The Yemeni Koran – Jamie Glazov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To quote Puin: “So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word…. They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sana’a fragments will help us to do this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FP: Moorthy Muthuswamy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FP: Robert Spencer, final thoughts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Mosque of Sanaa, Yemen

What is the Koran? – Toby Lester

Toby Lester“Increasingly diverse interpretations of the Koran and Islamic history will inevitably be proposed in the coming decades, as traditional cultural distinctions between East, West, North, and South continue to dissolve, as the population of the Muslim world continues to grow, as early historical sources continue to be scrutinized, and as feminism meets the Koran. With the diversity of interpretations will surely come increased fractiousness, perhaps intensified by the fact that Islam now exists in such a great variety of social and intellectual settings. … More than ever before, anybody wishing to understand global affairs will need to understand Islamic civilization, in all its permutations.” – Toby Lester

Minarets of the Great Mosque of Sana'aIn 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana’a, in Yemen, laborers working in a loft between the structure’s inner and outer roofs stumbled across a remarkable gravesite, although they did not realize it at the time. Their ignorance was excusable: mosques do not normally house graves, and this site contained no tombstones, no human remains, no funereal jewelry. It contained nothing more, in fact, than an unappealing mash of old parchment and paper documents—damaged books and individual pages of Arabic text, fused together by centuries of rain and dampness, gnawed into over the years by rats and insects. Intent on completing the task at hand, the laborers gathered up the manuscripts, pressed them into some twenty potato sacks, and set them aside on the staircase of one of the mosque’s minarets, where they were locked away—and where they would probably have been forgotten once again, were it not for Qadhi Isma’il al-Akwa’, then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, who realized the potential importance of the find.

Al-Akwa’ sought international assistance in examining and preserving the fragments, and in 1979 managed to interest a visiting German scholar, who in turn persuaded the German government to organize and fund a restoration project. Soon after the project began, it became clear that the hoard was a fabulous example of what is sometimes referred to as a “paper grave”—in this case the resting place for, among other things, tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Koran, the Muslim holy scripture. In some pious Muslim circles it is held that worn-out or damaged copies of the Koran must be removed from circulation; hence the idea of a grave, which both preserves the sanctity of the texts being laid to rest and ensures that only complete and unblemished editions of the scripture will be read.

Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., or Islam’s first two centuries—they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence. What’s more, some of these fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless, and unchanging Word of God.

The mainly secular effort to reinterpret the Koran—in part based on textual evidence such as that provided by the Yemeni fragments—is disturbing and offensive to many Muslims, just as attempts to reinterpret the Bible and the life of Jesus are disturbing and offensive to many conservative Christians. Nevertheless, there are scholars, Muslims among them, who feel that such an effort, which amounts essentially to placing the Koran in history, will provide fuel for an Islamic revival of sorts—a reappropriation of tradition, a going forward by looking back. Thus far confined to scholarly argument, this sort of thinking can be nonetheless very powerful and—as the histories of the Renaissance and the Reformation demonstrate—can lead to major social change. The Koran, after all, is currently the world’s most ideologically influential text.

Sana'a ManuscriptLooking at the Fragments

The first person to spend a significant amount of time examining the Yemeni fragments, in 1981, was Gerd R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography based at Saarland University, in Saarbrücken, Germany. Puin, who had been sent by the German government to organize and oversee the restoration project, recognized the antiquity of some of the parchment fragments, and his preliminary inspection also revealed unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment. Enticing, too, were the sheets of the scripture written in the rare and early Hijazi Arabic script: pieces of the earliest Korans known to exist, they were also palimpsests—versions very clearly written over even earlier, washed-off versions. What the Yemeni Korans seemed to suggest, Puin began to feel, was an evolving text rather than simply the Word of God as revealed in its entirety to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century A.D.

Since the early 1980s more than 15,000 sheets of the Yemeni Korans have painstakingly been flattened, cleaned, treated, sorted, and assembled; they now sit (“preserved for another thousand years,” Puin says) in Yemen’s House of Manuscripts, awaiting detailed examination. That is something the Yemeni authorities have seemed reluctant to allow, however. “They want to keep this thing low-profile, as we do too, although for different reasons,” Puin explains. “They don’t want attention drawn to the fact that there are Germans and others working on the Korans. They don’t want it made public that there is work being done at all, since the Muslim position is that everything that needs to be said about the Koran’s history was said a thousand years ago.”

To date just two scholars have been granted extensive access to the Yemeni fragments: Puin and his colleague H.-C. Graf von Bothmer, an Islamic-art historian also based at Saarland University. Puin and Von Bothmer have published only a few tantalizingly brief articles in scholarly publications on what they have discovered in the Yemeni fragments. They have been reluctant to publish partly because until recently they were more concerned with sorting and classifying the fragments than with systematically examining them, and partly because they felt that the Yemeni authorities, if they realized the possible implications of the discovery, might refuse them further access. Von Bothmer, however, in 1997 finished taking more than 35,000 microfilm pictures of the fragments, and has recently brought the pictures back to Germany. This means that soon Von Bothmer, Puin, and other scholars will finally have a chance to scrutinize the texts and to publish their findings freely—a prospect that thrills Puin. “So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word,” he says. “They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sana’a fragments will help us to do this.”

Puin is not alone in his enthusiasm. “The impact of the Yemeni manuscripts is still to be felt,” says Andrew Rippin, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, who is at the forefront of Koranic studies today. “Their variant readings and verse orders are all very significant. Everybody agrees on that. These manuscripts say that the early history of the Koranic text is much more of an open question than many have suspected: the text was less stable, and therefore had less authority, than has always been claimed.”

Koran by AliCopyediting God

By the standards of contemporary biblical scholarship, most of the questions being posed by scholars like Puin and Rippin are rather modest; outside an Islamic context, proposing that the Koran has a history and suggesting that it can be interpreted metaphorically are not radical steps. But the Islamic context—and Muslim sensibilities—cannot be ignored. “To historicize the Koran would in effect delegitimize the whole historical experience of the Muslim community,” says R. Stephen Humphreys, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “The Koran is the charter for the community, the document that called it into existence. And ideally—though obviously not always in reality—Islamic history has been the effort to pursue and work out the commandments of the Koran in human life. If the Koran is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of fourteen centuries is effectively meaningless.”

The orthodox Muslim view of the Koran as self-evidently the Word of God, perfect and inimitable in message, language, style, and form, is strikingly similar to the fundamentalist Christian notion of the Bible’s “inerrancy” and “verbal inspiration” that is still common in many places today. The notion was given classic expression only a little more than a century ago by the biblical scholar John William Burgon.

The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Book of it, every Chapter of it, every Verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it … every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High!

Not all the Christians think this way about the Bible, however, and in fact, as the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1981) points out, “the closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Kur’an in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ.” If Christ is the Word of God made flesh, the Koran is the Word of God made text, and questioning its sanctity or authority is thus considered an outright attack on Islam—as Salman Rushdie knows all too well.

The prospect of a Muslim backlash has not deterred the critical-historical study of the Koran, as the existence of the essays in The Origins of the Koran (1998) demonstrate. Even in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair the work continues: In 1996 the Koranic scholar Günter Lüling wrote in The Journal of Higher Criticism about “the wide extent to which both the text of the Koran and the learned Islamic account of Islamic origins have been distorted, a deformation unsuspectingly accepted by Western Islamicists until now.” In 1994 the journal Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam published a posthumous study by Yehuda D. Nevo, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, detailing seventh- and eighth-century religious inscriptions on stones in the Negev Desert which, Nevo suggested, pose “considerable problems for the traditional Muslim account of the history of Islam.” That same year, and in the same journal, Patricia Crone, a historian of early Islam currently based at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, published an article in which she argued that elucidating problematic passages in the Koranic text is likely to be made possible only by “abandoning the conventional account of how the Qur’an was born.” And since 1991 James Bellamy, of the University of Michigan, has proposed in the Journal of the American Oriental Society a series of “emendations to the text of the Koran”—changes that from the orthodox Muslim perspective amount to copyediting God.

Crone is one of the most iconoclastic of these scholars. During the 1970s and 1980s she wrote and collaborated on several books—most notoriously, with Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977)—that made radical arguments about the origins of Islam and the writing of Islamic history. Among Hagarism’s controversial claims were suggestions that the text of the Koran came into being later than is now believed (“There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century”); that Mecca was not the initial Islamic sanctuary (“[the evidence] points unambiguously to a sanctuary in north-west Arabia … Mecca was secondary”); that the Arab conquests preceded the institutionalization of Islam (“the Jewish messianic fantasy was enacted in the form of an Arab conquest of the Holy Land”); that the idea of the hijra, or the migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622, may have evolved long after Muhammad died (“No seventh-century source identifies the Arab era as that of the hijra“); and that the term “Muslim” was not commonly used in early Islam (“There is no good reason to suppose that the bearers of this primitive identity called themselves ‘Muslims’ [but] sources do … reveal an earlier designation of the community [which] appears in Greek as ‘Magaritai’ in a papyrus of 642, and in Syriac as ‘Mahgre’ or ‘Mahgraye’ from as early as the 640s”).

