India’s own sacred ecology – Michel Danino

Peepal Tree

Prof Michel DaninoThe notion of a creator apart from his creation, superior to it, more often cursing than loving it, is a wedge that Judaism and its two daughter religions vertically drove into a hitherto seamless cosmos. – Prof Michel Danino

We saw in the previous article (Decoding the idea of India) how the creation of a sacred geography for India was a major instrument of her cultural integration. Not only the countless teerthas, but also the mountains, seas, rivers, forests, trees and other plants, animals big and small, were imbued with divinity. Of course, most pre-Judeo-Christian cultures shared this worldview: from the Nile to Mount Olympus, from Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree of Norse mythology, to the phoenix, that universe was crowded with living symbols drawn from nature. The notion of a creator apart from his creation, superior to it, more often cursing than loving it, is a wedge that Judaism and its two daughter religions vertically drove into a hitherto seamless cosmos.

In the Rig Veda, India’s earliest text, earth and heaven are addressed as a single being (dyavaprithivi); they are “father and mother” but also the “twins”; together, they “keep all creatures safe”. India’s Yggdrasil is the ashvattha (the pipal or Boddhi tree) which the Gita turned upside down: the cosmic tree, the origin of India’s tree-worshipping traditions, has its roots above and branches below—a transparent symbol for this creation, which can be represented by a cosmic cow, the source of all food. Indeed symbols endlessly multiply, from celestial rivers to the gods’ vahanas. More importantly, the Upanishadic precept that “all creatures are impelled by consciousness” unites us to the humblest plant or animal.

Dr Meera NandaIs this the origin of the Buddhist and Jain doctrine of ahimsa or the concept of wildlife sanctuary in Ashoka’s edicts as in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, perhaps a “world first”? If so, this tradition is more than just idyllic. Not everyone agrees. Meera Nanda, for instance, a self-styled historian of science whom I had occasion to critique in earlier articles, condemns this “Dharmic ecology”, which she defines as “an unabashedly Hindu supremacist, nationalistic version of the same religious environmentalism that the anti-Enlightenment left has been preaching and practicing.”

Nanda sees this worldview as a dangerous weapon in Hindutva’s arsenal: “Dharmic ecology of Hindutva right is emerging as the hub of a new neo-pagan International. Neopaganism in Europe and America has deep and historic ties with Nazi and Neo-Nazi groups,” and, as we know, there is a “long history of the Nazi and neo-Nazi involvement with occult and paganism.” Thus the syllogism works as follows: Indic traditions of sacred ecology (as I prefer to call it) are pagan; Nazism was involved with paganism; the said Indic traditions are thus obscurantist and dangerous.

The fallacy of it is glaring: the premise is incorrect; Hindu beliefs behind sacred ecology are not just “pagan”, a term of contempt created by medieval Christianity; they are founded on a philosophy and a spiritual experience of the “nature of nature”. And the association with Nazism is a vicious case of reductio ad Hitlerism. (to put it crudely: if you wear boots, you may be accused of a link with Nazism, since Hitler wore boots too). It has indeed become a fashion among certain intellectuals to “reveal” hidden connections between Hinduism and Nazism. Nanda’s more serious criticism is that there is no evidence that India’s sacred ecology “encourages wise use of nature”.

Instead, she advocates “secular environmentalism” as a “source of secularism and a class-based collective action”. It may be true that today’s Indians have by and large poor environmental awareness, wantonly contributing to the destruction of forests, the disappearance of wildlife and the spiralling pollution. But perhaps that is because Indian society has hardly had any transition between tradition and modernity. From the rich ethno-botanical traditions of the Bishnois, Bhils, Warlis, Santhals or Todas to the current urbanite disaster, there has been almost no time to adapt. – The New Indian Express, 5 December 2016

Pilgrim offering a lamp to Ganga Devi at the Kumbha Mela 2013

The legend of St Thomas in India is neither factual nor secular – Koenraad Elst

St. Thomas

Koenraad ElstThe Roman Catholic Church in India owes Hindus an abject apology for the blood libel she has perpetuated for centuries, falsely charging Hindus with the murder of Thomas even as she falsely charges Jews with the murder of Jesus. – Ishwar Sharan

A predictable component of platitudinous speeches by secularist politicians is that “Christianity was brought to India by the apostle Thomas in the 1st century AD, even before it was brought to Europe”. The intended thrust of this claim is that, unlike Hinduism which was imposed by the “Aryan invaders”, Christianity is somehow an Indian religion, even though it is expressly stated that it “was brought to India” from outside. As a matter of detail, St. Paul reported on Christian communities living in Greece, Rome and Spain in the 40s AD, [1] while St. Thomas even according to his followers only came to India in 52 AD, so by all accounts, Christianity still reached Europe before India. [2] At any rate, its origins lay in West Asia, outside India. But this geographical primacy is not the main issue here. More importantly, there is nothing factual, nor secular, about the claim that Thomas ever came to India.

Thomas of CanaThat claim is a stark instance of what secularists would denounce in other cases as a “myth”. By this, I don’t mean that it was concocted in a backroom conspiracy, then propagated by obliging mercenary scribes (the way many Hindus imagine the colonial origins of the “Aryan invasion myth” came into being). It came about in a fairly innocent manner, through a misunderstanding, a misreading of an apocryphal text, the miracle-laden hagiography Acts of Thomas. This is not the place to discuss the unflattering picture painted of Thomas in his own hagiography, which credits him with many anti-social acts. The point for now is that the text never mentions nor describes the subcontinent but merely has the apostle go from Palestine eastwards to a desert-like country where people are “Mazdei” [Zoroastrian] and have Persian names. This is definitely not lush and green Kerala. Not only is there no independent record of Thomas ever coming near India, but the only source claimed for this story, doesn’t even make this claim either.

However, we know of a Thomas of Cana [3] who led a group of Christian refugees from Iran in the 4th century, when the christianisation of the Roman empire caused the Iranians to see their Syriac-speaking Christian minority as a Roman fifth column. The name “Thomas Christians” may originally have referred to this 4th-century leader. [4]

Then again, those refugees may also have been “Thomas Christians” before their migration to India in the sense that their Christian community had been founded in Iran [viz. Church of Fars] by the apostle Thomas. That he lived and worked in some Iranian region is attested and likely, but in no case did he ever settle in India.

