Fifty Different Tellings of the Quran

Islam’s own history shows that the prevailing conception of the Quran is not the only one ever to have existed.

In the recent cacophony on ‘intolerance,’ many left-wing writers, journalists and intellectuals routinely mentioned the A K Ramanujan article ‘Three hundred Ramayanas’. To them, its removal from the Delhi University history reading list few years ago was also an example of ‘intolerance’.

Apparently the left-wingers have mastered the Goebbelsian tactics with considerable success in the Indian arena. For many of them, it reflects pure ignorance as well. Most have never bothered to read the Ramanujan piece, yet repeat a given line of propaganda. A propaganda on behalf of an anti-Hindu, intellectual politics.

Here is an attempt to show, from a different angle, how it is so.

Hamlet, Quran and Ramayana

To begin, what would you say about a group of academics and intellectuals who insist on not teaching the Hamlet written by Shakespeare but various, so-called alternative versions of Hamlet written or told by non-descript others? Such is the case of our left-wingers, historians, journalists and writers alike. Their dislike or hatred of the Hindu knowledge traditions in general is scarcely disguised. In fact, the very selection of Ramanujan’s article to teach ‘history’ was a case in point.

Historically speaking, in comparison to Valmiki Ramayana the Quran is a very recent text. But the leftist historians and theorists have shown no historical interest in this text. This writer is not proposing a new idea. It is already there, only our leftists have kept a conspicuous silence on this, a more interesting and relevant issue.

For a long time scholars from different countries, with differing orientations have published diverse views on the Quran on the bases of solid evidence. Many of them are Muslim scholars of impeccable repute, having academic positions in Islamic countries and in Western universities. So, why have our professors, journalists or eminent historians never shown any interest to teach their students about the different views about the Quran? Why ‘different’ tellings only about the Ramayana; and that too, on the basis of just one opinion piece penned by a non-historian?

Is it because of religious sensitivity? No, it is a pure political, and not academic preference. Because the Ramayana of Valmiki commands as much religious stature as it is a highly celebrated literary text. Therefore, the questions about the selective sensitivity is central. Do the left-wing professors consider Valmiki Ramayana a religious or historical text? If historical, then why is the primary text not in the syllabi of universities? If religious, then why it is willfully profaned by all means fair and foul? It is a worst case of intolerance to Hindu knowledge traditions promoted by our left-wing writers and their ignorant cohorts.

ramFrom the utterances of these propagandists masquerading as academics, it would appear that they consider Valmiki Ramayana as a religious text as well as literary and historical, but on all these counts only to disparage Hindu thought.

Ramayana of Valmiki or of Tulsidas is religious to such professors, when it needs to be included in the formal teaching syllabus. How can they teach a religious book in secular education?, they pretend with horror. But the same book becomes historical-literary to the same professors when they mock and ridicule Hindu dharma or Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Hence the insistence on retaining in the curriculum, the pathetic article of Ramanujan, but not Valmiki Ramayana.

The very fact that the Valmiki Ramayana has been well known since time immemorial is evidence enough of its being the primary text. Other versions vary only in parts and emphases. That, too, has never been any cause of dispute among people or the scholars.

In comparison, the scholarly disputes about Quran have been extant on record for at least a century. Many books and research papers are available in worldwide publications, covering many continents and scholars.

In a brief summary, we can consider at least 52 observations about the historical debates regarding Quran. They are all published scholarship and writings of repute, and therefore perfectly legitimate to include in the history syllabi of our universities. (Any takers among the so-very inclusive writers, historians? No. Because their bravery before ‘intolerance’ carefully chooses to attack the most harmless community in the world.)

Fifty observations on the Quran

The following observations are based on “What is the Koran” by Toby Lester, an American journalist and a former UN official, published in the Atlantic monthly (January 1999).

The analysis is being presented in a point-wise manner to emphasize the contrast with the ridiculous scholarship a la Wendy Doniger (‘alternative’ Hindu history) and her dumb children. Even independently discussing Islamic texts from a historical evolution perspective has great possibilities.

[1] Some fifty years ago, Yemeni officials found a whole lot of old manuscripts. It was found in 1972 during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana’a. The manuscripts contained a mash of old parchment and paper documents. Consequently the Yemeni Antiquities Authority sought international assistance in examining and preserving the fragments.