Hagarism came under immediate attack, from Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike, for its heavy reliance on hostile sources. (“This is a book,” the authors wrote, “based on what from any Muslim perspective must appear an inordinate regard for the testimony of infidel sources.”) Crone and Cook have since backed away from some of its most radical propositions—such as, for example, that the Prophet Muhammad lived two years longer than the Muslim tradition claims he did, and that the historicity of his migration to Medina is questionable. But Crone has continued to challenge both Muslim and Western orthodox views of Islamic history. In Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987) she made a detailed argument challenging the prevailing view among Western (and some Muslim) scholars that Islam arose in response to the Arabian spice trade.

Gerd R. Puin’s current thinking about the Koran’s history partakes of this contemporary revisionism. “My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad,” he says. “Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants.”

Patricia Crone defends the goals of this sort of thinking. “The Koran is a scripture with a history like any other—except that we don’t know this history and tend to provoke howls of protest when we study it. Nobody would mind the howls if they came from Westerners, but Westerners feel deferential when the howls come from other people: who are you to tamper with their legacy? But we Islamicists are not trying to destroy anyone’s faith.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment—especially since Western Koranic scholarship has traditionally taken place in the context of an openly declared hostility between Christianity and Islam. (Indeed, the broad movement in the West over the past two centuries to “explain” the East, often referred to as Orientalism, has in recent years come under fire for exhibiting similar religious and cultural biases.) The Koran has seemed, for Christian and Jewish scholars particularly, to possess an aura of heresy; the nineteenth-century Orientalist William Muir, for example, contended that the Koran was one of “the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation, Liberty, and the Truth which the world has yet known.” Early Soviet scholars, too, undertook an ideologically motivated study of Islam’s origins, with almost missionary zeal: in the 1920s and in 1930 a Soviet publication titled Ateist ran a series of articles explaining the rise of Islam in Marxist-Leninist terms. In Islam and Russia (1956), Ann K. S. Lambton summarized much of this work, and wrote that several Soviet scholars had theorized that “the motive force of the nascent religion was supplied by the mercantile bourgeoisie of Mecca and Medina”; that a certain S. P. Tolstov had held that “Islam was a social-religious movement originating in the slave-owning, not feudal, form of Arab society”; and that N. A. Morozov had argued that “until the Crusades Islam was indistinguishable from Judaism and … only then did it receive its independent character, while Muhammad and the first Caliphs are mythical figures. “Morozov appears to have been a particularly flamboyant theorist: Lambton wrote that he also argued, in his book Christ (1930), that “in the Middle Ages Islam was merely an off-shoot of Arianism evoked by a meteorological event in the Red Sea area near Mecca.”

Not surprisingly, then, given the biases of much non-Islamic critical study of the Koran, Muslims are inclined to dismiss it outright. A particularly eloquent protest came in 1987, in the Muslim World Book Review, in a paper titled “Method Against Truth: Orientalism and Qur’anic Studies,” by the Muslim critic S. Parvez Manzoor. Placing the origins of Western Koranic scholarship in “the polemical marshes of medieval Christianity” and describing its contemporary state as a “cul-de-sac of its own making,” Manzoor orchestrated a complex and layered assault on the entire Western approach to Islam. He opened his essay in a rage.

The Orientalist enterprise of Qur’anic studies, whatever its other merits and services, was a project born of spite, bred in frustration and nourished by vengeance: the spite of the powerful for the powerless, the frustration of the “rational” towards the “superstitious” and the vengeance of the “orthodox” against the “non-conformist.” At the greatest hour of his worldly-triumph, the Western man, coordinating the powers of the State, Church and Academia, launched his most determined assault on the citadel of Muslim faith. All the aberrant streaks of his arrogant personality—its reckless rationalism, its world-domineering phantasy and its sectarian fanaticism—joined in an unholy conspiracy to dislodge the Muslim Scripture from its firmly entrenched position as the epitome of historic authenticity and moral unassailability. The ultimate trophy that the Western man sought by his dare-devil venture was the Muslim mind itself. In order to rid the West forever of the “problem” of Islam, he reasoned, Muslim consciousness must be made to despair of the cognitive certainty of the Divine message revealed to the Prophet. Only a Muslim confounded of the historical authenticity or doctrinal autonomy of the Qur’anic revelation would abdicate his universal mission and hence pose no challenge to the global domination of the West. Such, at least, seems to have been the tacit, if not the explicit, rationale of the Orientalist assault on the Qur’an.

Despite such resistance, Western researchers with a variety of academic and theological interests press on, applying modern techniques of textual and historical criticism to the study of the Koran. That a substantial body of this scholarship now exists is indicated by the recent decision of the European firm Brill Publishers—a long-established publisher of such major works as The Encyclopaedia of Islam and The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition—to commission the first-ever Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Jane McAuliffe, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toronto, and the general editor of the encyclopedia, hopes that it will function as a “rough analogue” to biblical encyclopedias and will be “a turn-of-the-millennium summative work for the state of Koranic scholarship.” Articles for the first part of the encyclopedia are currently being edited and prepared for publication later this year.

The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an will be a truly collaborative enterprise, carried out by Muslims and non-Muslims, and its articles will present multiple approaches to the interpretation of the Koran, some of which are likely to challenge traditional Islamic views—thus disturbing many in the Islamic world, where the time is decidedly less ripe for a revisionist study of the Koran. The plight of Nasr Abu Zaid, an unassuming Egyptian professor of Arabic who sits on the encyclopedia’s advisory board, illustrates the difficulties facing Muslim scholars trying to reinterpret their tradition.

The Koran is a text, a literary text, and the only way to understand, explain, and analyze it is through a literary approach,” Abu Zaid says. “This is an essential theological issue.” For expressing views like this in print—in essence, for challenging the idea that the Koran must be read literally as the absolute and unchanging Word of God—Abu Zaid was in 1995 officially branded an apostate, a ruling that in 1996 was upheld by Egypt’s highest court. The court then proceeded, on the grounds of an Islamic law forbidding the marriage of an apostate to a Muslim, to order Abu Zaid to divorce his wife, Ibtihal Yunis (a ruling that the shocked and happily married Yunis described at the time as coming “like a blow to the head with a brick”).

Abu Zaid steadfastly maintains that he is a pious Muslim, but contends that the Koran’s manifest content—for example, the often archaic laws about the treatment of women for which Islam is infamous—is much less important than its complex, regenerative, and spiritually nourishing latent content. The orthodox Islamic view, Abu Zaid claims, is stultifying; it reduces a divine, eternal, and dynamic text to a fixed human interpretation with no more life and meaning than “a trinket … a talisman … or an ornament.”

For a while Abu Zaid remained in Egypt and sought to refute the charges of apostasy, but in the face of death threats and relentless public harassment he fled with his wife from Cairo to Holland, calling the whole affair “a macabre farce.” Sheikh Youssef al-Badri, the cleric whose preachings inspired much of the opposition to Abu Zaid, was exultant. “We are not terrorists; we have not used bullets or machine guns, but we have stopped an enemy of Islam from poking fun at our religion…. No one will even dare to think about harming Islam again.”

Abu Zaid seems to have been justified in fearing for his life and fleeing: in 1992 the Egyptian journalist Farag Foda was assassinated by Islamists for his critical writings about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and in 1994 the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed for writing, among other works, the allegorical Children of Gebelawi (1959)—a novel, structured like the Koran, that presents “heretical” conceptions of God and the Prophet Muhammad.

Deviating from the orthodox interpretation of the Koran, says the Algerian Mohammed Arkoun, a professor emeritus of Islamic thought at the University of Paris, is “a very sensitive business” with major implications. “Millions and millions of people refer to the Koran daily to explain their actions and to justify their aspirations,” Arkoun says. “This scale of reference is much larger than it has ever been before.”

MuhammadMuhammad in the Cave

Mecca sits in a barren hollow between two ranges of steep hills in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia. To its immediate west lies the flat and sweltering Red Sea coast; to the east stretches the great Rub’ al-Khali, or Empty Quarter—the largest continuous body of sand on the planet. The town’s setting is uninviting: the earth is dry and dusty, and smolders under a relentless sun; the whole region is scoured by hot, throbbing desert winds. Although sometimes rain does not fall for years, when it does come it can be heavy, creating torrents of water that rush out of the hills and flood the basin in which the city lies. As a backdrop for divine revelation, the area is every bit as fitting as the mountains of Sinai or the wilderness of Judea.

The only real source of historical information about pre-Islamic Mecca and the circumstances of the Koran’s revelation is the classical Islamic story about the religion’s founding, a distillation of which follows.

In the centuries leading up to the arrival of Islam, Mecca was a local pagan sanctuary of considerable antiquity. Religious rituals revolved around the Ka’ba—a shrine, still central in Islam today, that Muslims believe was originally built by Ibrahim (known to Christians and Jews as Abraham) and his son Isma’il (Ishmael). As Mecca became increasingly prosperous in the sixth century A.D., pagan idols of varying sizes and shapes proliferated. The traditional story has it that by the early seventh century a pantheon of some 360 statues and icons surrounded the Ka’ba (inside which were found renderings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, among other idols).

