The Sangh and Intellectualism – Ashok Chowgule

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at RSS headquarters in Nagpur

“Not one of the people who want to associate themselves with the BJP
would be admitted within the vicinity of a detergent advertisement.”
T. K. Arun, “The BJP hype”, The Economic Times, Dec 26, 1997.
“Its phenomenal growth notwithstanding, the BJP has always lacked
acceptability in that segment of society for which BBC and the
Time magazine serve as a window to the world.”
Bhaskar Roy, “Five o’clock faces”, The Times of India, September 16, 1999.

BJPThough these two quotes name the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the sentiments they convey is intended to apply to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates. For decades, cut-and-paste articles have appeared, primarily from those belonging to the left spectrum of politics, which proclaim that the RSS has not produced any intellectuals of note.

The intention of these articles is not merely to state a fact—like the RSS headquarters is at Resham Bagh in Nagpur, or that it was founded in 1925 on Vijayadashmi day. If it were so, then it would merit a line in an article, and not a full one. And, even if a full article is written, it would not merit the multiple cut-and-paste articles that one has seen. You do not get to read an article on the architecture of Resham Bagh or the various buildings and offices in the compound, nor what happened on that momentous day in 1925.

The real intention is to imply that there has to be something intrinsically wrong with an organisation that is supposedly not able to produce any intellectuals. The leftists seem to start with the proposition that for an organisation to be successful and effective it has to keep on churning intellectuals. So, when they say that the Sangh has not been able to produce intellectuals, they are effectively saying that the Sangh is not a successful or an effective organisation.

The growth of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

I think there would be a very few takers for the statement that the RSS is not successful or not effective. One could talk about the extent of having achieved this goal. I think a very large majority would give a score in excess of 80%. I do not base this number on any survey, but based on my own personal experience. Given that the RSS is going to complete 90 years of existence on this year’s Vijayadashmi day, and that it has been continuously growing and expanding, reinforces my experience.

The growth of the RSS has happened despite a continuous and vigorous opposition of the governments in power—the British during the pre-independence period, and the secular governments in the period after that. And also strong opposition from those occupying the intellectual space.  The articles about the RSS, particularly in the English language, have been written by the ones who had a deep antipathy to the organisation and its ideology. However, given the growth of the RSS, it would seem to me that these articles really did not have much impact in the minds of even the English readers in the Indian society.

Ashok ChowguleToday, the RSS has spread its activities to nearly all sections of the society. And its organisations lead in many sectors—for example the labour wing and the student wing, set up just prior to the independence.  Then there is the organisation that I am active with—Vishwa Hindu Parishad—which has been successfully able to bring the sants and swamis of the various sampradayas of the larger Hindu fold.  Ekal Vidyalay runs more than 40,000 schools in the tribal areas on the principle of one-teacher school. In the successful struggle against the Emergency of 1975-77, those who had come out in the streets were largely swayamsevaks, and they formed more than 70% of those who spent time in jail. It was the swayamsevaks, settled outside India, who formed the backbone of the Friends of India Society International, which ensured the flow of information to the world.

It runs large number of schools where value education is provided besides what is prescribed to get the qualification. It has put together the history of the development of science throughout our civilisation. It has encouraged Sanskrit and other Indian languages.  It has encouraged the temple priests to study the proper way to conduct the rituals, and also explain them to the devotees.  Such micro level work in the samaj has also been emulated by other Hindu organisations, leading to a big synergy of effort.

The RSS has also inspired hundreds of thousands of swayamsevak to undertake a large number of social service activities in various fields. My favourite is the Dr Hedgewar Hospital in Aurangabad, which is one of the larger private sector hospital in the country. In contrast to many of the other private sector hospitals, poor people can access quality medical treatment at very low rates, and sometimes without having to pay. It was started by a few medical doctors in Aurangabad, who decided to devote their lives in service to the people of India, forgoing an opportunity to earn large incomes if they had gone into private practice.

The leftist ‘intellectuals’

In contrast, I would like those who are opposed to the ideology of the RSS to let the people know what they have achieved in activities similar to where the RSS is present.  They can even list out the achievements in managing state funded institutions. And then we can have a discussion on the issue of successfulness and effectiveness.

The multitude of articles about RSS and lack of intellectualism, also implies that those opposed to the ideology have been continuously churning out what are called intellectuals.  It is necessary to understand how this was achieved. While not so openly stated in the past, there is now an admission that those opposed to the RSS were the ones who were dominating the state-funded institutions. That their appointment was on the basis of conforming to an ideology, and not on the basis of scholarship is clear in the next section.

The leftists have produced the intellectuals not by setting up their own institutes, but by capturing the state institutions, which were set up by using the money from the society.  And they did this through subterfuge, and not honestly. Once in the position of power they had little concern about being loyal to the society, and they tried to thrust their ideology on an unwilling people.

Three articles

To explain my point, I would like my reader to read the following articles by Ramchandra Guha:

I am deliberately using one person to make my case, because I have had correspondence with him in the past, and I attempted to put across to him the Sangh world-view on certain matters. And I met him once in Mumbai in a meeting lasting about two hours. Some time ago, he requested me not to send him any messages, and my messages to him has stopped. However, reading the comments on the articles that Ramachandra Guhahe has written, there seem to be sufficient number of people who are giving him perspectives that came to my mind.  (Provided, of course, he does read the comments.)

Guha’s twitter introduction says that he is a lapsed Marxist. I have not been able to find out when he lapsed, and I really do not see his writing to be any different from what a Marxist would write—though, perhaps due to the pressure from the social media, he does deviate from the party line here and there. But, he always seems to revert back.  Given the way Guha admires the Marxists that are mentioned in the article, he does not seem to have taken the necessary step to critically assess the Marxist ideology.

In one of the articles, Guha starts about how in 2004 a senior minister took a senior journalist for lunch, where the minister asked for names for the “directorship of a prestigious centre of historical research.”  No names were given, so we just have to take Guha’s word that it was a prestigious centre. Nor will we dwell much on why the views of a journalist (name unknown) were sought for the position, instead of doing a professional search. It reminds me of the phone conversations that the ex-lobbyist, Nira Radia, had with journalists like Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi, Rajdeep Sardesai, etc.

What Guha says next is quite interesting—maybe amusing is the right word. His name was rejected because he wrote critically about Indira Gandhi, and that of Partha Chatterjee (a “distinguished political theorist”) met a similar fate because the latter wrote critically about Jawaharlal Nehru. Since we do not know the name of the institute, the nation has lost an opportunity to identify the Nehru-Gandhi sycophant who eventually made the grade. And an opportunity to evaluate his professional contribution to the “prestigious” centre. Maybe Guha can let the nation know. If nothing else, it would be an interesting gossip.

