The New Statesman Special Report - The great Koran con trick

Scholars claim that Islam's holy book is not quite what it seems

The news that a recent scientific paper on the common genetic roots of Jews and Palestinians had been suppressed by learned journals, because of the political sensitivity of its conclusions, made for depressing reading. Findings that might have provided reason for hope, or even for solidarity between the Arab and Israeli peoples, were instead considered too hot to handle.

The furore over the geneticists' discoveries will have come as no surprise to other academics in the Middle East and the Muslim world, where even the most apparently dispassionate research can be swept up in the blinding ideological sandstorms that choke reasoned dialogue. Such is the intensity of feeling that many who work in highly charged areas of scholar- ship - history and archaeology, for example - choose to keep a low profile, circulating their work only in trusted academic circles. Thus the censorship that plagues the Middle East seeps into every corner of intellectual life.

Nowhere is this more true than in the study of the origins of Islam, where some of the conclusions being drawn are potentially even more explosive than the argument that Israelis and Palestinians have common ancestors. Tucked away in the journals and occasional papers of the world of Islamic studies is work by a group of academics who have spent the past three decades plotting a quiet revolution in the study of the origins of the religion, the Koran and the life of the Prophet Mohammad. The conclusions of the so-called "new historians" of Islam are devastating: that we know almost nothing about the life of the Muslim prophet Mohammad; that the rapid rise of the religion can be attributed, at least in part, to the attraction of Islam's message of conquest and jihad for the tribes of the Arabian peninsula; that the Koran as we know it today was compiled, or perhaps even written, long after Mohammad's supposed death in 632AD. Most controversially of all, the researchers say that there existed an anti-Christian alliance between Arabs and Jews in the earliest days of Islam, and that the religion may be best understood as a heretical branch of rabbinical Judaism.

The work of John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, Patricia Crone, Andrew Rippin and Gerald Hawting, which emerged initially from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies in the 1970s, questions not only Islam's own version of its origins; this "new history" of Islam takes as its starting point a problem that has long troubled scholars - the almost total lack of contemporary Islamic sources.

According to the Muslim tradition, Islam emerged from Arabia in around 611AD, when the Prophet Mohammad received a revelation from the Angel Gabriel that he was the last prophet. He began preaching a monotheistic creed to the people of Mecca and, when he made no headway, moved with a small group of followers to Yathrib (modern Medina), a mixed Jewish and Arab community 200 miles to north. This emigration (Hijra) in 622AD marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Mohammad later returned to conquer his home city, and by the time of his death he had established an Islamic empire in Arabia. Within 100 years of the first revelations to Mohammad, the Arab conquests had swept aside the ancient empires of Byzantium and Persia and created an Islamic empire stretching from Spain to India.

The traditional version of events has remained remarkably robust, even among modernist thinkers in the Muslim world. In Introducing Islam, a beginner's guide to the faith (which was revised this year in the light of the 11 September attacks on America), the British Muslim writer (and frequent NS contributor) Ziauddin Sardar repeats this view of the religion's history: "The Life of Mohammad is known as the Sira and was lived in the full light of history. Everything he said or did was recorded." What Sardar fails to explain is how, if that is the case, nothing has survived. He says the Prophet himself was illiterate, but was surrounded at all times by 45 scribes who wrote down everything he did and said. These scribes also noted Mohammad's utterances on correct Islamic behaviour (the Hadith), which they wrote on bones, pieces of rock, parchment and papyrus. These, too, were later collected and used to complement Koranic authority. According to Sardar, we therefore know what the Prophet ate, how he treated women, children and animals, and his behaviour in battle. In reality, we know nothing of the sort - everything Sardar claims as historical truth is based on hearsay, on the words passed down by Mohammad's followers. The explanation of the new historians is that later generations created a coherent scriptural basis for Islam to suit the needs of a sophisticated empire.

The first biography (Sira) of the Prophet comes from the end of the eighth century, at least 150 years after the supposed founding of the religion, when the Islamic empire had spread west into Spain and east into India. For historians working within the Enlightenment tradition, this hiatus provides a serious barrier to providing an authoritative picture of Islam's beginnings.