Such was the background against which the first installments of the Koran are said to have been revealed, in 610, to an affluent but disaffected merchant named Muhammad bin Abdullah. Muhammad had developed the habit of periodically withdrawing from Mecca’s pagan squalor to a nearby mountain cave, where he would reflect in solitude. During one of these retreats he was visited by the Angel Gabriel—the very same angel who had announced the coming of Jesus to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth some 600 years earlier. Opening with the command “Recite!,” Gabriel made it known to Muhammad that he was to serve as the Messenger of God. Subsequently, until his death, the supposedly illiterate Muhammad received through Gabriel divine revelations in Arabic that were known as qur’an (“recitation”) and that announced, initially in a highly poetic and rhetorical style, a new and uncompromising brand of monotheism known as Islam, or “submission” (to God’s will). Muhammad reported these revelations verbatim to sympathetic family members and friends, who either memorized them or wrote them down.

Powerful Meccans soon began to persecute Muhammad and his small band of devoted followers, whose new faith rejected the pagan core of Meccan cultural and economic life, and as a result in 622 the group migrated some 200 miles north, to the town of Yathrib, which subsequently became known as Medina (short for Medinat al-Nabi, or City of the Prophet). (This migration, known in Islam as the hijra, is considered to mark the birth of an independent Islamic community, and 622 is thus the first year of the Islamic calendar.) In Medina, Muhammad continued to receive divine revelations, of an increasingly pragmatic and prosaic nature, and by 630 he had developed enough support in the Medinan community to attack and conquer Mecca. He spent the last two years of his life proselytizing, consolidating political power, and continuing to receive revelations.

The Islamic tradition has it that when Muhammad died, in 632, the Koranic revelations had not been gathered into a single book; they were recorded only “on palm leaves and flat stones and in the hearts of men.” (This is not surprising: the oral tradition was strong and well established, and the Arabic script, which was written without the vowel markings and consonantal dots used today, served mainly as an aid to memorization.) Nor was the establishment of such a text of primary concern: the Medinan Arabs—an unlikely coalition of ex-merchants, desert nomads, and agriculturalists united in a potent new faith and inspired by the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad—were at the time pursuing a fantastically successful series of international conquests in the name of Islam. By the 640s the Arabs possessed most of Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Egypt, and thirty years later they were busy taking over parts of Europe, North Africa, and Central Asia.

In the early decades of the Arab conquests many members of Muhammad’s coterie were killed, and with them died valuable knowledge of the Koranic revelations. Muslims at the edges of the empire began arguing over what was Koranic scripture and what was not. An army general returning from Azerbaijan expressed his fears about sectarian controversy to the Caliph ‘Uthman (644-656)—the third Islamic ruler to succeed Muhammad—and is said to have entreated him to “overtake this people before they differ over the Koran the way the Jews and Christians differ over their Scripture.” ‘Uthman convened an editorial committee of sorts that carefully gathered the various pieces of scripture that had been memorized or written down by Muhammad’s companions. The result was a standard written version of the Koran. ‘Uthman ordered all incomplete and “imperfect” collections of the Koranic scripture destroyed, and the new version was quickly distributed to the major centers of the rapidly burgeoning empire.

During the next few centuries, while Islam solidified as a religious and political entity, a vast body of exegetical and historical literature evolved to explain the Koran and the rise of Islam, the most important elements of which are hadith, or the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad; sunna, or the body of Islamic social and legal custom; sira, or biographies of the Prophet; and tafsir, or Koranic commentary and explication. It is from these traditional sources—compiled in written form mostly from the mid eighth to the mid tenth century—that all accounts of the revelation of the Koran and the early years of Islam are ultimately derived.

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

Roughly equivalent in length to the New Testament, the Koran is divided into 114 sections, known as suras, that vary dramatically in length and form. The book’s organizing principle is neither chronological nor thematic—for the most part the suras are arranged from beginning to end in descending order of length. Despite the unusual structure, however, what generally surprises newcomers to the Koran is the degree to which it draws on the same beliefs and stories that appear in the Bible. God (Allah in Arabic) rules supreme: he is the all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-merciful Being who has created the world and its creatures; he sends messages and laws through prophets to help guide human existence; and, at a time in the future known only to him, he will bring about the end of the world and the Day of Judgment. Adam, the first man, is expelled from Paradise for eating from the forbidden tree. Noah builds an ark to save a select few from a flood brought on by the wrath of God. Abraham prepares himself to sacrifice his son at God’s bidding. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and receives a revelation on Mount Sinai. Jesus—born of the Virgin Mary and referred to as the Messiah—works miracles, has disciples, and rises to heaven.

The Koran takes great care to stress this common monotheistic heritage, but it works equally hard to distinguish Islam from Judaism and Christianity. For example, it mentions prophets—Hud, Salih, Shu’ayb, Luqman, and others—whose origins seem exclusively Arabian, and it reminds readers that it is “A Koran in Arabic, / For people who understand.” Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, however, the Koran is often extremely difficult for contemporary readers—even highly educated speakers of Arabic—to understand. It sometimes makes dramatic shifts in style, voice, and subject matter from verse to verse, and it assumes a familiarity with language, stories, and events that seem to have been lost even to the earliest of Muslim exegetes (typical of a text that initially evolved in an oral tradition). Its apparent inconsistencies are easy to find: God may be referred to in the first and third person in the same sentence; divergent versions of the same story are repeated at different points in the text; divine rulings occasionally contradict one another. In this last case the Koran anticipates criticism and defends itself by asserting the right to abrogate its own message (“God doth blot out / Or confirm what He pleaseth”).

Criticism did come. As Muslims increasingly came into contact with Christians during the eighth century, the wars of conquest were accompanied by theological polemics, in which Christians and others latched on to the confusing literary state of the Koran as proof of its human origins. Muslim scholars themselves were fastidiously cataloguing the problematic aspects of the Koran—unfamiliar vocabulary, seeming omissions of text, grammatical incongruities, deviant readings, and so on. A major theological debate in fact arose within Islam in the late eighth century, pitting those who believed in the Koran as the “uncreated” and eternal Word of God against those who believed in it as created in time, like anything that isn’t God himself. Under the Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-833) this latter view briefly became orthodox doctrine. It was supported by several schools of thought, including an influential one known as Mu’tazilism, that developed a complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal understanding of the Koran.

By the end of the tenth century the influence of the Mu’tazili school had waned, for complicated political reasons, and the official doctrine had become that of i’jaz, or the “inimitability” of the Koran. (As a result, the Koran has traditionally not been translated by Muslims for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. Instead it is read and recited in the original by Muslims worldwide, the majority of whom do not speak Arabic. The translations that do exist are considered to be nothing more than scriptural aids and paraphrases.) The adoption of the doctrine of inimitability was a major turning point in Islamic history, and from the tenth century to this day the mainstream Muslim understanding of the Koran as the literal and uncreated Word of God has remained constant.

The School of Oriental and African StudiesPsychopathic Vandalism?

Gerd R. Puin speaks with disdain about the traditional willingness, on the part of Muslim and Western scholars, to accept the conventional understanding of the Koran. “The Koran claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen,’ or ‘clear,'” he says. “But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense. Many Muslims—and Orientalists—will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Koran is not comprehensible—if it can’t even be understood in Arabic—then it’s not translatable. People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not—as even speakers of Arabic will tell you—there is a contradiction. Something else must be going on.”

Trying to figure out that “something else” really began only in this century. “Until quite recently,” Patricia Crone, the historian of early Islam, says, “everyone took it for granted that everything the Muslims claim to remember about the origin and meaning of the Koran is correct. If you drop that assumption, you have to start afresh.” This is no mean feat, of course; the Koran has come down to us tightly swathed in a historical tradition that is extremely resistant to criticism and analysis. As Crone put it in Slaves on Horses,

The Biblical redactors offer us sections of the Israelite tradition at different stages of crystallization, and their testimonies can accordingly be profitably compared and weighed against each other. But the Muslim tradition was the outcome, not of a slow crystallization, but of an explosion; the first compilers were not redactors, but collectors of debris whose works are strikingly devoid of overall unity; and no particular illuminations ensue from their comparison.

Not surprisingly, given the explosive expansion of early Islam and the passage of time between the religion’s birth and the first systematic documenting of its history, Muhammad’s world and the worlds of the historians who subsequently wrote about him were dramatically different. During Islam’s first century alone a provincial band of pagan desert tribesmen became the guardians of a vast international empire of institutional monotheism that teemed with unprecedented literary and scientific activity. Many contemporary historians argue that one cannot expect Islam’s stories about its own origins—particularly given the oral tradition of the early centuries—to have survived this tremendous social transformation intact. Nor can one expect a Muslim historian writing in ninth- or tenth-century Iraq to have discarded his social and intellectual background (and theological convictions) in order accurately to describe a deeply unfamiliar seventh-century Arabian context. R. Stephen Humphreys, writing in Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (1988), concisely summed up the issue that historians confront in studying early Islam.

If our goal is to comprehend the way in which Muslims of the late 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries [Islamic calendar / Christian calendar] understood the origins of their society, then we are very well off indeed. But if our aim is to find out “what really happened,” in terms of reliably documented answers to modern questions about the earliest decades of Islamic society, then we are in trouble.

