and democratic country today, it is because of its history as Bharat.

Yet Dharmic culture is not confined to the boundaries of any political or religious system or dogma. This Bharatiya Dharmic culture was not limited to the subcontinent of India but spread throughout Asia and influenced Europe and much of the rest of the world as well. Yet it was in Bharat itself that this characteristic dharmic civilization most took root and survived.

Bharatiya culture is largely a culture of knowledge and promotes learning, considering meditation as the most important form of study that one can do. The symbol of Bharatiya culture is the Yogi or Buddha sitting in meditation pose. This dharmic culture of knowledge can embrace science as well as spirituality and sees consciousness as the underlying ground of the entire universe. The Bharatiya tradition of learning and knowledge is the basis for the success of India’s diaspora in the US, UK and western world.

There are those who say that India is an inclusive concept but Bharat is communal because it is mainly Hindu, though Hindu Dharma itself has a pluralistic and respectful view of life. But traditional Bharat never tried to invade and conquer other countries. There us no history of wars of religious conquest or conversion by Bharatiya armies, or any Bharata based colonial rule and exploitation of other lands.

The Bharatiya model is an excellent model for the modern era in which we must integrate a number of cultures from throughout the world. Compared to the inclusive and synthetic Bharatiya model of culture, socialist and Marxist models are narrow, repressive and materialistic. Even the capitalist model lacks the depth of the dharmic approach and its sense of compassion.

What should be our model for defining India, if not Bharata? Is it China, the Soviet Union, the EU or the USA? Is it Nehruvian socialism, Bengali communism, European nationalism, or American consumerism? These may have some benefits but reflect much more circumscribed views of human life and culture.


Bharat has the longest and most extensive literary continuity of any modern country or culture. This extends through its massive Sanskrit literature to the main local languages from Tamil to Hindi, which are linked to Sanskrit, and often have larger literatures of their own than the literature of modern European countries.

The concept of Bharata as comprising the entire subcontinent of India is clear in the Mahabharata itself, which is over two thousand years old. The Mahabharata embraces every portion of greater India from Sri Lanka in the South to Uttara Kuru or the lands beyond the Himalayas to the north.

The Mahabharata is not just a story of ancient kings but outlines the kingdoms, countries and cultures of the region. It reflects all the main sects of Hindu Dharma as Vaishnava, Shaiva, Ganapata, and Shakta but also honors freedom of thought and inquiry, with extensive dialogues examining numerous subjects, spiritual and mundane. It discusses the rule and laws of kings and the role of dharma in all aspects of life. No other country or region, whether Europe, China or the Middle East, has a text of such extent and a continuity of culture as the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata looks back on the older Vedic tradition, which originated in the Saraswati region of North India over five thousand years ago, when the Saraswati was a great river. Yet today it is in Kerala in the South that we find the strictest adherence to Vedic rituals and practices, showing the extent of influence of this ancient culture.

Saraswati RiverThe Battle Over History

A nation is largely defined according to its history. There is a great battle going on relative to the history of India. After independence, history studies and national institutions, such as the ICHR (Indian Council of Historical Research) were dominated by socialists, if not Marxists, who were naturally hostile to the older dharmic culture of the region.

Their goal was to emphasize a new India defined in the post-independence era that was removed from its traditional past. There were a few traditional figures like Ashok and Akbar who were brought in as historical precedents of their idea of India, but much of the history of the country was ignored. When the greatness of India’s past, such as the extensive urban sites along the ancient Saraswati River were discovered, this largely Delhi intelligentsia found little to be proud of or made known. The older Vedic period was reduced and not made into anything foundational for India as a whole. It was treated as a limited culture said to originate from outside of India in Central Asia.

Today the Archaeological Survey of India and Geological Survey of India have placed the Vedic period on a firm footing, showing a continuity of culture in the Saraswati region from the beginnings of agriculture before 7000 BCE to the drying up of the Saraswati River around 1900 BC.

We can identify the early Vedic period with the period from 7000-3100 BCE. Curiously when the Greek scholar Megasthenes visited India along with Alexander’s armies, he noted a tradition of 153 kings going back over 6400 years to a date of around 6776 BCE. This suggests a continuity of dynasties in the region going back a very long time.

We can identify the late Vedic period from 3100-1900 BCE with the urban Harappan period, in which the Saraswati River was already in decline, which is how we find the river described in several later Brahmana texts, in Mahabharata and in Manu Smriti.

The New Battle for Delhi

Delhi is the seat of government in India. But it is also the main center for the English language media and academia in the country, which often uncritically reflects the opinions of its western education and values. This Delhi intelligentsia has had the main role in defining India in recent decades, though the culture of Delhi, particularly of its ruling elite, is very different from the culture of most of the country.

The Delhi elite has redefined India largely in a Nehruvian-socialist-Marxist image, mainly as India after 1947. They have tried to make classical India into a foreign culture or something merely regional, while glorifying recent political trends in the West as capable of defining and raising up India as a modern nation.

Even today we have well-known communists appearing in the media, pretending to be defenders of India and examples of intellectual thinking, tolerance and compassion, though their comrades throughout the world have largely been thrown out of power, with their views discredited.

The Post-Marxist Era and the Twenty First Century

We need to redefine India in the post-colonial, post-Marxist era, which requires the rediscovery of Bharat. While India did throw off the British rule at an outer level in 1947, the rule of colonial based concepts, biases and institutions continued. These were gradually combined with Marxist and leftist concepts that maintained the denigration of the older dharmic culture of the region.

The great majority of Marxist countries in the world came to an end in the period from 1989-1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies. China has moved away from a Marxist orientation and is now re-embracing its Confucian past. Russia once more emulates the Czars and the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet India’s intellectuals continue to promote Marxist ideas in India’s universities as if Marxism were still an important and innovative trend in world thought.