Eusebius of CaesareaThe Church Fathers Clement of Alexandra, Origen and Eusebius confirm explicitly that he settled in “Parthia”, a part of the Iranian world. From the 3rd century, we do note an increasing tendency among Christian authors to locate him in a place labelled “India”, as does the Acts of Thomas. But it must be borne in mind that this term was very vague, designating the whole region extending from Iran eastwards. [5] Remember that when Columbus had landed in America, which he thought was East Asia, he labelled the indigenous people “Indians”, meaning “Asians”. Afghanistan is one area that was Iranian-speaking and predominantly Mazdean [Zoroastrian] but often considered part of “India”. Moreover, in some periods of history it was even politically united with parts of “India” in the narrow sense. So, Afghanistan may well be the “Western India” where Pope Benedict placed St. Thomas in his controversial speech in September 2006, to the dismay of the South Indian bishops.

While the belief that Thomas settled in South India came about as an honest mistake, the claim that he was martyred by Brahmins was always a deliberate lie, playing upon a possible confusion between the consonants of the expression “be ruhme”, meaning “with a spear”, and those of “Brahma” (Semitic alphabets usually don’t specify vowels). That was the gratitude Hindus received in return for extending their hospitality to the Christian refugees: being blackened as the murderers of the refugees’ own hero. If the Indian bishops have any honour, they will themselves remove this false allegation from their discourse and their monuments, including the cathedral in Chennai built at the site of Thomas’s purported martyrdom (actually the site of a Shiva temple). Indeed, they will issue a historic declaration expressing their indebtedness to Hindu hospitality and pluralism and pledging to renounce their anti-Hindu animus.

Sri RamaSecularists keep on reminding us that there is no archaeological evidence for Rama’s travels, and from this they deduce the non sequitur that Rama never existed, indeed that “Rama’s story is only a myth”. But in Rama’s case, we at least do have a literary testimony, the Ramayana, which in the absence of material evidence may or may not be truthful, while in the case of Thomas’s alleged arrival in India, we don’t even have a literary account. The text cited in the story’s favour doesn’t even have him come to a region identifiable as South India. That is why Christian scholars outside India have no problem abandoning the myth of Thomas’s landing in Kerala and of his martyrdom in Tamil Nadu. I studied at the Catholic University of Louvain, and our Jesuit professor of religious history taught us that there is no data that could dignify the Thomas legend with the status of history.

This eliminates the last excuse the secularists might offer for repeating the Thomas legend, viz. that the historical truth would hurt the feelings of the Christian minority. It is clear enough that many Christians including the Pope have long given up the belief in Thomas’s Indian exploits, or (like the Church Fathers mentioned above) never believed in them in the first place. In contrast with European Christians today, Indian Christians live in a 17th century bubble, as if they are too puerile to stand in the daylight of solid historical fact. They remain in a twilight of legend and lies, at the command of ambitious “medieval” bishops who mislead them with the St. Thomas in India fable for purely selfish reasons. – Extracted from the foreword to The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple, Voice of India, New Delhi, 1995.

» Dr Koenraad Elst is a Flemish Indologist and historian from Belgian who frequently visits India to lecture. He is a leading Voice of India author.


1. India’s political leaders are fond of telling their constituents and the nation that Christianity arrived in India before it arrived in Europe. This historical conceit is not true. Apostle Paul says in Romans 15:24 & 15:28 that he plans to visit Spain (which already had a Christian community). In Acts 19:21 he travels from Ephesus to Greece—Macedonia and Achaia—en route to Jerusalem, and then on to Rome. This took place in the 40s CE—some historians say he was writing after 44 CE. So even if it was true that Apostle Thomas landed in Kerala in 52 CE—the spurious date is of 19th century origin—Christianity would still have arrived in Europe a decade earlier. – IS

Jawaharlal Nehru2. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru provides an excellent example of how some innocents abroad lap up lies sold by powerful organizations. “You may be surprised to learn,” he wrote his daughter, Indira, on April 12, 1932, “that Christianity came to India long before it went to England or Western Europe, and when even in Rome it was a despised and proscribed sect. Within a hundred years or so of the death of Jesus, Christian missionaries came to South India by sea…. They converted a large number of people.” (Glimpses of World History, OUP reprint, fourth impression, 1987, quoted by Sita Ram Goel in History of Hindu-Christian Encounters: AD 304 to 1996, Second Revised Edition, Voice of India, New Delhi, 1996.) – IS

3. Thomas of Cana, known variously as Thomas of Jerusalem, Thomas the Merchant and to Syrian Christians as Knai Thoma, led the first group of 72 Syrian Christian families to India in 345 CE. There is no record of Christian communities in India prior to this date. Thomas of Cana and his companion Bishop Joseph of Edessa also brought with them the tradition of St Thomas the Apostle of the East. Later, Christian communities in Kerala would identify Knai Thoma with Mar Thoma—Thomas of Cana with Thomas the Apostle—and claim St Thomas had arrived in Kerala in AD 52 and established the first Christian church at Musiris—the ancient port near present day Kodungallur—the main trading center of the day.

The Rev Dr G. Milne Rae of the Madras Christian College, in The Syrian Church in India, did not allow that St Thomas came further east than Afghanistan (Gandhara). He told the Syrian Christians that they reasoned fallaciously about their identity and wove a fictitious story of their origin. Their claim that they were called “St Thomas” Christians from the 1st century was also false.

4. Syrian Christians were called Nasranis (from Nazarean) or Nestorians (by Europeans) up to the 14th century. Bishop Giovanni dei Marignolli the Franciscan papal legate in Quilon invented the appellation “St Thomas Christians” in 1348 to distinguish his Syrian Christian converts from the low-caste Hindu converts in his congregation.

5. The oriental ubiquity of St Thomas’s apostolate is explained by the fact that the geographical term “India” included, apart from the subcontinent of this name, the lands washed by the Indian Ocean as far as the China Sea in the east and the Arabian peninsula, Ethiopia, and the African coast in the west.Ancient writers used the designation “India” for all countries south and east of the Roman Empire’s frontiers. India included Ethiopia, Arabia Felix, Edessa in Syria (in the Latin version of the Syriac Diatessaron), Arachosia and Gandhara (Afghanistan and Pakistan), and many countries up to the China Sea. In the Acts of Thomas, the original key text to identify St Thomas with India (which all other India references follow), historians agree that the term India refers to Parthia (Persia) and Gandhara (Afghanistan-Pakistan). The city of Andrapolis named in the Acts, where Judas Thomas and Abbanes landed in India, has been tentartively identified as Sandaruck (one of the ancient Alexandrias) in Balochistan. – IS

San Thome Cathedral: This tableau of St. Thomas and his Hindu assassin was built after the publication of Ishwar Sharan's book in 1995. Its objective is to malign the Hindu community with the accusation of the murder of a Christian apostle and saint, and to further the propagation of the St. Thomas legend which has made India's bishops very wealthy and supports their political claim on India.

