The Great Koran Con Trick: Scholars Claim That Islam's Holy Book Is Not Quite What It Seems. (the NS Special Report)

Article excerpt

The news that a recent scientific paper on the common genetic roots of Jews and Palestinians had been suppressed by learned journals, because of the political sensitivity of its conclusions, made for depressing reading. Findings that might have provided reason for hope, or even for solidarity between the Arab and Israeli peoples, were instead considered too hot to handle.

The furore over the geneticists' discoveries will have come as no surprise to other academics in the Middle East and the Muslim world, where even the most apparently dispassionate research can be swept up in the blinding ideological sandstorms that choke reasoned dialogue. Such is the intensity of feeling that many who work in highly charged areas of scholarship -- history and archaeology, for example -- choose to keep a low profile, circulating their work only in trusted academic circles. Thus the censorship that plagues the Middle East seeps into every corner of intellectual life.

Nowhere is this more true than in the study of the origins of Islam, where some of the conclusions being drawn are potentially even more explosive than the argument that Israelis and Palestinians have common ancestors. Tucked away in the journals and occasional papers of the world of Islamic studies is work by a group of academics who have spent the past three decades plotting a quiet revolution in the study of the origins of the religion, the Koran and the life of the Prophet Mohammad. The conclusions of the so-called "new historians" of Islam are devastating: that we know almost nothing about the life of the Muslim prophet Mohammad; that the rapid rise of the religion can be attributed, at least in part, to the attraction of Islam's message of conquest and jihad for the tribes of the Arabian peninsula; that the Koran as we know it today was compiled, or perhaps even written, long after Mohammad's supposed death in 632AD. Most controversially of all, the researchers say that there existed an anti-Christian alliance between Arabs and Jews in the earliest days of Islam, and that the religion may be best understood as a heretical branch of rabbinical Judaism.

The work of John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, Patricia Crone, Andrew Rippin and Gerald Hawting, which emerged initially from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies in the 1970s, questions not only Islam's own version of its origins; this "new history" of Islam takes as its starting point a problem that has long troubled scholars -- the almost total lack of contemporary Islamic sources.

According to the Muslim tradition, Islam emerged from Arabia in around 611 AD, when the Prophet Mohammad received a revelation from the Angel Gabriel that he was the last prophet. He began preaching a monotheistic creed to the people of Mecca and, when he made no headway, moved with a small group of followers to Yathrib (modem Medina), a mixed Jewish and Arab community 200 miles to north. This emigration (Hijra) in 622AD marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Mohammad later returned to conquer his home city, and by the time of his death he had established an Islamic empire in Arabia. Within 100 years of the first revelations to Mohammad, the Arab conquests had swept aside the ancient empires of Byzantium and Persia and created an Islamic empire stretching from Spain to India.

The traditional version of events has remained remarkably robust, even among modernist thinkers in the Muslim world. In Introducing Islam, a beginner's guide to the faith (which was revised this year in the light of the 11 September attacks on America), the British Muslim writer (and frequent NS contributor) Ziauddin Sardar repeats this view of the religion's history: "The Life of Mohammad is known as the Sira and was lived in the full light of history. Everything he said or did was recorded." What Sardar fails to explain is how, if that is the case, nothing has survived. He says the Prophet himself was illiterate, but was surrounded at all times by 45 scribes who wrote down everything he did and said. …