In another article, Guha talks about his first job as a supposed academic at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata, a state funded institution. He lets out that early into the job, in an interaction with a senior colleague, the latter assumed that Guha was a Marxist. (Perhaps it was true at the time, and that Guha lapsed only some years later.) Furthermore, he clearly says that this colleague was a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and he did not seem to see anything wrong that a state institution is manned with card-carrying members of the communist party.

Perhaps inadvertently, Guha lets out that “(a)t least since the time of Indira Gandhi, the Central government has sought to undermine the autonomy of institutions that promote culture and scholarship.” I do not know whether Guha wrote anything substantially about the undermining while it was happening.  What is clear is that he does not dwell on the effect of the undermining today, except to state that there was undermining. He brings it up only in context of proclaiming that the RSS’ supposed attempt to undermine the integrity of the institutions will lead to a disastrous situation. As if we are presently in a land of milk and honey, where academic freedom reigns, and high quality professional research is being undertaken.

There are many other tit-bits that we can glean from the above three articles about how the Marxists used the state funded institutions to try and thrust their ideology. He admits that the leftists were allowed to capture the state institutions where one would normally find intellectuals, and that this was done with a political objective in mind. And he also says that only fellow-travellers had any hope of being admitted in the supposedly hallow portals.

However, there is a common thread that even though it was a fact that the autonomy of the various institutes was undermined, the sycophants were actually quite competent in their field of work. Not the best perhaps, but competent nevertheless.  But the reader just has to take Guha’s word that one can be competent and sycophant at the same time. For example, if post-independent history of India is not critical of the Nehru-Gandhi family, even where there is a legitimate reason, how can the history be unbiased? Of course, hindsight is perfect vision—but a society can learn from its mistakes only when it is admitted that the mistakes are made in the first place.

At one place, Guha says: “Marxist historiography is a legitimate model of intellectual enquiry, albeit one which—with its insistence on materialist explanations—is of limited use when examining the role of culture and ideas, the influence of nature and natural processes, and the exercise of power and authority.” How is it possible that a legitimate model is of limited use when it comes to applying it to so many different strands of inquiry? Such statements, and many others, makes me to conclude that Guha comes out as a confused person, drifting all over the place, and unwilling to admit that a major mistake has happened. The articles come out as written by one who has a reasonably good command over the English language, but not so much on logic or reasoning. Of course, I read it from my lens of being a right-wing.

The intellectual space

I would, therefore, like to make a distinction between an intellectual and one who occupies the intellectual space. This space consists of academic institutions, analysts who write from popular and/or specialised publications on issues relating to a nation, journalists, etc. This intellectual space need not necessarily be the one created by the state. However, when the person occupies the space created by the state, he has an aura of independence and unbiasedness.

When a reader explicitly knows that a person’s writing is influenced by his ideology, the reader is able to sift the wheat from the chaff. He also understands that to form an informed view on a matter, he will have to read articles written by others. But, when the state institutions have been captured by the leftists, and the ideological inclinations of the people occupying the position of knowledge is not generally known, the reader has a problem. Either he will accept what he reads as unadulterated truth, or he will be in a state of confusion.

To understand the problem, let us look at the contribution of the leftists towards resolving the various problems that are faced by our nation. They have projected that within the Marxist school of thought, solutions to the issues confronted by the socially underprivileged will be found. Yet, even today one frequently hears of atrocities against the Dalits primarily by those who are classified as Other Backward Castes. They have authenticated the political programme of the appeasement of the religious leaders of the minority communities, as a legitimate tool to win elections. But the Sachar Committee has highlighted the failure of the political leadership to do anything for the economic and social progress of the poor in the Muslim community.

T. N. MadanTheir definition of secularism was exclusively in terms of opposition to the RSS ideology. When sociologists like T. N. Madan and Ashis Nandy wrote one article each questioning the practice, and inquiring whether there is true secularism, they were projected by their colleagues as having suddenly being supporters of the RSS. The former wrote, in apparent exasperation, “A couple of my critics have, however, jumped to the conclusion that, since I have reservations about secularism as presented in the prevailing discourse, I must therefore be a supporter of communalism. This is patently absurd.” (T. N. Madan, “Secularism and the Intellectuals”, Economic and Political Weekly, April 30, 1994.)

The two, and many others, were intellectually terrorised in stopping their inquiry on the lines they had proposed.  And so the project of a perverted secularism still prevails.

In the economic field, the Marxist ideology determined the policy directions that the state followed. By 1980 it was clear that these policies were a failure. However, instead of introspecting on the causes of the failure, the Hindus were blamed by the Marxists for being cussed at not using the supposedly wonderful opportunities that were provided to them. Today, the same Marxists proclaim that the growth that has been achieved by the changes instituted since 1980 has done nothing for income equality between sections of the society. They do not even think of considering to examine whether there was income equality when their policies dominated the thinking at the time.

In case of history, the Marxist starting point is that there is nothing in the history of our nation that we need to be proud of. Hence, any inquiry in our past will only lead to disappointment and so there is no profit in it. In fact, the history is presented in a form that does not conform to the national consciousness. During the 1940s, they said that India consists of many countries, following the line of the Soviets in USSR. They completely ignored the cultural unity that enabled Adi Shankaracharya to give discourse on Hindu philosophy all over the country.  Or that of Swami Vivekananda speaking, again all over the country, on the same subject after he came back from the World Parliament of Religions, held in 1893.

Arun ShourieIt is also pertinent to point out how the leftists used their positions in the various state organisations to enrich themselves. Guha accepts that the Marxists who were given positions of influence in the state run institutions went about their task in a partisan and nepotistic manner. And, as Arun Shourie pointed out in his book Eminent Historians, they also had funds coming their way without showing any results of their efforts. In fact, Shourie has clearly shown the blatant disregard that these eminent historians had to any normal rules of public funded institutions, and an attitude that would seem to indicate that it is the duty of the society to ensure that they had a luxurious lifestyle, even though the people on whose behalf they claim to be speaking live lives of misery.

But, as is said, you cannot fool all the people all the time. The RSS, through its various organisations, and through mass level contacts amongst all the classes of people, have been able to bypass those who occupied the intellectual space. And through these contacts, the RSS has been able to disabuse the minds of the people of what can only be called the brainwashing that they have been subjected to by the leftists. The tragedy for the nation is that this brainwashing was conducted by using the financial resources provided by the victims, that is the people of India.

Marxism and intellectualism

To really understand the failure of the Marxist ideology, we need to look into the history of Marxism and intellectualism. A defining feature of Marxism was that there was never been a robust discussion, amongst those who continued to identify themselves as Marxists, about the premise on which it was based. Organisational rigidity and a top-down leadership ensured that free thinking was actively discouraged.  With changing social environment, the discussions would have fine-tuned the ideology to make it relevant and dynamic. I believe it was John Maynard Keynes who said that when the data changed, he had no problem to change his views.