A visiting German scholar persuaded the German government to organize and fund a restoration project. The stock was a “paper grave,” the resting place for, among other things, tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Quran.

In some Muslim circles it is held that worn-out or damaged copies of the Quran must be removed from circulation; hence the idea of a grave for it. Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni manuscripts seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., or the first two centuries of Islam. They were fragments of perhaps the oldest Qurans in existence. Some of these fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Quranic text. Such aberrations are at odds with the general Muslim belief that the Quran is unchanging Word of God.

[2] Significantly, the Yemeni manuscripts had also palimpsests. What the Yemeni Qurans seemed to suggest 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 Qurans have painstakingly been flattened, cleaned, treated, sorted, and assembled. They are now in Yemen’s House of Manuscripts.

[3] The Yemeni authorities did not 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 Quran’s history was said a thousand years ago. “To historicize the Quran 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. As the Quran 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 Quran in human life. If the Quran is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of fourteen centuries is effectively meaningless.”

[4] But, the prospect of a Muslim backlash has not deterred the critical-historical study of the Quran, as the existence of the essays in The Origins of the Quran (1998) demonstrate. In 1996 the Quranic scholar Günter Lüling wrote in The Journal of Higher Criticism about “the wide extent to which both the text of the Quran 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.”

patricia[5] In 1994, 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 Quranic text is likely to be made possible only by “abandoning the conventional account of how the Qur’an was born.”

[6] 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 Quran”—changes that from the orthodox Muslim perspective amount to copyediting God.

[7] Crone and Michael Cook (C&C) in Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977) made radical arguments. Among Hagarism‘s controversial claims were suggestions that the text of the Quran came into being later than is now believed (“There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Quran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century”).

[8] C&C said in Hagarism, that Mecca was not the initial Islamic sanctuary. According to them, “[the evidence] points unambiguously to a sanctuary in north-west Arabia … Mecca was secondary”.

[9] Again, C&C came to the conclusion 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”. This is quite similar to what Tarek Fateh, the Canadian writer, also clearly says in his definition of Islam.

[10] According to C&C, 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. Their words: “No seventh-century source identifies the Arab era as that of the hijra“.

[11] C&C have also written that the term “Muslim” was not commonly used in early Islam. In their words, “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”.

[12] The criticism to Hagarism from Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike, was made for its heavy reliance on hostile sources. Which also means that the suggestions were not refuted on the bases of contrary hard evidence. (C&C have since backed away from some of their radical propositions – such as, for example, that the Prophet Muhammad lived two years longer than the Muslim tradition claims, and that the historicity of his migration to Medina is questionable.) But Crone continued to challenge both Muslim and Western orthodox views of Islamic history.

[13] Gerd-R. Puin‘s thinking: “My idea is that the Quran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad.”

[14] Puin 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.”

[15] Patricia Crone: “The Quran 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.”

[16] Some Russian (Erstwhile Soviet) scholars, too, undertook a Marxist-Leninist study of Islam’s origins. In the 1920s and in 1930 a Soviet publication titled Ateist ran a series of articles explaining, in Marxist-Leninist terms, the rise of Islam. They are decidedly another different telling about Quran.

Ann_Katharine_SwynfordLambton[17] In Islam and Russia (1956), Ann K.S. Lambton summarized much of those Soviet works. Several Soviet scholars had theorized that “the motive force of the nascent religion was supplied by the mercantile bourgeoisie of Mecca and Medina”.

[18] Another Soviet author S.P. Tolstov had held that “Islam was a social-religious movement originating in the slave-owning, not feudal, form of Arab society”.

[19] Yet another Soviet scholar 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.” This, again, is partly the same what C&C and Tarek Fatah hold.

[20] Morozov appears to have been a particularly flamboyant theorist. Ann K. S. 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.”

[21] Not surprisingly, Muslims in general are inclined to dismiss it outright. In the Muslim World Book Review (1987), in a paper titled “Method Against Truth: Orientalism and Qur’anic Studies,” a Muslim critic S. Parvez Manzoor 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…”. 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 Quran. Shouldn’t it be worth discussing?

[22] That a substantial body of Western scholarship exists on this subject is indicated by a 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, hoped 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 Quranic scholarship.”

