Holy Texts, Human Hands

The Boston Globe is reporting on the near-completion of a critical edition of the Koran. To those of us who have a different holy book this should seem to be of little interest. We have our own critical editions of what are now called the Old Testament and the New Testament in, respectively, Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek. Since 1516 manuscript copies of these texts have been edited and compared, and archeological finds for half a millennium have refined that text. Both testaments have critical editions in process right now, though it seems these projects are not worth bringing to the public’s attention.

The Koran is different, however. Critical study of its text is in its infancy, for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the view of the origin of the Koran. The most common phrase one encounters when trying to sort out Islamic views of the process of “inspiration” of the Koran is that the words (vocables) of the Koran came to Mohammed as water through a pipe, so that the Koran does not contain the words of Mohammed but the words of the Islamic deity. Because the words are divine word, with no human role apart from, essentially, transcription, an edition which points out that many humans produced many forms of the text will prove to be problematic. Not least because it is produced in the heathen West, using heathen critical methodologies. As the Boston Globe article concludes:

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 non-negotiable.”

I wonder, though, if many of our pew-sitters don’t have an identical view of the Bible to what a Muslim would claim about the Koran. What is the Bible? What is its source? How does the divine and human interact? Or did God speak in the Bible through people as water comes through a pipe, so that “Word of God” in Christian usage means that in the Bible is a collection of pure words of God with no human role whatsoever? Christianity has struggled with these questions for 500 years, and the approaching 400th anniversary of the printing of the 1611 King James translation will only throw these questions to the fore again.





8 responses to “Holy Texts, Human Hands”

  1. Will Schumacher Avatar
    Will Schumacher

    Leave it to German academics to compile a critical edition of the Qur’an! The traditional view is that the Qur’an is so holy that it cannot be translated. An English version is simply not the Qur’an; it can at best claim to present “The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an” (as the title my copy says it). Islamic schools everywhere in the world stress memorization of the Arabic text as the center of the curriculum.
    So it seems that the original text is of more absolute importance in Islam than in Christianity. In fact, it is probably a mistake to compare views of the Bible and the Qur’an — though that’s how Muslims would naturally make the comparison between themselves and other “people of the Book.” No, the only thing in Christianity which compares with the Qur’an is not the Bible, but the Incarnation itself. (And, yes, there may be Christians whose view of the Bible leans more toward Islam at this point!)
    And that would suggest that Mohammed occupies a place in Islamic theology which might be compared to the Virgin Mary in Chrstian theology. She was a vessel; he passed along the Qur’an like water through a pipe. She is named ‘Theotokos” in order to confess the Incarnation; he is called the unique Prophet. Mary was a pure Virgin; Mohammed (according to Islamic tradition) was illiterate.

  2. Jacob Mueller Avatar
    Jacob Mueller

    I’ve actually been wondering about Islam and text criticism for quite some time- and more often now that I’m in Dr. Kloha’s New Testament Textual Criticism Class. I’m curious to see how this project turns out. Does the Koran have more or less variation than the New Testament? Is it easy to determine an “original text” of the Koran? Is there variation today in the text of the Koran throughout the Islamic world?

    It took Christianity three hundred years before it enjoyed the patronage of a government which could assist in the publication of the Scriptures. Most of the major variants come from those first three centuries. Islam, from almost its beginning, was the state religion. My guess is that time difference would make a significant difference in the transmission of the text.

  3. Andy Johnson Avatar
    Andy Johnson

    After reading this article, I did a bit of digging into the “textual history” of the Koran. As it turns out, there at 7 variations “of punctuation and vocalization” which can be read aloud. These were standardized in the 4th century of the text’s existence by a figure much like our Constantine, the Caliph ‘Uthman. Thus at least by the arguments I read, the educated elite (See NT Textual Critics) understand that there are different readings in the texts.