See also

Egypt never enslaved the Israelites, Moses never freed them – Candida Moss

Moses & Yahweh

Prof. Candida MossThe Israelites were never subject to national enslavement in Egypt; but, as this new discovery reminds us, the land of Canaan was under the foot of Pharaonic authority. The long shadows of that experience might help explain why—in the absence of a historical Exodus—the biblical authors made the Egyptians the villains of their national epic. – Prof Candida Moss

When it comes to the prototypical villains of ancient literature, the Egyptians are right up there. Nobody, it seemed, really liked the ancient superpower. Ancient Greek romance novels routinely portray them as cunning and duplicitous. The Romans found Cleopatra to be equal parts captivating and conniving and, in the Bible, the Israelites were enslaved by the Pharaohs for centuries.

A new discovery at Tel Hazor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest Biblical-era archaeological sites in Israel, may change how we think about the Egyptians. During excavations last week, archeologists discovered a 4,000-year-old fragment of a large limestone statue of an Egyptian official. Only the lower section of the statue survives, but it includes the official’s foot and a few lines in Egyptian hieroglyphic script.

The preliminary study of the artifact has not yet been completed, so archaeologists do not even know the official’s name. Professor Amnon Ben-Tor of Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology, who has worked at the site for over 27 years, told the Jerusalem Post that it is likely that the statue was originally placed at the official’s tomb or in a temple.

So far Tel Hazor is the only archaeological site in the Levant to have yielded any large Egyptian statues from the second millennium BCE. The only other is a sphinx fragment of the Egyptian Pharaoh Menkaure Pharaoh Menkaura(known to the Greeks as Mycerinus) that dates to the 25th century BCE. In the Amarna period—a period of Egyptian history when the royal residence shifted to Akhetaten and Egyptian religion temporarily shifted towards monotheistic worship of the sun god Aten—most of Canaan (what would later be Israel) was under Egyptian control. The latest finds are especially interesting because historians were unaware that Hazor was one of the Egyptian strongholds in this period or that there was ever an Egyptian official there.

What’s interesting about the Egyptian presence in Canaan in the second millennium is that it may make sense of one of the biggest mysteries of the Bible: Why does the Hebrew Bible highlight the oppression of the Israelites by Egypt when there is so little evidence for their enslavement there?

The story, as told in the Book of Exodus and Prince of Egypt, is that the Israelites came to Egypt because of famine. They initially prospered (think Joseph and his technicolor dreamcoat) only to be enslaved by later generations of Egyptians. There they remained until the birth of Moses, the 10 plagues, and the eventual emancipation of the Hebrews.

Scholars have been skeptical about the historicity of the Exodus for over 70 years. In the first place the Egyptians, who were fairly remarkable record keepers, never refer to a mass exodus of slaves or even a large group of runaway slaves. To this we might add the lack of evidence for either a slaughter of Hebrew infant boys or the 10 plagues that befell the Egyptian people (during which the eldest son of every Egyptian family dies overnight). There’s also no mention of Moses, even though his name is Egyptian in origin. Finally there’s no archaeological evidence to support the idea of a mass exodus of people. When large groups of people traveled in the pre-eco-friendly age they left behind trash, and a lot of it. But Moses: It would be more accurate to call Abrahamists as Moses-ists. there’s no archaeological evidence for mass migration from Egypt to Israel: no pottery shards or Hebrew carvings.

All of which is to say that if there was a historical enslavement in and subsequent exodus from Egypt it is highly unlikely that it was on the scale of the Biblical account. Perhaps small groups escaped slavery and came to the land that would become Israel, but certainly not 600,000 men (plus wives and children). Modern scholars like David Wolpe have been strongly attacked for making this argument, but, as Wolpe himself notes, this evidence doesn’t negate the claims of modern Jews to the land of Israel.

But it does raise an interesting historical question: If the Exodus didn’t take place on an epic Charlton Heston scale, how does Egyptian oppression come to feature so prominently in the biblical narrative? When the story of the exodus was written down in the first millennium, the Israelites wouldn’t have had any direct experience of Egyptian power for hundreds of years; in the meantime, the great empires of Assyria and Babylonia had come to power, drastically overshadowing any threat from Egypt. Why make the Egyptians the villains of the piece?

Perhaps the biblical description of dominance by Egyptians actually has very little to do with enslavement and more to do with the cultural memory of the more distant Amarna period in Canaan. The Israelites were never subject to national enslavement in Egypt; but, as this new discovery reminds us, the land of Canaan was under the foot of Pharaonic authority. The long shadows of that experience might help explain why—in the absence of a historical Exodus—the biblical authors made the Egyptians the villains of their national epic. – The Daily Beast, 31 July 2016

» Candida Moss is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity on the theology faculty of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

Egyptian artefact from Tel Hazor

Essential facts of Hindu Dharma – David Frawley

 Acharya David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri)“Hinduism rejects ideas of sin and salvation, heaven and hell. It states that our main problem is spiritual ignorance that is overcome by knowledge born of meditation. It teaches that each soul is originally pure and one with the universal Being, with the ultimate origin and goal of all as Supreme Bliss or Ananda.” – Dr David Frawley

Sometimes people ask what Hinduism is, and how it compares with the other religious/spiritual traditions of the world. Most of the time Hindus find it difficult to provide simple and cogent answers to such questions, which can make other people doubt the validity of Hindu Dharma.

I have compiled the following information highlighting key points that can be used to show to the uninformed person what Hindu Dharma truly is, and all the factors that it relates to, which go far beyond what other religions normally address.

The vastness, abundance and diversity within Hindu Dharma is a strength rather than a weakness, and places it far above more circumscribed beliefs. But this diversity needs to be explained properly and in detail for people today to understand, particularly for those coming from the background of western education or western religions who may have many misconceptions already.