The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an is intended to be a collaborative enterprise, carried out by Muslims and non-Muslims, and its articles will present multiple approaches to the interpretation of the Quran, some of which are likely to challenge traditional Islamic views. Thus disturbing many in the Islamic world, where the time is less (or, is it?) ripe for a revisionist study of the Quran.

[20] Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian professor of Arabic says, “The Quran is a text, a literary text, and the only way to understand, explain, and analyze it is through a literary approach”. The same is underlined by Sultan Shahin, a liberal Muslim scholar of India today.

[21] Abu Zaid persists that he is a pious Muslim, but contends that the Quran’s manifest content – for example, the archaic laws about the treatment of women for which Islam is infamous – is much less important than what he calls its ‘complex, regenerative, and spiritually nourishing latent content’.

[22] 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.”

[23] The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz, in his allegorical novel, structured like the Quran, Children of Gabalawi (1959) presented unorthodox conceptions of God and the Prophet Muhammad. Very interesting and thought provoking too. A must read for those interested in different tellings.

[24] The Islamic tradition itself has it that when Muhammad died, in 632, the Quranic 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.” 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 new faith and inspired by the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad – were at the time pursuing a successful series of international conquests. By the 640s the Arabs captured a large part of Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Egypt. They were engaged in taking over parts of Europe, North Africa, and Central Asia too.

[25] In the early decades of the Arab conquests many members of Muhammad’s close circle were killed. With them died valuable knowledge of the Quranic revelations. Muslims at the boundaries of the empire began arguing over what was Quranic 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 Quran the way the Jews and Christians differ over their Scripture.”

[26] Then ‘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 Quran.

[27] It is said that ‘Uthman then ordered all incomplete and “imperfect” collections of the Quranic scripture destroyed, and the new version was distributed to the major centers of the rapidly burgeoning Islamic empire.

[28] 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 Quran 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 Quranic 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 Quran and the early years of Islam are ultimately derived.

[29] Roughly equivalent in length to the New Testament, the Quran is divided into 114 sections, known as suras, which vary dramatically in length and form. The book’s organizing principle is neither chronological nor thematic. Despite the unusual structure, however, what generally surprises newcomers to the Quran is the degree to which it draws on the same beliefs and stories that appear in the Bible. A considerable point.

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 Quran takes great care to stress this common monotheistic heritage, but it works equally hard to distinguish Islam from Judaism and Christianity.

[30] It reminds readers that it is “A Quran in Arabic, / For people who understand.” Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, however, the Quran 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 is 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 Quran anticipates criticism and defends itself by asserting the right to abrogate its own message (“God doth blot out / Or confirm what He pleaseth”).

[31] 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 Quran as proof of its human origins.

[32] Muslim scholars themselves were fastidiously cataloguing the problematic aspects of the Quran. Especially its unfamiliar vocabulary, seeming omissions of text, grammatical incongruities, deviant readings, and so on.

[33] A major theological debate in fact arose within Islam in the late eighth century, pitting those who believed in the Quran 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.

arab[34] 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, which developed a complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal understanding of the Quran.

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 Quran.

[35] As a result, the Quran 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. This is also a very interesting point to consider as various Muslim critics, such as Wafa Sultan, hold that the versions well-known in Arab countries are fundamentally different from what are known in non-Arab world and in non-Arabic languages.

[36] 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 Quran as the literal and uncreated Word of God has remained constant.

[37] 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 Quran. “The Quran 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 Quranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation.” A confirmation of what Wafa Sultan says?

[38] “If the Quran is not comprehensible – if it can’t even be understood in Arabic – then it’s not translatable. People fear that. And since the Quran 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,” says Puin. A very perceptive comment worth consideration.

[39] 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 Quran is correct. If you drop that assumption, you have to start afresh.” This is no mean feat, of course. The Quran has come down to us tightly swathed in a historical tradition that is extremely resistant to criticism and analysis.

[40] 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.”

[41] 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 Quranic studies in the past few decades is John Wansbrough, formerly of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Like it or not, anybody engaged in the critical study of the Quran 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 Quranic text.

[42] John Wansbrough concluded that the Quran evolved only gradually in the seventh and eighth centuries 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.

[43] 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 Quran – 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 theories have been contagious in certain scholarly circles, but many Muslims understandably have found them offensive. S. Parvez Manzoor, for example, has described the Quranic studies of Wansbrough and others as “a naked discourse of power” and “an outburst of psychopathic vandalism.”