India Resurgent as Bharat

India today in the twenty-first century is becoming resurgent as Bharat, because that is the actual foundation of the country through its enduring culture throughout the centuries.

India’s great dharmic traditions—including Yoga, Vedanta, Buddhism and Ayurveda—have gained respect throughout the world, with millions of followers in every continent. It is this older dharmic culture of Bharat that the world looks up to and hopes India develops, not the recent India of the Nehru dynasty.

Economically speaking, India is rising up today only by casting off the Marxist-Nehruvian-socialist yoke and embracing its own older Vaishya, merchant and dharmic economic traditions, which are similarly an integral part of Bharat. India was not poor when it was Bharat. It became poor when it ceased to be Bharat.

Bharat MataBharat Mata as Mother India

The land of Bharat has always been regarded as Bharat Mata, Mother India. This is not a cultural concept defined by aggression, intolerance, and materialism, but one that honors Mother Earth and Mother Nature and sees culture as a mother who nurtures us, not as a social control mechanism.

Bharat Mata is also Yoga Mata and regards human culture as a movement towards Yoga and the evolution of consciousness, such as Sri Aurobindo so eloquently proclaimed. Bharat Mata is Ma Durga, the protective force the takes us from darkness to light. She is Bharata Bhavani, Mother India as the mother of life and culture. Bharat Mata embodies the Yoga Shakti or power of spiritual striving in humanity. She is not the imposition of a religious concept upon the country but a poetic/spiritual representation of the soul of its people and its dharmic ethos.

Bharat was traditionally Vishvaguru or the world guru among nations for many centuries. People came from throughout Asia and the Middle East to study at its great centers of learning like Takshashila and Nalanda. Bharat was famous for its spiritual and scientific knowledge but also for its art, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and material prosperity.

Bharat remained prosperous until the period of British rule, showing that the colonial rulers did not raise India up but pulled it down. Colonial rulers tried to remove Bharat and in its place substitute an artificial idea of India, made according to their own biases, which they therefore had the right to rule.

Bharat Mata can be the Vishvaguru or the world guru, but India as defined by the last hundred years only cannot. It is time for Bharat to arise again and awaken the world to a greater destiny and higher awareness that goes back to its great ancient seers and yogis. A resurgent Bharat is of tremendous value for the entire world, if not essential for the future of humanity. – Vedanet, 13 August 2015

» Pandit Vamadeva Shastri (Dr David Frawley) is a guru in the Vedic tradition. He is recognized as a Vedacharya in India, and includes in his scope of studies Ayurveda, Yoga, Vedanta and Vedic astrology, as well as the ancient Vedic teachings going back to the oldest Rigveda. 

Raksha Bandhan
Raksha Bandhan
Bindeshwari Pathak
Narendra Modi

History is factual and seamless – Sandhya Jain

Chronos (Time)

Sandhya Jain is the editor of Vijayvaani.“As modern India renews ties with Central Asian nations with whom we lost our land links due to Partition, it would help to teach students that while it is a colonial (and post-colonial) fantasy that the Aryans raced down the Central Asian steppes, the Mongols and medieval Turks took this route in their quest for empire. For a century between 1221 and 1327, the Mongols raided the subcontinent, subduing Kashmir and occupying much of modern Pakistan and Punjab. … The Great Khans rank among the world’s greatest imperialists, overrunning Russia, China, and Central Asia.” — Sandhya Jain

Narendra Modi & Islam KarimovAt the banquet hosted for Mr Modi, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov said, “Quite a lot of history, literature, music, painting and architecture of the Uzbek and Indian people, their mutual enrichment and mutual penetration is linked with the name of our great ancestor Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur and his descendants, with everlasting heritage which they left to humanity”. He added, “ancient Indian culture, which strikes with its depth, perfect form and variety, exerted and continues to exert a startling influence on many countries of the Orient. It is for this very reason that today India and its diligent people enjoy a stable respect in our country”.

Babur, of Mongol-Uzbek descent, founded the Moghul empire; Hindu memory of his legacy clashes with that of the Uzbek, for whom he ranks as a warrior of the genre of Chengez Khan, in an age when History belonged to the conqueror. But the larger point being made by President Karimov is that history is factual—it cannot be undone—and seamless. The continuity of Time links apparently tectonic ruptures.

Hence Chronology (from the Greek god, Chronos, Time) is the backbone of History, against which students are taught about nations and civilisations. Yet textbooks of the erstwhile UPA government, currently under review for correction, are remarkable for persistent disrespect to chronology, depriving tender minds of a coherent sense of history. Some chapters of Indian history have a mixed, even vexed, legacy; shying away from the factual narrative (which alone is required at school level) can only produce an intellectually handicapped citizenry.

The NCERT Social Science textbook, Our Pasts, for Class VII (12-year-olds), deals with new dynasties such as the Rashtrakutas and Cholas in a chapter that suddenly mentions Mahmud of Ghazni, though there was no link between them. The chapter on Delhi Sultanate omits the Turkish invasions which were the backdrop to its establishment. Possibly the intention is to project the Sultanate as an indigenous kingdom, a grave distortion.

Qutbu l-Din Aibak, founder of the Delhi Sultanate, is ignored, while there is sudden mention of Iltutmish as father of Razia, a short-lived ruler of no consequence. This chapter discusses architecture of the Sultanate era, mainly the Quwwat-ul Islam mosque, while a later chapter mentions the Qutb Minar. The eminent historians who oversaw the project (the Who’s Who of history scholars) were so confused that Sultanate architecture again figures in the chapter on Mughal architecture! It mentions the Mongols, without linking them to developments of the time.

