Monday, 12 April 2010

An Atheist's Guide to Mohammedanism; Part II

”Atheists are quite direct….”

From Part I

The Legend of the Qur’an
The Qur’an/Koran (Arabic Qur’an, 'reading' or 'recitation'), as everybody knows, is the bible of the Mohammedans. It is the source of their 'knowledge' that there is but a single god, Allah, and that for men (and probably for women as well) after death there will be a limbo-like state leading to the Last Day, the Resurrection, and Retribution. In the thereafter, wicked men such as infidels will suffer damnation. According to Sura 44:43-50, the fruit of the Zuqqum tree will be their food and it will burn in their guts like molten brass and boil like scalding water. They will be dragged into the midst of blazing fire and then, just for good measure, boiling water will be poured over their heads. "In front of such a one is Hell, and he is given for drink boiling, fetid water. In gulps will he sip it, but never will he be near swallowing it down his throat. Death will come to him from every quarter, yet he will not die; and in front of him will be a chastisement unrelenting" [14:16-17]. Islamic Hell would appear to be even worse than 'life' in a Taliban society — which at least can be circumvented by death.

The Muslim Paradise is decidedly a man's heaven, despite the fact that Sura 9:72 promises to both believing men and women "
gardens under which rivers flow, to dwell therein, and beautiful mansions, in gardens of everlasting bliss." Sura 44:51-54 promises believers they will be rewarded in Paradise with houris (Arabic hur) "with beautiful, big, and lustrous eyes." Such damsels are clearly the reward for Jihad-fighting men. That they could also be rewards for burqa‘-wearing women is unthinkable. Occasional proof-texts to the contrary notwithstanding, Mohammed's heaven is a penile paradise. (It is a pity no reliable translation of the Qur’an exists in English; all available English versions have been cleaned up and civilized by apologetic translators.)

As already noted, the Qur’an is supposed to have been revealed to the allegedly illiterate Mohammed over a period of years until his death in 632 CE. (It is possible, of course, that hisilliteracy was a fabrication designed to counter charges that Mohammed had written up the 'revelations' himself and had been educated enough to be able to author the supposedly matchless Arabic prose with which they are expressed.) There is a tradition that Mohammed dictated his revelations to his secretaries, who either memorized them or wrote them down on things like palm leaves, stones, and even perhaps camel shoulder blades 1 and other such publication media that existed in the advanced society which the Lord of the Universe had chosen as the model for all subsequent earthly societies. Almost certainly, at the time of Mohammed's death, no single manuscript of the entire Qur’an existed.

There is a tradition that indicates that immediately after the death of Mohammed in 632, during the caliphate of his friend Abu Bakr [632-634], his friend ‘Umar (Omar) became alarmed over the fact that so many Muslims who knew by heart various parts of the Qur’an had been killed during the Battle of Yamama in Central Arabia. Unless all parts of the Qur’an were collected, there was serious danger that irreplaceable rules and regulations for living would be lost forever. Very shortly after the death of the prophet, then, Abu Bakr asked Mohammed's former secretary Zaid ibn Thabit to write down all those dicta still in people's memories, the entire collection then being transcribed onto a more suitable writing material. The Qur’an thus assembled passed from Abu Bakr after he died to his successor ‘Umar, who in turn bequeathed it to his daughter Hafsa. Ultimately, those precious words carried by Gabriel to Mohammed were transmitted to sinful mortals such as we - with perfect fidelity, so that we all can know Allah's whims and wishes without ambiguity and without excuse.

The Legend of the Qur’an Examined

Unfortunately for Islamic orthodoxy, this encouraging tale of Qur’anic origins proves to be a bit more complicated (and less certain) than the mullahs and ayatollahs would have us believe. As is the case when trying to reconstruct the early history of any religion, there are conflicting traditions to be dealt with. There is a tradition which has Abu Bakr first have the idea to collect the Qur’an, but other traditions give the credit to the fourth caliph, ‘Ali - the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin (or brother, in one tradition). (It is from ‘Ali that the Shi‘a sect claims its descent.) Adding to the uncertainty and confusion, there are versions that exclude Abu Bakr completely!

