Later this spring, a team of scholars at Germany's Berlin-Brandenberg
Academy of Sciences will complete the first phase of what will ultimately be
an unprecedented, two-decade effort to throw light on the origins of the
The project, called the Corpus Coranicum, will be something that scholars
of the Koran have long yearned for: a central repository of imagery,
information, and analysis about the Muslim holy book. Modern research into
Islam's origin and early years has been hampered by the paucity and
inaccessibility of ancient texts, and the reluctance of Muslim governments in
places like Yemen to allow wide access to them.
But, drawing on some of the earliest Korans in existence - codices found
in Istanbul, Cairo, Paris, and Morocco - the Corpus Coranicum will allow
users to study for themselves images of thousands of pages of early Korans,
texts that differ in small but potentially telling ways from the modern
standard version. The project will also link passages in the text to analogous
ones in the New Testament and Hebrew Bible, and offer an exhaustive critical
commentary on the Koran's language, structure, themes, and roots. The
project's creators are calling it the world's first "critical edition"
of the Koran, a resource that gathers historical evidence and scholarly
literature into one searchable, cross-referenced whole.
Critical editions - usually books rather than websites - are a
commonplace in academia. University bookstores do a brisk business in critical
editions of the world's best-known literary works, from "The Iliad" to "Hamlet" to
"Das Kapital.Ó" As labor-saving devices for scholars and
teaching aids for students, they can be invaluable. Presenting a novel or
manifesto or play in its historical context helps readers to see the ways it
was shaped by contemporaneous events and local attitudes, how it was built
from the distinctive cultural building blocks at hand. Embedding a work in
critical commentary - and critical editions often include essays that are
sharply at odds with each other - gives readers a sense of the richness of
possible readings of the text.
But the form takes on a special significance with holy books, where
millions of people order their lives in accordance to what they see as divine
language. Standard versions like the King James Bible or the regularized Cairo
Koran (the version, first printed in 1924, that most Muslims have today) help
to unite the faithful in one common reading of their holy book. A critical
edition, on the other hand, by its nature, highlights the contingency of a
text's creation and gives readers the tools to interpret it for themselves.
Among Koranic scholars, there's a great deal of excitement about the
Corpus Coranicum, which will help them make better sense of a text that - despite the fact that millions regularly recite from it and live their lives
according to its precepts - remains something of a historical and
"I think it is a big deal," says Jane McAuliffe, the editor of the
Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an and the president of Bryn Mawr College, "it's a
wonderful opportunity to do something that the field of Koranic studies has
wanted to do for a long time."
At the same time, the impending publication of the Corpus has set off a
small stir outside the scholarly world. Islam has a long and lively tradition
of theological debate, but in recent years revisionist scholars in the Muslim
world have been threatened, branded heretics, and even attacked for their
work. Already, the creators of the Corpus Coranicum, in response to press
coverage in Germany, have felt the need to publicly insist on al-Jazeera and
in visits to Muslim countries that they have no intention of undermining the
faith. In part what's to blame is the strict, austere form of Islam that is
dominant in some parts of the world, but the friction also stems from the
relationship all Muslims have to the Koran. To a mainstream Muslim, the Koran
is not merely a divinely inspired text put together by disciples, as most
modern Christians believe the Bible to be. It is the literal word of God,
dictated directly to Mohammed. To question that is to insult the faith.
The fact that it will be born on the Web makes the Corpus Coranicum seem a
quintessentially 21st-century project, but its roots actually extend back to
the 1930s. Then, as now, Germany produced some of the world's leading Koranic
scholars - proteges of the great 19th-century linguist, historian, and "Semiticist"
The archive that was to become the Corpus Coranicum was started by the
German Arabist Gotthelf Bergstrasser, who traveled through Europe and the
former Ottoman Empire photographing the old Korans he turned up. After
Bergstrasser's death in a mountain climbing accident in the Alps, a colleague
named Otto Pretzl took over, before he died in a plane crash while serving in
World War II. That left the photo archive in the hands of a young scholar
named Anton Spitaler.
Then, in a mystifying twist detailed in a 2008 Wall Street Journal article,
Spitaler began to claim, falsely, that the photo archive had been destroyed in
1944 by an Allied bombing raid. Spitaler kept up this deception until the
early 1990s, when he revealed to a former student of his named Angelika
Neuwirth that he still had all 450 rolls of film. He offered to give them to
her - she is today the head of the Corpus Coranicum project - and he died a
decade later without explaining himself.
According to Islam, the Koran is a series of revelations Mohammed was given
through the Angel Gabriel, starting in 610 AD and ending with Mohammed's death
two decades later. Those revelations were recorded and compiled by Mohammed's
followers. In the religion's early years, little need was seen for a
standardized text - Mohammed and most of his followers were illiterate and as
a result the Koran was meant to be recited rather than read (a tradition that
remains central to Islam). Transmission was mainly oral, with written texts
simply an aid. But within decades of Mohammed's death, conquests had ballooned
the size of the Muslim empire and many of the original disciples were
themselves aging and dying, and one of Mohammed's successors decreed a
standard written version to unify the growing faith. In a pre-printing-press
world, however, the process took time, and alternate versions continued to be
written and read for decades, and perhaps centuries.