BaburAs modern India renews ties with Central Asian nations with whom we lost our land links due to Partition, it would help to teach students that while it is a colonial (and post-colonial) fantasy that the Aryans raced down the Central Asian steppes, the Mongols and medieval Turks took this route in their quest for empire. For a century between 1221 and 1327, the Mongols raided the subcontinent, subduing Kashmir and occupying much of modern Pakistan and Punjab. Their ingress brought them into conflict with the Delhi Sultanate. Hulagu Khan’s desire for conquests in the west took the bulk of the Mongol armies towards Baghdad and Syria, sparing India, though wars continued. In Baghdad, the Mongols converted to Islam; native Mongolians remained Buddhist. The Great Khans rank among the world’s greatest imperialists, overrunning Russia, China, and Central Asia.

Korean Buddhist monk Hyecho, called in Sanskrit Prajñāvikram (704 -- 787 CE). He travelled to India in 723 CE to acquaint himself with the language and culture of the land of the Buddha.It is a safe bet that average students do not know that the Turks originated in Central Asia; the Arab armies converted them to Islam in the seventh century and blocked the land route by which Chinese pilgrims came to India. Korean pilgrim Hyecho was possibly the last to take this route, and witnessed the changes being wrought by the new faith.

It is these ancient land routes—beaten out by traders and pilgrims and followed by armies—that Asia’s contemporary rulers want to revive to mutual advantage; hence the International North South Transport Corridor, BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Ashgabat Agreement, Silk Road Economic Belt and Eurasian Economic Union. Ignorance of history can only be a handicap to the rising generation.

All nations joining these initiatives are equally concerned with terrorism. There are the Chechens in Russia, Uighurs in China, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and multiple groups in Pakistan and India. Iran is helping Iraq fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Closer home, fundamentalism in undivided Bengal, specially the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946, forced the Congress to succumb to Partition. But, in recent times, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has emerged as the foremost leader fighting jihadis; she is also denying sanctuary to northeast insurgents from India. To reciprocate, Prime Minister Narendra Modi persuaded West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to help resolve the vexed land boundary dispute with Dhaka. Both nations are now working on the sharing of Teesta waters, and will hopefully tackle the issue of illegal immigrants.

History is thus a continuum. Hence, it is inexplicable how purging Rana Pratap from the story of Akbar makes better history. Even the fact that the early Mughals distrusted and fought the Afghans is suppressed to project the ruling elite as a composite balance of foreign and Indian ethnic groups. Actually, the Mughals incorporated the Marathas much later in a bid to pacify them when they could not be crushed militarily.

Temple destruction may be mentioned or omitted altogether. But centuries of iconoclasm by Muslim armies cannot be equated with stray instances of Hindu rulers taking the tutelary deity of a defeated king to their own realms. The great Vijayanagar empire; the stressful relations between the Sikh Gurus and Jehangir and subsequent emperors, particularly the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur, have place in an honest history. Any reference to Shivaji is meaningless without explaining Aurangzeb’s 25-year bid to expand the Mughal empire into the Deccan. In sum, the modification of textbooks is overdue. – Vijayvaani, 15 July 2015  

» Sandhya Jain is a writer of political and contemporary affairs for The Pioneer, New Delhi. She edits an opinions forum, Vijayvaaniand contributes to a web portal, Niticentral.

NCERT History Textbook 'Our Pasts'

Reclaim civilisational self from shallow history texts – Anirban Ganguly

Dr Anirban Ganguly“Political considerations, ideological affiliations—especially of those who have always tried to establish an imported ideology—of well-resourced groups who have thrived in the Western academia by projecting India as a society in perpetual conflict and instability, has largely influenced the study of history. Their prime political objective, despite their arguments to the contrary, has been to generate confusion and to finally deconstruct Bharat’s civilisational self-perception.” – Dr Anirban Ganguly

R.C. MajumdarIn the preface to his three-volume classic, History of the Freedom Movement in India, R. C. Majumdar (1888-1980), one of India’s most distinguished 20th century historians, made a very telling remark, especially relevant to teaching the history of the Indian freedom  movement to young learners. “I have not hesitated,” wrote Majumdar, “to speak out the truth, even if it is in conflict with views cherished and propagated by distinguished political leaders for whom I have the greatest respect.” He also argued that a “solid structure of mutual amity and understanding cannot be built on the quicksands of false history and political expediency.”

One notices a compartmentalised and selective approach to the study of India, especially when examining the freedom struggle and the role of various regions and leaders. How many, for example, have been taught in some detail, of the rebellions against the East India Company rule in the southern region between 1800 and 1801? Why is the Northeast’s contribution to the freedom struggle and its pre-British civilisational identity and achievements not highlighted, researched and taught? Shall we not marvel to know how V. O. Chidambaram Pillai launched a Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company and challenged the British monopoly of the shipping sector until he was held, charged with sedition, and sentenced to life imprisonment? Sri V.O. Chidambaram PillaiAurobindo’s columns in Vande Mataram still stir the depths of our being and shape our patriotic sentiments. Ranima Gaidinliu’s exploits continue to inspire, as does the poetry of the revolutionary Subramaniam Bharati. Sister Nivedita’s contribution to strengthening scientific research in India against great colonial opposition is worth knowing.

Political considerations, ideological affiliations—especially of those who have always tried to establish an imported ideology—of well-resourced groups who have thrived in the Western academia by projecting India as a society in perpetual conflict and instability, has largely influenced the study of history. Their prime political objective, despite their arguments to the contrary, has been to generate confusion and to finally deconstruct Bharat’s civilisational self-perception. Therefore, all episodes in our history that have strengthened that civilisational self-perception, any individual or movement that has derived inspiration from Bharat’s civilisational self or has worked to discover and disseminate its achievements has been marginalised and suppressed.

So opportunistic and shallow has been the commitment to officially write the history of the freedom struggle that Marxist historians who got down to writing it could never complete it despite spending crores of taxpayers’ money and working on it for over four decades. The “Towards Freedom” project that continues to languish was essentially handed over to a group of scholars with no known commitment to India’s civilisational  K. M. Panikkarethos and who used the opportunity to perpetuate a political line and to exonerate a political class whose only contribution to the struggle for freedom was through collaboration with colonialists and imperialists in suppressing the movement itself.