D. N. GhoshMarxism, right from the time it captured state power at the political level, has had a deep disdain and suspicion of those occupying the intellectual space, particularly those outside the state institutions. Lenin said: “In general, as you probably know, I am not particularly fond of intelligentsia, and our new slogan ‘eliminate illiteracy’ should by no means be taken as expressing a wish to give birth to a new intelligentsia. To ‘eliminate illiteracy’ is necessary only so that every peasant, every worker can read our decrees, orders and appeals by himself without anyone’s help. The goal is purely practical. That’s all there is to it”.  (Quoted in D. N. Ghosh, “A God that is failing”, The Times of India, December 6, 2007.)

In effect, Lenin set about creating an army of useful idiots, who, being literate, could be given space in state institutions to take the Marxist propaganda forward. And the persons occupying the intellectual space found it monetarily profitable to lend their services. This happened in countries where the opportunity to earn decent salaries were limited, and the useful idiots allowed himself to be exploited.  In the developed countries, the useful idiots were also created—here the funds used were from the society. But due to reasons of accountability, the Marxist had competition, and the same institutes also encouraged a critical study of Marxism, and alternate paradigms were also provided to the students and the society.

But, merely occupying the intellectual space really does not necessarily make one an intellectual.  There is an important characteristic that is required, the one that Ghosh, in the above referred to article, quotes Albert Camus as saying, “… the intellectual’s role will be to say that the king is naked when he is, and not to go into raptures over his imaginary trappings”. The writings of Guha would show that the Marxists who have commandeered the position of patronage in all the state funded institutions know that if they said that the king was naked, they would have to suffer the same fate as that of the intellectuals (in the true sense) who opposed Marxist leaders like Lenin and Stalin.

In every country with a Marxist government, even in West Bengal, the ones occupying the intellectual space were always under threat of the state funding drying up. If anyone wanted to say that the king is naked had examples before him about what would happen if he mustered the courage to be honest to his profession. The sad experience of dissidents like Maxim Gorky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union were examples of what would happen to them if they even thought of mustering courage to defy the party line. Every Marxist government has shown the same disdain for genuine intellectuals as expressed by Lenin. They thought such people would be a threat to their position of power, and so had to be controlled, if possible, or neutralised (by exile or by death) otherwise.

In China, during the time of Mao Tse Tung, anyone occupying the intellectual space showed even a hint of questioning the party line was sent to labour camps for supposed re-education. In Cambodia, thousands of intelligent people were killed merely for being intelligent.

A useful idiot can never be an intellectual, who should have the interests of the people at large so that they are free in all sense. And when the situation is going in a direction that is not desirable, they should speak out in favour of the people. They should have no fear of their own safety, nor of their own material well-being. Genuine intellectuals should be a threat to the government in power.

Do read the full Ghosh article:

He also says: “For years on end, Stalin and the top party leadership carried on this tradition, treating dissenting intelligentsia as “socially dangerous” elements.”  The dissenters in India are those who think that within the parameters of Hindutva, solutions to the nation’s problems can be located.

Lessons in logic

The first lesson in logic dwells on the following: “All the ducks that I have seen are white, therefore all ducks are white.” The second lesson dwells on what is to be done if the above person meets another who says: “All the ducks that I have seen are grey, therefore all ducks are grey.” There can be one of two reactions—to contend to the other that what he has seen are not really ducks, or to consider the possibility that ducks could have a colour other than white.  It is only when one is ideologically driven, and not logic driven, that one will straight away insist the former, rather than reassess one’s opinion and then come to the conclusion.

A true intellectual, when given the additional data, will accept his conclusion that all ducks are white does not conform to the reality. Furthermore, he will investigate if Yadav Rao Joshiducks have more colours other than white and grey. He will define the duck not on the basis of the colour, but on other characteristics, like the shape of the beak, the size of the body, the way the bird walks, whether it floats on water, etc.

The late Yadavrao Joshi, a very senior RSS pracharak of yesteryears said that whether there are intellectuals in the Sangh is for others to say. But one can definitely say that there are intelligent persons in the Sangh. One such intelligent person, Dr Keshav Hegdewar, started the RSS ninety years ago. He inspired other intelligent persons to join the RSS, and all these intelligent people have built up the RSS to what it is today. The RSS would like the people to judge them by the work that is done, and not by flaunting the education qualifications, or the name of the state funded institute that they are employed at.

The intellectual Kshatriya

Even though the intellectual space was denied to them by the machinations of the Marxists, and their political masters, the Hindus worked in their own way to keep the memory of our civilisation and spirituality alive. The Hindu samaj provided theses Intellectual Kshatriyas the financial support to maintain their body and soul together. And because these Kshatriyas were working for a civilizational cause, they did not much care for material benefits. The viewed the value of their work by the body of knowledge they imparted.

The task of those who looked at history from their own civilisational perspective was not all that difficult because this work has been going on for centuries. India is unique in the sense that those who came here from outside to conquer the land and subjugate the civilisation were not fully successful. The people may have been politically ruled by those who were ill-disposed to the philosophy and culture of the Hindus, but their control stopped at the level of the mundane issues relating to administration. The Hindus continued to control, and nurture, the civil institutions through which their history and culture was propagated through generations. And this formed the base on which the Hindus could easily build upon when they had the political freedom to do so.

The Hindu samaj provided the Kshatriyas various platforms to convey their thoughts to the people at large. In the true Hindu tradition, these platforms were not a one-way flow of information. There would be debates and there would be discussions, so that the Intellectual Kshatriya could refine their thoughts, as well keep them relevant to the needs of the time. Through such debates, Adi Shankarachrya was as much a student as he was a teacher.

The Hindus who ventured into natural sciences always found the philosophy books as important to their work as the ones in sciences. Many of them wrote treatises on Hindu philosophy with as much fluency as the ones they wrote on sciences. And they had no hesitation in accepting that the understanding of Hindu philosophy made them better scientists.

Sita Ram Goel & Ram SwarupOut of the tens of thousands of the Intellectual Kashatriyas, I would like to name two—Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel—to whom I am grateful for forming my own thought process and keep them rooted in the Hindu culture and history. Apart from being a historian, Goel also set up a publication house, which gave so many others to see their work in print, and so reach a larger number of people. Other Hindus have posted these works on the internet, and it has become available to tens of millions of people all over the world.  The influence spread not just to those who were born Hindus. Others who came in contact with the people of India, and who soon started to look at Hinduism with a certain amount of empathy, found these works as a basis to research in a manner that made sense.

Due to their training in pamphleteering, and thinking that language can make a good substitute for logic, the Marxists are not able to comprehend that without intellectualism a mass based organisation cannot reach the levels that the Sangh has. While emotions are very important for a mass based organisation, without a sound grounding in sensibleness, the organisation cannot sustain itself in any meaningful way. Through various programmes, the Sangh explains its world view on various issues to its swayamsevaks, who then convey it to others through their contacts. Also, through the programme of mass contacts, these views are conveyed to the people at large.