The person who more than anyone else has shaken up Koranic studies in the past few decades is John Wansbrough, formerly of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Puin is “re-reading him now” as he prepares to analyze the Yemeni fragments. Patricia Crone says that she and Michael Cook “did not say much about the Koran in Hagarism that was not based on Wansbrough.” Other scholars are less admiring, referring to Wansbrough’s work as “drastically wrongheaded,” “ferociously opaque,” and a “colossal self-deception.” But like it or not, anybody engaged in the critical study of the Koran today must contend with Wansbrough’s two main works— Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (1977) and The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (1978).

Wansbrough applied an entire arsenal of what he called the “instruments and techniques” of biblical criticism—form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, and much more—to the Koranic text. He concluded that the Koran evolved only gradually in the seventh and eighth centuries, during a long period of oral transmission when Jewish and Christian sects were arguing volubly with one another well to the north of Mecca and Medina, in what are now parts of Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Iraq. The reason that no Islamic source material from the first century or so of Islam has survived, Wansbrough concluded, is that it never existed.

To Wansbrough, the Islamic tradition is an example of what is known to biblical scholars as a “salvation history”: a theologically and evangelically motivated story of a religion’s origins invented late in the day and projected back in time. In other words, as Wansbrough put it in Quranic Studies, the canonization of the Koran—and the Islamic traditions that arose to explain it—involved the

attribution of several, partially overlapping, collections of logia (exhibiting a distinctly Mosaic imprint) to the image of a Biblical prophet (modified by the material of the Muhammadan evangelium into an Arabian man of God) with a traditional message of salvation (modified by the influence of Rabbinic Judaism into the unmediated and finally immutable word of God).

Wansbrough’s arcane theories have been contagious in certain scholarly circles, but many Muslims understandably have found them deeply offensive. S. Parvez Manzoor, for example, has described the Koranic studies of Wansbrough and others as “a naked discourse of power” and “an outburst of psychopathic vandalism.” But not even Manzoor argues for a retreat from the critical enterprise of Koranic studies; instead he urges Muslims to defeat the Western revisionists on the “epistemological battlefield,” admitting that “sooner or later [we Muslims] will have to approach the Koran from methodological assumptions and parameters that are radically at odds with the ones consecrated by our tradition.”

Dr Nasr Abu ZaydRevisionism Inside the Islamic World

Indeed, for more than a century there have been public figures in the Islamic world who have attempted the revisionist study of the Koran and Islamic history—the exiled Egyptian professor Nasr Abu Zaid is not unique. Perhaps Abu Zaid’s most famous predecessor was the prominent Egyptian government minister, university professor, and writer Taha Hussein. A determined modernist, Hussein in the early 1920s devoted himself to the study of pre-Islamic Arabian poetry and ended up concluding that much of that body of work had been fabricated well after the establishment of Islam in order to lend outside support to Koranic mythology. A more recent example is the Iranian journalist and diplomat Ali Dashti, who in his Twenty Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed (1985) repeatedly took his fellow Muslims to task for not questioning the traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life, much of which he called “myth-making and miracle-mongering.”

Abu Zaid also cites the enormously influential Muhammad ‘Abduh as a precursor. The nineteenth-century father of Egyptian modernism, ‘Abduh saw the potential for a new Islamic theology in the theories of the ninth-century Mu’tazilis. The ideas of the Mu’tazilis gained popularity in some Muslim circles early in this century (leading the important Egyptian writer and intellectual Ahmad Amin to remark in 1936 that “the demise of Mu’tazilism was the greatest misfortune to have afflicted Muslims; they have committed a crime against themselves”). The late Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman carried the Mu’tazilite torch well into the present era; he spent the later years of his life, from the 1960s until his death in 1988, living and teaching in the United States, where he trained many students of Islam—both Muslims and non-Muslims—in the Mu’tazilite tradition.

Such work has not come without cost, however: Taha Hussein, like Nasr Abu Zaid, was declared an apostate in Egypt; Ali Dashti died mysteriously just after the 1979 Iranian revolution; and Fazlur Rahman was forced to leave Pakistan in the 1960s. Muslims interested in challenging orthodox doctrine must tread carefully. “I would like to get the Koran out of this prison,” Abu Zaid has said of the prevailing Islamic hostility to reinterpreting the Koran for the modern age, “so that once more it becomes productive for the essence of our culture and the arts, which are being strangled in our society.” Despite his many enemies in Egypt, Abu Zaid may well be making progress toward this goal: there are indications that his work is being widely, if quietly, read with interest in the Arab world. Abu Zaid says, for example, that his The Concept of the Text (1990)—the book largely responsible for his exile from Egypt—has gone through at least eight underground printings in Cairo and Beirut.

Another scholar with a wide readership who is committed to re-examining the Koran is Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian professor at the University of Paris. Arkoun argued in Lectures du Coran (1982), for example, that “it is time [for Islam] to assume, along with all of the great cultural traditions, the modern risks of scientific knowledge,” and suggested that “the problem of the divine authenticity of the Koran can serve to reactivate Islamic thought and engage it in the major debates of our age.” Arkoun regrets the fact that most Muslims are unaware that a different conception of the Koran exists within their own historical tradition. What a re-examination of Islamic history offers Muslims, Arkoun and others argue, is an opportunity to challenge the Muslim orthodoxy from within, rather than having to rely on “hostile” outside sources. Arkoun, Abu Zaid, and others hope that this challenge might ultimately lead to nothing less than an Islamic renaissance.

The gulf between such academic theories and the daily practice of Islam around the world is huge, of course—the majority of Muslims today are unlikely to question the orthodox understanding of the Koran and Islamic history. Yet Islam became one of the world’s great religions in part because of its openness to social change and new ideas. (Centuries ago, when Europe was mired in its feudal Dark Ages, the sages of a flourishing Islamic civilization opened an era of great scientific and philosophical discovery. The ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans might never have been introduced to Europe were it not for the Islamic historians and philosophers who rediscovered and revived them.) Islam’s own history shows that the prevailing conception of the Koran is not the only one ever to have existed, and the recent history of biblical scholarship shows that not all critical-historical studies of a holy scripture are antagonistic. They can instead be carried out with the aim of spiritual and cultural regeneration. They can, as Mohammed Arkoun puts it, demystify the text while reaffirming “the relevance of its larger intuitions.”

Increasingly diverse interpretations of the Koran and Islamic history will inevitably be proposed in the coming decades, as traditional cultural distinctions between East, West, North, and South continue to dissolve, as the population of the Muslim world continues to grow, as early historical sources continue to be scrutinized, and as feminism meets the Koran. With the diversity of interpretations will surely come increased fractiousness, perhaps intensified by the fact that Islam now exists in such a great variety of social and intellectual settings—Bosnia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United States, and so on. More than ever before, anybody wishing to understand global affairs will need to understand Islamic civilization, in all its permutations. Surely the best way to start is with the study of the Koran—which promises in the years ahead to be at least as contentious, fascinating, and important as the study of the Bible has been in this century. – The Atlantic, January 1999

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

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

Koran Documentary with Antony Thomas

Sorry, Home Minister, the idea of uncertainty principle did not come from the Vedas – Vasudevan Mukunth

Rajnath Singh & Higgs Image

Vasudevan Mukunth“The Bharatiya Janata Party, which Singh belongs to, has made it a point to reintroduce – through rhetoric and action alike – the narrative of India’s ancient texts and the knowledge they believe is locked in them. … Singh is extending that tradition of wrongly clubbing cultural and theological traditions with scientific facts.”- Vasudevan Mukunth

Fritjof CapraPolitical rhetoric is making it increasingly hard to tell what science is in the Vedas and what is not. Home Minister Rajnath Singh said on Sunday that Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty – a concept in quantum mechanics – was based on the Vedas. This was recognised, he said, in a 1975 book by Austrian-American author Fritjof Capra.

The book in question, The Tao of Physics, actually makes no such connections. In fact, in drawing parallels between the work of Werner Heisenberg, a German theoretical physicist, and Oriental mysticism, the book only highlights an ex post Werner Heisenbergfacto connection between the uncertainty principle and the Upanishads.

The principle is a cornerstone in the investigation of quantum mechanics. It states that both the position and momentum of a particle cannot be known with the same precision at the same time. In other words, if you were tracking the position of an electron increasingly precisely, the uncertainty Dr Niels Bohrprinciple would make your knowledge of how fast it is travelling increasingly blurred.

Ideas of oneness

The discovery laid the foundation for a new conception of reality at the time it was proposed in 1927. It made the observer a part of the observation, breaking down the distance from the observed. Heisenberg went on to become an intellectual giant of the early 20th century. At the same time, the reality he was discovering did not sit well with what he had assumed it to be until then.

