How scientific the Quran is - Dialogue with the Islamic World

Abdelmajid Charfi has a heavenly place of work. The Beit al-Hikma Academy of Sciences, of which Charfi has been president for three years, is located in Carthage on the Gulf of Tunis. A magnificent palace in the Turkish-Andalusian style from the 19th century. First the tea comes on the table, then the Koran, five thick volumes in large format. The title says it all: “The Koran Text and its Variants”.

Charfi, professor emeritus for Islamic Studies at the University of Tunis, flips through the fine paper and explains the structure of his edition: “At the top is the respective verse in the calligraphy of the Koranic text corpus. Below that follows in red the translation into the Arabic script as we use it today. And in the third, light gray part ”, the editor pauses briefly,“ the variants with author and source are listed for each verse. ”The edition is an absolute novelty in the Muslim world.

Straightened by the caliph

In the tradition of the Muslims, God speaks his message directly into the ear of his last prophet Mohammed. The Prophet - he was illiterate, and the Koran is considered a miracle for this reason alone, as well as for its linguistic beauty because of pious Muslims - orally passes on the text given to him by God to his companions. His secretaries write down what they hear. Copies with variants are made right from the start - no problem for Mohammed himself, as his message lives from conversation with the community.

The edition is an absolute first in the Muslim world

Twenty years after Muhammad's death, the third caliph, Othman, ended the dispute over the script. He decides which verses come from the mouth of the prophet and are therefore valid. All versions that do not fit his canon are forbidden and burned.

The Koran was first printed in 1924 by Al-Azhar University in Cairo in this text form, which is still the only binding text in most of the Arab world. But the variants survive and become the subject of literary interpretations and theological discussions. In the new edition by Charfi, they are now next to the canonized version and put the familiar text in a new light.

Four layers

Charfi has evaluated biblical and Jewish studies, Aramaic and Syrian literature, forbidden manuscripts from friends of the Prophet.

Because text critics and archaeologists dig into the depths, Charfi brings to light four layers in the Koran: Christian original texts, Muslim interpretations of this legacy, which has been branded as un-Islamic, texts that are directly attributed to Mohammed, and finally the parts that were added after his death in 633. The echo of the Jewish and Christian history of ideas in the Koran is unmistakable.

There are variants to almost all verses of the 114 suras. Only the short, easy-to-remember suras from the time of the prophet in Mecca, i.e. about five percent of the entire text, are identical in all traditions. That is the essential result of Charfis more than ten years of research work with a team of ten volunteer scientists: There is not one clear scripture, but a complex network of texts that trace their own history and the respective political, social and religious Environment of the authors.

"The variants can be purely formal or meaningful in terms of content," says the 76-year-old cautiously. Then he becomes diplomatic: “Anyone who deals with the variants realizes how dangerous the purely literal reading can be.” The Koranic verses could not be applied to all situations in our present day. Kharfi says: "The revelation to the prophet took place under certain historical conditions."

Forbidden truth

Charfi is a devout Muslim. He has never belonged to a party, refused to support ex-dictator Ben Ali in the election campaign and had to vacate his dean's chair at the University of Tunis prematurely. Thereafter, his research work will be censored and may not be published.

But he did not give up, withdrew from the public and founded a research group for his edition project. There is no salary. The German Konrad Adenauer Foundation finances archive trips to Yemen and Berlin. Finally, there is a Lebanese patron who finances the complex, multi-colored printing in Rabat.

Like any scientific editor, Charfi is clear: “Our work is not intended for a large audience. We have received positive feedback from our scientific colleagues. ”But while Kafka variants, for example, are of particular interest to Kafka researchers, this case is very different. Variants in the Koran can become significant for 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide. Charfi is aware of this.

An example: In sura 61: 6 of the canonized Koran it is said that Jesus announces a prophet named Ahmed who will succeed him. For Muslims this is Mohammed, the last prophet of God. But in Charfi's edition there is a variant that does not contain a name. In Saudi Arabia, Charfi's edition was banned as soon as it was published. In Tunisia, the edition is now sold out.