Dump Marxism!In conclusion

The swayamsevaks in general, and the Intellectual Kshatriyas in particular, will not allow the histrionics of the Marxist to distract them from going about their self-appointed tasks of keeping Hinduism not just alive but also dynamic. We know that it was the sacrifice of our ancestors that ensured the survival of our civilisation.  We will not allow this sacrifice go in vain.

» Ashok Chowgule is the Working President (External) of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.  This article is a tribute to the intelligent people in the Sangh Parivar, the Intellectual Kshatriyas, and the hundreds of millions of Hindus who are doing their own bit for a resurgent Hinduism.

» A shorter version of this article under the title “Intellectualism And The Sangh” is available at Swarajya. 

R. K. Pachauri: Out with the dirty – Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar Etteth“India is run by politicians, tycoons and bureaucrats, but there is a Superclub that discreetly dominates the national agenda. They are Nobel Prize winners like Amartya Sen, who quit Nalanda University after allegations of irregularities and nepotism, and ‘human rights’ activists like Teesta Setalvad and convicted Naxal sympathisers such as Binayak Sen. They bask in the luxury of dollars and euros, receive prestigious awards and grants, and have more air miles with junkets than the square meals an average Indian gets. Mesmerised by their intelligentsia cachet, it is the only cosy club the political class woos with corporate-funded think tank and government committee positions.” – Ravi Shankar

R. K. PachauriThe Nobel Prize has a singular sheen of its own. It glows like a luminous halo, laminating a personality or an organisation with its glory. As you read this, India’s coquettish climate commando, R. K. Pachauri, will be enjoying the balmy climes of Japan and China to yaw yaw on environmental threats, quaffing champagne and attending high-profile banquets. And the girl he allegedly sexually harassed for a year until he was exposed in February, who felt repulsed by the 74-year-old climatologist’s advances and erotic poetry, waits for justice from the same system that allows Pachauri to jet set around the globe to save polar bears. Other women have spoken up against him.

The legal definition of rape was changed after the Nirbhaya horror, but Pachauri’s smart lawyer got him the approval to travel abroad to “earn his livelihood”. Any dirty old man accused of sexual harassment would have been enjoying the dubious hospitality of Tihar Jail, with other molesters.

Following his disgrace, he was forced out as the head of the UN climate change panel in February. He was sacked from TERI in July. In spite of it all, he will be India’s unofficial ambassador at global forums. Do we really want this type of Make in India product junketing around the world at a time when our Prime Minister is projecting India as the world’s new shining destination and has made climate change an important agenda?

Data collected until August 15 shows Delhi’s infamous Tihar was home at some time or the other to 1,121 rape accused and 2,238 arrested for molestation this year alone. The latest National Crime Records Bureau statistics point out the number of reported crimes against women has increased to over 3.3 lakh in 2014, or 56 incidents per one lakh females.

Dominique Strauss-KahnAccording to the National Violence Against Women Survey in the US, one in six American women has experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Pachauri may roam free for the time being, but all the power, international influence and glamour of Dominique Gaston André Strauss-Kahn, then the boss of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) who was the front-runner to replace the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, could not save his job or liberty after a hotel maid alleged he raped her in May 2011. Presidential prospects and political careers have been destroyed by sex scandals. But not in India. Perhaps, it is not surprising considering the attitude our leaders have towards the harassment and violation of women.

Teesta Sitalwad & Javed AnandIndia is run by politicians, tycoons and bureaucrats, but there is a Superclub that discreetly dominates the national agenda. They are Nobel Prize winners like Amartya Sen, who quit Nalanda University after allegations of irregularities and nepotism, and ‘human rights’ activists like Teesta Setalvad and convicted Naxal sympathisers such as Binayak Sen. They bask in the luxury of dollars and euros, receive prestigious awards and grants, and have more air miles with junkets than the square meals an average Indian gets. Mesmerised by their intelligentsia cachet, it is the only cosy club the political class woos with corporate-funded think tank and government committee positions. Together they form the Establishment, which the ordinary Indian cannot beat. The laws are different for them. And Pachauri knows too well this climate will not change and it will never get too hot for him. – The New Indian Express, 23 August 2015

» Ravi Shankar Etteth is an author, cartoonist and columnist for The New Indian Express. Email him at

R. K. Pachauri

Rahul Gandhi: A changed captive – Ravi Shankar

Rahul Gandhi

Ravi Shankar Etteth“The Congress party got wiped out by Modi. Modi beat the establishment by becoming the establishment himself. Every politician is a captive of the need for relevance. Rahul has realised that. The new Rahul’s vicious personal attacks in Parliament, his attempt to co-opt the President of India in a film institute squabble, and his ritualistic visit to protesting ex-servicemen wearing a cap with OROP printed on it shows that he has changed. His conscience and altruism have given way to the time-tested cynicism of the very same party politics he and his father tried to change.” – Ravi Shankar

Rahul Gandhi & Sonia GandhiEvery man is his own prisoner. Camus was wrong when he said every man is an island. He is not. He is a prisoner of what defines him—his conscience, his ambition, hate or compassion, humanitarian instincts, and his ideology. The essence of Hindu philosophy is that the soul is trapped inside the body and freedom through action leads to becoming one with the Supreme, thus removing fetters.

Rahul Gandhi is no committed Hindu. He is a prisoner of his agenda. The discovery of India captivated the boy who had grown up in a privileged, protected environment where family tradition dictated that his destiny was to rule India. So like his father, Rajiv, who reluctantly entered politics after the death of his fiercely ambitious brother Sanjay—who was bound to the dream of creating a modern India at any cost—Rahul, too, was a hesitant entrant. It is his karma as India’s politically blue-blooded scion to lead the party and the country, urged his party men, who knew they would be in the wilderness without a Gandhi.

When Rahul arrived as the new hope of the Congress, there was a strong similarity to his father’s style. An introvert who relied on a coterie of technocrat friends armed with data and PowerPoint, earning him the sneering epithet of ‘rocket scientist’ from party elders, who feared being sidelined by a young upstart. The system, a rotten edifice of sycophancy, corruption and cynical electoral arithmetic, swung into action. It reminded them of the threat Rajiv Gandhi posed to their fiefdoms in his historic speech at the Congress Centenary Session held in Bombay on December 28, 1985. He called for the ouster of “brokers of power and influence, who dispense patronage to convert a Rajiv Gandhi, Bombay, 1985mass movement into a feudal oligarchy”. It was ironic coming from a man who was himself part of a politically feudal oligarchy. Rajiv was a prisoner of his dream to change the party and India. His son Rahul inherited it. Rahul’s famous 2008 speech in Parliament about Kalavati, a poor farmer’s widow, earned him sneers and jeers from the Opposition, but he continued unfazed. Rahul, then, was a prisoner of his naiveté, convinced that he could change the system. It is another matter that Kalavati suddenly catapulted to her five minutes of fame, tried her hand at politics, but that is not Rahul’s fault. He tried to understand his country, by staying over in the huts of the tribal poor, travelling second class in trains, and sleeping in the open in villages. His young followers followed suit, braving the mosquitoes, and that alone should have alerted him that sycophancy was the survival code in the system. But it didn’t.

The Congress party got wiped out by Modi. Modi beat the establishment by becoming the establishment himself. Every politician is a captive of the need for relevance. Rahul has realised that. The new Rahul’s vicious personal attacks in Parliament, his attempt to co-opt the President of India in a film institute squabble, and his ritualistic visit to protesting ex-servicemen wearing a cap with OROP printed on it shows that he has changed. His conscience and altruism have given way to the time-tested cynicism of the very same party politics he and his father tried to change. The establishment has succeeded in capturing him in the end. Rahul is no longer his own prisoner but theirs. Some see it as maturing. But in reality, it is a life sentence. – The New Indian Express, 16 August 2015

» Ravi Shankar Etteth is an author, cartoonist and columnist for The New Indian Express. Email him at

Rahul Gandhi

The native Sahib vs the Hindu – Vamadeva Shastri

Sonia Gandhi and Congress MPs

David Frawley“India appears like a nation without nationalism or at least without any national pride or any real connection to its own history. Self-negativity and even a cultural self-hatred abound. The elite that dominates the universities, the media, the government and the business arenas is the illegitimate child of foreign interests and is often still controlled by foreign ideas and foreign resources. It cannot resist a bribe and there is much money from overseas to draw upon. Indian politicians do not hesitate to sell their country down the river and it does not require a high price.” — Pandit Vamadeva Shastri

Robert VadraA defeatist tendency exists in the psyche of modern Indians perhaps unparalleled in any other country today. An inner conflict bordering on a civil war rages in the minds of the country’s elite. The main effort of its cultural leaders appears to be to pull the country down or remake it in a foreign image, as if little Indian and certainly nothing Hindu was worthy of preserving or even reforming.

The elite of India suffers from a fundamental alienation from the traditions and culture of the land that would not be less poignant had they been born and raised in a hostile country. The ruling elite appears to be little more than a native incarnation of the old colonial rulers who haughtily lived in their separate cantonments, neither mingling with the people nor seeking to understand their customs. This new English-speaking aristocracy prides itself in being disconnected from the very soil and people that gave it birth.

There is probably no other country in the world where it has become a national pastime among its educated class to denigrate its own culture and history, however great that has been over the many millennia of its existence. When great archaeological discoveries of India’s past are found, for example, they are not a subject for national pride but are ridiculed as an exaggeration, if not an invention, as if they represent only the imagination of backward chauvinistic elements within the culture.

There is probably no other country where the majority religion, however enlightened, mystical or spiritual, is ridiculed, while minority religions, however fundamentalist or even militant, are doted upon. The majority religion and its institutions are taxed and regulated while minority religions receive tax benefits and have no regulation or even monitoring. While the majority religion is carefully monitored and limited as to what it can teach, minority religions can teach what they want, even if anti-national or backward in nature. Books are banned that offend minority religious sentiments but praised if they cast insults on majority beliefs.

There is probably no other country where regional, caste and family loyalties are more important than the national interest, even among those who claim to be democratic, socialist or caste reformers. Political parties exist not to promote a national agenda but to sustain one region or group of people in the country at the expense of the whole. Each group wants as big a piece of the national pie as it can get, not realizing that the advantages it gains mean deprivation for other groups. Yet when those who were previously deprived gain power, they too seek the same unequal advantages that causes further inequality and discontent.

India’s affirmative action code is by far the most extreme in the world, trying to raise up certain segments of the population regardless of merit, and prevent others from gaining positions however qualified they may be. In the guise of removing caste, a new castism has arisen where one’s caste is more important than one’s qualifications either in gaining entrance into a school or in finding a job when one graduates. Anti-Brahminism has often become the most virulent form of castist thinking. People view the government not as their own creation but as a welfare state from they should take the maximum personal benefit, regardless of the consequences for the country as a whole.

Sundar Pichai at Stanford (1994)Outside people need not pull Indians down. Indians are already quite busy keeping any of their people and the country as a whole from rising up. They would rather see their neighbours or the nation fail if they are not given the top position. It is only outside of India that Indians succeed, often remarkably well, because their native talents are not stifled by the dominant cultural self-negativity and rabid divisiveness that exists in the country today.

Political parties in India see gaining power as a means of amassing personal wealth and robbing the nation. Political leaders include gangsters, charlatans and buffoons who would stop short at nothing to gain power for themselves and their coteries. Even so-called modern or liberal parties resemble more the courts of kings, where personal loyalty is more important than any democratic participation. Once they gain power politicians routinely do little but cheat the people for their own advantage. Even honest politicians find that they cannot function without some deference to the more numerous corrupt leaders who often have a stranglehold on the bureaucracy.

Politicians divide the country into warring vote banks and place one community against another. They offer favours to communities like bribes to make sure that they are elected or stay in power. They campaign on slogans that appeal to community fears and suspicions rather than create any national consensus or harmony. They hold power based upon blame and hatred rather than on any positive programs for social change. They inflame the uneducated masses with propaganda rather than work to make people aware of real social problems like overpopulation, poor infrastructure or lack of education.

Should a decent government come to power, the opposition pursues pulling it down as its main goal, so that they can gain power for themselves. The idea of a constructive or supportive opposition is hard to find. The goal is to gain power for oneself and to not allow anyone else to succeed.

To further their ambitions Indian politicians will manipulate the foreign press to denigrate their opponents, even if it means spreading lies and rumors and making the country an anathema in the eyes of the outside world. Petty conflicts in India are blown out of proportion in the foreign media, not by foreign journalists but by Indians seeking to use the media to score points against their own opponents in the country. The Indians who are responsible for the news of India in the foreign press spread venom and distortion about their own country, perhaps better than any foreigner who dislikes the culture ever could.

The killing of one Christian missionary becomes a national media event of anti-Christian attacks while the murder of hundreds of Hindus is taken casually as without any real importance, as if only the deaths of white-skinned people mattered, not the slaughter of the natives. Missionary aggression is extolled as social upliftment, while Hindu efforts at self-defense against the conversion onslaught are portrayed as rabid fundamentalism. One Indian journalist even lamented that western armies would not come to India to chastise the political groups he was opposed to, as if he was still looking for the colonial powers to save him!

 Laloo Prasad Yadav & Mulayam Singh YadavLet us look at the type of leaders that India has had with its Laloo Prasad Yadav (ex CM Bihar), Mulayam Singh Yadav (ex CM UP) or Jayalalitaa to mention but a few. Such individuals are little more than warlords who surround themselves with sycophants. Modern Indian politicians appear more like colonial rulers looting their own country, following a divide and rule policy, to keep the people so weak that their power cannot be challenged. Corruption exists almost everywhere and bribery is the main way to do business in nearly all fields. India has an entrenched bureaucracy that resists change and stifles development, just out of sheer obstinacy and not wanting to give up any control.