According to The Tao of Physics, both Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist whose work laid the foundation for quantum mechanics, were able to take recourse through the ancient Indian texts, as well as the Chinese philosophy of Zhuang Zhou dating back to the fourth century BC. To cite the Upanishads as quoted in Capra’s book:

Where there is a duality, as it were, there one sees another; there one smells another; there one tastes another… But where everything has become just one’s own self, then whereby and whom would one see? Then whereby and whom would one smell? Then whereby and whom would one taste

On the same page, Capra also quotes from Zhou’s text Zhuangzhi:

My connection with the body and its parts is dissolved. My perceptive organs are discarded. Thus leaving my material form and bidding farewell to my knowledge, I become one with the Great Pervader. This I call sitting and forgetting all things.

These ideas of oneness – between the observer and the observed – helped Heisenberg and Bohr reconcile with the disturbing facets of the discovery of the uncertainty principle after it was made. They did not lead up to it. Nevertheless, we should be glad that our philosophy helped.

Rajnath Singh also said that Heisenberg got the ideas for his principle in a conversation with Rabindranath Tagore, this time alluding to another of Capra’s books called Uncommon Wisdom: Conversations with Remarkable People, published in 1988. The error here is starker: Heisenberg proposed the principle in 1927 and met Tagore in 1929.

Perhaps Singh did not know the contents of the meeting and its position in time simultaneously with the same precision.

But like with the previous example, as Capra again writes, the “introduction to Indian thought brought Heisenberg great comfort”.

Murli Manohar JoshiOld crusade

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which Singh belongs to, has made it a point to reintroduce – through rhetoric and action alike – the narrative of India’s ancient texts and the knowledge they believe is locked in them. During BJP’s previous stint in government, Minister for Human Resources Development Murli Manohar Joshi wanted to add astrology and Vedic mathematics (which the Vedas have never been concerned with) to university curricula. Now, Singh is extending that tradition of wrongly clubbing cultural and theological traditions with scientific facts.

Dr. Satyendra BoseEven at a BJP national council meeting in March 2013, he had said, “The basis of the discovery of [the Higgs boson] had been established 70-80 years back by taking inspiration from a similar principle by the great scientist of India, Satyendra Nath Bose.” This assertion maligns the nature of Bose’s work, obscuring its real significance behind a recent and very different discovery, made at the Large Hadron Collider experiment in Geneva in July 2012.

Bose’s ground-breaking work in the 1920s led to the establishment of a class of fundamental particles called bosons, which mediate the forces between particles of matter like electrons and protons. On the other hand, the Higgs boson was only postulated in 1964 and is one specific boson whose various properties, or even existence, Bose’s work did not deal with. To Singh, the tenuous connection between Bose and the Higgs boson is an example of India’s contribution to modern science. It is not.

If Singh wanted that, he should have celebrated actually modern contributions – like India’s formidable string theory and dark matter research, experiments in gamma-ray astronomy, an ongoing and fruitful participation with the Large Hadron Collider in experimental high-energy physics. –, 18 November 2014

» Vasudevan Mukunth writes on science and technology for The Hindu.

Zhuang Zhou

Book Review: Pathetic plight of Christian scholars from Asia – N.S. Rajaram

Dr. N.S. RajaramTheology is the distinctive contribution and concern of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Christianity it has been taken to such stratospheric heights that for an outsider at least it is hard to see what it is that keeps it afloat. In the currently fashionable interfaith dialogues, Christian scholars often begin by telling Hindus that theology is to Christianity what Vedanta is to Hinduism. Nothing could be further from the truth though gullible Hindu intellectuals are easily flattered by the comparison.” — Dr. N.S. Rajaram

Prof. R.S. SugirtharajahR.S. Sugirtharajah is a Sri Lankan Christian scholar who until recently was professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at the University of Birmingham in England. This probably makes him a hermeneutician—something like a beautician perhaps or better still a politician. For those unused to hair-splitting exercises of Biblical hermeneutics, exegeses and exegetes, it is easier to think of him as a theologian engaged in analysing interpretations of the Bible with reference to history and philosophy.

Theology is the distinctive contribution and concern of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Christianity it has been taken to such stratospheric heights that for an outsider at least it is hard to see what it is that keeps it afloat. In the currently fashionable interfaith dialogues, Christian scholars often begin by telling Hindus that theology is to Christianity what Vedanta is to Hinduism. Nothing could be further from the truth though gullible Hindu intellectuals are easily flattered by the comparison.

Vedanta is an open-ended exploration of the meaning of the universe and our existence that acknowledges only the universal truth contained in the Vedas. Theology on the other hand is a closed system which is bounded by the text of the Bible and the dogmas of Christianity. All the resources of logic and sophistry are used to justify Christianity as the only truth. One challenges theology at one’s peril as Galileo and Giordano Bruno found out. The freedom of Vedanta often brings it close to metaphysics which explains why great physicists like Opperheimer, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, David Bohm and others were drawn to it. Theology may be hermeneutics, but it certainly has no metaphysics.

The Bible and AsiaThis background is necessary to understand what the author is trying to achieve in his sad little book. As he correctly points out Christianity is Asiatic in origin, more specifically West Asian, but “its influence in Europe and the Americas has received far more attention than its complex career in the East.” Even in India it has a longer history than in Europe beginning in the fourth century or later with the arrival of the merchant Thomas of Cana— not the mythical St. Thomas who supposedly came to Kerala in 58 AD when neither Christianity nor the Christian Bible existed. Fortunately the author is a serious scholar and does not peddle this nonsense.

Add to this the fact, which the author does not stress, the decline of Christianity in the West amounting almost to a collapse in Europe, forcing the churches to recruit Asians to fill its emptying seminaries, churches and hospitals. These could not exist without massive infusion from countries like India and the Philippines. For all practical purposes Christianity today is a third world religion. The Catholic Church at least has recognized this in electing the Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the latest Pope.

For all this Christian institutions have failed to treat Asian theologians as equals. They may be useful and even indispensable but as the author points out they are repeatedly told “only the West matters,” meaning they should toe the line set by their Western masters. By ‘Western’ they don’t mean African-American, Hispanic or anyone else but white European and American. This is racism in all but name though they dare not display such attitudes towards outsiders—to individuals and groups outside Christianity. In interfaith dialogues they make a great show of the ‘equality’ of the churches.

Dancing Jesus in the New Indian Community Bible.This is a carry-over from colonial days during which Asian and African converts and missionaries wholeheartedly cooperated with the ruling Christian powers. They are being repaid for this loyalty with contempt and ingratitude. As the author observes, in pre-colonial days the Bible was receptive to Asian sources like the Upanishads and the Lao Tzu, but European colonization of Asia and Africa changed all that:

“With the emergence of modern colonialism the Bible was introduced as an artifact of modernity in the form of the King James Bible, the ‘national Bible’ of the English people. In this incarnation, the Bible became a very European book, lost all its oriental traits, and became less Asiatic. … The imported ‘white man’s book’ was seen as a strange instrument, an entrapment to lure them away from their own traditions.” As a result, an Asian reading of the Bible is always a contrived one and not as natural as a Hindu reading of the Bhagavad Gita or a Buddhist reading of the Dhammapada.”

As a result, all that Asian servants of Christianity have earned for their decades of loyalty is life in a limbo with no independent identity except as courtiers and camp followers in an essentially colonial, even racist institution in the post-colonial world. It is to these lost souls that Bible and Asia is addressed. And this is what makes it particularly sad reading.

The author’s advice to his fellow Asian theologians is to reclaim Christianity for Asians by going back to its Hindu and Buddhist sources. Curiously he makes no mention of Gnostic sources that had at least as great an influence on the growth of Christianity as Hindu and Buddhist thought. Perhaps as an Asiatic the author finds Gnosticism to be alien while finding Hindu and Buddhist thought more congenial. Perhaps he believes other Asian Christians will share the same feeling.

Prof. Michael WitzelHow sound is his advice to claim Christianity as their own by invoking their ancestral Asian sources? Here is a pointer. For at least a century, Western Indologists have been telling Indians, Hindus in particular how to read and interpret their history and tradition by creating interpretations based on the Aryan invasion bringing Vedic ideas from Europe. When Hindu scholars contested this by pointing out contradictions from the Sarasvati River to the Harappan archaeology, Western scholars fought a fierce academic and propaganda battle until they could no longer sustain them against mounting evidence.

Will such people yield control of their Bible to Asians? Based on personal experience with scholars like Michael Witzel of Harvard it is a pipe dream. When logic and evidence failed they resorted to personal attacks. Theologians will be no better, perhaps worse.

Here is a more practical option. Instead of using Hindu and Buddhist scripture to gain control of Biblical theology, make the Gita, the Upanishads and the Dhammapada your own. There will be no opposition for they belong to everyone. Who in this day and age needs theology and dogma anyway? Why be satisfied as someone else’s courtiers and camp followers when you have the matchless philosophic treasures of your own—which you gave up in return for small gains and false promises? Why beg when you can be the owners of the richest philosophical treasures the world has ever known?

» Dr. N.S. Rajaram is a scientist, historian and contributing editor to  Folks Magazine.

Did Sri Ramakrishna embrace Christianity and Islam? – Koenraad Elst

Dr. Koenraad Elst“The Ramakrishna Mission’s ambition to outgrow Hinduism and be “universal” is a form of hubris. In Greek religion, hubris, or man’s will to be equal to the gods, is the cardinal sin. In Christianity too, Adam and Eve committed hereditary sin, not by lust … but by hubris: initially innocent creatures, they wanted to be equal to God, who knows good and evil. In this respect, at least, many—it would be hubris to assert “all”—religions agree, and they happen to be right. So, let us stop this bad habit of making claims about “all” religions, including those that we know only hazily or not at all.” — Dr. Koenraad Elst

Ramakrishna Mission EmblemThe Ramakrishna debate

The debate on the Ramakrishna Mission’s claim that Ramakrishna, the 19th-century Kali priest, also practised Christianity and Islam, and that he distanced himself from Hinduism to found a new universal religion called Ramakrishnaism, has taken the form of some hostile reactions from sympathizers of the Mission. They may be members or have some other status, I don’t know, so we may just focus on what they have to say.

M.K. Gandhi and a Muslim companion during the Khilafat MovementRamakrishna Mission is Hindu

One person scolded me for even thinking that the Ramakrishna Mission is non-Hindu. He cites the Hindu atmosphere and the many Hindu rituals and practices at the Mission centres. I might add the fact that the Mission only recruits among Hindus. No Christian or Muslim would join this Pagan outfit. That fact alone refutes the Mission’s own claim that it has somehow embraced all religions. The Mission is a typically Hindu group, and even its pompous claim of validating all world religions is a claim made by many Hindus. When Mahatma Gandhi said: “I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I am a Sikh, I am a Christian”, Mohammed Ali Jinnah dryly commented: “That is a typically Hindu thing to say.”

But I am surprised to hear that the Ramakrishna Mission has not disclaimed Hinduism. Not only has the organization shouted from the rooftops and on all kinds of public forums that “universal Ramakrishnaism” is superior to “narrow Hinduism”, it has even gone to court to be officially recognized as a non-Hindu minority.

Sri Ramakrishna in samadhi.Logic

Then there were some who, expectedly, took the opposite position, viz. that the RKM follows its saint Ramakrishna in embracing non-Hindu religions and their founders. One of these deserves a closer and more detailed reply. Not that he had said much beyond several lengthy e-mails full of personal abuse (a poor advertisement for the effects of being a Ramakrishnaite). He belonged to a type I have become sadly familiar with on the internet: born Hindus who muster endless argumentation, often cleverly twisting issues and deploying a sophisticated discourse, all in order to defend a case that is downright silly; and that is, moreover, harmful to Hinduism.

For instance, I’ve had to face endless argumentations in favour of the belief that Jesus lived and died in India. This belief stems from a book (1887) by the Russian aristocrat Nicolas Notovich, who claimed to have found notes about Jesus’ stay in India in a monastery in the Himalaya. This manuscript was never found and the monastery’s abbot denied ever having had or seen such a text. The contents of the text which Notovich claimed to have seen was also very suspect by its contents: the themes of Jesus’ alleged controversies with Brahmins are typical for the late-colonial age, not at all for the 1st century. Although the polemic about it involved such worthies as Max Muller and yielded no proof at all, and although Notovich finally admitted to having made it all up, in 1899 Mirza Ghulam Ahmed (founder of the heretic Ahmadiyya sect of Islam) used the story to bolster his claim that prophets could just as well be native to India rather than to the Middle East, so that he could be a legitimate prophet too. And even now, the story has numerous defenders among Hindus. Passionate believers, sometimes even clever and argumentative believers, in a story that is patently false.

In the present case too, we have a learned display of rhetoric in the service of an illusion. Of course, he doesn’t try to prove his claim. Either this claim has not been proven, as we maintain, or it has been proven. In that case, it would be well worth the extra trouble to spell out this proof clearly, once and for all. But alas, this proof was not forthcoming. To be sure, this proof is not that according to a second person, Ramakrishna had “had a vision”, then according to a third person years later, this vision was Prophet Mohammad“perhaps of Mohammed”, and according to a fourth person, later again, it is dead certain that he saw Mohammed. For the founding moment of a religion, “Ramakrishnaism”, one is entitled to expect proof of higher quality than testimony (?) at several removes.

Even if this very flaky and very suspect sequence were to convey the truth, such a “vision” would in no way be what the  RKM now claims, viz. the “practice” of Islam/Christianity. As a Muslim commented, you cannot take a holiday and be a Muslim for a while, then revert to goddess-worshipping. Neither Christianity nor Islam consist in having a “vision” of the founder.

Nonetheless, this RKM sympathizer’s reformulation of the challenge to non-Ramakrishaites is interesting:

“The scope of my discussion is quite limited and is focused on only one thing: Ramakrishna believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ and he did practice some discipline of Christianity on the results of which his such belief was based. The same can be said of his feeling for some discipline of Islam—that he practiced it and derived divine/spiritual satisfaction from it. I think it is for Koenraad Elst to spell out his clear position on this observation once and for all.”

As a matter of walking the extra mile, I will spell out my position. However, let it be understood that I am under no obligation to explain anything or give proof for anything, as I am not putting forward any claim. I am merely skeptical of a claim made by the RKM and this fellow. Because it is he who has put forward a claim, it is up to him to prove his point. Even if nobody comes forward to offer any kind of counter-proof or refutation, the mere fact that the claim is put forward, does not annul its need for proof. As long as the claim is not proven, it was right for sterling Hindus like Ram Swarup and Shiva Prasad Ray to express scepticism of it. The burden of proof is for 100% on the maker of this challenge.

Jesus as a yogi in IndiaBelief in Jesus

Now, my position. If Ramakrishna had found that his own Hinduism was insufficient, if he had founded a new religion which the RKM calls Ramakrishnaism, if Ramakrishna had found Christianity and Islam to be “part” of this new religion, and if he had personally “verified the truth” of these religions by means of “visions”, then this would be such a momentous revolution that he would have spent the rest of his days discussing and elaborating it. Instead, absolute silence, and [the continued worship of] Kali. So, this already pleads against the RKM’s claim.

Now that we are discussing this, it strikes me that in the 24 years that I have followed this debate, I have not seen the RKM people come up with an actual quote from the master in which he claims Jesus’ divinity. Surely, such belief would have been big news to his Hindu and non-Christian followers. Our critic too has eloquently beaten around the bush in several replies, but he has spurned the occasion to present to us the only thing that would finish this debate, viz. proof (as opposed to mere claims) that RK worshipped Jesus as a divine being. The best proof would be a statement to this effect by Ramakrishna himself, but this time too it is not forthcoming.

But to really evaluate Ramakrishna’s beliefs about Jesus, it would be useful (from a scholarly viewpoint, even necessary) to get the facts straight about Jesus himself. I have not brought Jesus into this discussion, it is the RKM that insists Ramakrishna had a vision of Jesus and believed in Jesus’ divinity. So, let’s discuss Jesus. But let me warn you: Hindus by their upbringing may know everything about puja or other Hindu things, but their knowledge of Jesus tends to be very hazy. I, having gone through the whole Catholic education system and moreover having made a purposeful study of the character Jesus, know more about this subject than the RKM sympathizer will ever know in his lifetime. I have studied Jesus, he has not. That is not some colonial utterance, in fact two Hindus sceptical of the RKM claims set me on this path, but it is simply a fact that someone who has assimilated the scholarly findings on Jesus knows the subject better than religious types who have only interiorized some missionary sermons calculated to fool a gullible audience. Conversely, Hindus who have not made a specific study of comparative religion and especially of Christianity are ill-equipped to pontificate about Jesus.

So, what I know about Jesus, is that he was no more divine than you or me. He was a wandering healer, with his ears open for the wisdom going around, which he relayed in his own logia, sermons with parables, a few of them good—but still revered by the people mostly because of his reputation as a healer. To be sure, his friends and relatives who knew him, saw through his act, which is why he performed no “miracles” in his home town. Elsewhere, he could often pull it off, but still he was less powerful than proper medicine. Thus, he healed someone from epilepsy (“ghost-possession”), making him rise after his epileptic seizure—but such fits always subside and end in a return to normalcy. And in one case, the Gospel says in so many words that the disease later reappeared. Nothing scandalous, but nothing divine either, about false beliefs in healing powers.

Angry Jesus drives the vendors out of the temple. According to Dr. Aslan, this is a key moment in the life of zealot Jesus.Jesus had a rather big idea about himself, just like Mohammed and some other religious leaders. Thus, he believed that he was the Messiah. He repeatedly made the prediction that he himself would return within the lifetime of some in his audience. Today we are two thousand years and dozens of generations down the line, yet Jesus has not come back. Now, wrong predictions are human, in fact they are ten a penny. Jehovah’s Witnesses put their foot between your front door to predict the end of the world, but it didn’t come in 1914, nor in 1975. What makes Jesus’ wrong prediction an even worse failure is that, while the Witnesses make a prediction about someone else, Jesus did so about himself. Unlike other diviners, Jesus merely had to look in his own agenda to see when he was scheduled to return, and still he failed! So, nothing divine about wrong predictions.