But finally, there seems to be a gradual reversal of that approach. Attempts are being made to rediscover and re-interpret, as inspiring icons, many marginalised personalities who have made epochal contributions to shape our civilisational self and world view. Efforts are being made to study and disseminate their contributions, the contributions of historical episodes, events and achievements that have instilled a genuine civilisational sense in us. The compartmentalised approach is being challenged and questioned, new ideas, hitherto suppressed, are finding voice.

Such first steps towards restating our civilisational self is an urgent necessity, it alone can lead towards achieving that second dimension of freedom—the freedom of the mind, self and self-perception. – The New Indian Express, 15 August 2015

» Dr Anirban Ganguly is Director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. Email

History of India

The Yemeni Koran – Jamie Glazov

Moorthy MuthuswamyJamie Glazov’s Frontpage interview guests are Robert Spencer and Moorthy Muthuswamy.

Moorthy Muthuswamy is an expert on terrorism in India. He grew up in India, where he had firsthand experience with political Islam and jihad. He moved to America in 1984 to pursue graduate studies. In 1992, he received a doctorate in nuclear physics from Stony Brook University, New York. Since 1999 he has extensively published ideas on neutralizing political Islam’s terror war as Robert Spencerit is imposed on unbelievers. He is the author of the new book, Defeating Political Islam: The New Cold War.

Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch, a program of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is the author of nine books on Islam and Jihad, a weekly columnist for Human Events and, and has led numerous seminars for the U.S. military and intelligence communities. He is the author of the new book, The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran.

FP: Moorthy Muthuswamy and Robert Spencer, welcome to the Frontpage interview. I’d like to talk to both of you today about the Yemeni Koran. Moorthy Muthuswamy, let’s begin with you. Tell us about this Yemeni Koran and what it signifies.

• Muthuswamy: Thank you for the opportunity, Jamie. First, some background.

In 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana’a, in Yemen, a gravesite containing a mash of old parchment pages was discovered. It became clear that this parchment hoard is an example of what is sometimes referred to as a “paper grave.” In this case, the site was the resting place for tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

Using a technique called “carbon dating,” some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard were dated back to the seventh and eighth centuries, or Islam’s first two centuries. Until now, three ancient copies of the Koran were said to exist. One copy in the Library of Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and another in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, date from the eighth century. A copy kept in the British Library in London dates from the late seventh century. But the Sana’a parchment pages are even older. Moreover, these pages are written in a script that originates from the Hijaz—the region of Arabia where the prophet Muhammad purportedly lived. This makes the Yemeni Korans not only the oldest to have survived, but one of the earliest copies of the Koran ever.

In 1981, the first scientific undertaking to study the Yemeni Koran was initiated by a group headed by Gerd R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography based at Saarland University, in Saarbrücken, Germany. Puin and his group recognized the antiquity of some of the parchment fragments. Their preliminary inspection revealed unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment. Interestingly, some of the sheets were also palimpsests—versions very clearly written over even earlier, washed-off or erased versions.

To quote Puin: “So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word…. 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 Sana’a fragments will help us to do this.”

The idea that the Koran is the literal Word of God, perfect, timeless, and permanent, is crucial to Islam, in particular, to the Islamists at the forefront of spreading sharia and jihad. However, some of the Sana’a fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Indeed, this evidence compels one to conclude that the Muslim holy book has undergone a textual evolution rather than simply the Word of God as revealed in its entirety to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.

This explosive ramification has made the State of Yemen reluctant to give further access to the Sana’a fragments. Fortunately, before the door was shut to Western scholars, another German academic, Graf von Bothmer, made 35,000 microfilm pictures of the fragments, which remain at the University of the Saarland.

FP: Robert Spencer, so the Yemeni Koran points to the fact that the Muslim holy book has undergone a textual evolution. Give us your view of the meaning and significance here.

• Spencer: Moorthy is quite right: the idea that the Koran is perfect and uncreated, with no textual variants, is central to Islamic proselytizing. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) says the Koran “was memorized by Muhammad and then dictated to his companions. The text of the Qur’an was cross-checked during the life of the Prophet. The 114 chapters of the Qur’an have remained unchanged through the centuries.” This idea is also central to the worldview of jihadist groups. Osama bin Laden bragged in his 2002 letter to the American people that the Koran “will remain preserved and unchanged, after the other Divine books and messages have been changed. The Qur’an is the miracle until the Day of Judgment.”

The textual variants in the Yemeni Koran, simply by showing that the text is not always and everywhere the same, explode the mainstream Islamic belief that the Koran was delivered in perfect form to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel, and has always been miraculously preserved from variant readings.

Yet oddly enough, early Islamic traditions recorded in the Hadith assume the existence of variant readings of the Koran. The impetus for collecting Muhammad’s revelations into a single volume came after Muhammad and other important early Muslims started dying off. Late in the year Muhammad died, 632, a group of Arab tribes that Muhammad had conquered and brought into the Muslim fold revolted. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, led the Muslims into battle to subdue them.

The two sides met in the Battle of Yamama, in which some of the Muslims who had memorized segments of the Koran were killed. One Islamic tradition notes that “many (of the passages) of the Qur’an that were sent down were known by those who died on the day of Yamama … but they were not known (by those who) survived them, nor were they written down, nor had [the first three caliphs] Abu Bakr, Umar or Uthman (by that time) collected the Qur’an, nor were they found with even one (person) after them.” (Ibn Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Masahif )

The official compiler of the Koran, Zaid ibn Thabit, explained that he “started locating Quranic material and collecting it from parchments, scapula, leaf-stalks of date palms and from the memories of men (who knew it by heart). I found with Khuzaima two Verses of Surat-at-Tauba which I had not found with anybody else.” Zaid’s recollection testifies to the ad hoc nature of his work. For example, it was Khuzaima himself, Zaid’s sole source for the last two verses of sura 9, who approached Zaid and informed him of the omission: “I see you have overlooked (two) verses and have not written them.” When he had recited them, an influential companion of Muhammad and the future third caliph, Utman, declared, “I bear witness that these verses are from Allah.” And so they were included in the Koran (9:128-129).