The Congress Party, the oldest in this predominantly Hindu nation, has given its leadership to an Italian Catholic woman simply because as the widow of the last Gandhi prime minister, she carries the family torch, as if family loyalty were still the main basis of political credibility in the country. And such a leader and a party are deemed progressive!

The strange thing is that India is not a banana republic of recent vintage but one of the oldest and most venerable civilizations in the world. Its culture is not trumpeting a militant and fundamentalist religion trying to conquer the world for the one true faith but represents a vaster and more cosmic vision. India has given birth to the main religions that have dominated East Asia historically, the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh, which are noted for tolerance and spirituality.

It has produced Sanskrit, perhaps the world’s greatest language. It has given us the incredible spiritual systems of Yoga and its great traditions of meditation and Self-realization. As the world looks forward to a more universal model of spirituality and a world view defined by consciousness rather than by religious dogma these traditions are perhaps the most important legacy to draw upon for creating a future enlightened civilization.

Yet the irony is that rather than embracing its own great traditions, the modern Indian psyche prefers to slavishly imitate worn out trends in western intellectual thought like Marxism or even to write apologetics for Christian and Islamic missionary aggression. Though living in India, in proximity to temples, yogis and great festivals, most modern Indian intellectuals are oblivious to the soul of the land. They might as well be living in England or China for all they know of their own country. They are isolated in their own alien ideas as if in a tower of iron. If they choose to rediscover India it is more likely to occur by reading the books of western travelers visiting the country, than by their own direct experience of the people around them.

The dominant Indian intelligentsia cannot appreciate even the writings of the many great modern Indian sages, like Vivekananda or Aurobindo, who wrote in good English and understood the national psyche and how to revive. It is as if they were so successfully brainwashed against their own culture that they cannot even look at it, even if presented to them clearly in a modern light!

Kanchi Acharya Jayendra SaraswatiGiven such a twisted and self-negative national psyche, can there be any hope for the country? At the surface the situation looks quite dismal. India appears like a nation without nationalism or at least without any national pride or any real connection to its own history. Self-negativity and even a cultural self-hatred abound. The elite that dominates the universities, the media, the government and the business arenas is the illegitimate child of foreign interests and is often still controlled by foreign ideas and foreign resources. It cannot resist a bribe and there is much money from overseas to draw upon. Indian politicians do not hesitate to sell their country down the river and it does not require a high price.

Fortunately signs of a new awakening can be found. There is a new interest in the older traditions of the country and many people now visit temples and tirthas. Many young people now want to follow the older heritage of the land and revive it in the modern age. The computer revolution and the new science are reconnecting with the great intelligence of the Indian psyche that produced the unfathomable mantras of the Vedas.

Slowly but surely a new intelligentsia is arising and now several important journalists are writing and exposing the hypocrisy of the anti-Hindu Indian elite. Yet only if this trend grows rapidly can there be a real counter to the defeatist trend of the country. But it requires great effort, initiative and creativity, not simply lamenting over the past but envisioning a new future in harmony with the deeper aspirations of the region.

One must also not forget that the English-educated elite represents only about three percent of the country, however much power they wield. The remaining population is much more likely to preserve the older traditions of the land. Even illiterate villagers often know more of real Indian culture than do major Indian journalists and writers.

Meanwhile overseas Hindus have become successful, well-educated and affluent, not by abandoning their culture but by holding to it. They see Hindu culture not as a weakness but as a strength. Free of the Indian nation and its fragmented psyche, they can draw upon their cultural resources in a way that people born in India seldom can. Perhaps they can return to the country and become its new leaders.

However, first this strange alienated elite has to be removed and they will not do so without a fight. The sad thing is that they would probably rather destroy their own country than have it function apart from their control. The future of India looks like a Map of Bharatvarshanew Kurukshetra and it requires a similar miracle for victory. Such a war will be fought not on some outer battlefield but in the hearts and minds of people, in where they choose to draw their inspiration and find their connection with life.

Yet regardless of outer appearances, the inner soul of the land cannot be put down so easily. It has been nourished by many centuries of tapas by great yogis and sages. This soul of Bharat Mata will rise up again through Kali (destruction) to Durga (strength). The question is how long and difficult the process must be. – Hindu Human Rights, 2 September 2013

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

Congress secretary Rahul Gandhi parties after Mumbai attack in 2008.

Why Shashi Tharoor is right on Britain’s colonial debt to India – Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant“Shashi’s 15-minute speech at the Oxford Union recently, as part of an eight-speaker debate on whether Britain owes its ex-colonies financial reparations, has gone viral with over a million views on YouTube. … Listen to the points Shashi makes in the video. Each one is valid—though he does commit two small errors.” — Minhaz Merchant

Shashi TharoorFirst, a disclosure: Shashi Tharoor is an old friend and colleague. I edited his column, “Worldview”, in one of my magazines for over ten years. His twin sons and my son were born in the same week, month and year and often lay in cradles side-by-side as we spoke on politics and life over dinner at each other’s homes.