Each of these paragraphs can be used as a basis for discussion.

Symbols of ReligionsPlace of Hinduism among the Religious and Spiritual Traditions of the World

Hinduism is the oldest continuous religious and spiritual tradition in the world, going back over five thousand years, with no specific point of origin historically. It is connected more with cosmic time cycles and eternal truth than it is with any historical person, revelation or community.

Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world with over a billion followers worldwide, comprising about one in every seven people on Earth. It has been one of the largest followed religions since its inception long before the other major world religions came into existence.

Hinduism is the largest of the non-Biblical and non-Abrahamic traditions, with only Christianity and Islam having more followers today. As such, it represents the non-Abrahamic religious movements of humanity, of which Biblical monotheism is only one.

Hinduism is the largest and oldest of the Dharmic traditions, comprising Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism and related spiritual traditions of India and Asia, which emphasize the pursuit of truth over any creed or dogma. More religions have originated in India than in any other country in the world.

Hinduism is the largest of the so-called Pagan traditions, such as existed before Christianity and Islam arose, like the older European and Middle Eastern traditions, including the Greek, Roman, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Persian, Babylonian, Egyptian and many more.

A number of these Pagan traditions have survived and several are being revived today. Hinduism can help in this renewal process as its continuity has remained unbroken.

Hinduism is the largest of the native and indigenous traditions of America, Africa, Polynesia and other parts of Asia, including many oral traditions, which are rooted in nature and the Earth rather than any human revelation. Hinduism encourages the preservation of native traditions and can help us understand the deeper spiritual meaning of their rituals and view of the sacred.

Hinduism, though primarily found in India and Nepal, historically has spread throughout Central Asia, Indochina and Indonesia, and aspects of Hinduism came with Buddhism wherever it went as far as Japan, which still has many temples to Hindu deities today.

Angkor Wat in CambodiaHindu and Vedic related traditions from the Zoroastrian to the Greek, Roman and Celtic spread west through the Middle East to Europe in early ancient times. The largest traditional Hindu temple complex is Ankor Wat in Cambodia, showing that Hinduism is not just an India based but a universal and global tradition.

Hinduism is the largest of the world’s pluralistic spiritual traditions, honoring many paths to God or truth, and many names and forms of the Divine. Hinduism therefore easily blends in with pluralistic social traditions, such as found in democratic traditions today.

Hinduism is a dharma or way of truth that places individual spiritual practices through ritual, Yoga, mantra and meditation over any particular belief, faith or institution. In Hinduism truth is even more important than God, whose best definition is the eternal truth.

Hinduism is not a local formation or limited to one community of believers or practitioners. It calls itself as Sanatana Dharma, the eternal and universal truth that is relevant to all beings and arises from the cosmic mind itself.

Hinduism is beyond all views of monotheism or polytheism, teaches us to see the Divine in everything as the power of universal consciousness. Hinduism cannot be put into the straight-jackets of western theological thought.

Hinduism formulates itself as Manava Dharma or a teaching for all human beings. It has never divided humanity into believers or non-believers, or one religious community as against another. It has never rejected any portion of humanity as condemned by God or the Divine, but teaches that all living beings must eventually return to the highest state of bliss.

Hinduism has the greatest number of followers regularly engaged in pilgrimage of any religion in the world. The Kumbha Mela is world’s largest religious gathering and has been for many centuries, with as many as thirty million participants on a single day. Local Hindu festivals throughout India commonly see hundreds of thousands of participants on a single day.

Hinduism has the largest number of temples and shrines of any religion, with numerous temple complexes and temple cities built over thousands of years, as well as many local and home-based shrines. It also has the greatest diversity of temples and shrines in terms of different types of construction, formation, forms and images.

Hinduism has the largest number of monks and priests of any religion, with extensive religious orders of swamis, yogis and sadhus, more than two million in India today. It also has the oldest set of religious orders, priests and gurus, with lines and lineages going back to before the time of Lord Buddha.

Hinduism has the largest number of teachers, gurus and holy men and women of any religion. It emphasizes living teachers over teachers and prophets of old. Hinduism says that God-realization is the right of every human being.

Hinduism has a greater variety of religious and spiritual teachings than any other religion in the world. There are perhaps more religions inside of Hinduism than outside of it. These include even atheism and agnosticism.

Hinduism has more names and forms for the sacred and Divine than any tradition, including extensive traditions of iconic worship and formless approaches that use no murtis. Hindu deities routinely have chants to them of a thousand names. Yet Hindu Dharma also honors the nameless and formless, the infinite and unbounded.

Hinduism has the most festivals and holy days of any religion, with some lasting as long as ten days. Hinduism has its own sacred calendar that directs us to spiritual practices on a daily basis and tells us the unique spiritual qualities of each day of the year.

Hindu CosmologyKey Points of Hindu Philosophy and Cosmology

Hinduism is the most tolerant and syncretic of the worlds major religions. It does not aim at outer conversion but at inner spiritual practices, and regards the same One truth as capable of innumerable manifestations relative to different times, places and persons. Hinduism has both a universal orientation and a local adaptation.

Hinduism does not promote any single religious belief but rather encourages us to pursue the exploration of consciousness as our real spiritual quest. It places individual spiritual practices over any en masse belief.

Hinduism has the most detailed philosophy and psychology of any spiritual tradition in the world, with numerous systems of Yoga, Vedanta and Tantra, covering every angle of the spiritual life and quest for higher consciousness.

Hinduism recognizes that each individual soul can realize Divinity as one’s true Self and inmost consciousness, and does not regard as any teacher, messenger, prophet or savior as final. It teaches that your true Self and the universe are one.

Hinduism rests upon honoring each individual as Divine and all nature as sacred. It does not demand conversion, but directs us to understand and respect ourselves as we are according to our own inner being.

Hinduism is the most prominent spiritual tradition in the world emphasizing Self-knowledge gained through Self-inquiry over any person, form, name, book or deity. It regards religious or spiritual practice as various approaches to Self-realization, not as ends in themselves. It understands our true Self as beyond both body and mind, as well as time, space and karma. This takes it far beyond the limitations of western psychology.

Hinduism is the primary tradition in the world that teaches karma and reincarnation, with each soul having many lives in its quest for the Divine. Such ideas of karma and reincarnation can be found in many spiritual and religious traditions throughout the world, reflecting an extensive Hindu influence.