Writing in the Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World, Patricia Crone, the most forthright and accessible of the new historians, expresses the general puzzlement of her colleagues: "What sense can we make of all this? Mohammad is clearly an individual who changed the course of history, but how was it possible for him to do so? Unfortunately, we do not know how much of the Islamic tradition about him is true." The only source before 800AD is the Koran, she says, and that tells us more about the Old Testament prophets Abraham and Moses than it does about Mohammad.

With no contemporary Muslim sources to refer to, a group of young historians working under the brilliant linguist Professor John Wansbrough at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the Seventies developed new scholarly techniques, drawing heavily on earlier biblical scholarship. Following Wansbrough's lead, they decided to look at the Koran as a literary text, to compare it to other devotional writings of the period and to look at internal clues to its origin. They found that it owed much to Judaism, especially the Talmud, a collection of commentaries and interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. They concluded, tentatively, that in the form that survives, the Koran was compiled, if not written, decades after the time of Mohammad, probably by converts to Islam in the Middle East, who introduced elements from the religions previously dominant in the region. Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, also working at SOAS at the time, provided an even more devastating analysis by looking at the only surviving contemporary accounts of the Islamic invasion, written in Armenian, Greek, Aramaic and Syriac by Middle Eastern witnesses to the rise of Islam. They found that Islam, as represented by admittedly biased sources, was in essence a tribal conspiracy against the Byzantine and Persian empires with deep roots in Judaism, and that Arabs and Jews were allies in these conquering communities.

Apparent support for their conclusions came from finds made during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana'a in Yemen, where labourers working in the roof discovered fragments of Korans that are among the oldest in existence. German scholars who studied the manuscripts discovered that some of the Koranic writing diverges from the authorised version, which by tradition is considered the pure, unadulterated word of God. What's more, some of the writing appears to have been inscribed over earlier, "rubbed-out" versions of the text. This editing supports the belief of Wansbrough and his pupils that the Koran as we know it does not date from the time of Mohammad. Andrew Rippin, professor of Islamic history at the University of Victoria in Canada, and the author of a revisionist history of Islam published by Routledge, said: "The Sana'a manuscripts [are] part of the process of filling in the holes in our knowledge of what might have happened."

It is easy to see why the work of the "new historians" causes such offence in some Muslim circles, and there is no doubt that much of what they say is deeply provocative. In 1987, two years before Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa condemning Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy, Patricia Crone, then based at Oxford, wrote the following words about Allah and Mohammad, His earthly messenger: "Mohammad's God endorsed a policy of conquest, instructing his believers to fight against unbelievers wherever they might be found. In short, Mohammad had to conquer, his followers liked to conquer, and his deity told him to conquer."

In Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, Crone argued that the early Muslim converts turned to Islam because it promised an Arab state based on conquest, rape and pillage. "God could scarcely have been more explicit. He told the Arabs that they had a right to despoil others of their women, children and land, or indeed that they had a duty to do so: holy war consisted in obeying."

Ziauddin Sardar is one of the few Muslim intellectuals genuinely to have engaged with the new historians. He has called their work "Eurocentrism of the most extreme, purblind kind, which assumes that not a single word written by Muslims can be accepted as evidence". Writing in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair, Sardar placed the western revisionists firmly in the post-colonial orientalist camp, from where colonial "experts" have consistently told Muslims that they know best about the origins of their primitive, barbarian religion. "The triumphant conclusion of Crone and Cook," he says, "was that Islam is an amalgam of Jewish texts, theology and ritual tradition."

Sardar points out that all of the academics responsible for the new Islamic history emerged from the School of Oriental and African Studies, a colonial institution that is noted for training generations of Foreign Office officials and spies. In an interview with the American magazine Atlantic Monthly, Crone expressed her irritation at such attacks on her work: "The Koran is a scripture with a history like any other - except that we don't know this history and tend to provoke howls of protest when we study it. Nobody would mind the howls if they came from westerners, but westerners feel more deferential when the howls come from other people: who are you to tamper with their legacy. We Islamicists are not trying to destroy anyone's faith."