The value of the earliest surviving Korans, then, is that they show both
the roots of the text and the ways it evolved during the window between its
birth and its standardization - a time when what to include was still in
Though the publication of the first section of the Corpus is only the
beginning, it's possible to see in it the outlines of its larger ambitions.
The goal, essentially, is to place the text in a historical context. "We want
to frame the Koran as a text of late antiquity," says Michael Marx, the
project's research director. "We put stress on the links that the Koran has to
other Near Eastern religions: Christian sources, rabbinic sources."
For instance, in one of the parallels that the researchers will post, they
compare one of the most important passages in the entire Koran - "He is God,
one, God the absolute, He did not beget nor is He begotten, And there is none
like Him" - to nearly identical passages in the Hebrew Bible and the Nicene
Creed (the profession of faith in many Christian liturgical services). Both
the Bible and the Creed long predate the birth of the Koran. To Marx, this
demonstrates the extent to which the Koran, a text that proclaims itself
immutable and eternal, is in fact a recognizable product of the particular
historical moment in which it was created.
"Once you have all the texts on the table," he says, "it's possible to make
quite clear that the Koran has a history, that it is interacting with human
Marx doesn't argue that the Koran's history necessarily undercuts its claim
to divinity, nor that it is a derivative text. Instead, he sees the parallels
between it and other scriptures as evidence that it was seeking to insert
itself into the religious debates of its day. If anything, he argues, the
links should highlight how intertwined the West's own religious traditions are
with those of Islam.
"It shows how closely the text is related to our own identity. One could,
bluntly speaking, talk about a European approach to the Koran," he says.
Other contemporary scholars take things further. Gerd-R. Puin, a retired
professor of Arabic studies at Germany's Saarland University, has been working
for decades on a trove of Korans from a mosque in Yemen - possibly the oldest
ones in existence. Because they were primarily memory aids, early Korans were
written in a vowel-less "skeleton" language. Deciphering those clusters of
consonants requires a sense of what languages and what cultural and religious
traditions Mohammed and his earliest followers were borrowing from and
reacting against. Much of the wording and imagery of the Koran are borrowed
from Christian and Jewish texts, Puin argues. In fact, he says, much of the
Koran is incomprehensible unless read alongside those earlier texts. As an
example, he points to the term "sakina," which Muslim scholars have translated
as a spirit of calm - Puin argues that it only makes sense as a descendant of
the Hebrew term "shekhinah," which means the presence of God. The more one
studies its historical context, Puin argues, the harder it is to resist the
sense that the Koran itself was, at least in part, pieced together from parts
of other religions.
"For Muslims, the word of the Koran is eternal, it predates the Old
Testament, it predates history itself," Puin says. "But from a Western point of
view, you could say, OK, this is a clear reliance of the Koran on the Old
Testament because the Old Testament was there earlier."
It's up for debate when the first true critical edition of the Bible was
created, but one candidate is the Dutch theologian Erasmus's 1516 Novum
Instrumentum omne. That text, by challenging aspects of the existing Latin
translation and providing Christians with the tools to interpret the text for
themselves, helped pave the way for the violent convulsion of the Reformation.
No mainstream Koranic scholars see the Corpus Coranicum, or work like it,
triggering a Muslim Reformation. So far, the debates over the roots of the
Koran have remained within academia, and most scholars don't see that
"Most Muslims simply don't care about this sort of work, any more than most
Christians care about the Dead Sea Scrolls," says Walid Saleh, an Islamic
scholar at the University of Toronto specializing in the history of Koranic
interpretation. "This is a Western academic enterprise, this critical
Nonetheless, scholars offering revisionist readings of the Koran have run
into trouble in the Muslim world in recent years. The Egyptian theologian Nasr
Abu Zayd was branded an apostate by a court in his homeland and ordered to
divorce his Muslim wife. The liberal Islamic scholar Suliman Bashear was
attacked and thrown out a second-story window by his students in the West
Bank. One of the most controversial revisionist Koranic scholars is a German
man who writes under a pseudonym, "Christoph Luxenberg," out of fear for his
safety - his best-known claim is that the heavenly virgins who await Islamic
martyrs are the result of a mistranslation and are actually "white grapes."
Some Koranic scholars, both in and out of the Muslim world, emphasize that
it's important not to make too much of these incidents. In fact, they argue,
there is a proud tradition of dissident Muslim theology.
"There are some spectacular exceptions, but in general it's very hard to
find [Muslim] heretics who didn't die in their beds," says Caner Dagli, an
Islamic scholar at the College of the Holy Cross and co-editor of a
forthcoming annotated translation of the Koran.
Still, questioning the origins of the Koran itself, he adds, is a special
case. Most Christians believe that, while the Bible is holy scripture, it was
written by various prophets and disciples. To Muslims, the Koran is different.
"For Muslims, the Koran is the literal word of god," says Dagli. "They don't
consider Muhammad to be the author of the Koran. It came straight down from
heaven, and you won't find a Muslim who would say otherwise. That's
Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas.