As I sit down to write this, 9/11 is tomorrow. It has been five years, but many questions still remain. The hardy perennial, Why do they hate us? has become so enmeshed in politics that it still lacks intelligent study, much less an intelligent answer. Why did we invade Iraq? also has many fervid answers, all at down-shouting volume and ultimately useless. The most urgent question, How do we get out of this mess? is being held ransom to what we laughingly call our democratic process.
But here is one more question, which remains the most confusing of all: Why Islam?
That is, what is there about Islam that it seems to breed such fanatics? What is it about the Quran itself that makes its defenders cite it as a gospel of peace while terrorists quote it in justification? How can a book that was written by a single author and is proclaimed to be Perfect, Complete, and Clear, feed such mutually contradictory interpretations?
I don’t yet have the answers to those questions, but I know a bit more than when I began.
The man now known as Muhammad may or may not have been born with that name, since it means “The Praised One.” He was born in about 570 CE (Common Era), in Mecca, a major trading and pagan pilgrimage center. At that time, the Arabian peninsula was awash in religions, from Nestorian and Arian Christianity to Talmudic Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and on to varieties of polytheism.
According to tradition, Muhammad was of a religious bent, given to solitary contemplation in a cave outside Mecca. In the year 610 he was visited in his cave by the Angel Gabriel, who commanded him to recite to his fellows the truths that Gabriel would reveal to him. While he converted some Meccans to his new religion, others persecuted them and drove Muhammad to flee to Medina in 622. The Muslim world measures their calendar as beginning with this Hegira (e.g. 722 CE = 100 AH, for After the Hegira).
Over the years that followed, until his death in 632 CE, Muhammad would periodically give his followers new revelations. After his death they were collected into the Quran, a word that means Recitations.
The Islamic belief is that Gabriel gave Muhammad the same permanent words that were given to Moses and to Jesus. However, over the years both the Jews and Christians had confused God’s messages, so they had to be given to mankind again. This time, Muhammad had recited the truths correctly, so they would never need to be given again. Thus Muhammad was the last and correct prophet.
Most Islamic traditions say Muhammad was illiterate, while some say he could read and write. What all agree on is that all of Muhammad’s original recitations were oral. During his lifetime some were written down, while others were memorized by the faithful. Under the third Caliph (ruler of the faithful), Uthman, all the sayings were collected, organized, and published as the definitive text of the Quran. All texts that exist today derive from Uthman’s edition. Devout Muslims believe that the text is Perfect, Complete, and Clear and that Allah protects this final testament from error.
Yeah, but. There are some problems that practically guarantee misunderstandings:
1) Islam began in the era just before Classical Arabic was finalized in its grammar, vocabulary, and even its spelling. Yet the text as it exists is in Classical Arabic…which is no longer the Arabic of even native speakers.
2) No original copies exist of those first Qurans of Uthman, but we know that his work was undertaken a generation after the prophets death, which is a long time for oral and written traditions to survive without error.
3) Arabic, as a Semitic language, uses consonants (typically three) as the root of a word. Vowels, prefixes and suffixes are used with the root letters to vary the meaning and part of speech. For example, the root ktb has the basic meaning of writing. To conjugate the past tense, it becomes:
kataba he wrote
katabû they wrote
katabat she wrote
katabnâ we wrote
Some different consonants are written the same, except for dots (points) added to distinguish between them. Unfortunately, the pointing system was not in use when Muhammad was alive. Any texts from his period (i.e. the ones Uthman might have used) would have been confusing about some word roots.
4) Even if you read the roots correctly, the vowels are essential for determining which part of speech is meant. Vowels are indicated in Arabic by diacritical marks. Unfortunately (again), the system of diacritical marks was not only not in use while the prophet was alive, but they weren’t used till the third century after!
Think about these last two for a second. Those earliest texts would be nothing but strings of consonants, some of which could be read as either of two different letters.
5) The Quran is divided into Suras. For reasons which pass all understanding, when the recitations were collected, they chose to order (mostly) by size. That is, Sura 1 is the longest, while Sura 114 is the shortest. Hence, unlike the Torah or the New Testament, there is no narrative order or indeed any apparent structure to allow contextual understanding.
If the Quran were really Perfect, Complete, and Clear, it would be beyond confusion and have no need for exegesis. In fact, the library of Quranic exegesis is immense and growing, from Uthman’s day right down to the present.
All non-Muslim experts seem to agree the texts are not intact, whether from pointing or diacritical errors, miscopying, faulty memories, or the editing efforts of the original collectors. In addition, some Suras look to be scrambled. There are also doublets and passages that seem to contradict other passages.
Whatever the causes, and even with all the exegesis and volumes of convoluted interpretations of the Prophet’s real meaning, the Quran is anything but clear. Gerd Puin, a prominent western Quranic scholar, calculates that about one fifth of the Quran is simply incomprehensible.
So says the western art of textual criticism. How about Muslim textual criticism?
The Quran is Complete, Perfect, and Clear. To change so much as a letter (even in known and acknowledged scribal errors) is virtual sacrilege. The result is a religion centered on the Quran but functionally built from canonical texts written about the Quran, traditional extra-Quranic stories about other sayings of the Prophet, and biographies of the life of Muhammad himself. Passionately held, infallible in its claims, Islam does not admit the possibility of genuine errors. To the West, it seems locked in medieval absolutism.
Hence there is no such thing as textual criticism in Islam, at least as the term is understood in the West. There is no school painstakingly trying to correct the text and discover the true Prophet hiding behind the errors and the dogmatic traditions.
Islam now has 1.3 billion adherents from many nations. It inspires a ferocious loyalty amongst followers who nevertheless quote contradictory verses at each other. Despite its rigidity in textual areas, its very ambiguity has allowed different schools to find their confirmation in it.
There are those who would argue that makes it a nearly perfect religion. But it seems to me that the real problem is that Islam has missed one vital experience: What it really needs is a Martin Luther.