Muslims and the Koran: Muslims revere the Koran But its study is not taboo—and is in some quarters increasingly daring
RELIGIONS invite stereotypes, holy texts even more so. Non-Muslims often see Islam as a faith followed by people who hew so closely to an unchanging set of words that they ignore awkward new facts sooner than contradict its message. For critics, this attachment to a text encourages extremists—like Boko Haram, a group that in December attacked Nigerian churches: hotheads can generally find a passage that seems to justify their violence.
Such passages abound in the Koran, just as they do in the founding texts of Christianity, Judaism and many other religions. There is also a long tradition of interpreting such verses in reassuring ways. For example, it is often stressed that the Koran’s injunction to “slay the unbeliever wherever you find him” relates to a specific historical context, in which the first Muslims were betrayed by a pagan group who had signed a truce.
But when it comes to parsing holy writ, there is one big difference between Islam and most other text-based faiths. Barring a brief interlude in the ninth and tenth centuries, and a few modern liberals, Muslims have mostly believed that the Koran is distinct from every other communication. As God’s final revelation to man, it belongs not to earthly, created things but to an eternal realm. That is a bigger claim than other faiths usually make for their holy writings.
The Koran may be interpreted but from a believer’s viewpoint, nothing in it can be set aside. Yet, at least in the calm, superficially courteous world of Western academia, debating the precise text of the Koran is increasingly common—as at a conference hosted by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), part of the University of London, in November. One organiser was Muhammad Abdel Haleem, an Egyptian-born professor who has translated the Koran into stylish modern English, drawing acclaim from many, but grumbles from purists. Other contributors included a professor from Turkey, and a scholar based in Iran. But most were non-Muslims who study the text as they would any other written material—as prose whose evolution can be traced by comparing versions. New techniques, such as the use of digital photography, help compare variations and solve puzzles. All participants implicitly accepted the idea that methods used to analyse Homer, say, or German myths might elucidate the Koran.
In much of the Islamic world, even the agenda of such a meeting would be controversial. What can be debated in most Muslim countries differs hugely from what is discussed in the West. Staff at a London-based Islamic research body, the Institute for Ismaili Studies, have ranged from radicals like Mohammed Arkoun, a leader of the French deconstructionist school, to traditional Sunni or Sufi scholars. They follow the trail of al-Suyuti, a 15th-century Egyptian who accepted the existence of slightly different versions of the Koran.
Such diversity under a single roof would be impossible now in Karachi or in Cairo, the bastion of Islamic scholarship. There, the interpretation of Islam and its history is strictly a task for believers. Non-Muslim offerings would be called “orientalism”, based on colonial arrogance. Muslims in such places who take a different view face not only academic ostracism but physical danger. Egypt’s leading advocate of a liberal reading of the Koran—Nasr Abu Zayd, who died in 2010—was denounced as an apostate, forcibly divorced from his wife and had to spend his later life abroad. The rise of Islamism in Egypt offers no prospect of a friendlier climate.