    As to your comments on our laity (or perhaps even some of our clergy), I think that they are right on. Our people want to have an outlook which they can look to as an escape for the sinful world. The question for us is what is the hermeneutical principles we are enculturing in our people? Are we teaching them that the Scriptures are the Word of God, God’s revelation to humanity which bears witness to Christ? Or are the Scriptures God’s Word, which is to be valued in itself apart from its message? While I may be biasedly characterizing this argument, I think that it is not far from the actual understanding of many of our laity.

    Lastly, our American heritage needs to be addressed. We want to WIN. We can make anything into a competition and that is certainly true in our pews. Our laity want to believe in the bible why? It is the truth, that is it is the Ultimate Authority, the Supreme Holy Book. On what basis they make this claim, is irrelevant. While, the Muslim community may get fired up over a critical edition of their text which confronts them about errors which may or may not have crept in, in America we certainly would have the same problem if our process of “Textual Criticism” were to make the front page news.

    It will be interesting to see the reaction of Islamic laity and scholars as this project nears completion. However, I would doubt that it will have far-reaching implications even if it turns out to support a Syro-Aramaic Reading or something else just as extreme.

  4. Saint Facetious Avatar

    I’ve never understood the Muslims’ insistence on the original Arabic. I mean, it makes sense on a scale of “what was the original intention and meaning” or whatever, as is the case in Christianity, but do they really think Arabic is God’s “native tongue”? Let’s say they’re right, still, do they think Gabriel was born and raised speaking Arabic? Even the dialogue from Gabriel would have had to have been “translated” from the Divine Word, and thus, any language should be acceptable, as long as it maintains the original intent of the original Arabic. However, the real problem is with all the mullahs and schools around, nobody can really agree with the original intent of the original Arabic. Haha, that sounds familiar.

    1. Jeff Kloha Avatar
      Jeff Kloha

      Thanks for the comment. We do ask that users of the site post comments using their “real name (the one your mother gave you)” — please see the “About” link at the top of the page.

  5. Michael Brugge Avatar
    Michael Brugge

    Caliph Uthman standardized the Qur’an by having variant versions destroyed. That may hamper text critical efforts.
    The Boston Globe article is worth reading. If anyone wants more fascinating details about the history of the project, see this article from the Wall Street Journal (2008): http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120008793352784631.html
    Muslim scholars insist on studying the Qur’an in Arabic only. That is a convenient way to keep westerners from knowing what it says or how they interpret it. There are five available English translations, and in some places they are significantly different.
    It is very hard to read the Qur’an due to the doctrine of abrogation. Abrogation says that some verses (ayat) are superseded by later verses. Since the Qur’an is not written in order of early to late, there are differing schools about which verses are abrogated by which verses. The differing schools of thought base their reasoning on the descriptions of the actions of the Prophet and his followers as recorded in the Hadith. (Not all Muslims believe abrogation, but those Muslims have very difficult explanations of some Qur’anic contradictions.) Different Muslim schools place different priorities on different Hadith, which causes some of the discrepancies. And, they do not want to explain to westerners how their interpretations are developed until the westerner can read the Qur’an for himself in Arabic. They complain that westerners are too dense to understand, but they sure make it very difficult to even attempt understanding.

    1. Ann Avatar

      Ask a muslim converted by Jesus Christ! They know what the Koran says, and just like people that say they are Christian, yet don’t read their Holy Bible, many muslims don’t read theirs and if they did, they would know that their God Alah is full of hatred to anyone that doesn’t worship him alone. Our God, the one true God ALmighty, is Love, and if you are a true believer, you won’t hate the muslims but Love them like Jesus did!

  6. Jack bruno Avatar
    Jack bruno

    Hi Im a Muslim and if you read the Quran even once you’d know that our god is merciful and that he is the same god you worship and religion is merely a way to be close to him and balance your life between spiritual part and the world we live in and as to why we choose to read the Quran in Arabic it is simple ,you can never perfectly translate from language to language and maintain the true meaning i mean even in arabic if you change one sound or letter the whole meaning change radicly and dont judge muslims because of what other people do or say especially those claiming to know the quran while they dont know the first thing about it.

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