Hinduism rejects ideas of sin and salvation, heaven and hell. It states that our main problem is spiritual ignorance that is overcome by knowledge born of meditation. It teaches that each soul is originally pure and one with the universal Being, with the ultimate origin and goal of all as Supreme Bliss or Ananda.

Hinduism is rooted in the Sanskrit language, arguably humanity’s greatest language based upon a science of cosmic sound. Hinduism has numerous mantras, chants and prayers, more so than any other religion.

Hinduism has the largest literature of any religion, with numerous texts in Sanskrit and the regional languages of South Asia going back many thousands of years. Its ancient Vedic literature is the largest Vishnu Vishvarupaliterature that has been preserved from the ancient world, going back long before the time of Buddha. Only a small portion of Hindu literature has been translated into western languages.

Hinduism has the main literature and tradition of Yoga, including all aspects of Yoga as knowledge, devotion, service, and methods of both Hatha and Raja Yoga.  Hinduism contains many Yoga lineages from the greatest Yoga gurus like Patanjali, Vasishta and Yajnavalkya and the great Natha and Siddha Yogis.

Hinduism has the largest philosophical literature of any religion or country, comprising every shade of dualism and non-dualism, theism and non-theism, worship of the Divine as One or Many. Hindu philosophy examines the whole of life and the nature of knowledge on all levels, inner and outer. It includes many schools of Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, Purana and Tantra, including modern teachers and their new insights.

Hinduism has the largest and broadest set of teachings of any religion extending into philosophy, mysticism, yoga, psychology, medicine, science, astronomy and astrology, art, literature, dance, music. It embraces all of human life and culture and excludes no aspect of learning as unsacred. Hinduism teaches us how to make any vocation, way of knowledge or culture into a spiritual path or way of Self-realization.

Hinduism has the largest literature of any spiritual tradition exploring and mapping higher states of consciousness beyond the physical, extending to the entire manifest universe of body, life, mind and intelligence. Hinduism describes in detail the many levels of the universe beyond the physical, extending to the Absolute beyond all time and space.

Hinduism has an understanding of time extending to vast cosmic cycles of billions of years, such as recognized by modern physics, and is not bound to any limited historical perspective. It teaches us that life on Earth is influenced by such longer cosmic time cycles.

Hinduism recognizes vast realms of spaces and numerous worlds, both physical and in the astral and causal realms, extending far beyond what science has yet imagined. It says that our current humanity is only one of many over time. It holds that intelligent life inhabits the universe as a whole and is interrelated in many ways that we can access within our own consciousness.

Hinduism finds holy sites everywhere in nature. It honors all nature as sacred. Hindu sacred sites can be found in mountains, rivers, forests, deserts, rocks and sea. It has mapped the sacred sites throughout the Indian subcontinent since ancient times. Such are the sacred Ganga River or Mount Kailash in Tibet. Yet Hindus can find sacred sites in the nature everywhere that they live.

Hinduism sees the human body itself as a temple of Divinity reflecting the structure of the universe through the chakra system. It has a deeper understanding of the subtle energy and thought patterns behind our physical form, such as science is only beginning to note.

Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma, a universal and eternal tradition of Self knowledge and cosmic knowledge, is the least divisive of any religion. It does not divide us by community but directs us to discover our inner unity. – India Facts, 12 January 2016

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

Arunachala Hill & Arunachaleswar Temple, Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu

Nicolas Notovitch and the Jesus-in-India tale – D.M. Murdock

Issa and the Giant's Skull (1932) Nicholas Roerich

D. M. Murdock“Despite the popularity of the Jesus-in-India tale, the claim is not accepted by mainstream authorities, either Christian or secular. The tale’s proponents assert that scholars reject Jesus in India because of Western imperialism and the inability to accept that Christ could have been influenced by Buddhism. In the case of mythicists, however, the reason Jesus is denied as having gone to India is because he is a pagan sun god remade into a Jewish “human” messiah.” – D. M. Murdock

Jesus with wife Mary Magdalene and KidsThe Myth of the Lost Years

Over the centuries, the claim has repeatedly been made that Jesus Christ not only walked the earth but also spent his early and post-crucifixion years in a variety of places, including Egypt, India, Great Britain, Japan and America. Indeed, traditions maintain that Jesus, the great godman of the West, lived, learned, loved and died in such places. Popular modern literature also purports that Jesus sired children, who then became the ancestors of various royal families of Europe, including France and/or elsewhere, depending on the author.

The allegation of Christ being a kingly progenitor is extremely convenient and useful for European royal families, obviously. Unfortunately for the European claimants, however, India also has a tradition that Jesus went there and likewise fathered children. So too does Shingo, Japan, allege that Jesus ended up there after the crucifixion, having children with a Japanese wife. Other tales depict Jesus “walking the Americas” or bopping about Glastonbury, England, with his “uncle,” Joseph of Arimathea. Not all of these tales can be true, obviously, unless Jesus is polymorphous and phantasmagoric, a perspective that in reality represents that of the mythologist or mythicist. To wit, regardless of these fables, or, rather, because of them, the most reasonable conclusion regarding Jesus and where he may or may not have been is that he is a mythical character, not a historical personage who trotted the globe.

Jesus the YogiThe Groovy Guru

According to legend, Jesus, the great Jewish sage, spent his “lost years,” from between the ages of around 12 to 28 or 30, in India, where, per another tradition, he also escaped after surviving the crucifixion. The Jesus-was-a-guru tale was popularized over a century ago by the Russian traveler Nicolas Notovitch. Notovitch asserted that in 1887, while at the secluded Hemis or Himis monastery in Ladakh/Tibet, he was shown a manuscript which discussed the “unknown life” of Jesus, or “Issa,” as he was supposedly called in the East. This “Issa” text, translated for Notovitch from Tibetan by a monk/lama, alleged that during his “lost years” Jesus was educated by yogis in India, Nepal and “the Himalaya Mountains.”