That said, Shashi’s columns in my magazine received a more animated response than any of the other columns we carried at that time: Dr Henry Kissinger, Dom Moraes, L. K. Advani, Madhu Dandavate, I. K. Gujral and several others.
Shashi’s 15-minute speech at the Oxford Union recently, as part of an eight-speaker debate on whether Britain owes its ex-colonies financial reparations, has gone viral with over a million views on YouTube [see video below]. And so it should.
Listen to the points Shashi makes in the video. Each one is valid—though he does commit two small errors.
First, Britain’s “aid” to India is not 0.4 per cent of our GDP as he says. It’s one-twentieth of that—0.02 per cent ($410 million on a GDP of $2.10 trillion). Much of this aid, moreover, is tied to buying British goods and services. A better way to describe it would be “trade aid”.
The second error lies in Shashi’s concluding remarks at the Oxford Union debate: He says reparations for Britain’s colonial debt are theoretical since they can’t be quantified. An apology from Britain will therefore do.
He’s wrong on both counts. Britain’s colonial debt to India can in fact be quantified. And an apology alone won’t do.
In an article I wrote for The Illustrated Weekly of India over 25 years ago—then edited by Pritish Nandy—I did precisely that: quantify Britain’s colonial debt to India. Most of my article focused on the same areas as Shashi’s Oxford speech: Britain’s colonial rule destroyed India’s industries and made India a vassal for the newly industrialising Britain in the 19th century. But of that computation in a moment.
In yet another article for a daily newspaper, in 2007, I looked at Britain’s global colonial debt in historical terms:
“One of the great hidden secrets of British colonialism is the slave trade. It was a 250-year-long trade that disgraced Britain and brutalised an entire continent. British historians routinely gloss over it and Africa, hit twice by European rapacity (first by the slave trade, then by the colonial carve-up of the continent in the 19th century once “slaving” had officially ended), has not yet developed the historical scholarship to deal with and expose the full horrors of slave trafficking.”
Hugh Thomas“Lord Hugh Thomas, one of the world’s most accomplished historians on the Atlantic slave trade, describes the hellish journey inland even before the slaves were packed on to the slave ships: ‘The slaves were usually secured by placing the right leg of one and the left leg of another onto the same pair of fetters. If the fetters were connected by a string, these men could walk, though slowly. Every four slaves might also be fastened together by the necks, with a strong rope of twisted thongs and, at night, additional fetters would to put on their hands. Sometimes, a chain would be passed round their necks. Those slaves who protested were imprisoned in a thick billet of wood about three-feet-long and a smooth notch being made upon one side of it. The ankle of the slave was bolted to the smooth part by means of a strong staple, one ring of which was passed on each side of the ankle. All these fetters and bolts were made from African iron.'”
John Hawkins“In 2006, Andrew Hawkins, a descendant of Sir John Hawkins—the slaving pioneer—travelled to Gambia, a west African country from where thousands of Africans had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. He went, self-bound in chains, along with other chained white Englishmen and made a symbolic apology on behalf of his family to the people of Gambia. He was received by the vice president of Gambia, Isatou Njie Saidy, and 25,000 other ordinary Gambians.”
Andrew Hawkins & Isatou Njie-SaidyHere, in Hawkin’s words, is what happened next: “I apologised on behalf of my family. I apologised for the adults and children taken. There was a long pause and we really didn’t know what to expect—it was very nerve-wracking. They could have said, ‘We don’t accept your apology, go away,’ and were ready for that. It would have been understandable. But the vice president came forward and accepted the apology very graciously. She offered her forgiveness and then came forward and took the chains off. That was entirely impromptu and very moving.”
Hawkins and his volunteers apologised to the vice president of Gambia for the terrible injustice caused by Britain to Africa. But so far, no British prime minister has even hinted at a formal apology. The reason: an official government apology to Africans for the slave trade would open the floodgates for financial reparations and punitive damages for the crimes committed on the African people over a 200-year period. And those punitive damages would be substantial.
The small compensation British courts have forced the UK government to give to the victims of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s, based on classified documentary evidence made public in Britain, is the thin edge of the wedge. At a notional, inflation-adjusted cost of one lakh dollars per person in terms of net lost lifelong wages in his own country, the punitive damages on Britain as the principal slaving country would amount to two trillion dollars. Such reparations could change the face of modern Africa. But they would bankrupt Britain.
So how do we quantify Britain’s colonial debt to India? The computation has to take into account the following factors:
One, the difference between a) India’s GDP growth rate during 1757-1947 (the 190-year period of the British occupation, first under the East India Company and, from 1858, directly under the British government), b) India’s historical GDP growth rate (pre-1757) and c) its contemporary GDP growth rate (post-1947).
Two, the total value of goods and services exported during these three periods.
Three, the comparative social factors in these three periods—literacy, birth rates, death rates, infant mortality.
I computed all of these in my Illustrated Weekly piece of 1988 and, after adjusting for inflation, the debt owed by Britain to India in 1988 worked out to $500 billion. In today’s (2015) money that would be closer to three trillion dollars.
Winston ChurchillAs Shashi rightly points out in his Oxford Union debate, the cost of human rights abuse by the British is impossible to quantify. (The Churchill-induced Great Bengal famine of 1943 and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 were only two of the many atrocities that are impossible to quantify in terms of financial debt.) The economic debt though can be quantified.
So will India file a case in the International Court of Justice at the Hague to press Britain for financial reparations? Unlikely. India is a forgiving nation.
Shashi Tharoor, now 59, was “scolded” by the UPA president Sonia Gandhi for not toeing the Congress line on disrupting Parliament till Sushma Swaraj, Shivraj Singh Sonia-G & Shashi TharoorChouhan and Vasundhara Raje Scindia resign. At a meeting of the party on Tuesday, July 21, Shashi was the only one who disagreed with Sonia’s diktat: “First resignations. Then discussions.”
The next day, Sonia pulled him up, saying: “You always do this. It has become a habit with you.”

Perhaps Sonia should have a look at her Thiruvanthapuram MP’s Oxford Union speech on European, particularly British, colonialism which was harsh, dictatorial and brooked no dissent. She surely does not want the Congress—and especially the few sensible voices left in it—to follow in such unworthy footsteps. Daily O, 23 July 2015

» Minhaz Merchant is a biographer, editor, columnist and publisher in Mumbai.


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

Wendy’s Revenge: Plagiarism charge against Rajiv Malhotra is a red herring – Rajeev Srinivasan

Rajeev Srinivasan“This fuss about Malhotra’s books may be direct revenge for what happened to Wendy’s books a few months ago: upon being accused of hurting the sentiments of Hindus, her publisher unilaterally withdrew her books on Hinduism, which were allegedly a travesty of true research, not to mention full of gratuitous titillation and insults. Malhotra was the person who first challenged Wendy and her brood 15 years ago, and now the objective is to bully his publisher into withdrawing his books: sweet revenge indeed.” – Rajeev Srinivasan

Rajiv MalhotraThere has been a lot of commotion over on social media lately about the books written by Indian American author Rajiv Malhotra, who has single-handedly stood up to forces in US academia who paint, according to him, a negative, motivated, and false picture of Hinduism. This is not a purely abstract issue, as it impinges on soft power, positioning, and the marketing of India to the world, something that previous governments paid scarcely any attention to, but the current one does.

To put it simply, the issue is as follows: one Richard Fox Young, apparently an employee of a Christian seminary in Princeton, NJ, where Malhotra also resides, has gone on the warpath against Malhotra, accusing him of plagiarism, based on some material that was allegedly quoted without explicit attribution in his books Indra’s Net and Breaking India. Young’s crusade against Malhotra is not new: I personally have had to block Young on Twitter because he bombarded me when I supported Malhotra.

Richard Fox YoungNow, a disclaimer is in order: I have known Rajiv Malhotra for some years, and we have corresponded on occasion, although we have never met. While I don’t agree with him on everything, I am broadly in sync with him; and I have had no financial dealings whatsoever with him or any entities with links to him. There are friends of mine who disagree with him on style or substance, but when it comes to an external attack, we all stand with Rajiv.

On taking a brief look at the whole imbroglio, I see an old game being rehashed: certain anti-India and anti-Hindu forces are at play, and have been, in academia and elsewhere, for some years. There is a certain #DeepState at play, which I alluded to a few months ago in when I suggested that India has been deemed a part of a new #AxisOfEvil. I see no reason to change that view, as the same dramatis personae are at work here too: pals of the USCIRF – Cold Warriors of religion, focused on conversions.

