A Rhetorical Triumph

Mariam_and_IsaAngelika Neuwirth has presented a monumental analysis of the Holy Qur’an [1] which provides a number of convincing arguments that the scripture must not be regarded as  fait accompli but had rather developed as a liturgical text during permanent and critical, well, polemical disputes with an audience/congregation more or less or highly knowledgeable of the two older revealed books (just depending on the Prophet’s presence in Makkah or Madinah). In short, the book is a triumph. It pleasantly differs in style from Tilman Nagel’s dull and uninspiring biography of the Prophet of 2009, which came in two volumes [2], in that the highly readable text regards its object of research seriously, with curiosity and empathy.

Neuwirth is Professor for Arabic Studies at Free University of Berlin and leads Corpus Coranicum, a research project founded in 2007 at the German Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanity. Corpus Coranicum seeks to develop a better contextual understanding of the Qur’an in the West. Amazingly, the project is funded until 2025(!) but it may take considerably longer to be completed.

Muslim exegesis of their holy book, which may quickly outrun the Holy Bible as most printed and distributed book ever, has been done for 1400 years. So, there is apparently no need for addressing mainly Muslims to explain recent research efforts in understanding its specific origin. Muslims have their own (and unfortunately rather unsubstantiated) view about the sira, or life and legend of their Prophet. On the other hand, researchers in the West have tried time and again to trace the historical Muhammad from the sources, and some even deny its place in History altogether. That a meticulous analysis of the bequeathed text itself may in fact reveal certain hints about the specific circumstances when, how and why it had been created during Muhammad’s life is a stunning novelty, at least apart from the well-known rough differentiation of certain surahs as having been revealed early or late in Makkah or Madinah. It may also interest Muslims who certainly know about the alleged superiority of their holy scripture but may also be interested in a scientific dealing with it from outside.

Neuwirth claims a European approach (or access) in her study which might mainly indicate the use of a large number of Western sources. But she also describes the Qur’an as having been collected in a highly intellectual environment embedded and fully aware of its historical place in late antiquity. This is pretty much daring as readers in the West have time and time again liked to describe the largely incomprehensible book as a result of an archaic and tribal, well, primitive society living at the margins of the civilized world in the otherwise uninhabitable Arabian Peninsula; in general in isolation from the tides of History which embattled the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires [3]. Neuwirth makes it clear that the Qur’an, in contrast to widespread believes, seems keen to seek a highly demanding, challenging and intellectually inspired interfaith dialogue which eventually culminates in its unmistakable claim of triumphant superiority of faith, beauty and reason [4].

Neuwirth turns the point of view from a consummate Islamic text (which, polemically, has dropped directly from the Heavens) to the study of a mainly pre-Islamic, sometimes difficult, communication process and dispute which eventually led to the formation of a congregation. That is what she calls a “European” reading or approach.  She further demands that the Qur’an has to be dealt with at eye level with the two other revealed scriptures, a matter of course. A major aim of the present study is, according to Neuwirth, an inner-European revision of certain historically problematic premises of an epoch in dramatic change (i.e., late antiquity) when Orient and Occident in a way split (in retrospect). As mentioned before, the project Corpus Coranicum has just started with an amazing coup of a “European approach.” It will continue for years to come embracing Islamic traditions and Muslim views, as well [5].

That the text (which is generally verbally proclaimed, not primarily read) slowly developed as did Muhammad’s congregation cannot be derived from the final text. This misconception has obviously constrained its interpretation in the West for a very long time. Thus, comparison of the text with Bible or Tanakh must fail. In contrast to the two latter, the Qur’an is not a narrative which has been written by its author to be read continuously; but rather its specific parts, or surahs, which have been revealed (or formulated) on specific occasions and at specific locations, to be recited (as Muhammad himself was ordered in surah 96). The Qur’an is not a fait accompli, the finalized version of a theological draft, as Neuwirth stresses several times; not an inferior attempt to rewrite the Bible in Arabic [6].

Its acoustic quality of great beauty is complemented with that of calligraphy. Its, in some of the shorter surahs, staggering poetry (for the devout); all this makes the Qur’an a multimedia-based entity which cannot be (but has too long been) belittled in comparison with the older scriptures [7]. Its intention is different as well. Artfully formulated, often deeply disturbing, well, frightening admonition (the Prophet first calls himself nadhir, or alerter), as in the Qur’an, is not among the main features of the Bible, whose text may even be read as continuous narrative, literature. The Qur’an appeals to, and even presupposes, its listeners’ knowledge about the biblical topics and their exegesis. It does not reinvent them; but it rectifies them, put them into perspective; gives them a unique different (Arabic) interpretation [8].