Stating that he felt the manuscript to be “true and genuine,” Notovich maintained its contents were written “immediately after the Resurrection,” while the manuscript itself purportedly dated from the third century of the Common Era. Notovitch related that the “two manuscripts” he was shown at Himis were “compiled from diverse copies written in the Thibetan tongue, translated from rolls belonging to the Lassa library and brought from India, Nepal, and Maghada 200 years after Christ.” (Notovitch, 44)

Notovitch’s story was challenged by a number of people, which served to popularize it further. Noted Sanskrit scholar Max Müller came down hard on Notovitch, concluding that either the Russian had never gone to Tibet in the first place, and had concocted the Jesus story, or that waggish Buddhist monks had played a trick on Notovitch, as Indian priests had done in a notorious instance concerning the Asiatic Research Society’s Colonel Wilford. Others subsequently journeyed to Himis/Hemis and witnessed repeated denial by the lamas that Notovitch had ever been there or that any such manuscript existed. In 1922, Indian scholar and swami Abhedananda eventually determined for himself by visiting Himis, gaining the confidence of the lamas and having the manuscript revealed to him. Other visitors to Himis, such as mystic Nicholas Roerich, verified the same story. Aspects of Notovitch’s story checked out, and he apparently did indeed stay at Himis and was shown a manuscript relating to “Issa.”

Notovitch claimed that Indian merchants brought the account of “Jesus” to Himis, and that they had actually witnessed the crucifixion. Indeed, the text begins with “This is what is related on this subject by the merchants who come from Israel,” reflecting not that “Jesus” lived in India but that the Jesus tradition was brought to India and Tibet. (Notovitch, 32) Notovitch’s text also did not state that Jesus was specifically at Himis: In fact, the lama stated that the Issa scrolls “were brought from India to Nepal, and from Nepal to Thibet.” Yet, upon returning to Himis through later visitors, the story eventually became morphed into “Your Jesus was here,” meaning at Himis itself. The “one book” or “two manuscripts” became “three books,” which were displayed for the later visitors, with the implication that there was more to the tale.

Nicolas NotovichAlthough subsequent visitors were presented such texts, none but Nicholas Roerich’s son, George, could read them. By his translation, Roerich was evidently shown the same text as Notovitch. Thus, it appears that there was only one text at Himis, and that it did not state that Issa himself was ever at the monastery. Furthermore, that one text is based on hearsay provided by passing merchants and does not at all represent an “eyewitness” account of “Jesus” in India and Tibet, although the impression is given that this and other texts do constitute such records.

Also, Notovitch asked if “Issa” was reputed to be a saint, and was informed that “the people ignore his very existence” and that the lamas who have studied the scrolls “alone know of him.” These remarks are a far cry from Roerich’s claim that the tale of “Christ” in India and other parts of Asia was to be found widespread. They also contradict the Tibetan text’s own assertion that Issa’s “fame spread everywhere” and that Persia and surrounding countries “resounded with prophecies” of Issa, thus causing the Persian priesthood to be terrified of him. This latter element sounds like typical myth-making, especially since there were similar prophecies of godmen for centuries, if not millennia, prior to Christ’s purported advent, particularly in India.

Moreover, the “originals” of the scrolls housed at the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, were composed in Pali, while the Himis library contained one copy in Tibetan. Yet, the Tibetan alphabet was developed by the king who “reigned in the days of Mohammed”; hence, nothing could have been written in Tibetan prior to the 7th century. Although older texts were composed in Sanskrit or Pali, it is clear that the actual physical manuscript revealed to Notovitch could not have existed before the 7th century. In fact, it would appear that very few Tibetan texts date to before the 9th century. In any event, the manuscript itself certainly did not date from the third century, although it could represent tradition transmitted over the centuries.

While Notovitch claimed the Issa story dated to shortly after “the Resurrection,” in it there is no mention of the resurrection, and the tale ends with Issa’s death. In this regard, the text depicts the “Jews,” whom it calls “Israelites,” in a favorable light, and is “the only [manuscript] ever to charge the Romans [“pagans”] solely for Jesus’ execution.” Unlike others, this account does not have Jesus being resuscitated and then returning to India, to father children and live a long life.

Notovitch’s modern editor, Frank Muccie, relates that the manuscript states, “Pilate is responsible for removing Jesus’ body from the tomb,” noting that this development somehow does not “mean the resurrection hope is invalid.” He then says:

“By the third century A.D., there were no fewer than 25 different versions of Jesus’ death and resurrection! Some have him not being put to death at all, some have him revived back to life, and some have Jesus living on to old age and dying in Egypt!” (Notovitch, 6)

Obviously, not all of these 25 or more accounts can be “true and genuine,” and such a development casts doubt on the historicity of one and all.

Rozabal TombThe Rozabal Tomb

Moreover, it is interesting that Notovitch spent six days in the “Vale of Kashmir,” in its capital, Srinagar, “city of the sun,” where the purported tomb of “Jesus,” the wandering prophet Yuz Asaf, is shown to tourists. Yet, the Russian traveler apparently never heard of the tomb, known as the “Roza Bal” or “Rauzabal” shrine, as he does not mention it in his writings concerning the Tibetan text, where its inclusion certainly would have been judicious in demonstrating that Jesus lived in India! Perhaps, however, as a believing Christian Notovitch ignored this tale, much as the devout do today and much as skeptics may do with other fables concerning Christ.

Possessing the priestly touch of sculpted footprints “with nail marks” over the grave, the Roza Bal shrine may seem convincing to the uninitiated, who are unaware of the world’s well-developed priest-craft. This “artifact” is another in a long line of so-called relics, like the 20+ shrouds or the multiple foreskins of Christ. In reality, there were many “footprints of the gods” in ancient times—and a number of Indian gods are depicted with nail holes in their feet.

Also, “Yuz Asaf” is not equivalent to “Jesus” but to “Joseph,” which was often a title of a priest and not a name. In fact, Eastern scholars such as Dr. S. Radhakrishnan state that the name “Joseph” or “Joasaph” is “derived from Bodhisattva, the technical name for one destined to obtain the dignity of a Buddha.” (Prajnanananda, 107) Thus, this tomb of a Bodhisattva could belong to any of thousands of such holy men. In like regard, the purported graves of “Jesus” and “his brother” in Japan are in reality those of a 16th-century Christian missionary and his brother.

The legends regarding Jesus’s tomb in Srinagar, and that of the Virgin Mary in Kashgar, are apparently of Islamic origin, emanating largely from the “heretical” Ahmadiyya sect. Such a creation would serve a couple of purposes: 1. That, as asserted in the Koran, Jesus was not the “son of God” but a mortal prophet, whose body was buried in Kashmir; and 2. that some presumably Moslem people are his descendants.