Christians are used to reading multiple narratives of the life of Christ, with the Scriptures themselves providing four versions in the form of the Gospels. But more significantly, in the Christian faith, Jesus himself represents the word of God, a function provided in Islam by the Koran. Suggesting that the Koran is fallible is therefore rather like questioning the divinity of Jesus. One of the attractions of Islam is that the Prophet was mortal: his life is intended as a model for the rest of humanity precisely because he was a human being, like the rest of us, who none the less managed to lead an exemplary life.

It is the picture of Islam as a heretical offshoot of Judaism that has caused most offence to Muslims, especially where it concerns the holy cities of Mecca and Jerusalem. According to Muslim tradition, Mohammad changed the direction of Muslim prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca in the earliest years of Islam, after he fell out with the Jews when he was building his community of the faithful in Arabia. But the new historians refuse to accept this account. Using archaeological evidence from mosques built in the eighth century (that is, after the death of Mohammad), they have shown that many of the Muslim prayer niches point to the north, and not towards Mecca.

Why has the work of these academics received so little attention? In part, this must be due to the attitude of liberal intellectuals in the west and their counterparts in the Muslim world, who have failed to engage with their work, or tiptoed around it for fear of offending Muslim sensibilities. In so doing, they have left the field open to the radical right in the United States, where it has been used to justify a crusading, Christian fundamentalist approach to Islam. Daniel Pipes, a writer and former adviser to the State Department, has used the new history to justify the "clash of civilisations" theory, according to which the west is doomed for ever to come into conflict with the barbarian Muslim world, and the Arabs are doomed to destruction., one of a number of websites committed, since 11 September, to rooting out the liberal "traitors" who have dared speak out against US government policy, includes a series of pseudo-scholarly attacks on Islam. In one article entitled "The myth of Mecca", Jack Wheeler (an adviser to the Afghan mujahedin in the Reagan era) manipulates the new history to argue that Muslims must be forced to accept that their religion is based on a series of made-up ideas. "All the Bin Ladens of the Muslim terrorism network should know that the world is soon to learn about the Myth of Mecca . . . Much more is required of the adherents of Islam: the reinvention of their religion. No longer can the words of the Koran be considered inerrant, infallible and those of Allah himself."

The new historians themselves must take some responsibility for failing to bring their arguments into the mainstream. When I telephoned one of the main protagonists in the debate, a London University academic, to ask him about the way the work of the new historians had been hijacked by the radical right and Christian fundamentalists, he warned me against publication. Nor did he wish to be identified: "I would have thought the best thing was to allow this to remain in its decent obscurity," he wrote in an e-mail.

This fear of misrepresentation (or worse) is understandable. Salman Rushdie was condemned to death for "insulting" the Prophet by depicting him as just a little too fallible and human in The Satanic Verses - and that was fiction, not historical research. Penguin, the original publisher of the Satanic Verses, has postponed the publication of a controversial new history of Islam by Professor Gerald Hawting. And the founder of the SOAS revisionist school of thought found himself the target of Islamist demonstrations at the University of London when his views first received publicity in the Muslim world; he has chosen to live in obscurity in France since he retired from the university in 1992.

For devout Muslims, the tradition as passed down from the original companions of Mohammad and reinforced by nearly 1,400 years of Islamic scholarship is unlikely to be shaken by a small group of infidel academics based at British and American universities. So why is it that, in the acres of newsprint and during the hours of television time spent discussing Muslim issues since 11 September, there has been no debate on the Koran and the origins of Islam? According to Francis Robinson, who edited the Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World, it is important "not to let sensitivities for Muslim feelings override all other considerations". He also suggests that the new history remains in relative obscurity because "these historians have yet to find a single figure who can bring all these revolutionary ideas together in an accessible way. But believe me, that will happen. And it will be interesting to watch the reaction."

Martin Bright is home affairs editor of the Observer

This article first appeared in The New Statesman Special Report - The great Koran con trick