The Koran and Jihad

The Koran and Jihad
AP Photo/Adel Hana

Some kinds of war produce a snowball effect: war destroys the infrastructure of civilization and with it the livelihood of the civilian population, and the survivors swell the ranks of the army. Something like this happened during the collapse of Bronze Age civilization around 1200 B.C., and during Europe's Thirty Years' War. It may have happened, too, when the collapse of the Byzantine and Persian empires in late antiquity began the great wars of Islam, which lasted with brief respites from its first wave of jihad in the early 7th century to the death of Tamerlane on the frontier of China in 1405.

Although the Muslim world has decayed into a geopolitical backwater, jihad remains a threat to Western civilization, though opinions differ about the extent of the threat. If jihad is the expression of an ideology, it could be thwarted by changing (exactly how is another question) the ideology. But if jihad is the consequence of economic and demographic dislocation, it will almost certainly continue to afflict the world's 1.8 billion Muslims, most of whom live in conditions of economic backwardness and political instability. In this case jihad cannot be extinguished, but only contained.

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From its emergence in the 7th century, Islam's origins remain wrapped in obscurity. We know much less about the Muslim conquests than we do about many earlier events in the Bible. For example, roughly 3,300 years ago in the Jezreel Valley, Hebrew foot soldiers led by the military commander Barak routed a chariot army under the Syrian general Sisera. Barak chose his ground well, drawing the Syrian chariots close to the muddy soil of the overflowing Kishon River, where the infantry had the advantage. In their Battles of the Bible (1997), Chaim Herzog and General Mordechai Gichon show that the account of the battle in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) depicts the geography of the historical battleground with remarkable accuracy.

We know more about this ancient battle than about any engagement in the war of conquest from A.D. 620 and 635 that extended Islam's reach all the way from the Pillars of Hercules to Persia. Islam exploded from the Arabian Peninsula into mastery over half the world in a few decades, yet we know little about how it happened. Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren observed in Crossroads to Islam (2003) that accounts of this vast conquest were written a century or more after the events, and repeat a mythic formulation from which details are absent. They surmise that former Arab auxiliaries of the (Christian) Byzantine empire assumed control of large swaths of Persian and Byzantine territory emptied out by plague and other disasters.

Nor for that matter do we know whether a man resembling the Muhammad depicted by later Islamic sources ever lived in 7th-century Arabia, or whether the normative Koranic text we have today was recited by this Muhammad, or cobbled together by Muslim rulers two centuries later. For the Islamic world, to question the Koran's divine provenance is the theological equivalent of denying, in Christendom, the divinity of Jesus.

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In Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry into Islam's Obscure Origins (2012), Robert Spencer reviewed scholarly objections to the standard account, and argued that the Koran itself was redacted in the 9th century as an apology for the new political order. He cited in particular the work of “revisionist scholars” such as Patricia Crone (1945–2015), John Wansbrough (1928–2002), and the pseudonymous “Christoph Luxenberg.” This unknown writer proposed in a 2000 monograph that the Koran had adapted large sections of the Syriac Christian liturgy, such that reading parts of it in Syriac clarified otherwise incomprehensible passages (he reads, for example, a heavenly reward of 72 “raisins” instead of “virgins”). Alternative Koranic texts unearthed in Yemen seem to refute the Muslim claim that the Archangel Gabriel dictated to Muhammad.

Numerous scholars pointed to textual evidence of the Koran's multiple authorship and evolution. In a 1999 essay in the Atlantic, Toby Lester argued, “Thus far confined to scholarly argument, this sort of thinking can be nonetheless very powerful and—as the histories of the Renaissance and the Reformation demonstrate—can lead to major social change. The Koran, after all, is currently the world's most ideologically influential text.”

Hopes that textual criticism would support a Muslim Reformation were also raised by a project at Ankara University to re-examine the Hadith—the narrative of Muhammad's words and deeds as reported by his companions. Robert Pigott, the BBC's religion correspondent, wrote in early February 2008 that the Hadith revision would “fashion a new Islam,” while Newsweek entitled its June 8, 2008, cover story, “A New Face of Islam.” The project disappeared and was forgotten, along with the predictions of an Islamic reformation.

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