Then the conversation takes a political turn: "We have to stop taking the Koran literally," warns Charfi. The consequences of such a new reading of the holy book are enormous: “There is a subversive prophetic message in the Koran. And there is also institutionalized religion in Islam that creates dogmas, rituals and denominations. ”For the devout Muslim today this means:“ Back to the sources: There is nothing greater than God. ”

Shaking the foundations

"That touches the very foundations of Islam," says Jean Fontaine, Catholic theologian and director of the Center d’Études de Carthage in Tunis, which has been dedicated to interreligious dialogue for almost sixty years. Anyone who studies the variants with him will take their breath away at the widening horizon of meaning. The sentence in the 3rd sura, “The true religion before Allah is Islam”, which is constitutive for the Muslim religious community, is only one of several readings in Charfi's edition.

The variant has also been handed down: “The true religion in the eyes of God is Hanifism”, i.e. the faith of Abraham, the forefather of all monotheistic religions (this pre-Islamic denomination must not be confused with Hanafism, one of the four Sunni schools of law).

The 3rd sura also speaks of the "umma", the true community willed by God, as the Muslims see themselves. But in one variant it says "a'imma", these are the best preachers that Mohammed sees in his disciples. "The Islamists will put pressure on them," says Fontaine.

That is how the Berlin Arabist Angelika Neuwirth sees it. She considers the new edition not only a pioneering scientific achievement, but also a real test of courage: “The Salafists don't want to know that the Koran has an earthly history.” The verses on violence, for example, do not come from heaven, but have a concrete one historical context. Only those who know him will understand the Koran correctly. Neuwirth says: “The Koran is not a book, but an event. It bears the traces of the debates that Mohammed had with his community. ”The Tunisian edition correctly makes the Koran legible as the“ echo room of its time ”.

Charfi, even the modesty and restraint in person, is about nothing less than a redefinition of the status that the Koran has in Islam. According to Charfi and his school of historical-critical Koran exegesis, the Koran is divinely inspired and transmitted in human language, influenced by the personality and living conditions of the prophet, his culture and community. Those who deny this today are separating religion from life.

According to Charfi, Islam only has a future if the Koran is read anew in accordance with the values ​​of modernity, with respect for universal human rights.

Bulwark against Wahhabism

Critical reading of the Koran is a tradition in Tunisia. The University of Zitouna, founded in 737 in the heart of the old town of Tunis, was an international center of moderate Islam, a bulwark against Wahhabism, until it was closed by the founder of the state Bourguiba.

Such a place for academic internal Islamic discussion is missing today. At the same time, Tunisia is the only country in the region that has been dealing with the Koran in the humanities faculties for decades and is not dogmatically monopolized by religious institutions as elsewhere.

The Tunisian way does not only meet with goodwill from the Arab neighbors. The guardians of the faith of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo recently threatened to remove Tunisia from the list of Islamic countries if the country continues with its democratic modernization "at the expense of Islam".

Last summer, President Essebsi Charfi appointed “Individual Freedom Rights and Equal Rights” to the newly founded political commission. It is also about the inheritance law, which discriminates against women, which has been a stumbling block for civil society and human rights activists for years. But even liberal MPs have not wanted to shake this up to now, because the regulation of inheritance is laid down literally in the Koran and thus divine will.

What if Charfi removes the Koranic basis from this judgment? The political explosiveness for the governing coalition of secularists and Islamists is so great in an already tense social climate that the commission has decided not to publish its report until after the local elections in early May, the first in the country's history.

Annette Steinich

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung 2018

Al-Mushaf wa Qira’atuh. Rabat 2016. 2330 pages, 5 volumes. Mominoun Without Borders for Publishing & Distribution / Beirut / ISBN: 9786148030178, 9786148030062

Al-Azhar, Al-Zitouna Mosque, denominationalism, criticism of Islam, Islamic history, history of the Near and Middle East, Koran, Koran studies | Koran Research, Reform Islam, Shiite Islam | Shiites, Sunnis | Sunni Islam
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