It is implausible, moreover, that such a task could be completed in a mere two years. Furthermore, the warriors who fell at Yamama were apparently mostly new converts who would unlikely have known many verses by heart. On top of this, it seems inexplicable that no publication of the Qur’an thus compiled was carried out. Instead, it was treated as the private property of Hafsa. It seems likely that the tradition of Abu Bakr's collection was invented in order to establish the authenticity of the sacred text - by taking it as close to the time of the Prophet as possible. 2 It has also been suggested that the story was made up in order to take away the glory of Qur’anic creation from ‘Uthman, the third caliph, who appears to have been widely disliked. (This might explain why he was murdered in 656 CE.)

‘Uthman became the third caliph [644-656] a mere dozen years after the time allotted by tradition to Mohammed's death. Tradition credits him also with having collected the Qur’an after being asked to do so by one of his generals, who complained that theological quarrels had broken out among troops from different provinces in regard to the correct readings of the Qur’an. (Tradition is curiously silent as to where these different versions of the Qur’an had come from and who had written them down.)

It will be recalled that in the story of Abu Bakr's Qur’an, it was the prophet's secretary Zaid ibn Thabit who wrote everything down. Apparently unaware that he had done it all before, ‘Uthman commissioned ibn Thabit to prepare an official, standard text. Supposedly, this was done with the aid of three representatives of noble Meccan families, who compared a copy of unknown provenance in the possession of ‘Uthman with the 'leaves' (Arabic suhuf) owned by ‘Umar's daughter Hafsa - the same manuscript that ten years earlier Zaid is supposed to have written out himself!

Copies of ‘Uthman's new version were sent to Kufa, Basra, Damascus, and Mecca some time between 650 and 656, the year of ‘Uthman's death. The 'original' was kept in Medina. All other versions of the Qur’an supposedly were destroyed. Since we know absolutely nothing of the origins or authenticity of these other versions, we have no way to know that ‘Uthman's edition is the truest copy of the heavenly 'Mother of the Book'. The Qur’an emanating from ‘Uthman looks suspiciously like the product of political expediency.

Lest even this analysis be thought to provide too much certainty regarding Qur’anic origins,there are discrepancies even in the traditions from which it has been constructed! In some cases, the number of men on Zaid's commission varies, and men known to have been enemies of ‘Uthman are included on the roster. Without a wink anywhere to be seen among the swarthy swappers of these traditions, men are included in the project who were already dead at the time they were supposed to have been enlisted for the job. Finally, the ‘Uthman traditions seem completely to be unaware of the 'fact' that Zaid ibn Thabit had already transcribed the Qur’an ten years earlier, having himself produced the standard 'leaves' in the possession of Hafsa. (That the compiler of the Qur’an didn't remember he had done it all before, let alone know by heart the entire text of Hafsa's 'leaves' undercuts the apologetic Muslim notion that the early Arabs involved in the transmission of the Qur’anic text had prodigious, 'Oriental' memories.)

From the conflicting welter of traditions regarding the origins of the Qur’an there emerges a picture of somewhat coarse resolution. It would appear that by the time of ‘Uthman there had emerged a theopolitical class that was challenging the authority of the caliphs (Arabic kalifa, 'successor'), who had become the successors to Mohammed's political office and were losing ground as successors to his religious authority. The ubiquitous religious contest between priests and politicians was beginning to develop in what we may call Islam's embryonic period. Competing with the caliphs were the Qurra (Arabic for 'reciters' or 'readers') - men who were the masters of large volumes of Qur’anic verbiage and could recite the supposed revelations when called upon to lead in worship or settle disputes. Many Qurra claimed to have actually learned their verses from Mohammed himself, although many by now were second or even third scholarly generations removed from the Prophet. The fact that the whole application of the Qur’an depended upon memory invited abuse. Verses claiming to be Qur’anic revelations could be - and were - invented to serve the economic and political needs of individual Qurra. (It is likely that some of these recited verses were written down in manuscripts of varying size, but of course, no Qur’anic manuscripts have survived from this period - forgeries to the contrary not withstanding.) To consolidate the power of the caliphate and stop the abuses of the Qurra, it was necessary to eliminate the contradictory oral Qur’ans and replace them with a standardized written text, which could not be manipulated when expedient. Exactly when this happened is not really known, but it may have taken place as early as the reign of the caliph ‘Uthman [644-656], as many traditions record. Even so, Ibn Warraq has argued quite persuasively in his The Origins Of The Koran 3 that both the Abu Bakr and ‘Uthmanic traditions of Qur’anic compilation and standardization are tendentious tales confected in later times.