Other sections of the Koran, some mandating stringent punishments for unbelievers and other violators of Islamic law, were lost altogether. One early Muslim declared, “Let none of you say, ‘I have acquired the whole of the Qur’an.’ How does he know what all of it is when much of the Qur’an has disappeared? Rather let him say ‘I have acquired what has survived’” (As-Suyuti, Al-Itqan fii Ulum al-Qur’an ). Other Koranic verses dropped out of the text without replacement. One of these stated, “The religion with Allah is al-Hanifiyyah (the Upright Way) rather than that of the Jews or the Christians, and those who do good will not go unrewarded.” Al-Tirmidhi, the compiler of one of the six collections of Hadith, or Islamic traditions, that Muslims consider to be the most reliable, said that this verse was at one time part of sura 98. It is not found there, however, in Zaid’s canonical version.

FP: Moorthy Muthuswamy?

• Muthuswamy: The importance of the Yemeni Koran is that it was an independent discovery; it physically exists and is distinct from the Islamic doctrines presently in use.

Political Islam faces ideological difficulties with the likes of the Sana’a fragments pointing to the textual evolution of the Koran. Furthermore, as Robert insightfully observes, other inconsistencies in the contemporary Koran and the Hadith accentuate these difficulties.

The challenge ahead lies in utilizing this breach to decisively break the back of Islamic radicalism.

Whether it is the latest, in the form of the Fort Hood massacre or the previous 9/11 attacks, there is one common theme: the armed jihads were carried out by mosque-going pious Muslim men who claimed to be driven by Islamic doctrines.

Recently, much progress has been achieved by applying statistical analysis to the Islamic doctrines themselves in order to understand why pious Muslims are waging jihad on unbelievers. Specifically, we now understand that about sixty-one percent of the contents of the Koran are found to speak ill of unbelievers or call for their violent conquest; at best only 2.6 percent of the verses of the Koran are noted to show goodwill toward humanity. Get this: about seventy-five percent of Muhammad’s biography (Sira) consists of jihad waged on unbelievers.

While there might be some subjectivity to the above analysis, the overwhelming thrust of the inferences should be noted. Moreover, this overall thrust exposes the sheer absurdity of excusing the Koran-inspired terror on the so-called “selective interpretation” of the Muslim holy book or its “verses being taken out of context.”

Additionally, there is the sharia—the so-called Islamic Law, legitimized by the Koran. The medieval sharia has stifled development and integration of Muslim communities, and has indirectly helped channel Muslim energies toward the outlet of jihad.

Let us discuss the evolution of Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood jihadist. Consider a hypothetical scenario: the majority of the worshippers in the mosques Hasan attended believed that the Koran couldn’t be taken literally; that there are many mainstream Islamic sites that emphasized the textual evolution of the Muslim holy book. What would have happened? It is very unlikely that Hasan would have given the pro-jihad seminar (the precursor to the Fort Hood massacre) in Walter Reed Medical Center.

Unfortunately, reality is just the opposite. Saudi-funded Wahhabi ideologies that emphasize the literal interpretation of the Koran have played a longstanding role at grievously influencing most American mosque goers.

An April 2001 survey by CAIR found 69 percent of Muslims in America saying it is “absolutely fundamental” or “very important” to have Salafi (similar to radical Wahhabi Islamic ideology) teachings at their mosques (67 percent of respondents also expressed agreement with the statement “America is an immoral, corrupt society”). The Internet-based mainstream Islamic portals too, almost without exception, preach radical ideologies, backed by the Muslim holy book.

Based on the above analysis we can unequivocally state that the Koran, through its contents and their literal interpretations, acts as an albatross around the neck of Muslim communities. Yet, our national security policy in its various incarnations builds on the fundamentally flawed assumption that the Koran is a constructive element in the lives of Muslims.

The challenge of mitigating the radical Islamic threat indeed comes down to questioning the very basis that the Koran is the Word of God.

The Yemeni Koran, backed by Koranic inconsistencies might provide a fresh impetus in this direction.

FP: Robert Spencer, final thoughts?

• Spencer: Moorthy is right. PowerPoint slides on which Hasan proposed to show “what the Koran inculcates in the minds of Muslims and the potential implications this may have for the U.S. military” have come to light. The implications are many, and important.

Hasan makes the case that Muslims must not fight against other Muslims (as is mandated by Koran 4:92), and that the Koran also mandates both defensive and offensive jihad against unbelievers, in order to impose upon those unbelievers the hegemony of Islamic law. He quotes the Koranic verse calling for war against the “People of the Book” (that is, mainly Jews and Christians) until they “pay the tax in acknowledgment of [Islamic] superiority and they are in a state of subjection” (9:29).

Hasan seems then to have been telling the assembled (and no doubt stunned) physicians that Muslims had a religious obligation to make war against and subjugate non-Muslims as inferiors under their rule. But surely that is “extremist” Islam, no? No. Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Shari’ah and Law of the International Islamic University in Islamabad, in a book on Islamic law explains that “Muslim jurists agreed that the purpose of fighting with the People of the Book … is one of two things: it is either their conversion to Islam or the payment of jizyah.” (Jizyah is the tax referred to in Koran 9:29.)

Nyazee concludes: “This leaves no doubt that the primary goal of the Muslim community, in the eyes of its jurists, is to spread the word of Allah through jihad, and the option of poll-tax [jizya] is to be exercised only after subjugation” of non-Muslims.”

