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Phyllis Chesler Interviews Ibn Warraq
Published in Breitbart:
Although Ibn Warraq believes that “moderate Muslims” do exist, he does not believe that “Islam is moderate” and he is not optimistic about how quickly moderate Muslim theologians will be able to bring about a religious reformationthat will be acceptable. Nevertheless, for years now, my scholarly friend would disappear to Europe, mainly to Germany to “do Koranic research.” I had no idea why he kept returning to work with these German scholars. Now, I begin to understand the importance of this research with the publication of his new book, Christmas in the Koran: Luxenberg, Syriac, and the Near Eastern and Judeo-Christian Background of Islam (2014).
I decided to conduct an interview with him about it.
Q: Why should people read this book?
A: I think the book should, and will, be read by all those who have an enquiring mind. These articles apply to the Koran, the Critical Method that has been applied to the Bible, both the Old and New Testament for several hundred years, but which has only recently been used to examine the contents and origins of the Koran and the rise of early Islam. The results, as in Biblical Scholarship, are spectacular and intellectually exhilarating. Luxenberg’s reinterpretations have profound implications for our understanding of Islam, and her holy book, the Koran. The traditional narrative of the compilation of the Koran can no longer be accepted. Instead of being an immutable, divinely revealed scripture, the Koran is very much a human document that has a history.
Q: Can you explain the title and also the general contents of the book?
A: The title is a reference to an article by the German scholar, Christoph Luxenberg. Luxenberg analyzes a surah, that is to say, a chapter—chapter 97—in the Koran, philologically, and shows that the traditional interpretation is inadequate, and must be re-interpreted with the help of Syriac, an Aramaic dialect, and the language of Eastern Christians since the second century CE. This chapter is traditionally interpreted as referring to the transmission of the Koran to Muhammad, the Prophet. But Luxenberg shows that it is, in fact, talking of the Nativity – the sending down of the Infant Jesus during the Night of Destiny, that is under the Star of Nativity.
With Luxemberg’s mastery of Arabic, both in its Classical and dialectical forms, and Syriac, he not only manages to elucidate obscure passages, but also to uncover numerous hitherto unsuspected misreadings and misinterpreted contents of the Koran. Luxenberg’s scholarship provides ample evidence that the Koran developed from a Judeo-Christian background, since Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic) was the main literary language of both Jews and Christians in the Middle East before the advent of Islam.
Q: What is the general significance and implications of such a book? Do you have any hidden agendas?
A: Scholars such as Luxenberg, and many others included in the book, are engaged in scientific research, and go wherever that research leads. They are striving for, to use an unfashionable term, objective knowledge. Their results are offered as tentative solutions to various historical and linguistic problems, and hence are open to scientific criticism, and counter-examples. The scholars included in this volume have discarded theological assumptions that have, over the last two hundred years, crept into any discussions of the language and contents of the Koran, and the rise of Islam, assumptions that have hindered scientific progress. Instead these scholars have had recourse only to, what Maxime Rodinson once called, “the normal mechanisms of human history”.
For us, in studying the Koran, it is necessary to distinguish the historical from the theological attitude. In the present volume we are only concerned with those truths that are yielded by a process of rational enquiry, by scientific examination.
As I said, these scholars are engaged in scientific research and would be horrified if they thought their work was being manipulated for political purposes. They would eschew polemics of any kind. So in what I am about to elaborate I should like to make clear that I am expressing my own private opinion, and have no wish to involve these scholars in polemics.
Q: But surely such an analysis has implications—some might say heretical implications.
A: Pace non-polemical scholars, how can their research not have political, theological and social implications? The implications of such research are very grave.
I have no hidden agendas since I have never hidden my longer term aims. What is more I do not think they are ignoble aims. I wish to bring enlightenment to the Islamic world. As I wrote over ten years ago in the preface to my work,What the Koran Really Says, my wish “is to dispel the sacred aura surrounding the Arabic language, the Arabic script, and the Holy Arabic Scripture—to desacralize, if I may coin a term —and put them into their historical, linguistic, and Middle Eastern sectarian milieu.”
I wished to emulate the work of Baruch Spinoza who, as Jonathan Israel has shown in his magisterial trilogy on the Enlightenment, was single-handedly responsible for setting the entire enterprise of the European Enlightenment on its way. Both the Renaissance and the Reformation were incomplete. According to Jonathan Israel, Spinoza’s work“(intellectually and to a degree in practice) effectively demolished all legitimation of monarchy, aristocracy, woman's subordination to man, ecclesiastical authority, and slavery, replacing these with the principles of universality, equality, and democracy…Spinoza and Spinozism were in fact the intellectual backbone of the European Radical Enlightenment everywhere, not only in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, and Scandinavia but also Britain and Ireland.”
Q: Spinoza was excommunicated (not beheaded or burned at the stake) for his views.
A: Yes, but for Spinoza the Bible is purely a human and secular text, theology is not an independent source of truth. This work is often considered the beginning of Biblical Criticism. Koranic Criticism lags behind by almost three hundred and fifty years since it has scarcely begun. Hence the significance and importance of works like Christmas in the Koran.
Q: Have the ideas of Christoph Luxenberg found acceptance among specialists?
A: Yes, there are a number of distinguished Semiticists who find Luxenberg’s analysis of particular surahs (chapters) in the Koran very convincing. These scholars do not accept all of Luxenberg’s reinterpretations of passages in the Koran but they are keeping an open mind and judging case by case. There are, of course, also many scholars who reject everything that Luxenberg has proposed. But far too often their rejections are not backed by rational discourse or scientific arguments; they refuse to engage with Luxenberg’s arguments altogether. Thus it is often unclear why they are rejecting his analyses.
Q: Will introducing and compiling this book get you into any more trouble?
A: It is true that in the past I have been on several death lists for my writings, death lists of Islamic fundamentalists. However, I do not anticipate any particular negative reaction since the work, Christmas in the Koran, is a work of scholarship which will have to be answered by scholarship of a similar kind. In which case, I shall have succeeded in my aim in bringing about rational discourse about their Holy Scripture, the Koran.
Q: Thank you.