Dismissal of the Koran is offensive and counter-productive

It may not be easy for an ordinary British reader to understand quite how offensive "The Great Koran con trick" (your headline to Martin Bright's piece, 10 December) sounds even to a non-Muslim familiar with Islam such as myself. Like other westerners, the British have learnt to live with blasphemy: Jesus as a homosexual, elephant dung on crucifixes, nothing shocks any more. But Muslims have not been inured to the desecration of their faith. To describe the Koran as a con trick is much like throwing dead pigs into synagogues.

It is all the more offensive in that it revives an old slanging match. The Koran refers to those people who dismissed the Prophet as a magician, and from the tenth century onwards there were heretical Muslims who would write off Moses, Jesus and Mohammad as mere tricksters in search of power. This idea passed to Europe, where the theme of the "three impostors" was used against the Church in the Enlightenment and against Islam by early Orientalists. Any journalist who thinks that this is the way to persuade Muslims of the merits of dialogue will have to think again.

The headline was offensive to Islamicists, too. It insinuated that the objective of modern western scholarship on the rise of Islam is to unmask Islam as a piece of deception, to prove it false and rid the world of it. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is, however, what many Muslims take it to be, and it is usually for this very reason that they will not engage with it.

In fact, as everyone knows (or used to know), modern historians are not interested in the truth or falsehood of the religion they study at all. They study religions as historical factors shaped by their environment and acting back on it in turn, much as scientists study the formation of dust clouds or the evolution of plants. Religious beliefs shape the world they interact with, whether the person studying them happens to share them or not; all that matters is what they meant at the time, not what they mean now.

None the less, historians of Judaism, Christianity and Islam often clash with believers in these religions, for monotheists of all three persuasions traditionally tie their belief systems to history. For example, the truth of Judaism used to depend, among other things, on the claim that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, that of Christianity presupposed that Jesus thought of himself as divine, and that of Islam depended on acceptance of the thesis that Mohammad received the Koran from an angel. Very few Jews and Christians make their beliefs conditional on the historicity of such claims any more, but some do, and the vast majority of Muslims still do.

It is, however, precisely such claims that historians tend to find factually wrong or, in the case of the angel, that they begin by striking out (no appeals to the supernatural are allowed in modern scholarship or science). So although historians study religions without the intention of either destroying or vindicating them, they often find themselves accused of undermining them by depriving them of historical support.

Martin Bright seems to approve of the negative impact. He would like the "new historians" to publicise their "devastating" conclusions far and wide. But the very word "devastating" is apt to shut them up. Devastating of what? The sensationalist suggestion that the whole house of Islam would come tumbling down if their conclusions were accepted is both silly and offensive: if that is what the greater public is going to make of their work, no wonder historians of the rise of Islam run a mile when they see a reporter, as Bright complains. They have no intention of making the Muslim house come down, nor indeed could they even if they did. Religion does not belong in the domain open to proof or disproof by scholarship or science.

After the publication of Bright's article, a BBC reporter asked me whether the early Muslims had indeed converted to Islam in response to promises of an Arab state based on conquest, pillage and rape (as Martin Bright summarises my views). The reporter, who yapped at me in angry tones as if I were a sheep refusing to enter its pen, clearly wanted me to say or imply that Islam was false because people had accepted it only in the hope of material rewards. Do we really have to stoop to those medieval levels again?

The Christians first argued that Islam was false on the grounds that prophets do not come "with sword and chariot" as early as AD634, and they have been saying it ever since. It is a historical fact that political co-ordination and conquest played a major role in the spread of Islam among the tribesmen of seventh-century Arabia. But for one thing, the tribesmen of seventh-century Arabia are not the Muslims of the world today; and for another thing, it is a mistake to think that a belief system must be false if it rewards its adherents with political power and wealth. We ourselves infer that science is true when aeroplanes fly and nuclear bombs explode. We infer that capitalism is right when it makes nations rich. The tribesmen of seventh-century Arabia inferred that Islam was true when God made them rich and powerful.

