The Lost Archive
January 15, 2008 5:53 AM   Subscribe


(Sorry. That's all I got right now. Check back in a bit.)
posted by grubi at 6:02 AM on January 15, 2008

Heh, Spengler. My ex sent me a link to him and for a few minutes I thought I was reading LarouchePAC.
posted by brownpau at 6:06 AM on January 15, 2008

Great story. But there is a strange omission of any description of these ancient copies of the Koran. How old are they? How much variation is there between them? Do they still exist?
posted by LarryC at 6:55 AM on January 15, 2008

"He pretended it disappeared. He wanted to be rid of it," says Angelika Neuwirth, a former pupil and protégée of the late Mr. Spitaler. Academics who worked with Mr. Spitaler, a powerful figure in postwar German scholarship who died in 2003, have been left guessing why he squirreled away the unusual trove for so long.

Are we certain it's the Quran, and not the Kitab al-Azif?
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:58 AM on January 15, 2008

In other words, the German higher criticism movement that began the first serious historical studies of the textual construction of the Judeo-Christian Bible had also branched out into studying the Koran, but the scholarly movement was snuffed out by World War II devastation, Nazi attacks on academic freedom, and Nazi efforts to turn Islamic countries against the British.
posted by jonp72 at 7:01 AM on January 15, 2008

Sorry if this is a little bit off topic, but I thought from reading the FPP that they were making a new Ghostbusters movie.
posted by donkeymon at 7:19 AM on January 15, 2008

Kick ass. The series of unexplained deaths, seekrit Nazi Qu'ran hunters, a guy named after a medieval military monastic order - It's the Grail! Wait. No, not the grail.
posted by mwhybark at 7:34 AM on January 15, 2008

The Knights Pretzler? Oh, no. I see.

This is really neat, by the way.
posted by steef at 8:13 AM on January 15, 2008

posted by misha at 8:15 AM on January 15, 2008

Most Christians now accept that their Bible isn't the literal unaltered word of God. I wonder how a similar enlightenment would go down in the Islamic world? Or even if it already has among the silent moderates.
posted by rocket88 at 8:41 AM on January 15, 2008

I'm going to skip it, but would someone please tell me how Indiana Jones gets away from the Nazis this time?
posted by P.o.B. at 8:50 AM on January 15, 2008

"The 'virgins' promised by the Quran to Islamic martyrs, he asserts, are in fact only 'grapes.'"

Dammit. I frickin' blew myself up for grapes???

In all seriousness, that's a great article.
posted by nosila at 9:14 AM on January 15, 2008

Great story—thanks! (I'm sorry davy is no longer around to enjoy it; he loved this shit.) It's rare to see a newspaper story with a decent understanding of the issues involved. I hope this moves Quranic scholarship forward despite the desperate attempts of literalists to stifle it.

Off-topic, but the opening reminded me of how much I hate theorists of strategic bombing:

On the night of April 24, 1944, British air force bombers hammered a former Jesuit college here housing the Bavarian Academy of Science. The 16th-century building crumpled in the inferno.

Strategic bombing, like torture, does no good but gives a big thrill to the people who do it.

posted by languagehat at 9:18 AM on January 15, 2008

I hope this moves Quranic scholarship forward despite the desperate attempts of literalists to stifle it.

Not bloody likely. I have a couple friends who are Jewish Islamists and they're having a hell of a time on the job market. And a buddy of mine who was part of a search committee for an Islamist position relates how several worthy non-Muslim candidates doing textual work were passed over in favor of a Said-type. As far as Islam is concerned, my (non-scientific, of course) impression is that the field is still mired in identity/post-colonial politics.

This impacts on critical textual study in a fairly fundamental way. Within the Christian and Jewish academies, higher criticism was a necessary stage on the way toward achieving rapprochement with modernity. There is now some really excellent work being done by Orthodox Jewish scholars who accept the fundamental tenets of source criticism but attempt to reformulate them in theologically defensible terms. Scholars like Mordechai Breuer and Israel Knohl have developed a theory of revelation that integrates a theology of textual perfection with an idea of gradual and even self-contradictory revelation in time. There are parallel moves in the Christian world, I know, but I'm less familiar with them. Such an intellectual achievement is the product, though, of about a century's worth of often acrimonious argumentation and debate.

So, 120 years after the publication of Wellhausen's Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel and perhaps two centuries after the initial murmurs that led to the emergence of Source Criticism, the Jewish and Christian worlds are finally achieving a measure of productive dialog between critical and faithful modes of reading...with legions of unreconstructed fundamentalists remaining on the margins.

In light of the political and academic situation I describe above, where qualified candidates cannot find jobs because of their ethnic background and departments are still looking for candidates who work on contemporary Islam to the detriment of its classical texts, I fear that a critical approach to the Quran is nowhere in our near future. The emergence of higher criticism in the Jewish and Christian milieux was mapped on to a pre-existing political topography defined by traditionalists and liberals. Where Islam is concerned, it's mapping onto a post-colonial structure, where any movement toward critical engagement with text is bound to be interpreted not as decadence but as ideological warfare.

I hate being so pessimistic about this. I'm usually a firm believer in the power of the academy to liberate. But knowing how slowly my own field has moved, and knowing how woefully underprepared Quranic studies is (Quran scholars still don't have a complete critical lexicon, let alone a critical text with apparatus), I'm afraid we're a long way from knowing much about the historical formation process for the Quran.
posted by felix betachat at 9:45 AM on January 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Shorter felix betachat: I predict that the first time these photographs are used to produce a critical text, conservative Imams will stir up a protest campaign that will make the Dutch cartoons look like child's play. The result will not be a renaissance in Quranic studies, but a further hardening of the lines between the Islamic and Enlightenment academies.
posted by felix betachat at 9:54 AM on January 15, 2008

Strategic bombing, like torture, does no good but gives a big thrill to the people who do it.

Thanks for reminding me to recalibrate my sarcasm detector.
posted by pax digita at 10:08 AM on January 15, 2008

Ms. Neuwirth, the current guardian of the archive, believes that perhaps Mr. Spitaler was simply "sick of" the time-consuming project and wanted to move on to other work. Mr. Lüling has a less charitable theory: that Mr. Spitaler didn't have the talents needed to make use of the archive himself and wanted to make sure colleagues couldn't outshine him by working on the material.

Sad, but given what I know about human nature I am betting on the latter case. Poor guy.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:19 AM on January 15, 2008

I have a couple friends who are Jewish Islamists

Just to clarify, the academic discipline is usually termed Islamic studies (and professionals Islamicists) to distinguish it from the political movement.

I think Spengler does have a point. It isn't, however, that there's a conspiracy surrounding the study of the Qu'ran itself. It's that studies of the Qu'ran which could otherwise be open must be conducted with exacting delicacy or secrecy and spycraft techniques rivaling that of nuclear weapons technology.

We have had plenty of dustups in the West over Christian scholarship, such as the Jesus Seminar, and sectarian arguments over translations of the Bible are legion. In this case, though, I suspect that scholars only contemplate career suicide, while in the other, they wonder whether career suicide and proxy physical suicide might be equivalent.
posted by dhartung at 4:14 PM on January 15, 2008

Scholars like Mordechai Breuer and Israel Knohl...

Most interesting, was not aware of these gentlemen, something else to look into, many thanks.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:46 PM on January 15, 2008

Just to clarify,

Oh man. If there's anyone who would have a worse time of it than a Jewish Islamicist, it's a Jewish Islamist. What would you do? Kick yourself out of your own house? Cut off your own head? Nice catch.
posted by felix betachat at 5:06 PM on January 15, 2008

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