Ancient Koranic Origins and Modern Islamic Intolerance
Wednesday, July 4, 2012, Americans celebrated the 236th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, affirming yet again our unique God-given heritage of freedom.
... that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The same day, prosecutors in Indonesia -- that bastion of contemporary Islamic tolerance and moderation -- insisted upon a four-year prison term for Shiite leader Tajul Muluk, under Article 156, Paragraph A of the Criminal Code, which penalizes "blasphemy." Tajul was accused, specifically, of informing his students that the contemporary Koran they (and all Muslims) now study was not the original "sacralized" text. Currently incarcerated, Tajul Mulk has received death threats from fellow inmates even before his trial, while in December 2011, over 300 members of Tajul's Shiite community were displaced when a mob of 500 people attacked and burned houses, a boarding school, and a place of worship.
Tajul Muluk's prosecution epitomizes contemporary Islamdom's consistent, utter rejection of basic freedom of speech, even in a much-ballyhooed "tolerant" Muslim society. This liberty-crushing suppression of free speech -- in accord with Islam's totalitarian sharia -- is exercised with particular vehemence regarding any questions about Islam's origins, even when such queries comport with major aspects of the pious Muslim narrative, not to mention objective textual discoveries.
Arthur Jeffery (1892-1959) was a great 20th-century scholar of Islam, who, in the finest Western traditions of objective inquiry, conducted pioneering, magisterial analyses of the Koranic text's evolution. Jeffery laid out his unbiased, scholarly views on such endeavors on October 31, 1946, at a meeting of the Middle East Society of Jerusalem:
Wherever we find a religion that has a Scripture, that fact presents scholarship with the problem of the textual history of that Scripture. There are no exceptions to this among the historic religions. In the case of Buddhism, for example, we have the problem of the Pali Canon, the Sanskrit Canon, the Tibetan Canon, and the Chinese Canon. In the case of Zoroastrianism there is the liveliest dispute among Iranian scholars at this very moment as to the Avestan text, and, as is well known, the text of the Pahlavi books is an exceedingly complicated problem. Each generation of students for the last hundred years has found itself faced with new problems concerning the text of the Old Testament, and our own memories are still fresh with the excitement caused by the discovery of the Chester Beatty Papyri and the Ryland's Gospel fragment, both of which raised lively discussions on matters related to the textual history of the New Testament. Whether we face the text of the Book of the Dead, coming from the ancient Egyptian religion, or the text of the Qur'an coming from the youngest of the great historic religions, we have the problem of the history of the text.
The acknowledged existence of Koranic "variants," albeit ostensibly different "dialectical forms," purportedly led Caliph Uthman (r. 644-656) to appoint a committee of learned Muslim men to "homogenize" the text and destroy all other copies. Arthur Jeffery's scholarship, and the work of many other textual analysts, amassed considerable evidence of various human recensions in the evolution of the Koranic text. One striking example was Jeffery's discovery of a variant text of the Koran's brief opening prayer itself, the so-called Fatiha (chapter or sura 1, verses 1-7). This important finding was consistent with earlier Western, and even classical, pious Muslim scholarship, as Jeffery noted in 1939:
The peculiar nature of the Fatiha has been recognized by Western scholars from Nöldeke [the great Koranic scholar; d. 1930] downward, but it is not merely a hostile Western opinion, for Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi [the great Koranic commentator and Muslim philosopher; d. 1209] quotes Abu Bakr al-Asamm [d. 816/17; early theologian and scholar] as saying that he considered it not to be part of the Koran and apparently the oldest commentaries began with Surat-al-Baqara [i.e., the second chapter, or sura of the Koran].
Earlier, despite Jeffery's yeoman effort to apply Western methods of textual analysis with the greatest deference to Muslim sensibilities, his sincere endeavors were ultimately deemed offensive by institutional Islam. Former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, and then president of the American University in Cairo John Badeau recounted the circumstances surrounding Arthur Jeffery's departure as head of the university's modest School of Oriental Studies in 1937:
It was very interesting why he left. After all, Cairo was the natural spot for a scholar doing his research. He had come across a very early commentary on the Quran. I think it had been in one of the mosque libraries in Damascus. In any case, he had got hold of it and brought it to Cairo and was working in it; its value was that it contained variant readings of the Quran text that are not otherwise in existence. So Jeff [Jeffery] got one of the shaykhs of Al-Azhar to come down and do work with him, and they were working through this commentary, annotating, and translating it. He never would use a typewriter, and wrote his notes out in longhand in a series of notebooks. One of the things that Jeff would not have was a telephone in his office. He abominated it, and the telephone was at the end of the hall. After some months of work, he and the shaykh had had a session; the notebooks were piled on one side of the table. The telephone rang, Jeff's secretary came in to tell him he was wanted, so he left the room and went to the telephone. When he came back, the shaykh who had been helping him was gone, and all the pages were ripped out of the notebooks and torn up. The shaykh could not stand the heresy of being confronted with these variant readings of the Quran. Apparently it had been bothering him for some time. In effect, Jeff said, "You know, I simply cannot do this kind of work in Cairo." At that time, Columbia had lost its Arabic scholar and approached him, and he left the American University and came to Columbia, where he remained until he died.
Jeffery's predicament -- circa 1937 -- and the far worse current plight of Indonesian Shiite leader Tajul Muluk are pathognomonic of Islam's stultifying affliction: the angry, doctrinaire suppression of open, critical inquiry and self-examination. Until Muslim societies allow such inquiries to proceed unencumbered, they will remain in their ossified medieval fortresses, devoid of basic freedoms, or even the fundamental awareness of why those freedoms represent the quintessence of human nobility.