But at least Jesus overcame death by his resurrection? This is the core of the Christian belief system. Now, the difference between the living and the dead is that you can run into the living, not the dead. But, like the dead, Jesus is beyond meeting. People have reported “seeing” Jesus in visions, but no one has met him in person. So his condition is the same as that of other mortals. The wages of original sin are mortality and child-bearing in pain, and it would be somewhat divine if Jesus had overcome mortality to live endlessly and still be among us. But no, he’s gone. The New Testament writers have spirited him away through the trick of the “Ascension“: though somewhat spectacular, he did the same thing as the rest of us, mortals: he went to heaven. So, nothing particularly divine about mortality.

I will of course not go through the numerous findings of Bible scholarship, about which so many books are available. But for now, I have said enough to underpin the conclusion: Jesus was not divine. If Ramakrishna was a Muslim, as the RKM claims, then he was already convinced of Jesus’ non-divine status, which is a basic belief of Islam (and in that respect, Islam is more rational than the personality cult which is Christianity). If, however, as our RKM sympathizer claims, Ramakrishna believed in the divinity of Christ, then he was badly informed, not to say that he was mistaken.

In fact, this sympathizer wants you to venerate a silly Ramakrishna who believed the sop stories of the missionaries, to the point of self-hypnotizing and seeing a vision of Jesus. By contrast, I (or rather Ram Swarup and Shiva Prasad Ray) give you a Ramakrishna who was discerning enough to keep the missionaries at a distance. He was not a Christian nor a Ramakrishnaist, but simply a Hindu, worshipping Krishna and Hanuman and most of all Kali. You too can live a happy, healthy, holy life while staying a Hindu and ignoring Jesus.

BaptismBeing a Christian

The second claim is that Ramakrishna “practised a Christian discipline”, and that as a result, he found that Christianity is equally true and yields the same results that he had already reached through his Hindu sadhana. Now, “being a Christian” or “being a Muslim” has a precise definition, which Ramakrishna did not fulfil. He was not recognized as one of theirs by any known mullah or padre. The missionaries sent bulletins home in which they reported the conversions they wrought; surely they would not have neglected reporting the christianization of a leading Hindu saint? And the RKM has had more than a century to get and show the document that proved their case, viz. that Ramakrishna turned his back on “narrow Hinduism”.

Even in the different sects of Hinduism, you only become a member by going through a formal ceremony, you are given a yajnopavit (sacred thread) or you get diksha (initiation) or shaktipat (transmission of energy). Ramakrishna never went through the formal ceremonies making him a Christian or a Muslim. He was not circumcised and never uttered the Islamic creed. He was not baptised and never uttered the Christian creed. No matter what vision he had, it did not make him either Christian or Muslim.

Further, there is no such thing as “practising” Christianity or Islam. Either you are in or you are out. Imitating the behaviour of a Muslim/Christian all while remaining a Pagan does not make you a Muslim/Christian. In fact, we would like to know what these practices were. Our RKM sympathizer has repeatedly spurned the occasion to spell this out. Did he observe Ramadan, or did he prefer Lent? Did this vegetarian offer sheep sacrifice, as is prescribed for Muslims? Did he eat fish on Friday, as Christians do? Did he condemn caste, which is an intrinsic attitude of Christianity, at least according to contemporary missionaries? And again, was he baptised? Which Christian worthy accepted him as a Christian? We would like some straight answers to these questions.

Not that they would make any tangible difference. Ramakrishna may have been pure gold, but even his acceptance of the quintessential Christian belief in Jesus’ divinity would not make Jesus divine; at least not more than you and me. If, after all these years, the RKM were at  last to prove that Ramakrishna did worship Jesus, we would have to conclude that he was mistaken—surely not the conclusion which the RKM would like us to draw. Fortunately, there is no indication that he did.

Circumcision in Egypt: It is a curious fact that the Jews and Muslims have made the Pagan practice a central rite in their religions.Some further problems with the RKM’s claim

Another problem: a Christian cannot be a Muslim, and a Muslim cannot be a Christian. Leaving aside Hinduism and “Ramakrishnaism”, please focus only on Christianity and Islam. How could Ramakrishna be a Christian while also being a Muslim? No Christian or Muslim authority would accept his being the one while also being the other. Christians believe Jesus was the Son of God, both God and man, while Muslims consider him just a man. Christians believe he was resurrected while Muslims disbelieve that he even died on the cross. How did Ramakrishna combine these mutually exclusive beliefs?

Finally, Ramakrishna is known to have died while worshipping Kali. By Christian and Islamic definition, he was a goddess-worshipper, hence an out-and-out Pagan. If he ever was a Muslim or a Christian, his dying as a Pagan meant that he was an apostate. If being an ignorant Pagan is bad enough, being a wilful apostate, who has known but rejected the truth and reverted to the false belief of Paganism, is really demonic and a sure ticket to the fires of hell. So, according to the RKM, Ramakrishna has spent the last century braving the fires of hell. For that is what Islam and Christianity (which the RKM holds to be “true”) promise to a Pagan like Ramakrishna.

The RKM professes a syncretism, combining elements from different religions. Ramakrishnaism is the syncretism par excellence, affirming “all” religions to be true. As the Church Fathers wrote, syncretism is typical of Paganism. The Roman-Hellenistic milieu in which the first Christians had to function, was full of syncreticism, with Roman matrons worshipping Isis with the babe Horus (an inspiration for the image of Mary holding the babe Jesus), legion soldiers worshipping Persian-originated Mithras, and imperial politicians worshipping the Syrian-originated Sol Invictus( . Against this syncretism, they preached religious purity: extra ecclesiam nulla salus, outside the Church no salvation. They had no problem admitting that Paganism was naturally pluralistic, but what is the use of choosing between or combining different kinds of falsehood? They as Christians had something better than pluralism, viz. the truth. And once you have the truth, you are no longer interested in any other religion. So, from the Christian viewpoint, the RKM’s dissatisfaction with “mere” Hinduism is an admission that Hinduism doesn’t have the truth.

Swami VivekanandaSwami Vivekananda’s claim

The best argument in favour of the RKM’s claim is a statement apparently made by Swami Vivekananda:

“The next desire that seized upon the soul of this man [Ramakrishna] was to know the truth about the various religions. Up to that time he had not known any religion but his own. He wanted to understand what other religions were like. So he sought teachers of other religions. … He found a Mohammedan saint and placed himself under him; he underwent the disciplines prescribed by him, and to his astonishment found that when faithfully carried out, these devotional methods led him to the same goal he had already attained. He gathered similar experience from following the true religion of Jesus the Christ.”

Our RKM sympathizer wants to “point [out] to KE that the burden of proof is on him to disprove the observations of RK’s chief disciple (and official spokesman?), as otherwise, by default, they should be assumed to be true. … Would KE care to share his compelling reasons to believe that SV lied?”

Once again, he has got things backwards. It is he who makes a claim, and the burden of proof is thus for 100% on him. Swami Vivekananda was not an eye-witness and made this statement, which I will for now assume to be true (Ram Swarup was a great reader of Swami Vivekananda’s Complete Works and doesn’t mention it), many years after the fact. Nothing of the above loses any of its force by this early version of a claim later made into the official line of the RKM, but for which any proof is missing.

It is no surprise that somebody ignorant of the rules of logic should use an “argument from authority” as his trump card. He plays upon the expected indignation of the Indian-born majority of the readership if I dare to say that Swami Vivekananda “lied”. Argumentation from authority is a logical fallacy!But in fact, I don’t need to put it down as a “lie”. In the world of religion and the occult, I have rarely seen anyone who deliberately said something that he knew to be untrue. But I have met or witnessed or read thousands of people who spread falsehoods which they believed to be true.

Even Swami Vivekananda was just a fallible human being—a statement which may scandalize his followers but which he himself would wholeheartedly accept. The processes which have led the RKM to believe and propagate the falsehood about Ramakrishna’s visions, may have taken him in, too. Or he may simply mean that Ramakrishna had that commendable Hindu attitude of curiosity and respect for whatever other religions draw his attention. At any rate, while we don’t know which processes were at work in Vivekananda’s case, we have his naked statement and this, at least, we can evaluate. And we find it, if taken literally, to be simply false.

Liberation“, the goal of the Upanishadic seers and of most Hindu schools since, is not the goal of Christianity. No Christian ever claimed to have achieved it, nor was he claimed by other Christians to have done so. The case applies even more bluntly to Islam: the goal of the five pillars of Islam is simply to obey God’s commandments as given in the Quran, not any “Liberation”. The goal of a Hindu sadhana will not be achieved by a Muslim or a Christian “sadhana”, and vice versa. If someone said that a Christian discipline “led him to the same goal he had already attained”, he was most certainly wrong. However, it is possible that the state of consciousness which Ramakrishna had already attained in his Hindu sadhana remained with him when he practised whatever this sheikh gave him to do. But would that state still be so easily achieved if he had practised only these Islamic cq Christian exercises?

Hindu Swastika FlagConclusion

Sita Ram Goel once said that “Hindus think they know everything about everything”. Thus, while it is hard enough to study a handful of religions, numerous Hindus routinely make claims about the equal truth of “all” religions, as if they had studied them all. In this respect, at least, the RKM monks are certainly Hindus.