Likewise Majid Khadduri, an internationally renowned Iraqi scholar of Islamic law, explained in his 1955 book War and Peace in the Law of Islam that “the Islamic state, whose principal function was to put God’s law into practice, sought to establish Islam as the dominant reigning ideology over the entire world…. The jihad was therefore employed as an instrument for both the universalization of religion and the establishment of an imperial world state.”

And Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini put it this way: “Islam makes it incumbent on all adult males, provided they are not disabled or incapacitated, to prepare themselves for the conquest of [other] countries so that the writ of Islam is obeyed in every country in the world…. But those who study Islamic Holy War will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world…. There are hundreds of other [Qur’anic] psalms and hadiths [sayings of the Prophet] urging Muslims to value war and to fight. Does all this mean that Islam is a religion that prevents men from waging war? I spit upon those foolish souls who make such a claim.”

Hasan’s Islam also coincides with that of the jihad terror group Hamas, which has announced its intention, once fully and firmly ensconced in power, to collect that Koranic tax—jizyah—from the non-Muslims luckless enough to live within its domains. Hasan would also no doubt find heads nodding in agreement with his explanation of Islam among the Muslim Brotherhood, the international Islamic organization (which operates under a variety of names in the United States) that is dedicated in its own words to a “grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.”

No one in government or law enforcement has ever made any attempt to determine how prevalent such understandings of Islam are among Muslims in the United States. But if they are not Nidal Hasan’s eccentricities, but indeed mainstream views of Islam, it would be of cardinal importance for those sworn to protect us to begin making such an attempt now. The lives of innocent people depend on it. As Moorthy explained, the Yemeni Koran could help provide a way.

FP: Moorthy Muthuswamy and Robert Spencer, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.FrontPageMag, 13 December 2009

This folio, from a Quran manuscript written in Madina in the middle of the 1st century Hijra, was discovered in Sana'a's Great Mosque in 1972. It was auctioned by Christie’s for a record £2,484,500, 20 times its estimated price.

Great Mosque of Sanaa, Yemen

What is the Koran? – Toby Lester

Toby Lester“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 scrutinized, 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. … More than ever before, anybody wishing to understand global affairs will need to understand Islamic civilization, in all its permutations.” – Toby Lester

Minarets of the Great Mosque of Sana'aIn 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana’a, in Yemen, laborers working in a loft between the structure’s inner and outer roofs stumbled across a remarkable gravesite, although they did not realize 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 jewelry. 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 laborers 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 Isma’il al-Akwa’, then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, who realized 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 organize 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.

Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., or Islam’s first two centuries—they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence. What’s more, some of these 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.

Sana'a ManuscriptLooking at the Fragments

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 Saarbrücken, Germany. Puin, who had been sent by the German government to organize and oversee the restoration project, recognized 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 the 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 A.D.

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 tantalizingly 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 realized 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 scrutinize 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 Sana’a 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.”

Koran by AliCopyediting God

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 historicize the Koran would in effect delegitimize 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.”

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 the 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 Kur’an 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 Günter Lüling 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 copyediting 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 Hagarism’s 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 institutionalization 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 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.

Gerd R. 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.”

Patricia 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.”

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 summarized much of this work, and wrote that several Soviet scholars had theorized 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 phantasy 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 Encyclopaedia of Islam and The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition—to commission the first-ever Encyclopaedia 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 Encyclopaedia 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. 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 analyze 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 Gebelawi (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.”

MuhammadMuhammad in the Cave

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 smolders 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’ba—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 Isma’il (Ishmael). As Mecca became increasingly prosperous in the sixth century A.D., 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’ba (inside which were found renderings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, among other idols).

Such was the background against which the first installments 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 who had 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 memorized 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 proselytizing, 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; they 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 memorization.) Nor was the establishment of such a text of primary concern: the Medinan Arabs—an unlikely coalition of ex-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 memorized 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 centers 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.

Ishmael & Abraham build  Ka'aba“For People Who Understand”

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 organizing 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 Judgment. 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, Shu’ayb, 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 (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; 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”).

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-Ma’mun (813-833) this latter view briefly became orthodox doctrine. It was supported by several schools of thought, including an influential one known as Mu’tazilism, 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 Mu’tazili school had waned, for complicated political reasons, and the official doctrine had become that of i’jaz, 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.

The School of Oriental and African StudiesPsychopathic Vandalism?

Gerd R. 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,” Patricia 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 crystallization, and their testimonies can accordingly be profitably compared and weighed against each other. But the Muslim tradition was the outcome, not of a slow crystallization, 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 analyze the Yemeni fragments. Patricia Crone says that she and Michael Cook “did not say much about the Koran in Hagarism 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— Quranic 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 Quranic Studies, the canonization 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 Muhammadan 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.”

Dr Nasr Abu ZaydRevisionism Inside the Islamic World

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 Mu’tazilis. The ideas of the Mu’tazilis 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 Mu’tazilism was the greatest misfortune to have afflicted Muslims; they have committed a crime against themselves”). The late Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman carried the Mu’tazilite 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 Mu’tazilite 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.

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 civilization 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 Mohammed 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 scrutinized, 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 civilization, 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 Atlantic, January 1999

» Toby Lester, the author of Da Vinci’s Ghost (2012) and The Fourth Part of the World (2009), is an American writer and an editor. In addition to writing books, he is a longtime contributor to The Atlantic, for whom he has written extensively. He can be contacted through his website.