Proponents of the Jesus-in-India theory hold up a number of other texts and artifacts they maintain “prove” not only Jesus’s existence on Earth but also his presence in India. When such texts and artifacts are closely examined, they serve as no evidence at all, except of priest-craft. With one or two possible exceptions originating to a few centuries earlier, the Eastern texts regarding “Issa” seem to be late writings, some dating to the 15th and 18th centuries, based on traditions, not eyewitness accounts. Some of the “documents” are obviously fictitious, and others are downright ridiculous, such as the Bhavishya Mahapurana. A number of these texts merely relate the basic gospel story with embellishments depending on what the storyteller is attempting to accomplish.

Tibetan monk holding scrollsBuddhist Propaganda or Christian Proselytizing?

Although some of the writings appear to be of Hindu origin, the attack by “Issa” on the Vedas and Brahmans, as in the Notovitch text, represents Buddhist propaganda. It appears that Buddhists were trying to demonstrate that Jesus, the great wise man of the West, was influenced by Buddhism, even having been taught by “Buddha,” an eternal disincarnate entity. In this regard, the Notovitch text states, “Six years later, Issa, whom the Buddha had chosen to spread his holy word, could perfectly explain the sacred rolls.” (Notovitch, 35) In this way, Buddha usurps Jesus, becoming the Jewish teacher’s guru.

That the text has been used as propaganda to raise Buddha and Buddhism over Christ and Christianity is further validated by Notovitch’s foreword, in which he related that the lama told him, “The only error of the Christians is that after adopting the great doctrine of Buddha, they, at the very outset, completed separated themselves from him and created another Dalai-Lama….” This “Dalai-Lama,” the monk subsequently informed the Russian, is the Pope. Concerning Christ, the lama continued, “Buddha did, indeed, incarnate himself with his intelligence in the sacred person of Issa, who, without the aid of fire and sword, went forth to propagate our great and true religion through the entire world.” (Notovitch, 20) Hence, Eastern traditions regarding Jesus are designed to show that Jesus is Buddha and that Christianity is an offshoot of ancient Eastern wisdom.

Nevertheless, the Notovitch text itself may have been composed originally by proselytizing Christians who attempted to use the natives’ belief in Buddha in order to increase Christ’s stature. These missionaries may have been appealing to women to follow “Issa,” as the text puts great emphasis on women, whose status in India and elsewhere has been abysmally low. The text would also appeal to the Sudras or Pariahs, since it has Issa preaching on their behalf. These groups are targeted to this day by Christian missionaries in India.

Considering that many missionaries, travelers and scholars have been keenly aware of the numerous and profound similarities between the Tibetan and Catholic religions, it would not be surprising if this Issa fable were created in order to show that the Tibetan religion is merely a foreign derivative of the “true universal religion,” i.e., Catholicism. The resemblances between various Indian sects and Christianity likewise led to tales about the Christian missionaries Thomas, Bartholomew and Pantaenus also proselytizing in India. Like the Jesus-in-India myth, there are other explanations for the resemblances, which are addressed in detail in my book Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled. In short, the major explanation is that the “Christian” religion and savior were already in India long before the alleged advent of Jesus.

Lord ShivaIs “Issa” Jesus—or Shiva?

By calling Issa “Jesus” or “Christ,” modern writers have cemented in the readers’ minds that the correlation is absolute, an erroneous conclusion. In reality, the name “Issa,” “Isa” or “Isha” is a title and simply means “lord,” “god” or “master,” often referring to the Indian god Lord Shiva: “‘Isha’ or ‘the Lord’ is another name of Siva…” (Prajnanananda, 19) Furthermore, Prof. Nunos de Santos says, “… a god variously named Issa, Isha, Ichtos, Iesus, Ieshuah, Joshuah, Jesus, etc., is indisputably originally from India.” He also states, “Ishvara (Ishwar) is widely worshipped in the Far East, being also called Isha (or Ishana) in India, Issara in Pali, Isuan in Thai, Jizu (or Jizai) in Japanese, and so on.”

“Isa” is likewise another name for Chandra, the Indian moon god, as well as for Shiva’s Egyptian counterpart, the soli-lunar god Osiris, also called Iswara in India:

“Iswara, or Isa, and Isani, or Isisi, are … unquestionably the Osiris and Isis of Egypt. Iswara, Siva, or Hara (for these are his names among nearly a thousand more) united with Isi, represent the secondary causes, whatever they may be, of natural phenomena; and principally those of temporary destruction and regeneration.” (Moor, 151)

Numerous ancient legends, recorded for example in the writings of Diodorus Siculus during the first century BCE, depict Osiris as traveling all over the East, as well as the rest of the world, during the millennia when he reigned as Egypt’s favorite deity. Osiris, or Isa, it should be noted, was put to death and resurrected, among many other correspondences to the Christ myth. Osiris/Isa too had a number of tombs in various places, especially in Egypt but likely also in India. However, Osiris was not a “real person” but a fertility and sun god. What mythologists recognize is that it was not a “historical Osiris” but his myth that made it to India and diverse places. As in the case of Osiris, the same phenomenon occurred regarding “Jesus,” who is, in the end, a remake of Osiris, among others.

The title “Isa” or “Issa” could apply to others, and is a common name even today. Indeed, some part of these Jesus-in-India tales may revolve around the famed Greek sage Apollonius of Tyana. Not a few persons over the centuries have noted the similarities between the lives of Apollonius and Christ, and even in ancient times Christians were accused of plagiarizing the Apollonius legend.

Nicholas RoerichThe Nestorians

The Issa myth apparently represents a Christianization of legends regarding Osiris, Shiva, Apollonius and other gods and “Bodhisattvas,” by the Nestorians, an early Christian sect who lived in India and elsewhere, and may well have spread the syncretistic fable to other Asian ports of call. Indeed, Nicholas Roerich himself surmised that the ancient Nestorian sect spread the tales in the East:

“We heard several versions of this legend which has spread widely through Ladak, Sinkiang and Mongolia, but all versions agree on one point, that during His absence, Christ was in India and Asia…. Perhaps [this legend] is of Nestorian origin.” (Prophet, 261)

Roerich also stated, “Whoever doubts too completely that such legends about the Christ life exist in Asia, probably does not realize what an immense influence the Nestorians have had in all parts of Asia and how many so-called Apocryphal legends they spread in the most ancient times.” (Roerich, 89) In addition, George Roerich even proposed that there was a “floating colony” of Nestorians in Ladakh itself “during the eighth to tenth centuries,” which could well be when the Notovitch text was composed. Roerich, one of the main writers whose works have led to the Jesus-in-India theory, almost invariably and misleadingly substitutes “Jesus” or “Christ” for “Issa,” when Issa could be a number of individuals, mythical and historical.