The RKM’s ambition to outgrow Hinduism and be “universal” is a form of hubris. In Greek religion, hubris, or man’s will to be equal to the gods, is the cardinal sin. In Christianity too, Adam and Eve committed hereditary sin, not by lust (as many superficial people think) but by hubris: initially innocent creatures, they wanted to be equal to God, who knows good and evil. In this respect, at least, many—it would be hubris to assert “all”—religions agree, and they happen to be right. So, let us stop this bad habit of making claims about “all” religions, including those that we know only hazily or not at all. One thing that initially attracted me to the Hindu cause was the humbleness and simplicity of the ordinary Hindus I met. It would be nice if all megalomaniacs climbed down from their high horses and rediscovered this simplicity.

Secondly, I find it sad and not spelling anything good, that Hindus who are so laid back about the enemies of and challenges before Hinduism, get so worked up when their own little sect is challenged. Arya Samaj spokesmen don’t have 1% of their forebear’s concern with the Christian and Islamic threats, but they really get into the act when defending against other Hindus their pet beliefs about Vedic monotheism and non-idolatry. The ISKCON people never confront Christianity or Islam, but they get really nasty against fellow Hindus who are not as Krishna-centred (such as the pre-Krishna Vedic Rishis) as they themselves are. And here too, the RKM is alarmed when some Hindus disbelieve its pet doctrine of Ramakrishna’s visions of Jesus and Mohammed. It would be good if they shed this obsession with their sectarian “unique selling proposition” and return to a broader consciousness, one that would be recognizable to all Hindus.

Hinduism existed before Jesus and Mohammed. It was good enough for the Vedic seers and non-Vedic sadhus, and it didn’t need those two. I think Hinduism will only survive if it forgets about this false incarnation and this false prophet. The RKM ultimately has no choice but to admit that for the past so many decades, it has been spreading an erroneous and harmful belief. It should announce out loud that all struggles over its exact identity are over, because it owns up to its natural Hindu identity. Indeed, it should rediscover and second its founder, Swami Vivekanada, who declared: “Say with pride, we are Hindus!”

» Dr. Koenraad Elst is a Belgian writer and orientalist (without institutional affiliation). He was an editor of the New Right Flemish nationalist journal Teksten: Kommentaren en Studies from 1992 to 1995, focusing on criticism of Islam. He has authored fifteen English language books on topics related to Indian politics and communalism, and is one of the few western writers (along with François Gautier) to actively defend the Hindutva ideology.

Ramakrishna Mission Secretary's letter to Prof. Asnani.The Secretary’s letter is disingenuous to say the least. He says the great rishis and acharyas of Hinduism were not Hindus but that the Ramakrishna Mission is not non-Hindu. Yet the RKM had approached to the court to argue that they were a non-Hindu minority religion called Ramakrishnaism. Eventually the court decided that the Ramakrishna Math and Mission were indeed Hindu and that there was no such religious sect called Ramakrishnaism. – IS

Muslim objections to Vande Mataram not valid – Vivek Gumaste

Bahujan Samaj Party MP Shafiqur Rahman Burq walking out as Vande Mataram is played in the Lok Sabha

VG Icon“Vande Mataram’s culpability … is a notoriety extrapolated by its inclusion … in Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s revolutionary novel Anandamath. Even this charge of guilt by association is a nebulous one as a careful reading of the novel indicates. Set in famine ravaged Bengal of 1770’s, the novel outlines the horrific atrocities perpetrated by the Muslim Nawab and the peasant rebellion that it sparks. The anti-Muslim sentiment voiced in the narration is an artistic depiction of robust native resistance to cruel alien subjugation and cannot be interpreted in literal terms as a Muslim-specific castigation.” – Vivek Gumaste

Shafiqur Rahman BurqIt was an act of crass insensitivity; a deed deliberately designed to raise the hackles of all right-minded Indians; a cruel, blatant affront to the Constitution of India made doubly noxious by its inaction on the hallowed floor of the Lok Sabha, the fountain head of our pluralistic democracy.

Bahujan Samaj Party MP Shafiqur Rahman Burq by walking out of the Lok Sabha while the official national song Vande Mataram was being played exhibited the ugly recrudescence of a persistent malady that continues to afflict a small section of the Muslim community, namely one that pits nation against religion.

The million dollar question that cries out for a response is whether this unsavory infraction carries any iota of justification. Is this protest based on a factual interpretation of the Vande Mataram? Is there a sound logic underlying this protest or is this nothing more than a fallout of a jaundiced perception intentionally hyped up to pander to extremist elements in order to stoke discord in our society?

Why do some Muslims find Vande Mataram objectionable? The answer lies in its supposed anti-Muslim fervour. Certain clarifications, however, are in order before one confers validity to this conclusion. The song itself does not contain a single syllable that is derogatory to Muslims or Islam. To be precise, the words Islam and Muslim do not figure in the text at all.

Anandmath Book CoverVande Mataram’s culpability stems not from its intrinsic demerits but is a notoriety extrapolated by its inclusion (the first two verses were penned years earlier) in Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s revolutionary novel Anandamath. Even this charge of guilt by association is a nebulous one as a careful reading of the novel indicates. Set in famine ravaged Bengal of 1770’s, the novel outlines the horrific atrocities perpetrated by the Muslim Nawab and the peasant rebellion that it sparks. The anti-Muslim sentiment voiced in the narration is an artistic depiction of robust native resistance to cruel alien subjugation and cannot be interpreted in literal terms as a Muslim-specific castigation. Firming this belief is the subsequent avatar of Vande Mataram as a rousing popular battle cry of the Indian freedom movement against British oppression.

Maulana Azad, the noted freedom fighter and Muslim scholar found nothing repulsive in singing the Vande Mataram. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who can hardly be accused of nurturing Muslim phobia were perplexed by this illogical opposition to the Vande Mataram, which was without a doubt India’s first choice for the national anthem.

In an article in Harijan dated July 1, 1939, Gandhi wrote: “… No matter what its source was and how and when it was composed, it had become a most powerful battle cry among Hindus and Musalmans of Bengal during the partition days. It was an anti-imperialist cry. As a lad, when I knew nothing of Anandamath or even Bankim, its immortal author, Vande Mataram had gripped me, and when I first heard it sung it had enthralled me. I associated the purest national spirit with it. It never occurred to me that it was a Hindu song or meant only for Hindus…. It stirs to its depth the patriotism of millions in and outside Bengal. Its chosen stanzas are Bengal’s gift among many others to the whole nation.”

Maulana AzadNehru dittoed Gandhi’s feelings with this statement made to the legislative committee of the Constituent Assembly on August 25, 1948: ”It is unfortunate that some kind of argument has arisen as between Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana. Vande Mataram is obviously and indisputably the premier national song of India, with a great historical tradition, and intimately connected with our struggle for freedom. That position it is bound to retain and no other song can displace it. It represents the position and poignancy of that struggle, but perhaps not so much the culmination of it. In regard to the national anthem tune, it was felt that the tune was more important than the words… It seemed therefore that while Vande Mataram should continue to be the national song par excellence in India, the national anthem tune should be that of Jana Gana Mana, the wording of Jana Gana Mana to be suitably altered to fit in with the existing circumstances.”

This recantation of history also serves to emphasise the accommodative approach of the Indian government. Despite finding no merit in the Muslim objection, and in an action that overruled majority opinion, the government thought it appropriate to reject Vande Mataram’s rightful claim to being the national anthem. Vande Mataram was accorded secondary status as a national song, that too in an edited form to accommodate Muslim sentiments.

Current protests not only ignore this magnanimity but also suffer from a gross factual deficiency.

With regard to paying obeisance to the motherland, Shafiqur Rahman Burq notes: “Vande Mataram is an ode to motherland. Muslims like me bend only before Allah, not before any other god.”

S.S. KhandwawalaBut again this is a subjective interpretation that not all Muslims agree upon. In November 2009 when Muslim clerics from Deoband issued a fatwa against the singing of Vande Mataram, Gujarat’s first Muslim Director General of Police, S. S. Khandwawala countered their stance with this riposte (Indian Express, November 15, 2009):

“I give a salaam to my mother every day before I leave home and also to my motherland…. When we offer namaaz, we bow down and kiss the ground, which itself is a salute to the motherland. Religion never prevents a man from respecting his motherland…. If Hindus consider land as mata (mother), then giving respect to the land is the duty of a true Muslims … not hurting the sentiments of others and respecting all religions equally is also a Muslim’s duty….”

The Muslim community must take their cue patriotic Indians like Khandwawala. In a pluralistic society like India it is imperative that religious fervour be tempered to suit the common good. –, 14 May 2013

» Vivek Gumaste camps in New York City and writes for the Hindustan Times and

» Sri Aurobindo’s translation of Vande Mataram is here

VIDEO: The Science Delusion – Rupert Sheldrake

Reputed biochemist Rupert Sheldrake has intelligently and with a clear mind completely debunked the ten dogmas of science which aggressive materialists like Richard Dawkins put their faith in.  He says, “The difference between people with scientific beliefs and those with religious beliefs is that most religious believers are aware that their position is based on faith [while] people who put their faith in scientific materialism are often unaware that their beliefs are beliefs at all.” So not only are some scientific materialists superstitious, they are pretty dumb too! — IS 


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