The Great Koran Controversy: Will Muslim Martyrs Get 72 Raisins Instead of Virgins, & Other Speculations

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By Editorial Team Published on January 16, 2008 12:02
Taza Pir Mosque

According to an Islam tradition, Muslim martyrs will go to paradise and marry 72 black-eyed virgins. But some Koran scholars point to a less sexy paradise. While beautifully written, Islamic texts are often obscure. The Arabic language was born as a written language with the Koran, and growing evidence suggests that many of the words were Syriac or Aramaic.

Specifically, the Koran says martyrs going to heaven will get “hur,” and the word was taken by early commentators to mean “virgins,” hence those 72 concubines. But in Aramaic, hur actually meant “white” and was commonly used to specifically mean “white grapes.”

The exact number of virgins (or raisins) is not specified in Koran, but the number 72 comes from a quotation of Muhammad recorded in one of the lesser-known Hadith. ("Hadith" is an Arabic word meaning traditions.) After Muhammad's death, several collections of his deeds and sayings were collected to form the Hadith, which is the second most authoritative document is Islam, after the Koran.

The philologist "Christoph Luxenburg", (who always uses a pseudonym for security reasons) notes that grapes would actually make more sense, because the text compares them to crystal and pearls, and because contemporary accounts have paradise abounding with fruit, especially white grapes.

Okay, so for the sake of argument, lets say that Luxenburg is right and martyrs will get some grapes rather than young maidens, but what’s the big fuss? The real controversy is the notion that translations of Islamic holy text, including the Koran, have ever existed in the first place.

While the Bible has been rigorously, often even brutally, picked apart by scholars of every kind, the West has carefully avoided doing the same with the Koran. In the United States, where Arab and Islamic Studies rely on funding from the Gulf States, an interest in Koranic criticism is the foolproof way to commit career suicide. So for all intents and purposes, every word of the Koran came straight from heaven when Mohammed directly transcribed what the angel Gabriel told him to.

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But now a small group at the University of the Saarland and a handful of others, are daring to raise their voice that the Koran’s origins actually have quite an interesting history. If you told a Christian scholar that Jesus didn’t actually write the bible, but that it is a collection of eclectic texts from a wide variety of ancient writings spanning centuries that were somewhat randomly compiled into the Bible as we know it today, after much debate and bickering at the Council of Nicene, and they’ll probably nod their head in agreement. Most Christian scholars have finally come to grips with the fact that their Holy Book was written by a lot of different authors with differing religious opinions and interpretations, however inspired those men may have been. However, tell a devout Muslim that Mohammed may not have actually written every word of the Koran straight from the mouth of the angel Gabriel…and well, you’re asking for trouble.

Indeed, the recent news that a secret archive of ancient Islamic texts had surfaced after 60 years of suppression raised a storm of controversy. Andrew Higgins' Wall Street Journal report that the photographic record of Koranic manuscripts, supposedly destroyed during World War II but occulted by a scholar of alleged Nazi sympathies, is like a real life mixture of the Da Vinci Code with a dash of Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail. The story of the photographic archive of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, now ensconced in a Berlin vault, appears to be case of life imitating truly art. Somehow even the Nazis have found their way into this convoluted history. “I hate those guys!" as Indiana Jones so famously said.

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The Encyclopedia of Islam (1982) observes, "The closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Koran in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ." The Koran alone is the revelation of Islam. Understandably, for a devout follower of Islam, there is no room for holes to be poked as to the origins of the Koran,

But what if scholars can prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Koran was not dictated by the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammad during the 7th century? What if there was proof that the holy book was actually redacted by later writers drawing on a variety of extant Christian and Jewish sources?

Scholars already knew that variant copies of the Koran exist, including some found in 1972 in a paper grave at Sa'na in Yemen, the subject of a cover story in the January 1999 Atlantic Monthly. Before the Yemeni authorities shut the door to Western scholars, two German academics, Gerhard R Puin and H C Graf von Bothmer, were able to make 35,000 microfilm copies, which remain at the University of the Saarland. The German archive includes photocopies of manuscripts as old as 700 AD is poised to provide more evidence of variation in the Koran.