The earliest account of the compilation of the Qur’an is that of Ibn Sa‘ad [844 CE], followed by Bukhari [870 CE] and Muslim [874 CE]. 4 (Remember, Mohammed is supposed to have died in 632 CE.) Ibn Sa‘ad transmits ten somewhat contradictory traditions in which the 'Companions' of Mohammed had 'collected' the Qur’an during the life of the prophet. Still another tradition has ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan collect the Qur’an, during the caliphate of ‘Umar, not during the lifetime of Mohammed. Still another tradition passed on by Ibn Sa‘ad attributes the collection of the Qur’an insuhufs to the caliph ‘Umar himself!

More important in terms of influence, even though later, is Bukhari. 5 He reports a tradition in which the Qur’an was collected during the lifetime of Mohammed by four helpers: Ubai ibn Ka‘ab, Mu‘adh ibn Jabal, Zaid ibn Thabit, and Abu Zaid. In another tradition, Ubai ibn Ka‘ab is replaced by Abud-Darda. Still another tradition 'proves' that the entire Qur’an was compiled under the caliphate of Abu Bakr and was exclusively the product of Zaid ibn Thabit. This is followed in Bukhari's account by the tradition which we have already examined, viz., that Zaid had the help of three Qurayshites, and that all variant versions in the provinces were destroyed. (Even though this account appears 238 years after the death of Mohammed and is 26 years later than the traditions recorded by Ibn Sa‘ad, this is the 'True Account' accepted by most scholars writing before the modern period of skeptical inquiry.)

Yet further traditions about the origins of the Qur’an are found in Arab historians such as Waqidi [d. 207 AH D/823 CE] who says that a Christian slave named Ibn Qumta was the amanuensis of the prophet, along with a certain ‘Abdallah b. Sa‘ad b. Abi Sarh, who reported that "It was only a Christian slave who was teaching him [Mohammed]; I used to write to him and change whatever I wanted." 6

Of course, all the above traditions are wrong, for Hajjaj b. Yusuf Barhebraeus records that his boss the Caliph Abdul-Malik b. Marwan [684-704 CE] was the collector of the Qur’an! 7

In this sand-storm of conflicting traditions, there is no way to descry in Muslim sources just when the Qur’an came into being as a written text. Only an examination of Christian accounts from the early centuries of the Arab conquests can give us a clue. The Monophysite patriarch of Antioch, John I, recording lengthy religious discussions with General ‘Amr b. al-‘As on 9 May 639 CE says nothing that would indicate that the 'Hagarians' or 'Ishmailites' (the earliest non-Muslim names for Muslims) had a sacred book of their own - even though the general had been shown the Torah, the Prophets, and the Gospels of the Jews and Christians. 8 This was, of course, only around seven years after the death of Mohammed, during the fifth year of the caliphate of ‘Umar. Around 647 CE, during ‘Uthman's caliphate, the patriarch of Seleucia, Isho‘yahb III, wrote a letter which betrays no knowledge of the existence of the Qur’an, and scholars familiar with this famous character are certain he would have mentioned or quoted the Hagarian book if he had known of it or even simply had heard of it. 9