Innocence of Muslims: The Hidden Origin of Islam with Gerd R. Puin

Koran Documentary with Antony Thomas

Mapping the Saraswati: A review of Michel Danino’s book The Lost River – Koenraad Elst

Dr Koenraad Elst“The Saraswati is mentioned in the Rg-Veda as a mighty sea-going river, but subsequently it shrank so that in the Mahabharata it appears as an ordinary river that runs dead in the desert. Even then it retained some of its Vedic aura, for Krishna’s brother Balarama went on pilgrimage to sites along the river including its locus of disappearance. The number and size of the city ruins along its riverbed warrant the renaming of “Indus civilization” as “Indus-Sarasvati civilization”. Danino surveys all the geological, archaeological and philological data pertaining to this river’s history in great detail.”- Dr Koenraad Elst

Prof Michel DaninoMichel Danino is a scholar of Jewish-Moroccan origin born in 1956 in Honfleur, France, and settled in Tamil Nadu since 1977. He is a practising environmentalist involved in saving forests, and editor and translator of several books by or concerning Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. In booklets published over the last two decades, he took up the revision of ancient Indian history where Aurobindo’s former secretary, K. D. Sethna (recently deceased at age 107) had left it. In The Invasion That Never Was (2000) he went over the classical arguments in favour of the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) and found them wanting. In his view, there is no solid evidence for the official belief that the Vedas were written in 1500-1200 BC by a recently-immigrated people that brought the Indo-Aryan languages into India from the Northwest. In 2006, an updated French edition was brought out by France’s most prestigious classics publisher Les Belles Lettres. His latest book, The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvatī, has been published by Penguin, as mainstream as you can get.  Questioning the AIT may be off limits in JNU and Harvard, but sizable sections of the scholarly world are opening up to the possibility that the long-established theory may not be the gold standard after all.

The Lost River: On the trail of the SarasvatiIn the 11 chapters and 357 pages of this book, Danino zooms in on a crucial section of the evidence body concerning ancient Indian history, both Vedic and Harappan, viz. the Sarasvati river. This river is mentioned in the Rg-Veda as a mighty sea-going river, but subsequently it shrank so that in the Mahabharata it appears as an ordinary river that runs dead in the desert. Even then it retained some of its Vedic aura, for Krishna’s brother Balarama went on pilgrimage to sites along the river including its locus of disappearance. The number and size of the city ruins along its riverbed warrant the renaming of “Indus civilization” as “Indus-Sarasvati civilization”. Danino surveys all the geological, archaeological and philological data pertaining to this river’s history in great detail.

In recent years, the waters of the debate have been muddied by Harvard Sanskritist Michael Witzel c.s. who have tried to identify the very use of the name Sarasvati in the term “Indus-Sarasvati civilization” with Hindu nationalism, and who have mocked the claim that the Sarasvati survives in present-day rivers, principally the Ghaggar in Haryana. In fact, as Danino demonstrates with a string of quotations from primary sources, this identification is the object of a wide consensus, starting in 1840 with H. H. Wilson, and including such paragons of Indologist orthodoxy as F. Max Müller and M. Monier-Williams as well as the on-the-spot explorer Aurel Stein. Even the “Hindu nationalist claim” that the river dwindled as a consequence of tectonic events causing the course of its tributaries Yamuna and Satlej to shift away from the Sarasvati basin, turns out to be quite old and mainstream, starting with R. D. Oldham in 1886. Indeed, the ancient geographer Strabo already noted that seismic instability caused changes in the course of major rivers in India.

So, Danino has every right to bypass and disregard the polemical atmosphere in which some champions of the AIT have tried to drown the Sarasvati evidence. Especially because the latest findings are only confirming the river’s importance in Vedic and Harappan history.

Ghaggar Hakra River MapIn a recent lecture at the University of Ghent, Belgium, on the state of the art in Harappan excavations and the emerging picture of the “Indus” civilization, Cambridge (UK) archaeologist Cameron Petrie showed, next to his own map, a map of excavation sites used by Michel Danino in The Lost River, which Petrie called “a popular book”. By this he did not mean that it was a bestseller nor that it was much read and quoted; it was too recently published to speak of sales figures nor of citation indexes; only that it was written by a non-academic, obviously tapping into the outdated impression that the questioning of the prevailing theory is only the doing of amateurs. Danino’s map shows a high concentration of Harappan sites along the Ghaggar river, i.e. the remains of the once-mighty Sarasvati; but Petrie’s map showed a paucity of sites in the same region. That looked like a serious anomaly. But the very next item in his talk reversed this impression. He reported on an as yet unpublished survey of Haryana by a Ph.D. candidate from Rohtak who during 2008-10 identified “hundreds” of unexcavated Harappan sites. The student’s map showed a concentration of “new” sites precisely in the “empty” Ghaggar region. Did it not dawn on Petrie that this finding made his own textbook map dated while Danino’s proved up-to-date? Of the 3781 Harappan sites identified so far, 2378 are located around the Sarasvati river, from Haryana and northern Rajasthan to the Cholistan desert in southwestern Panjab .

Petrie didn’t break the consensus among archaeologists that proof for the AIT is lacking. Prof. B. B. Lal, who had made his name in the 1950s and 60s by detailing our knowledge of the Painted Grey Ware and identifying it as characteristic of the invading Aryans moving deeper into India, later repudiated any claims of an Aryan invasion, noting that no archaeological trace of an Aryan invasion has ever been found or identified. Prof. Michael Witzel has likewise admitted that “as yet” no archeological evidence of an Aryan invasion has been discovered. Petrie himself, as a field archaeologist freshly returned from the most recent excavations, agreed that he too had no sensational discovery to announce, of actual pieces of evidence for an Aryan invasion. So: as of 2011, after many decades of being the official and much-funded hypothesis, the Aryan Invasion Theory has still not been confirmed by even a single piece of material proof.

Human migration out of Africa to India and from India to Europe.That said, AIT skeptics should accept the burden of outlining and proving an alternative scenario that can explain the “Indo-European” linguistic commonalities between South Asia and Europe, viz. an emigration from India. So far, nobody in India has taken this challenge: Indians are satisfied that Indo-Aryan language and culture did not originate outside India but don’t have the ambition to show or even claim that conversely, most European languages ultimately came from India. “Out-of-India Theory”, the term commonly used for the denial of the AIT, is a term virtually without object in India, applying only to the work of non-archaeologists S. S. Misra and Shrikant Talageri. However, as an honorary Indian, Danino does take it upon himself to discharge another obligation on AIT skeptics, viz. to refute the impression of a sharp discontinuity between Harappan culture and post-Harappan culture with a fresh review of the archaeological data.