I wrote about this clash of civilisations in “Fear of Engineering” in 2002, including the fact of Rajiv Malhotra, Sankrant Sanu, et al standing up to entrenched antipathy towards Hindus in American academia, led by ‘den mother’ Wendy Doniger Flaherty and “Wendy’s Children”, as Malhotra dubbed her acolytes. What was a somewhat obscure tiff in American academia then has now become quite an issue in India now.

Prof Wendy DonigerThere is an even greater link. This fuss about Malhotra’s books may be direct revenge for what happened to Wendy’s books a few months ago: upon being accused of hurting the sentiments of Hindus, her publisher unilaterally withdrew her books on Hinduism, which were allegedly a travesty of true research, not to mention full of gratuitous titillation and insults. Malhotra was the person who first challenged Wendy and her brood 15 years ago, and now the objective is to bully his publisher into withdrawing his books: sweet revenge indeed.

This is a pretty good tactic, and is an old one. The RISA group of mostly American religious academics who act as gatekeepers for Western Indology has consistently excluded those other than their own through the spurious argument of ‘scholarship’. This is defined as having been a PhD candidate under one of them: a clear case of intellectual incest. Indeed, Wendy has spawned—in nice counterpoint to Romila Thapar in India—an entire generation of Hindu-hating ‘scholars’, both Indian and Western.

Prof Michel DaninoThey have sought to denigrate the ‘insider’ perspective of Hinduism, as experienced by practicing Hindus or sympathetic scholars, and lionised an ‘outsider’ perspective (the words ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ are used to refer to these points of view) of hostile anthropologists (or colonial administrators in British Raj days). For instance, they have kept out scholars like Michel Danino, quite possibly the foremost authority on the Sarasvati river and thereby the best debunker of the entire ‘Aryan Invasion Fairytale’. This is not surprising: let us remember Galileo Galilei, who was almost burnt at the stake for upsetting the carefully built-up sinecures of insiders who had made their careers out of heliocentrism.

But that RISA citadel is under attack, as Hindus, both scholars and lay people, have begun to question them, turning the microscope back on them, and asserting that the western world-view is not universal (which Malhotra has done explicitly, by treating the West as anthropological specimens to be viewed through the lens of Hindu philosophical systems).

No, the western view is true for all people and for all time. An example is in the concept of ‘intellectual property rights’. The traditional knowledge and intellectual property of Hindus, freely given by pundits, have been quietly expropriated by western scholars (‘embrace-extend-exterminate’, the famous Microsoft strategy), who then turn around and assert that it is their property (the U-turn Hypothesis), for which they hold IPR. Westerners zealously guard their IPRs with patents and copyrights and so on. We remember the neem and turmeric patents. The tactic is also subtler: the appropriation of yoga into ‘Christian yoga’; the demonisation of coconut oil by cleverly comparing hydrogenated coconut oil to extra-virgin olive and saffola oil; and so forth.

BrahmaguptaHindus have a different, yet internally consistent, view of knowledge. They have traditionally created knowledge and simply put it in the public domain for anyone to use, without even signing their work. Is that wrong? Does this mean that Hindus were not innovative? Far from it. We don’t know who invented the decimal system (it was possibly Brahmagupta), but did it benefit society? Yes, it did, although it may not have benefited Brahmagupta personally through royalties, and indeed he may not have cared about the money, anyway.

In the West, too, the rise of Unix/Linux and open-source software has made it clear that ‘copyleft’ or freely opening up intellectual property, is not the end of civilisation as we know it; on the contrary, it can lead to very fine products and benefit society. Indeed, as opposed to Microsoft’s IPR-heavy Windows, 98 percent of us now carry mobile devices based on the open-source philosophy of Unix/Linux, GNU and the Free Software Foundation. So it’s clear that an alternative point of view may well be as valid as the conventional wisdom. Creative Commons is another example.

Staying with IPR for a moment, let us consider the basis of the attack on Malhotra: that he has plagiarised. Insofar as I can tell, what he is accused of is acceptable under the definition of ‘fair use’ in the US Copyright Act 1976, 17 USC Section 107, and under ‘fair dealing’ in the Indian Copyright Act of 1957, Section 52. If you peruse these provisions, you will find that the quoting of copyright materials for ‘research’ is allowed without hindrance, as it is for teaching as well, so long as it is not used for monetary benefit to the user.

Thus, there is little basis in fact for the allegation, a priori, and I suspect that if Malhotra sues, he will win. However, it is an excellent tactic, known as “throwing some mud and seeing how much will stick”. The objective is not to penalise the alleged plagiarism, but to create the impression that Malhotra is intellectually dishonest, the equivalent of accusing him of a felony, which will remain as a stain even if he is exonerated. That is the objective of Wendy’s Revenge: hopefully, it will cause him to self-censor.

Sister AnitaThis technique has been used to devastating effect in the past. One example is the Nun Rape Syndrome. In 1998, there was a big hoo-ha over an alleged rape of four Catholic nuns in Jhabua, in the forests of Madhya Pradesh, and Hindu groups were immediately accused. To be honest, it’s not clear why the rape of a nun is more heinous than the rape of any lay woman: it’s, alas, pretty routine, just ask Sisters Anita and Jesmi. Anyway it turned out that the rapists were themselves Christians. The story then disappeared, but there were no apologies for libel against Hindus.

The same thing happened in West Bengal recently. An elderly nun was allegedly raped, and since the BJP is running the government of India, blame was immediately directed at Hindu organisations. Then it turned out that the rapists were Muslims, illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, and the nun was also spirited away. Once again, the story was swept under the carpet, but no apologies.

Dr. Atanu DeyInterestingly, Indian ‘sepoys’, the brainwashed or the mendacious, are in the forefront of the attacks. I have read several of them, and also devastating counters by Malhotra and Danino as well as an excellent piece by Atanu Dey showing up their hypocrisy.

Sadly, I also found the usual champions of ‘Freedom of Speech’—including a bunch that went to a big conference in Singapore just weeks ago on this topic—strangely silent. But that is par for the course. They shouted from the rooftops about M.F. Husain’s FoS, but were quiet about Tasleema Nasrin’s FoS, even when she was manhandled by some people. They went on and on about Perumal Murugan’s FoS, but were deafeningly silent about Joe D’Cruz’s FoS. The sepoys obviously know what to think and where their selective outrage must be directed: their handlers must be telling them regularly.

Madhu KishwarThus the entire arsenal of the #DeepState has been brought out, including the sleeper cells. The fact that the allegations are baseless will not matter, and the nasties will succeed in their objective of shutting down Rajiv Malhotra unless all of us who support our civilisation are vocal in our resistance. To start with, you could sign the petition that is circulating online here. But that isn’t enough: do get active in fighting back. This is just the tip of the iceberg in the withering assault on Hindu civilisation. – Firstpost, 19 July 2015

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