More than thirty years later still, in 680 CE, an anonymous writer from the time of the Umayyad caliphate of Yazid ibn Mu‘awiah discussed the Arabs as the simple descendants of Ishmael who still practiced the ancient Abrahamic faith and treated Mohammed as a purely military man, betraying no awareness of any religious function or role played by the conqueror. Even in 690 CE, John Bar Penkaye — although an eyewitness of part of the Arab conquest - knows nothing of any Arabian sacred book existing during the caliphate of ‘Abdul-Malik [685-705].10

Quite clearly, Christian historians during the entire seventh century of the common era had no idea that the Hagarite conquerors had a sacred book. Only at the end of the first quarter of the eighth century does the Qur’an become the subject of argumentation by Nestorian, Jacobite, and Melchite Christians. Somewhat later, their polemics are answered by the Muslims.

A lot can be learned from these arguments about Muslim Qur’anic traditions. Of special interest is an apology for Christianity written around the year 835 CE by a certain al-Kindi, whose work was discussed in Alphonse Mingana's "The Transmission of the Koran," which has been reprinted by Ibn Warraq in his extremely useful book The Origins of the Koran. 11 Al-Kindi gives details of the stories circulating among the Muslims some two centuries after the death of Mohammed:

It [the Qur’an] was not at first collected in a volume, but remained in separate leaves. Then the people fell to variance in their reading; some read according to the version of ‘Ali, which they follow to the present day [i.e., c835 CE]; some read according to the collection of which we have made mention [a collection made by Abu Bakr himself]; one party read according to the text of Ibn Mas‘ud, and another according to that of Ubai ibn Ka‘ab.

Al-Kindi gives an account of the ‘Uthmanic collection of the Qur’an which is recognizably the same as the one we have examined yet provides some interesting details for the story:

When ‘Uthman came to power, and people everywhere differed in their reading, ‘Ali sought grounds of accusation against him, compassing his death. One man would read a verse one way, and another man another way; and there was change and interpolation, some copies having more and some less. When this was represented to ‘Uthman, and the danger urged of division, strife, and apostasy, he hereupon caused to be collected together all the leaves and scraps that he could, together with the copy that was written out at the first. But they did not interfere with that which was in the hands of ‘Ali [the hero of the Shi‘ites], or of those who followed his reading. Ubai was dead by this time; as for Ibn Mas‘ud, they demanded his exemplar, but he refused to give it up. Then they commanded Zaid ibn Thabit, and with him ‘Abdallah ibn Abbas, to revise and correct the text, eliminating all that was corrupt; they were instructed, when they differed on any reading, word, or name, to follow the dialect of the Quraish.

When the recension was completed, four exemplars were written out in large text; one was sent to Mecca, and another to Medina; the third was despatched to Syria, and is to this day at Malatya; the fourth was deposited in Kufa. People say that this last copy is still extant at Kufa, but this is not the case, for it was lost in the insurrection of Mukhtar (A.H. 67). The copy at Mecca remained there till the city was stormed by Abu Sarayah (A.H. 200); he did not carry it away; but it is supposed to have been burned in the conflagration. The Medina exemplar was lost in the reign of terror, that is, in the days of Yazid b. Mu‘awiah (A.H. 60-64). [Emphasis added]

Thus, by the year 835 CE, three of the four official copies of the Qur’an had been lost. But of course, other versions of the Qur’an were intentionally destroyed:

After what we have related above, ‘Uthman called in all the former leaves and copies, and destroyed them, threatening those who held any portion back; and so only some scattered remains, concealed here and there, survived. Ibn Mas‘ud, however, retained his exemplar in his own hands, and it was inherited by his posterity, as it is this day; and likewise the collection of ‘Ali has descended in his family. [Emphasis added]

Assuming, as devout Muslims do, that the Qur’an contains the very words of Allah, how can one know that the version of the Qur’an surviving today is the correct one?(…) But the headache for Muslim apologists becomes a migraine, if what al-Kindi wrote is true:12

