New scholarship on the origins of the Koran
March 1, 2002 9:00 PM   Subscribe

New scholarship on the origins of the Koran claims that the Koran has been misread and mistranslated for centuries. For example, Islamic martyrs are not rewarded in paradise with "virgins," that's a mistranslation. Oops. (NYT member: metafi, password: metafi)
posted by homunculus (36 comments total)
So they're really rewarded with vegans? Must be hell!
posted by HTuttle at 9:37 PM on March 1, 2002

You can only say this because you are an infidel pig, who deserves nothing more than death. The Qu'ran, as presented by my local demagogue, is infallible. It is intransigent. It cannot be defeated by truth.
posted by aramaic at 9:42 PM on March 1, 2002

From the article:

The caution is not surprising. Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" received a fatwa because it appeared to mock Muhammad. The Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed because one of his books was thought to be irreligious. And when the Arab scholar Suliman Bashear argued that Islam developed as a religion gradually rather than emerging fully formed from the mouth of the Prophet, he was injured after being thrown from a second- story window by his students at the University of Nablus in the West Bank. Even many broad-minded liberal Muslims become upset when the historical veracity and authenticity of the Koran is questioned.

Anyone else think 'broad-minded liberal Muslims' is a contradiction in terms? Anyway, whatever happened to the 'Islam is a peaceful religion' line of thought? Don't tell me that was just post 9/11 propaganda...
posted by Rastafari at 9:47 PM on March 1, 2002

Anyone else think 'broad-minded liberal Muslims' is a contradiction in terms?

Uh... No. Why the hell would it be?
posted by Marquis at 9:50 PM on March 1, 2002

Damn, and I used to think I was vehement...against islam that is.
posted by bittennails at 9:51 PM on March 1, 2002

Well homunculus, this article goes straight to my blog. Thanks. The thing about the Koran is that it's quite a recent text, compared to the Torah and the New Testament. It's also less open to interpretation and, almost liberally, takes into account - and importantly consecrates - the previous two holy books.

And yet interpretation - even in the apparently benign form of translation - is much less encouraged by Islam. It is often a sin. So this claim has been made many times but it cannot be fruitfully debated. This is simultaneously a strength and a weakness.

Many scholars would argue - I guess is what I'm saying, as an argumentative Jew - if they could. As it is, though, certain people are able to abuse the Koran if they dare to extract from its essential wisdom and goodness prescriptions(justifications for suicide bombers, for instance)which are entirely foreign to its teachings.

Mohammed was an extremely intelligent and benevolent man - even Christians and Jews should have no problem in recognizing him as a prophet, given his inclusiveness - and it's sad that only very recently have his lessons been so wildly misinterpreted.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:58 PM on March 1, 2002

The irony is, if the Koran has been misread for centuries, hostility to sholarship and debate may be obscuring the original content of the Koran instead of protecting it.

Meanwhile, would-be martyrs are dying for raisins...
posted by homunculus at 10:42 PM on March 1, 2002

Approaches to the Koran that are now branded as heretical — interpreting the text metaphorically rather than literally — were widely practiced in mainstream Islam a thousand years ago.

Jeez, that's depressing. Talk about taking a huge step backwards.

would-be martyrs are dying for raisins...

So true, it hurts.
posted by donkeyschlong at 11:00 PM on March 1, 2002

There is nothing new in this article. It is common knowledge that Islam demands belief in the Torah and the New Testament. It is also common knowledge that there was a mix of jews and christians around Mecca. But to say that the Quran was still evolving in the later centuries is absurd. It was revealed upon Muhammad (p) in its entirety throuh the Angel Gibreil. The article's premise is that there was no Angel Gibreil, therefore either there were jews and christians around mecca, or the Quran was compiled somewhere else.
posted by adnanbwp at 11:39 PM on March 1, 2002

Absurd from what perspective? Your archeological/scholarly perspective? Or your hearsay/because-I-say-so perspective?

