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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Scholar: Mistakes Made in Koran

NEW YORK -- To Muslims, the Koran is the very word of God, who spoke through the Angel Gabriel to Mohammed: "This book is not to be doubted," the Koran declares unequivocally at its beginning.

Scholars and writers in Islamic countries who have ignored that warning have sometimes found themselves the target of death threats and violence, sending a chill through universities around the world.

Yet despite the fear, a handful of experts have been quietly investigating the origins of the Koran, offering radically new theories about the text's meaning and the rise of Islam.

Christoph Luxenberg, a scholar of ancient Semitic languages in Germany, argues the Koran has been misread and mistranslated for centuries. His work, based on the earliest copies of the Koran, maintains that parts of Islam's holy book are derived from Christian Aramaic texts that were misinterpreted by later Islamic scholars who prepared the editions of the Koran read today.

So, for example, the virgins who are supposedly awaiting good Islamic martyrs as their reward in paradise are in reality "white raisins" of crystal clarity rather than fair maidens.

Christoph Luxenberg, however, is a pseudonym, and his scholarly tome "The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran" had trouble finding a publisher. Verlag Das Arabische Buch in Berlin ultimately published the book.

The caution is not surprising. Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" received a fatwa because it appeared to mock Mohammed. The Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed because one of his books was thought to be irreligious.

"Between fear and political, it's not possible to say anything other than sugary nonsense about Islam," said one scholar at an American university, who asked not to be named, referring to the threatened violence and the reluctance of United States college campuses to criticize other cultures.

Of course, close textual study of Jewish and Christian scripture played no small role in loosening the Church's domination on the intellectual and cultural life of Europe, and paving the way for unfettered secular thought.

"The Muslims have the benefit of hindsight of the European experience, and they know very well that once you start questioning the holy scriptures, you don't know where it will stop," the scholar explained.

Many scholars insist that the Koran appears to be a composite of different texts compiled over dozens if not hundreds of years. Scholars agree that there is no evidence of the Koran until 691 -- 59 years after Mohammed's death -- when the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem was built, carrying several Koranic inscriptions.

These inscriptions differ to some degree from the version of the Koran that has been handed down through the centuries, suggesting, scholars say, that the Koran may have still been evolving in the last decade of the seventh century.

The Koran is a text soaked in monotheistic thinking, filled with stories and references to Abraham, Isaac, Joseph and Jesus, and yet the official history insists that Mohammed, an illiterate camel merchant, received the revelation in Mecca, a remote, sparsely populated part of Arabia, far from the centers of monotheistic thought, in an environment of idol-worshiping Arab Bedouins.

Scholars say historians must somehow explain how all these monotheistic stories and ideas found their way into the Koran.

"There are only two possibilities," said Patricia Crone, co-author of "Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World." "Either there had to be substantial numbers of Jews and Christians in Mecca or the Koran had to have been composed somewhere else."

Luxenberg's theory is that many of the difficulties in the earliest known copies of the Koran can be clarified when it is seen as closely related to Aramaic, the language group of most Middle Eastern Jews and Christians at the time.

The famous passage about the virgins is based on the word hur, which is an adjective in the feminine plural meaning simply "white." Islamic tradition insists the term hur stands for "houri," which means virgin, but Luxenberg insists that this is a misreading. In ancient Aramaic and in at least one respected dictionary of early Arabic, hur means "white raisin."

Luxenberg has traced the passages dealing with paradise to a Christian text called Hymns of Paradise by a fourth-century author. He said the word paradise came from the Aramaic word for garden, and it was described as a garden of abundant fruits and white raisins, a delicacy in the ancient Near East.

Some Muslim authors have begun to publish skeptical, revisionist work on the Koran as well. A former Muslim, who writes under the pen name Ibn Warraq, makes no bones about having a political agenda.

"Biblical scholarship has made people less dogmatic, more open," he said, "and I hope that happens to Muslim society as well."