In his account of Jesus in India, Roerich declared, “The teachings of India were famed far and wide; let us even recall the description of the life of Appolonius [sic] of Tyana and his visits to Hindu sages.” (Roerich, 119) Again, one likely scenario regarding “Issa” (“Lord” or “Master”) is that, whatever part of his tale is “historical,” it possibly refers to Apollonius.

Muziris on the Roman Tabula PeutingerianaPre-Christian Indo-European Interaction

As is well-known, Apollonius was not alone in his journeys to the East. Decades and centuries prior to the Christian era, there was much intercourse between India and the West, including the famous journey by Pythagoras and the Alexandrian incursion. As another pertinent example, one of the seats of Mandeanism, a Christian baptist sect, was Maisan, a Mesopotamian city colonized by Indians. As Dr. Rudolph Otto relates:

“… Indian caravans passed through Maisan and likewise Nabatea. Indian merchants, wherever they went, were importers and missionaries of Indian ideas. There need be no surprise therefore if direct Indian imports are found in the syncretistic medley of Mandean Gnosis”. (Prajnanananda, 41)

Space does not permit us to recount the numerous authorities who are in agreement as to the westward spread of Indian and Buddhist concepts centuries before and into the Christian era. A number of them may be found in Prajnanananda’s book, including a “Mr. Cust,” who evinced that trade between India and Yemen “was established not later than 1000 B.C.” Yemen is very close to Israel, and by the first century CE there were plenty of Indians in the Roman Empire.

Despite the popularity of the Jesus-in-India tale, the claim is not accepted by mainstream authorities, either Christian or secular. The tale’s proponents assert that scholars reject Jesus in India because of Western imperialism and the inability to accept that Christ could have been influenced by Buddhism. In the case of mythicists, however, the reason Jesus is denied as having gone to India is because he is a pagan sun god remade into a Jewish “human” messiah. Thus, it is not a question of a “historical Jesus” being in India and the East but of a variety of solar cults that worshipped a similar deity with similar rituals, doctrines and myths.

Mithras / Sol InvictusThe “Lost Years” Are Astrotheological

Over the centuries Jesus’s so-called “lost years” and post-crucifixion life have provided much fodder for the fertile human imagination, leading to speculation, legends, traditions and myths that the great godman and sage lived and studied in a variety of places. Once the fable of Christ became popular, numerous towns, villages, cities and nations wished to establish some sort of connection. Instead of recognizing that such a significant omission as Jesus’s “lost years” is an indication of the mythical nature of the tale, individuals using typical priest-craft have come up with countless extraordinary adventures of the “historical Jesus.” Unfortunately for the believers, however, not only is the gospel story itself but so too are these Jesus-the-Globetrotter tales mere deluding smoke and mirrors, and the reason for the gap in Jesus’s biography is because he was not a “real person” but a pagan sun god turned into a Jewish messiah. In the mythos revolving around the sun god, there need be no accounting for “lost years,” as the “age” of 12 represents the sun at high noon, while the 28 or 30 represents the days of the lunar or solar months, respectively.

When religions are investigated with a profound knowledge of mythology, the correspondences are clearly revealed, and it becomes evident that it is not the case that this miracle-worker or that godman traveled to this place or that, as has been rumored to have occurred with just about every god or goddess. In actuality, it is the legends, traditions and myths concerning these gods, godmen or gurus that have been spread far and wide by their proponents, priests and propagandists. As was the case with the missionary and his brother in Japan, who were taken for the object of worship they were proselytizing, so has it developed in other parts of the world over the millennia concerning not only Jesus but also many other deities, such as the virgin-born, crucified Mexican god Quetzalcoatl, whose similar “life” and religion led to claims that “Jesus” was in America. The reason for the similarities, however, is because both Jesus and Quetzalcoatl are sun gods with the same attendant holidays and practices.

Jesus in the Zodiac (11th century)In the final analysis, it is not possible that Jesus could have lived years after the crucifixion, fathered children and died in several different places, as legends represent. The past explanation for such discrepancies has been metaphysical, deeming Jesus to be multidimensional and capable of simultaneous incarnations in various locations. Such an explanation, of course, will not satisfy the skeptic and scientist. Or the mythologist, who simply knows better, because she or he has studied in depth the products of the human mind. Because the basic story of Christ revolves around the sun, which was highly esteemed the world over beginning many millennia ago, the myth is likewise found around the globe. To the basic mythos and ritual were added various embellishments according to the place and era, and for a variety of reasons. In the end, Jesus the Globetrotter is a not a historical personage who magically appeared all over the world, bi-locating and flying on the backs of birds. “Jesus Christ” is mythical creature, to be found globally only between the pages of a book. – Truth Be Known, 1995


  1. Capt, E. Raymond, The Traditions of Glastonbury, Artisan, 1983
  2. Ellis, Peter B., “Our Druid Cousins,”
  3. Huc, M. L’Abbé, Christianity in China, Tartary, and Thibet, I, London, Longman & Co., 1857
  4. Moor, Edward, Simpson, ed., The Hindu Pantheon, Indological Book House, India, 1968
  5. Notovitch, Nicholas, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, Tree of Life Publications, CA, 1980
  6. Nunos de Santos, Arysio, “The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ–Comments,”
  7. Prajnanananda, Swami, Christ the Saviour and the Christ Myth, Calcutta, 1984
  8. Prophet, Elizabeth Clare, The Lost Years of Jesus, Summit University Press, 1984
  9. Roerich, Nicholas, Altai-Himalaya, Adventures Unlimited, 2001
» D. M. Murdock, also known as Acharya S., is an American author and classical scholar of religion. She is a proponent of the Christ myth theory and administers a website called Truth be Known. She argues that Christianity is founded on earlier myths and the characters depicted in Christianity are based upon Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Iranian and Indian mythology.

Persian Sun God Mithra

Mithras the Pagan Christ

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