It amazes me, given everything we know about humanity, that many Muslims cling to the belief that forces of history haven't altered the Koran. Because "god" knows no one "impure" or deceitful has ever transmitted its text. The Middle East in particular is a bastion of proofreading and open expression.
posted by donkeyschlong at 12:35 AM on March 2, 2002

If you really get into Islam, there is something really special and pure about it. It's hard to explain. I have studied many religions, and that is the only one that seems have this HARD nugget of truth, wrapped up so intricately. Once you 'get it,' it is true that interpretations are annoying. It basically says: God is Great. Once you understand what that means, interpretations are meaningless. God is Great. It can be both too complex and too simple an answer... but there is something inherently good, and that is God, and that is great. There are some people in this world, that the only good things they have are their family, their friends, and this idea. Some of these people when threatened, will lash out violently at those around them, or even people in far off-countries who they know little about.
posted by chaz at 2:07 AM on March 2, 2002

That just seems really atavistic and dangerous. I mean, didn't you just describe tribalism?
posted by donkeyschlong at 3:22 AM on March 2, 2002

Of course this isn't the only mistranslation involving virgins.
Sorry for mentioning it, and doubtless you'll think it's just a troll, but seriously you shouldn't be so hard on Muslims for being silly and 'dying for raisins' when the same kind of misunderstandings are taken for granted all the time. Since this is doubtless a sensitive subject I should say that I don't mean to mock anyone's beliefs, nor do I want to start a theological debate. It's a point; take it or leave it.
posted by Gaz at 4:33 AM on March 2, 2002

Man, why all the Islam bashing? There are plenty of Christians who get upset when the Bible is retranslated and reinterpreted (we've even discussed it here), despite the fact that Luke, Mark, John and company certainly didn't speak King James' English; plenty of Christians who fight and sometimes even kill or die over what they believe to be literal interpretation because they also refuse to believe that the forces of history haven't altered the Bible. Even the oldest religion in the triad, Judaism, has its rifts between Orthodox, Reform and Moderate Jews.

This is not a uniquely Muslim resistance to change- while we might find jihad against scholarly investigation into the Qu'ran strange and offputting, it's no stranger than Christians who refuse to use electricity and automobiles; who handle snakes; who refuse medical treatment in favor of prayer; who protest teaching evolution; who kill abortion doctors. Considering that people don't read "Memoirs of a Geisha" and all come away with the same experience, expecting people to read the Bible, the Qu'ran, or the Torah to have a homogenous, singular reaction is just simple minded.
posted by headspace at 4:47 AM on March 2, 2002

Dare I say this: The Koran is like the O.T and the N.T.--a batch of stories nailed together that had been accepted as the revealed word of god but which over the years is not seen mostly as stories cobbled together wit no evidence of any sort that god handed down such stories. And in passing: I have been told over and over that in order to understand the Koran one must read it in Arabic. That being the case, could you say that the O.T and N.T. must be read in Aramaacic or Greek or Hebrew or they can not be understood properly?
All of which goes to illustrate that a lot of folks have invested a lot of time in nice stories that may have some charm but have no "authority" but that which their adherents claim for them.
Is there a difference? yes. you are a heretic or bounced from some religions if you don't accept; you may get your haed basjed if you belittle or renounce the Koran.
posted by Postroad at 5:25 AM on March 2, 2002

plenty of Christians who fight and sometimes even kill or die over what they believe to be literal interpretation because they also refuse to believe that the forces of history haven't altered the Bible.

What is amazing, I think, is not the number of irrational little-brained hatemongers, but the vast numbers of their apologists.
posted by rushmc at 7:26 AM on March 2, 2002

rushmc, I'm not apologizing for them- in fact, I want nothing to do with them. I'm just commenting on all the violent, knee-jerk reactions to Islam I saw in this thread, as if Muslims are somehow more bizarre and freakish than Christians. It smacks of xenophobia to me, and ordinarily I wouldn't say anything (as I'm neither Christian nor Muslim,) but this thread in MetaTalk made me think.
posted by headspace at 7:55 AM on March 2, 2002

Both Christianity and Islam borrowed a ton of stuff from the
in any case.
posted by gimonca at 9:06 AM on March 2, 2002

Gaz: is it any stupider to die for raisins than virgins?
posted by ParisParamus at 9:17 AM on March 2, 2002

I'm bored with non-Muslims offering general opinions on Islam, because I don't learn anything from it. Like many people, I'm almost totally in the dark on what people who have grown up with Islam think about religion, and this is what I want to know more about.

In the hope of encouraging any Muslim reading this thread to share a bit of their experience, here's a description of how totally clueless an American with a college degree can be about Islam.