Orthodox academics like Prof. Romila Thapar and Prof. Shereen Ratnagar insist that all the typical features of Harappan culture disappeared in the early 2nd millennium BC to make way for what Sir Mortimer Wheeler used to call “the Vedic Dark Age”. Danino details how among archaeologists, not just most Indians but also Westerners like Jean-François Jarrige and Jim Shaffer, a new consensus has emerged, viz. that the high Harappan age was followed by a localization phase, with a devolution of the more unitary culture into different local cultures. And even after the Harappan building style disappeared, ca. 1300 BC, many Harappan-attested elements persisted down to the historical age (1st millennium BC) and sometimes even down to the present. From the town-planning grids and measurement system to the motifs on Harappan seals and on the much later punch-marked coins, numerous types of material continuity are in evidence from early Harappan days. The tale of the Crow and the Fox, still told by Indian grandmothers and also retold in the French fable collection by Jean de la Fontaine, was already depicted on a potsherd from Lothal ca. 4500. 

John Marshall and his famous reportDanino’s argument, while unusually convincing because of the wide array of data mustered, is not really revolutionary. It is only in the noxious atmosphere imposed on the AIT debate by some shrill polemicists both in India and the US that the continuity between Harappan and post-Harappan cultures becomes a daring proposition. In fact, in cooler times many prominent scholars have spoken out to the same effect. Art historian Stella Kramrisch noted the similarity between the art of Mohenjo Daro and contemporary folk art. Already in 1931, Sir John Marshall observed that the Harappan religion must have been “so characteristically Indian as hardly to be distinguished from still living Hinduism”.  By bringing all such findings together, Danino takes the case against an invader-induced post-Harappan rupture back out of the margins. – Koenraad Elst  Blog, 20 July 2015

Saraswati River

India’s first anti-colonialist uprising predates Mangal Pandey’s by 274 years? – Mayabhushan Nagvenkar

Festival of Sontreo (Procession of Umbrellas) at Cuncolim

Mayabhushan Nagvenkar“Congress Rajya Sabha MP Shantaram Naik, who has been a part of the campaign to put the Cuncolim revolt as the first landmark on the map of India’s nationalist history, said he was confident eventually the central government would formally acknowledge the event as India’s first recorded revolt against a European power.” – Mayabhushan Nagvenkar wisdom has it that lowly-ranked sepoy Mangal Pandey became the catalyst for India’s first uprising against Western rule in 1857 after he revolted against the alleged use of cattle and pig lard smeared on bullet cartridges used in Enfield rifles issued by the East India Company.

But here’s what you perhaps do not know. 

Jesuits at Akbar's courtA sustained campaign is on to haul back the date of India’s first rebellion against Western colonialism by a good 274 years—from Barrackpore in eastern India to what is now Goa.

The campaign, which is endorsed by historians, freedom fighters, elected representatives and local residents, wants the central government to officially endorse as the first real rebellion the prolonged, defiant struggle of five south Goa villages—Cuncolim, Ambelim, Assolna, Veroda and Velim—against the Portuguese colonists which saw bloodshed and non-payment of taxes.

“The residents of the five villages, led by Cuncolim, had, beginning from 1583, defied Portuguese taxes after Christian missionaries destroyed five temples in the area to bring the villagers into submission and also killed over a dozen of our chieftains,” Oscar Martins, who traces his lineage to one of the slain chieftains, told IANS.

Many of the claims made by Martins find echo in Church records and historical accounts of the time.

The struggle, in which several lives were lost, dates back to 16th century when early Christian missionaries along with their Portuguese armed escorts tried to convert the residents of these five villages to Christianity.

Jesuit priests killed at CuncolimWhen the attempts largely failed, the missionaries destroyed nearby temples, which enraged the villagers, resulting in the massacre of some priests including Fr. Rodolfo Acquaviva—an Italian Jesuit who had also held position at Emperor Akbar’s court and has since been beatified—and their colleagues on July 15, 1583.

In retaliation, the colonists proposed a parley, which ended in yet another bloodbath.

“Sixteen chieftains from Cuncolim were called for a truce to (nearby) Assolna fort. They were ambushed and shot to death by the Portuguese soldiers as retaliation. One of the chieftains managed to escape and tell the story,” said Martins, who now heads the Cuncolim Chieftain Memorial Trust.

After the bloody feud, the five villages stopped paying taxes to the Portuguese rulers for eight years from 1583—centuries before Mahatma Gandhi started his “no tax” campaign against British colonists.

Congress Rajya Sabha MP Shantaram Naik, who has been a part of the campaign to put the Cuncolim revolt as the first landmark on the map of India’s nationalist history, said he was confident eventually the central government would formally acknowledge the event as India’s first recorded revolt against a European power.

Shantaram Naik“For that, the state government will first have to include this incident in our history books to convey Goa’s formal recognition of the event. We also need to give the central government rigorously researched material to back our claim. We are confident that the  will get its place in history that it richly deserves,” Naik told IANS.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led ruling coalition had promised three years ago to appoint a committee to study the matter for the Cuncolim revolt to be included in school books, but Martins claimed it would need persistent lobbying and reminding because history “cannot be hidden for a long time even if the government neglects it”.

The Trust has engaged a documentary maker to produce a historical film on the subject. “We did not want to wait for the government to take a decision. We do not want to lose time in giving the Cuncolim revolt its rightful place in history,” Martins said. – The News Minute, 19 July 2015

» Mayabhushan Nagvenkar is a journalist in the Panaji area of Goa who writes for various media. He can be contacted at

Our Lady of Health Church in Cuncolim


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