All in all, Bright is right that greater openness would be a good thing. My bet would be that it will in fact come about one day when there is greater parity between the participants in the debate, for if Islam is true, it has always been true, regardless of how the Arabs came upon it. But Bright's talk of conspiracy and devastation is not likely to make things easier for anyone, and to talk of the Koran as a con trick, however tongue-in-cheek, is as good as calling for violence.

Patricia Crone
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
New Jersey, USA

The spurious air of conspiracy and censorship conjured up in Martin Bright's article is nonsense. All of the named scholars whose "conclusions" are said to be so "devastating" for Islam hold or held senior positions in front-rank universities and their books are published by leading university presses and other houses, freely available for anyone who cares to read them.

I did not "warn" (whatever that might mean) the journalist concerned not to publish the article, and the "decent obscurity" I suggested was for the right-wing and fundamentalist websites by which he is so fascinated. Penguin Books has not "postponed" the publication of "a controversial new history of Islam" by me. I was never contracted to them to write such a work. The implication that John Wansbrough was the founder of SOAS was probably the result of slipshod editing*, but the suggestion that his decision to live in France following retirement reflects a desire to live in "obscurity" (a faraway country of which we know little!) is mere embroidery.

Gerald Hawting
School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London, London WC1

* It was. It should have read "the founder of the SOAS school of revisionist thought". We apologise. The Editor

It is perfectly true that some of the various academic theories about the origins of Islam are radical. But it would be wrong to suggest that they "prove" the traditional Islamic account of the beginnings of the religion to be false. They don't.

Neither, so far as I know, do the early Koranic fragments found in Yemen prove anything like that. They are exciting to experts, they scatter a few apples over the cobbles, but they don't upset the apple-cart.

In any case, it is hard to see why academic theories about the origins of Islam should be any more "devastating" than theories about Jesus have been to Christianity. Academic work does occasionally enliven the halls of learning, but it doesn't devastate world religions. They don't play in the same league.

Michael Cook
Princeton University, USA

Your story is disgusting and completely baseless. If the Koran was not revealed by Allah, then there would be many errors and contradictions in it. Also, there would be many erroneous statements, myths and superstitions regarding nature and science, as the author could use only the information available at the time. But no one has been able to find any error or contradiction in the Koran, even in the verses regarding nature (embryology, geology, and so on).

Furthermore, Allah says in the Koran that it is easy to remember. This is further proof of its divine nature, as millions of Muslims throughout the world have memorised the complete Koran and can recite it, even people who do not understand Arabic.

Dr Hamza Alam
Maidenhead, Berkshire

It is hardly fair to characterise western Koran scholarship as neocolonial given that western academics subject Christianity to far more rigorous - frequently destructive - examination. A point that arises from Martin Bright's essay is that the absolute, Platonic status of the Koran reinforces the "ownership" of the Muslim faith by the class of scholars (the Ulema). Under Elizabeth I, similarly, Christianity was the property of the state and used for social coercion. It has taken 400 years of grindingly hard work, started by the likes of Bunyan, George Fox, Wesley and William Blake, to make religion the property of the people. We may abuse it, deny it, cherry-pick it or follow it blindly, but it belongs to us.

By contrast, I had a Muslim office assistant who complained of a shaitan in the flat she shared with her husband. She got a specialist priest to exorcise it (large fee plus travel expenses), though she knew, really, a shaitan wasn't the problem. She just wasn't a stakeholder in her religion, and I think this sort of thing may be what westerners find it hard to get their heads round. Perhaps Islam could do with a John XXIII and some liberation theology.

Robin Oakley-Hill
Sevenoaks, Kent

In spite of huge advances in biblical scholarship, Ann Widdecombe can still assert, in her review of Mary: the unauthorised biography (Books, 10 December), that St John's Gospel is an eyewitness account of the life of Christ. Most scholars reject such a view. Martin Bright's report is welcome evidence that scholarly investigation of the origins of Islam is beginning the long and painful path trodden by Christian theologians' inquiry into our own sacred texts. Widdecombe's acceptance of a literalist view of the gospels is still widely held by many sitting in church pews, even though the clergy have been taught otherwise for 50 years or more.

The Reverend Richard Craig
London SE1

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The ignorance of the Islamophobes