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Sunday, January 13, 2008

When scholarship can get you killed

The Wall Street Journal published an interesting article about the revelation that a decades-old photo archive of ancient handwritten Korans, thought to be lost, still exists and is in the hands of a scholar (who is keeping it to herself.)
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. Among the treasures lost, later lamented Anton Spitaler, an Arabic scholar at the academy, was a unique photo archive of ancient manuscripts of the Quran.

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

Mr. Spitaler was lying. The cache of photos survived, and he was sitting on it all along. The truth is only now dribbling out to scholars -- and a Quran research project buried for more than 60 years has risen from the grave.

"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.

...The Quran is viewed by most Muslims as the unchanging word of God as transmitted to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. The text, they believe, didn't evolve or get edited. The Quran says it is "flawless" and fixed by an "imperishable tablet" in heaven. It starts with a warning: "This book is not to be doubted."

Quranic scholarship often focuses on arcane questions of philology and textual analysis. Experts nonetheless tend to tread warily, mindful of fury directed in recent years at people deemed to have blasphemed Islam's founding document and the Prophet Muhammad.

A scholar in northern Germany writes under the pseudonym of Christoph Luxenberg because, he says, his controversial views on the Quran risk provoking Muslims. He claims that chunks of it were written not in Arabic but in another ancient language, Syriac. The "virgins" promised by the Quran to Islamic martyrs, he asserts, are in fact only "grapes."

Ms. Neuwirth, the Berlin professor now in charge of the Munich archive, rejects the theories of her more radical colleagues, who ride roughshod, she says, over Islamic scholarship. Her aim, she says, isn't to challenge Islam but to "give the Quran the same attention as the Bible." All the same, she adds: "This is a taboo zone."
So she is keeping the research secret - for possibly the next couple of decades - even as she demonstrates that she is not open to unorthodox interpretations of the Koran.
The photos of the old manuscripts will form the foundation of a computer data base that Ms. Neuwirth's team believes will help tease out the history of Islam's founding text. The result, says Michael Marx, the project's research director, could be the first "critical edition" of the Quran -- an attempt to divine what the original text looked like and to explore overlaps with the Bible and other Christian and Jewish literature.

A group of Tunisians has embarked on a parallel mission, but they want to keep it quiet to avoid angering fellow Muslims, says Moncef Ben Abdeljelil, a scholar involved in the venture. "Silence is sometimes best," he says. Afghan authorities last year arrested an official involved in a vernacular translation of the Quran that was condemned as blasphemous. Its editor went into hiding.

Many Christians, too, dislike secular scholars boring into sacred texts, and dismiss challenges to certain Biblical passages. But most accept that the Bible was written by different people at different times, and that it took centuries of winnowing before the Christian canon was fixed in its current form.

Muslims, by contrast, view the Quran as the literal word of God. Questioning the Quran "is like telling a Christian that Jesus was gay," says Abdou Filali-Ansary, a Moroccan scholar.
With the slight difference that writing an article claiming that Jesus was gay will not get you a host of Christians vying to behead you.

More fun examples of Islamic tolerance for secular Koranic scholars:
In the early 1980s, when the archive was still thought to be lost, two German scholars traveled to Yemen to examine and help restore a cache of ancient Quran manuscripts. They, too, took pictures. When they tried to get them out of Yemen, authorities seized them, says Gerd-Rüdiger Puin, one of the scholars. German diplomats finally persuaded Yemen to release most of the photos, he says.

Mr. Puin says the manuscripts suggested to him that the Quran "didn't just fall from heaven" but "has a history." When he said so publicly a decade ago, it stirred rage. "Please ensure that these scholars are not given further access to the documents," read one letter to the Yemen Times. "Allah, help us against our enemies."

Berlin Quran expert 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.
Even the Wall Street Journal remains elliptic when discussing the very real dangers of scholars looking critically at the Koran as they have looked at every other holy work. Rather than mention the very real risk of being murdered, the WSJ only says that they can "provoke" and "anger" Muslims - even making a comparison to how Christians feel when confronted with unorthodox interpretations of the New Testament.