For some reason, I grew up thinking that if you read the Koran in any language except Arabic, you were committing a very bad sin, and so I never read it. It didn't seem right to offend Allah the first time you met him, and if the Koran was supposed to be something special for Arabs only, I thought I ought to respect this. The only Muslim people I'd ever asked any questions about religion were Black Muslims. I'd find that we had common ground on the difficulties of being a vegetarian in the United States, and they also liked handmade crocheted hats like the Rasta hats I made, but that's about all I found out on Islam. I did meet people I liked from the Middle East when I went away to school, but when it came to the subject of religion, they'd say things like, "As you know, my family is Muslim, and so there are different expectations of women, and I simply couldn't ever live a life like yours." This was about as far as it went. Finally came the Gulf War, and an Indian housemate who had lived in Kuwait told me that if I wanted to read the Koran, it was really important to find a good translation. He loaned me an Arabic-English Koran with commentaries that he thought was the very best, and said it would be very difficult to find this translation in the States.

Despite a college degree, 15 years of Christian church, and all that personal contact with Muslim people, it came as a complete surprise to me that the Koran had the same cast of characters as the Bible!

I was shocked. I also discovered that the Koran's teachings on women weren't all that far away from my own perspective, as a woman who didn't take the pill and hence had no reasonable assurance that birth control would work.

The question of translation, and whether you should read one, can make a big difference.
posted by sheauga at 9:23 AM on March 2, 2002

Huge portions of the Old Testament are very clearly adapted versions of older babylonian and sumerian stories, with the various gods fused into one (the flood story, for example, where the O.T. God comes off as a little schizo because he changes his mind so fast, largely because there were TWO gods involved in the story in the older babylonian version).

Most devout Christians and Jews probably aren't too excited about seeing these connections, some of the might get quite upset about it.

I won't make any sweeping statements about Islam/Muslim nations, as I don't feel qualified to comment on just how fundementalist people are in general, but I figured the comparison was worthwhile.
posted by malphigian at 9:58 AM on March 2, 2002

I'm bored with non-Muslims offering general opinions on Islam, because I don't learn anything from it

Good point. Much as I enjoy the diversity of opinions on MeFi, I'd wager we're still a pretty narrow demographic. I'm just as frustrated by my own ignorance on this topic, despite which I can't help having opinions about it.

Anyway, good news for anyone here who feels the same way who live within reach of London, U.K., as I just picked up this pamphlet today:
Asia House presents Eight Lectures: UNDERSTANDING ISLAM.
Admission free. First one is 5 March, last one 14 May. Topics include "What is Islam?", "Islam in international relations", "Women and Islam", "Muslims in the West", etc.

It's organised jointly by Asia House and SOAS, though neither website seems to have any information about the lectures.
posted by snarfois at 10:11 AM on March 2, 2002

ParisParamus: Is it any stupider to die for raisins than virgins?
I wasn't trying to say that anything about terrorism and whether or not Islam has a greater tendency to produce it (that's an argument for another thread). I tend to think that dying for any religious belief is pretty stupid, and killing for one is even worse. On the other hand, I think that you should die or even kill if that's what your ethical beliefs demand, and since theists claim to get their ethics from their religious beliefs, I suppose that leaves me in a bit of a quandary.

Anyway, I don't think it makes sense to argue about how ridiculous the religious beliefs of any group are, or about whether those beliefs are supported by this or that sacred text. It doesn't make a belief more or less credible that it's based on an incorrect translation, because if you think that God can do anything then that includes organising the world so that when you go to heaven you get raisins or virgins or whatever. Of course, if people are going to use religious texts as a way of enforcing social control, then it's a great idea to point out where they make false claims, but it doesn't impact on the underlying credibility of the religion.

I'm reminded of the short story by Philip Roth, 'The Conversion of the Jews', where the sunday school teacher is telling the children how the idea of the virgin birth is so stupid, and one little boy gets him to admit that God could bring about a virgin birth. To me that story sums up a lot of what's wrong with fanaticism.
posted by Gaz at 10:12 AM on March 2, 2002

I don't as a general comment in these types of threads because the very definition of religion is somewhat off putting to me. In my own experience I find religious fanatics to be just another group of addicts, comparable with alcoholics or drug addicts. Alcoholics and drug addicts don't brother me that much. Pass out on my sofa and I will give you coffee or call you a doctor if you need one, but religious fanatics, even ones that just try to get me to go to their church just scare me. I can not call a doctor for their "problem". This is just my opinion, not backed up by any reference or great scholar.
posted by bjgeiger at 1:16 PM on March 2, 2002

I don't know much about the history of Islam and how it's study has progressed throughout the ages, but in Europe it took a violent period during the Reformation to give some people the option of having differing religious opinions without being burned as heretics. So we can hardly claim that this is specific to Islam. It's a better reflection people than theology.