Then followed the business of Hajjaj b. Yusuf, who gathered together every single copy he could lay hold of, and caused to be omitted from the text a great many passages. Among these, they say, were verses revealed concerning the House of Umayyah with names of certain persons, and concerning the House of Abbas also with names. Six copies of the text thus revised were distributed to Egypt, Syria, Medina,Mecca, Kufa, and Basra. After that he called in and destroyed all the preceding copies, even as ‘Uthman had done before him. The enmity subsisting between ‘Ali and Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman is well known; now each of these entered in the text whatever favored his own claims, and left out what was otherwise. How, then, can we distinguish between the genuine and the counterfeit? And what about the losses caused by Hajjaj? The kind of faith that this tyrant held in other matters is well-known; how can we make an arbiter as to the Book of God a man who never ceased to play into the hands of the Umayyads whenever he found opportunity?

How, indeed! It is immensely significant, I believe, that twenty years after al-Kindi, when ‘Ali b. Rabbanat-Tabari was asked by the caliph Mutawakkil to write a counter-apology on behalf of Islam, 13 he addressed not a single one of al-Kindi's charges concerning the transmission of the Qur’an, falling back on a lame - but extremely perceptive - ad hominem: "If such people may be accused of forgery and falsehood, the disciples of the Christ might also be accused of the same."

The Christian apologist receives unexpected corroboration from one of the most famous Muslim commentators on the Qur'an, as-Suyuti [d. 1505 CE], who quoted Ibn Umar al-Khattab as saying, "
Let no one of you say that he has acquired the entire Koran, for how does he know that it is all? Much of the Koran has been lost; thus let him say, 'I have acquired of it what is available'." 14 He also quotes ‘Aisha, the favorite wife of Mohammed as having said that "During the time of the Prophet, the chapter of the Parties used to be two hundred verses when read. When Uthman edited the copies of the Koran, only the current [73 verses] were recorded." (Among the alleged verses omitted was that of 'The Stoning', which is supposed to have been Allah's order that "If an old man or woman committed adultery, stone them to death.")

There remain more subtle problems, however, in the story of the transmission of Allah's instructions to mankind after Gabe gave them to Mohammed. Some of the suras of the Qur’an are extremely long chapters. How could Mohammed have kept the whole thing in his head after only one hearing? How could his amanuenses and secretaries have remembered them, perhaps after a single recitation by the ecstatic reporter of Allah's will? And when they wrote those priceless words down on leaves and stones and camels' bones, how reliable was their record? Even today, Arabic is written in a defective script, which does not normally indicate the short vowels in words and makes the reading of Arabic extremely difficult for a non-native speaker of the language. Furthermore, in ancient times, the problem was even greater. For at least a century after the death of Mohammed in 632, Arabic writing was 'unpointed' - that is, the dots now placed above or below certain consonants to distinguish them were not used. This could cause enormous ambiguity, since b, t, and th could not be distinguished from an initial or medial y; f could be confused with q; j,h, and kh would have looked the same; r could not be distinguished from z, sfrom d, s from sh, d from dh, nor t from z.

So great is the ambiguity resulting from the defectiveness of the Arabic script that even after pointed texts appeared it was necessary to borrow (perhaps from the Arameans) a system for indicating the short vowels in the sacred text. That this was understood to be of extreme theological importance can be inferred from the fact that today the Qur’an is practically the only book in which these vowel marks are employed — apart from Arabic language textbooks and dictionaries used to teach the throat disease believed by pious Muslims to be the language in which the creator of the universe speaks.

The problem of this defective script led to a situation in which different centers of Islamic studies had variant rules concerning the pointing and vocalization of the sacred text. Variant texts survived, despite ‘Uthman's attempts at creating a Procrustean uniformity. Ibn Warraq 15quotes Charles Adams declaration that "It must be emphasized that far from there being a single text passed down inviolate from the time of ‘Uthman's commission, literally thousands of variant readings of particular verses were known in the first three [Muslim] centuries. These variants affected even the ‘Uthmanic codex, making it difficult to know what its true form may have been."

