Once again the world of Islamic Studies, and the general public interested in the phenomenon of Islam, is in debt to the industry and commitment of Ibn Warraq. Following his previous volumes on the same theme (The Origins of the Koran, 1998; The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, 2000) the present work seeks to shed light on the incoherence, obscurities, and contradictions of the Koran.

Ibn Warraq (ed.)
777 pp
$36.00 Containing forty-two chapters by some thirty different scholars under nine separate headings, the subjects covered include: possible sources for Koran texts among Essene, Coptic, Syriac and other Christian and Jewish groups; the nature of the language of the Koran and its underlying poetic structures; emendations and interpolations and the problem of dating Koran manuscripts; and an examination of the archaeological evidence for the prehistory of Islam.

What emerges from this impressive assemblage of scholarship is that the Koran is, above all, not clear, or mubin, and written in pure Arabic language as asserted in K. 12:1, and elsewhere. Indeed, the Koran could well stand as the supreme example of a man-made text, worked over and doctored to an unfathomable extent, and subsequently endowed with a transcendental provenance by the associative and projective proclivities of the human imagination. The comment of the scholar Gerd R Puin could well stand as rubric and epitaph for the Koran as a whole: "… if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence simply doesn't make sense…. The fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible."

If this is the case, why is the impression abroad, among both Muslims and non-Muslims, that we not only know what the Koran is, but what it says? The explanation lies in the fact that once the Koran existed, in some form or another, not necessarily the form we know today, people began to make up stories about it. This process began with lowly street-corner story-tellers, continued with the classic Koran commentators, and is still going on today. Human beings cannot bear a cognitive void, and suspension of judgement requires an intellectual restraint and resilience of character not commonly found.

The original script of the Koran, known as the rasm, was without diacritical points to distinguish consonants from one another, or signs to indicate where vowels should be inserted. The addition of these features is thus the very first act of interpretation and commentary, susceptible to whatever presuppositions and expectations were brought to the text by the first redactors. With the addition of diacritical points and vowel signs, the text of the Koran as we have it still presents a series of puzzles and enigmas begging for explanation. For instance the format of Gabriel speaking to Muhammad as a divinely appointed Prophet requires a spurious and tendentious reading invented to serve the purpose of 'revealed' religion.

What the Koran says is not simply a matter of deciphering individual instances of words or verses, but of reconciling those instances once they have been deciphered. In the contemporary context this involves the fundamental question of the nature of Islam itself and vis-à-vis the Western world. We are forever being told by apologists for Islam that it is essentially a religion of peace and love, like all religions, and that anyone using violence in its name are not true or 'real' Muslims. That this apologia will not wash is made plain by Ibn Warraq in his discussion of the Muslim exegetical technique of naskh, or 'abrogation', whereby, according to the traditional chronology of events, early texts or revelations are over-ruled by later ones. By laying them out in detail Ibn Warraq shows that the majority of texts recommending clemency and tolerance are abrogated by later ones advocating violent action. It seems that 'terrorists' have as much right to consider themselves 'good Muslims' as any others.

What then does the Koran really say? What is the fundamental message of this extraordinary book that has, apparently, shaped a whole civilisation, and still forms the world view of a billion human beings in the modern world? In his illuminating preface Ibn Warraq states that his purpose is "to dispel the sacred aura surrounding the Arabic language, the Arabic script, and the Holy Arabic Scripture", to desacralise them, and put them into their historical and geographic context; and in the final part of his introduction he calls for critical thought and a sceptical attitude as the proper mode of historical methodology. Unfortunately, this stance is still lacking among many scholars.

David Hall has written extensively about Islam, especially Islamic mysticism

What the Koran really says is available from Amazon (UK).