The history of the archive is perhaps the most fascinating part of the story, however. It is not clear why its existence was hidden for sixty years, or why it has come to light now, or when scholars will have free access to it. According to Higgins' account on the night of April 24, 1944, British air force bombers hammered a former Jesuit college housing the Bavarian Academy of Science. The 16th-century building crumpled in the inferno. Among the treasures lost, later lamented Anton Spitaler, an Arabic scholar at the academy, was a unique photo archive of ancient manuscripts of the Koran.

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The 450 rolls of film had been assembled before the war for a bold venture: a study of the evolution of the Koran, the text Muslims view as the verbatim transcript of God's word. However, the wartime destruction made the project "outright impossible", Spitaler wrote in the 1970s.

There was just one little problem; Spitaler was lying. The cache of photos survived, and he had it all along. The Koran research project buried for more than 60 years has risen from the grave. Why Spitaler concealed the archive is unknown, but Koranic critics who challenge the received Muslim account suspect his motives.

"The whole period after 1945 was poisoned by the Nazis," says Gunter Luling, a scholar who was drummed out of his university in the 1970s after he put forward heterodox theories about the Koran's origins. His doctoral thesis argued that the Koran was lifted in part from Christian hymns. Blackballed by Spitaler, Luling lost his teaching job and launched a fruitless six-year court battle to be reinstated. Feuding over the Koran, he says, "ruined my life".

He wrote books and articles at home, funded by his wife, who took a job in a pharmacy. Asked by a French journal to write a paper on German Arabists, Luling went to Berlin to examine wartime records. Germany's prominent postwar Arabic scholars, he says, "were all connected to the Nazis".

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But why on Earth would the Nazis care to suppress Koranic criticism? Some scholars believe the answer lies in their alliance with Islamist leaders, who shared their hatred of the Jews and also sought leverage against the British in the Middle East. Jeffrey Goldberg reviewed the most recent of many books on this subject, Matthias Kuntzel’s Jihad and Jew-Hatred, January 13 in the New York Times.

Kuntzel makes a bold and consequential argument: the dissemination of European models of anti-Semitism among Muslims was not haphazard, but an actual project of the Nazi Party, meant to turn Muslims against Jews and Zionism. He says that in the years before World War II, two Muslim leaders in particular willingly and knowingly carried Nazi ideology directly to the Muslim masses. They were Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, and the Egyptian proto-Islamist Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It may be a very long time before the contents of the Bavarian archive are known. Some Koranic critics, notably the pseudonymous scholar "Ibn Warraq", claim that Professor Angelika Neuwirth, the archive's custodian, has denied access to scholars who stray from the traditional interpretation. Neuwirth admits that she has had the archive since 1990. She has 18 years of funding to study the Bavarian archive, and it is not clear who else will be allowed access to it.

In 2005, Puin published a collection of articles under the title, Die dunklen Anfange. Neue Forschungen zur Entstehung und fruhen Geschichte des Islam ("The dark beginnings: new research on the origin and early history of Islam," Hans Schiller Verlag, 2005). This drew on the work of Luxenburg, who believes the incomprehensible passages in the Koran were written in Syriac-Aramaic rather than Arabic. The Koran, according to the research of Puin and his associates, copied a great deal of extant Christian material.

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Neuwirth has led the attack on "Christoph Luxenburg" and other Koranic critics who dispute the traditional Muslim account. According to Higgins, "Ms Neuwirth, the Berlin Koran expert, and Mr Marx, her research director, have tried to explain the project to the Muslim world in trips to Iran, Turkey, Syria and Morocco. When a German newspaper trumpeted their work last fall on its front page and predicted that it would 'overthrow rulers and topple kingdoms', Mr Marx called Arab television network al-Jazeera and other media to deny any assault on the tenets of Islam."

Despite her best efforts to reassure Islamic opinion, Higgins reports, even she has stepped on Islam’s toes. "Ms Neuwirth, though widely regarded as respectful of Islamic tradition, got sideswiped by Arab suspicion of Western scholars. She was fired from a teaching post in Jordan, she says, for mentioning a radical revisionist scholar during a lecture in Germany."

Some critics argue that by refusing to discuss the origin of the Koran, the Islamic world is forced to adopt an openly irrational stance, employing its power to intimidate scholars and thwart the search for truth. Christian leaders say they would like to have more dialogue with Muslims, but that there isn’t a basis for it.

Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, who directs the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told the French daily La Croix, "Muslims do not accept discussion about the Koran, because they say it was written under the dictates of God. With such an absolutist interpretation, it's difficult to discuss the contents of the faith."

Rebecca Sato

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