The problem of ambiguity never ceased to plague Muslims who desired an absolutely certain version of Allah's instructions on camel-castrating or whatever. Under the direction of the Qur’anic scholar Ibn Mujahid [d. 935 CE], 16 there was a canonization of a specific consonantal system and a limit was placed on the vowels that could be used. This resulted in seven officially sanctioned systems for reading of the Qur’an, although some scholars accepted ten readings and still others found fourteen of merit. In the end, just three systems prevailed: the Medina system of Warsh [d. 812 CE], the Kufa system of Hafs [d. 805], and the Basra system of ad-Duri [d. 860]. Presently, only two of these seem to be in evidence: the system of Hafs, which was adopted for the Egyptian edition of the Koran issued in 1924, and the system of Warsh, which is used elsewhere in Africa. (Although Muslim apologists often claim that the seven versions pertain only to methods of recitation, this simply is not true.) 17

Clear proof that Qur’anic texts have evolved can be seen from the fact that the first Qur’anic (more accurately, pre-Qur’anic) quotations known are found on coins and inscriptions dating toward the end of the seventh century. Many of these differ from the canonical text. Substantial differences from the canonical text are also found in the ornamental inscriptions decorating the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, executed during the reign of Abd al-Malik in the seventy-second year of the Islamic era [691-692 CE]. Finally, some scholars have concluded that much of the Qur’an actually predates Mohammed, being liturgical material that was used by monotheistic Arabs, perhaps Judaeo-Christians or the mysterious Hanifs to whom Mohammed joined himself early in his career. Much of this material, of course, was unintelligible to later commentators of the Qur’an who had to invent far-fetched explanations for the obscurities.

After this lengthy investigation of the origins and transmission of the Qur’an, we can only come to the conclusion that Muslims have even less grounds for thinking they have the genuine words of a god than do the Christians with their epistles and gospels.

The Legend of Mohammed Examined
A modern book written for beginning English-speaking Muslims 18very well summarizes the legend that needs to be examined critically:

The life of Muhammad is known as the Sira and was lived in the full light of history. Everything he did and said was recorded. Because he could not read and write himself, he was constantly served by a group of 45 scribes who wrote down his sayings, instructions and his activities. Muhammad himself insisted on documenting his important decisions. Nearly three hundred of his documents have come down to us, including political treaties, military enlistments, assignments of officials and state correspondence written on tanned leather. We thus know his life to the minutest details: how he spoke, sat, sleeped [sic], dressed, walked; his behaviour as a husband, father, nephew; his attitudes toward women, children, animals; his business transactions and stance toward the poor and the oppressed; his engagement in camps and cantonments, his behaviour in battle; his exercise of political authority and stand on power; his personal habits, likes and dislikes - even his private dealings with his wives. Within a few decades of his death, accounts of the life of Muhammad were available to the Muslim community in written form. One of the earliest and the most-famous biographies of Muhammad, written less than [a] hundred years after his death, is Sirat Rasul Allah by Ibn Ishaq.

The fire of these ardent assertions is quenched, however, by the cold water supplied by Professor John Burton, 19 an Islamologist at the University of St. Andrews, as he comments on a translation of al-Tabari's History as it deals with the life of Mohammed:

None will fail to be struck by the slimness of a volume purporting to cover more than half a century in the life of one of History's giants. Ignoring the pages tracing his lineage all the way back to Adam and disregarding the merely fabulous with which the author has padded out his book, is to realize how very meagre is the hard information available to the Muslims for the life of the man whose activities profoundly affected their own as well as the lives of countless millions. Of the childhood, the education of the boy and the influences on the youth, all of which set the pattern of the development of the man, we know virtually nothing. We simply have to adjust to the uncomfortable admission that, in the absence of contemporary documents, we just do not and never shall know what we most desire to learn.

How is an interested observer to choose between these diametrically opposite opinions concerning Mohammed? Only by examining the evidentiary sources upon which every Life of Mohammed must be based can we decide. So we must briefly survey the material that has come down to us.

Continuing on Part III



No comments:

Post a Comment