Contrary to the confidence of establishment scholars that Islam was born and grew “in the full light of history” (to borrow Ernest Renan’s unfortunate and inaccurate phrase about the life of Muhammad), there is a great deal of the obscure and questionable about the origins of this most controversial of religions. In a series of groundbreaking books, Ibn Warraq has performed an extraordinary service by bringing together the earlier historical investigations of pioneering scholars on the strange and bloody beginnings of the Religion of Peace and pairing them with recent research – illuminating the continuity and advance of scholarship on the original Qur’an, the historical Muhammad, and related issues. The most important of these collections may be the latest: Christmas in the Koran.
Christmas in the Koran offers, often for the first time in English, the further research of the pioneering scholar Christoph Luxenberg and others on the Syriac substratum underlying the Arabic text of the Qur’an, and how that substratum can illuminate not only obscure passages of the Qur’anic text, but the murky origins of Islam itself. And not only obscure passages: this method also sheds new and often surprising light on sections of the Qur’an that appear to be perfectly clear in Arabic, but which, when viewed through the Syriac prism, reveal themselves as having a partially or completely different meaning from the accepted one.
Most of the collected essays are by contemporary scholars, but some are quite old (albeit hitherto not so easy to find), such as Adolf von Harnack’s “Islam.” It was wise of Ibn Warraq to include this older material, as it sheds light upon the scholarly antecedents of the work of the Qur’an revisionists today.
Most extraordinary of the many remarkable hypotheses put forward in this collection are the many indications that the Qur’an was originally a Christian text, probably a lectionary, in which reference was made to Christmas, the Eucharist, and other elements of the Christian tradition – references which in the Arabic Qur’an are gnomic and unclear, or overlaid with Islamic interpretations that obliterate their Christian character.
In one essay, Luxenberg even explains that the “mysterious letters” that begin many chapters of the Qur’an, about which Islamic tradition says that “only Allah knows what they mean,” are references to Psalms and other Christian texts for liturgical use. In another, Philippe Gignoux explains that origins of the shahada are not to be found in Islamic tradition of all, least of all in a prophet who was given them as a compendium of his message to the world, but in Nestorian Christianity.
In Ibn Warraq’s own introduction to Luxenberg’s work, he responds brilliantly to many of the negative and dismissive reviews from establishment scholars on Luxenberg’s earlier scholarship. The inescapable overall impression one gets of these mainstream scholars is that they are (recalling Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) seriously threatened by challenges to their guiding paradigms, and determined to preserve those paradigms even to the point of irrationality. They are therefore generally unwilling to engage honestly with the theorists who present these challenges, and give their work short shrift.
But Christmas in the Koran demonstrates that these challenges are not so easily dismissible, and that the entire edifice of contemporary scholarship on the Qur’an and Muhammad, constructed on an uncritical acceptance of Islamic sacred history, is in imminent danger of collapsing altogether. These essays provide reinforcement to the case that the text of the Qur’an did not come from Muhammad, but was compiled from existing, mostly Christian sources that were drastically edited and reinterpreted in order to provide a scripture and a theology for what the new religion of Islam. That new religion, it is clear from Christmas in the Koran, did not spring forth as the utterances of a new prophet, but was developed by a number of people over a period of decades, drawing from earlier traditions.
The essays are often quite technical, and some may be forbidding to the non-specialist; as a whole, however, they are accessible (and, indeed, fascinating). Christmas in the Koran represents a significant advance in the study of how Islam came to be, and where it came from. In an age when even the stated motives and goals of jihad terrorists are off-limits for discussion in the mainstream public discourse, this book is not only an important contribution to the study of the Qur’an; it is also a work of courage – one for which free people owe Ibn Warraq a debt of gratitude.