I do know that all religions are affected by the cultures they come into contact with. I don't know that this type of study will affect Saudi Arabia, but I could see how a metaphorical vs literal debate might become mainstream with Muslims in the West.
posted by Salmonberry at 1:59 PM on March 2, 2002

Ok, I've been dead busy, but I'll have a stab at trying (!) to clear some stuff up..

As far as all of the books I've read seem to say, the Qu'ran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) over the course of his life by the Angel Gibrail. As he could not read or write (as indeed couldn't the majority of people at that time), it was passed by learning by rote - if you read any text on education during that period, you will see that this was the only real method of teaching, and is astonishingly accurate (even now, hafis, people who can recite the entire Qu'ran intonation and accent perfect from end to end number in the hundreds of thousands - and people aren't even taught from childhood to learnt that way).

During his life, it was memorized as it was revealed by the muslism, and scribes took it down. The first full written copies were compiled shortly after his death, but the Qu'ran in its current form was not present until 59-60 years after. The reason for this was that the leader of the muslims at the time (whose name, alas, I cannot remember (its late, and I've been out all day :()), realised that with the spread of Islam, the accents with which people were reciting it were changing according to the type of arabic they spoke, which could end up changing the meaning (as it was learnt by the aforementioned rote). Thus, the 'accent' system was introduced to give a unified pronunciation of the Qu'ran, and cut down on the errors in translation that could crop up (mind you, I found out that my accent was horrid a little while back - you really need to go to Saudi to get it good). Current Saudi arabic is not too different from Qu'ranic arabic in pronunciation due to the existence of the Qu'ran actually - something we don't find elsewhere I think (anyone cite examples of languages that haven't changed over the last millenia in spoken usage?).

The original book was copied and sent out to each part of the Islamic world, and indeed, you can still find copies of it 1400 years on - although in extremely fragile condition.

It says in the Qu'ran that one of the obligations of a muslim with regards to it, after the obligation to ponder its meaning, is to read it in its original form, arabic. Anyone who knows how to pronounce arabic (not hard to learn), and who can read the Qu'ran aloud will understand why this is - the very recitation is poetic once you start reading it, far better than listening to it, it seems to resonate (in my opinion, of course). The language used is also extremely interesting - the entire book is based on 1,600 root words only, from which the other words are constructed - in fact, translation of the Qu'ran is not too difficult if you learn the meanings of these words (1,200 of which are in Urdu, and about 1,000 (I believe) in Hindi). The understanding comes before the reading in arabic though..

As for the teachings of the Prophet, these form a series of books called the hadith, which must be used as a context to the Qu'ran for a proper, full understanding. The final compiled works were not given as rigourous a safeguarding as the Qu'ran, but there is an entire science dedicated to finding the ones which are truthful, and the ones which have been corrupted (the so called 'zina' hadith) - this science (as its a logical thing) covers every aspect of the books from linguistic consistency to the lineage of the scribes who took it down - covering 500,000 different people I do believe. It may not be 100% accurate, but they gave it a good shot.. The interpretation of the hadith is where the main sticking points come in Islam - the current Islamic world follows one of 4 schools of thought on the hadith - the most popular one, the Salafi (named after the Imam who compiled it), is what the 'Sunni' muslims (~70% of muslims?) follow - the differences in interpretation here are what account for the slightly different ways of praying/attitudes to blowing yourself up that exist.

Anyway, I'm about to collapse into sleep - I hope I have made at least a little sense, feel free to contact/flame me if you need any more info, and I'll do my best.. Wait, forget about the flaming.. Night..
posted by Mossy at 4:35 PM on March 2, 2002

Oh yeah, the obligatory multi-translation link :)
posted by Mossy at 4:44 PM on March 2, 2002

A wonderful, if mischevous and infidel source, is Gibbon (decline and fall) - all online.