[44] But not even Manzoor argues for a retreat from the critical enterprise of Quranic 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 Quran from methodological assumptions and parameters that are radically at odds with the ones consecrated by our tradition.” It is something similar to what Sultan Shahin contends.

[45] Indeed, for more than a century there have been public figures in the Islamic world who have attempted the revisionist study of the Quran and Islamic history. So the exiled Egyptian professor Nasr Abu Zaid is not unique. Perhaps Abu Zaid’s most famous predecessor was the prominent Egyptian minister, university professor, and writer Taha Hussein.

tahaA 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 Quranic mythology.

[46] 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.”

[47] Muhammad ‘Abduh, the nineteenth-century father of Egyptian modernism, 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 the last century.

The important Egyptian writer and intellectual Ahmad Amin remarked 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. Is not this the reason for our Ramanujan-lovers to flee from Taha, Abu Zaid, or even from Tarek Fatah–when it comes to discuss ‘different’ tellings?

[48] “I would like to get the Quran out of this prison,” Abu Zaid has said of the prevailing Islamic hostility to reinterpreting the Quran 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.

[49] Another scholar with a wide readership who is committed to re-examining the Quran 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 Quran 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 Quran 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.

[50] The gulf between such academic theories and the daily practice of Islam around the world is huge. The majority of Muslims today are unlikely to question the orthodox understanding of the Quran and Islamic history. Yet Islam’s own history shows that the prevailing conception of the Quran 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.”

Closing Notes

Thus, the above 50 observations about the Quran and Islamic theories are incomparably more authentic and interesting different tellings than the trivial conjectures of A K Ramanujan in his article bombastically titled a ‘Three hundred Ramayanas’. Not to say the relevance and great, humanitarian implications of the differing observations about Quran for the world.

Still, we can rest assured that the left-wing historians and protest-happy writers will not even mention these observations and the scholars, let alone prescribe it for history students and encourage research. Because then, the whole anti-Hindu secularism so laboriously concocted by them would be in mortal peril.

Readers can compare the two presentations and reach their own conclusions.


  • Gerd-R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Quranic paleography based at Saarland University, in Saarbrücken, Germany.
  • Puin ‘s colleague H.-C. Graf von Bothmer, an Islamic-art historian also based at Saarland University.
  • Andrew Rippin, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, who is at the forefront of Quranic studies today.
  • Stephen Humphreys, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
  • The Quranic scholar Günter Lüling.
  • Yehuda D. Nevo, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
  • Patricia Crone, a historian of early Islam, at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey
  • James Bellamy of the University of Michigan.
  • S.P. Tolstov (1907-1976), a Soviet ethnographer, archaeologist, historian, and Orientalist. Corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (1953).
  • Jane McAuliffe, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toronto
  • Nasr Abu Zaid, Egyptian professor of Arabic, now in Holland.
  • Naguib Mahfouz , the Nobel Prize-winning novelist.
  • John Wansbrough, formerly of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies
  • Taha Hussein, prominent Egyptian government minister, university professor, and writer
  • Ali Dashti, Iranian journalist and diplomat.
  • Muhammad ‘Abduh, the nineteenth-century father of Egyptian modernism.
  • Ahmad Amin, Egyptian writer and intellectual
  • Fazlur Rahman, late Pakistani scholar
  • Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian professor at the University of Paris


  • The Origins of the Quran (1998) – collections
  • Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977) – by P. Crone and M. Cook
  • Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987) – P. Crone
  • Islam and Russia (1956) – by Ann K.S. Lambton
  • Christ (1930) – by N A Morozov
  • Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an – Jane McAuliffe (General Editor)
  • Children of Gabalawi (1959) – Naguib Mahfouz
  • Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (1988) – R. Stephen Humphreys
  • Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (1977) – John Wansbrough
  • The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (1978) – John Wansbrough
  • Twenty Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed (1985) – Ali Dashti
  • The Concept of the Text (1990) – Nasr Abu Zaid
  • Lectures du Coran (1982) – Mohammed Arkoun

Journals Cited

  • The Journal of Higher Criticism (in some 1996 issue)
  • Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam (a 1994 issue)
  • Journal of the American Oriental Society (since 1991 many issues)
  • Ateist (a Soviet journal)
Dr. Shankar Sharan is Professor, Political Science at the NCERT, New Delhi