It is an amazing enterprise that Neuwirth is trying here. Apart from its scientific claim an immediately comprehended main objective of the project, which also addresses a wider audience of interested lay people, is certainly to guide a Western public which has largely been trapped in its newly aroused averseness (after September 11, 2001) to the holy book of the Muslim World.  Neuwirth’s book (the first in a series to come) has already a great potential of narrowing the gap between different civilizations. It might indeed (and should) have a greater effect than numerous well-meaning interfaith panel discussions [9]. The sole pity may be that the book is available right now only in the German language which certainly prevents its wider distribution. It is hoped that it will quickly be translated into English and Arabic as well.



[1] Neuwirth A. Der Koran als Text der Spätantike. Ein europäischer Zugang. Verlag der Weltreligionen, Berlin 2010, 859 pp.

[2] Nagel T. Mohammed. Leben und Legende; Allahs Liebling, beide Oldenbourg, München 2008.  I have written critical remarks on both here and here.

[3] German Orientalist Tilman Nagel, in a bulk review of three new releases on the Qur’an (two translations into German by Hartmut Bobzin and Ahmad Milad Karimi; and Neuwirth’s stunning enterprise), may have got it wrong when he doubts (again) that very fact. Neuwirth doesn’t explicitly claim a certain momentum of the Qur’an for the later development of Europe. Rather she demands that finally, in the 21st century, Europe has to accept the fact that the text can only be seen in the context of, at the time of its collection, still Oriental-European environment of late antiquity. As a matter of fact, Christian/Jewish/Hellenistic Europe has the major part of its origins in the Middle East, the cultural epicenter of centuries to come. All three revealed religions derive from the Levant and Arabia. While Nagel seemingly denies that he again steps into the trap of Eurocentric alleged cultural superiority which might have been developed only one thousand years later. Neuwirth suggests seeing the image of the Qur’an as one with hidden faces only visible under different viewpoints. Its primary legacy is inheritance, the foundation text of all Muslims. Its secondary legacy may be cognition. While what we understand as “Europe” had not really existed in late antiquity, developing idea of “Europe” is founded on all three revealed texts, and the disputes among respective proponents.

[4] In that regard in particular the table on page 702 is impressive which compares the texts of the verbose Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE, highly concise Deuteronomy 6,4 and finally rectifying surah 112, al-Ikhlâs (“The Purity of Faith”):

“Say: He is Allah, the One and Only;

Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;

He begetteth not, nor is He begotten;

And there is none like unto Him.”

[5] Maybe Nagel has overlooked this announcement in the Introduction (on p. 24) when giving the impression in his review that apparent sparseness of the large number of Arabic and Islamic sources as regards the Qur’an in Neuwirth’s study would point to an inherent insufficiency of her scientific work. As announced by Neuwirth, there will be numerous sequels, I suppose.

[6] Neuwirth’s attempt to liberate the Qur’an is not confined to Western prejudices. She also put into relation the Muslim belief of the beginning of Arabic History (a Golden Age) only with the appearance of the Prophet. What devout Muslims call jahiliyyah, a chaotic, bellicose, tribal life in an otherwise empty Hejaz of pagans cannot be traced by archeological, epigraphic or numismatic evidence. Cities in northern Hejaz were thus completely Romanized, even providing Roman Emperors in late antiquity.

[7] German-Iranian Navid Kermani has pointed to the beauty of the Qur’an in his dissertation of 1999 “Gott ist schön.” In grave contrast, Markus Groß (in Ohlig KH (ed.). Der Frühe Islam, Schiler 2007) has recently categorically denied that anyone outside the Arabic-Islamic culture could even perceive beauty in its recitation.

[8] See in particular the chapters on Qur’anic and Biblical figures Nuh, Ibrahim, Musah, Maryam.

[9] In a similar context as Otto Kallscheuer wrote in 1999 in Germany’s weekly Die Zeit when reviewing Navid Kermani’s dissertation “Gott ist schön” about (inter alia) the i’ğaz, or inimitability of the Qur’an.

Update May 17, 2011.

See Professor Neuwirth’s 2009 lecture on the topic at Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, here.

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