The word of God, and of the apostle, was diligently recorded by his disciples on palm-leaves and the shoulder-bones of mutton; and the pages, without order or connection, were cast into a domestic chest, in the custody of one of his wives. Two years after the death of Mahomet, the sacred volume was collected and published by his friend and successor Abubeker: the work was revised by the caliph Othman, in the thirtieth year of the Hegira; and the various editions of the Koran assert the same miraculous privilege of a uniform and incorruptible text.

But there's much more ...
posted by grahamwell at 11:57 AM on March 3, 2002

It has been previously established that the translations of "virgin" are wrong, however, a new and controversial re-interpretation seems to have little textual underpinnings and scholarly research to back it up.
posted by dhartung at 1:03 PM on March 3, 2002

Mossy - thanks for that. Your description sounds like you swallowed Strunk and White's Elements Of Style the moment you were born. You should submit it to Wiki's or some other online encyclopaedia. Like all truly knowledgeable definitions it's necessarily concise and, amazingly, you can actually learn more from it than from much longer-winded attempts.

By the way, all discussions here on MetaFilter that involve - or even mention - Islam have suffered terribly from your absence. When I joined, back in September, I could always count on you to set us ignorami right. Stick around, why don't you? :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 2:20 PM on March 3, 2002

I think what people are missing is the striking difference between Islam today and Islam a millenium ago. During the life of Muhammad, he truly built a golden age, and during the years after his death the Islamic empire covered a greater area than the Roman empire at its height.

At that time, the religion was still young and extremely open to interpretation. The word for this is ijtihad. Islamic scholars wanted to openly debate the best way to interpret God's law and the teachings during the life of Muhammed (no easy task). The "gate of itjihad" was open, bringing about some of the greatest advancements in medicine, mathematics, philosophy, poetry, and music that the world had ever seen.

Today the gate is, for all intensive purposes, closed. It's very hard to question anything considered "authoritative" without being called blasphemous. Now that the debate is closed, the only way of expressing dissent is by blowing yourself up or joining an extremist faction and practice Islam the way you think is "right".
posted by MarkO at 2:32 PM on March 3, 2002

I've been lost in the evil world of work - 5 months has made me decide that going to uni next year will be heaven come early (minus the vegans/raisins, but thats ok..).

MarkO, you're correct about the closing of Ijtihad - I reckon it comes from the fact that Islam had this Golden Age, but now the unity and pride that existed there is no longer present in the Muslim world.. One of the Qu'rans rights is to be contemplated - analysed if you will. Given a month or two, anyone can do that - not totally of course, but they can get a good idea. However, its easier to accept what others say than do your own ground work..

I myself believe that the Qu'ran should be equally applicable to all ages - if you think about it, if a God-figure wrote it, this is naturally the case. Therefore, previous (centuries old) authorative analyses should act as a basis rather than a totality of your own view on it.

Yep, I've got a whole load of books I'm reading - there are a surprising amount of authoratative views..

I read Gibbons Decline and Fall a couple of years back, and quite liked it - suprisingly, he isn't far wrong on the palm leaves :) The order was dictated to Mohammad (I always wondered what the correct spelling in English of that is.. Mahomet isn't that bad either..). After the revelation of the last verse, along with the names, but the written versions weren't ordered until after (due to the aforementioned memorising of it by everyone).

I know what I'm gonna do. As I learn more about my religion during my Gap Year, I'm gonna stick it up on an easy to navigate website. And include a questioning section to make sure their aren't any leaps of faith/lacking in backup sections on it. :)
posted by Mossy at 6:35 AM on March 4, 2002

Be careful, Mossy. You never know when someone will take offense.
posted by rodii at 7:26 AM on March 4, 2002

Generally its at the slightest thing.. I do try and be careful not to hurt peoples feelings/viewpoints, but I am only human, and I'm not so proud I won't admit I'm wrong/say sorry from time to time :)

Having said that, being flippant when writing is something I need to cut down on I suppose..

Oh, I've drawn up a plan for the site, and given myself a deadline of April 1st (no joke intended) for its first incarnation. Check my profile then for the URL..
posted by Mossy at 9:38 AM on March 4, 2002

Good luck Mossy.
posted by MarkO at 10:04 PM on March 6, 2002

gimonca: Thanks for the great Zoroastrian link. I'd like to talk to you more about it, if that's a subject that you know a lot about.
posted by bingo at 7:56 AM on March 7, 2002

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